Tory Marriage Tax Break: Chronic problem focused thinking leading to chronically inappropriate policy

The Conservative marriage tax proposals have been heavily criticised for being an ideological policy (e.g. here) and the policy has been hotly debated already. However the policy and the process by which it was developed shows classic problem focused thinking and demonstrates the influence of this approach and how it does not work.

The (non-ideological) argument is that there is an abundance of research which states that marriage has many benefits and tangible positive outcomes for children and families and therefore the state should support it. The Centre for Social Justice released its publication as to the reasons behind the need to support marriage and how to with the tag line ‘Family Policy derived from strong evidence would lead to policies which supported Marriage’. The Conservative Party then accepted these findings and produced a policy which would allow 32% of married couples up to £150 tax break. The absurdity of the policy did not go unnoticed by the party resulting in David Cameron having to state “what matters is the message more than the money which means in the practical application of the policy it would not fulfill its purpose i.e. to encourage marriage or discourage divorce.

A policy is defined as a course of action adopted and pursued by a government, yet a policy which fails to achieve its intended outcome has no action and is therefore not a policy. So how can it be that a so-called-policy, based on so-called-research has produced a policy which performs no action or that even those who would benefit from it do not want it? (here & here).

The Centre for Social Justice outlines 5 reasons why marriage ‘matters’:

  1. Marriage brings stability
  2. Marriage is directly linked to better mental and physical health amongst adults
  3. Marriage reduces the risk of violence and abuse
  4. Marriage leads to better mental health for children
  5. Marriage leads to better life outcomes for children

Marriage & Stability

While there is much research which outlines the link between marriage and a low level of relationship breakdown as a comparison to other forms of relationship, there seems to be some fundamental aspects of this debate which has been ignored. While I am not going to go into an in depth assessment of the research which has been used it is worth pointing some issues with it. Some research they use states that there is a relationship between marriage and stability but dig a little deeper and you find that this is actually a relationship only for middle class families. The research actually points towards a clear relationship between social class and family stability rather than marriage and family stability. Moving downward through the class structure, we find a pattern of increasing complexity and discontinuity in family structure and household arrangements. Marriage may well mean economic well-being and stability for middle class families but it does not mean that for everyone.

Better mental and physical health amongst adults

The Centre for Social Justice uses research which states that marriage is directly linked to better mental and physical health amongst adults yet equally there is much evidence that this is not the case for married women. Indeed it outlines that for married women versus single women there’s more depression, less career success and less good health in married women and, until recently, a greater chance of dying a violent death – usually at the hands of the men they love.

Reduces the risk of violence and abuse

The Centre for Social Justice states that marriage reduces the risk of violence and abuse with the research citing married women suffering from the least abuse. However, The research used by the Centre for Social Justice cites one study which find that “twenty eight per cent of couples said violence had occurred at some time in their marriage” and another which stated that 18% of married women had suffered a physical assault by a partner or ex-partner. Women’s Aid states that 1 in 4 women experience domestic violence over their lifetimes which is not dissimilar to the 1 in 5 to 1 in 3 (nearly) married women. It is therefore dubious to state that marriage reduces the risk of violence and abuse.

Leads to better mental health for children & leads to better life outcomes for children

These are the same point just presented as 2 individual ones as they separate mental health and drug and alcohol use, which are linked and it is not necessarily possible to distinguish between the two adequately enough, therefore they can be different sides of the same coin. They report that “Children of lone parents are more than twice as likely to suffer mental health problems than children of married couples, and those of co-habiting couples are 75 per cent more likely to have mental health problems than their peers with married parents” while they fail to mention that the report also states that children are

  • 4 times more likely to have mental health problems if their parent(s) has no qualifications
  • Twice as likely to have mental health problems if their parent(s) is not working
  • 3 times as likely to have mental health problems if their parent(s) is on less than £100 a week (compared to over £600)
  • 3 times as likely to have mental health problems if their parent(s) is on disability benefit
  • 3 times as likely to have mental health problems if their parent(s) is in a routine occupational group (as compared to higher professional group)
  • Over twice as likely to have mental health problems if they live in social housing (compared to owner occupier)
  • 3 times as likely to have mental health problems if they live in a ‘hard pressed’ area (compared to ‘wealthy achievers’ or urban prosperity’)

(See here for report).

Essentially, it states that children are more likely to suffer mental health problems if they have more stress in their lives than children who do not, whether this be from the community, the home, or their parents’ relationship. This is a statement of the obvious and says absolutely nothing about marriage as an institution as many of these factors are inter-related and the reason why the report categorically states that “causal relationships should not be assumed for any of the results presented in this report”.

I find it amazing that I can find no critique of the Centre for Social Justice’s report or the research used, or more importantly how the research has been used to present a picture that marriage provides benefits for all. Once you dig into the research I find it hard to see what they are actually saying. For example, the average age of marriage is currently 36.5 years for men and 33.8 years for women yet the younger the couple are the more likely they are to break up, which is the same for marriage where the earlier in life a marriage is formed, the more likely it is to breakdown. So are we talking about the stability of relationships within marriage or age? Additionally, the rate of cohabitation is highest amongst the younger age groups, resulting in younger women being more likely to give birth outside marriage. So are we talking about the perceived benefits of children being born within a marriage or the age of their parents? Equally, there has been a trend to postpone having a child as women are able to make more deliberate decisions about when to have children. However, the extent that women are able to make choices varies with socio-economic status. Women in social class I and II on average bear their first child at a later age than those in classes IV and V. So are talking about the perceived benefits of children being born within a marriage or the class of their parents? The debate has been skewed by the misrepresentation or omission of research to make a political point and one which failed to mention that “marriage failed to produce these benefits for many working class and poor families”.

The research is based on the experiences of white, middle class families either directly or indirectly and this has then been translated into a national policy for all. The fact that this occurred is the result of breaking a fundamental principle of solution focused politics, and that is to respect the population as worth doing business with. They did not ask people what the problem was because if they had have gone to any local council estate and asked them about their problems I am pretty sure they wouldn’t have said that marriage was a solution. It shows a lack of understanding of the nation’s problems, a lack of understanding of how to deal with them and a lack of understanding of what politics is for. And to top this off, the result was a policy which is recognised by those who invented it that it would not do what they wanted it to do. This is classic problem focused politics and solves nothing.

Thankfully, this was not in the June 2010 budget; let’s hope they do not bring this in.

Solution Focused Politics: Child protection as an example

This is part 2 and follows the article on problem focused politics which looked at how the area of child protection practice highlights how the UK government’s culture is to focus on the problem and then provide solutions from there. However, the results show that it does not work. However, not all governments are problem focused which offers us an opportunity to see how it can be done differently.

In the 1990’s in search of a different approach to child protection Andrew Turnell and Steve Edwards were effectively given half of Australia (Western Australia) to experiment with in an attempt to improve the situation. Their starting point was whatever works is in, and whatever does not work is out. They recorded closely what helped in child protection cases and ended up with a system which gives confidence back to professionals, reduced paperwork, and increased safety for children. The result was what they called ‘The Signs of Safety Approach’ and the results are proof that governments can take a different approach safely and improve services. The results were so compelling that authorities around the world started to take it up with Time magazine writing an article on it showing re-referral rates went from 16.1% in 2002 to just 5% in 2004 (meaning a massive saving in time, money and effort, with families managing their own difficulties without harming children).

At a similar time Susie Essex and colleagues were working for the NSPCC in the South West of England on a pioneering project with high risk child protection cases. They started from a similar place that they were trying to see if they could work with families where there was abuse while the child remained at home but there was no more abuse. They outlined the problem like this: “Re-abuse rates range from 25-33%, with rates rising in line with the length of follow up. Several recent studies involved only children placed on child protection registers, of which 30% suffered further abuse (Farmer and Owen 1995). Some of the children in this study, however, were only made safe by their removal or that of their abuser. When only the children who remained at home with the alleged abusing parent were considered, the re-abuse rate was 43%”. Using the approach they had developed, called the Resolutions Approach, they showed a re-abuse rate of between 3% and 7% (depending upon how the calculations are made).

The difference is that the Australian government saw the Signs of Safety approach as a way to improve services while the UK government saw the resolutions approach as too risky and so shut the project down. I can only assume that wanting a 43% re-abuse rate rather than a 7% re-abuse rate makes sense to problem-focused thinking but is irresponsible to anyone looking in believing that preventing abuse of children is important. The additional benefits of these approaches would be a reduction in the number of children in care, less child protection cases, less families to support, a reduced time working with families and better staff retention (a major issue in social work).  This all has 2 further benefits: one being a major saving in money the other being families who have experienced the approach rated it highly (in comparison to what is being used now).

This example outlines how there is already a lot of excellent work being done out there by people, groups, and organisations who show that things can be done differently and better. These people need the support of government. They need a government who believes that people in the country are worth listening to, who have some good ideas, who have tried things and have shown good results. If government wants to make life better for the country and the people it needs to see what its country can offer. A solution focused approach to politics would allow this.

Problem focused politics: Child protection as an example

The wisdom that ‘understanding the problem is the first step to solving it’ is very influential. Understanding a problem often leads to feeling more confident about doing something about it and so politicians like to understand problems to assist in their responsibilities. As a result, politics on the whole is a problem focused endeavour that has been dominated by politicians believing they understand people and their problems, the problems of society and their causes. By understanding such problems they argue they have the answers to society’s, and people’s, problems.

The Labour Government spent 13 years running the country and stated at the outset that ‘what counts is what works’ and over 13 years undertook thousands of reviews. These reviews sought to understand the problem and then give solutions. After 13 years of reviews of a government with a value of social justice we have a country where inequality is now higher than at any point since consistent records began, in 1979. Clearly, understanding the problem did not lead to an effective solution and if what counts is what works then understanding the problem doesn’t count. To take a particular situation to illustrate why these reviews may not aid an improvement of the situation, there is no greater example than that of government intervention in families for child protection purposes.

On 25 February 2000, Victoria Adjo Climbie was murdered by her guardians in Hackney, London. The horrific way in which she was murdered and the catastrophic failures of all organisations involved which should have prevented her death, led to the most expensive enquiry into a child death in British history (£3.8m). The result was wide ranging reforms of how children are safeguarded, including new initiatives, legislation, a countrywide database of all children in England and Wales and a new government office. So did this expensive analysis of the problems, and the resulting expensive new measures in safeguarding children make England and Wales a safer place for children?

On 3 August 2007, Peter Connelly was murdered by his carers in Hackney, London, in the same borough that Victoria Climbie had been murdered. Again many organisations were involved, all designed to safeguard children and again catastrophic failures were observed in all organisations which should have prevented his death.

The scale of the problem is bigger than most believe with on average, every week in England and Wales, one to two children are killed at the hands of another person (Home Office). Unicef believe them to be twice this. In the attempt to improve child protection services much was changed on the basis of how the problem was seen. However, the result on the front line was greater time spent on the computer and more time filling in paperwork.

Lord Laming himself states that since 1948 there have been around 70 public inquiries into major cases of child abuse (Victoria Climbie Inquiry Report p.5). So why did the government think there was anything left to learn from looking at our worst cases? Why did they think that another review would give us more insight into how to prevent child deaths? Indeed, many of these reviews conclude in a similar manner. And as if to reinforce the problem focused approach, Lord Laming was invited back to review Peter Connelly’s death, effectively for him to review his own previous recommendations, which had not worked. Obviously, he was going to say that they were not followed properly. So when Lord Laming’s recommendations did not manage to stop what it was intended to people began to question whether he was the right man for the job in the first place and out came all the concerns that didn’t seem to concern the government at the time. Lord Laming was the head of Hertfordshire in 1990 when it made serious mistakes in a child abuse case. The Local Government Ombudsman made a finding of “maladministration with injustice” of his authority, the strongest criticism open to him.

Setting up a review and then following the recommendations is all well-intentioned, however, this particular situation illustrates how a problem focused approach failed to make any improvements to the system it set out to. The influence of the accepted wisdom of a need to understand problems to fix them pervades our political process. We took someone who understood the problems in child protection and then asked him to make far reaching recommendations for the whole of England and Wales based on England’s worst case scenario. After reforms based on these, we see we are no further forward, in fact those who work in it say it has got worse. This could be said of many areas with massive investment in the NHS but productivity down, a bloated national curriculum which constraints teachers and restricts teaching, or more police officers who then spend more time in the office.

While a problem-focused approach is the mainstay of our political process, the results can be a life and death situation and so those in government have a need to get it right. However, the problem-focused approach is not even under question. Responsibility will be given to councils for not implementing procedures properly, individuals for not following policy appropriately or criticism of the authors of the reviews. However, if the inquiry into Victoria Climbie’s death were to be repeated by someone other than Lord Laming, they would be asked to answer the same questions, and national policy would still have been based on one case and our worst case at that. And so goes our political process and politicians wonder why there is no improvement.  It is because there needs to be a different approach and this is where applying a solution focused approach to politics has something to offer.


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