In 2014 we awarded a grant to the authors of this report to establish the evidence needs in relation to family separation in the UK, and to assess the adequacy of existing and forthcoming data sources in meeting those needs. The aim was to identify whether the data infrastructure was sufficient, and if not, to recommend options for filling the gap.
Families are of pivotal importance in our society and central to social policy, but research and policy has not kept up with the pace at which family structures have become increasingly diverse. Alongside this, we have seen a cessation of a number of key surveys – both before and during this project – and the narrowing of some administrative data sources as state services have become more rationed or targeted. These factors make a review of whether the evidence base is able to meet contemporary needs both important and timely.
Following an extensive consultation exercise with range of stakeholders in the policy, practice and research communities, and a thorough assessment of data sources, the authors conclude that the current infrastructure falls some way short of what we would hope for, and without improvement, policy makers will continue to be hindered by the limited evidence base.
Nonetheless, there are opportunities to develop the data infrastructure in relation to separated families. The authors identify that, theoretically, a number of the existing longitudinal surveys could be enhanced. In particular, some specific enhancements to Understanding Society would go a long way towards meeting some of the evidence gaps. While this would require balanced judgement, we believe the considerable potential is well worth exploring, and we hope that the ESRC’s Longitudinal Studies Review will provide a framework in which innovative developments of the existing studies are encouraged.
The alternative proposal of developing a new bespoke longitudinal study of separated parents – while enticing – is fraught with challenges. As such, we encourage an approach that seeks to enhance existing studies in the first instance, before re-assessing the value and challenges of a new study. Both options would require a considerable amount of work to develop and test, as well as time, expertise, and funding. The Foundation will continue to
develop its links with the relevant longitudinal study teams and research experts in the field of family separation to help facilitate the conduct of such work. We ignore deficits in the data infrastructure at our peril.