Many governments have ideals about the structure and size of families or ways in which families should behave, for example by nurturing and controlling their children or caring for the elderly. They may try to influence families by financial incentives, providing free services, changing the law or by campaigns and initiatives.
The Conservative Party and New Right tend to be traditional in their views, supporting marriage over cohabitation. They oppose generous benefits that might create a dependency culture and services that could encourage illegitimate births, such as giving single mothers priority for council flats. Many Conservatives associate single-parent families with 'broken Britain', suggesting that youth crime, mental illness, school failure, substance abuse, long-term unemployment, poverty and teenage pregnancies occur more often where father are absent, especially on 'sink estates' with large proportions of never-married mothers. David Cameron is considering giving tax breaks to younger married couples to discourage the alternative of cohabitation, viewed as less stable for children.
The left and liberals
Liberals and left- wingers are more likely to welcome household diversity,supporting legislation to extend the legal rights of gays and cohabitees. They tend to support greater public spending on free services and benefits, for example for single parents, and favor government intervention in family behaviour such as smacking. Conservatives tend to associate such intervention with 'the Nanny state'.
Feminists argue that state benefits and services assume a conventional family of male breadwinner and housewife. For example, the proposed cap on child benefits to high earners is calculated on the basis of one salary, ignoring the fact that many women work. Child benefit is normally paid to the mother, implying that she has the main resposibility for children. Likewise, maternity leave is much longer then paternity leave. Divorce courts often assume mothers should have some custody of children. Though these assumptions often work in favour of women, they are influenced by patriarchy and often make alternative lifestyles difficult.
Evaluation Despite differences in policies, all UK governments have to abide by eqal rights legislation and toconsider their popularity with voters, so their polices may not differ dramatically. They also work within budget constraints and so base some decisions, such as cutting child benefits to better- off couples, on reasons other then trying to influence our behaviour. Government policies may reflect as well as shape people's behaviour. UK divorce laws have responded to public demand for legal recognition that relationships can break down.
Financial influences In Britain these mainly relate to benefits from the Welfare State since the 1940s and changes in the tax system. They may have the following effects:
- UK benefits are smaller for each child after the first one, and so do not encourage large families, unlike in France, where there genrous benefits for the 3rd and 4th children to swell the population;
- attendance allowances encourage families to look after adult dependants;
- pensions and other state benefits enable the elderly, sick, unemployed and disabled to live more independently.
Services The Welfare State provides social workers and other professionals to ensure that children and vulnerable others are not neglected or abused by their families. Care in the community offers mentally and physically ill people treatment at home instead of institutionalising them. The NHS supplies free medical help and advice 'from the cradle to the grave'.
Laws Liberal divorce laws allow more couples to split up, resulting in more single- parent and reconstituted families. UK divorce rose after the Divorce Reform Act (1969)- in effect from 1971- allowed divorce on grounds of relationship breakdown alone. Such changes reflect a government acknowledging the importance of good- quality relationshipsto its citizens and a more secular attitude than in the past. Other important laws include the following:
- 1967: The Abortion Act extended abortion rights to include social grounds, for example allowing doctors to recommend abortion for unmarried teenagers.
- 1976: the Domesticc Violence Act increased protection to battered wives.
- 1993: the Child Support Agency was set up to compel absent parents, usually fathers, to pay maintenance for their children. The aim was primarily to discourage irresponsible fatheringand dessertion, though it also reduced the income support bill.
- 1994: martial **** was outlawed as part of the Criminal Justice Act.
- 2002: the Adoption and Children Act enabled same-sex couples to apply to adopt a child jointly. One UK government aim is to increase the opportunities for vulnerable children to be adopted into a stable family.
- 2003: the Employment Act introduced a right to two weeks' paid 'paternity leave'. This is avaiable to a parent who has responsibility for the upbringing of the child, including a mother's or adopter's same sex partner.
- 2005: the Civil Partnership Act enabled same- sex couple to register as civil partners, receiving many of the same rights as married hetero-sexual couples, signalling government priorities of equally and acceptance of household diversity. Proposals for gay marriage have the same motivation.
Campaigns The government is committed to reducing unwanted teenage pregnancies. This has led to a more intensive PHSE programme in schools. After the 2011 rits, Cameron blamed parents for not caring what their children were doing and made plans to 'turn around the lives of the 120,000 most troubled families in the country'. Many of these families were fatherlessand had multiple problems which, he believed, experts would be able to reduce by going into their homes and giving guidance.