Notes on a Commission for the Family

There has been much discussion on the proposed Commission for the Family. On 14 September 2002, I emailed note, which was widely circulated. Here it is – a little tidied up.

Keywords: Social Policy;

I am a little nervous about a common view which expresses a lack of enthusiasm towards the proposed Commission for the Family. The fact is it is a fait accompli, as certain as anything is in politics. Thus the approach, I would advise, is how to make the Family Commission as effective as possible.

I am not antagonistic to the notion of a public agency committed to the family. As my paper Family Poverty and Family Support said, we have known quantifiably that child poverty is a serious problem for over a quarter of a century, and in that time the predecessor agencies of the Ministry of Social Development have notably failed to address the problem. Even the MSD report does not give the impression that it is really grasping the issue.

Moreover there are two major difficulties in the current agency structure. Currently the concerns about the family are scattered between too many government departments with little cohesion of policy direction. (try to list all the departments and you’ll see what I mean). Second, the MSD is also administering the income support system and that may bias the focus of its thinking from children to beneficiaries, which is one of the main reasons that is predecessors did so little for family poverty.

I am delighted that Public Health Association has been approached to help think through the development of the Family Commission. It not only represents a vote of confidence in the PHA, but it offers the opportunity to ensure the development is from a widely based perspective. My fear is that the approach to it could be so narrow, that not only will the Commission be ineffective, but that the children will once more suffer. I am appalled at the possibility that the things we were arguing for in the 1970s could be put back another twenty-five years.

In my view we should see any Family Commission as a medium term arrangement to coordinate the various policy thinking of the various departments with, hopefully, the eventual outcome the Commission to be reabsorbed into the standard public service in due course. It could be set up as a commission of enquiry, but I would probably envisage a longer horizon, although probably for not more than three years, by which time it should have focussed the existing agencies, or possibly identified a new structure.

I hope the terms of reference will focus on families with children (the expression ‘family’ can also cover a couple living together). And to put it bluntly, I dont care whether this social group involves one or two ore more parents; living in the same house or separately; legally married, in a defacto relationship, or separated; nuclear or extended; brown, white, yellow, or grey or gay; earning or beneficiaries; criminals or upstanding members of the church, or anything like that. The test is the social grouping that my family meant to me – my parents were (and still are) committed to their children. As I said in Saturday’s paper we must not lose sight of the issue is CHILDREN. I hoped that focus would avoid a lot of the fragging that goes on between the contestants in the family policy area – a fragging, the main effect of which is to damage children further.

What should be the remit of the commission? I have not got around to thinking about that in detail what should be the terms of reference, but I am convinced they must be – as I once argued in a couple of addresses – holistically rather than pathologically. To often we look at extreme behaviour and panic, instead of seeing the phenomenon as part of a broader spectrum which has to be addressed. I have not written on this for almost a decade (in the interim I’ve worked on family poverty), so I need to move it ahead. But I’ll include a couple of references to the holistic-pathological conflict below.

They must include reference to family incomes. It is not just a question of child poverty and its consequences, nor even of equity and social coherence. Currently the nation’s overall strategy is that we need economic growth in real incomes in order to survive in this world. How come that when we get to families we completely ignore this? What sense does this make for integrated policy.

In many ways the terms of reference will not be as important as the membership and the work program.

Anyway, just a few thoughts. I guess my attitude – after 20 years working as a consultant – is when someone comes to see me with a problem, my attitude is how can I help? Some of those involved is coming to the PHA with their problem: We are going to have a Commission for the Family, How can we ensure it has maximum effectiveness? I know that you will rise to the challenge.


I added some references which are covered in Articles on Family Policy