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Maria Miller: Families in Britain

I would like to thank Policy Exchange for inviting me here today to the launch of their most recent report which pulls together so many of the different threads of policy that affect families in Britain today. It is right that the debate on the future of family policy is thrown under the spotlight and it is right that think tanks like Policy Exchange continue to push the boundaries and challenge the status quo.

<h2>Parents have the responsibility</h2>

The report is right: parents above anything else have the responsibility for their children. There contribution is the most important determinant of whether a child reaches their potential in life. This is a commitment parents have to take seriously and most do. The debate this week around the problems still faced by children taken away from their families into the care of the state shows just how hard it is to replicate the impact parents have in supporting and nurturing children and why it is so important that we do all we can to strengthen the resilience of families and in particular parents.

<h2>Building resilience in the early years</h2>

Everyone of us here is part of a family - and I can guarantee to you not one of those families will be the same.

Think of my own family and my grandmothers' - both of my grandmothers went out to work - unusual perhaps in the 1940 and 1950s but they had to, to make ends meet. Times have changed and now almost 3 in 4 mothers is back in the workplace by the time their children are 1.

But the changes families face are more than having both parents working. It is important to understand how fundamentally family life has changed in what is a relatively short period of time.

As report rightly points out we now face higher levels of family break down with one in three children living apart from their fathers by the time they reach 16.

But there is another element - unlike my grandmothers generation - where generations lived in the same village or town, where moving away was extraordinary not routine. Nowerdays, recent research by 4 Children has shown that, almost half of us only see our extended family members twice a year or less.

What that means is less extended family support when a new baby comes along, to encourage, to pass on advice, to provide a ready made support system for the new family. 

Telephones, internet and SCIPE all play their part in helping keep families in touch. The guiding hand helping new families keep on the rails is there but often at a distance and not on a daily basis.

If we are to build stability and resilience back into family life then the debate on the future of families needs to look closely at those changing family support systems and help ensure support is in place to build strength into families from the start.

That is why David Cameron has already announced that under a Conservative Government we would reintroduce a universal system of health visiting through Sure Start - early intervention - providing the sort of support called for in this report for parents right from the start to help to avoid the most costly problems later on.

We are committed to Sure Start and the role that it has in supporting families. The work that is done at the Thomas Coram Sure Start Centre and by Coram Family leads the way in what can be achieved to support the most has disadvantaged families. I have visited the centre and seen inspirational work that is done to support families, particularly those facing some of the biggest challenges. We need all centres to learn from this approach. Sure Start needs to be part of the social glue that helps bind our fragmented families and communities together.

Parenting is for life not just for the early years.

And as all of us know parenting only gets tougher. And with the Boomerang generation of children, and an aging population overall, parenting never seems to stop. I agree with the findings of the research that indicate support should be there for parents regardless of the age of their children.

There are pressure points throughout family life: any point of transition - teenage years, when children leave home.

We cannot ignore the stress this places on family life and that is why I believe it is vital that the right to request flexible working is extended to all parents with children up to the age of 18.

But should parents face financial penalties if they are judged to fail? Would this incentivize parents to do better or simply serve to penalise the children of those who fail? A child may truant because they are bullied at school. A child may behave in an unacceptable way in class and be excluded because they have a special educational need and require specialist support that is not in place. Is this the fault of the parents? I think this line of thinking is fraught with difficulties.  

<h2>Creating the broader context within which families can thrive</h2>

Finally, I have focussed my comments on the details of some specific policy areas but the biggest challenge of all is creating broader context within in which families can thrive. And to recognise the very real role that marriage still has in British society. The report rightly says that there is strong support for the ideal of marriage right across the board.

Whilst the figure has declined, still 7 out of 10 households are headed by a married couple. As work done by Civitas has shown 70% of young people in this country still want to get married.

A Conservative Government will support marriage, through the tax and benefit system and remove the 'couple penalty' from the benefits system which will lift 300 000 children in two parent families out of poverty.

The challenge for Government of whatever party is to look at the pressures that stop this aspiration of a secure family life from becoming a reality: access to training and education to enable those leaving education to get jobs that pay enough to live on; in this recession the earnings of young people have been hit hardest and have already fallen relative to older workers even before the recession began; the problems of access to housing and a mortgage that is affordable. All of this affects the ability of young people to take that decision to get together, to formalise their relationship, to have children and realise their family ambitions too.

The report is right to urge caution, to tread carefully when it comes to family policy. With Government debt at record levels and the country facing the longest ever recession public finances will be tight. David Cameron has put families at the heart of our vision for this country. There is a great deal to be done to ensure we can truly say we have reached our objective of making Britain the most family friendly country in the world.

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