Family friendly government?
The middle of August may not sound like the best time to announce a new policy initiative â€“ to subject all government policy to a family impact test. But that is what David Cameron has just done. In a speech to the Royal College of General Practitioners he said:
â€śI want every government department to be held to account for the impact of their policies on the family. The reality is that in the past the family just hasnâ€™t been central to the way government thinks. So you get a whole load of policy decisions which take no account of the family and sometimes make these things worse.
We canâ€™t go on having government taking decisions like this which ignore the impact on the family.
I said previously that I wanted to introduce a family test into government. Now that test is being formalised as part of the impact assessment for all domestic policies. Put simply that means every single domestic policy that government comes up with will be examined for its impact on the family.â€ť
Been there, abolished that
This sort of proposition has a rather familiar ring. Indeed the impact assessments (which have been streamlined) used to have a Christmas tree of tests attached to them: on sustainability; on impact on gender equality, and on the impact on rural communities. Only the impact on carbon emissions survives alongside the burdens of business in the simplified template the government promulgated in February 2014. So this rediscovery of adding tests is a reversal of a previous commitment to remove unnecessary internal bureaucracy.
A test itself is not enough
But those who have had responsibility for using tests to force departments to include wider considerations in their policy will know that this is a pretty toothless move. These tests rapidly become compliance measures â€“ with effort expounded on drafting around the test not on amending the policy. Much more important to the success of this initiative would be real commitment from his new Cabinet to apply the test themselves to all policies.
If you were really seriousâ€¦
And thought there were a real problem, part of the solution might be to invent a new piece of machinery at the centre or in departments. As our recent report, Centre Forward, set out, John Major did this to promote his citizenâ€™s charter, Tony Blair to get departments to take social exclusion seriously and successive governments have tried (and mostly failed) with units to promote better, less or de-regulation. The last government used armâ€™s-length bodies â€“ the Commission on Rural Communities to police compliance with so-called â€śrural proofingâ€ť and the Sustainable Development Commission to call the government out on failure to meet its commitments on sustainability. Both were abolished in the bonfire of the quangos on the grounds these policies would be successfully â€śmainstreamedâ€ť in departments.
David Cameron does not seem to be giving his current proposal any institutional backing at all â€“ if he is, he did not see the need to announce it. He could have made clear that the Regulatory Policy Committee, which scrutinises impact assessments, would be given a special role on this, but he did not, and their comparative expertise is on business not family impacts.
But itâ€™s not about new policiesâ€¦
David Cameron can apply his new test to policies that may be put forward for the next Conservative manifesto. But as his speech itself makes clear, many of the problems he identifies are problems with existing policies. Impact tests only apply to the flow of new propositions. What he really needs is a family friendliness audit of the existing stock of policies. But without capacity to call on for longer-term more cross-cutting thinking, he lacks the fire power to do that. An issue to think about for his possible next term.