What a difference a day makes. Just hours after Prime Minister David Cameron revealed his intention to step up Britain’s ‘battle against [the] poisonous ideology’ of IS, he used an appearance at the Royal College of GPs to fashion a different policy hat, presenting his vision of the family as a key component in the legislative process.
In a speech that extolled the virtues of the nuclear family and Coalition endeavours to strengthen it, the Prime Minister plumed his neo-conservative feathers and offered personal assurances that ‘nothing matters more than family. It’s at the centre of my life and the heart of my politics.’ With both eyes on the 2015 general election, he used the occasion to reaffirm Conservative ideals as exactly that, traditional, applauding familial duties such as child rearing, knowledge sharing, and the instillation of citizenship and morality. But this was not a clarion call for the Big Society’s ‘Kinder, Küche, Kirche’ or, indeed, a covert ‘divorce tax’. Far from it. Despite lauding the example of his own household (husband, wife and three children), Mr Cameron was keen to illustrate that Conservative notions of the family are perfectly compatible with Britain’s diverse and liberal society; single mums, same-sex couples, mixed-ethnicity adoption, and gay marriage. The key message was that government policy is in touch with modern Britain.
But Conservative rhetoric has unmistakably changed tack. Whilst in opposition, Mr Cameron favoured the phrase ‘Broken Britain’ to black-mark what he saw as Labour’s inability to address social problems. Such a strategy was arguably proved right by the violence of the 2011 London riots. Burning cars and broken shop windows were enough to convince the Coalition of a need to legislate for troubled and isolated families. Now in 2014, the Prime Minister is unwilling to countenance that Britain may still be ‘broken’ and has repackaged a similar set of policies with the message that he is an unabashed family man and wishes the electorate to be just as content.
There is also the faintest hint of self-interest at play. Incentivising the preservation of the family as a core economic unit works very much in the government’s favour, as Mr Cameron himself implied: ‘estimates suggest relationship breakdown costs our economy as much as £44 billion every year.’ The Conservative Party is looking to increase its female support through benefit incentives (£10k tax breaks, tax-free childcare, extension of flexible working hours, and shared parental leave) and make a few savings in the process. Number 10 is convinced that project ‘family-friendly’ can be just as much an exercise in economy as social cohesion.
Whilst many of the policy commitments listed in the speech were perhaps to be expected in an election year, the decision to institutionalise the ‘family’ as a consideration in the legislative process was not. Mr Cameron puts forward the argument that Whitehall needs to be more accountable to the public for its actions because ‘in the past the family just hasn’t been central to the way government thinks.’ To right this legislative wrong, the cryptically named ‘family test’ is ‘being formalised as part of the impact assessment for all domestic policies’, in conjunction with existing environmental and cost assessments. In more simplified terms, from October ‘every single domestic policy that government comes up with will be examined for its impact on the family.’
What might seem a fairly innocuous political promise in fact threatens to upend a Pandora’s Box of legislative and legal complications. More questions are raised than answered: What will the test look like? What impact will it have on the Treasury’s cost-benefit guidance (the famed ‘green book’)? Will it draw out the already lengthy passage of a bill? Why should foreign policy be exempt?
The New Statesman has outright rejected the idea as ‘ridiculous’, calling it ‘yet another bureaucratic hurdle for harder-pressed Whitehall officials’. It even satirically imagines how the 2011 badger cull policy might have been assessed using the ‘family test’, concluding that the ‘terror [of] badger carcasses littering the countryside may do much to bring Britain’s…”problem” families closer together.’ Joking aside, serious issues are raised, such as the relevance of some more obscure policies to the average family. But there are corporate implications too. For any honest trade association seeking to influence government, will there now be a myriad of family-related legal considerations in new policy proposals? Surely such a scenario would demand in-house expertise beyond that of a professional body.
The Times has been more forgiving of Mr Cameron’s speech. It suggests that ‘when a Labour politician says “family”’, there is no sense that he will actually ‘stick up for people’, although professes a certain bemusement over the ‘family test’ and the possibility ‘that it [doesn’t] really mean anything.’ Confusion has been a common theme across the media, with few outlets offering anything more than speculation. Arguably the real losers of this latest iteration of the Big Society are civil servants themselves. It remains to be seen exactly how the ‘family test’ policy will translate into legislative practise but it is not inconceivable that defining ‘family’ alone could take weeks. Perhaps this is just the laboured machinations of a government fresh out of ideas. As the Prime Minister looks ahead to next month’s referendum, few wandering Westminster’s hallowed halls will have reason to thank him.
Photo credit: Ben Fisher/GAVI Alliance
He was formerly Head of Policy at the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners (STEP). With degrees in history and economics from the Universities of Oxford and London, Jake is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, a trustee of the European Association of Philanthropy and Giving and advises several governments on public policy. He also advises clients on CSR and philanthropy activities.
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