19 March 1999 - 21 March 1999

The role of the family in public policy

Chair: The Hon Sir Thomas Boyd-Carpenter KBE

With the Lloyds TSB Foundation for England and Wales

We began our conference – which was supported by generous funding from the Lloyds TSB Foundation for England and Wales – by reminding ourselves of the background of massive social change over the course of the twentieth century’s second half:  the age of patriarchy passing away at mounting speed;  fundamental changes in role relationships as between men and women; the traditional family form’s predominance eroded by fewer (or more delayed) marriages, perhaps more evident stresses within marriage, more cohabitation, higher divorce rates, more pregnancies outside marriage, more children with only one effective parent – all this compounded moreover, in most Western countries, by higher unemployment rates entailing more workless families and more children in severe relative poverty.  In one or two of these parameters, we heard, the rate of change had abated and perhaps even reversed in the United States;  but the general picture was one of inescapably more varied forms of family to be coped with by public policy – “any living unit that has the care of children”, as one country now defined matters. 

That possible definition carried us to what was, for most people, the core reason why public policy should be concerned with the family – its role in the support, care, education, socialisation and “moralisation” of children, to be seen not as private goods but as the future material for our societies (even if, as some comment noted, their key importance on this account sometimes appeared to have higher priority in rhetoric than in policy substance as compared with concern for adults in need – who had votes.  Others noted also that childhood should be recognised as having its own intrinsic value, not just as “seedcorn”.)

We debated anxiously whether on this account marriage should be seen as having still a special primacy among models, and if so how that primacy should be acknowledged in law and policy.  Many of us saw marriage as a key element in overall social stability;  children could fare well enough outside it, no doubt, but by most measures they did on average significantly better within the context of securely-married carers.  (Cohabitation, it was suggested, rarely lasted – either marriage or break-up mostly ensued.)  We did hear sceptical questioning whether stable marriage was really a cause, or merely an indicator, of conditions conducive to sound child-rearing.  And we failed, predictably, to resolve vigorous contention about whether the state and the law should give deliberate advantage – on children-related account – to the married condition;  about whether the legal obligations around marriage should increasingly be applied also to cohabitation (diverse though its forms were);  and about whether divorce should be made harder or at least slower.  In that last regard we acknowledged a broad presumption against state intervention in private matters, together with the difficulty of compelling people to stay together against their will and the drawbacks of adversarial process;  but it was nevertheless strange, observed some, to regard marriage as the one form of contract or bargain that could be repudiated without reason given.

We came back continually to the importance – and the problems – of fathers, or father-figures, within families.  Their absence often seemed the key element in “problem” families;  but social-role change had disoriented many men, especially amid uncomfortable developments in labour markets.  In some settings, it was argued, male perceptions of role had not yet adequately adjusted to the shift from manufacturing to service jobs, the lack of unskilled manual jobs and consequent insecurity of much male employment, and the marked rise in the proportion of women in paid work outside the home.  One suggested line of response was to adjust standard patterns of working hours – away from the distorting habit of long hours and overtime as evidence of work-commitment – so as to create evident space and expectation for men to involve themselves more fully in the care of children;  but many of us doubted whether at least the larger Western countries could muster social and political consensus to push such cultural change by governmental action.

The issue of working mothers – especially working single-parent mothers – exercised us in other ways too.  Many of us were uneasy at policies designed (as current UK ones seemed to be) to incentivise single-mothers into employment while children were still young;  as against that unease, we acknowledged the undesirability of having women become detached from the labour market by long periods of absence from it.  There was a strong sentiment in our discussion that state policy ought to be substantially neutral as between stay-at-home and out-to-work, enabling individuals to make informed choices without presumption or pressure either way.  Such an approach might throw into high relief difficult issues about support or provision (fiscally or otherwise) for childcare, especially at pre-school ages (though the “latchkey” situation for school-age children remained also a concern).  Comment noted variously that good paid childcare was expensive;  and that in human terms “commoditising” childcare as a commercial service was not always without drawbacks.

We stubbed our toes repeatedly on the awkward and contentious issue of how widely governments should interpret their responsibilities – whether in regulation, in practical incentive or in general encouragement – across all these matters.  One strand of opinion emphasised both that they should acknowledge their limited ability to make a difference, and that in Western societies the general predisposition was against intervention unless clear societal interest could be demonstrated – the state should not second-guess personal relationships, for all the importance of these to human happiness.  Others emphasised that the state could not stand aside from legal and administrative concerns in respect of marriage, for example;  that governments had moreover a proper duty of clarifying basic social responsibilities;  and that they should anyway not shirk using their “soapbox” power to influence attitudes and encourage desirable values.  But, said the sceptics, what desirable values, amid increasingly diverse and pluralist societies?  Others noted too the particular difficulty, in this field more than any other, of having government members publicly urge standards of behaviour of which, amid human frailty, their individual private lives might fall short.  These factors aside, much discussion called for better coherence in family-affecting policies, even if this was to be achieved more by awareness and cautious audit than by masterplan or wholesale reorganisation amid the interactive complexities of modern government.

Might more be done to equip young people in advance with the skills necessary for successful marriage and for good parenting?  Many of us were attracted to such a concept (even if, again, a sceptical voice doubted whether current evidence of experiment in this line really suggested much improvement in outcome).  It would surely be desirable to abate unrealistic expectations of marriage, for example, and to deepen prior understanding of family responsibilities.  Schools might perhaps be asked to find curriculum room for such tasks – for both genders – alongside the imparting of cognitive skills;  but we knew, uncomfortably, that curricula were already heavily laden and moreover that by no means all “mainstream” teachers would be apt or credible in this role.

We talked more briefly about the roles of other actors.  At least in Britain public social services had a mixed image, often fostered by doubtfully-fair criticism oscillating between accusations of over- and under-interventionism;  and the blame for the conspicuously poor outcome-record of most children taken into public care lay often at other doors, sometimes inadequately supervised.  We heard one or two calls for wider public provision of mediation services, and perhaps also for social-counselling training for health-service professionals, who whether rightly or wrongly might often carry particular credibility with families under stress.  We found too little time to survey the contribution of NGOs and – still important and experienced, even if trends differed from country to country – of churches.  We recognised the contribution that ought to be, but was not always, made by employers through “family-friendly” work arrangements like reasonable hours and parental leave.  And we were reminded of the part which the elderly could play for the benefit of children as providers of caring resource, rather than just as competitors for it.

One of the strongest themes in our debate was the key value of place-based community-centred action for the support (and safety) of families – not least by other families as well as by professionals.  Even though national standards might still need to apply and be monitored, empowered local responsibility (including business involvement) could often work with more multi-faceted flexibility and immediacy, and with sharper focus upon practical outcomes, than central schemes could achieve.

Extensive discussion about fiscal action and social-security provision, and the balance between them, brought us to no clear action consensus.  The state’s redistributive capability through such mechanisms must in principle have powerful effects, we knew, but these were not always easily tracked; we doubted, just for example, whether tax arrangements made much direct difference to marriage itself, though we observed (for further example) that in Britain they were now in some degree skewed against the one-working-parent family.  Fiscal action mostly had the advantage of greater neutrality, social-security action of more sensitive targeting;  but family support by either route had to contend with the apparently deep unwillingness of electorates in most of our countries to accept greater burdens of public revenue-raising.

We did less than justice to the significance, within family policy, of public housing practices;  or of relevant law, court systems and procedures, though we were reminded that in some countries difficult issues of asset division on marital (and cohabitational?) break-up were still not satisfactorily ordered, and that adoption law might not have kept pace with changing conditions.  In a different dimension, we mostly failed to tease out practical ways of meeting the need, strongly urged by some participants, to involve young people more extensively in considering and tackling issues of the kind we had been discussing.

As often (too often?) at Ditchley, the media came under criticism, notably for the effect which highly-coloured handling of vivid but atypical problem cases was thought to have upon public perception of family-related issues and so upon political priorities.  Just or not, such comment usefully prompted recognition – another Ditchley staple? – of the need for better and more objective data on the real severity and frequency-spread of problems, for more systematic and outcome-related evaluation of instruments and strategies, and for wider interchange of experience.

This report reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference. No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.


Chairman:  The Hon Sir Thomas Boyd-Carpenter KBE
Chairman, Social Security Advisory Committee;  Kensington and Chelsea and Westminster Health Authority;  Advisory Board on Family Law

Mr Ken Battle

President, Caledon Institute of Social Policy
Madame Nicole Boily
President, Quebec Government Child and Family Welfare Council
Professor Margrit Eichler
Department of Sociology and Equity Studies in Education, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education,University of Toronto
Father James McConica
President, Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, Toronto
Mr John D McNeil
Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Sun Life Assurance Company of Canada

Mrs Olga M B Fles

President, Family Council of the Netherlands

Ms Katharine Bramwell

Head, Family Policy Unit, Home Office
Ms Adrienne Burgess
Research Associate, Institute for Public Policy Research
Dr Jack Dominian MBE
Honorary Consultant, Central Middlesex Hospital;  Chairman, One Plus One
Lady Eames
World Wide President, The Mothers’ Union
Mrs Joanna Foster
Chairman, National Work-Life Forum
Mr Norman Glass
Deputy Director, Public Services Directorate, HM Treasury
Sir Graham Hart KCB
Leading review of funding of marriage support for Office of the Lord Chancellor
Mrs Rachel Lomax
Permanent Secretary, Department of Social Security
Ms Penny Mansfield
Director One Plus One Marriage & Partnership Research
Mr Gerald McHugh
Head, Children’s Services Division, Scottish Office Home Department
Dr Geoffrey Mulgan
Head of Policy Unit, Prime Minister’s Office
Mr David Omand
Permanent Under Secretary of State, Home Office
Ms Melanie Phillips
Columnist, Sunday Times
Ms Ceridwen Roberts
Director, Family Policy Studies Centre
Mrs Jacquie C Roberts
Director of Social Work, Dundee City Council
Professor Robert E Rowthorn
Faculty of Economics and Politics, Cambridge
Ms Maeve Sherlock
Director, National Council for One Parent Families
Mr Roger Singleton CBE
Chief Executive, Barnardos
Mr David Skidmore
Secretary, Church of England Board for Social Responsibility
The Rt Hon Lord Justice Thorpe
Lord Justice of Appeal
Lord Warner
Chairman, Youth Justice Board for England and Wales
Mr David Willetts MP
Shadow Secretary of State for Education and Employment
Mr Martin Wolf
Associate Editor and Economics Commentator, Financial Times

Ms Laura Dupuis

Director of Policy and Family Programs, Homes for the Homeless, New York
Mrs Jeanne R Ferst
Chairman, Fulton County Economic Development Advisory Board
Professor Sarah F Liebschutz
Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus, State University of New York
Professor Ken Markus
Director, Dave Thomas Center for Adoption Law, The Law School, Capital University
Mr Robert H McNulty
President, Partners for Livable Communities
Professor Andrew Shepard
Professor of Law and Academic Director, Child and Family Advocacy Center, Hofstra University School of Law
Justice Frank Sullivan Jr
Justice, Supreme Court of Indiana
Ms Cheryl G Sullivan
Vice Chancellor for External Affairs, Indiana-Purdue University