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Apply ‘family test’ to all policies, Welby urges Government

11 December 2023

Parliament TV

The Archbishop of Canterbury speaks in the House of Lords on Friday

The Archbishop of Canterbury speaks in the House of Lords on Friday

IN A country that was “struggling to create conditions in which children can thrive”, the chief consideration in any policy should be whether it was “family-proof”, the Archbishop of Canterbury told the House of Lords on Friday.

By virtue of his office, the Archbishop has the opportunity each year to bring a debate on a subject of his choice. He chose to speak on Love Matters, the report of the Archbishops’ Families and Households Commission (News, 26 April) and the last in a trio of reports by commissions set up in the wake of his book Reimagining Britain (Books, 16 March 2018). The Commission on Housing, Church and Community reported in 2021, and the Commission on Reimagining Care reported at the start of this year.

At its best, the family, in all its many shapes, was “the first port of call in times of crisis”, he said. “But family must not be idolised. While it is very often the greatest source of contentment and hope, it can also be, for many, a cause of despair and unhappiness, and, for many more, the place where our human imperfections give way to harmful and destructive behaviour.”

The commission’s call was for all, individuals, communities, government, and the Church, to put families at the very centre of all that they did. Exhortation was useful. Practical aid was essential, and good housing, social care, education, healthcare and nutrition. “These are moral duties, not just economic calculations.”

Stable families were “indispensable to government and society. We literally cannot exist as a state without them, and not only because it would cost too much. Government must seek to support the intermediate institutions which are the only way of delivering effective family support at the local level — those bodies and groups which sit between the family, the individual, and the state, and which have, for much of history, done the heavy lifting.”

Whenever a policy was created in any government department, its effect on families and households should be considered and acted on, the Archbishop said: “Does it enable the bonds of love within the family or the household to flourish? Does it support and strengthen relationships?

“This week, we hear that many people in this country will be prevented from living together with their spouse, children, elderly parents, as a result of a big increase in the minimum-income requirement for family visas. The Government is rightly concerned with bringing down the legal migration figures . . . but there is a cost to be paid in terms of the negative impact this will have on marriage and family relationships for those who live and work and contribute to a life together.

“The family test should be on the front of every Bill. It should have practical implications for policy, from Treasury spending decisions to the impact of sentencing in the criminal justice system. And so, the main thing I urge Government, is to consider giving the family test, with the support of the Opposition, greater teeth to support its implementation across government departments.

“A lack of strong families undermines our society. Government needs families to work — they must not set a series of hurdles for them to jump over.”

The debate ran to four hours. Several peers referred to a perceived lack of emphasis in the report on the importance of marriage. “It’s not for me to tell the Church what to do, but not promoting the benefits of marriage to society as a whole makes it harder for the Church to resolve the issue of gay marriage,” Baroness Stowell said. “Not [doing so] will make the internal difficulties on gay marriage that much harder for the Church to resolve.

“Promoting the institution of marriage to society is more important if that institution is to survive. Doing that would help future-proof the Church itself, and the purpose of both institutions surviving into the future is the role they have in ensuring a strong, cohesive society for the benefit of us all.”

Baroness Thornhill called the report a “lucid, challenging, and compelling read, quietly explosive . . . very different from any normal public document in explaining and expanding on the rewriting of the definition of family. It accepts diversity. It goes beyond it to communality, to what makes families work rather than proselytising on what makes a family.”

Baroness Bottomley found the report “realistic, pragmatic, useful, powerful, and unsentimental”.

Lord Griffiths of Burry Port, a Methodist minister, said that he had been raised in a single-parent family living in a lean-to in Bridgend.

“A man from the National Assistance Board came, questioning my poor mother whether she was entitled to assistance,” he said, recounting how he and his brother could not tolerate the man’s humiliation of his mother and threw him out of the house. (The Lords cheered.)

“I learned what threatens family from the side of officialdom . . . the fetid and humiliating atmosphere for people making applications. It made me aware of the pressures under which families are broken.”

Archbishop Welby had earlier praised the Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, who co-chairs the Commission, for his “tireless work” in campaigning for the two-child cap on benefits to be lifted: a move, he said, estimated to lift one quarter of a million children out of poverty, and “a moral case beyond any question”.

Bishop Butler told the Lords: “We have spoken with people from across the country, from different backgrounds, ages, cultures, and faiths. There was a theme that echoed throughout all our conversations: the importance of family and loving relationships.”

The Commission had found consensus that marriage preparation should be made available to everyone forming a committed couple relationship, he said. “I ask the Government: will they ensure that all registrars are required to signpost couples to marriage and relationship preparation available in their community when the couple give notice of an intention to marry or form a civil partnership?”

He also wanted to ask the Government what steps it would take to further encourage local authorities, and hold them accountable in partnering with voluntary and faith communities, to develop family hubs. With particular reference to the growing number of single-person households, he urged consideration of how society valued those who were single.

The Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, called for a systemic and long-term approach to criminal justice. Fifty-seven per cent of adult prisoners had literacy levels below an 11-year-old’s, and 42 per cent of prisoners had been expelled or excluded from school. “What is going wrong upstream — not least in families — that leads to these statistics?” she asked.

Much of the £18-billion-a-year social and economic cost of offending could be spent focusing on the multiple layers underlying the causes of crime, she suggested, not least with the focus on early years, the child, and the family. Given that half of those serving a sentence of less than one year went on to reoffend, “If sentencing focused on the child and the family, we would make stronger use of community sentencing and other options for non-violent offenders, and that would include ways of strengthening social networks and healthy family ties.”

The subconscious message being conveyed was that “love and relationship does not really matter. The public narrative, shaped by media headlines, is that we need to be tougher on crime, and that equates to locking more people up for longer to make our streets safer and our communities stronger. It is not true, and it is not supported by data or evidence.

“If we agree with the Archbishops’ Commission that loving families are central to the well-being of adults and children living in all types of houses, then I believe we need to be asking what this means for reform in our criminal justice system.”

The Bishop of Chelmsford, Dr Guli Francis-Dehqani, wanted to focus on the report’s findings on bricks and mortar, and the communities that well-designed affordable housing could foster. “For many people, housing is not stable. It is unaffordable, it is not decent, the tenure is insecure, and thus it is not a long-term home, but a temporary base where it is impossible to put down roots. Such housing is no foundation for strong families and households.

“Unhealthy homes are a widespread and serious barrier to the creation of stable, healthy households and families, and, looking back to the peak of the pandemic, as Love Matters does, we can see that housing inequality can be a driving force behind health inequality.

“So, I reiterate the call made by [the Archbishop of Canterbury] that high-quality homes, and especially social housing, where the Government can have a particular hand in improving standards, should be placed at the centre of manifesto pledges ahead of the next election.”

She also called on the Government to bring forward the change to National Housing Assistance due to come into force in April, to give support over the coming winter.

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