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Great Britain

Family Politics And Family Policy

So, as in many other countries, and more so in some respects, Great Britain has experienced a period of rapid family change and widening economic inequality. These trends have been a source of much concern, particularly the rise in lone parenthood, which has been a very political issue in Britain. In the late 1980s and early to mid-1990s lone parenthood was often depicted by British politicians and in the media in a very hostile and negative light. Parents, it was argued, were selfishly putting their own needs before those of children, who suffered as the innocent victims of parental divorce or failure to marry. Thus, the controversial 1991 Child Support Act was presented A family gathers for breakfast in Northumberland, England. PETER JOHNSON/CORBIS by the then-Conservative government as a measure that would force absent fathers to face up to their financial responsibilities toward children (without much success, as it turned out, because many men refused to comply, and many others were exempted because of low incomes).

The causes of these family trends have also been debated in the sociological literature on the family, and variously identified as reflecting, for example, women's increased economic independence, the impact of feminism, changing sexual norms and attitudes, and growing individualism and unwillingness to settle for less-than-perfect relationships. Anthony Giddens explored the latter idea in his 1992 book, The Transformation of Intimacy, in which he argued that individuals have become more inclined towards pure relationships—relationships freely entered into and continued only as long as they provide the individual with emotional and physical satisfaction. Giddens's work is mainly theoretical, but other leading sociologists, notably Janet Finch (1989) (for families in general) and Carol Smart (1999) (for postdivorce families), have explored the way in which family relationships and obligations are constructed as part of ongoing relationships that are negotiated within families, not absolute but reciprocal, not gifts but exchanges.

There has also been much debate about the relationship between state policies and family behavior. This has mainly been polarized into two camps. In one there are the traditionalists who argue that social and welfare policy has contributed to the problem (by providing financial and housing support to lone parents) and who want to reform policy in order to support the traditional family based on marriage. In the other camp are the pragmatists who argue that government cannot stop these changes and so must reform policies in order to adapt to them. These are not necessarily party political positions, with politicians from both leading political parties, Labour and Conservative, found in either camp. And policy seems to reflect a (perhaps somewhat uneasy) mix of both points of view.

The Labour government took office in Britain in May 1997 promising policy change across a wide range of areas. One of the ten pledges in their 1997 manifesto was the promise that, "we will help build strong families and strong communities" and in October 1998, the Home Office published a discussion document, Supporting Families, which, as the foreword pointed out, "was the first time any [British] government had published a consultation paper on the family." The paper proposed two main types of policy intervention. First were measures that are aimed at providing direct support for families in cash or in kind measures to reduce poverty and increase family prosperity, and measures to help parents balance work and home. The former includes a pledge to end child poverty within twenty years, and the latter includes measures such the "national childcare strategy." Both of these are very new in Great Britain—no previous British government has made such a promise about poverty nor has any accepted responsibility for childcare provision, which has previously been seen as falling within the private domain of the family. Other significant new policies include measures to support and encourage lone parents into paid employment with a target set for employment levels (that 70 percent should be employed within ten years). A range of new provisions, national and local, including many pilot or demonstration projects, has been introduced. Benefits for the poorest children (those in families receiving Income Support) have been increased substantially, and there are to be new, more generous tax credits for children.

The second type of policies set out in Supporting Families are those that are aimed at changing family behavior in some way. These include, for example, the provision of support and advice services to improve parenting skills, giving local authorities powers to impose child curfews to keep children off the streets at nights in certain areas, setting targets to reduce teenage pregnancy, measures intended to strengthen marriage through information and support to couples when they marry, and mediation and counseling for marital breakdown.

The responses to these sorts of proposals, especially those intended to strengthen marriage, illustrate some of the difficulties inherent in the development of an explicit family policy in postmodern society. As noted above, there are very different and very polarized views about government intervention in family matters, and the measures intended to strengthen marriage have been controversial because they seem to suggest that other family types—lone parents, stepfamilies—are less acceptable and less deserving of support. Other measures, such as the stress on reducing worklessness and increasing levels of employment for all parents, including lone parents, have also been criticized for failing to recognize and value the contribution made by women's unpaid care work within the family.

This lack of consensus about the goals of policy makes family policy potentially a very controversial area, and making policy goals clear and explicit thus risks bringing those disagreements into the open. Family policy has been a growth area of social policy in Great Britain and in many other countries over the past few decades. This reflects the fact that many governments are seeking ways to respond to family trends, either to accommodate to or to try and resist change. But family policy is more directly normative than many other policy areas—it is hard to have neutral policy goals in this area—and so having explicit goals for family policy depends very much on having shared values. The changing family patterns that are pushing governments towards tackling family policy issues are at the same time making it more difficult to reach agreement on these.



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Allen, G., and Crow, G. (2001). Families, Households and Society, Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave.

Finch, J. (1989). Family Obligations and Social Change, Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Ford, R. and Millar, J. eds. (1998). Private Lives and Public Responses: Lone Parenthood and Future Policy in the UK. London: Policy Studies Institute.

Giddens, A. (1992). The Transformation of Intimacy, Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Home Office (1998) Supporting Families, London: Stationery Office

Kiernan, K.; Land, H.; and Lewis, J. (1998). Lone Motherhood in 20th Century Britain. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

McRae, S., ed. Changing Britain: Families and Households in the 1990s, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Millar, J., and Ridge, T. (2001). Families, Poverty, Work and Care. Department for Work and Pensions Research Report No. 153. Leeds, UK: Corporate Document Services.

Millar, J., and Rowlingson, K., eds. (2001). Lone Parents and Employment: Cross-National Comparisons. Bristol, UK: Policy Press.

Modood, T., and Berthoud, R. (1997). Ethnic Minorities in Britain: Diversity and Disadvantage London: Policy Studies Institute.

Office of National Statistics. (2001). Social Trends, Number 31. London: The Stationery Office.

Office of National Statistics. (2001). Population Trends, Number 104 (Summer edition), London: The Stationery Office.

Smart, C., and Neale, B. (1999). Family Fragments, Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.


Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaMarriage: Cultural AspectsGreat Britain - The Nature Of Family Change In Great Britain, Family Roles: Men's Work, Women's Work