Last autumn a family policy document endorsed by 57 MPs and a number of Lords caused a stir amongst decision-makers. A Manifesto to Strengthen Families set out a range of recommendations aimed at creating stronger families: 18 policies to address the various challenges that its authors considered need to be faced.
It contained a number of eye-catching suggestions: for example, statutory Family Impact Assessments that would form a fundamental part of all Government departments’ policy development, potentially putting families at the heart of future initiatives and legislation.
And there was the proposal to encourage all local authorities to work with voluntary and private sector partners to deliver ‘Family Hubs’ – specialised centres offering a range of family services.
The Family Hub idea was put forward by the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) in its 2014 Fully Committed? paper, describing them as 'local nerve centres coordinating all family-related support, including universal services and specialist help … to meet both parents’ pressing needs'.
The Hubs are being trialled by a few councils and, since the paper was published, there have been reports that the idea of making the initiative a national one has gained traction at the top of Government.
For family mediators, the development of Family Hubs to include relationship support services is of great interest. Acknowledging the £48bn annual cost to the UK economy of family breakdown, the report pointed out this represented only a small part of the overall cost because 'stable, productive families that function well are usually wealth creators, fractured families are far more likely to be dependent on the state'.
The Government has long identified that conflict arising from relationship breakdown is detrimental in so many ways to families, especially the children, that delivering mediation produces outstanding outcomes at very little cost – so as new policies are developed mediation providers need to be included.
Now, the idea of having a number of community-based family-focused services under one roof isn’t new. Thousands of Sure Start Children’s Centres, run by local authorities, fulfilled a similar role. Indeed the CSJ specifically mooted Family Hubs as representing the next stage of the Sure Start philosophy.
My concern is that if Family Hubs fail to bring genuinely fresh thinking to overhaul the Children’s Centre model, thousands of families will miss out on the potential benefits. The Children’s Centre offer is limited to health and development, and services tend to be focused on families at risk. To provide more universal appeal Family Hubs need to become a community resource that is not in any way stigmatised, with the service net cast further and wider than by Children’s Centres. They need a template offering with expert emotional, practical, financial, and legal information and services available.
Decades of experience – in family mediation, probation, family court welfare, child protection social work and Cafcass – tell me that most families are very capable of sorting their own issues, provided they have access to the right information about their options, presented to them by experts in the field. That way they can work out ways to de-escalate and solve problems.
Strengthening families has to be about helping families to help themselves. With devolved powers, competing departmental interests and tight budgets there is a serious reduction in the number of preventative services available and the main focus is on ensuring statutory responsibility is met. This is the most expensive end of service provision.
Years ago, a commonly used phrase amongst politicians when it came to welfare benefits was that they should be 'a hand up, not a handout'. In my view, the principle for Family Hubs is similar. If designed wisely they have the potential to ‘hand up’ to families across the country a truly transformative set of options. We look forward to being involved.