Family and friends are first port of call

Social networks are vital to many people’s ability to get by. Government should do more to support this, say Duncan O’Leary and Paul Moore

The under-occupancy penalty is designed to incentivise people to move into smaller properties. Picture: Robert Perry
The under-occupancy penalty is designed to incentivise people to move into smaller properties. Picture: Robert Perry

Austerity measures will have seen the Scottish Government’s budget cut by more than 10 per cent between the period of the last general election and the next.

It has become a cliché that public services need to “do more with less”. However, these figures only tell half the story. While government budgets are being pared back, families also face straitened times.

Prices have risen faster than both benefits and wages, producing a squeeze on living standards whether people are in work or not. For disadvantaged families, this is a double whammy. Households must get by on less, while public services – such as family centres, job centres and housing associations – have less capacity to help out.

In these circumstances, people’s family and friendship networks are essential, as a new report by Demos think tank and the charity Quarriers reaffirms. The study, examining the causes and consequences of disadvantage in Scotland, found that this kind of informal support was often critical in helping families keep their heads above water.

This applies not just to the one in eight people in Scotland who care for ill or disabled loved ones, saving the government an estimated £10 billion each year in social care costs, but also to everyday acts of kindness within families and between friends.

Parents who took part in the study described how they relied on neighbours and loved ones for everything from childcare and short-term loans to career advice and emotional support.

The government’s first priority should be to do no harm here. If social networks are vital to people’s ability to get by, policies that uproot people from these relationships must be avoided. The “under-occupancy penalty”, better known as the “bedroom tax”, is one such measure. Designed to incentivise people to move into smaller properties, it risks uprooting people from their networks of mutual support just when they are needed the most.

One participant in the study described breaking down in tears upon receiving the letter informing her that she would be affected. Moving away from friends and family was just not something she could contemplate. Another participant, a father, reported that he would no longer have a room for his children to stay in when they visited him.

The policy is projected by the government to claim around £500 million per year, although many believe this to be an over-estimate. Meanwhile, the government’s new married tax allowance will cost around £700m. The money would be better used to repeal the “under-occupancy penalty”, preventing enormous stress and disruption in people’s lives.

Policy makers should also do more to help families help one another. For example, if people have family in a local area, this should count in their favour when councils make decisions on the allocation of council housing. This would help to support, rather than undermine, the family networks that many people rely on.

Family services, such as children’s centres, also have an important role to play. The best services recognise that improving a child’s life chances may first require addressing problems being experienced by parents or siblings.

Similarly, solving a parent’s problems may require working directly with the children or a partner too. Understanding the connections between different people, and the different problems involved, is vital.

For services to achieve this they must earn the trust of the families they work with. A major barrier to this among disadvantaged families is the fear that people will lose their children, rather than benefit from help.

For this reason, the families we spoke to often turned to the people they believed they could trust, rather than the professionals best qualified to help them. Simple things like retaining the same staff in children’s centres can help build trusting relationships over time.

When these relationships are formed, the challenge is to help people draw on their social networks. Families facing multiple problems should be supported to develop “peer support plans”, setting out how friends, neighbours and wider family can pitch in with help.

The idea is not to replace government services, but rather to recognise that family and friends can often help people in ways and at times that statutory services cannot.

In an era when resources are scarcer than they were, the job is not simply to “do more with less” – but rather to do things differently. A starting point for this is recognising the many, everyday ways in which families and friends provide support for one another.

This is already the reality of people’s lives – the task of government should be to make it that little bit easier.

• Duncan O’Leary is deputy director of Demos and Paul Moore is chief executive officer of Quarriers; . “Families Ties” is published by Demos think tank.