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Caring and diverse: a wake-up call for politicians about the modern family


As ministers prepare to decamp for their holidays, Professor Fiona Williams of the University of Leeds has just published the perfect summer reading. It’s only 96 pages long, it’s jargon-free, and it could change our lives – and theirs – immeasurably.

Rethinking Families is the crystallation of a £1.3 million research project by the ESRC-funded team on Care, Values and the Future of Welfare (CAVA). Over the course of five years, some 400 people gave 500 hours of interviews about their family lives, personal relationships and their work.

The results describe huge shifts in family life – how people live and love – and in work. A fantastic diversity of households was revealed – people cohabiting, marrying, separating, parenting singly – or doing all of these in the course of their lifetimes.

But the breakdown of traditional structures has done nothing to lessen family commitments. “Commitment has not faltered,” said CAVA director Professor Williams. “People take their morals less from the church and state and there is much talk of the decline of family values. But we found no loss of commitment.

“Families are developing ‘practical ethics’ of care and support in which there is blurring between kin, ex kin, sexual partners and friends. When faced with dilemmas people negotiate the right thing to do, especially for their children. Whether talking about divorce or getting the baby looked after while at work, what many people share is a weighing up of the situation, rather than an abstract moral imperative. They ask, ‘how can I manage this?’”

The real problem, concluded the CAVA team, is that government policies – on welfare, transport, education, employment – have failed to keep up with these shifts, and to support people as they struggle to balance work and care.

“There a huge care deficit across Europe. People spend more time at work and are stranded and stressed, because caring is no less important to them now then it ever was. We still operate on male breadwinning times – nine to five or six, with someone at home looking after all their other responsibilities. That’s no longer the reality, but the pattern of work has not, essentially, changed.”

What’s needed, says CAVA, are new, guiding principles on which to base reform.

“The ethic of care has to be put up there, alongside the ethic of work,” said Professor Williams. “People think that work and care are equally important and Government policies need to reflect that. It is an enormous, step change, a rebalancing act. The Government has done a good job on families and child poverty but it has focused on work as a moral imperative. Policies are all about getting people into work and making them responsible. This sits uneasily with what is important to people. The wider political agenda has to take care to its heart and find ways of involving care and understand it as a part of citizenship,” said Professor Williams.

“Practically, that means more flexibility and more support - most crucially, the kind of flexibility and support that people actually say they want – rather than what’s thought to be good for them, or what appears affordable.

“Yes, people need more job-sharing, and part time working. But what would fit with many people’s lives is a system of annualised hours – or even hours over a lifetime, so you could ‘bank’ time when you’re working more, to make up for periods when care or other commitments are greater.

“This would also do away with potential conflicts between parents and non parents – with the latter group thinking the former is getting a better deal. Everyone needs to sign up with this.”

Three further ‘rebalancing’ acts are needed to guide new policy development and political strategy, recommends CAVA. The investment in children – with an emphasis on qualifications and making them future workers and good citizens – must be accompanied by respect for childhood.

“Children are citizens of the present and should be listened to,” said Professor Williams. “A recent Green Paper on children talks about their relationships with teachers and parents, but not their peers – which are often the most important relationships they have.

“Policies should reflect ‘the whole child’. Some schools are recognising and developing emotional awareness – children discussing things like anger management. There are good spin-offs for family life in nurturing, respecting and developing their emotional lives, creativity, relationships.”

The third plank is to support parents, by listening to what they need. “Most people know what their responsibilities are – but the Government places too much emphasis on parental responsibilities and a punitive approach. Parents need practical and non- judgemental support.”

The fourth rebalancing act is to protect diversity. “New policies should not replicate existing inequalities,” said Professor Williams. “If we pay grandmothers to look after their grandchildren, that should not reinforce the role of caring as a low grade, low paid activity.”

The CAVA agenda might be visionary, but it’s no Utopia. All over Europe, steps are being taken in their direction. In Holland, parents can work for time without loss of pay or pension. Elsewhere, firms are subsidised to hire replacements for carers who take time off work.

In the UK, the Sure Start scheme has successfully ‘joined up’ important services for children in some areas of deprivation by bringing together parents and policymakers across early education, childcare, health and family support.

Most spectacularly, the Italian city of Modena has put quality of life centre stage by bringing together people from all walks of life – trade unionists, shopkeepers, doctors, policymakers – for innovative thinking around time and space. “In simple terms, they all got together to basically reorganise the city’s services and infrastructure so they fitted people’s working lives and care commitments. It’s inspirational, and it proves it can be done.”

There are signs the message is getting through. CAVA was chosen recently to present to the all-party House of Commons group on social policy – and MPs from Labour’s Alan Simpson to former health secretary Virginia Bottomley were so impressed they proposed another presentation to the all-party group for children. CAVA’s findings were warmly received at last month’s National Family and Parenting Institute conference and strongly endorsed by TUC assistant general secretary Kay Carberry.

More critically, perhaps, a member of the cabinet with direct responsibility for much of the terrain has read the book – and is unequivocal in her response. Welcoming findings on the strength of commitment, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Patricia Hewitt said: “I particularly welcome the proposal for promoting and valuing an ‘ethic of care’ alongside an ethic of work.”

It remains to be seen if warm words translate into action. “There is a business case for these step changes,” said Professor Williams. They require investment, but they would improve productivity. We know from Richard Layard’s research that what makes people happy is the quality of their relationships.

“If Gordon Brown is concerned with what makes us competitive, he can’t avoid these issues. They’re at the heart of quality of life. The better the quality of people’s lives, the better work they produce.”

Vanessa Bridge | alfa
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