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Study notes

Social Policy & Families: New Labour Governments (1997 - 2010)

  • Levels: AS, A Level
  • Exam boards: AQA, Edexcel, OCR, Eduqas, WJEC

When prime minister Tony Blair came into power in 1997, there was an expectation that there would be a wholesale change in focus for social policy.

Blair was strongly influenced by the late modernist Anthony Giddens and so, when it came to families, one might have expected a focus on acknowledging and facilitating family diversity. That clearly did form part of those governments’ social agenda, but other parts appeared more like a continuation of the New Right approach, especially:

  • Cuts to lone parent benefits. In the first year of the Blair government, they made some severe cuts to the benefits paid to lone parents. The rationale was that that single parents should go to work while the government would ensure there was more cheap or free childcare. An irony with the New Right’s position on single mothers was that they simultaneously thought that they should not receive benefits or go to work (and the idea of absent fathers paying their way when possible was their solution to that problem). However, the New Labour government was positive about female work and wanted to promote mothers doing more work and children receiving more professional childcare in order to facilitate this.
  • Working family tax credits. This replaced the married man’s tax allowance so both aspects of this policy are worth considering here. First it removed a tax incentive for couples to get married and to stay married. Second it provided a tax allowance for families with children – regardless of whether they were married – to help pay for childcare. It also was designed to encourage both partners (where there were two partners) to work rather than to incentivise one to stay at home. These were later followed with child tax credits which further developed this.
  • Paid paternity leave From 2003, men were able to get two weeks of paid parental leave.
  • Civil Partnership Act (2005) allowed same-sex relationships to be legally recognised on the same terms as marriage (these were effectively marriage in all but name).
  • Adoption and Childrens Act (2002) allowed same-sex couples to adopt children (as well as allowing unmarried heterosexual couples and single people to adopt too).
  • There were other major advances in gay rights, such as an equal age of consent in 2001 and the repeal of Section 28 in 2003.

However other policies were focused on helping families as they existed rather than trying to shape an ideal family. For example:

Evaluating New Labour governments, 1997 - 2010

  • While the New Labour governments did legislate to acknowledge family diversity, they did not create it and their official position was still that marriage (and at that time marriage could only be between a man and a woman) was the best basis for family life. This was expressed in a 1998 policy document called Supporting Families. In that sense, while they were more realistic and pragmatic than the New Right, their concept of an ideal family had not really moved on from the nuclear.
  • While they often presented their desire for work to replace welfare in terms of equality and encouraging women to work (and therefore supporting the concept of a symmetrical family, etc.) critics would suggest that it was simply an approach for cutting public spending on welfare.
  • Some would now criticise the New Labour governments for not going further. The Civil Partnership Act, for instance, missed the opportunity to bring about true equality and introduce gay marriage (introduced by the coalition government 9 years later). At the time it was felt that it would be too divisive, with strong opposition from religious groups.
  • Having said that, the government did bring in a number of reforms to improve gay rights.

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