Budget 2021 and the Family

by Cristina Odone

This was a uniquely family-friendly Budget – a recognition, as the Chancellor put it, that families are where we experience “Moments that make life worth living.”

The big pledge was £300 million support for start of life programmes. This was a recommendation the CSJ made in the “Safely Reducing the Number of Children Going Into Care” report as well as in its Early Years Commission. We recognise that the first 1001 days of a child’s life are crucial to their later outcomes. Investment at this stage prevents needs from escalating into serious issues – mental and physical ill health, substance misuse, domestic violence – that require intensive and costly interventions.

The “Safely Reducing the Number of Children Going Into Care” report made three other recommendations that the Chancellor has taken on board in this Budget. We called for investment in parental engagement through parenting classes – because parents are key to their children’s outcomes and at no time more than in a child’s first days. Echoing the CSJ’s Early Years Commission, the report also called for investment in child care professionals to ensure high quality skills and greater professional development for these crucial frontline workers.

The Budget further bolstered Early Years support through its extension of the family hubs network, with an investment of £70m.  The CSJ introduced the concept of “family hubs” in 2014, a one stop shop of services to support families, with issues ranging from breast feeding to substance misuse. And family hubs were a recommendation made by both the Early Years Commission and the “Children in Care” report.

A surprise “gift” to Youth Services — £560m —  will be hugely welcome among the family charities and front line workers engaging with disadvantaged children: austerity prompted Local Authorities to drastically cut youth programmes.

It seems almost boorish to quibble with a Budget that gave so much encouragement to families – including the crucial reduction of the UC taper rate – but the CSJ has long championed the importance of marriage and stable families, and would have welcomed some investment in reducing parental conflict programmes. The tensions and stress of early parenthood can drive parents apart, or into substance or domestic abuse. Yet growing up in a two parent family confers a huge advantage. There is a strong link between a child’s long term mental health and their parents’ relationship – as confirmed by ONS data showing that while 6% of 5 to 10 year olds whose parents are married have a mental disorder, 18% of those living with a lone parent do. For 11 to 16 year olds, there is a 7% difference (from 12% to 19%). Last year 23 per cent of children in couple households were below the fixed poverty line, after housing costs, compared to 38 per cent of children in lone parent households.

This is a social justice issue: marriage at present is enjoyed overwhelmingly by the well-off, with marriage rates almost twice as high among the richest fifth of parents as the poorest. According to Office for National Statistics data cited in the report by the government’s Race and Ethnic Disparities Commission, a staggering 63 per cent of black Caribbean children are being raised in lone-parent families, against a national average of 14.7 per cent.

While recognising that so many lone parents do heroic work in raising their children, government needs to take into account these statistics, and act quickly to keep parents together whenever possible.

One of the most vulnerable groups in society are children in care: they are overwhelmingly the most likely to end up in prison, out of work, on drugs, homeless. Their number sadly is increasing. The government’s review of the children’s care system is imminent – but the Budget ignored support for these disadvantaged youngsters.

Finally, our tax and benefit system uniquely among OECD countries penalises single earner families. It would be good to see a Conservative government address this glaring injustice.

Rishi Sunak was shrewd in putting family at the heart of his Budget, because he is playing a popular card: most voters, a CSJ survey has found, favour government taking action to support family life. The lockdowns have only strengthened our feeling that, above everything else, family matters.

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