When Tony Blair in his party conference speech promised with breathy sincerity that all policies would be designed to "strengthen our families", quite a number of women I happened to be sitting near made sick-bag gestures. You don't have to be that much of a feminist to suspect that the agenda behind any "family" policy smacks of Kinder, Kuche, Kirche. If you think the family has changed for the worse, doesn't that secretly mean you want women back in the home and divorce made more difficult?
So was all that just empty, Daily Mail-pleasing rhetoric? No. A secretive Ministerial Committee on the Family is hard at work, planted, oddly, inside the Home Office. On it sit ministers from Health, Education, Social Security, Trade and Industry, the Home Office, the Treasury, and the Lord Chancellor's department. Does this sound ominous?
The committee will publish a Green Paper in the spring. It will tackle some lethally dangerous subjects: the enjoyable "back-to-basics" fiasco is never far from its mind, and the lone parents' benefit debacle has been another sharp reminder. There is, inevitably, a deep ideological divide on the committee: in one corner sit the Christian Socialist types (a strong Blair ingredient), represented by the lay preacher Paul Boateng. In the opposite corner are liberals and feminists rightly suspicious of any tendency to dragoon people back to the Fifties.
It is still early days and they are tiptoeing around the big issues, such as how tax and benefits impact on families. Will they reject the moral right's hankering after more financial incentives to reward marriage? Then there is the question of a possible return to joint taxation for couples. But so far these explosive financial matters remain "parked", as yet not reached on the committee's long agenda.
The bold reform would be to abolish the bizarrely untargeted Married Couples Allowance, saving the Treasury a juicy pounds 2.5bn. But would they dare to make such an "anti-family" gesture? The money could be used instead for some of the other ideas the Committee is considering - including a new national network of parenting support, which would be expensive.
Compulsory counselling for some families is already on the way. From July, the Crime and Disorder Bill will let courts impose Parenting Orders on parents of convicted children, sending them on compulsory courses to be run by voluntary organisations. But the committee also wants to create a national network of counselling groups for parents of all kinds who feel they need help. Its research suggests a "huge unmet need".
There is certainly a need for many more National Newpin and Home Start schemes, offering help to depressed mothers on the verge of having their children taken into care. But the committee's ambitions spread far wider than that. There is, it thinks, a crisis of confidence among parents of all classes, especially where both parents are at work and filled with angst about their children. Parentline, a charity financed by the Department of Health and lottery money, is so inundated with requests for help that it is cautious about advertising its telephone number too widely. There is virtually nowhere parents of difficult teenagers can get help.
The committee is treading cautiously here, aware of the howl of "nanny state" accusations that will go up when they announce it. You can write the script for the Spectator and Daily Telegraph - "Now the bossy state wants to tell us how to be parents!" "A new army of state busybodies to invade the bedroom and the nursery!" But early prevention of problems would pay off.
For those who despise the very word "counselling", the committee's attempts to improve adult relationships and prevent divorce will no doubt also be mocked. It wants to offer pre-marital counselling for couples who marry in registry offices, of the kind that priests offer those marrying in church. Here the ridicule factor may become insurmountable. Imagine the ribald cartoons of dry old registrars giving young couples marital advice. Far more useful would be proper funding for Relate (now chaired by Jack Straw's brother), so that people can get help as soon as they run into trouble. There are six-month waiting lists in some areas, which isn't much use in a crisis - and the calls have shot up since the recent, painfully intense television documentaries showing couples being counselled.
Where are these battalions of new high- quality counsellors to come from? Pilot schemes are testing the new compulsory Information Sessions for divorcing couples, to be introduced in 1999, but they are having trouble finding enough counsellors of the right quality. Good counselling, even by volunteers, costs money: each Relate counsellor costs pounds 5,000 to train over two-and-a-half years. However, that is only a part of the problem. The committee is still asking itself the more fundamental question: how far should the state go in encouraging a huge new swathe of counselling services to families?
So far, the committee members are still pondering soft topics. More ideologically fraught issues are yet to come, such as domestic violence and teenage pregnancy. (Will they dare put a nurse and a family planning clinic within reach of every school, for instance?) They are still discussing what to do about the Social Chapter's parental leave requirement. Will they offer more than the minimum three months? Weakly, employers will only be exhorted to create more family-friendly flexible working hours, with a new Queen's Award for Family Friendly companies - but no compulsion.
One insider worries about how to present all this family stuff without looking naff. A worse problem will be how to appease both the Christians and the liberals. Can the word "family" be made to please both the Daily Mail and The Independent? There will be trade-offs, but in the end the tone struck by this committee's final deliberations will be deeply revealing about this Government's true ideology.