The Prime Minister talked the talk on helping families - now he must act: Anne Longfield

I have always found it baffling how little attention Westminster pays to supporting families to help their children to succeed.

It was good to hear the Prime Minister talking about the importance of family this week in his speech. But talking about families is one thing. Rethinking policies and designing services around the needs of families something completely different.

From more help with childcare to providing somewhere to turn when things go wrong, the default should be to support families to do what most do so well. Frequently it is not and that needs to change.

So often politicians seem squeamish about introducing policies specifically targeted at supporting families. Some may be worried about being accused of creating a 'nanny state', but by not acting we are leaving too many families high and dry without the help they to work, to gain parenting skills, and to find their way through family crisis when they occur.

This reluctance is so counterproductive when we know that families are one of our greatest assets.

We know that for most children, their family are going to be the most important influence in their lives - a source of love, guidance, and nurture.

Children who grow up within a strong family are more likely to do well at school. A strong family can be an essential building block for a successful adult life.

We know too that when things go wrong for children, families are usually best placed to resolve the problem - if they have the right support.

It makes sense, whatever shape or size they come in, for government to do all it can to nurture and help families. Well supported parents and families become more resilient to crisis and have more assets to draw on if things go wrong, as they sometimes do.

Most families need support at some time. That may be help with a new baby, advice when a child is struggling at school, or some financial assistance during a hardship.

There is no doubt that the cost-of-living crisis, following on from the Covid lockdowns, is hitting many families hard. Many are struggling with higher bills, and I meet parents working two jobs and still not making ends meet.

Inevitably this puts strains on even the strongest families.

We should be shocked that some councils say that there is an increase in children going into care because they are poor.

How can we stand by as a country and let that happen?

We are also seeing the continuing impact of the pandemic on some families - mental health problems, broken relationships, low school attendance, and worse.

Millions of children in England are growing up in families where a parent has an addiction, a severe mental health conditions or where there is domestic violence. These problems are not new, but they have been rocket-boosted by Covid.

Sadly, and too often, vulnerable families slip from view. When they fail to receive help, and in some cases intensive intervention, disaster can strike. I could recount endless horrific stories of children being groomed and exploited by ruthless criminals and of teenagers losing their lives to knife crime or suicide.

These families tell me they are doing their best but find it impossible to get help until crisis hits. We are too slow to identify and respond when problems emerge in families, because we do not put nearly enough importance on supporting families to get through the tough times.

These are tragedies for families but all of us pay the price.

We spend billions on tackling family crises through the education, health, children's care, police, and criminal justice systems. The double whammy is that means less money to spend on helping families early on and less for improving our schools and NHS.

We need a change in political mindsets that recognises the importance of providing help to families and the central role families play in a strong society.

We need government to be more ambitious about investing to save, about providing early intervention and family-focused support to avoid costly crises.

The Government has made a start with funding for Family Hubs, though not yet on the scale needed to replace the hundreds of Sure Start centres that closed at the beginning of the 2010s.

I urge them - and all political parties - to go further, and faster because families tell me how vital this kind of support can be.

For those looking for policies for the next election, look at more help to balance work and family, support that gets alongside families to tackle problems as they emerge, and intensive help for those families who are struggling.

It is time our politicians moved beyond the platitudes of the importance of family, and instead make cast-iron commitments to introduce changes that really will put families first.

This article was published in the Sunday Express. 

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