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20 January 2011

Family policy: a missing link?

Last month the article from Northern Ireland focused on plans to extend Sunday Trading here and yet it could quite as easily have been about the delays in our Executive producing a budget. Interestingly, the two are linked.  Social Development Minister Alex Attwood, the driving force behind the review of Sunday Trading laws, has suggested that the former could have a positive effect on the economy. One area which is regularly overlooked in relation to these topics is that of family policy, which does in fact have a significant influence.   

One frequently hears how extending Sunday Trading or having longer working hours has a negative impact on  families but less so how the family impacts the economy. Yet, there is ample research available to show that strong families and extended families can increase financial and social capital, improve wellbeing, cut long-term pressures on public spending, and reduce the role played by the State, leading to a low tax economy.   

Conversely, weak and broken family units can require increased State intervention with significant cost implications, reduce financial and social capital, and disrupt or reduce social mobility, entrenching disadvantage. 

Family policy is much broader than a narrow set of issues around family law, working time, or tax and benefits. There are a multitude of policy issues around the family which both influence and are influenced by family relationships. Relationships expand from the nuclear to the extended family, and then to the neighbourhood, wider community, and ultimately the nation. Many of the costs associated with schools, healthcare, welfare and the criminal justice system are due to family breakdown. Freeing up substantial time and money requires addressing the root causes. 

As Christians we believe that marriage is the best model - a position backed up by secular research. But policy should not be about promoting one form of family relationship as an end in itself. Family policy is not a prize to be fought over in conflicts about values, nor should it seek to dictate how people lead their lives. Instead, it should be a shared commitment to a healthier and more prosperous society.  

Churches should therefore be actively engaged, pushing hard to see all departments assessing the intended and unintended consequences of any policy on families, and encouraging the employment of the 'triple test' of economic, environmental and social assessment in all aspects of their work. If this had happened with the plans for Sunday Trading, it would undoubtedly have failed on environmental and social criteria and most likely economic as well, ultimately preventing it from reaching the costly and time-consuming public review stage. 

Whilst amending the tax and benefit system is a role restricted to government, there are many areas in which the churches can make a practical difference, such as promoting and engaging in preventative relationship and financial education, couple and debt-counselling, encouraging multi-generational living, and campaigning for protected 'time off' from work. Both government and the churches should be asking themselves two questions: what can we do to enhance the family's capacity to help itself and others; and will this policy or programme hurt, strengthen or weaken family life?   

Family policy is so inextricably linked to the economy, that to ignore it at a time such as this makes little political sense. If churches, as they embrace a more holistic approach to mission, were to lead by example, enhancing the already strong family-orientated culture, could Northern Ireland become a pioneer of family-friendly policy?