[Mr Gary Streeter in the Chair]
I am most encouraged to see so many of my hon. Friends joining me for this debate this afternoon. It is also good to see some of our friends from Northern Ireland here, too. It is a pity that there is only one Labour Member present, but there we go; I shall not be saying something positive about the Labour party. As you can probably gather from my voice, Mr Streeter, I am suffering from the lurgy that afflicts most of us at this time of year. I was not going to come in, but I was told that the debate would not happen unless I was here and as so many of my hon. Friends want to take part, I was not going to deny them this opportunity.
I also offer a warm welcome to the Minister. He may or may not be aware that, when we announced this debate, we received a call from his Department to ask who should be responsible for replying. I know that the Minister is robust, and I hope that the slight uncertainty between his Department and the Cabinet Office does not reveal some lack of co-ordination in Government on this hugely important issue. Research has consistently shown that stable families are the foundation for a strong society. In 2008, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said that
“there’s nothing more important to families than the strength of their relationships”,
yet the United Kingdom has one of the highest rates of family breakdown in the western world, with less than 70% of children living with both their parents. It is for that reason that I am leading this debate on strengthening couple relationships today.
In 2000, I helped to produce the Family Matters Institute report on the cost of family breakdown, which we then identified was costing this country £30 billion a year. According to the Marriage Foundation, last year that figure had risen to no less than £46 billion, which is more than the entire defence and overseas aid budgets combined and some £1,500 for every single taxpayer. It is a substantial burden. Just yesterday, the Daily Mail carried a two-page spread about a man who has apparently fathered 15 children by six different women, with seven more children by unnamed women, and who is said to have cost the taxpayer in excess of £1 million. One son is a convicted murderer and three others have served jail sentences, all of which cost the taxpayer a further £150,000 a year.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for securing the debate and to his courage in leading it despite his ill health. The doubling of family breakdown over the past 30 years is plainly a huge issue, but there are heroes. I pay tribute to Harry Benson of the Marriage Foundation, who will no doubt be referred to later, for helping to deliver practical support on the ground to help keep couples together. He says:
“We value commitment and faithfulness ever more. But we have lost confidence in marriage. The tide will turn when we realise once more that marriage is the best way to achieve both.”
Does my hon. Friend have any practical proposals to make to the Minister on how to achieve that?
If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I want to set the scene first, because the problem is of such magnitude that it is important to put the facts on the record. I will admit to him that I am light in the department of what the solutions are, but he will not be surprised to hear that I have some advice for the bishops. I know, however, that my hon. Friends are doing good work in this field.
I was drawing attention to an article in yesterday’s Daily Mail. Some people will say that it refers to an extreme example, which it may be, but it reflects on a smaller scale what is going on right across the nation. I regularly deal with broken family cases at my surgeries. One constituent recently told me that the father of her child walked out the day she went into labour and has not been seen since, although he boasts on Facebook that he has paid hundreds of thousands of pounds in cash for a London flat. Another told me that the father, who smokes a lot of weed, has not seen the children for two years; he has a child by another woman and is now with a third woman. A third constituent told me that she is expecting a child by a man who is not interested and has no job; he himself was placed in care as a child. This is going on all over the country. I am not talking about a deprived inner-city area. This is Aldershot, Hampshire. If it is happening there, imagine what else is happening in some of our inner cities.
The men who father these children seem to have absolutely no interest in bringing them up, let alone paying for them. It is important that we recognise that we cannot afford to continue to subsidise people who live such dysfunctional lifestyles. We do not have the money. It is immoral, it is wrong and it has to stop. Am I being judgmental in an age when such an approach is deemed inappropriate? Of course I am being judgmental. For the sake of our country, we need to be judgmental. Besides, plenty of people never cease to be judgmental about Members of Parliament.
Let me move from the particular to the general. Let us consider the data. According to the Centre for Social Justice—an excellent organisation—more than 3 million children are growing up in a lone parent household, 92% headed by the mother. Does that matter? I submit that it does matter because the evidence shows that
“marriage provides the most reliable framework for raising children.”
Those are not my words, but those of the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), the former Home Secretary, in his 1998 consultation document entitled “Supporting Families”. That view was essentially reiterated by this Government when, in their social justice strategy paper published in March 2012, they said that
“this Government believes marriage often provides an excellent environment in which to bring up children. So the Government is clear that marriage should be supported and encouraged.”
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. His point about dadlessness is important. The lifelong impact on dadless children’s educational achievement and job prospects, among other things, is immense, but does he accept that children sometimes grow up in dadless households because dads who want to be there have been excluded? The purpose of the presumption of shared parenting in the Children and Families Bill, which is going through Parliament now, is to ensure that, wherever possible, those dads who are unable to live with their children because of an acrimonious split continue to have whatever meaningful and valuable contact they have with their children because of the huge value that it brings to the experience of the children.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. It is not one that I intended to cover in my speech, but I am glad that he has put that on the record, because it is clear that there are fathers who do want access to their children and who do want to play an important role in bringing up their children, but they are denied. I hope that the Children and Families Bill will be a move in the right direction to rectify that wrong.
Let me be clear that the problem is not just about the financial cost, massive though that is. As all right hon. and hon. Members are only too aware from their surgeries, there is a massive social cost in human misery, which has an undeniably detrimental effect on children, as my hon. Friend has just illustrated. Statistics show that children of separated parents are more likely to have physical and mental health problems in childhood and to fall into crime or substance abuse in later life. The Centre for Social Justice observes that lone parents are two and a half times more likely to be in poverty than couple families, and children from broken homes are statistically less likely to be able to establish stable relationships themselves, thereby continuing the cycle.
Research by the Office for National Statistics on “The mental health of children and adolescents in Great Britain”, published in 2000, found twice the incidence of disorders in boys aged 11 to 15 in lone-parent households as in married households. Even more interesting, the incidence in cohabiting households was similar not to that in married households, but rather to that in lone-parent households. I shall have more to say on cohabitation in a moment, but clearly one has to recognise that although not all children brought up in such conditions will necessarily struggle in those ways, we cannot ignore the facts if we are to tackle the issue. According to Relate, another excellent organisation, the number of families with dependent children increased by 5% between 1996 and 2012. The number of married-couple families with dependent children fell by 12%, however, and the number of lone-parent families rose by 22% and the number of cohabiting couples doubled. One million fathers do not live with their children.
Marriage, which for the majority of Conservative Members of Parliament can be only between a man and a woman, remains the core of a stable family. Only in this environment do children have both male and female role models for guidance and support. However, the number of marriages has fallen from about 415,000 in 1970 to about 240,000 in 2010, a near 100-year low. The number of single-parent households has risen from 8% of the total in 1970 to 22% in 2010. Since the late 1970s, there has been a steady increase in the rise of cohabitation, with nearly half of all children today born outside marriage, but cohabitation is a relatively unstable substitute for marriage. Figures from the Centre for Social Justice show that fewer than one in 10 married couples separate by their child’s fifth birthday, compared with one in three cohabiting couples.
Many of us welcomed the Government’s acknowledgement of the contribution that marriage makes to a strong society when the Chancellor included a tax break for married couples in his autumn statement. At this point, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), who led the campaign on that front, but it can only be the start. I agree wholeheartedly with the Christian Institute that
“most marriages last for life… Children need a father and a mother to nurture them... Children need parents who love them and love each other just as much. That love must be a permanent and not a temporary commitment… The best environment for raising children is marriage because the spouses have committed themselves to each other, and thus their children, for life. No other kind of relationship provides this environment of stability and permanence for children. Social science confirms that lifelong and loving marriage is the ideal context in which to raise children.”
Some say that in a free society, people should be entitled to live any lifestyle that they want and to an extent that is unquestionably true. I am conscious that I am trespassing on delicate territory, as we are all touched in one way or another by such trends, even at the highest levels in our land, but overwhelmingly it is the taxpayer who is picking up the tab for the current state of affairs, so the state cannot be an idle bystander.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. His comments thus far have rightly centred on the importance for children of having a stable family background, but does he also agree that marriage is important for looking after more elderly family members as well, and increasingly so? My own family has had experience of this. People need a solid family life to look after elderly parents or grandparents who might need care, even if not at a level that requires them to go into a home.
I could not agree more. My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point—one that is not often made but needs to be, particularly as our elderly population continues to grow. The importance of families sustaining that elderly generation will increase. My own children never cease to remind me that I need to be kind and generous to them, because they will be choosing my old folks’ home. I do not know quite what they mean, but there we go.
The statistics I have quoted provide sound reasons why the state should encourage marriage. International studies have found that couple counselling has been effective in improving the quality of relationships. Relationship guidance and support from organisations such as Relate should be at couples’ disposal. I am pleased that the Government have pledged £30 million to support these initiatives, although I understand that only 2% of those eligible are able to access the facilities, because of a lack of resources. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) has been doing hugely important work in the field of providing counselling to those whose relationships are in difficulty.
Again, I agree with my hon. Friend. Our friends always say how nice our children are, and perhaps it is all down to me, but actually it is not; it is down to my wife, because she gave up her job and spent the early years of our children’s lives looking after them. At dinner parties, people would say to my wife, “What do you do?” and she would say that she looked after the children, to which they would reply, “Oh, so you don’t do anything else.” Well, seeing all of my hon. Friends here who are male—[Interruption.] They are not all male, but many are, although sitting in front of me is my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham), the mother of three children. Those men who have been asked to look after our children in the way that mothers do find it extremely demanding. The idea of the full-time mother staying at home has been belittled for far too long and the role should be properly recognised.
Many others beyond Relate seek to provide support to those whose relationships are challenged, and I salute all of them. The churches individually do a tremendous job in seeking to heal the wounds, but I wish that the bishops would be more vocal in their condemnation of dysfunctional lifestyles. Like the Bishop of Manchester, they seem to have no shortage of views on the iniquity of the Chancellor’s proposals on welfare, despite the overwhelming public support for them, but they seem reluctant to pronounce on the value and the virtue of fidelity.
I have been much encouraged by reading about Sir Paul Coleridge, a High Court judge who seems to have been eased out of his place for having trenchant and principled views on the importance of traditional marriage. He recently warned of the “yawning public ignorance” about the mental effects on children of conflict between parents, even from birth. He believes that the Government have spent too much time pushing through the same-sex marriage legislation rather than tackling a crisis of family breakdown.
The cost to the taxpayer, the cost in human misery and the damage to children serve to prove why it is time that Parliament took the issue more seriously. I hope that the Government will push it much higher up the agenda than they have been able to do up until now.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) on securing this important debate.
I speak from the perspective that supporting stronger relationships is a public health issue. The importance of relationships in preventing disease and in prolonging life, health and well-being is becoming increasingly recognised, not only for partners in a relationship, but for their children, their wider family and the community at large.
The scale of the problem of relationship breakdown is such that we cannot put it into the “too difficult” category. Government have to act and treat it as a public health issue. The public health outcomes framework should make explicit mention of family and relationship factors. In particular, we need to be concerned about the impact of family breakdown on those in more deprived households. Relationship breakdown affects them more than others, and the outcome for the children can be disproportionately serious.
According to a recent YouGov survey for the Prince’s Trust of 2,161 young people aged 16 to 25, 21% of the children in poor homes said that no one had ever told them, “I love you.” Those results show that young people from deprived homes where there are not necessarily functioning and strong relationship standards are significantly more likely to face symptoms of mental illness, including suicidal thoughts, feelings of self-loathing and panic attacks. Young people who grow up in poverty are also twice as likely to believe that no one cares about them—22% expressed such a view compared with a figure of 10% for the wider youth population. The tragedy is that many young people are growing up today in households where they have no role models for strong relationships.
My constituency of Belfast North, which is one of the most deprived in the United Kingdom, bears testimony to what the hon. Lady is saying. Great work is being done by local groups on relationship support, but does she agree that part of this issue is the need to take away the stigma attached to going for help about relationships? There needs to be more education to ensure that people feel comfortable about coming forward.
I agree entirely and hope to come on to that issue.
Professor Scott Stanley has talked about the perfect storm that is brewing with
“an ever greater amount of family instability”
and has said that for young people the problems are going to be pronounced. He says:
“Attachment is an unalterable, important human need and reality, and how attachment systems form in individuals really matters”
for their future health and well-being. He also argues that:
“The cultural systems and structures that always have helped couples clarify, form, and maintain strong commitments have been steadily eroding”—
most notably, the sense that marriage and childbearing inherently belong together, which makes ongoing stability more likely than not.
The nature and extent of the problem we are up against have all the hallmarks of a public health emergency. The Office for National Statistics recently found that people’s personal relationships, mental health and overall sense of well-being are all intimately bound up with each other. But the stakes are even higher than that: in many cases it is about life and death. A huge review of 148 studies, with almost one third of a million participants, that looked at how social relationships influence the risk of mortality showed that people with stronger social relationships have an incredible 50% increased likelihood of survival when compared with those with poor or insufficient social relationships.
I want to give credit to Dr Samantha Callan of the Centre for Social Justice for drawing many of these issues to my attention. She argues that the influence of social relationships on risk of mortality is comparable with risk factors such as smoking, and exceeds many well-known risk factors such as obesity and physical inactivity.
Other potential public health issues are isolation and loneliness. The absence of loving relationships of any sort is bad for health and is linked with increased risk of cardio-vascular disease, diabetes, stroke, obesity and death. One of my constituents has written to me to say that it is absolutely critical that the new health and wellbeing boards take into account the issue of loneliness and focus on how they can improve relationship support, bearing in mind the impact that loneliness is having on our older generation.
Studies on the impact of relationship difficulties suggest that improving couple relationships has the potential to reduce alcohol misuse. Recent studies focusing on metabolic syndrome suggest that obesity, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and poor blood sugar metabolism, all of which increase the risk of heart disease, diabetes and stroke, are other mechanisms by which poor marital adjustment increases poor health outcomes for women.
There is also the issue of obesity among children. Children who are raised by parents who have what is called an authoritative—not an authoritarian—parenting style apparently eat more healthily, are more physically active and have a lower body mass index than children raised under other parenting styles, such as authoritarian, permissive, indulgent, uninvolved or neglectful. Reports say that marital dissatisfaction results in more authoritarian and less authoritative parenting. In other words, there is a vicious cycle. The quality of the parental relationship has a significant bearing on children’s health. The sad fact is that disadvantaged children suffer the most.
If a focus on relationships has the potential to deliver significant public health gains, how do we realise those gains? Certainly, building stronger relationships requires encouraging couples to build on good habits and to reduce bad ones. We should encourage and support proposals within plans such as the “Let’s Stick Together” programme developed by Care for the Family, which talks about avoiding negative habits. Often the issue is skills, which can be developed. Such skills include being responsive or even enthusiastic about what a partner is saying, expressing feelings of warmth and affection, managing conflict, communicating well and preserving a friendship, as well as learning how to perceive and demonstrate commitment and deal constructively with misunderstandings. All those skills can be learned, and learning them is critical when people have had no role models.
We also need preventive relationship education, web-based support and specialist counselling and therapeutic services—prevention rather than cure. Could we not move some of the millions of pounds that Relate receives to work at the outset of relationships instead of using the money to deal with the fallout and damage at the end?
The CEO of the Fatherhood Institute, Adrienne Burgess, has said:
“Encouraging parents to both take a lot of responsibility for looking after the child…and earning is a great way to help couples become real team parents. When they do this child rearing brings them together and means they are less likely to split up.”
On maternity services, Adrienne Burgess has argued:
“Increasing the potential for both of them to be involved is a really simple way to help strengthen couple relationships.”
To return to my point about the elderly, loneliness has significant links to a range of chronic conditions, including high blood pressure and depression, and increases the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease by over 60%. On average, 10% of the population aged over 65 is chronically lonely, which means that they feel lonely all or most of the time. It is vital that the health implications of this issue are recognised by those making decisions about local health priorities. The proportion of elderly people in our population is increasing. Many of them live alone due to relationship breakdown. Helping them to sustain partner relationships, with the mutual support that such relationships can provide in later life, could carry major personal and public health benefits.
The Relationships Foundation has described strong relationships as a national asset that we should preserve and strengthen. The social capital of families and communities is a sustainable bedrock not only of our national wealth but of our well-being. Stronger relationships between couples mean that those couples can then provide strength and support up and down generations, across families and out into communities. That is a national resource that we must nurture and cultivate, and that we ignore at our peril.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) on bringing this matter to the House for support and consideration. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce). Perhaps I am a bit biased, but I believe that she always puts forward a good case on these issues. We are both concerned about them and are here to show our support. The Chamber is full of Members who, we were saying before the debate started, are the likely suspects. They are the ones who support what we are about in this debate on strengthening families.
I want to make a few comments in support of marriage in its totality. I do not want to be judgmental in the information that I relay. I am blessed in that I come from a strong family, and my parents are still a tower of strength in my life—my mother is 82 and my dad is 84—but I know that not everybody has the stable background that I had. I also know that there are single-parent families who simply could not do a better job raising their family than the one they are doing. I understand that and want to put that on the record right away. I believe that we have a role in this place in strengthening families and relationships, which is why I congratulate the hon. Member for Aldershot on bringing this matter forward.
Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that if we polled young people about their aspirations, it is unlikely that they would aspire to be a single parent? The reality is that we have to get in early and make sure that we give our young people the infrastructure in their lives so that they are able to make wise decisions and are not at risk of their relationships breaking down.
Those are wise words from the hon. Gentleman and I agree with him wholeheartedly. It is important that, through this debate, we try to explain why we feel that marriage is important and why it should be an aspiration of all young people. I believe that it is, by the way, but things happen and relationships fall down. That is a fact of life.
The Library’s debate pack states:
“On current trends, 48% of children born last year”—
“are likely to see the breakdown of their parents’ relationship.”
That is why some sort of early intervention is needed. My right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) said that the stigma must be removed. It must be removed because 48% is unacceptable.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. His wise words and heart contribute to this debate.
I have been an advocate of marriage between a man and a woman as the most stable way to raise a child, and I am on the record as saying that during a Bill Committee debate last year. I advocate that not because my parents remain a strong partnership after 60 years of being together, but because it is a fact that those who are married have a more stable relationship than those who cohabit. I base that on information and statistics that have been made available to me, and any social worker or person in that area of expertise will agree. I stress again that some families outside that mode do a great job, and I do not suggest that marriage is the only right way; however, it has proved to be the most stable way.
My hon. Friend will not be surprised that I draw to his attention to the fact that God says, in his precious word, that he put us together in families. Although many people have sought to undermine marriage, does my hon. Friend not agree that the scriptural bond of marriage is still the foundation stone of a strong society, and will be in years to come?
I agree absolutely with my hon. Friend’s wise words. Marriage is the bedrock of society. I have been married for 26 years and I have a very understanding wife. I do not say this with pride, but I was not always present while my children were being reared. My wife was a housewife and looked after them. Being a housewife is sometimes a harder job than working in a shop or elsewhere. The way my three boys have come on is a credit to my wife and the guidance she gave them, and I make no bones about that.
A consistent feature of cohabitation has been its relative instability compared with marriage. Some UK and European studies draw attention to the fact that, regardless of socio-economic status and education, cohabiting couples are between two and two and a half times more likely to break up than equivalent married couples. That is a fact; it is not made up. Even the poorest 20% of married couples are more stable than all but the richest 20% of cohabiting couples. The statistics are clear. Three quarters of family breakdown involving children under five arise from the separation of non-married parents. Only 9% of married parents split before their child’s fifth birthday compared with 35% of unmarried parents.
I was just talking to my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds), and we want to put on the record the good work that Relate does. I sometimes refer people to Relate and although its advice may not always have worked as I might have wished, it was always expert and important. I have also referred constituents to friends in their church. No one can speak better about churches’ good work than my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea), but I want to put on the record my thanks to them for giving guidance, support, help and advice when it is needed.
CARE has supplied me with information combining new data on family breakdown from Understanding Society with household data from the Office for National Statistics. Research from the Marriage Foundation shows that cohabiting parents now account for 19% of couples with dependent children, but 50% of family breakdowns. We all know that marriages may break down irrevocably. I am no man’s judge and never will be, but every effort should be made to prevent breakdown.
Statistics also show that when a separated couple was married, the children are 60% more likely to have contact with their father than if the parents were unmarried, and that separated fathers are more likely to contribute to their child’s maintenance if the parents were married. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), who has just left the Chamber, referred to the father’s role and said that even in a broken-down relationship it is important that a father remains in contact with the children as they are growing up.
The prevalence of mental health issues among children of cohabiting parents is more than 75% higher than among those of married parents. Children from broken homes are nine times more likely to become young offenders. I give these statistics with no joy, but they account for 70% of all young offenders. I could continue to give statistics, such as the rise in the cost of family failure, which the hon. Member for Aldershot said was £44 billion. That is a massive amount of money. Failed relationships now cost every UK taxpayer £1,475 a year.
The Centre for Social Justice and the Marriage Foundation make it clear that the Government should strengthen stability and reduce family breakdown by encouraging and promoting marriage. The Democratic Unionist party, of which I am privileged to be a member, supported the married couple’s tax allowance. With my hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), I have pressed the Chancellor to implement that allowance. I believe that every hon. Member in the Chamber probably supports that.
I cannot give the statistics, but I am sure that there has been some impact.
The public policy benefits of marriage are extensive and should be recognised in the UK tax system, as is the case in most OECD countries. Although marriage was recognised in the UK income tax system for many years and continues to be recognised in most OECD countries, that recognition was removed in the UK in 1999. Today, the UK is the only large, developed economy not to recognise marriage in its income tax system. Only 20% of people in OECD countries live in jurisdictions that do not recognise marriage and most of them live in the UK or Mexico. A fully transferable allowance would reduce discrimination against one-earner couples, increase the threshold for low and middle-income families, and reduce the imbalance between one-earner and two-earner families.
In 2010, the Conservatives proposed a transferable allowance of £750 for married couples and civil partners under which a spouse or partner who could not use their personal allowance could pass it to his or her partner if they were a basic rate payer. The Chancellor gave a commitment on that in the House and we have pressed him to ensure that it is introduced before the next election. I understand that he has given a commitment to do so. What discussions has the Minister had on the date of implementation of that allowance? It is time to introduce this encouragement for families. If nothing else is heard in this debate, I hope that that will be heard and that the Government will encourage families and marriage and do what they promised.
It is a pleasure, Mr Streeter, to serve under your chairmanship. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) for securing this important debate, and I look forward to the Minister’s response; I am sure he will bring common sense and sensitivity to it.
It goes without saying that the family is the backbone of our society. As I am sure many hon. Members have experienced, when couple relationships are turbulent, it shows in other aspects of the couple’s lives. Several studies show that those who are married or in stable relationships live longer lives and require medical assistance from the state less frequently. Couple, family and social relationships may act as a shock absorber in supporting people through life changes, such as becoming a parent, retirement or family bereavement, but for many the relationship itself may need support during, after and even before such events. That is why it is vital that when things go wrong in relationships, there are organisations to turn to that offer affordable support and guidance.
One such organisation operating in my constituency is Relate, which offers counselling services to couples, or those in complex relationships, which are now more common, as relationships and family structures are evolving all the time. Without Relate, many in relationships would not be able to afford the appropriate counselling; Relate has been able to subsidise its support, making it accessible to everyone, not just the well-off. Last year, it gave bursaries to more than 1,400 people.
I was alarmed last year when the director of Relate Derby and Southern Derbyshire contacted me to say that Derby city council had told it that it would reduce funding further. It looks as though Derbyshire county council will follow suit. In fact, it is expected that in time there will be no funding whatever from the two councils. The squeeze on funding has resulted in a 30% reduction in Relate staff numbers in the area. That means that the charity is finding it difficult to cope with the increasing demand for all its services.
Local changes to funding structures mean that many central initiatives could be undermined. Relate Derby and Southern Derbyshire is on the precipice of substantial cuts in funding that will mean a reduction in the provision of services, which will be felt by hundreds of vulnerable clients. Without regular grants from Derby city council and Derbyshire county council, funding for Relate services in the area increasingly comes from spot purchasing, which means that the charity experiences peaks in demand without the core funding to ensure that staffing levels are sufficient to meet that demand. The other issue with spot funding is that it generates an increase in administration costs for Relate. That has already had a knock-on effect on its provision of additional services. It is considering no longer accepting further requests. Children and young people in other groups will be all the poorer if they are unable to access the excellent services of our local Relate.
Relate Derby and Southern Derbyshire is well known for its work with people with Asperger’s syndrome and their families. Relate offers live chat, e-mail and webcam counselling, which can be more suitable for different client groups, such as those with Asperger’s. That counselling might well disappear if no money can be found, even though the demand is even greater this year. Last year, Relate helped more than 250 families in the area in which there were people with Asperger’s. It is clear that the withdrawal of funding by Derby city council and the county council, and the change to funding structures for services, will have a profound and negative effect on the number of referrals that Relate can deal with and the ongoing support it can offer to stakeholders.
Jeopardising the provision of subsidised counselling has an impact not only on the relationships of the couples and families who need it, but on the police force, the health service, social services, the school system, the courts and the economy as a whole. As has been said, a report by the Relationships Foundation estimated that the total cost to the economy of relationship breakdown was some £46 billion. That is perhaps not surprising when one considers that those who have experienced the breakdown of a relationship often have poorer employment outcomes and poorer physical and mental health.
The consequences of conflict in the home are even more keenly felt by children; those who experience such situations typically have poorer outcomes in the classroom. Domestic violence is a substantial issue for a number of Relate’s clients. In fact, 23% of all those referred by the two councils are victims of domestic violence, but only 4% of those had reported the abuse and violence to any other agency. Relate is doing an incredibly valuable service that other agencies seem unable to do. It goes without saying that it is in the Government’s interest to ensure that affordable counselling is accessible.
While I am extremely pleased by the Government’s commitment to keeping families together—demonstrated by their £30 million investment in relationship support bodies over the life of this Parliament—there is still more to be done to support organisations such as Relate Derby and Southern Derbyshire, which provides incredible value for money and great expertise for local families. The Government should further promote the importance of relationships by requiring local authorities to recognise family relationships as a core responsibility, and ensure that they do not continue to be overlooked in favour of other priorities in local government funding decisions.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. Does she agree that local authorities should be required to measure levels of family breakdown in their locality? Family breakdown is a recognised index of social deprivation and a key driver of social disadvantage.
My hon. Friend makes a substantial point. If local authorities did that, they would have more information to go on, instead of just cutting funding without thinking about the consequences. The health and wellbeing boards could help fund some of the work done by organisations such as Relate; that would help. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.
My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) has done the House a great service in ensuring that we have this debate. It is such an important debate that it is a matter of regret that we are having it in Back-Bench time in Westminster Hall.
The effects of marital breakdown on society are enormous. It is a modern plague and it is causing not just expense but misery. We have to speak up about it all the time, because there is almost a conspiracy of silence about such issues. Over the past 50 years, a view has grown in our permissive society that people are happiest if they are completely liberated and can do what they want and say, “It is about me.” The Churches, successive Governments, schools, the BBC, national newspapers and we as Members of Parliament are all complicit in that permissive view of society, which has left a trail of despair in its wake.
Sir Paul Coleridge, the family division judge, has been mentioned. He is one of the very few people who have had the courage to speak about this matter. He deals with these issues every day of his working life. He warns of the “yawning public ignorance” of the mental effects on children of conflict between parents, even from birth. He is either retired or about to retire, and The Daily Telegraph said that he
“decided to step down because of opposition from within the judiciary to his support for traditional marriage. He has been placed under investigation and could be officially censured over comments last year criticising the Government for pushing through same-sex marriage legislation rather than tackling a ‘crisis of family breakdown’.”
He is a man who knows what is going on and he should be listened to.
I am grateful to the Library for its work on the briefing papers, but I do not want to quote a load of statistics, because we all know the truth. It is absolutely clear what is going on and there is no argument about it. The decline of traditional marriage has been an unalloyed disaster. People in government, in schools and in Churches are frightened of speaking out about this issue. They think that if they say they support traditional marriage, they are somehow criticising people who are not married or who, for all sorts of reasons that are not their fault, are no longer married, but that is not the case. Surely we can value everyone in society and how they live, while speaking out for what is right in society, which is marriage and people setting out to stay married if they want to bring up children.
Again, we are indebted to the Library for telling us what is going on. These are all statistics and facts. They are not made up by people who come here with a particular point of view. A story in The Daily Telegraph on a National Centre for Social Research study said:
“One in eight divorced or separated fathers has lost all contact with their children”.
Is that not dreadful? Is that not sad?
Indeed. One in eight divorced or separated fathers do not see their children at all. The Daily Telegraph story continues:
“Almost a million men in the UK are estimated to have dependent children with whom they do not live. Almost 130,000 of them have no contact at all with their children.”
A story in The Daily Telegraph on the British social attitudes survey said:
“The belief that couples should ideally get married before starting a family has effectively collapsed within a generation, the British Social Attitudes survey, the longest running and most authoritative barometer of public opinion in the UK, shows.
Only a minority of people now view marriage as the starting point for bringing up children, with support for that view almost halving in less than 25 years.”
Do we not have a responsibility for the change in social attitudes? We are told, “Britain has changed. You have to accept it,” but do we not have a right to speak up for what is right?
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that behind the statistics in the briefing papers are many human tragedies and stories? We are talking about people and lives. Does he also agree that the traditional family unit has been constantly under attack in our society? It is about time that the Government did more to encourage and strengthen the marriage bond, rather than airbrushing marriage from family policy documents.
Absolutely right; but it is the people at the bottom of the heap who suffer the most. We are not talking about society divorces in the 1950s. We are talking about hundreds of thousands of people living, effectively, a tragic life. The Marriage Foundation has interesting statistics, including:
“45 per cent of young teenagers (aged 13-15 years old) are not living with both parents…Half of all family breakdown takes place during the first two years”;
but—and this is the important point:
“Amongst parents who remain intact, 93 per cent are married…In sharp contrast, of the 47 per cent of children born to unmarried parents today, the report predicts that just 11 per cent will reach the age of 16 with unmarried parents still together.”
Marriage works. It is best for children. Every statistic proves it. Why are not the Churches, schools and Government crying that out from the roof tops?
My hon. Friend is making a passionate speech. He asks why Churches and schools do not recognise what many people say is the bleeding obvious, which is backed up by all the statistics. It is true that the previous Government had a good document supporting families, and the present Government have one. However, they do not give effect to the means by which we can strengthen marriage and those relationships, and send a clarion call out to people: “This is the way to lead your life—if you want a fulfilled life, you are more likely to have it through this means.”
The Government are making one effort. They have said that they will bring in a transferable allowance for married couples. It is a matter of regret and has already been noted that the Labour party spokesman is here alone. Fair enough—he will speak in a moment; but it is a matter of regret that the Labour party has continually laughed at the proposal from the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The Labour viewpoint is “This is rubbish and will not make any difference.” The fact is that if one member—usually the mother—of a married couple who are doing their best to bring up children decides to stay at home, they are uniquely disadvantaged by the tax and benefits system.
There are six key arguments that drive a coach and horses through the arguments against the transferable allowance. First, the UK is out of line with international convention in not recognising marriage in its tax system. We are virtually alone of all big countries. One-earner married couples—those who would benefit from a transferable allowance—are thereby at a serious disadvantage relative to comparable families. The second is the distributional argument: introducing a transferable allowance for married couples will disproportionately benefit those in the lower half of the income distribution. In that way, it is quite unlike the coalition policy of increasing the personal income tax threshold to £10,000.
The third argument is about the married couples allowance, which was dismissed by some as something of an anomaly, but which played a key role in sustaining one-earner families. The fourth argument is that a transferable allowance would help to make work more rewarding for many of the poorest in society. The fifth is that transferable allowances should be introduced as soon as possible to compensate for the attack on one-earner families resulting from the introduction of a higher-income child benefit charge. The sixth and final argument is the stay-at-home spouse argument; most one-earner families do not have the option of becoming two-earner couple families.
The Government are at least doing one small thing. It will not, on its own, persuade anyone to get married or stay married; but at last we have a statement. That is what we want today from the Minister—and from the Prime Minister and all Ministers. We want them to have the courage to stand up for traditional marriage. That is not just because the current situation is a modern plague that costs us £46 billion a year—it is not just about the cost. The point is the human misery that comes in its wake. That is why the debate is so important.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) warmly on obtaining the debate. I am extremely grateful to the colleagues who have been here throughout this debate on a matter of important public policy. It is an area where we politicians sometimes fear to tread, thinking that it is an aspect of personal life where we should not intrude, and that we should get back to the building of bridges, bypasses, hospitals and schools. I reject that argument entirely. The issue is one of public policy that affects the amount of tax we pay, how children do in school, the criminal justice system and pretty much every area of life.
In support of my view, I quote the Prime Minister. In a great speech to Relate in June 2008 he said that
“there are some who think politics should stay out of issues like relationships…I just think that’s incredibly superficial and short-sighted”.
“For too long, politicians here have been afraid of getting into this territory, for fear of looking old-fashioned or preachy.”
Those of us who support the thrust of his arguments are here with the full and explicit support of the Prime Minister, because he gets it. In his speech he said:
“The number one challenge we’ve got in this country today is to strengthen our society. There is no more important way of doing that than strengthening families, and there’s nothing more important to families than the strength of their relationships.”
I am delighted he said that. He continued by commenting that:
“helping people maintain strong relationships is not some fluffy alternative to reducing budget deficits—it is the way to reduce budget deficits, by reducing the demands on the state caused by family breakdown.”
In December 2010, as Prime Minister, he made another speech reiterating the important commitments he had made as Leader of the Opposition.
The parents of half the children born today will split up by the time the child is 15. By the age of 16, one in six children will not see their father at all. Cohabiting parents are sadly three times more likely than married couples to have separated by the time their child is five. A child whose parents split up is twice as likely to live in poverty as one whose parents stayed together, and has a 75% greater likelihood of underachievement at school. The Youth Justice Board says that 70% of children and young people in custody have an absent father. How much more evidence do we need that the issue is important, and a legitimate area of public policy? That is why those of us who care about it are here today. To me, it is a question of giving people the skills and support to make a success of the most important area of their lives; it is about reinforcing good habits and positive social norms.
The crisis is unfolding slowly and imperceptibly, without dramatic moments and media attention, but that is no excuse for not drawing attention to it. That is why the debate is so important, and why we look forward hugely to the Minister’s response. We want to encourage him to continue the good work begun by the Government. His boss, the Secretary of State for Education, who is charged with the matter, takes the issue seriously, too. He made an important speech to the Institute for Public Policy Research in August 2008 and considered the educational underperformance of children growing up in unstable families, citing important work by James Heckman of the university of Chicago.
We have been around the piece and we agree that we need to do something about the problem, so I want to be practical. I have five practical, positive steps that we could take. The first is to do with relationship support. There are some wonderful programmes today, and I want to give credit to them. My complaint is that often they are too small and piecemeal. I yearn to roll them out across the country so that they can be carried out to scale, to tackle the size and challenge of the problem. The first programme I want to mention is called As 2 Become 3, and is provided by Insights for Life, run by Bob and Jess Read as part of an antenatal package. That is important because dad is almost always there with mum as they go to the hospital for their antenatal courses, and the feedback about it has been tremendously good.
Let me quote what some couples said. Ali and Simone said of the course:
“The course also helped us make sure we share this 24/7 job and still find time for each other which is important as this is why the baby is here in the first place.”
Adrian and Britta, another couple, said:
“We discussed which values are most important to us, and how they could be developed and nurtured. Learning about different ways to manage conflict gave us permission to be more open and honest, and we now try to collaborate rather than merely compromising. It has been worth the extra effort as it has brought us closer.”
Many colleagues here have talked about the importance of giving people the skills and support of early intervention. Why is every single antenatal course in the country not signposting that course? Why is it not being made available in every single NHS hospital? If it is having good results and good outcomes, let us do it everywhere, not only in a few selected places.
The next course I would like to mention is Let’s Stick Together, which is run by Care for the Family. The Minister’s Department is giving funding to the Let’s Stick Together programme. Pilots are being run in different areas across the country, and we look forward to the evaluation of those. It is an hour’s course that is typically done for new parents in children’s centres. The feedback is really positive and people often want to go on and do more courses to keep their marriages and relationships strong. I celebrate that work; we should have more of it.
Another course, which is run by Family Action, is called Parents as Partners. It looks at parenting issues and encourages strong parenting, but all the academic evidence is that, as the relationship between mum and dad is strengthened, where the parents are together, the parenting outcomes are even better. I pay tribute to Family Action and the important work that it is doing.
This morning I had a briefing from Safe Families for Children, which is an excellent project to help vulnerable children. It involves early respite care for children whose parents are in deep difficulties, before the situation gets to the fostering stage. It has been run in the Chicago area very successfully, saving a lot of money there, and it has been rolled out in the north-east. I think the Minister has had an invitation from Sir Peter Vardy to go and see it, and I hope that he may be able to take that up at some point. Parents are most likely to split up just after a child has been born, so if parents can be given some space to deal with difficult issues, that can help the couple to stay together.
Last, but by no means least, I pay huge tribute to the work done by Holy Trinity Brompton, by Nicky and Sila Lee, who are the pioneers of the marriage preparation course, the marriage course, and the restored lives course, for people whose relationships have sadly split up—we must not forget such people, because we want to help them to rebuild their lives, so that they can build stronger relationships and marriages if they get the opportunity to marry again. That work is being looked at around the world. In Shanghai, they are very keen on the work of the marriage course. The Chinese Government get it in a big way and are copying in Shanghai what Nicky and Sila Lee are doing. That is the first area that I wanted to cover—practical things being done around the country. However, let us do them to scale and make sure that there is proper signposting in all those areas.
Secondly, I want those courses, and others which have not yet come to my attention but are no doubt happening, to have a kitemark—a Government seal of approval—so that public authorities such as local authorities, hospitals and others can refer people to them with confidence, knowing that proper provision is made and people’s qualifications and other standards will be acceptable. That would be hugely helpful, so that directors of public health, people running family centres, local authorities and so on could signpost such courses with confidence.
The third area I want to address, which has been mentioned by some colleagues, is local authority and local council engagement. I believe that if we value something, we measure it, and we also measure what we value. It is therefore really important that local authorities know what is going on in terms of relationship health in their areas. If local authorities saw the extent of family breakdown in their area, they would be more determined to do something about it. They have the opportunity to do so through their child poverty strategies, which need to address family breakdown. If they saw that an area was worse than another similar area, they would ask why that was and what that other area was doing better. They would perhaps want providers of some of the courses that I mentioned to come in and do something about it.
In my area, I set up the Bedfordshire Family Trust. We run couple strengthening courses. We get people coming to them and know that the courses work and that people appreciate them. That is the sort of thing that local authorities should be able to refer people to in order to save their budgets on housing, care placements and so on, because, as we know, local authorities have to watch the pennies at the moment. That is the third area where I would like to see action.
The fourth issue is public health, and that shows why family is so important. We have a Minister from the Department for Education here and I do not expect him to be an expert on health issues, but he will have heard colleagues mention health earlier. We know that there are significant implications and health costs, and that poor-quality relationships can lead to increases in alcohol consumption and cardiovascular disease, and linked problems with childhood obesity and diabetes.
As the chair of the all-party group on strengthening couple relationships, I was hugely surprised by one fact. We issued a report earlier this year called “Relationships: the missing link in public health”. Just listen to the data on coronary artery bypass grafting, which is perhaps not something that people would have thought was directly linked to the quality of relationships. The facts are that:
“The quality of couple relationships also has a remarkable impact on survival rates after bypass surgery, with married people being 2.5 times more likely to be alive 15 years after coronary artery bypass grafting (CABG) than those who are not married, and those in high-satisfaction marriages being 3.2 times more likely to be alive 15 years after CABG compared with those reporting low marital satisfaction”.
That is a reason to have a strong marriage, if no other.
On that fourth point, the cost to the health service of people with long-term conditions is huge. When couples are together and can support each other in older age, we save a huge amount for the health service. That is another reason why we have to take public health seriously.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) on securing the debate, and I thank all those who contributed. There have been some very interesting points made.
I was particularly keen on some of the practical suggestions made by the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), who is the chair of the all-party group on strengthening couple relationships, as he said. Looking at the group’s minutes, I was struck by some of the issues identified, especially by Dr Lester Coleman of the OnePlusOne charity. He emphasised that those who are more engaged at work enjoy a better quality of relationship. That may be because they are more personally fulfilled and more secure in their personal identity, and therefore are better able to give and share. That would seem to be an argument for making it easier for those who wish to work to do so, and is perhaps also an argument for supporting child care, which is a very important part of the Labour party’s policy, especially at a time when the cost of child care is rising so dramatically.
Apparently, parents, as opposed to non-parents, also experience better-quality relationships, and although I would be the first to accept that many contented couples do not have children, that finding suggests to me that we may need to do all we can to support those who wish to be parents. That might include measures such as those that the Government have embarked on to improve adoption. It might mean working harder to broaden the range of people who can adopt and foster. In some cases, it might mean making fertility treatment available to more couples on the NHS.
I also understand that Dr Coleman says that where there is greater work-family conflict, that can have quite a negative impact on the quality of relationships. Of course, that brings to mind all the arguments about making work flexible, so that it fits in with families, and the issue of the living wage, which we comment on from time to time. I am not sure that all of that has received enough attention in the debate so far.
It is perhaps also worth noting that in the YouGov survey commissioned by Relate, to which the hon. Member for Aldershot referred, 59% of respondents were concerned about the strain that money worries were placing on their relationship, which of course is one reason why we on this side of the House take so much time to emphasise the problems of the cost of living at the moment.
I think that I can speak for my side of the House, Mr Streeter. When it comes to strengthening couple relationships, the hon. Member for Aldershot has been clear. He is talking about heterosexual couples. We learned about his views on this issue during the debate on same-sex marriage. He has repeated them honestly today in this debate and in his ePolitix article, in which he states that marriage
“for the majority of Conservative MPs can only be between a man and a woman”.
I do not think that in this day and age it is possible to make such a narrow distinction, because whatever the views of individuals, the law and society are clear: “couple relationships” can mean married, cohabiting, heterosexual and homosexual relationships, however difficult that is for some people to accept. I acknowledge that many people put great store by traditional marriage, but that does not mean that we can deny the reality of what we see around us.
What the hon. Gentleman has heard throughout this debate, though, is that all the evidence has shown that cohabiting couple households—I am referring to the statistics relating to family disorder, the breakdown of family life and so on—are much more akin to single-parent households than to married couple households. No one is saying that people have to live that lifestyle, but the facts suggest to us that there is one lifestyle in this country that is likely to produce a happier outcome and is better for children, and that is marriage. His right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), a former Secretary of State for the Home Department, said that himself, so why cannot the hon. Gentleman accept it?
As a divorcé, I do not feel that my divorce has prevented me from being able to have a further solid relationship; nor has it prevented me from having a strong parental role or from being part of a family.
It is interesting that the Government’s most explicit policy to support marriage, the married couple’s tax allowance—we heard quite a lot about that from the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh)—is available only to one third of married couples. The proposals are really designed for the situation in which one partner does not work outside the home or earns very little. It is really a policy for stay-at-home mums, which is perhaps slightly at odds with some of Dr Coleman’s suggestions. Of course, it is available only for married mums, not for widows, cohabiting mums or anyone like that. Perhaps most astonishingly of all, it is available for the love rat who deserts his wife and family and runs off with someone else’s wife. He can remarry and claim the allowance. That strikes me as a slightly perverse way of strengthening couple relationships.
The other thing that is slightly strange about the policy is that it applies to only 4 million of the 12.3 million married couples, and it is not clear what impact it will have on children, given that pensioner families make up more than one third of the beneficiaries. In fact, only 35% of the 30% of families who gain from the policy have children, and only 17% have children under the age of five. It is hardly a well targeted policy if its aim is to support the concerns raised by the hon. Gentleman.
I want to draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to the international facts. If we look across the OECD, we see that the UK is very much an exception in not recognising marriage at all in the tax system. In fact, it is really just us and Mexico alone among all the OECD countries that do not recognise it; 80% of the population of OECD countries live under a system in which marriage is recognised.
I was talking about the efficacy of a particular measure. Despite the doom and gloom, if we accept that not all relationships come in the form that the hon. Member for Aldershot would like to see—I accept that that is his view, and I understand that he holds it sincerely—the Relate survey to which I referred has some interesting observations. Let me pay tribute to the comments by the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham) about Relate. I agree: I think that it is an excellent organisation that we should protect. The Relate survey paints a slightly rosier picture. It found that 93% of people said that, when times were hard, relationships within their family were important. Although the media sometimes presents our society as one in which family relationships have broken down, Relate could not find evidence that that was the case overall. According to its survey, families—albeit sometimes new families or reconstituted families—remain the backbone of our support systems.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) for raising this deeply important subject, and for stoically being here despite his heavy cold.
Like all those who contributed this afternoon, I believe that strong and stable families are the backbone of a strong and stable society—the key to ensuring that children grow up in a loving environment and develop into healthy and fulfilled adults. That is why the Government have invested significantly in supporting families and couple relationships, as well as the institution of marriage—because we understand the crucial role that the family plays in providing a foundation for a child’s development and success in later life. I saw that for myself in my own personal and professional life before coming to Parliament, so I need no persuading of the merits of a strong, stable and loving family environment in bringing about a better society.
Although the view that I have set out is based partly on what we know intrinsically works, and the values that help to improve and enhance lives, we also know from research that happy relationships lead to better physical and emotional well-being for all involved. The fact is that the quality of the relationship between parents is strongly linked to positive parenting and better outcomes for children. Family stability is key for children. Sustained parental relationships are associated with a range of positive childhood, adolescent and adult outcomes, including in respect of cognitive development, education—my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State himself said that in his speech to the Institute for Public Policy Research in 2008—better job prospects and less propensity to commit crime, as well as in relation to health. My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) raised important points about how health outcomes could be improved with the right support for relationships, and measures that we know help to achieve that. I will take away her comments about the health outcomes framework and the role of the health and wellbeing board, and I will discuss the matter with Ministers in the Department of Health to ensure that it is properly considered as those aspects of the health system develop further.
On attachment, which is a vital part of understanding whether a relationship is positive or not, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence will for the first time produce guidelines on what constitutes a secure attachment, which will be an extremely useful addition. Conflict between parents is detrimental to children’s outcomes, hence the high priority we are giving to supporting all couple relationships, particularly those of people who are married. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot told us, evidence shows us that the children of married parents do better than those of cohabiting parents, particularly on measures of social and emotional development at the ages of three and five. We need to ensure that all under-fives receive the best possible support, so such evidence is important.
Centre for Social Justice reports, which many hon. Members have brought with them, have starkly illustrated the considerable emotional, social and economic costs associated with the breakdown of families. As my hon. Friends the Members for Aldershot and for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham) have reminded us, those costs amount to an astonishing £46 billion a year, which is not far off the total annual budget for educating all our children.
Important life events, including the transition to parenthood, relocation or changes in employment, can contribute to relationship stress. We must do what we can to encourage couples to take up support at an earlier stage—the early prevention that hon. Members have mentioned in this debate—to ensure that they get through difficult events in their lives. My time at the family Bar has shown me the devastating consequences of not doing so, not only for adults but, perhaps even more importantly, for any children involved. To bring that about, and by virtue of the strong prime ministerial steer, the Government have committed £30 million over the spending review period from 2011 to 2015, which puts funding for relationship support on a much more stable long-term footing. That gives us greater encouragement that we can get couples to use relationship support services.
The Department is funding a range of providers to deliver relationship support services, including one that my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) highlighted: the Parents as Partners evidence-based intervention programme delivered by Family Action, which works with couples who are particularly likely to face relationship stress or be at risk of relationship breakdown. There is also a series of campaigns and culture change messages aimed at employers, new parents and young people to raise awareness and encourage them to seek help on relationships. There is training for early years workers and managers, to help them to encourage positive relationships between parents, and to engage better with fathers, in particular, on relationships and parenting. The public policy agenda is being developed—a point made by my hon. Friend—through the formation of the Relationships Alliance, which I know he has been instrumental in helping to bring together.
I take on board the point that my hon. Friend made about the need to scale up some of those excellent services, and the Relationships Alliance is well placed to help achieve that. In my ongoing discussions with the alliance—I am meeting representatives next week—I am sure that that will be on the agenda. All those valuable services are provided by expert organisations. Many hon. Members have praised the work done by such organisations, which include Relate, Marriage Care, the Tavistock Centre for Couple Relationships and OnePlusOne. Those four organisations, which launched the Relationships Alliance in the House of Commons in November, will be key in helping to establish a much more coherent and cohesive message on what is available to those who need support.
I thank the Minister for his constructive personal concern and his comments so far. We have heard today that the issue straddles many different areas: education, local government, the criminal justice system and health and well-being. Would it not be helpful to appoint a dedicated Minister to tackle this issue? Care for the Family has said that it feels as though there is no one in government waking up every morning thinking about this key social policy as a priority. After all that we have heard today, should not there be?
As the Minister with responsibility for children and families, I have sympathy with the need to raise the issue across Government and to ensure that all Departments play an active role in establishing what works and delivering it, but as my hon. Friend will acknowledge, I am not in a position to start appointing new Ministers or Departments. Forums are available to bring the topic together across Government; in particular, the social justice committee, which is chaired by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, has a strong interest in the subject and is well placed to hold such cross-government discussions.
We are doing a significant amount to support families but we must recognise that, sadly, parents separate. When that happens, it can be a difficult time in which families need support on a range of issues. That is why we are improving the information, advice and support available to separated parents outside the court system to help them focus on their children’s needs and to agree workable arrangements for post-separation parenting. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) rightly said, the Children and Families Bill, which is currently in the other place, includes provision to highlight the importance of a child having a relationship with both parents following family breakdown, provided that to do so is safe and in the child’s best interests. The welfare of the individual child must be the court’s paramount consideration, but, subject to that, the parental involvement clause requires courts to presume that the child’s welfare is furthered by the involvement of each parent who can be safely involved. By making clear the basis on which the court makes those decisions, that provision is intended to encourage parents to reach agreement themselves about their child’s care without recourse to the court.
Before my hon. Friend the Minister sits down, may I thank him for the serious attention that he is paying to the issue? We hope that we can support him in raising it up the Government’s agenda. Before we conclude, may I also thank you, Mr Streeter, for all that you have done in this field?
It is remiss of me not to have directed similar praise to you, Mr Streeter, and I concur with the words that have just come in your direction.
The Government have commissioned two key pieces of work that will inform future policy makers and commissioners, because problems often start with poor commissioning decisions. That will help in areas such as Mid Derbyshire that want to move away from short-term, spot-purchasing solutions towards something more sustainable. Those two key pieces of work are an independent evaluation of relationship support interventions and a cross-government review of the family stability indicator of the social justice strategy.
Although significant evidence points to the importance of the quality of adult couple relationships to child outcomes, we know from various reviews of literature that there is limited evidence from within the UK about which relationship support practice has the most positive impact on adult and child outcomes. My Department has consequently commissioned research to test the effectiveness of several relationship support interventions, some of which we have already heard about—“Let’s Stick Together”, which my hon. Friends the Members for Congleton and for South West Bedfordshire have mentioned, as well as marriage preparation and couple counselling—to evaluate whether they are as effective as we would like. That report is due at the end of the month.
It would be remiss of anyone not to welcome a fall in the divorce rate, but the fact is that it is still far too high. That is why our emphasis is on working with couples at the earliest opportunity so that they never have to reach that stage in their relationship.
The debate has been informative, passionate and serious. Although the Government have done a lot of work in this area, we recognise that there is still work to do, not only on the ground to improve relationship support, but in the messages that come from Government about how we build strong relationships across society. The past 50 years have seen a seismic shift in the structure and composition of families in this country. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot rightly acknowledged, we should respect many of the reasons why that has happened, but we cannot accept the erosion of marriage and the many well evidenced benefits that it brings to society. That is why the Government are committed to supporting marriage. The marriage tax break is a step in the right direction that will help to ensure that all the attributes marriage brings with it flourish and do not wither.