Family Matters in public policy

By Michael Trend 21 Jan 2020

In July 2019, the Family Matters Institute was transferred to Jubilee Centre, opening up new opportunities for engagement around family issues. How does this fit into the current family policy landscape in the UK?

It’s welcome news that Jubilee Centre has taken over responsibility for the Family Matters Institute, a Christian-based charity. In recent years FMI developed a stream of work around family breakdown with special emphasis on the role of fathers. It won a valuable reputation with primary and secondary research into family relationships and is a particularly good fit for the social reform side of Jubilee Centre. I was delighted to be asked to be a Trustee of FMI in its new guise. 

It also seems a good fit for me personally. For some years I ran Jubliee Centre’s sister organisation Relationships Foundation where we concentrated on family policy for the best part of a decade. It was uphill work as governments of all political persuasions have a tendency to shy away from areas of public policy which appear controversial – and family policy has recently been seen as such. For a while it seemed that David Cameron might be persuaded to put his weight behind the Family Test we helped develop for the government; we began to feel that there was real potential for progress.  But the initiative got bogged down. It’s one thing to launch a policy initiative and quite another to put your shoulder to the wheel and get it properly established.

And then, there was Brexit! This added a new layer of difficulty for those of us deeply concerned to see a society which supports families and enables children to thrive. Forget what’s going on at Westminster for a moment, Whitehall’s immersion in the uncertainties and complexities of Brexit has severely interrupted, right across government, the complex process of policy formation. A good example of this is the Department of Work and Pensions which just a few years ago had a growing policy group concerned with family matters; it was at the heart of the department and led by a senior civil servant. This has now completely disappeared below the waves. In brief, there’s no-one to talk to. Business is not ‘as usual’.

So, what should we do while we wait for ‘normal service’ to return?

It’s very frustrating but we must appreciate that it’s not specific to social policy as it’s happening across the board. The Brexit process – however it ends up – is the greatest challenge that the public administration has faced outside of wartime. It will take considerable time to resolve so our watchword must be patience. This is not a surprising position for Christians: we know that we’re in it for the long run. 

And we must also be prepared for the return of ‘normal service’ when it comes. Many charities and research institutes have recently chosen to hold back work which, however excellently carried out, will inevitably fall on stony ground at the moment. This is the wise course to follow: it’s like parking a favourite vehicle in the garage. You need to keep it fuelled up and in top condition ready for the day it reappears in public. There’s no point in flogging it round the track when nobody’s paying any attention.

Added to patience and preparedness must be the positivity which we bring to all our work. This is the key for the immediate future: while we keep our powder dry and wait for the right moment to re-engage we must draw strength and determination to care about family policy from the deep certainties that come from our faith. 

We know what we stand for. The current all-pervading tendency to try and see all sides of every position has led us into a policy quagmire. To be more specific: we know that all family arrangements are not the same; we know that it does make a difference if children are brought up without fathers; we know that children born to married couples have, on every system you can measure, a much greater chance of leading happy, healthy and productive lives. These things can be, and have been, measured and were gaining traction in the public square. 

The progress that has been made in enabling politicians, policy-makers and the media to understand this will not be lost as long as we don’t give up and go away. Our arguments will be no less true and no less important if we don’t try to kick against the goads. We should bide our time knowing that we shall have the opportunity again to make the family case. As John Stott once wrote: God means us ‘to be fulfilled, not frustrated’. 

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