The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has been appropriately hard at work. It has now unveiled its ‘Family Test’, a checklist of considerations that must be referred to when formulating any new laws or policies.
Prime Minister David Cameron promised back in August that these measures would be introduced, and they have now come to fruition, in consultation with the Relationships Alliance and other experts.
Government departments will need to consult this guidance in order to consider the potential effects that any new policy may have on the family. In the words of the report its aim is “to introduce an explicit family perspective to the policy making process”. Ruth Sutherland, Chair of the Relationships Alliance said: “This is an important step towards putting families and relationships at the heart of public policy.”
1. What kinds of impact might the policy have on family formation? 2. What kind of impact will the policy have on families going through key transitions such as becoming parents, getting married, fostering or adopting, bereavement, redundancy, new caring responsibilities or the onset of a long-term health condition? 3. What impacts will the policy have on all family members’ ability to play a full role in family life, including with respect to parenting and other caring responsibilities? 4. How does the policy impact families before, during and after couple separation? 5. How does the policy impact those families most at risk of deterioration of relationship quality and breakdown?
However, the report insists that the test is not simply a “box ticking exercise” but should become an integral part of how new policy is devised and debated. Policymakers are advised to document their assessment process and, if they are working on a policy that may impact families to a greater extent, perhaps seek external advice from experts or focus groups.
The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, has of course shown his preference for family-centric policies before, having founded the Centre for Social Justice think tank in 2004. Over the intervening years, it has published reports with conservative titles like ‘It’s Time to Back Marriage’ and ‘Why is the Government Anti-Marriage?’, which exhibit an overwhelming focus on a single type of relationship on which to base a strong family. They’re also the sort of reports that favour the use of words like ‘bedrock’.
By contrast, this test, though apparently traditional in outlook, is actually more progressive than it seems. The test questions do acknowledge the difficulties that families – and indeed individuals within those families – feel when placed in stressful life situations, including bereavement or divorce. Question 4 specifically addresses the consequences of relationship breakdown and pledges support to families going through tough times.
Crucially, Liberal Democrat Pensions Minister Steve Webb has asserted that the test was not designed to promote a “single family model”. Instead, it aims to consider the welfare of all manner of family units, including gay couples, cohabiting couples, single-parent families and extended families (including grandparent/grandchild relationships). So, it is committed to promoting stability within all types of family bonds. How you choose to define that family, it seems, is refreshingly modern and up-to-you.