Policy Description

Family Policies: United Kingdom (2014)


Historically, family policies in the United Kingdom have been based on a “liberal” conception of the welfare state (Esping-Andersen, 1990). This means that family allowances were relatively limited and the provision of childcare was market-based. Early legislation on marriage and divorce was primarily aimed at facilitating existing procedures and addressing inefficiencies, and the historical emancipation from the church meant that these laws were more liberal than those in most other states in Europe.

During the post-war period, the provision of welfare was based on a strongly gender-differentiated model of the family, in which men were seen as full-time workers and women as full-time carers. In this context, care was seen largely as a private matter, and was not considered to be among the basic needs of citizens (Finch, 2003). 

From the 1960s onwards, demographic and social changes – including the mass mobilisation of women into the workforce – led to changes in the family model. In particular, the notion of a single male breadwinner and female housewife began to be disrupted (Butler et al., 2014). This shift was reflected in the policies of the New Labour government from 1997 onwards, with a move away from a “familistic” regime towards a more “individualistic” one. The shift was an important transition in British welfare, assigning the family a central role in socioeconomic development, with the state responsible for its support (Daly, 2010). New Labour also promoted female employment through childcare and parental leave. Yet despite these changes, women were still expected to bear most of the burden of childcare and childrearing (Finch, 2003). 

Since 2010, the election of the coalition government and the implementation of economic austerity measures in response to the budget crisis have created a new context for family policies. The coalition’s “Programme for Government” combines elements of the Conservatives’ “smaller state, bigger society” with the Liberal Democrats’ calls for civil liberties, public service reform, and social mobility (HM Government, 2010). Moreover, the programme set out a radical plan to cut public expenditures by £95 billion by 2015. Three primary areas of these recent policy changes are a reduction in family support, a move away from principles of “progressive universalism” towards targeted support for disadvantaged families and young people, and a new era of welfare state restructuring (Churchill, 2012). 

The coalition’s welfare reforms have reinstated an approach to family support and child wellbeing in which these policies are framed representing as a burden on public finances. On the one hand, restructuring has led to some positive developments, including higher degrees of efficiency and redistribution under the newly introduced Universal Credit for means-tested benefits (Brewer et al., 2012). However, cutbacks and the promotion of a greater role for private sector social investment raise concerns about social justice and welfare (Churchill, 2012).

Childcare Provision

The first tax deductions for childcare in the UK were introduced in 1994. These breaks came in response to strong and rising demand for childcare services, particularly as a result of increased female employment (Butler et al. 2014). Since then, the childcare system has evolved rapidly, with a dramatic increase in coverage. Between 2012 and 2013, 78% of all families with children aged zero to 14 had used some form of childcare during the last week, with the majority (63%) using formal means of childcare and early years education (DE, 2014). 

The main forms of non-family childcare are nurseries, child-minders, and playgroups, all of which are predominantly private (OECD, 2010). Government support for childcare is provided largely through early years education. This form of education is provided for 15 hours a week for 38 weeks a year for all three- and four-year-olds, and for two-year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds (Waldegrave & Lee, 2013). Other forms of public childcare provision include employer-supported childcare vouchers of up to £55 a week for basic rate taxpayers, and the childcare element of the Working Tax Credit, which covers up to 70% of childcare costs for working parents. Local authorities also receive funding to ensure sufficient childcare provision, in addition to the Sure Start childcare centres for children in disadvantaged areas (Waldegrave and Lee, 2013). In general, funding for childcare is a mixture of supply-side public funds and costs borne by parents. 

Childcare reforms over the last decade have been based on the 2004 National Childcare Strategy. This 10-year strategy emphasises parental flexibility and choice, as well as the availability, the quality, and the affordability of childcare (Butler et al., 2014). It has led to a higher level of public involvement, especially by local authorities, and to the unification of childcare providers under the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS). The strategy has also brought about substantial improvements in the quality of services provided: assessments by the Department for Education have found that the UK is performing at either the same as or a higher level than other comparable European countries in four out of five indicators of childcare quality (Pascal et al., 2013). 

Concerns remain regarding the affordability of the system. For example, the use of formal childcare is found to increase with household income and working hours (DWP, 2013). Among those who use childcare for work purposes, more than twice as many parents reported finding it difficult to cover the costs (48%) as parents who reported finding it easy or very easy (21%) (DWP, 2013). A further problem is the limited number of hours of free childcare available, which reduces flexibility for working parents (Butler et al., 2014).

A future challenge is the reconciliation of high quality care with affordability. Among the changes proposed by the coalition (made up of the Conservative and Liberal Democratic Parties) government are the extension of childcare support from 70% to 85% under the Universal Credit tax scheme and the creation of a tax-free childcare scheme. The latter scheme would allow parents to have access to a childcare account in which 20% would be added to the funds they contribute, up to £2,000 a year for each child (Gheera et al., 2014). Although these measures may help to make childcare more affordable, because they would only be available to parents who are in employment and pay tax, barriers for low-income families would persist (Butler et al, 2014).

Parental leave (including maternity protection)

In the United Kingdom, employment protection while caring for new-born (or newly adopted) children is provided for both parents (or adopters) in the form of Maternity Leave and Pay, Paternity Leave and Pay, and, from 2015, Shared Parental Leave.

Maternity, paternity, and parental leave schemes are administered by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Moss, 2013).

With regard to maternity protection, statutory maternity leave is 52 weeks, made up of 26 weeks of ordinary leave and 26 weeks of additional leave during which employment is protected. Maternity leave is paid for up to 39 weeks, at the rate of 90% of average weekly earnings for the first six weeks. For the remaining 33 weeks, maternity leave is paid at £138.18 per week, or 90% of weekly earnings, whichever is lower. Moreover, the government provides one-off payments of £500 to help towards the cost of having a first child though the Sure Start Maternity Grant scheme. The Work and Families Act 2006 extension of paid statutory maternity leave and maternity allowance from 26 to 39 weeks has proved successful in increasing the mean length of maternity leave, but research shows that the remaining period of unpaid leave is taken up by only 45% of mothers (Moss, 2013).

Statutory paternity leave is paid for two weeks at £138.18/week or 90% of average weekly earnings, whichever is lower. It can only be taken from 20 weeks after the birth or adoption of a child, and not after the first birthday or 52nd week from the adoption of the child (Moss, 2013). Additional paternity leave is unpaid and may be taken for 26 weeks. Survey data reveal that, in 2010, 91% of fathers took time off around the time of their child’s birth, mostly in the form of paid statutory paternity leave alone or in addition to other paid leave (Chanfreau et al., 2011).

For children born or adopted on or after 5 April 2015, parents will have the option to take shared parental leave, as prescribed by the Children and Families Act 2014. The new scheme aims at allowing more flexibility in parental leave choices, as a mother will keep the right to statutory maternity leave and pay, but she will have the option of ending her leave early to share the entitlement with the father or her partner, spouse, or co-adopter; at the same time or in turns (Moxham, 2013). 

Alongside providing increased flexibility to parents, the aim of shared parental leave is to address the fact that only 0.6% fathers take additional paternity leave after the statutory two weeks, and that the burden of raising children still falls disproportionately on women (TUC, 2013; Butler et al., 2014). Nevertheless, the incentives in place for fathers are still poor, and research suggests that fathers would be more likely to take leave if it was offered on a “take it or lose it” basis (Moss, 2013).

Finally, the right to unpaid parental leave for children under five years of age (or 18 in the case of disabled children) is granted to parents, adopters, and people with parental responsibility. The limit on how much parental leave each parent can take in a year is four weeks for each child, and employees qualify only if they have been working for the company for more than a year.

Family allowances

In the United Kingdom, the approach to social security is typically characterised as focusing on “basic security”, with relatively modest benefits which are either unrelated to previous earnings (flat rate), or earnings-related but with ceilings for low-income families (Brewer, 2009). Some family allowances are means-tested, while others are not based on income. 

The means-tested benefits (i.e., benefits dependent on family income) include the Working Tax Credit and Income Support. People who work at least 30 hours a week (or 16 hours for lone parents and disabled people) and have a low family income are eligible for the Working Tax Credit, although the amount they receive depends on their specific family circumstances. People with a low family income who are not expected to look for work—such as lone parents with children under age five, pregnant women, and severely ill or disabled people—are eligible for Income Support, although the amount they receive again depends on their personal and family circumstances.

The Child Tax Credit is one of the main extra-costs means-tested benefits for families, and may be added to the Working Tax Credit or Income Support. To qualify for the Child Tax Credit, the children in the family must be under age 16, or under age 20 if they are in full-time education or approved training. Child Tax Credit rates are up to £2,750 per year for each child, and up to £3,100 on top of the child element for each disabled child. 

The 2012 Welfare Reform Act introduced the Universal Credit, which is intended to replace all means-tested welfare benefits (including the Working Tax Credit, Income Support, and the Child Tax Credit) and integrate them into a single programme. The Universal Credit is being introduced in stages, and has been progressively implemented since October 2013. The structure of the Universal Credit resembles a negative income tax administered at the family level: each family will receive a personal amount, with additional amounts for children and for those with disabilities (Brewer et al., 2012). The aim of the credit is to simplify procedures for claiming benefits, to make the gains from work more transparent, and to reduce losses from errors and fraud (Department for Work and Pensions, 2010).

The Universal Credit is expected to change the structure of the benefits system without substantially increasing expenditures, and may thus lead to redistribution in the long run. Brewer et al. (2012) found that under the new scheme more households will see their entitlements rise than fall. Moreover, low-income families are expected to benefit more than high-income families, and couples will generally gain more than single individuals and lone parents.

A further redistributive measure in the family allowance policies is the High Income Child Benefit Tax Charge. Introduced by the Finance Act 2012, this measure reduces Child Tax Benefits for individuals who earn more than £50,000 a year.

The main non-means-tested (independent of family income) form of family allowance is the Child Benefit, which can be claimed for each child under the age of 16, or under age 19 if in full-time education or unpaid training. In 2014, families received £20.50 per week for the first child, and £13.55 per week for each additional child. As it is independent of family income, the Child Benefit will not be affected by the introduction of the Universal Credit.


Until the Victorian era, English law had traditionally left the regulation and administration of marriage to the Church of England. Under church rules, marriage practices were highly informal, as the only requirement was the consent of both parties to the marriage. Lord Hardwicke’s Act of 1753 was the first piece of statutory legislation in England and Wales to substitute for customary law by requiring a formal ceremony of marriage and the publication of marriage bans (Andrews, 1959). The need for the legal formalisation of marriage arose because many widowed women and their families risked losing their inheritance rights if other women managed to demonstrate that they had previously contracted a secret marriage with the deceased husband (Cretney, 2005). Although traditionally the Christian conception of marriage has been dominant in English society, the gap between religious and legal conceptions has progressively widened, and became more pronounced with the separation of the legal and the religious ceremonies and the legalisation of civil partnerships in 2004 (Herring, 2013).

The minimum age requirement for marriage has increased with time. Prior to 1929 the minimum legal age for marriage was 14 for men and 12 for women, although parental consent was needed when the partners were under the age of 21. The Age of Marriage Act of 1929 raised the legal age to 16 for both sexes in response to a campaign by the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship. Today the minimum age for marriage is still 16, with parental consent required if the bride or groom is under the age of 18.

While the restrictions on the age at marriage have been tightened, the restrictions on who can marry have been relaxed over time. For example, the ban on marriage between in-law relatives, which was put in place by the  Marriage Act of 1949, was removed in 1986. It is, however, still illegal for anyone to marry a close relative (parents, grandparents, children, grandchildren, siblings, parents’ siblings). 

The restriction that the two parties to a marriage have to be of different sexes was removed in 2013, when same-sex marriage became lawful in England and Wales with the passage of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act. Same-sex marriages have been officially permitted in England and Wales since 29 March 2014. According to the Office for National Statistics, just over 1,400 same-sex marriages took place during the first three months after the act came into force (ONS, 2014). Moreover, from December 2014, all same-sex couples currently in civil partnerships will have the option to convert their civil union to marriage.

As for the rest of the United Kingdom, Scotland passed an act recognising same-sex marriages in March 2014, while in Northern Ireland, the Assembly has repeatedly rejected motions to approve same-sex marriage, though civil unions are recognised.


Divorce was first introduced as a legal matter in the United Kingdom in 1857 with the passage of the Matrimonial Causes Act. Before this time it had been difficult, but still possible, for a man to divorce his wife by appealing to ecclesiastical courts if he could prove that she had committed adultery. However, in order to be granted a dissolution by the church, a wife would have to prove not only that her husband had committed adultery, but also “rape, sodomy and bestiality”. Although the 1857 law was highly controversial, it simplified the procedures without substantially changing the grounds for divorce. As the aim of the law was to protect marriage, only a very small number of grounds for divorce were permitted. In 1923 the law was changed to allow women to file for divorce on the same grounds as men. In 1937 the law was again modified to allow cruelty, desertion, and mental insanity to be cited as grounds for divorce, in addition to adultery (Cretney, 2005).

The statutory procedures and grounds for divorce established by the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1937 were subsequently consolidated by homonymous acts passed in 1950 and 1965. Divorce remained a protracted legal process involving a high degree of formality and the presentation of evidence, by either of the parties, that there were grounds for the divorce (Cretney, 2005).

The Divorce Reform Act of 1969, which introduced the no-fault divorce, represented a major change in UK divorce law. The act substituted all existing grounds for divorce with the “irretrievable breakdown” of the marriage. This reform was consolidated in the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1973, which currently regulates divorce in England and Wales (Herring, 2013).

In 1995, there appeared to be a change in policy direction when the government published a white paper entitled: “Looking to the Future, Mediation and the Ground for Divorce” (Lord Chancellor’s Department, 1995). The report advocated the removal of incentives for “quick” divorces, and included a requirement that couples be subject a period of mediation and reflection on whether the marriage could be saved. The white paper led to the passage of the Family Law Act of 1996, which would have also introduced de facto unilateral no-fault divorce. The implementation of the law was initially delayed because of differences between the Law Commission’s recommendations and the bill. Finally, in 2000 the Lord Chancellor announced that the law would never go into effect (Dyer, 2000).

Legal provisions for the maintenance and application of property are usually made on a case-by-case basis. The child maintenance scheme introduced in 2012 entitles the children of an absent parent to a percentage of the parent’s gross weekly income, and is based on the parent’s earnings and on the number of children the parent is supporting.

Cohabitation and civil unions

In England and Wales and in Northern Ireland, cohabitation has no legal definition, and it is not recognised as a civil union. The only way couples can formalise certain aspects of their cohabitating status is by drawing up a legal agreement called a “living together agreement” or “cohabitation contract”, which outlines the rights and obligations of partners towards each other (Citizens Advice Bureau, 2014). These types of contracts typically consist of an agreement between the partners on how they will divide and share their resources. While these agreements might be useful if the relationship ends, they not legally binding (AdviceNow, 2008). In 2007, the Law Commission published a report on the financial consequences of relationship breakdown, suggesting that reform was needed to address inadequacies in the current law. Specifically, the commission called for the creation of a new statutory scheme for cohabitants who separate (Law Commission, 2007). Although figures from the Office for National Statistics suggest that cohabitation is the fastest growing household type in the UK (ONS, 2012), the coalition government has made clear that no changes will be made in this area by this parliament (Department for Culture, Media and Sport, 2014).

In Scotland, the Family Law (Scotland) Act of 2006 updated the existing law to reflect the presence of cohabitation. The act introduced a set of basic rights to protect cohabitants when the relationship breaks down or one of the partners dies. Nevertheless, couples who are living together do not have the same rights as married couples and civil partners, and cohabitation rights only apply to property after death or separation (The Scottish Government, 2006).

The future of civil partnerships in England and Wales is a hotly debated topic, especially since same-sex marriage was legalised under the Marriage (Same-sex Couples) Act of 2013. Currently, same-sex couples seeking a legal union have the option of either forming a civil partnership (Civil Partnership Act of 2004) or marrying, while opposite-sex couples only have the option of marrying. To address this lack of symmetry in the treatment of same-sex and opposite-sex couples, the Marriage (Same-sex Couples) Act of 2013 contains a provision requiring a formal review of the operation and future of civil partnerships in England and Wales, which was initiated in 2014 (Department for Culture, Media and Sport, 2014).

In the preliminary consultation, three main options for potential change have been considered, each with multiple implications. The first option is to abolish the legal relationship of civil partnership, and convert existing civil partnerships into marriage: this would force existing civil partners to choose between marrying and ending their civil partnership. The second option would be to disallow new civil partnerships, but to allow existing ones to remain intact. This would mean that a symmetry of treatment would be achieved in the long term, but that up to 50,000 existing civil unions would become legal relics. The third option is to open up civil partnership to opposite-sex couples. Thus, partners would be able to remain in a civil relationship even if one of them changed legal gender, as civil partnerships would no longer be based on declarations of sexual orientation. However, some participants in the debate have expressed fears that this would weaken the institution of marriage, while preserving and extending a legal category that is no longer needed (Department for Culture, Media and Sport, 2014).



Ernestina Coast
London School of Economics and Political Science

Ginevra Floridi
London School of Economics and Political Science

Wendy Sigle
London School of Economics and Political Science

Data collected in the framework of the Population Europe Research Finder and Archive (PERFAR) in 2014.

Please cite as:
SPLASH-db.eu (2014): Policy: "Family Policies: United Kingdom" (Information provided by Ernestina Coast, Ginevra Floridi, & Wendy Sigle). Available at: https://splash-db.eu [Date of access].