1 Jan 2007

"Lies, damned lies, and statistics" - are we getting any closer to the truth about family breakdown?

Lord Skelmersdale spoke for the Conservatives in the House of Lords [21st November 2006] in the debate on the Queen's Speech. He said:

"....... That brings me on to statistics. No one who heard Her Majesty on Wednesday could have missed the laughter when she said:

“Legislation will be introduced to create an independent board to enhance confidence in Government statistics”.—[Official Report, Commons, 15/11/06; col. 4.]

Statistics are at the very heart of social security. Even if a Minister thinks that it would be a good idea to change something, such as creating a new benefit, they will get nowhere without discovering what is going on now and with how many people, and how many gainers and losers there will be as a result of the proposal. My honourable friends and I have recently been trying to get to the bottom of social exclusion—a very big subject. We recognise that we cannot do so until we know exactly how many adults and children are involved. The Social Exclusion Unit, which this Government set up, lists the main causes and consequences. Statistics exist for all of them, except family breakdown. Yet, recently, in a Written Answer, the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, told me:

“It is estimated that each year between 150,000 and 200,000 couples with children separate”. He will remember that, no doubt. He continued:

“This is made up of 100,000 divorces, and between 50,000 and 100,000 cohabiting relationships breaking down”.—[Official Report, 18/10/06; col. WA 191.]

That is not very helpful. Both he and I would need much better figures than those to convince a Treasury colleague to spend money on even a part of the problem. I can only hope that the new board will sort this out and, most importantly, that members of the board, not Ministers, decide what is to be subject to the proposed code of conduct and Ministers do not have a veto on their publication. Is that a pipe dream? Maybe it is, but no more than many of the aspirations underlying the legislation proposed in the gracious Speech."

In an earlier speech in the House of Commons, [25th July 2006] Andrew Selous said:

"........... My third point is the need for an index of social and domestic cohesion. That sounds like a bit of a mouthful, but the House will have an opportunity to do something about it when the Bill on the Office for National Statistics is introduced in the autumn. It is a curious fact that the social exclusion unit lists eight indicators of social deprivation, one of which is family breakdown. All the other seven indicators are reflected in the indices of deprivation published in the ONS neighbourhood statistics, but family breakdown is not. There is no reason for that omission and we could rectify it in the House in the autumn. I urge my Front-Bench colleagues and the Government to consider the matter when the Bill comes before the House."

Both Lord Skelmersdale and Andrew Selous are Shadow DWP Ministers, concerned with the issues of work and benefits. It is encouraging that they are talking about the provision of relevant statistics for family breakdown, or social and domestic cohesion, which places the issue in a broader context.

How long will it take for either the Labour Government or the Conservatives to announce a policy for improving social and domestic cohesion and reducing family breakdown?

This policy should include publishing an index and neighbourhood statistics which can be understood and used by local leaders - GP's and health visitors, school governors, parish councillors, faith and other community leaders - in order to measure local changes in social and domestic cohesion.

No comments: