Iain Duncan Cupid?

Cupid Image copyright Thinkstock

Can Iain Duncan Smith claim to be a latter-day Cupid? Is the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) mending broken relationships? Are government policies actively helping separated parents find love again and move back together?

That appears to be the claim this week from a DWP press release announcing that 250,000 more children in the UK are living with both birth parents, associating the rise with the government's "comprehensive and pioneering programme of support for families".

"The proportion of children whose parents are raising them together rose from 67% in 2010/11 to 69% in 2011/12," the DWP says, calculating that this equates to an additional quarter of a million youngsters living with their biological mum and dad.

The statistics are glowingly reported in the Conservative-leaning Spectator magazine, which argues that David Cameron's pro-family changes "are having a huge effect".

The trouble is that the latest figures precede the implementation of many of the government's family-friendly policies - and for some groups of children, the statistics suggest a very different story.

For example, you could use the same data to demonstrate that, over the same period, 50,000 fewer babies are living with their birth parents. Ministers, I suspect, will be less likely to put out a press release saying that.

The figures come from the Understanding Society survey - a robust source with a sample size significant enough to get into the detail of British life.

It shows, sure enough, that in 2010-11 67% of children aged 16 and under were living with both birth parents, and the following year the proportion had risen to 69%.

But among babies less than a year old, the proportion falls from 85% to 79%. It doesn't appear that anything government ministers have done has persuaded parents of newborns to live together for the sake of the children.

The DWP, however, follows its headline of growing numbers of Britain's children in nuclear families with a list of the policies it is suggested may be contributing to this trend.

Nowhere does the press release actually state the link between policy and the headline figure, but the inference is clear. Perhaps the reason for their reticence is that much of the list relates to schemes and initiatives that have either yet to happen, or that were launched after the survey data was gathered.

The £448m Troubled Families Programme may well be having an impact in encouraging broken families back together, but the money for it was only announced by the DWP in December 2011, and will have had very little effect by the following April.

The Separated Families Initiative and CANparent Trial were set up after the survey was completed, so can have had no bearing on the figures. Nor can the £200m earmarked for welfare claimants working less than 16 hours, who need support with childcare costs.

A close look at the data suggests the most remarkable shift is in the proportion of 12 to 16 year olds from low-income families living with their birth parents. Between the two years it has risen from 35% to 43%.

I think one needs to treat these numbers with caution. It sounds less than plausible they are responsible for a change that dramatic in 12 months.

What really doesn't make sense is for the government to suggest that policies barely off the policy wonk's notepad have resulted in tens of thousands of estranged couples kissing and making up.