State policy that influences family life refers to the policies and initiatives introduced by governments that have an effect on how family life functions. This policy can affect families either directly or indirectly; direct referring to policy regarding marriage and divorce, for example, and indirect policy referring to that regarding things such as housing and education. Over the past 30 years, the UK has seen a diverse stance on family policy—reflected by the changes in government over this period.
The new right governments of Thatcher and Major saw the breakdown of families as being instrumental of a culture in decline. Thatcher saw the increase of family types that differed from the usual nuclear family as being concerning; an interesting stance, considering being the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom doesn’t fit into the traditional view of an expressive mother.
However, the new right governments can be seen to have had a positive effect on family life, with examples coming from things such as the Child Support Agency—a body designed to ensure child maintenance was paid by absent parents. In theory, this would have had a massively positive effect on family life for all those who suffered the blight of an absentee parent; but, in practice, it was often not very effective and also focussed on fathers—an inequality that resulted in the formation of pressure groups like Fathers 4 Justice.
One of Thatcher’s major changes to family life was allowing and encouraging families to purchase their council houses, this promoted a more independent family and a shift away from dependency on the welfare state; however this policy was largely aimed at the nuclear model of family, and alternative family types, such as lone-parent families, could not afford this purchase.
This had positive effects on mostly newly middle-class families who were able to purchase these houses and become independently responsible for their own families, however to the working-class this change was often something unattainable and this policy did not have a large effect on family life. New Labour was the first British government to produce a full set of family policies since the introduction of the welfare state. In their discussions of family importance, three main principles were raised—children come first, children need stability and families raise children.
This shows that the New Labour government were committed to aiding families in order to bring children up in the best possible way and supply the next generation with the tools they need to succeed. The Children Act 2004 set out the boundaries and gave help to local authorities in the official intervention in the interests of children—that is to say that the act of parliament set out to provide regulated help for children at a local level. This had a positive effect on family life because it meant that children were being supported directly, rather than indirectly with state policy focussing on helping adults to care for children.
Another way New Labour had a positive effect on family life was through the elongation of maternity leave as well as the increased pay—this meant that families with new-borns had more time to be present in the early stages of their child’s life, as well as not having to worry about the fiscal decisions of maternity leave. New Right thinkers, however, saw New Labour’s policies as creating a culture of dependency—their traditional view of welfare being ‘a hand up, not a hand out’ was not present in New Labour’s government, and they believed that this would have negative connotations for the families of the UK.
New Labour shared some similarities with the New Right Conservative governments before them—one, notably, being that both governments promoted the typical family structure over any other type; however the New Labour governments can be seen to have acknowledged alternative lifestyles more than the Tories did. The coalition of 2010 married the concepts of traditional conservatism with the concept of liberalism in the coming together of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties. Their government, so far, has meant further changes to social policy.
David Cameron has placed family values at the top of his agenda, from his flagship campaign with the ‘big society’ to his vow to make Britain the most family-friendly country in the world, he can be seen to be a great supporter of the importance of a stable family life. This can be seen through his government’s policy, too. The coalition is continuing the work of New Labour to end child poverty in the UK, set out by the Child Poverty Bill 2009; this shows a similar stance to family by the two governments, with both valuing children as a top priority in policy regarding family.
This proves beneficial to family life, as if children are not having to worry about poverty they have time to focus on things like education and getting the most out of their potential. They also look to provide flexible working hours to those with children under 18, especially in regard to the public sector—this is positive to the family as it means that parents can provide for their family as well as being involved in their lives; this shows an acceptance for a shit of family types, where parents are able to be the breadwinners and still maintain an involvement in family affairs.
However, the coalition government has also introduced large cuts to the welfare state and to this effect some of the policy’s they introduce are tarnished and not as effective as they would have been without the cuts. Therefore the coalition can be seen almost as an oxymoron—setting out policy to help families, but also making universal cuts to the public sector and welfare state that hinders these policies.
Overall, therefore, it can be seen that state policies can have a positive effect on family life—as policy set out by the state has the ability to help families in the key factors of raising and taking care of a family. The educational changes in recent years, such as making the age one is able to leave school longer serves to educate children to a greater extent to give them a better chance at succeeding in life; it also means that families are given support for their children for a greater period time, rather than if their child left school at 16.
The governments of the past 30 years have differed on some policy areas, but one thing that has been present in all governments is the importance of children in the family, all governments have attempted to nurture this importance with their social policy and the aid set out by these policies has a greatly positive effect on family life. However, as with all policy from the government, some prove to be ineffective and cannot always be seen as having positive effects. Therefore, state policy can be seen as ambiguous—it can either help families or hinder them.