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Unhappy families: UK is third worst in Europe for home life

Government has let down parents and children as debts and long working hours exact a major toll on Britons, says new research

Jonathan Owen
Sunday 22 May 2011 00:00 BST
(Jay Williams)

Britain is one of the worst countries in Europe for families, according to a study released today by the Relationships Foundation. High levels of debt and poverty, coupled with long and unsocial working hours, are major contributing factors, the report, Family Pressure Gauge, reveals.

Its research paints a picture of a country where, in stark contrast to David Cameron's pledge to make Britain the "most family-friendly" nation in the world, British families are among the most pressured in Europe, only ahead of Bulgaria and Romania.

Stress from money and work worries, along with a lack of support for parents and poor living conditions, are all factors, the report finds. It recommends urgent reform to the way families are helped, with one in five families struggling to make ends meet.

The report also reveals that 14 per cent of families are suffering "critical" levels of debt, compared to 1 per cent of Swedish, Finnish and Norwegian households.

In addition, almost a quarter of the average British working family income goes on childcare costs – double the percentage spent by French families and three times that for German families.

One in seven families spend more than 40 per cent of their income on the rent or a mortgage. In contrast, just 1.8 per cent of the French population are in this situation.

Britain also ranks as the second worst country in Europe for maternity and paternity leave, with new parents receiving less than ten weeks fully paid time off on average.

One in 20, or 340,800, British families live in "severe housing deprivation" – in overcrowded homes in poor condition, without a bath, shower or indoor toilet, for example. This is 12 times more than in the Netherlands, and significantly worse than in the Nordic countries, Germany and Spain.

The report provides the most comprehensive picture to date of how British families fare compared with counterparts in 26 European countries, based on an analysis of 25 indicators, including pressures of money, work, parenting and living conditions. It draws on data from the European Union, the Organisation for Economic

Co-operation and Development and the European Commission.

Although work is seen as a route out of poverty, it can also be a source of additional pressure, with Britons working some of the longest hours in Europe – on average, 43 a week.

Long working hours can affect health and time for family relationships, according to the report. It states that 78 per cent of British workers do not have flexible working hours.

It accuses the Government of a lack of focus on its family agenda, noting that the Childhood and Families task force, set up in June last year, had "delivered nothing", that pledges on flexible working had been "reneged upon", with a Budget that "did little to engage with pressures on families". It added that the plight of families, already buckling under the strain of debts, is set to worsen.

This comes at a time when a record 2.1 million children in Britain live in poverty, despite the fact that one or both of their parents work, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. The figure has soared by 400,000 in the past five years, undermining the mantra that people can work their way out of poverty.

The Government's "warm words on family friendliness are fast becoming cold comfort," according to Michael Trend, executive director of the Relationships Foundation.

He added: "Sideline family policy and you court systemic failure... A year on from the general election, it is time the Government got its act together on family policy."

Rhian Beynon, head of policy at Family Action, warned: "Changes to welfare support and high inflation mean that family finances are increasingly tight, placing a strain on families. If the Government doesn't sort this out the pressure on families will only increase."

'We're under such pressure'

Former IT manager Stephen Russell, 53, lives in Cheltenham with his wife, Susan, 50, and children Lauren, 25, Ethan, 17, and Eleanor, 16

"I worked in IT for 17 years and was unexpectedly made redundant last summer. We had a daughter going through university, and losing my job was one squeeze too far. We had developed debt over the years, making some financial mistakes like so many do, with one too many credit cards, things like that. We aren't drinkers, don't gamble or go on foreign holidays; we don't run an expensive car. We live fairly simple lives but it's got expensive. The mortgage is the killer. We owe £160,000 and are paying the interest only right now. We also have debts of about £32,000 – it sounds horrendous every time I say it. I work as a night carer for a 97-year-old lady, something of a turnaround. I needed to prove to myself that I could generate income for the family and I didn't mind what I did.

Before, I was on a salary of about £35,000 a year plus benefits. I now earn about £350 a week – a considerable change in circumstances – and I'm working 50 hours a week for that.

My wife has two jobs and, between us, we're doing an average of 100 hours a week at the moment. Time with all of us together is unusual.

I don't think David Cameron's vision of a family-friendly Britain is realistic, but it's a great soundbite. As far as families are concerned, I think we've never been under so much pressure, both financially and economically."

'We struggle to pay the bills'

Gemma Dawson, 21, lives in Wakefield with her partner, Chris, 31, and their two young children, Summer, 15 months, and Bradley, two

"I used to be a claims adviser for a car insurance company, but I left to start up my own business selling party supplies online. The cost of childcare – about £900 a month – forced me to work from home.

I work about 10 hours a day. Chris works as a bingo caller four days a week, for 14 hours a day. He earns about £14,000 a year and at the moment I earn only around £1,000 annually because I'm still in the process of building up the business.

We struggle to pay the bills, like a lot of families.

We don't spend much time really together, maybe one night a week. The main pressure is definitely financial, to afford things, and I think money is probably the main factor we argue about. It's like we are working just to pay the bills. We scrimp by but we're not actually working to live a life."

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