Dysfunctional Families Face ‘Tough Measures’

Tony Blair tried yesterday to patch the cracks in his Cabinet over the Government’s policies on marriage and single parents as he defended its record on tackling poverty.

At his monthly Downing Street press conference, the Prime Minister attempted to steer a heated political debate over family policy towards a hard core of “dysfunctional families” that he admitted had been left behind by Labour since 1997. While marriage was a “good thing”, he ruled out Tory plans to restore tax allowances for married couples.

He said most single mothers were doing a heroic job bringing up their children. The problems of the most severely dysfunctional families went “far, far deeper”, he said. “Unless we are prepared to take I think quite tough measures with support at a very early stage then we are not going to deal with this problem.”

Mr Blair insisted: “In my view, the debate is not about marriage versus lone parents. The debate is about how you target measures specifically on those families – some of whom will be lone parents, but some of whom will be couples.”

However, he appeared to endorse controversial plans by John Hutton, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, by backing a “something for something” approach. Mr Hutton wants to bring in a “level playing field” in the welfare system between lone parents and couples with children. He has floated the idea of requiring single parents to seek work in return for their special benefits when their eldest child reaches the age of 11 or 12.

A different approach was set out last night by Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, who called for a “bias-free” family policy that did not demonise lone parents. While marriage represented the pinnacle of a “strong relationship”, he said: “That does not mean that all children from married couples fare well, nor that every other kind of alternate family structure is irretrievably doomed to fail.”

He added: “Taxation and law doesn’t create strong families, it’s love and compassion. It’s the child that is at the centre of this, it’s the parenting that matters, it’s not the form of the relationship. It’s wrong for politicians to suggest that if we say everyone should be married, they’re suddenly going to go out and get married.”

The Education Secretary called for fathers to play a bigger role in their children’s lives, even if couples split up. “Fathers are not optional extras in the family unit, and should not be regarded as such,” he said.

Although ministers denied there was a cabinet rift, Labour’s approach to the family is under strain after David Cameron said absent fathers and a lack of role models were fuelling gang culture. The Tory leader was speaking after the shootings of three teenagers in south London.

Mr Blair said the “untold story” was that millions of people had been lifted out of poverty since 1997. A government report published yesterday showed that the bottom 20 per cent had seen their incomes rise faster (an average of 2.6 per cent a year) than the richest 20 per cent (2.1 per cent).

He defended private equity firms and bonuses paid in the City, insisting that moves to tax the “super rich” would merely drive such people abroad. “What motivates me is lifting the incomes of the broad mass of families,” he said.