It’s always risky for politicians to bang on about family values. It’s difficult even for those of us in the church. Relationship breakdowns affect us all, politicians and clergy included, and no one wants to be accused of hypocrisy, being judgmental, or casting the first stone.
So all credit to Conservative MP and former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, for making the bold argument that the government should encourage stable families by funding relationship counselling of the kind offered by organisations like Relate.
It’s a proposal that came from the Centre for Social Justice (a think-tank Iain Duncan Smith helped to set up) back in 2007, in their report Breakthrough Britain, which drew attention to the significant social cost of family breakdowns, in terms of mental health, employment, children’s educational achievements, and rates of child poverty. Even when separation is the best thing for a couple, good counselling keeps communication between family members as positive as possible, and helps the long-term welfare of all involved. Out of that report came the commitment of David Cameron’s government to provide £70 million year to support family counselling services.
This week, it was reported that this funding is under threat. It’s an understandable response to the squeeze on public finances. But on the ConservativeHome website, Iain Duncan Smith has made clear his unhappiness with this move. One estimate suggests that family breakdown costs the wider UK economy a staggering £48 billion a year. For every £1 spent by the government on supporting relationships, Iain Duncan Smith argues, the government saves £11 in other forms of public expenditure down the line. In the long-term, cutting government support for relationship counselling is a false economy.
This is sensitive territory for us to negotiate. As a priest, I’ve never been interested in passing judgment on the personal relationships or family lives of those I work with. Far too easy for them to pass judgment on me in return. There are plenty of situations in which separation or divorce are the best option, and I welcome those who seek to re-marry in church after divorce, or enter a new civil partnership following an earlier dissolution.
But helping those going through relationship difficulties to access counselling, whether through the church or the voluntary sector, is something we can all support. And if government expenditure on relationship counselling helps save public money elsewhere, we should get behind it.
Let’s hope Iain Duncan Smith’s plea this week to resist these cuts does not fall on deaf ears.