Jayne Dowle: Valuing the family takes more than woolly words

IT’S a funny time to be thinking about the family. The dog days of August, right in the middle of the summer holidays. If we’re honest, most of us are counting the days until the children go back to school in September.

Jayne Dowle.
Jayne Dowle.

IT’S a funny time to be thinking about the family. The dog days of August, right in the middle of the summer holidays. If we’re honest, most of us are counting the days until the children go back to school in September.

And at first sight, David Cameron’s new pledge to make every government policy family-friendly, to increase the rights of grandparents, and a host of other measures designed to help parents, looks like a funny one in terms of timing.

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Think again though. It’s at this time of year that we are truly reminded of the ties that bind. When the children are alternately fighting over the television remote and moaning that they are bored, we need support more than ever. At no other time of year are we all in such close proximity for such a long stretch.

If and when we do manage to take a day out or a family holiday, we are reminded how the world treats the youngest members of society. And it’s not always with open arms. Public transport which is inaccessible with a buggy. Cafés where there is no room for prams. Filthy public toilets and scant provision for those who wish to breast-feed their babies. “Family” hotel rooms not big enough to swing a cat. Just don’t get me started.

Those of us who are obliged to work are constantly reminded of the favours we have to pull in order to earn enough money to keep food on the table.

There can’t be many families who don’t rely on the help of grandparents at least part of the time, especially during these long holidays. Given the exorbitant cost of childcare, without granny and grandpa stepping into the breach many of us couldn’t actually afford to work.

Look at it like that then and it’s clear that all this is a crafty piece of political timing. Let’s hope for all our sakes – not least our children’s – that it’s more than that. And let’s hope that beyond the earnest protestations that the Camerons are just an ordinary family like the rest of us, there is more to it than Conservative Party moralising. For it must be said that the Prime Minister addresses a series of issues which really do concern us parents.

Let’s take this idea of making every Government policy family-friendly. He’s proposing to introduce something called the “family test” which will ensure that every domestic policy is examined for its impact on the family. I’m sorry. I’m trying to be positive about this, but it sounds more than a bit woolly to me.

What does he mean by “every domestic policy?” Does it mean that when a Government department sanctions the building of a new road, for example, it 
will be assessed specifically in terms of how it impacts on the local school run?

Does it mean that when another department agrees to help fund the regeneration of a fading town centre, 
the shops will be compelled to ensure that their opening hours are extended 
to fit in with the demands of busy families?

Does it mean that when the energy companies are brought in for yet another rapping, some government official will pin them down with a detailed breakdown of a typical family’s gas bill? It sounds like a lovely idea, in principle, but in practice it’s promising far too much. I fear that if he’s held to it, he won’t be able to deliver.

It reminds me rather of the Disability Discrimination Act. Passed by the Labour government in 1995, this did introduce many measures which have made a tangible difference to disabled people. Ramps on public buildings, dropped kerbs for wheelchairs, extended rights for workers with a disability, for instance.

However, there is much that this legislation doesn’t even begin to cover, and any disabled person will tell you that it has failed to transform their life. And this was a proper Act of Parliament, not some “policy” cooked up with more than one eye on the General Election next year.

Which brings us on to the manifesto pledge to improve the lot of the hundreds of thousands of grandparents who look after their grandchildren. Cameron is offering parental rights including paid leave and greater financial support. Again, it sounds good.

I would add a massive note of caution though, and that is to warn the Prime Minister that you mess about with grandparents at your peril. Especially those who have taken on children because their birth-parents are incapable of looking after them.

These are people who have been let down by the system for years. They are used to shouting up and stamping their feet and they aren’t afraid to make their disappointment known. Dash their hopes and you will soon hear about it.

You can’t teach these people a thing about family values. However, these are the people who could teach the Prime Minister what families really do value. And when it comes down to it, it’s all about never letting each other down.