Clegg on families: Tories want to "turn back the clock", Labour "minimise importance of couples in family life"

by Stephen Tall on July 7, 2009

Later this afternoon Nick Clegg will deliver the third annual Relate Institute lecture, warning about the impact the recession is having on families and relationships, and stressing the important role relationships and commitment play in our society. He will also criticise Tory leader David Cameron for focussing obsessively on the legal institution of marriage. Here’s a section which crystallises Nick’s views:

… [the liberal and Liberal Democrats’] approach attaches real value to relationships, to commitment and to love, but does not seek to limit or prescribe what makes for a strong relationship.

I would not hesitate to say that relationships are important, that two parents will find life much easier than one, and that divorce and family breakdown hurt everyone involved, and can lead to many wider social problems from educational failure through to mental illness.

But I also believe gay and lesbian couples can be as good parents as heterosexual couples. I believe you don’t have to be married to be committed to your partner and that marriage is not a substitute for love, commitment and respect. And I believe a well-managed divorce can be far better than a miserable, angry or violent marriage.

None of this seems like rocket science. In many ways, I find it peculiar that the debate has been so polarised in recent years, when so much of this seems like common sense. There is a middle ground that recognises the reality of modern Britain without pretending that today’s complex families aren’t hard work. Tolerant of individual choices, but mindful of their consequences. Dealing with relationships as they really are, tailor-making support to fit with people’s circumstances.

These are the principles that will govern the Liberal Democrat approach to family and relationships policy. We believe the state’s job is to relieve the pressure on people at difficult times, offering a helping hand when it’s needed.

You can read the full text of Nick’s speech below:

It gives me great pleasure to be here this afternoon to deliver the third annual Relate lecture.
I want to start by paying tribute to the work Relate does.
You make a huge contribution to family life and the success of relationships in this country.
I know hundreds of thousands of couples are grateful to you for the help they’ve received with some of their most difficult, personal problems.

No wonder, when it’s clear from the research you are publishing today that the services you provide really do make a difference.

But it isn’t just those who have received help from you who should recognise your work, but all of us.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that strong relationships like those you nurture aren’t just important for the people who are in those relationships.

They are the very building blocks of our society.

At University, I studied Social Anthropology.
And without wishing to overstate the insights achieved by undergraduate study…
It was clear to me then, as it is now, that humans are fundamentally social in our behaviour, our aspirations and our needs.

At a basic level, we really do need each other.
In other words, it’s our relationships with others which make us human.
And it’s because of this need that the breakdown of relationships – not just couple relationships, but family and community relationships, too – can be the source of so much anger, heartbreak and anxiety.

Now, I have never subscribed to the idea that Britain is “broken” – that society has somehow reached a state of collapse.

But I do believe we are going through a period of turmoil, where many family, community and societal structures are changing beyond all recognition.

Look at the great social trends of our age:
Increased family breakdown and increasing numbers of non-traditional family structures.
People no longer live in the same neighbourhood their whole lives – so extended families are less close, communities less tight-knit, and people far less likely to know their neighbours.

And on a global scale, migration is rising, too, with over 180m people now living outside the country of their birth.
We’ve seen the end of jobs-for-life, with people changing employers and careers more frequently than ever, often under duress.

We’ve seen the loss of local services like cottage hospitals, post offices, small schools, police stations.
And the loss of power from familiar national governments to faceless global corporations and anonymous international organisations.

This can produce a profound sense of alienation, a sense of powerlessness, because the human relationships upon which so many people depend seem to have disappeared from their everyday lives.

Computerised call centres have become the daily epitome of this alienation – the frustration at being put on hold by a machine when all you want is to talk to a human being.
In many respects, we now live in what I call a “call centre society”.
So it is essential that we rediscover the power and value of human relationships.

That doesn’t mean trying to turn back the clock: life wasn’t perfect in the 1950s, and it does no good to pretend it was.

But neither should we pretend that all this upheaval doesn’t scare and disorientate people.
We need to recognise that in strong societies people can relate to and negotiate with others – to respect each other and to offer support.

So if old relationships are changing, we need to work hard to establish and nurture new ones.
If we don’t, we will find society fragments even further than it has – and it will be the children who grow up in such a society who suffer most.

Good relationships are fundamental to childhood development – fundamental to any desire to improve the lot of our children.

But it is clear that, over the last few generations, the face of a “standard” relationship has changed beyond all recognition.

Couples and families are more diverse and disparate than ever before.
How you feel about and respond to this change is, in my view, a defining issue for a political party.

Look across the political spectrum:
On the right, the Conservatives are deeply unhappy about the change, and want to turn back the clock.
But on the left, the Labour party’s perhaps understandable wish not to stigmatise single parents has led them to minimise the importance of couples in family life.

Both are wrong.

David Cameron’s social policy is focused almost obsessively on marriage, cajoling people to conform to a single view of what a happy couple should look like.

The Conservatives want marriage incentives in the tax system.
And they may adopt Iain Duncan Smith’s proposals to put in place more legal roadblocks to divorce.
This is both bizarre and patronising…
Do they really imagine people will take the lifelong commitment of marriage – or the awful decision of divorce – because of £20 a week?

Do they really think that people’s relationships can be kept alive by legal tricks to keep them officially married?
Tax bribes and legal barriers may sustain a few more marriages, but they won’t sustain a single extra happy relationship.

And it’s relationships that matter, not signatures on a piece of paper.
Good marriages are best for children, not bad ones.
Keeping the bad ones going, on paper alone, will do nothing to help couples, their children, or society.

But the Labour party is wrong, too, when it ignores interpersonal relationships.
When it pretends that family circumstances don’t make a difference to children’s lives.
All the evidence shows that it’s better for children to have two parents who get on well together looking after them.
It’s not wrong to be a single parent – of course it isn’t – but it is much harder work.
You don’t need to look at academic reports to find that out – just ask single parents.
When there’s only one income, or none.
When there’s only one of you to do everything so you never get a moment to yourself.
When there’s no-one to turn to at the end of the day to chew over your problems and difficulties.
No wonder single parents can struggle, and their children can too.

Family breakdown is, to some extent, inevitable.
People make mistakes.
They get into relationships that don’t work, and those relationships come to an end.
And no-one wants to go back to the days when single parents were ostracised, or society forced many people to spend their whole lives in misery, frustration or even danger because divorce just wasn’t tolerated.

But that doesn’t mean we have to pretend that family breakdown doesn’t matter, that it isn’t a bad thing when families fall apart, that it isn’t an individual tragedy that can hurt everyone involved.

The fact that some relationships will fail doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do all we can to make other relationships succeed.

I believe it is liberals, and the Liberal Democrats, who have the fresh approach that makes that possible.
It’s an approach that attaches real value to relationships, to commitment and to love, but does not seek to limit or prescribe what makes for a strong relationship.

I would not hesitate to say that relationships are important…
That two parents will find life much easier than one…
And that divorce and family breakdown hurt everyone involved, and can lead to many wider social problems from educational failure through to mental illness.

But I also believe gay and lesbian couples can be as good parents as heterosexual couples.
I believe you don’t have to be married to be committed to your partner and that marriage is not a substitute for love, commitment and respect.

And I believe a well-managed divorce can be far better than a miserable, angry or violent marriage.

None of this seems like rocket science.
In many ways, I find it peculiar that the debate has been so polarised in recent years, when so much of this seems like common sense.

There is a middle ground that recognises the reality of modern Britain without pretending that today’s complex families aren’t hard work.

Tolerant of individual choices, but mindful of their consequences.
Dealing with relationships as they really are, tailor-making support to fit with people’s circumstances.

These are the principles that will govern the Liberal Democrat approach to family and relationships policy.
We believe the state’s job is to relieve the pressure on people at difficult times, offering a helping hand when it’s needed.

Stress is one of the biggest killers of relationships – so the government’s job should be to reduce that stress however it can.

That couldn’t be more important than right now.
Because it’s clear that the recession is having a devastating effect on couples of all kinds.
First and foremost – it’s putting people out of jobs.
If the pattern continues, about 1.2 million will be made redundant this year alone.
And losing your job can really hurt your relationship: it causes money troubles, it leads to a loss of self-esteem and identity that changes the way you relate to your partner.

It can change the way you spend your days, which can make a relationship harder.
No wonder one study in the US showed that, in the year after they became unemployed, people were 70% more likely to get divorced.

It isn’t just unemployment that can damage relationships.
Repossession can be devastating for everyone involved, and more than 60,000 families will go through this awful process this year.

Every one of those families risk losing their relationship as well as their home.
In one study from the recession in the 1990s, the majority of couples reported depression – hard for any couple to deal with – and that their relationship had been affected.

Many men felt such a profound sense of failure at losing their home they felt obliged to leave their relationship.
I was saddened to read about a US newspaper who had tried to follow five couples as they went through repossession to see how their relationships were affected…

But two of the five couples broke up before they could even complete the story.
It’s clear that repossessions bring huge, often unbearable, pressures to bear on people’s relationships.

Finally, there’s debt.
We know money is one of the biggest things couples fight about.
And money troubles are everywhere at the moment.
British people have, between us, £1.4 trillion of personal debt and our interest payments add up to nearly £95 billion a year.

Nearly two million people have sought advice from the CAB for problem debts in the last year alone.
And studies show debt hurts couples: those with consumer debt spend less time together, suffer more conflict and a downturn in their psychological wellbeing.

We are burdened with a huge hangover from the debt boom of the last 10 years, and it is the relationship between couples that will often suffer the most.

In short, the ordinary burdens of bringing up a family have just got a lot worse.
As many as a million relationships could be on the line because of financial stress, unemployment, repossessions, business failure and other upheaval caused by the recession.

So we urgently need to offer effective help to those in need.

Yet, tragically, there’s a huge stigma associated with asking for help in the first place – a stigma associated with society’s huge hang-up about mental health problems.

We’ve got to break down that stigma, by speaking out about the fact that relationships are difficult and there’s no shame in needing a bit of help.

And we need to make more help available – waiting lists for counselling of all kinds are far too long.
And while I welcome the government’s decision to extend Relate’s grant to help with increased demand during the recession – I was distressed to hear about the financial crisis at Relate North London which has forced them to cancel appointments.

I don’t need to tell you that services like yours are under a huge amount of strain right now and need all the support they can get.

But we should also need to make sure that people are directed towards those services at times of stress – so they don’t fall through the cracks.

When you seek help to stop a repossession, when you sign on after losing your job, if you’re in trouble with the police or up in court, when you go to Citizens’ Advice for help with unmanageable debts…

Service-providers should be trained to think about the consequences of the individual’s problems on their relationships.

And direct them to the right advice and counselling.
That way we can help halt the downward spiral where practical problems cause relationships to break down…
Which causes even more problems, and people end up losing everything.

But advice and support isn’t enough.
People also need practical help so they don’t suffer from so much stress in the first place.
Help like tax cuts for people on low and middle incomes…
Protection so that if you lose your job, you don’t lose your home…
And help with big costs like childcare and student debt.

Childcare in particular can cause enormous difficulties for couples, and creates tension between them.
So I want us to move to a system where, from the age of 18 months, every child has a right to 20 hours of free, high quality childcare.

This would hugely reduce the costs of childcare for families, taking away a huge source of stress, and making it much easier for women who want to return to work to do so without having to spend every pound they earn on a nursery.

The help we offer to families must not, however, demand conformity.
Families are different – they need to be able to shape support to suit their own particular needs.

Let me give you an example: family leave.
These days, a mother gets up to a year off work and a father gets two weeks.
That inequality is the biggest barrier to equal pay between men and women – and it imposes a straitjacket on how fathers and mothers bring up small children.

It doesn’t matter if the mother is the one who wants to get back to work and the father wants to stay at home.
That’s not in the rule book.
If the mother does go back to work and the father takes time off – he has to do it unpaid, while she forfeits her maternity rights.

Isn’t this completely crazy in the modern world, where we’ve come to realise that parenting should be shared?

I want us to move to a different system, where parents get 18 months’ leave between them, to share as they choose…
With six months apportioned on a “use it or lose it” basis to each parent to encourage them both to take time with their newborn child.

That would strike a balance, allowing each individual family to do what suits them best in those vital early months, while also making it clear that the state places real value on early parenting by both men and women.

Such a change would need to be phased in, of course, so as not to cause too much upheaval to employers.
But, in the long term, I believe it would be much better for businesses than simply extending maternity leave even further.

If each parent took some of the leave, neither parent would be off work for too long – making interim arrangements easier.

Getting family leave right would make a huge difference to couples at one of the most difficult moments in their relationship.

The joy of a newborn baby is less likely to become a time of stress if parental leave arrangements were more flexible.
Relationships would be strengthened if both parents really understood what the other was going through because both were seeking to share time off as well as going out to work…

And fathers would be more likely to maintain contact with children even if the relationship with the mother breaks down if they’d spent real time in a nurturing role in the early months.

The other key moment for engaging with fathers – to make sure that, no matter what, they stay part of their child’s life…

Is during ante-natal and maternity care.
Because if we bring men in right from the start, make sure they get the advice and support they need to make the transition to fatherhood, I believe we can start to tackle the huge problem of absent fathers in this country.

While many midwives and service providers are very welcoming to fathers, they still don’t have an official status in the process.

Every mother is given a magazine as she leaves the maternity unit, Mum plus One and the NHS guides for parents are addressed to the mother alone.

We shouldn’t let the fact that some mothers don’t have a partner when they give birth exclude the vast majority of fathers – 96% – who are around at this stage.

I’ll be holding a roundtable about this in the autumn with experts and midwives to get to the bottom of what more we can do.

We need to make sure those fathers stay part of their children’s lives.
Because fatherhood is one of the most important, fulfilling things men can do if they have the freedom to remain involved with their children.

My wife and I juggle between us the jobs of taking the children to school and doing homework with them in the evenings.
We’re fortunate to be able to do that, though like all working parents of young children we always wish we had yet more time at home.

You never think you get the balance quite right.
Many parents, especially fathers, aren’t so lucky.
Work patterns are too rigid or demanding.
Or perhaps some fathers do not feel it is the right role for them.
Either way, we must do more to allow and encourage men to become the fathers they want to be.
This must start with greater flexibility and adaptability in the workplace.
Thankfully, modern IT technology allows many people to blur the time spent at home and at work, juggling the two on a daily basis so that they can shape their time more around the needs of their children.

But it’s also about changing social expectations, assumptions and stereotypes.
Absent fathers aren’t just the archetypal young men on council estates who got a series of girlfriends pregnant in their teenage years and never bother to visit.

They’re the fathers who spend all their time at the office, the pub or the golf course and never bother with the school play or sports day, too.

Being a father is about showing up.

I’ve acknowledged that some family breakdown is inevitable…
But it shouldn’t ever be a reason for the breakdown of the relationship between a parent and child.
It’s best for children when they keep in touch with both parents.

And complex families, if the relationships are strong, can be just as happy and effective as simple ones.
We need to make joint custody and shared parenting the easiest option for everyone, not the hardest.
And, to ease stress for these complex families and help those relationships become – or stay – strong, we need to recognise that there are more categories of parent than married, single, and absent.

These days, millions of people are part of step-parent relationships, but there’s no recognition of the status of step-parent in public services, or support for the unique challenges step-parenthood presents.

Similarly, many parents have joint custody and their children split time between them – but the systems for child support, benefits, tax and housing all assume that one of the parents no longer has any caring role, just a financial one.

A “non-resident” father in financial need won’t be able to get somewhere to live where his children can come and stay.
In fact, if he’s under 26, he’ll only be able to get housing benefit for a single room in a shared property – hardly making it easy to develop a proper relationship with his child or children.

We need a complete review of all government family support and policy to make it fit with the reality of people’s complex family arrangements.

I’ve talked today about the importance of relationships at a time when they are under enormous pressure.
The recession.
Changing social attitudes.
Global forces which are reshaping communities and economies.

I’ve argued that, instead of overlooking the pivotal importance of relationships, as Labour has too often done, we must rebuild them.

But we mustn’t preach, moralise, or try to turn back the clock as the Conservatives have tended to do – we must take relationships as they are.

Finding new, flexible models for social policy that engage with and support modern families, in all their shapes and sizes.

Helping people adjust to new, complex roles – from stay-at-home dad to step-grandmother.
Encouraging and enabling people to get along, to respect and encourage one another, and to carry each other when the times get tough.

And above all, easing the stress of young families by helping them make ends meet and make time for family life.