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Government must tackle the greatest social problem of our age – marriage breakdown

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A fortnight ago the Government confirmed that it would look at how to support the institution of marriage in policymaking.

Kit Malthouse, Minister for Family Support, Housing and Child Maintenance, pledged to examine the possibility of a ministerial working group while responding to a motion moved by Derek Thomas MP.

This is to be strongly welcomed, although it must be placed in context. To date, this has not been a pro-marriage government.

Conservative-led governments since 2013 have failed to prioritise marriage in either social or economic policy. Indeed, the Conservative Party manifesto for the last election did not mention marriage at all. To all intents and purposes it appears to have been dropped as a campaigning issue.

As such, there has been no real-terms extension to the transferable tax allowance for married couples introduced by George Osborne.

In last year’s Budget, the Government announced an extra £39million to be spent on supporting couples. However, this is dwarfed by the size of the problem. The cost of family breakdown has soared in the last decade to £51billion, more than the spending on debt interest, transport or even defence.

Statistics published by the Ministry of Justice suggest that around half a million people a year enter the Family Courts in England and Wales, almost equivalent to a city the size of Sheffield.

Each case tells a story of human misery and suffering. It also presents the Government with policy challenges in terms of tax, benefits, housing, health, social care, civil and criminal justice and education.

In this context family breakdown and the relative decline of marriage is not just another social issue, it is the predominant social problem of our age and deserves to be treated as such.

Government social initiatives to tackle this crisis have focused in the wrong places. In almost all cases this is because they have prioritised acceptance of all relationships over the form of relationship which really does endure – marriage.

Contrary to common belief, the majority of marriages last. There is not a single year’s cohort of marriages where you are more likely to be divorced than still together at the end of your life.

The figures for cohabitation are nowhere near so good. Research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies backs this up. One in five cohabiting couples were no longer living together as their child turned three, as opposed to one in twenty married couples. One in four had moved out by the child’s fifth birthday, against fewer than one in ten married couples. Indeed the Marriage Foundation calculated that 93 per cent of the children whose parents were still together at 16 came from married families.

Marriage was marginalised in the classroom under Justine Greening, with an emphasis instead on promoting minority lifestyles. Beyond this, the Prime Minister’s public announcements on forthcoming guidance around Sex and Relationship Education completely ignored marriage in favour of a focus on LGBT issues. It is perhaps no coincidence that the change of leadership in the education brief coincided with assurances from Mr Malthouse that marriage would be emphasised in the classroom when guidance is published later this year.

Then there was Government support for Tim Loughton’s campaign to extend civil partnerships to heterosexuals, a sort of marriage-lite, while mean-spirited changes to the marriage ceremony will deny newlyweds the dignity of a marriage certificate, which must now be applied and paid for at a later stage.

In tandem, the campaign to make divorce even easier has found prominent Conservative supporters, not least Suella Fernandes. She organised a Westminster Hall debate in support of a proposal which would effectively allow couples to force through a divorce at break-neck speed irrespective of the wishes of their spouse. David Gauke, the Secretary of State for Justice, has promised to examine the proposals.

It is time for the Government to make its mind up: either marriage is the gold-standard of adult relationship or it is an option amongst many to be tampered with at will. It cannot be both.

Not all of the Government’s record is negative. It has spent some £17million on supporting marriage counselling – a victory for former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith. This has helped some 48,000 couples and underpins a network of relationship advisers.

I also welcome the words of Mr Malthouse who said the Government wanted to see ‘fewer children whose wellbeing and life chances are diminished. Fewer people experiencing the emotional pain and financial costs of broken relationships’. He went on to acknowledge the importance of marriage in this, saying: ‘We believe that marriage can help build more stable relationships, and that marriages can be strengthened and helped to survive difficult times.’

But good words are not good deeds. A resolute government prepared to place marriage at centre stage in the classroom, the budget and its social philosophy would be both radical and visionary. In a country and party riven with division, it would be a bold step to put unity at the heart of policy by promoting marriage.

A Marriage Unit, embedded in the Cabinet Office, would be a good start and might help to prevent some of the confusion in the Government’s own programme on marriage. But if the Government is really serious about supporting the institution and married couples, the test will be hard policy, not easy words.

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Thomas Pascoe
Thomas Pascoe is the Campaign Director of the Coalition for Marriage, Britain’s largest campaign organisation supporting traditional marriage. You can join the mailing list here or follow him on Twitter here.

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