Politicians love families. Or, at least, they say they do. Listen to a budget speech, or Prime Minister’s Questions, and you will hear one phrase repeated ad nauseum; “hard-working families”.
Three pithy words, with one objective. To reach out to the maximum numbers of voters, whilst inviting the least hostility.
Treated forensically, the phrase is troubled. What about families who do not work hard? What constitutes a “family”? A tricky one that. To minimise the alienation of those who feel outside of the family unit, its definition has been diluted such that almost any form of social arrangement can be so described. I once heard a woman describe she and her cat as “a family”.
Of course, the suspicion arises that the more politicians venerate families, the less they do for them. That is cynical and unfair to our political classes, who are not the panto villains, they are increasingly made out to be (what would we do without them?).
But there is a legitimate question about how politicians offer deeds to match their words. If they profess admiration for families, we are entitled to say “prove it”.
Gathering strength then is an idea that all policies introduced by Government should be subjected to a family road test.
It is contained in a ‘Declaration’ – signed by scores of organisations including the HRF – to mark the twentieth anniversary of the International Year of the Family.
The Declaration calls on governments to “integrate a family perspective by introducing a family impact report or assessment as a…compulsory part of policy-making”.
That is a tall order. Is it even right? Politicians, when they change the law, must ask if this is what the public wants, whether it suits the commonwealth? But should they afford special interest groups the right to elevated status? Is the family such a group?
Well, no, of course it is not. If you believe, as the HRF does, that the family is the basic building block of a flourishing society, then the impact of any new measure can legitimately require lawmakers to ask: “what is the effect of this on families?”.
But where things grow trickier comes with that definition question. Part of the Declaration includes a demand that families should have enough to live on “recalling that this is a common vital issue for single-parent….families.”
In Britain many of the Welfare reforms introduced by Iain Duncan Smith have sought to buttress the family, encouraging couples to stay together. In the view of many of IDS’s supporters, Whitehall has spent decades encouraging single-parent families through the tax and benefit system. Supporting them has come at a cost – to traditional two-parent families, who will oftentimes find themselves better off when one of them (usually the father) leaves the set up.
This is not to denigrate the Declaration. Merely to point out that the ‘family’ represents a psephological Holy Grail. Politicians realise this. They know that families produce responsible citizens. And responsible citizens – inter alia – vote.
But modern experience also suggests that – pace IDS – one type of family can actively undermine another. Backing single parents can turn out to be a zero-sum-game, where two parent families are the losers.
In short, everybody wants to be on the side of the ‘family‘ – who wouldn’t? But it might be specious to pretend that everybody is allowed inside the big tent, that there can be no optimal family arrangement, or, as the modern cliche runs; “families come in all shapes and sizes”. Now, where’s my cat?