Thursday, October 29, 2020
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Harry Benson: Ministers must wake up to the wonders of marriage

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For better, for worse, government is deeply involved in family life. Marriage and divorce are regulated. Children are protected. Lone parents are supported.

But if government has a family policy at all, its priorities seem peculiar and unbalanced.

Start with family breakdown, because the direct costs are so gigantic. Relationships Foundation reckon family breakdown costs £46 billion per year, which covers the additional benefits, tax credits, support and services needed by lone parent families.

Support for our 1.9 million lone parent families costs more than the entire defence budget, or about half of the education budget.

Unless you are exceptionally hard hearted, the fact of supporting lone parents should never be an issue. Yet it is inconceivable that the entire epidemic of family breakdown is wholly unavoidable.

Government ministers boast of £30 million spent on relationship support. But this is spread over four years and is aimed at couples in crisis, rather than helping couples avoid getting into a mess in the first place.

A government evaluation recently affirmed the effectiveness and value for money of both preventive and treatment programmes. Yet for every £100 spent after relationships break down, the government spends 1.6p on relationship support.

Not much of a policy.

Where government does spend billions is on DfE-run Surestart Children’s Centres. Surestart could be terrific. But despite the efforts of the staff, government evaluators have shown that Surestart had no improvement in “school readiness” as measured by the Foundation Stage Profile. And remember, we were promised Surestart would ‘close the gap’ between rich and poor pupils.

Early parenthood is the obvious time to introduce interventions, which can include relationships and parenting programmes. Yet, at the same time, government has allowed the very popular and widespread NHS post-natal services to collapse.

This is mad. We have two competing access points for new parents. One has money but no people. The other has people and no money. Even if Surestart took on the NHS post-natal mantle and introduced brilliant early interventions, this would still only address the symptoms of family breakdown and not its causes.

Government has yet to acknowledge that the main driver of family breakdown is the trend away from marriage.

Cohabiting parents are four times more likely to split compared to married parents. Some of this can be explained by background. Much cannot.

The result is a simple equation. Fewer couples marrying + more couple cohabiting = more couples splitting up.

Government support for marriage through a £200 transferable allowance ought to be a step in the right direction. Yet it is utterly overwhelmed by the perverse tax credit system that pays couples with one child up to £7,100 more if they live apart – or pretend to live apart. Up to half a million couples do.

Family breakdown is heavily condensed into the first three years of parenthood. For the same money, government could add a simple boost to child benefit only for married mothers with a first child under three. This would be worth thousands of pounds, diffuse the destructive effects of the “couple penalty”, and could actually make a difference.

Instead of a serious effort to address the epidemic of family breakdown, we spend a fortune on an early intervention network that doesn’t work, a pittance on relationship programmes that do work, we have a perverse tax credit system that penalises couples, and we will soon have a meaningless and wasteful tax break that could make a huge difference if only it were properly targeted.

Worse, we now have a political competition to see who can persuade more parents to hand over their children to childcare for longest.

This is no family policy. It shows peculiar priorities. All parties need to be challenged.

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Harry Benson
Harry Benson is research director for Marriage Foundation and author of Commit or Quit: The Two Year Rule and Other Rules for Romance.

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