I beg to move,
That this House has considered marriage and Government policy.
I am pleased to have secured this debate and grateful for the opportunity to speak to this important subject. I am also pleased to see a good number of Members here; I hope that is a sign of support for the promotion of the importance of marriage in Government policy. I welcome the Minister and wish him well in his new role.
In a week’s time, we will celebrate the 21st national Marriage Week. It will be 20 years ago this summer that I married my wife Tamsin Thomas. She tells the tale that when she met me, she was Christmas shopping and I was standing on a street corner with a bottle of methylated spirits. That is true, but it does not exactly explain the situation.
I would be wrong if I said that we had been happily married for 20 years—that it had been idyllic and that there had been no challenges. There have been considerable challenges; when she moved into my home, I found her moving the cutlery in the cutlery drawer frustrating enough. But I recognise that over those 20 years I have had a wife who has raised my children and been a tremendous support to me. I have been no help at all: I spent years working on the marriage and then left her to come to this place. I give credit to my wife and all the wives and husbands of Members across the House who are so supportive in the work that we do. I recognise the challenge of having strong and healthy marriages and couple relationships in which we raise our children.
It is now seven years since a Government Minister took the opportunity to set out the Government’s approach to promoting marriage in a speech during Marriage Week. When we last debated this issue in 2017, the Minister’s predecessor but one tried to reassure Members that
“the Department intends to continue to work very hard to ensure that marriage gets the support it needs to continue being a strong bedrock for the families and the children for whom we want to secure the best possible outcomes in the future.”—[Official Report, 1 February 2017; Vol. 620, c. 389WH.]
I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman will come to this in his speech, but my constituents raise with me on repeated occasions at my Friday surgeries the difficulties that the Home Office places on their marriages. They cannot see their spouses because they live abroad and cannot get into the country. Does he agree that by not allowing people to live out their marriages, the Home Office is undermining people’s relationships?
I intend to demonstrate that the Government need to look clearly, across Government policy and Departments, at their role in promoting and protecting marriages and families. I will not be particularly interested in the issue that the hon. Lady mentioned in her intervention, but I am sure that there will be an opportunity to tackle that subject as we go on.
The Minister said that the Department intended to continue to work very hard to support marriage, but some weeks later it omitted the word altogether in its plans to support the poorest families in our country. Many Members will join me in making what I think is a simple request: for the Minister to ensure that no serious policy document is published by his Department without some reference to improving the stability of families through marriage. I hope the Minister might make that commitment today.
Research shows that unmarried parents are six times more likely to break up before their first child’s fifth birthday. By the time a British teenager is studying for their GCSEs, they are three times more likely to live with both their birth parents if those parents are married. Three in five children born to unmarried parents experience family breakdown before they reach their teenage years. In fact, by the time children take their GCSEs, nearly all parents—93%—who stay together are married. Put simply, family stability is found in marriage. Why do we continue to ignore that? We know that family breakdown causes poverty.
More alarming still is the gap in marriage between those families living in poverty and their middle-class neighbours. Marriage is disappearing from our poorest communities as it is disappearing from Government policy. Almost 90% of middle earners get married, compared with only a quarter of couples on low incomes. If we had that sort of gap between rich and poor in health, education or probably any other policy area, there would be immediate outcry followed by determined action. On that basis, and remembering the maxim “what gets measured gets done”, I suggest that the Minister does something within his power. Will he ask his Department to look into the marriage gap, publish official figures for rates of marriage by family income, and make that a departmental metric for measuring stability in families?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I warmly welcome the Minister to his place; we all look forward to his response. Was my hon. Friend as struck as I was by the Centre for Social Justice and the Family Stability Network’s research showing that nearly 80% of young people aged 14 to 17 aspire to a lasting relationship and find that as important to them as a long-term career?
I welcome that comment. It is encouraging to know that there is still a commitment by the public, including among young people, and a natural, in-built desire to have a long and lasting stable relationship.
In recent years, the Government’s evidence on what causes poverty now and in the future has identified family instability as a root cause. Children in families that break apart are two and a half times as likely to experience long-term poverty and have almost double the risk of living in relative poverty than couple families.
I know the Government would wish to tell a positive story about their efforts to encourage work as the best route out of poverty. Despite significant progress, lone parents still have double the unemployment and more than three times the underemployment than couple families. Last year, the Department for Work and Pensions published data that showed that the children of parents who have separated are eight times more likely to live in a workless family than those whose parents have stayed together.
None of what I have said is ever meant to stigmatise lone parents, who face some of the most serious challenges, but it should make the Minister, his Department and Government across the board consider how we can reduce those figures by supporting families to stay together. Those statistics alone should alarm us. The break-up of families more than doubles the chances of experiencing poverty—two and half times the poverty risk and eight times the risk of worklessness. Not all couples are married, but we should reflect on where stability is found because the statistics are compelling.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Michael Tomlinson) mentioned that the Government have no reason to shy away from this subject. There is public support for marriage. There is some good news to be found in public attitudes and there is new evidence that the Government should not be afraid to talk about marriage. Last year, the Centre for Social Justice published opinion research that showed that almost half the public feel that marriage has become less important over the last few decades and agree that that is a bad thing, including 47% of adults in social grades C2, D and E, where breakdown is most acute. When people were prompted to consider the role of Government in supporting marriage, more than seven out of 10 agreed that marriage is important and that Government should support married couples, including more than two thirds of adults in social grades C2, D and E. We should all remember that the public support a Government talking about marriage.
I was privileged to be able to put my name to the strengthening families manifesto launched last year. The manifesto sets out some entirely sensible recommendations designed to strengthen the family unit and address many of the difficulties that I have briefly touched on. Among many sensible suggestions, the manifesto calls on Government to appoint a Cabinet-level Minister to ensure that family polices are prioritised and co-ordinated. It simply asks that in each Department there is a senior Minister responsible for delivering policies to strengthen families and for carrying out family impact assessments—something the Conservative Government had previously committed to
Since arriving in this place, I have often heard that the Government aspire to Britain’s being a world leader on a whole raft of subjects that include innovation and research. The sad truth is that we seem to be a world leader on family breakdown, with half of all young people no longer living with both parents by the time they sit their GCSEs. There are obvious reasons why the Government would want to address this very important issue.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I am sympathetic to many of his points, but he raises a broader point about cohabiting couples and the benefits of a solid family base for supporting children and young people. What additional measures does he suggest should be put in place to support people who do not want to get married to live together and raise a family?
I believe that measures to support marriage, whether through taxation or by supporting and encouraging people who are considering marrying or moving in together, would actually support all people who are living together in families like those my hon. Friend describes.
I do not believe that promoting marriage or putting in place measures to support married couples would discriminate against any other type of family unit; it would help to strengthen them and give them access to support. I recognise—I hinted at this earlier—that moving into a family home together is a challenge for people and that unexpected difficulties often arise, so it is right that we should do what we can to help.
My hon. Friend is right that promoting and supporting marriage is not about saying that every other choice is bad, but it is worth recognising that marriage and cohabitation are fundamentally different relationships. Too often they are elided together as though there is just a marginal difference. There is not: there are fundamental reasons why people choose to cohabit, which are hugely due to their level of commitment. A good example of that is that when a child is born to a married couple, the likelihood of that couple breaking up falls dramatically, but when a child is born to a cohabiting couple, the likelihood of that couple breaking up accelerates dramatically. That shows there is a fundamental difference between the two, so it is important to look at them separately.
As I said, by the time they do their GCSEs, 93% of teenagers whose parents are still together have married parents, so I support what my right hon. Friend says.
There are obvious reasons why the Government should want to address this important issue. We all want our children and young people to have the very best life chances, we want our communities and schools to thrive, and we want our working age population to enjoy fulfilled lives. As the Prime Minister said, we want a country that works for everyone. That said, no Government can solve such a complex and sensitive problem single-handedly, so the Government urgently need to provide a lead and play their part alongside local partners—councils, charities and businesses—to prioritise strengthening families, which are the bedrock of a healthy society.
In conclusion, will the Minister’s Department renew its commitment in this area? If it does, we will need to consider policies to support marriage, and I am aware of many colleagues—many of whom are in the Chamber—and policy organisations, such as the Centre for Social Justice, who would help in that endeavour. I invite the Minister to convene a ministerial working group on marriage in the coming weeks, to coincide with the 21st national Marriage Week, to thrash out a way forward and some sensible policy recommendations.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way during his concluding remarks. It is really important for us, especially as Conservatives, to think about how we can support individuals. Marriage can be good, but a lot of marriages fail.
We need to be careful that Government policy does not hold up a paradigm of perfection for what marriage could be when, for many people, it does not necessarily work out. Of course we want stability, but as Conservatives we should support individuals to lead strong and fulfilled lives. I hope that my hon. Friend agrees that Government policy should focus on supporting individuals rather than on enforcing a paradigm.
I would, of course, expect any Government—particularly a Conservative Government—to support individuals to have fulfilled lives, but no one enters a marriage expecting it to fall apart. The Government have a role in supporting people and giving them the best possible chance to make marriage work, for the various reasons I have outlined.
I would welcome action from the Minister, whom I welcome again to his new role. I hope that marriage is a happy and rewarding subject for him and is at the forefront of his mind as he begins his work at the Department.
I apologise in advance that I will not be able to stay for the whole debate; I am a member of the Select Committee on Health, which is sitting at the moment, and I need to attend that, too.
We need to tread gently in this area. Marriage is often an issue of great cultural controversy, but it does not need to be. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Luke Graham) said, we represent every single one of our constituents, whatever their family situation, but that does not mean that we should not strongly support healthy, respectful and mutually encouraging marriages. We can do both those things without creating unnecessary cultural controversy.
Of course I recognise that some marriages need to end. My parents sadly divorced, and—my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) said something similar—my wife would say that I have often been very much less than a perfect husband. However, I am strongly pro-marriage as a public institution, for three reasons. First, we know that it reduces poverty. I came into the House to reduce poverty. I spoke about it in my maiden speech; for me, it is at the heart of what the Conservative party is about.
Secondly, marriage increases wellbeing across an enormous range of indicators—perhaps a wider range than we realise. On any measure—overall physical and mental health, income, savings, employment, educational success, general life contentment and happiness, sexual satisfaction, and even recovery from serious disease and healthy diet and exercise—married people rate markedly and consistently better. We should want the best possible wellbeing for all our constituents.
Thirdly, I believe that sustainable public finances are the only future for this country, and strong families and marriages are essential to helping the Government live within their means. Given his portfolio in the Department for Work and Pensions, the Minister will be well aware of that.
There are lots of reasons to be positive about marriage. We sometimes approach the subject slightly gloomily, as if it is all going irreversibly downhill and there is nothing we can do about it, but I am grateful to the Marriage Foundation and Paul Coleridge for giving us reasons to be cheerful at the start of 2018. It is a fact that most marriages—around 62%, according to the Marriage Foundation—still last for life. Most parents who marry before having children stay together, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith) said. Most marriages are happy, and the divorce rate is at its lowest since 1973. The trend away from marriage has stopped; its popularity is stabilising. Marriage has remained consistently strong among certain income groups. Finally, this is a royal wedding year. Will and Kate’s wedding in 2011 was followed by the biggest increase in marriage since the war—weddings increased by 23% in the first quarter of 2012 and by 11% in the second quarter—so we might well see something similar after May.
I am concerned by the social divide in marriage. The better-off have always married in large numbers, and they continue to do so, but in our poorest communities, which have the most challenging circumstances, the marriage rate is plummeting. It is my strong contention that a respectful, healthy, mutually enabling marriage is a bulwark against poverty and all the difficulties that life throws at us from time to time.
I have four policy requests of the Minister. First, will he ensure that registrars, who conduct about 70% of weddings, signpost people to good-quality marriage preparation in their area? That is not difficult to do, and we are not talking about forcing people to do anything. However, there is generally good feedback from people who do marriage preparation, and they often want to follow it up with marriage MOTs later on to keep the marriage strong, which is also a sensible idea. Can we therefore please do something to spread good-quality marriage preparation, followed by marriage enrichment later on?
Secondly, can we do something in antenatal education for all families? At that time, mums and dads turn up in huge numbers before a child is born, so let us do something to strengthen relationships then.
Thirdly, the Government are about to launch guidance on relationships and sex education. We need to talk about marriage there, while recognising that families come in many different shapes. It is crucial that marriage is not absent from that document, and those of us on the Government Benches will expect to see it.
Finally, I reiterate the point made eloquently by my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives. We need to measure this issue. We value what we measure, and we measure what we value. We need to get marriage back in the statistics. We need to know what is happening, to track it and to ensure there is an upward trend.
I congratulate the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on securing the debate. I was happy to go to the Backbench Business Committee and support him in his request, and I am happy to see the culmination of that request. I am well known as a supporter of marriage, especially in Government policy. I have been happily married for 30-plus years—believe it or not, 30-odd years ago I had thick, curly black hair. Then, I needed a brush; now I just need a chamois.
The fact of the matter is that I have supported married life over a long period, I am totally committed to it and I want to see Government policy on it. Since I came to the House in 2010, I and the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), who is in her place—she will not mind me saying this, because it is true—have shared in many issues of common concern, and this is one of them. In the past, she has worked consciously in the Conservative party, as I have done in the Democratic Unionist party, to try to formulate Government policy. By working together across parties—not just in the confidence and supply agreement that we have now, but long before that—we have had some success with the marriage allowance. We were instrumental in making that Government policy. I want to put that on the record early on.
I and my party worked extremely hard to bring in marriage tax allowance transfers as a recognition of the stabilising effect that marriage provides to our community. The public policy benefits of marriage are significant. The hon. Member for St Ives outlined some of them, and I will add these facts and figures: three quarters of breakdowns of families with children under five come from the separation of non-married parents; children are 60% more likely to have contact with separated fathers if the parents were married; the prevalence of mental health issues among children of cohabiting parents is more than 75% greater than among children of married parents; and children from broken homes are nine times more likely to become young offenders—they account for 70% of all young offenders.
Those are some key figures. However, I want to be clear: in no way whatsoever am I am attempting to say that the only unit that works is the married family unit. I see this in my office every week, and just now my staff will be dealing with many people who are single parents. I see hundreds of wonderful women who singlehandedly run their homes, and their children are well adjusted and thriving. I increasingly see single men taking on the two-parent role and doing a great job. As the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) said, society is changing, and we have got to look at that. The intervention from the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Luke Graham) reaffirmed that. We must adjust our focus and way of thinking to how things are today.
I understand as much as the next person that marriage is hard and relationships are hard. Sometimes, no matter how much one person may try, it simply will not work. In our relationship, my wife has been understanding. The hon. Member for St Ives referred to time away, and most of my life has been away from home. My wife reared the children and now has the role of rearing the grandchildren as well. Simply, people have to try hard, otherwise it will not work.
I have also seen too many women widowed in the troubles. I relate very much to that, back home in Northern Ireland, where women have to be both mother and father to their child in the midst of tremendous grief and ensure that their child has not simply a house to live in, but a home to grow in. The role of those tasked with the responsibility of looking after children is so important. I make no judgment on anyone’s ability to provide a great home for their child being intrinsically linked with marriage, but statistics show why I believe that marriage is key and why it should be key in any Government policy. I wish the Minister well in his new role.
One massive issue to recognise is that the commitment of marriage is a driver for stability, quite apart from wealth. Crucially, even the poorest 20% of married couples are more stable than all but the richest 20% of cohabiting couples. In that context, it is entirely appropriate that our tax system now recognises marriage. That is something we pushed for and the Government recognised in the previous Parliament. It is good to have that.
The hon. Gentleman is making a good point about income and marriage. The Government seem to recognise that in the tax system, but not in the immigration system. I have a constituent who had tried to bring his wife here since 2007. Gladly, she has now arrived, but he was short by £7 over the whole year in his salary and the Government refused to operate any discretion to allow her to come from Iran.
I agree; I have faced many similar cases in my constituency office. I look to the Immigration Minister and her Department to be fair and allow for some flexibility in the process. To be just a few pounds short is frustrating. We have a system to work within, but we make our cases on behalf of our constituents and their wives and spouses in other parts of Europe, the United States, Africa and even further afield in the far east. The difficulties are around financial contributions, so we need a flexible Government and flexible policy. That is not this Minister’s responsibility, but it is another’s.
As I have said before, the case for change is compounded by the fact that the Government spend more money on supporting marriage through the much more generous married couples allowance than they do through the new marriage allowance. The married couples allowance applies to married couples in which one or both spouses were born before 6 April 1935, while the new marriage allowance applies to one-earner married couples on basic income tax. While £245 million was spent on the married couples allowance, just £210 million was spent on the marriage allowance during 2015-16. The former can reduce a tax bill by between £326 and £844.50 a year, but the latter does so by only up to £230 a year. That is a help, but it does not fulfil the aim. It is important to have those facts and figures on the record in Hansard so that we can see where the differences are and where we need change. I hope that others agree.
It is absolutely right that we recognise the public policy benefits of marriage for adult wellbeing at all ages. However, given the special benefits in relation to child development, it seems strange that we should afford the marriages of couples in their 80s and 90s, whose children left home long ago, greater recognition than those in which the public policy benefits could reach both adults and children.
We need a system that addresses families and children rather than those who are long past that stage. In that context, the Government should introduce a fully transferable allowance and pay for it by reducing its scope to married couples with young children. That would do away with the problem of low take-up by ensuring that the allowance is really meaningful for those who are eligible. At the very least, the marriage allowance for those with pre-school children should be increased so that no marriage of a couple in their 80s or 90s is recognised more—and not, indeed, by £844.50—than that of a couple with young children. Rather than just spending the same sum on a reduced pool of married couples, we need some change in the system.
I briefly referred in the Chamber, during the Budget debate, to the ComRes polling from last November; this is for those who follow ComRes and perhaps fill in their forms whenever they come. The poll demonstrated that increasing the marriage allowance is much more popular, with 58% support, than bringing in yet further increases in the personal allowance, which got 21% support. If we are looking for something that is more acceptable to the general public—we need to be conscious and cognisant of that—here is a simple system.
The cost of the further projected increases in the personal allowance to £12,500 is £4 billion, the majority of which will go, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies has demonstrated, to those in the top half of the income distribution. By contrast, any increase in the marriage allowance would disproportionately benefit those in the bottom half of the income distribution.
If we take away housing benefit from couples who get married, and reduce working tax credit for families who marry and move in together, we make it less appealing for people to make that final commitment. We have outlined the social benefits of marriage, and the Government should feed something into that and make it more attractive for people who love each other and are in a committed relationship to marry. That is what my heart as well as my voice says, and what would benefit families and communities throughout the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I ask the Minister seriously to consider the issue of the marriage allowance and how to achieve what we set out to do in putting that in place. Many in the House, including many of those present for the debate, think the same.
I welcome the Minister to his place. I have worked with him over a long time, and having run the Department I have a fair idea of the challenges that lie ahead of him. I am going to add to them. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on obtaining the debate, particularly this week, of all weeks.
Under the previous Prime Minister I was nominated to construct the family test against which everything was going to be measured. When I finally left—of my own volition, by the way—at no stage had I managed to get agreement from any of the key players about what it would consist of. While there was a principle, which was that the Prime Minister wanted a test that all decisions would be set against, the reality was that the Treasury in particular was not keen on any of it. I urge the Minister to press for a definition of the family test, by which all the effects of policy decisions could be looked at to see whether they would damage the family or make things more difficult. That would make logical sense.
I want to be brief, as I just want to make a start on a couple of issues, beginning by asking what the debate is not about. The trouble is that we all tiptoe around and get amazingly worried about the word. We think: “If I mention marriage, does that automatically mean worrying about whether marriages break up or other people do not choose to get married, and so on?” I know of nothing else in the purview of government where such a fear reigns in quite that way. We do not talk about business policy on the basis that some businesses will fail. We do not immediately say, “We must not talk about business or try to set policy to help businesses survive.” We do those things, because it is logical. Of course, in society as in economic life there will always be things that do not work out, but that does not mean people should set their life around what does not work out. If we all did that, frankly we would look a lot like North Korea. The point is we do not do it, so let us now make policy around what works and what is clear.
Marriage, frankly—this is not an arrogant statement—is probably the most fundamental institution that society has ever managed to construct to make society better, give children a better chance and improve the incomes and wellbeing of those within the process, as has been said. That is not to say that when, sadly, a marriage breaks up we should not do our level best to help people, and try to find them a better way and support them. That is critical. However, it means there is a need to recognise a couple of features. I am chairman of the Centre for Social Justice, which has been making this argument for some time, and we did a poll. What we found was the thing that always most intrigues me: when young people between about 18 and 28 were asked without reference to marriage what one thing they aspired to more than anything else, more than 70% aspired to be married, with stable families and a happy life. They did not aspire to be brilliantly successful at business; that was not their No. 1 aspiration. They did not aspire to have a fast car or a smart house. Their aspiration was for a social arrangement that would deliver them a happy outcome for the rest of their lives.
In any other area of life we would worry about such aspirations never being met by the reality. What, then, given that young people start with that aspiration, are we doing to make it less likely that they will achieve it? If that happened with respect to any other process, in school or in society, and we said “That is not a problem,” then of course we would be causing damage, but in this case we walk away from the issue. My arguments about policies on marriage are not to do with favouring marriage. I do not think it needs to be favoured in any way. People’s basic instinct and sense of direction will take them towards the thing that benefits them and their families most. I am certain that that is the nature of the situation. The question we really need to ask is what we do that stops people who have that aspiration getting to where they aspire to be.
I have a couple of points to make about that, beginning with the OECD’s view of what it costs for two people to live together, in comparison to the cost of living for one person. It makes a base calculation and comes up with a figure. It is not the same as two people together—the calculation includes how savings can be made within a couple. We understand and accept that. The UK, peculiarly—this emanates from the Treasury and every other Department—somehow takes the view that we need to go further. Financial policy here makes it more difficult than it is in almost any other country for a couple—particularly if they are married—to stay together. The cost of getting married is higher here than in any other country, because taxation is set against doing it.
I have been told by a number of my colleagues, “No one gets married for money.” Only someone from a reasonably well-off middle-class background will endlessly take that view. People in a low-income family where every pound really matters will calculate how best to manage their affairs. If one situation makes them better off, there is enormous pressure to decide on that as their direction of travel. I should love us to look carefully at why the UK persists in making it financially more difficult for people to come together to marry, and to stay together. Those are really big issues, and the figures are there.
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that, because universal credit is set up so that there will be a single recipient in a household, many women are subject to financial control, which makes it far more difficult for those who face domestic violence to leave a relationship, because they cannot afford to?
Not really. I do not accept that at all. Universal credit operates by looking at the household, which makes it more likely that couples are supported to stay together. The hon. Lady knows that the vast majority of married people—and, by the way, even cohabiting people—have joint accounts. The figure is way over 80%, and I think it is close to 90%. For those in an exceptional position, it is clear that the money will follow the person with the duty of care. Those rules are written into universal credit, so I simply do not agree with the hon. Lady. I think that universal credit will help enormously to get rid of what I and the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) referred to as the couple penalty.
The cost of weddings is another issue that we need to consider. There is an idea that people cannot get married now unless they have a fantastic celebrity wedding. The average cost of a wedding is now more than £20,000, whereas what people actually need is a marriage licence. There should be pre-wedding education to tell people: “You do not need to make such a big fuss about it. What you want to do is get married.” One big reason for so many marriages breaking up—probably more than anything else—is debt. If people start married life in debt because of making such a big issue of it, that puts enormous pressure on couples.
A pastor in my constituency told me something that struck me, which was that up to the early 1980s many couples who married were happy to live in rented accommodation, perhaps with other people’s crockery and cutlery. They did not need everything to be perfect, but later on that changed and people felt they needed all new white goods, and so on. That may have been a disincentive to marriage. Does my right hon. Friend recognise that picture?
I think that with the whole Hello! culture around the idea that people have to have a perfect fairy-tale wedding, no one is preparing them for the fact that once they are married, they will make compromises and face huge difficulties and stresses, and it is about how they cope with those. That would be far better than telling them some fantastic fairy tale: “Nothing will ever be a problem, and you’ll live happily ever after.” No relationship I have ever seen has ever been like that. The question is how to manage it, and preparing people properly for that is an enormously important feature of what we do.
The other area I will talk about is counselling. Earlier on, when I was in Government, we drove through more money to help support marriage guidance and counselling. The one thing we know, and some of them will say this, is that with the proper counselling and support probably close to half the families that are heading for break-up can change, re-stabilise and stay together. That is a critical point. We are now investing £30 million in that, yet the price of the after-effects of break-up is numbered at closer to £50 billion.
Even though I have argued for more money to go in, and I thank the Government for putting more money in, it seems like a pretty mealy-mouthed concept that we invest so little money, when that money really reaps a dividend in stabilising families and helping them stay together. If it were anything else in life, we would consider it a major benefit that that amount of money returned such a phenomenal cost saving. That cost of £50 billion would fall quite dramatically. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) mentioned the stability on divorce; one of the reasons for that is that we started investing in marriage guidance and counselling. Imagine what we could do if we spent even more money on getting people immediately into counselling. That would have a huge effect, and I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to view that straight away.
The last point is marriage prep. I stand with all those who say that the key thing is to educate people to understand what it really means to start out on arguably the most important agreement they will ever make. People get terribly fussed about being members of things like golf clubs, where there are all sorts of peculiar and stupid rules around what they can and cannot wear, and everyone is very strict about it. If we mention that there are things people can and cannot do in marriage, however, everyone immediately says, “This is not something we need to lecture people about. We should not talk about it.” The answer is that the most important thing we will ever do is to form that relationship and ultimately, if we are lucky, to bring up children, and we want to make it as stable as possible.
If any Government sit there and worry about what people will say when they say they support marriage, because some will break up and there will be problems, we will never get anywhere. We now need to make the case for stability and strength, and help those who are unable to make that process.
It is a pleasure to follow the powerful contribution of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith), which highlights the gravity of the issue.
I will begin by thanking the several Ministers who have recently stated in this place their desire to see policies developed that support and strengthen family life. They have done so in response to the publication in September of “A Manifesto to Strengthen Families”, which my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) referred to. I congratulate him on securing this timely debate in the run-up to marriage week this year. The manifesto contained 18 policies, which are the fruit of many years’ work; many colleagues here today have spent several years speaking and working on the issue. After its publication in September, it garnered the support of more than 60 Back-Bench Conservative MPs.
The new Minister, whom I welcome to his place, need not worry if he has not seen the manifesto, because I will give him a copy at the end of the debate. After its publication, a number of Ministers spoke in support of it. Both the Leader of the House and the Health Secretary stated their interest in how the policies in that paper might feed into government policy. The Prime Minister told the House in October that the Government are,
“looking into what more we can do to ensure that we see those stable families”.—[Official Report, 18 October 2017; Vol. 629, c. 846.]
She recognised the wide range of benefits that committed family relationships can bring, as we have heard today, such as improving wellbeing, reducing poverty and reducing Government spending.
On the wider beneficial aspects of marriage, the former Education Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Justine Greening), said in this House that it was “exceptionally important” to include marriage in relationships education because:
“At the heart of this is the fact that we are trying to help young people to understand how commitments and relationships are very much at the core of a balanced life that enables people to be successful more generally.”—[Official Report, 6 November 2017; Vol. 630, c. 1189.]
As I have said, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives on securing the debate. It is so timely, because marriage has a key role in helping people to promote the stable relationships that support life chances for them and their children, their children’s educational attainment and future employment, boosting mental health and reducing the risk of addiction in later life. It can help combat loneliness in old age, help reduce the pressure on GP visits due to depression and reduce absenteeism at work. It can positively influence so many areas of life and, of course, beneficially influence the public purse.
I want to put it on record, as I always do in these debates, that there are difficult cases in which it is better for a child not to be in the same home as one of their parents. I always say that there are many single parents who work valiantly, and successfully, to ensure that their children flourish and have a positive future to look forward to, but we have to remember that the statistics speak for themselves. The Marriage Foundation, as we have heard, has recorded that 76% of married couples are still together when their child has their GCSE exams, but only 31% of unmarried couples are still together.
I am particularly concerned about the statistics showing that only 24% of those in lower income groups marry, compared with 87% of those in higher income groups. Marriage is such an important issue that we cannot afford to ignore it in public policy. I believe that, because family breakdown affects the poorest most, it is a social justice issue. In fact, it is one of those burning injustices that the Prime Minister spoke of so movingly on the steps of Downing Street when she took office. We need to address it, because if we do not, we will not only fail a generation of children who aspire to marriage, as we have heard, but let down the poorest of those children. That is why it is such an important issue of social justice.
Children from low-income households with an active father are 25% more likely to escape the poverty they grow up in. I will look at a number of policies, touching on some of those in “A Manifesto to Strengthen Families”. Research from the Social Trends Institute into families with children under 12 showed that Britain has the highest level of family instability in the entire developed world. We languish at the bottom of that table and successive surveys have shown that children in this country are among the unhappiest.
I have several points to make about policy, as I say. Will the Minister restate the Government’s commitment to the family impact assessment or family test, which was introduced by the last Prime Minister, David Cameron, to ensure that the Government never have a blind spot in this area? I recently tabled a number of parliamentary questions, asking what every Department of State is doing to ensure that this is appropriately applied. Will the Minister look at those responses, because they are extremely disappointing? The family test is not being applied in the comprehensive way that I believe the former Prime Minister intended.
New research from the Marriage Foundation confirms that family breakdown, which ultimately affects nearly half of all teenagers, is a clear cause of many children’s and teenagers’ emotional and behavioural problems. That should not really be news to us, but I encourage the Government to properly address family breakdown as part of its comprehensive review of mental health strategy. We need to ensure that we are not just helping the young people—the children themselves.
My hon. Friend is making a very good speech, and I agree with many of the points that she has made. I would caution about statistics and the difference between causation and association. She is pointing out an association between mental health and some of the points that she is raising, but actually young people’s mental health is far more complex than that and there are many confounding factors that may call into question that association. I caution that marriage should not be put at the centre of mental health policy for young children.
I disagree. I am a patron of a mental health charity that specialises in counselling young people in my constituency called Visyon. It now counsels children as young as four with mental health problems. It is overloaded—inundated—with counselling requests. Not long ago, I asked the chief executive officer, “How many of the children and young people you help to counsel have problems as a result of dysfunctional family relationships at home?”, and he looked at me and said, “Fiona, virtually all of them.” That is why it is so important, when we are counselling young people, that wherever possible we look at how we can also support their parents in their relationship. It is also why I am such a supporter of the “Emotionally healthy schools” programme, which is being pioneered by Middlewich High School in my constituency. When children in that school have problems, the headteacher, wherever possible, will ask the parents to come into the school, will meet them and will help them to ensure that the children’s home relationships are as healthy as possible to ensure that they have the best chance of flourishing, both educationally and in the future. We need more counsellors to be trained, to ensure that they are not just counselling young people but, wherever possible, working with their families to combat the epidemic of mental health problems in this country among young people.
I agree with my hon. Friend, but the same argument about causation and association is applied directly to marriage itself. The argument is made that were all the cohabiting couples to marry, the statistics for break-up would not change. How do we refute that argument?
Let us have a look at that, because my right hon. Friend, as always, raises a very pertinent point. From the outside, couples living together look the same whether they are cohabiting or married. Two people might be in love; they live together; they have a baby. What is the difference? I believe that the difference is commitment and, indeed, public commitment. The public promise made during the marriage ceremony sends a powerful message to the parties and to their friends and family round about, which can engender support from those friends and family when rocky patches occur. The message is, “We are committing ourselves to each other through thick and thin,” and that, after all, is the determination when people marry. A dialogue often precedes it that does not happen when people cohabit.
When people cohabit, there has often been what is called sliding rather than deciding to have a relationship; it happens without that preceding dialogue and mutual understanding of what it entails. That is why I so support the proposal that there be more pre-marriage counselling. In fact, I would go further and say that we should promote—this has been suggested by a number of groups and organisations—high-quality marriage preparation. That should be available to anyone who goes into a registry office and wants to get married. And we should waive marriage registration fees for couples who take part in an accredited marriage preparation course.
All that is what makes the difference between cohabitation and marriage. I am talking about giving young people the extra ability to work out whether they really want to be together and to stay together. There are statistics—yes, they are from the United States—showing that many couples going through marriage preparation courses decide not to marry, and that is a success in itself. They have made that decision in a contemplative and considered way.
Our problem today is actually not divorce but the trend away from marriage, although I was pleased to hear my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), who is no longer in his place, say that the reduction in the number of people marrying has stalled. That is very helpful, but we need to combat the widespread assumption that cohabitation is living together as if married, because unless couples decide and do not slide, unless moving in together is part of a clear plan for the future, it is not. Unless they have discussed their approaches towards having children, finances and working when a family comes along, it is not the same.
Before closing, I will touch on one or two other policies, mentioned in the “Manifesto to Strengthen Families”, which I hope the Minister will consider. First, as we have heard, the Government have to ensure that the concepts of commitment, respect and safety are at the heart of the newly developed curriculum for relationships and sex education from an early age. That should include talking about marriage. I realise that that will need to be done exceptionally sensitively, but the Government need to make good on the comments of the former Secretary of State for Education that it is exceptionally important that marriage and its benefits be emphasised if we really care about the life chances and wellbeing of the children who will be the next generation of adults. We must not be embarrassed to mention that sensitively in schools. The next generation will not thank us for failing to teach them what a committed relationship means. If we do not do so, they will pay the price, and as I have said, the poorest will pay the highest price of all.
Secondly, I reiterate the importance of the Government continuing to look at removing the financial disincentives for those on low incomes to marry. This is in the manifesto. We want the Government to enable those who are on universal credit and entitled to the marriage allowance to receive the tax break automatically as part of their claim, and to ensure that it does not taper away. Will the Government also look at increasing the marriage tax allowance to a more significant level, which I believe would in turn boost uptake? In all the areas to which I have referred, it is possible for the Government to make small but impactful, positive changes to support marriage and family stability and therefore life chances.
This should not be a party political matter; it is too important. I welcome the contributions that we have heard today and particularly that from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), of the Democratic Unionist party, but I want to place this point on the record. I did not do so in last year’s debate in the run-up to Marriage Week, but I will do so now. As I believe was also the case last year, there is not one Labour Member in the Chamber today, other than the requisite Opposition spokesman, and this issue, which is about a burning injustice, deserves better than that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate my hon. Friend, and fellow Cornishman, the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on securing this very important debate. I wholeheartedly agree with virtually everything that has been said by hon. Members who have contributed; I shall just add a few points of my own.
As we have heard, virtually every indicator demonstrates clearly that marriage is a good thing. It is good for the people who are married and for the children who are raised in a family that is based on a married couple, and it has very significant benefits for wider society and our economy. By virtually every measure—whether we are talking about physical health, mental health, educational outcomes or economic measures—marriage is a good and positive thing, and that seems to be clear to everyone. So I am sometimes more than slightly baffled about why the Government often appear so shy about saying that. The Government are not shy about saying that other things are good for us. They often tell us that we should all take more exercise. They are not shy about telling us that we should eat a healthy diet, and they often tell us how much alcohol is safe to drink. They are even taking measures these days to reduce the amount of sugar that we have.
It seems strange that, on something so fundamentally important that has such huge benefits, the Government are so shy to speak up—to say what a great thing marriage is for everyone concerned. If there is one message that I would like to put to the Government via the Minister, who I am delighted to see in his place today, it is that they should not be bashful in saying what a great thing marriage is.
As other hon. Members have said, we all accept that not everyone chooses to be married and that marriage is not always a positive thing for some people. We absolutely accept and respect that, but it should not mean that we shy away from saying what a positive thing marriage is. It does feel at times as though marriage has become the M-word in Government policy that is missing. I add my voice to those who have called on the Minister to play his part in his new role and ensure that marriage and the benefits of it are highlighted in Government policy, statements and documents, so that there is an unequivocal message from Government that we believe marriage is good.
The Government should take confidence from the fact that there is clear data showing that the popularity of marriage is increasing. Some 80% of under 18-year-olds surveyed said that they desired to be married and saw it as an important part of their life, on a par with having a successful career. The Government should be confident in speaking up for marriage. It is popular, and because of that we should also ensure that marriage and its benefits are promoted to young people through our education policy. Just as we give them career advice and help them in choosing their careers, right at that young age we should get the benefits of marriage across to them and help them to understand that.
I am aware that there is not much time left, but I want to make one further point: it is about civil partnerships, which have not really been covered by any other contributions. I am aware that a private Member’s Bill calling for civil partnerships to be extended to all people will come before the House shortly. When I saw that that private Member’s Bill was coming, I seriously considered how we should address this issue. It is clear to me that civil partnerships were a stepping stone towards same-sex marriage. We are where we are on that, but it seems to me that the current position, where there is one option for formalising a couple’s relationship that is open to some but not to everyone, is unsustainable.
One way of addressing the situation would be to extend civil partnerships to all. I have come to a different view. I actually think that civil partnerships are now unnecessary. Marriage is open to all, including same-sex couples, and we should give a clear message that we believe marriage is the best option. We should not confuse the matter by seeking to provide an alternative. We simply do not need the distraction of finding new ways of doing what has been around for thousands of years.
My hon. Friend is making some very positive points about marriage. Given that there is now a record number—about 33.9%—of single people in the United Kingdom, should we not be encouraging any form of partnership, including heterosexual civil partnerships, to encourage people to go into stable relationships with each other? That seems to be what gives the greatest benefit to the individuals and any children involved. When it comes to Government policy we should be providing equality in law for everyone who wants to engage in meaningful relationships. As Conservatives, we would hopefully help to promote that rather than promoting one choice over another.
Some people will make that argument, and I absolutely respect it. Having considered the matter, however, I have come to a different view: that providing a competitor to marriage would dilute and undermine the positive place that marriage has in our society. That is my concern: that extending civil partnerships to heterosexual couples would provide competition for marriage. There should be a clear, positive, single message that marriage is a good thing to encourage in our society. That is my position, having thought about it. I respect my hon. Friend’s view, but it is not the view that I have come to. Civil partnerships are now unnecessary in our country. Stopping them and putting the focus on marriage would be the right step to take.
I have been married for 32 years this year. Lots of people say that I do not look old enough to have been married that long, but hopefully I am a demonstration that marriage is a good thing. I am very grateful to the very long-suffering Mrs Double, who has done more than her fair share to make sure that our marriage has stuck together and been successful over that time.
Like all of us who have been married, I know that, like anything in life worth having, it is sometimes through hard work, blood, sweat and tears that marriages are successful. I believe that it is important that the Government do all they can to help, support and encourage married couples to make a success of their marriages, that we remove all the barriers and disincentives in Government policy to marriage and to couples staying together, and that we give a very clear message and are not at all bashful in saying what a good and positive thing marriage is for everyone involved.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on securing this debate and on his efforts to ensure that Marriage Week is celebrated in Parliament.
Marriage is a changing institution, and within our lifetimes it has changed dramatically. In fact, when the institution of marriage was originally created, the average life expectancy was 30 years. If we look at the statistics for marriage rates, we see that the number of people getting married each year is falling. At the same time, the age at which people are getting married is increasing: people of my generation are marrying on average 10 years later than their parents. On top of that, marriage rates are on the increase among over-65s, having increased by half between 2009 and 2014, which also says a lot about people living longer. So in my opinion, while marriage trends are changing and adapting to people’s wishes and needs, the institution of marriage does not appear to be under threat.
However, I am somewhat astounded, if no less grateful to the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), that equal marriage was finally mentioned one hour into the debate, although much of his attention focused on civil partnerships. I find it astounding that the Government did not take this opportunity to recognise all forms of marriage, and instead focused on nuclear and “2.4” families. I am sure that the Minister will address that in his response, but I just expected more from the Floor of the House.
While I welcome recent changes that allow same-sex couples across Scotland, England and Wales to marry, it is a great disappointment that that is still not possible in Northern Ireland. I hope that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) shares that concern. This is a great freedom for many couples who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual, and as we approach LGBT History Month it has never been more important for the Government to put on record their support for same-sex marriage, recognising that everyone should be equal in the law and under the protections therein.
Giving same-sex couples the right to marry allows them to validate their relationship in a way that was previously denied. It is a move forward, closer to a more equal society, and allows those people to choose whether to get married, just like their peers. For many others, it is just as relevant not to marry. We have talked about cohabitation and suggested that it is not on an equal par with marriage, but I suspect that many families would disagree. I do not think that it is this House’s place to determine the sanctity of anyone’s relationship, whether they are cohabiting, married or otherwise. It is a choice, and we should simply enable that choice to be made by all individuals equally.
On many occasions, long-term cohabiting couples have just as successful relationships. So while I recognise the comments of the hon. Member for St Ives and the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on the statistics—which, yes, are alarming—I would echo the sentiments of the hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter), who cautioned the correlation of statistics in relation to marriage and mental health. The simple fact is that there are many successful families and they come in many shapes and forms, and marriage is not the sole indicator. While the hon. Member for St Ives outlined those statistics and suggested that children are more successful where there is marriage, I would caution that it is neither our role nor responsibility to lecture those who do not choose to marry.
As the term “marriage equality” suggests, the sanctity of marriage should be available to all, but we should also respect those who choose not to marry.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
No, I will continue.
Finally, many people’s marriages and relationships end. When they do, it is Government’s responsibility to create policy to support and protect those people, not to penalise them, especially not vulnerable parents with children to raise. If tackling child poverty is this Government’s aim, using this debate to lecture others on the sanctity of marriage is not the best use of time, especially when there are other aspects of Government policy that do not support families as they should.
I therefore take this opportunity to focus once more on Government policy, which is, of course, part of the subject of this debate, and to call on the Government to address the charges for the Child Maintenance Service. Where a relationship breaks down, many parents do not choose to live separately or rely on the Child Maintenance Service, so it is unfair and unacceptable to penalise parents or levy charges on one or both parents trying to support their children despite the breakdown of a marriage or relationship. Many parents rely on the Child Maintenance Service. The levy imposed is unfair and penalises children, who need the service most.
Marriage is and always should be a choice available to everyone. I hope that the House will recognise that.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on securing this debate, and I welcome his inclusion of the importance of protecting families and his focus on providing stability for children. However, I take exception to his claim that family instability is the root cause of poverty, when we know that this Government’s cuts to social security are creating problems for families.
Social security support for low-income families has been cut severely. Most working-age benefits, including child benefit, have been frozen until 2020, and universal credit has been shown to be failing those on low incomes, causing debt and rent arrears. When universal credit was introduced in 2011, the coalition claimed that it would lift 350,000 children out of poverty. By 2013, that estimate had been reduced to 150,000, and by 2016 the Government refused to offer any re-evaluation at all. Can the Minister tell us how many children he believes universal credit will lift out of poverty?
Child Poverty Action Group published an analysis last November estimating that cuts to universal credit would push 1 million more children into poverty by 2020, along with an extra 900,000 adults. When we consider the situation for disabled children, we see that four in 10 are living in poverty, yet the basic level of support for disabled children in universal credit is less than half that available in tax credits.
We have had some interesting contributions; it has been good to hear people talk about how much they have enjoyed their own marriages. I welcome the call from the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) to tread gently, as marriage is often an issue of cultural sensitivity, and the comments of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who spoke of the hundreds of wonderful women he has met who are bringing up families alone. It is important to recognise that many people choose to bring up children on their own, and some people find themselves in that situation due to relationship breakdown or bereavement.
Since 2010, successive Governments have sought to reduce the role of the state wherever possible, especially in social security, yet when it comes to whether or not two people should marry—surely the most private of decisions—the coalition Government sought to influence behaviour in relation to that decision by introducing the marriage allowance in April 2015. Details of how the new transferable allowance would work, given in a note published alongside the 2014 Budget, stated:
“Couples where both partners are basic-rate taxpayers will in almost all cases see no gain or loss…Couples will benefit as a unit, but the majority (84 per cent) of individual gainers will be male.”
One must question the introduction of an allowance that the Government knew would disproportionately benefit men; I would be interested to hear the Minister’s rationale for it.
Take-up of the marriage allowance has been poor. Up to October, 2.4 million couples had claimed it, out of an estimated 4 million who were eligible. According to Government figures, the cost in 2015-16 is expected to be £385 million when backdated claims are ultimately included, and £425 million in 2016-17. It prompts the question whether that is really the best use of taxpayers’ money at a time when child poverty is soaring and the Government are cutting support for disabled people under universal credit and the employment and support allowance work-related activity group.
On pension equality, the question is whether some marriages are more equal than others in the Government’s eyes. The Government have spent a great deal of time and, no doubt, a sizable sum of taxpayers’ money opposing pension equality for same-sex couples. When the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 was debated in Parliament, the Opposition called on the Government to close a loophole in the law meaning that married same-sex couples and civil partners were treated differently when it comes to pension entitlement in the event of one partner’s death.
In July, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of equality in a landmark case brought by John Walker, a gay man who found that after 20 years of service to his company, it would provide £1,000 a year in pension to his surviving husband were he to die, whereas if he were married to a woman, she would receive £47,500 a year. Indeed, were he to divorce his male partner and then marry a woman, she would still receive the larger amount. When do the Government intend to respond to the Supreme Court ruling? Will the Minister ensure that the ruling will not be affected by the UK leaving the EU, as it was based in EU law, and will he assure us that the Government will end the disparities in public sector pension schemes?
The Government’s claim that they want to support marriage is also at odds with how cuts in social security since 2010 have put additional pressure on families and parents. Families on low incomes have faced long waits for initial payments of universal credit; figures last week from the Department for Work and Pensions show that one fifth of claimants are still not being paid in full on time, and more than one in 10 are not even receiving partial payment on time. Then there are the cuts to work allowances on universal credit, and the new, lower household benefit cap introduced in November 2016. At the same time, food prices in December were more than 4% higher than the year before. Families on low incomes tend to spend a higher proportion of their wages on basic items such as food and rent.
The Government have recently announced that they intend to create a new cliff edge for eligibility for free school meals, so that families with household earnings of more than £7,400 a year will no longer qualify. The Resolution Foundation has estimated that allowing all children whose parents claim universal credit to receive free school meals would cost £600 million a year. The chief executive of the Financial Conduct Authority warned in the autumn of the scale of the problem of household debt, and a recent study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies showed that one in four of Britain’s poorest households are falling behind with debt payments or spending more than a quarter of their monthly income on repayments.
Relate has highlighted how debt problems can easily lead to conflict and relationship breakdown, whether or not partners are married. That can have a serious impact on children, as research suggests that conflict, rather than family structure, has a negative impact on children’s development. The household benefit cap is forcing families to move away from sources of support such as family and friends. People on a low income may not be able to afford to travel back to see them frequently, either. More than 500 Sure Start centres have closed since 2010. They are another important support for more vulnerable parents in particular. If the Government value family, marriage and stability, why are they closing them? Again, I am keen to hear the Minister’s rationale.
Since last April, parents have been required to start looking for work as soon as their youngest child reaches the age of three, rather than five as was previously the case. A new report published by Save the Children last week found that many mothers would like to return to work or increase their hours, but find childcare simply unaffordable and Government help with the costs complex and difficult to access. Under tax credits, childcare costs are paid in advance, whereas under universal credit they will have to be paid up front and then claimed back, which is always likely to be problematic for parents on low incomes.
Of course, parents in many families are not married, and there are many lone-parent families. Government must recognise and value all family types. The alternative is to risk stigmatising families to no good purpose. Lone-parent families are particularly affected by access to childcare, and have been hit hard by cuts to social security since 2010. An independent study by the Equality and Human Rights Commission of the long-term impact of tax and welfare changes between 2010 and 2017 found that lone parents were set to lose an average of about 15% of their net income. That is almost £1 in every £6.
Lone-parent families make up one in four families with children, and have done for more than a decade. They are part of the mainstream of UK family life, and social policy needs to take that into account. Where a separated or divorced couple shares care of the children, the parent who is not the main carer cannot claim for an extra room for those children under the rules of the bedroom tax, for example. That can cause extreme difficulty for a family who must cope with the break-up of a relationship, and can cause parents, often fathers, to struggle to spend quality time with their children. A Labour Government would scrap the bedroom tax altogether. Will the Minister reconsider the rules of the bedroom tax as they currently affect separated couples to ensure that children do not suffer?
Where relationships unfortunately break down, changes to the child maintenance system have clearly not succeeded in supporting care for children or enabling parents to reach agreements themselves.
In 2012, the Government introduced a new system for child maintenance that aimed to nudge couples to reach agreement without the need for Government intervention. However, it does that by charging both parents—including the parent with care of the child or children, known as the “receiving parent”—if they fail to reach agreement independently.
The Department published a survey in December 2016 that found that around a third of receiving parents who paid the Child Maintenance Service application fee reported that it was difficult to afford. Of parents who did not have a maintenance arrangement at three months, 29% said that the £20 application fee was a factor. Of receiving parents with a direct payment arrangement, 42% cited a desire to avoid collect-and-pay charges as a reason for choosing direct pay and half said that the charges were a factor in their decision.
Will the Government take action to widen access—
Order. I ask the hon. Lady to wind up, so that the Minister has a chance to respond.
In conclusion, a stable, loving family is undoubtedly what we would want for all children, but there are many types of family in the 21st century. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) once said:
“Families come in all shapes and sizes. We don‘t favour one way of family life over another. We want to support and back up all families... Government dictating family structures doesn‘t work.”
She is right. This is a question of respect.
The Government should commit to stable families by putting an end to austerity, by giving our schools, police and health services the funding they need, by banning zero-hours contracts, by ensuring that refuges are available for people fleeing domestic violence and by ensuring that the social security system is there for people in their time of need.
It is a pleasure to begin my Front-Bench career under your beady eye, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on securing this debate and pay tribute to the work that he has done over the years on this issue, which is deeply important to him. I also thank hon. Members for a sensitive and thoughtful debate.
The Government are committed to supporting families, and it is right to draw attention to an issue that affects a wide range of Departments as well as mine. This debate was called in connection with Marriage Week, which takes place between 5 and 14 February. That provides a good opportunity to celebrate the commitment and connectedness that a stable relationship brings to a family.
The Government’s view is that families are fundamental in shaping individuals and that they have an overwhelmingly positive effect on wider society. Growing up in families where parents are collaborative and communicate well gives children the environment they need to develop into happy and successful adults. The vital institution of marriage is a strong symbol of wider society’s desire to celebrate commitment between partners.
The institution of marriage can be the basis of a successful family life and many people make this important commitment every year. Marriage can lay the foundations for parenthood and is emblematic of the love and security that parents need to raise a child. The Government will continue to champion and encourage stable families that provide nurturing environments for children. That is why we are focused on helping families and children, to enhance the educational and employment opportunities available to the young and to reinforce the benefits that parental collaboration will undoubtedly have.
Although the Government support the positive impact that the stability of marriage can bring to family life, this debate is also an opportunity to celebrate the fact that relationships that provide the foundation for a stable and supportive family life across the United Kingdom come in different shapes and sizes. The Government recognise that a supportive family can take many different forms. Marriage plays an important role in our society, but we are committed to supporting different, and equally important, types of families, too.
How many different forms? Is a family any collection of people who happen to share a fridge?
No, but it is clear that the key issue for a family unit is long-term commitment to each other, whether that is a religious, legal or emotional commitment.
It is an unfortunate fact of life that marriages, like other relationships, can and do break down, but the Government have been clear that even when a family has separated, both parents still have a positive role to play in the lives of their children. Evidence shows that parental collaboration has a direct and positive impact on children’s outcomes. They tend to have better health and emotional wellbeing and higher academic attainment if they grow up with parents who have a good relationship and manage conflict well. That is why we are committed to supporting healthy relationships between parents, whether married or cohabiting, together or separated, in the best interests of children.
We have already made good progress. Between April 2015 and March 2017, we invested £17.5 million in relationship support services, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith) pointed out. More than 48,000 couples have participated in counselling and more than 17,000 practitioners have been trained to help families in difficulty. We could not have achieved that without our delivery partners in the Relationship Alliance—part of a broad range of stakeholders who contribute valuable insight and expertise.
In the light of the strength of the evidence about the damaging impact of parental conflict on children, my Department is working with local areas to implement a new reducing parental conflict programme, which will increase access to face-to-face, evidence-based interventions to reduce parental conflict. As announced in “Improving lives: Helping Workless Families”, our new programme will focus on vulnerable families, including those who are workless, because they are three times more likely to experience relationship distress.
Given the time remaining, I will turn to the four broad themes raised by hon. Members. First, several hon. Members mentioned the suspicion that there was an element of cultural cringe at the mere mention of marriage. I reassure them that that will not be the case from my point of view. The Department is working hard to embed the family test across Government, as my right hon. Friend mentioned, and to offer advice to other Departments that are instituting it. It has been developed with our partners in the Relationship Alliance, and we will continue to push that forward.
On the relationships and sex education consultation that is coming out later this year, I understand that that will or should mention the importance of commitment, with a specific mention of marriage as an element of that.
Secondly, the Government’s support for stability in relationships will be an enormous departmental focus for us, not least because of the connection between relationship instability and worklessness. In last year’s Budget, we announced that we would spend an extra £39 million on that programme over the next few years. I welcome hon. Members’ contributions to its development. We are also developing a quality of relationship tracker—a relationship distress indicator—against which we will hopefully be able to measure performance.
Thirdly, my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives and others mentioned a ministerial working group. I would be more than happy to address that with ministerial colleagues. I think the Cabinet Office is the most effective Department for looking across Government at where we can put something together. I will write to my opposite number there to look at that.
Finally, several hon. Members raised the issue of financial support for marriage and whether it is enough, whether it is targeted properly and whether it should be exclusive to marriage or for commitment more widely. Although it would be dangerous to stray into Treasury matters at this early stage of my career, I am happy to write to Treasury Ministers to point out that although uptake of the marriage allowance has been successful to some extent—something like 2.6 million families now take part—hon. Members present feel that more could be done.
My door will always be open to hon. Members who are behind the strengthening families manifesto. Before becoming a Minister, I had a useful meeting with the all-party group about our crossover of interests around children’s interests, on which we are all focused.
In the preparation for my marriage, I was given a piece of advice. The chap who was preparing us said, “Kit, you have to remember that the day you get married is the day that courtship really starts.” That lesson has stuck with me for the rest of my life.
I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this issue. I thank all hon. Members who have taken part, and I thank the Minister for his open and positive response. I look forward to further discussions in the near future.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Marriage and Government policy.