The holy family

Written by George Hull on 19 April 2011 in Interview
Family is back on the political agenda, but it will take courage to challenge the double standards of current policy.

In a widely publicised ruling a few weeks ago, the High Court confirmed that Eunice and Owen Johns of Derby, who view homosexuality as ‘unnatural and wrong’, should be barred from fostering children. Because their opinions about sexuality derive from their Christian faith, most commentary presented the case as a conflict between religious freedom and gay rights. But this lawsuit raises another question of principle – of equal, if not greater, importance for today’s politics – which was not answered by Justices Munby and Beatson on 28th February.

Whether or not the Johns’ social worker asked them the right questions, and whether or not their replies should have disqualified them from fostering, most people would agree there are some questions which needed to be asked, and some replies which would have indicated the couple was unsuited to caring for children. With ninety-nine per-cent certainty we can say those questions would never have been put to them, nor the replies heard, had the child in question been biologically theirs.

The local authority, said the Justices, has a ‘duty to safeguard and protect the welfare of looked-after children’. Why do children looked after by their biological parents not have the same right to safeguarding and protection? Or put it the other way around. If we can assume that those who, by accident or design, end up with biological offspring will do a good job of caring for it, why shouldn’t we assume that those who volunteer for the hassle and expense of raising a child not their own by blood will do an equally good job?

The same question is raised – only more starkly – by the Independent Safeguarding Authority’s vetting and barring scheme which the Labour government introduced last year. This scheme aimed to protect children from abuse by requiring a Criminal Records Board check on all adults coming into regular contact with minors not related to them. Again: Why should we assume no threat of abuse emanates from adult relatives, while counting children’s teachers, sport coaches, youth club leaders and even their friends’ parents as guilty until proven innocent?

In this case, though, the asymmetry is not just gratuitous, but positively the wrong way round. Children have contact with more and more non-parental authority figures, but studies continue to reveal that the overwhelming majority of child abuse happens within the family circle. The abuse of children is almost exclusively a family problem.

Slowly but surely, the family has crept back into the centre of British politics. Even before he became leader of the Labour Party, Tony Blair as shadow Home Secretary unashamedly advocated family values as a remedy for ‘social disorder’, lamenting how ‘inhibited’ the Left had been about discussing the family hitherto. Steve Webb and Jo Holland’s article in The Orange Book prepared a U-turn in Liberal Democrat policy on the family as well, deploring the ‘hands-off’ approach of their party, which had traditionally regarded family as a private matter. In their article they only rejected the idea of a married couples’ allowance after contenting themselves at length that marriage already brought financial advantages along with it. Now David Cameron’s coalition government is introducing a tax break for married couples and civil partners to encourage committed long-term relationships.

But the family policy of all three major parties betrays an unwillingness to face reality. Read the three party manifestos for the election last year, and you will find, first, a commitment to support families since they are ‘the bedrock of society’, central to children’s life chances, and, second, as though it followed as a necessary consequence, outlines of plans to make more affordable day-care available. One senses an attempt to have it both ways.

Parents are spending progressively less time with their children and more at work. Grandparents and other relatives are, since they now often live far away, less likely to be available to care for children than in the past. This is why more affordable day-care is needed. But this also means that families are doing a smaller proportion of the upbringing of children than in the past, and professional carers and supervisors a greater. It makes no sense for politicians to gesture at a return to traditional family values, while facilitating the transfer of much of the family’s traditional role to professionals. And it adds insult to injury to assume malign intent on the part of these professionals, while enshrining into law an assumption that biological relatives are above suspicion.

Recent developments in family life are also of relevance to the impact the family has on social justice. If some parents are themselves better at bringing up their children than others, and this has even quite a large impact on those children’s futures, one is tempted to say, ‘That’s life.’ But to the extent that parents’ contribution to their children’s upbringing approaches being purely financial (paying for better, or worse, day-care and schooling), the ensuing differential in life chances does begin to look intolerably arbitrary.

The family has returned as a topic for mainstream politics; and there’s nothing wrong with that. Too often, though, politicians bring a familiar, antiquated set of views to bear on it, which can in practice only lead to injustice and double standards. What is urgently overdue is a political approach to the family which tests traditional assumptions against today’s social reality. With its married couples’ tax break the coalition government has thrown down a traditionalist gauntlet. At a time when the politics of small differences pervades, this is a topic on which, if it has the courage, there is a clear role for the opposition party.

George Hull is doing research into and teaches political philosophy at University College London

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