John Hutton – 2006 Speech on Supporting Families


Below is the text of the speech made by John Hutton, the then Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, on 15th September 2006.

This week the Government set out its plans to go further in tackling social exclusion and poverty in Britain, with a strong focus on tackling the remaining barriers that hold people back in our society. So this is a good time to reflect on welfare reform and its impact on families over the past decade.

Before Tony Blair became leader of the Labour Party, there was in truth, no real debate about welfare reform. Quite the opposite. In the 1980s, welfare [reform] policy was driven by an unrestrained ideological impulse to cut benefits; to moralise about people’s lifestyles and stigmatise those who did not conform to a narrow definition of the family.

The effects of this approach were stark. The number of children living in poverty doubled. The number of people claiming lone parent or incapacity benefits trebled. Twice in a decade, the numbers of people unemployed exceeded three million. Youth unemployment was a scandal. There was little help or support on offer to ensure people could get back on their feet quickly again, if they hit hard times. Our welfare state was failing.

Things are different now. The New Deal has helped hundreds of thousands of unemployed people get back to work. We have a clear set of rights and responsibilities. People have a ladder of opportunity, but we expect them to take the first step on it. The National Minimum Wage and tax credits have helped make work pay so that people are better off in work than on benefit, helping parents get jobs and lifting hundreds of thousands of children out of poverty. Thanks to the Pension Credit, pensioners are now less likely to be poor than any other group in society. There are more lone parents now in work than ever before. Today the numbers on Incapacity Benefit are falling not rising.

All of these reforms have been guided by our values. As a Government we have tried to make tackling poverty, extending opportunity, and fairness, the key goals of our welfare reforms.

My argument today however, in noting the progress we have undoubtedly made, is not to claim that every problem has been solved. It hasn’t, and people know this. Instead, I want to set out my view that the centre-left in Britain should see support for the family in tackling these problems as being absolutely critical to our prospects of making further progress.

For government, I believe that supporting strong family life is one of the most critical policy challenges of the next decade.

But this support needs to be built on an understanding of the changing nature of family life in Britain.

In 1950, the number of marriages each year in the UK stood at 408,000. Over the next 20 years it increased to more than 480,000 a year. But since then it has fallen by almost half.

Despite a recent fall, the rate of divorce has increased significantly. Of all the marriages ending in the 1950s – around a tenth ended in divorce. Now it’s over two-fifths. Today, the average marriage in the UK lasts for 11 years. And, as longevity increases, it is not unreasonable to assume that many people will have two or three stable relationships through the course of their lives. Co-habitation has increased dramatically over the last twenty years – from around a tenth to around a quarter of non-married men and women under 60 in Great Britain.

And those who do marry are doing so much later: In 1970 the median age of marriage in England and Wales was 24 for men and 22 for women. Today it’s over 32 for men and over 30 for women.

Perhaps most strikingly, statistics show that three times as many people are now living in a lone parent household than in 1971.

The question today is how Government should respond to these changes; how we can support strong and stable families as part of our drive against poverty.

The Government has introduced new rights to request flexible working; a major extension of paid maternity and paternity leave; funded over half a million new childcare places. These reforms are making a real difference. Today we have more people in work than ever before. The lone parent employment rate has risen by 11 percentage points. We now have the lowest combination of unemployment and inactivity of any G7 country. There are 800,000 fewer children in relative poverty. 2 million fewer pensioners in absolute poverty. And 80% of the population have seen a reduction in income inequality.

But there is clearly a lot more that we need to do if we are to reach our goal to halve child poverty by 2010 and eradicate it by 2020.

Children of lone parents not in work are over five times more likely to be in poverty than children of lone parents in full time employment. Work is the best and most sustainable route out of poverty. If we are to end the cycle of intergenerational poverty then we need to accelerate our commitment to supporting lone parents to get into work and progress through the labour market.

Despite the gains we have made in lone parent employment, lone parents are still far less likely to be in work than married or cohabiting women with children the same age. And the employment rate for lone parents is still far below that in other countries, including Sweden, USA, France and Germany.

This is why we have set a target to increase lone parent employment to 70% by 2010. If we can reach this target it will mean a further 200,000 children lifted out of poverty. Our welfare reforms offer new opportunities to turn this around – with a measured increase in obligations on lone parents to talk to a personal adviser about the options open to them. But we may need to consider further support and incentives to get more lone parents into work as part of our child poverty strategy.

But part of our approach as a Government must also involve helping women to balance the pressures of work and family.

Just this week Ruth Kelly set out the Government’s action plan in response to the Women in Work Commission. The proposals represent a clear commitment to support mothers who want to get on at work but often find it difficult to overcome outdated thinking on the type and hours of work mothers should do.

This focus on work and families will be critical to the success of future welfare reform, for one compelling reason – the welfare state provides critical support for millions of families every day, at critical times in their lives. I grew up in one such family. Yet, we always need to remember that the majority of welfare support in Britain is, and has always been, provided by families, not the state.

The family is the bedrock of the welfare state. It is the family which cares for the new born, raises children, instils a sense values, coaxes and encourages children to learn and thrive. It is the extended family – grandparents, aunts, uncles, godparents and family friends – who play a crucial caring role. A role which the State should never seek to substitute but which it should rightly seek to complement. In my constituency I see grandparents looking after their grandchildren so that their sons and daughters can go to work. Without this help and support, many of them couldn’t do this. The value of informal care in our economy is estimated to be over £20bn per annum. And as we live longer it is our children who will often provide the support and care that parents need in their old age – at least that’s what I’ve told mine. This has always been a core principle of the welfare state.

Beveridge himself made it clear in his White Paper on the Welfare State in 1944, that

“…in establishing a national minimum, the State should leave room and encouragement for voluntary action by each individual to provide more than that minimum for himself and his family.”

Recent trends have increased the pressure on family life. There is the pace and shape of the modern work place. The extended family has been stretched as people move from one end of the country to the other – if not abroad – to work and develop their career and lives. Modern family life can be a struggle. It is not easy. It can sometimes feel oppressive and daunting. As a Government we can never listen enough to families. We have to find the right way in which we can support parents as they try to ensure their children get the best opportunities in life but are protected from the dangers and the pressures of the modern world. For all of us who are privileged enough to be parents, bringing up a child is the single most important thing that we will do in our lives.

And yet despite this, the left has felt uncomfortable talking about the family. I recognise that this is difficult territory for progressive politicians. Few of us can claim to be moral beacons for others.

Since coming to office the Government has responded to the change in family structure. We have advanced equal rights legislation through measures such as civil partnerships for same sex couples. And we have changed the welfare state so it focuses on expanding opportunity and unlocking aspiration rather than the old approach of stigmatising lone parents and increasing benefit dependency.

We must also recognise how tough it can be to raise children alone. Anyone who tells you that being a lone parent is easy, or that being on benefits equates to affluence just doesn’t know what they are talking about. My mother brought me and my four brothers and sisters up for eight years on her own. We experienced hard times as a family. For most parents, lone parenthood is not a deliberate choice at all and for many it brings powerful emotions of regret, guilt and real hardship.

What is critical is that even when relationships end, society is clear that responsibilities do not. Parents must continue to play a part in their child’s life. Part of the role for Government is to reflect society’s view that both parents should take active responsibility for the welfare of their child from conception. Children whose fathers continue to take an active role in their lives are likely to have better outcomes even if they don’t live with the child’s mother.

I believe we should do what is necessary to create a clear sense of personal responsibility about the contribution that both parents should make to the welfare of their child. That’s why I made personal responsibility a central theme of the child support reforms in July.

It is why I am examining the potential benefits of introducing a system of compulsory registration of births for both the father and the mother. Seven percent of births in the UK are registered to only one parent. In Australia, where the comparable figure is three per cent, they have a compulsory system of birth registrations with safeguards for mothers who are at risk of violence. I believe it is right that we should consider how we can send the strongest possible signal that part of the process of becoming a parent must always mean acknowledging the responsibilities that go with it.

But alongside this, we cannot ignore the increasing evidence that points to the benefits for children of a stable family life with two parents living together. For example, children from separated families are more likely to have no qualifications than those from families with two parents living together. Children from separated families are less likely by the age of 23 to have obtained a University degree. And not only are children in lone parent families more likely to be living in poverty at any one point in time – but they have a consistently lower probability of moving out of poverty.

In my lifetime, the debate about the family has been dominated by two very different views. The traditionalists clung – and still do – to a limited view of the family that flies in the face of the enormous social and cultural changes that have occurred in our society. This outlook was largely based on a narrow prescriptive interpretation about the role of women in society and the illegitimacy of same sex relationships. Then there was the 1960s liberalism – where, for a while, it seemed like anything goes. There should be no going back to either. We need to forge a progressive consensus about support for the family.

Our principal challenge is to develop the best way of ensuring our welfare society helps support families combine the opportunity to work with the opportunity to care.

These are, of course, difficult issues to deal with. How far can and should the state intrude into private family life? And given the limitations on the ability of Government to influence the personal decisions people make about their own relationships, what more support should we give couples to help them stay together given the challenges and pressures of modern life? How should we balance people’s freedom to live their lives as they choose with the need to ensure the welfare of children? What more can we do for carers?

Our views on all of these issues have already evolved in Government. In 1997 I doubt we would have proposed parenting programmes or earlier intervention in families where we think problems might develop; or the sort of pioneering work that Louise Casey has led to confront anti-social behaviour and the responsibility that families, communities and society has to deal with the problem. But the evidence suggests that this is exactly what is needed if we are to tackle the cycle of deprivation – which is why we proposed these measures in the social exclusion action plan.

Family policy is difficult, complex territory for any politician – not least one from the centre-left. Talking about the family involves taking political flak from every quarter. But if we are to make sustainable reductions in child poverty – on the way to its eradication by 2020, these are questions we cannot afford to ignore. We will need fresh approaches. Ones that recognise – as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation did in July – that we can not tackle child poverty through benefits or income transfers alone.

So what more can we do to help parents work, particularly in households where only one person is in employment? 40% of poor children live in these households. And how can a greater opportunity to work – the bedrock of our anti-poverty drive – be balanced with the natural desire of families to care for each other.

We need to look at ways in which we can shift the focus of the welfare system towards the family as a whole – with new support for partners added onto pre-existing programmes. We won’t reach our goal unless Job Centre Plus and its partners can reach these adults.

We must have better signposts to childcare services such as Surestart. All families, whether couple or lone parents, could benefit from a closer relationship between Surestart and Jobcentre Plus. And there is clear evidence that initially disadvantaged children can benefit significantly from good quality pre-school education.

When New Labour was formed, we had the political confidence to break with the past because we realised that our past was not the country’s future. We had the confidence to change. On welfare reform, defence, crime, wealth creation, anti-social behaviour, patriotism – we had the confidence to challenge outdated thinking within our own party. We reclaimed the public policy ground ceded to the right and made it our own.

Now, as we look back on a decade of reform and look forward to the challenges ahead I believe we have to be confident enough to lead the debate about the next steps in welfare reform. And there is no doubt in my mind that helping families to work and to care will be the key to success in the future.