Leading article: Family values are back in the political arena

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The Independent Online

As leader of the Conservative Party, Iain Duncan Smith was a dismal failure. He lacked the presence and political weight for the role; he may have lacked the appetite as well. But this is no reason to dismiss out of hand the report, Breakdown Britain, that he will present today.

Since leaving office, Mr Duncan Smith has quietly taken on a new lease of life. Improbable it may be, but the honourable member for Chingford - Lord Tebbit's old constituency - seems to have discovered his vocation in trying to find out how the other half lives. As head of David Cameron's social justice policy group, he has roamed far beyond the Tory shires, examining deprivation in all its shapes and forms. And he deserves credit for this. Whatever conclusions may be drawn from his report, he has done his homework.

Nor should it be assumed that his report will simply regurgitate outdated Conservative prejudices. While citing family breakdown as a major cause of other ills in society, Mr Duncan Smith has run a mile from anything that might be interpreted as moralising. Another senior Tory, Dominic Grieve, may have called for a new era of Victorian family values, but this does not seem to be what Mr Duncan Smith - or David Cameron - are about.

Advance billing suggests that this report will rather resemble New Labour's pledge to be tough on crime and its causes. It will present deprivation as a cycle which needs to be addressed comprehensively, not piece by tiny piece. Prison, for instance, is unlikely to have any rehabilitating effect if there is no investment in education and training for offenders. There is little point in tackling some types of crime without acknowledging the drug abuse that fuels it. Young offenders come disproportionately from troubled homes. There is little controversy here.

The degree to which Mr Duncan Smith's report mirrors the Government's own diagnosis of Britain's undoubted social ills will make it perilous territory for Labour to contest. This may explain why Labour was so quick to describe the report yesterday as "Back to Basics II" - a reference to the notorious campaign launched by John Major just before his government began to sink in a morass of sleaze. The notion that Mr Duncan Smith was slurring homosexual couples when he described them as "irrelevant" was also outrageous: there are simply too few of them yet to be studied.

If we cast aside this red herring, the reality is that there seems to be a growing political consensus about the ills that affect society in Britain. And with Mr Duncan Smith's report, there seems to be something like a cross-party consensus that family breakdown is where measures should be targeted. If so, however, this poses new and highly complex dilemmas about how far the state can and should intervene in family life.

The Government has had some success in reducing child poverty, but crime and anti-social behaviour remain stubbornly high. Tougher prison sentences and parenting classes are the favoured remedies. Mr Cameron, and now Mr Duncan Smith, propose changes to the tax system to support the institution of marriage. The Government rightly rules out a tax advantage for marriage - it is an anachronism to tell others how to organise their lives - but it allows that the plight of poor two-parent families may have been neglected in the drive to support single parents. Change may be afoot.

There are no easy answers here, only difficult questions and political minefields. For the Conservatives the danger is to be regarded as old-fashioned and moralistic. For Labour it is to be seen as running a "nanny state". For both, though, the family is back with a vengeance on the political agenda.