Social Policy and The Family (2023)

Table of Contents

This post defines social policy and then examines the 1969 Divorce Act, Maternity and Paternity Acts, the Civil Partnership Act and Child Benefit policies, looking at how these policies have impacted different aspects of family life such as marriage, divorce, family structure, as well as the differential impact on men, women and children within the family.

What is social policy?

Social policy refers to the plans and actions of state agencies such as health and social services, the welfare benefits system and schools and other bodies.

Policies are usually based on laws introduced by governments that provide the framework within which these agencies will operate. For example, laws lay down who is entitled to each specific welfare benefit.

Most social policies affect families in some way or other. Some are aimed directly at families, such as laws governing marriage and divorce, abortion or contraception, child protection, adoption and so on.

Policies are not necessarily aimed specifically at families, but will have an effect in families. Such policies would include those on childcare, education, housing and crime. Furthermore, many policies that impact upon families are those that make changes to the legislation on taxation and benefits, such as child tax credits.

Recently, the Department for Education and Skills has been given a new name and expanded role. The creation of the Department for Children, Schools and Families suggest that the current government believe that to make a better society for the children of today, family life and education should not be treated as two separate areas of life.

There are many social policies which have affected family life over the years, so the summary below is necessarily selective!

The 1969 Divorce Act (and the 1984 Divorce Act)

Previous to 1969, one partner had to prove that the other was ‘at fault’ in order to be granted a divorce, however, following the Divorce Reform Act of 1969, a marriage could be ended if it had irretrievably broken down, and neither partner no longer had to prove “fault”. However, if only one partner wanted a divorce, they still had to wait 5 years from the date of marriage to get one. In 1984 this was changed so that a divorce could be granted within one year of marriage.

Maternity and Paternity Policy – The Employment Protection Act of 1975 and the ‘Paternity Act’ (2010)

Social responsibility for women’s health during childbearing was first recognised through the 1911 National Insurance Act. It included a universal maternal health benefit and a one off maternity grant of 30 shillings for insured women (around £119 in today’s money)

However, many women were routinely sacked for becoming pregnant until the late 1970s and the UK only introduced its first maternity leave legislation through the Employment Protection Act 1975. However, for the first 15 years (until 1990!) only about half of working women were eligible for it because of long qualifying periods of employment.

In 2003, male employees received paid statutory paternity leave for the first time, an entitlement that was extended in January 2010.

Today in the UK employees can take up to 52 weeks of Statutory Maternity Leave, of which the first two weeks after the baby is born is ‘compulsory’ maternity leave (4 weeks for women who work in a factory).

Since 2010 (following what is often called the ‘Paternity Act’) – This leave is divided into a two 26-week periods. After the first 26 weeks, the father of the child (or the mother’s partner) has the right to take up to 26 weeks’ leave if their partner returns to work, in effect taking the place of the mother at home. Eligible employees can take similar periods of Statutory Adoption Leave. It is unlawful to dismiss (or single out for redundancy) a pregnant employee for reasons connected with her pregnancy.

From 2015, parents will be given the right to share the care of their child in the first year after birth. Women in employment will retain their right to 52 weeks of maternity leave. Only mothers will be allowed to take leave in the first two weeks’ leave after birth. But after that parents can divide up the rest of the maternity leave.

The Civil partnerships Act 2004 and the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Act 2013

The Civil Partnership Act 2004 gave same-sex couples the rights and responsibilities similar to those in a civil marriage. The Act was introduced by the New Labour government in power at the time. Civil partners are entitled to the same property rights, the same exemptions on inheritance tax, social security and pension benefits as married couples. They also have the same ability to get parental responsibility for a partner’s children as well as reasonable maintenance, tenancy rights, insurance and next-of-kin rights in hospital and with doctors. There is a process similar to divorce for dissolving a civil partnership. 18,059 couples entered into a civil partnership between December 2005 and the end of December 2006, with approximately 6000 taking place each year since.

The Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Act 2013 allows same-sex couples to enter into a marriage in England and Wales on the same basis as heterosexual couples, and to convert Civil Partnerships to Marriages.

The Adoption Act 2002 (came into force 2005)

Not much to say about this one – In 2005, under New Labour, the law on adoption changed, giving unmarried couples, including gay couples, the right to adopt on the same basis as married couples.

The Child Benefit Acts (1975) and significant changes (1998 and 2013

The Child Benefit Bill introduced for the first time a universal payment, paid for each child. The rate payable was £1/week for the first and £1.50 for each subsequent child. An additional 50p was payable to lone-parent families.

Child Benefits increased in line with inflation, until 1998, when the new Labour government increased the first child rate by more than 20%, and abolished the Lone Parent rate. Rates increased again in line with inflation until 2010, since which time they have been frozen.

Effective from 7 January 2013, Child Benefit became means tested – those earning more than £50,000 per year would have part of their benefit withdrawn, and if earning over £60,000, would receive nothing at all.

Changes to Income Support for Lone Parents since 2014

There are two main types of out of work benefit for working age people in the UK – Income Support and the Job Seeker’s Allowance (JSA). Income support is for those deemed unable to work, JSA is for those who are able to work but currently out of work, and is conditional on proving that you are looking for work. Income support for lone parents over 18 is currently £73.10, the same as for non-parents on both Income Support and JSA.

  • To qualify for Income Support you must be all of the following:
    between 16 and Pension Credit qualifying age
  • Pregnant, or a carer, or a lone parent with a child under 5 or, in some cases, unable to work because you’re sick or disabled.
  • Have no income or a low income (your partner’s income and savings will be taken into account)
  • Be working less than 16 hours a week (and your partner works less than 24 hours a week)
  • Living in England, Scotland or Wales

Recent changes to the rules mean that single parents of children aged 3-4 are now required to attend more work readiness interviews with their local job centre in preparation for starting work when their children reach school age.

Signposting and Related Posts

This topic is part of the families and households module, normally taught in the first year of A-level sociology.

After reading this post you should read this one: Sociological Perspectives on Social Policy and The Family

You might also like this brief video on… How do Social Policies Affect Family Life?

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