The ties that no longer bind

After 25 years of campaigning, a Green Paper on the family is finally being published
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"STRONG FAMILIES mean a strong Britain," Tony Blair told the Labour Party conference in September, not for the first time. In government, until Blair, the family has been regarded as unsexy, tricky. Moralise and a flood of mistresses inevitably followed. Demonise, as in Thatcher's "Get thee to a nunnery," and you're damned. In short, contrary to Frank Sinatra's warblings, love and marriage has proved far from elementary when it comes to making policy - so it's been avoided at all costs by politicians with ambition.

Hence, the jubilation of the family lobby that, after 25 years of campaigning, its baby is finally coming in from the cold. New Labour's consultative Green Paper, "Supporting Families" is published next week . Even more impressive, the document is the product of "joined up" government, co- ordinating 13 departments through a ministerial group chaired by the Home Secretary, Jack Straw. (Whether such co-operation continues without, say, a Minister for Children to keep up the momentum is another issue.) The Green Paper's aim, Straw has said, is to construct, "a modern family policy that goes with the grain of society".

The vocabulary matters. Straw (reared in a lone parent family, married twice) and the Lord Chancellor, Lord Derry Irvine (married twice) have been making carefully worded speeches for months. They have offered reassurance to those concerned that before you can come up with answers to the crisis in the family in the 1990s, you first have to agree on what precisely is the problem.

Stability is the goal, since steady families produce emotionally literate children who grow into good citizens. As Straw has explained, "While families are private institutions, the actions of parents have a public effect." But how is stability best achieved? By trying to mould human behaviour using carrots (tax relief) and sticks (difficult divorce) in order to resuscitate marriage, now at its lowest rate since the 1920s (270,000 last year)? Or by giving practical help to children and parents on the basis that marriage isn't the only family formation that deserves support ?

In a speech given in July, Straw appeared to give priority to pragmatic support. "It is not for government to lay down how adults conduct their personal relationships," he said.

Many children and parents in Britain need all the help they can get, beginning with a decent income. And here begins the first of many contradictions when it comes to formulating family policy: some homes have too much work, others too little; one in five children live in jobless families. At the other end of the spectrum, over 50 per cent of employed fathers see their offspring for less than five minutes a day. Recent research on parenting shows that men who expressed the least contentment in their relationship were those in jobs who also played a significant role in their children's lives. They felt as overstretched as many women with the double shift of paid work and domestic duties.

Britain also has a uniquely high rate in the EU for lone parent families, teenage mothers and divorce. Almost 4 million children exist in poverty and over 2 million live in step-families. Stability this isn't.

Straw has laid out five themes to try and make a difference. Among them is "better financial support... especially for working families" (increased child benefit, the working family tax credit, childcare allowance, the minimum wage). But what if a child needs a parent's time, more than his or her wage packet? Dr Gillian Pugh of the Thomas Coram Foundation for children, says, "We need work and we need childcare since without either, there is no parental choice. But the emphasis on choice is crucial."

A second theme balances work and home. A test will be parental leave. Due to be implemented shortly, if it's unpaid it will flop. New Labour needs to get tougher with employers. What's also required is a massive public education campaign. At present, the average male breadwinner must wonder, is he family hero or failing father?

Theme three is improving services and support for parents. For instance, health visitors are to be trained to help couples in difficulty. The aim is admirable but where are the resources? Health visitors already have caseloads of 300 and recruitment is down 40 per cent. Wise investment is Sure Start, help for the very young; pounds 540m has been set aside for 250 projects around the country.

The politics of parenting has appeal. Alex McKie, of the Henley Centre for Forecasting, studies cross-Europe attitudes to families. "When we give people a blank piece of paper and ask them to write down the different roles they play, being a parent is consistently the most important." she says. "People want to do the best they can."

Recently, an alarming leak appeared in The Sunday Express. It announced Blair's "War on Divorce" and a "pounds 50m crusade to save the traditional family by strengthening marriage". A tactic which is not so much defining the marital third way as holding fast to the past and, in spite of Straw's promise, stigmatising alternative family formations in the process. Blair may fancy himself as the Lone Ranger with Straw as his reluctant Tonto riding to the rescue of matrimony - but is that really the most efficient route to helping all types of families to give of their best?

Undoubtedly, marriage is in trouble. In 1951, 10 per cent divorced within 25 years. In 1981, 10 per cent divorced in under five years. The proportion of divorces involving young children has increased by 65 per cent since the 1970s. Paul Amato is a world expert on outcomes for children as a result of marital breakdown. He recently published the results of a 15- year study begun in 1980. The findings indicate two worst scenarios for children. The first is to remain in a high-conflict family with no divorce, the second is to be part of a low-conflict family in which a parent bails out too rapidly. Children of divorce are more likely to have fragmented relationships. So, potentially, we have yet more marital disruption ahead.

At the same time, cohabitation in Britain is often for the poor and has yet to find an even keel (government could help). Living together is a state many drift into, the break up rate is four times that of marriage. Still, the academics Jane Lewis and Kathleen Kiernan urge caution about polarising society into two camps: cohabitees and the married.

Jane Lewis, researching cohabitation, says individuals move in and out of both situations during a lifetime. "Flexible markets produce flexible relationships," she explains dryly. or Kiernan adds that many of those who divorce are from Tony Blair's heartland, Middle England. Or, to put it another way, in the 1990s, everybody knows somebody who has been through marriage and divorce and lone parenthood and cohabitation and they may not appreciate Blair's crusade.

Women in particular might take umbrage. In one 1997 NOP poll, while 71 per cent of men said they would definitely marry their partner again, only 56 per cent of women agreed. Whatever it is women want in marriage (realistic or otherwise), a lot of men don't appear to be changing fast enough to provide it.

What would help, suggests Ceridwen Roberts of the Family Policy Studies Centre, is more knowledge of how others have survived crises in long-term relationships and what they view as the rewards. One American study, for instance, looked at long-term couples who considered themselves happy. It revealed all manner of infidelities and heartbreak - overcome.

Penny Mansfield, of the relationship organisation One Plus One, is optimistic about what she sees as the evolution of marriage from an institution to an equal partnership based on, "new ethics". "In the Seventies, we concentrated on the dark side of family life. Now we need to find ways to restore trust and create a fresh consensus about what commitment means," she says.

So, Mr Blair, foster discussion, find support, but please don't invest in the myth that bolstering the traditional institution of marriage will provide an easy solution to all our families' ills.. Fifty years ago a controversial child expert, John Bowlby, wrote, "If a community values its children, it must cherish their parents." Let's hope that "Supporting Families" is the catalyst to make that happen, belatedly.