Government Law and Policies on the Family

Government affects family life through law, with the following influences:

Law and history: At one time, the married woman and all her possessions became the property of the husband. Now women are independent and have full financial control, even with a marriage. A marriage that ends does nevertheless involve a financial settlement. Those who are not married but are in partnerships have not been recognised: there is no such thing as a common law wife or husband. However, legal provisions can be made regarding inheritance and family activity by those unmarried. The extent of purely private management of family affairs has reduced over time. The government through law increasingly has blurred the boundaries of family autonomy due to the concern about how families are raised, anti-social behaviour, the effect of poverty and wealth on upbringing (and that the poorest have more babies), and how well and badly children are raised.
Law and who can marry: In 2005 Civil Partnerships were introduced which are for gay and lesbian people only; the partnership needs a procedure similar to divorce for the partnership to be ended. The model for Register Office weddings and even Civil partnerships is Christian morality based on monogamy and intended lifelong faithfulness. However, whereas a Christian marriage can be a sacrament, civil marriage is a contract evidenced by a marriage certificate - a contract that needs law to end it. Even religions which value marriage highly understand it as a contract, such as Islam.
Law and family behaviour: Rape within marriage is now recognised and illegal. Parents cannot hit and injure children, and there is constant debate whether the State should outlaw all smacking. Children cannot be left home alone, or neglected. Most seriously, the Child Protection Register is there to list children at risk from abuse like violence, neglect, forms of emotional damage and sexual interference, and the Social Services must act to protect these children. Of course it needs to identify these children first. Even consenting adult sexual behaviour is regulated (it cannot be evidently violent and heterosexual sex should not take the form of homosexual sex). Children who misbehave can put their parents into court. Anti Social Behaviour Orders have a family impact, for example making some areas exclusion zones for individuals and family members. People can find themselves losing their council homes if they misbehave.
Law and income: The tax and benefits system has a direct effect on family income. In the United Kingdom it is the case that people without children through tax subsidise adults with children through tax and benefits. Children are severely restricted in working hours and in appropriate work. Also public services are a form of income, making available childcare, healthcare, social services and community care provision that otherwise would be quite expensive to purchase. In 2005 it might cost £450 to have a full time carer for an elderly person in the home, and £700 to have residential home care. State provision of such as these, for lower income groups, is of huge benefit.
Law and divorce: This affects access to children and who looks after the children after a divorce. The Child Support Agency also intends to maintain financial responsibility of a divorced parent.
Law and adoption: Guardians gain full parental rights over a child as a result of law.
Law and fertilisation: A number of families are affected by the ethical considerations that go into In-Vitro Fertilisation (IVF) policies, when they are unable to conceive.
Law and before and after birth: Pregnancy is made easier by law on being able to take time off work and yet keeping the job; the first months also have maternity and paternity leave provisions, both paid and unpaid.
Law and employment: Extending rights to part time workers and yet keeping the labour market flexible is a government aim so that women especially can work at more convenient times - part time - and raise children. This also needs nursery provision and government policy to encourage and improve provision.
Law and family structure: The law tends to view families as nuclear. The extended family tends to be neglcted. Relatives of children (such as grandparents) can apply for access (as much so that children can see grandparents). The law gives no place for polygamy. Single people pay more tax but, given the costs of child rearing, are better off. Gay relationships are now being recognised, and they can now adopt. Civil Partnerships have assisted this process so that no longer does only one gay partner adopt.
Law and access: Access rights is a controversial area of law. Courts are obliged to grant access rights to parents who lose care of children; on the other hand, groups like Fathers for Justice continue to campaign on what they see as bias towards mothers in the legal system.

Family Policy

The emphasis of policy: There is a strong emphasis on family responsibility as well as rights. Some comes from New Right thinking from the 1980s and 1990s; New Labour made the responsibility with rights approach its distinctive policy theme. A feminist view is that law still largely assumes that women are the carers and men the breadwinners, rather on the Parsonian view of a functioning middle class family.
Biological parents: Parents must maintain responsibility for their children even if a relationship ends. The Child Support Agency is central to this aim. Anti social behaviour of children impacts on parental responsibility. Even sperm donation now is not anonymous; adults can find their biological origins. Adopted children can seek out biological parents using archives; biological parents may seek their children given into adoption.
Policy and early years: Sure Start is a government policy provision modelled on Early Head Start in the United States, where some lower class parents are given some parental advice and training and basic provision of useful activity for young children so that they can begin education without too much disadvantage compared with middle class families.
Intervention: Social Services have rights to intervene in situations of abuse of children, and families can become monitored in situations of risk. Schools are agents of information and can pass information on in a legal framework.
Children are gaining rights of their own, and this means frameworks in places like schools for consultation of children. Children should be free form poverty, neglect and violence: the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child promotes children's basic and consultative rights.
Society and media: The media shows an increasing interest in family upbringing. Television reflects the concern for anti-social behaviour, something that has risen up the social and political agenda and fills Members of Parliaments' post boxes. Programmes such as Supernanny (Channel 4), Honey We're Killing the Kinds (BBC 3) and The House of Tiny Tearaways (BBC 3) illustrate a concern in society (and government) about how well or badly children are being raised, especially in an intended era of non-violence. Techniques for child raising imply training, so it is likely that consideration and provision training for families could increase in the future. This is how to understand Surestart.

Change of Government?

The Labour government has continued with rather than rejected New Right thinking. It has, however, extended the definition of family, and what concerned the New Right in terms of family performance (funcionalism) has been addressed by government intervention (which the New Right would be uneasy about: they would call it the "Nanny State"). Labour has continued the stress on family and responsibility, but it has extended the definition of family to include gay people and has removed some of the stigma from lone parenting. It has stressed more the need to work and be self-reliant, as part of a full employment policy, and whilst continuing benefits to single mothers it has offered advice towards getting back to work. It has added emphasis on child support and used agencies of the State to improve child rearing and emphasised targets in education with extra parental responsibility for attendance at school and good behaviour.

Look-About Questions


  1. What is the principal evidence of a marriage contract having taken place?
  2. What is now illegal within marriage according to law in the area of sexual violence?
  3. In what specifically medical area does law affect access to reproductive technology?
  4. Give an example of where employment law has impact on families

(Family policy...)

  1. In the 1980s and 1990s, which political pressure group and its beliefs had impact on government family policy?
  2. Did the Labour Government, beginning in 1997, totally reject the thinking of the Conservative government of the 1980s and 1990s?
  3. Complete by deleting the incorrect words: recent legislation and policy has/ has not encroached upon childrearing?
  4. Give an example of a form of abuse does the Child Protection Register intend to protect children from?
  5. Which government agency looks after children listed on the Child Protection Register?

(The law does not cover...)

  1. Complete by deleting the incorrect words: Grandparents do/ do not have an automatic legal right to see grandchildren if there has been a divorce and the son or daughter in law has custody of the children.
  2. What are still the assumptions of law according to feminists?
  3. Does British law have a positive place for polygamous relationships?

Exercise: Changing Government?

Write a paragraph summarising how the Labour government since 1997 compares with New Right thinking that informed the Conservative governments of the 1980s and 1990s.

Exercise: a biography...

The woman of a young unmarried couple (decide how young), both of whom are in low paid jobs (decide what and how poorly paid) discovers that she is pregnant. She tells her partner. The pair decide they will marry before the child is born. Write a biography of the couple and their family life until the child has had a year at infant school in terms of laws, government policies and initiatives that they are all likely to encounter. This piece of writing should be several paragraphs and cover areas of law, policy and government programmes including how these intervene in family life.


McNeill, P, Blundell, J., Griffiths, J. (2003), Sociology AS: The Complete Companion, Cheltenham: Nelson Thornes, 58-59.


Adrian Worsfold