Leading Article: Family values are out of bounds for governments

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WHY HAS the Labour Government chosen to launch a debate on family values, one it cannot hope to win? Venturing into territory properly beyond the bounds of government, it will upset great swaths of society. And issuing edicts on personal relationships just after a cabinet minister has resigned amid scandalous allegations seems eccentric, to say the least.

It seems that the urge to moralise is just too irresistible for this government. Tony Blair, just after his election as Labour leader, made his views on the family very clear: asked if single parents were wrong to have children without forming a stable relationship, he replied: "Yes, I disagree with what they have done." Although yesterday's announcement underplayed the religious aspects of marriage, there is a constant and unhealthy vein of social moralism in Labour's ambition to promote family values.

Of course, it would be ideal if all children grew up in happy families. Few can doubt that a child living with two caring parents will benefit from the stability and attention they can provide. If these measures really were to strengthen, enrich and support families, then they would be welcomed. Unfortunately they will not live up to their billing. There are some useful ideas, such as a national phone line to give parents advice, an expanded role for health visitors, civil naming ceremonies and pre-nuptial agreements, but such minor steps will have little effect on the breakdown of relationships.

The Government, in its desperate desire to appease one particular tabloid newspaper, is ignoring the realities of the profound changes to family life over the last 30 years. Britain has changed: rates of divorce and single parenthood have risen while our social attitudes have liberalised and the economy has been transformed. As the divorcee Jack Straw pointed out yesterday, the stigma of divorce has passed. Many women have joined the waged workforce and won the independence necessary to leave bad and abusive marriages. Such a trend should be welcomed.

The families most "under stress" are families in poverty. Families where both parents are unemployed, where there is too little money for a good diet (as highlighted in our recent coverage of Breadline Britain), adequate housing and a decent standard of living, are bound to be those in which stress is the greatest. The Government's offer of "advice and support" to them is inadequate; such families need better incomes.

Helping lone parents to find work and giving tax credits for families with low incomes are both good ideas, and the recent increase of child benefit by pounds 2.50 per child per week is welcome. But making a significant change, enriching the poorest and most stressed families, requires more radical redistribution of resources - directing benefits at those who most need it. Why, for example, do higher-rate taxpayers still receive child benefit?

Instead of substantial welfare reform, we hear empty slogans: "Families raise children" is one less than startling revelation; the Government will get "information to all parents"; it wants to ensure that children get "the best possible start in life".

Such sloganising disguises the proposals' unhappy equation of children's welfare with official attempts to strengthen marriages. This is an unsustainable position. Ministers have invited criticism of their own private lives (more subtly than, but just as surely as, John Major did with "back to basics"). The fudge that cohabitation and marriage are of equal value, but that marriage is somehow better, is illogical. And governments just cannot compel couples to stay together.

The Government need not grade the value of different family types in order to focus instead on the real aim and their own professed goal: the welfare of children.