Forum Report: What is a Modern Family?

What Is A Modern Family?
Tuesday 19th January 2016, House of Commons

  • Tim Loughton MP, East Worthing and Shoreham, Former Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children and Families
  • Dr Samantha Callan, Research and Policy Expert, currently Parliamentary Adviser to Lord Farmer
  • Joanne Edwards, Chair of Resolution, the national family lawyers' organisation and Family Lawyer
  • Fiona Weir, Chief Executive of Gingerbread, the national single-parents' charity
  • Chair - Alexia Roe, CWO Forum Co-ordinator

Alexia Roe welcomed everyone to the first CWO forum of the year, going on to explain that this forum was the first in a series seeking to explore modern families in contemporary Britain and their diverse needs, in order to set out the best support required to build strong communities where people can benefit from security and opportunity.

Tim Loughton MP, spoke about the campaign currently close to his heart. As Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Conception to Age 2 (The First 1001 Days campaign), he explained that the initial 1001 days shapes a child's future; having a fundamental impact on brain development, attachment and relationships. He referenced the Prime Minister's recent speech about mental health and peri-natal mental health, stating that 1 in 6 women during and after pregnancy are affected by mental health issues. Mr Loughton stated that the financial and social costs of ignoring those critical first days are enormous. Many mental health cases go undetected and there is, as regards effective treatment for mental health problems, essentially a post-code lottery. 1 in 7 maternal deaths are suicides related to mental health issues, but, reassuringly, he said that it is treatable.

Additionally, where there are mental health issues, the capacity to bond with the child is significantly diminished. Mental health issues has an affect on a child in utero. Fathers are also affected by mental health problems; 39% of first-time fathers suffer distress in baby's first year. Babies are affected by parental mental health issues, parental alcohol abuse and domestic abuse, which often first starts in pregnancy. Worryingly, adults from homes where domestic abuse was an issue when they were children, may go on to repeat that behaviour themselves as grown-ups.

Children's maltreatment in the home results in high levels of children being taken into care, disruption in school, poor mental health and criminal behaviour. The APPG has published a manifesto which sets out 9 recommendations to best support parents and families, highlighting the critical first 1001 days and the importance of creating stable families resulting in 'Great Britons', adults who are able to make a positive contribution to society. Mr Loughton reported that the Government is supportive of these 9 measures and that the campaign also has the support of charities and experts across the policy field. For more information about the campaign:

Tim Loughton went on to talk about his Private Member's Bill which is due to have its second reading on 29th January 2016. He realised that there was an anomaly in the law which allowed same-sex couples to benefit from Civil Partnership, but that this was not an option for opposite-sex couples. He feels that it is important to extend the choice to opposite-sex couples who may not wish to marry but would like to show their commitment through Civil Partnership. 

He made an important point which would be reiterated throughout the Forum; which is that co-habitees have no protection in law, although many are act under the false assumption that protection is afforded them as 'common-law wife/husband'. There is no protection and no recognition in the law for unmarried couples, no matter how long the relationship.

In the last Parliament, Mr Loughton was proud to have pioneered greater parental involvement from fathers. The Government troubled-families programme invests intensively to stop any problems escalating. What is needed now is a pre-troubled families programme where parents can go when they start their families, to inform, educate and support them. He felt that there is currently a stigma attached to seeking help and support, which needs to be addressed and removed, so that it becomes normal and beneficial for parents to ask for guidance in becoming a better parent. He wanted the process to be as normal as it is for those who go to the gym to improve their fitness, and for that to happen there needs to be a shift in mindset.

Dr Samantha Callan explained that her priority was putting family at the heart of policy. She referenced the social historian, John Gillis's work on family, especially the difference between the 'family we live with' and the 'family we live by'; family stability being of far greater importance than family composition.

She continued, saying that where there are single-parent households, often social capital is depleted. There are the financial implications involved in setting up two households with limited resources, as well as often the reduced involvement of grandparents. 

There has never been a perfect 'family era', although now, 1 in 2 children no longer live with both their parents by the time they take their GCSEs. There has been a massive change in what family represents in our society; the extended family is not particularly relevant. The family is an enduring relationship between two partners. Blood relationships are not so important – fundamentally, a child thrives with lots of love and nurture and families come in all different shapes and sizes.

A child's biggest fear is that their parents will split up. This is contrary to the parents' belief, when asked, that their children's biggest fear is arguments. Fractured families often affect the poorest strata in our society, and consequently, leads to entrenched poverty after a breakdown, as well as a toxic cycle involving, social isolation, drug abuse and mental health issues.

Dr Callan suggested that there was a need for universal access to family support in the form of a 'one-stop shop'. She disagreed with Mr Loughton's belief that Civil Partnerships ought to be equalized, stating that they should be discarded entirely and that it was stability within the family which was important.

Joanne Edwards, spoke about the changing landscape in relation to families in Britain. Although keeping the family together was something to which we all aspire, the reality is that divorce and separation is here and the adverse impact of that needs to be addressed.

Marriage rates are declining and there is a huge increase in cohabiting couples (who have limited rights in the eyes of the law). There are so many diverse family models, including, same-sex families, heterosexual couples, blended families, adoption and surrogacy and all need support.

As a family lawyer and Chair of Resolution, the organisation to which family lawyers subscribe in order to reduce conflict when relationships have broken down, Jo sets out ways in which the separating family can be best supported. She said that the Prime Minister is doubling funding to support couples. She believes that it is worth trying to save relationships where they are saveable, but if that fails then it is important to ensure that the separation is dignified.

There are 120,000 divorces in England and Wales per annum and at least half of those have one child under 16. Reassuringly, the rate has declined since its peak in the early '90s. Relative to the decline in the rate of marriage, she says, same-sex couple relationships are in their infancy.

Legally, she subscribes to Tim Loughton's idea that Civil Partnerships should be made available to all. Co-habiting relationships are the fastest growing family model with 1 million having dependent children. Many in a co-habiting relationship are not aware that there are no legal rights bestowed on co-habitees; the legal implications only provide for a dependent child, thus there are important ramifications for the family on both separation and death. 

The organisation, Resolution, sets out a Parenting Charter and has pioneered 'Parenting After Parting' classes, putting children at the heart of separation, and giving those children affected by separation a voice. Jo went into a lengthy explanation of the means by which one can currently make an application for divorce and the most commonly used grounds are that of 'irretrievable breakdown' where examples of unreasonable behaviour needs to be cited. This sets us apart from other jurisdictions and, in itself, instigates conflict at the outset of the divorce process. 

Miss Edwards believes that there needs to be a change to the law to remove blame from divorce. A 'No-Fault Divorce' Private Member's Bill, sponsored by Richard Bacon MP, removing fault-based grounds entirely from the process, is due to have its second reading in the House shortly, which Resolution is promoting. She also stated that relationship breakdown needs to be better managed, removing the need to go to Court. The legal aid cuts mean that there is no way of knowing how many fathers have given up on trying to see their children, so in her opinion, it is important to review the resources enabling parents to take action when necessary. There is also the problem where one partner can walk away from the children without taking responsibility for their welfare. 

Jo concluded by saying that she thought that it was important that limited legal rights should be made available to those who choose to co-habit.

Fiona Weir, the Chief Executive of Gingerbread introduced her organisation by saying that 1 in 3 of the UK's single-parents had visited the Gingerbread website. She added that the stereotype of single-parent families persists throughout society, yet the average single-parent is 38, has a job and many have been bereaved. There are many who are doing well; there are many who are struggling.

Single-parents risk being in poverty; their financial concerns relate to paying for heating or food. Financial hardship also affects relationship stability. Families with children are being hit; welfare reforms can affect fathers having their children on overnight stays. Half are not paying adequate child maintenance, especially in light of the Child Maintenance reforms, and this has enormous consequences on child welfare in all respects.

68% of single-parents are in employment but getting the family out of poverty often proves a struggle as there is little job opportunity for single-parents with young children who require part-time work. There is currently a big debate surrounding tax credits which, Fiona, said was not yet over. She feels that it is important to provide work incentives which would encourage families to do the right thing. 

Inevitably, there are different stories relating to family-breakdown and she explained that we need to be cautious of wanting families to stay together. She suggested that there needs to be sufficient funding available to encourage parents to co-parent without forcing parents to remain together, as conflict can cause bad outcomes for the child.

Fiona Weir concluded by emphasised her belief that society needs to stop being fixated by family structure as bad outcomes correlate with conflict.

The floor was opened to a discussion, including the merits of the marriage tax which Dr Callan said was not enough to encourage couples to stay together, although it acted, effectively as a signal of the Government's support of marriage, and Fiona Weir explained that it could be put to better use to support families.

In the general discussion, concern was also expressed about the Government's policy of encouraging women to work, rather than staying at home to look after the children, which, it was felt, was equally valuable. 

It was a thought-provoking and insightful evening which raised many types of support which would help improve the lives of families. It was a privilege to be able to engage with such a diverse range of experts and audience members. Thank you to all who attended.

For further information about the CWO, or to arrange an interview with anyone named in this release, please contact:

CWO Chairman
Tel: (020) 7984 8139