Page last updated at 00:04 GMT, Tuesday, 12 January 2010

More help for families facing relationship breakdowns

By Hannah Richardson
Education and family reporter, BBC News

Helping hand
Both the government and opposition are promising help for families

Parents and families going through separation and relationship breakdown are to be promised more support, in plans expected from the government.

The proposals, due next week, will make families a key election issue, coming after David Cameron set out Tory plans to reward marriage in the tax system.

Children's Secretary Ed Balls says stable relationships are more important than the "family's structure".

Fathers also need support in playing a bigger role in families, he adds.

The plans to be set out in a Families Green Paper will propose better advice and information for couples.

'Family friendly'

It will address the balance between work and childcare - and look at ways of making public services more "family friendly".

There will be targeted support for groups with particular needs, such as very young parents and parents of disabled children.

Parents and families say they want more information and support, so government has a responsibility to make sure it is provided
Ed Balls, Children's Secretary

"Strong and stable relationships between parents and between parents and their children are crucial and have the biggest effect on the happiness of everyone in the family - they are much more important than that family's structure," Mr Balls said.

"The support of other relations and friends are crucial for children too, especially if their parents' relationship breaks down. This is why we need to recognise that extended families really do matter."

And on Conservative plans to give tax-breaks to married couples and those in civil partnerships, he added: "Family life and family relationships are intensely private so it's not government's role to interfere.

"However, parents and families say they want more information and support, so government has a responsibility to make sure it is provided, but with families themselves firmly in the driving seat about how and when to use it."

The Conservatives have also been setting out plans to help families "who are not functioning properly" develop parenting skills and are planning to draw up their own families policy.


Mr Balls's pledge comes as three leading relationship organisations, Relate, One Plus One and The Tavistock Centre for Couple Relationships, warned politicians that relationships between adults should be centre-stage in setting policy.

Mother and child
Lone parent and step families have increased in number

Family relationship problems were often the root of difficulties with children's achievement at school and emotional well-being, they said.

Relate policy head Jenny North said: "For 10 years the government has not talked about couples, let alone marriage, so it is great that now both parties are talking about the importance of couple relationships and the implications of breakdown for adults and children.

"So in the upcoming Green Papers from both Labour and the Conservatives we need to see a proper commitment of resources to help couples experiencing difficulties to stay together."

Research from the government-funded Family and Parenting Institute recently forecast the death of the nuclear family, saying there was no longer one predominant structure.

Impact of breakdown

Government services need to take account of such changes in family structure, research carried out by the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the Cabinet Office Strategy Unit has suggested.

The research shows that 45% of babies are now born outside of marriage - and increasing rates of divorce, re-marriage and co-habitation mean that a 10th of all families with children are now step-families.

This can lead to more complex needs, as research suggests children in step families tend to show more psychological and behavioural problems than children in biological two-parent families.

Parental conflict and the loss of income after separation can result in negative outcomes for families and children.

And there is evidence to suggest that children of lone families do less well at school than those living with two parents.

Future changes in family structures are expected to be led by fathers, who are set to take an increasing role in childcare as more and more women work and even become the main bread-winners.

But this change in itself can lead to greater instability, the government paper said.

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