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Volume 725: debated on Thursday 10 February 2011


Moved by

To call attention to the role of marriage and marriage support in British society 12 years after the report The Funding of Marriage Support by Sir Graham Hart; and to move for Papers.

My Lords, at the outset of this debate I should declare an interest in that I am married—or at least I was when I checked my e-mails first thing this morning.

In many ways, I see this debate as a natural sequel to the debate last Thursday, moved by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, to which reference was made at Question Time. I pay tribute to the noble Lord for the way in which he has raised these issues over a number of years in your Lordships’ House.

It is a happy coincidence that the ballot has favoured this debate to take place in National Marriage Week. It was perhaps the most distinguished of 20th-century Archbishops of Canterbury, William Temple, who once said that, if you prayed hard, coincidences might happen.

I say at the outset that, in calling attention to the role of marriage and marriage support in British society, I do not intend any general criticism of those who choose not to marry or of those who, for any reason, are single parents. Nor do I wish to enter the debate over the precise relationship between marriage and civil partnerships or what wider legal protection ought also to exist for those in a variety of relationships outside marriage who have obligations to each other or to their children. These are very important questions but for another day.

Rather, my purpose is to focus upon marriage itself. It is possible to advocate the place and importance of marriage in society in its own right. There has been a tendency in recent years to express indifference over whether or not people marry, as though it is simply a private choice. At one level, of course, it is a private choice, but it is a private choice which the evidence overwhelmingly suggests has public consequences on which any Government cannot merely express indifference.

In recent years, we have often heard the expression “broken Britain”. Statistics never tell the whole story but perhaps I might refer to a few figures from an OECD report published last summer. We have the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Europe and the highest proportion of children in single-parent households —no less than 23 per cent for those under the age of 14, with the percentage being even higher if all children are counted. Notwithstanding the higher rate of teenage pregnancies, the average age at which mothers in the UK have their first child is the highest in Europe, at 30, with all the attendant risks for both mothers and children.

It is in the family courts that the damage is often most visible, and I am pleased to see that some members of the judiciary are willing to sound the alarm bells. In 2009, Mr Justice Coleridge, from the Family Division of the High Court, said that,

“the breakdown of families in this country is on a scale, depth and breadth which few of us could have imagined even a decade ago ... almost all of society’s … ills can be traced directly to the collapse of the family life”.

He also said:

“It is a never ending carnival of human misery”.

Sir Paul Coleridge called for a return to marriage as the “gold standard”, which would mean the arresting of the trend of seeing marriage simply as one arrangement among others to be picked from the human supermarket shelf. In moving this Motion, it is my proposition that this can be done, although I accept that in a free society there will always be those who choose to—or indeed have to—organise their relationships and their children’s nurture in other ways, and who deserve the support of society.

There is now a good deal of research on the impact of relationships, and in particular the relationship of marriage, on the well-being and life satisfaction of those concerned. I am grateful to the Cambridge-based Relationships Foundation for collating the results of a wide range of research projects. The conclusion is clear: while almost any good relationship increases health and happiness, the benefits are disproportionately clear with marriage, with lower levels of psychological illness, greater longevity, better general health, greater wealth and income, lower suicide rates and so forth. Of course, the causality can be assessed in different ways but the overall societal benefit of marriage seems to me to be unarguable.

Equally, the outcomes for children are much better because, as the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, argued last week, young children flourish best when they feel safe, loved and valued. Marriage is especially conducive to promoting just this, because cohabitees with children are at least twice as likely to break up as married couples.

Certain biological and socioeconomic realities need to be acknowledged here. I understand that young elephants, as an example of a species with a similar lifespan to that of human beings, are able to be independent of their parents much sooner than is the case with human children. A key test for any society will be the quality of the nurture of its children and, for the human species, that puts a premium on encouraging stable, healthy and long relationships among parents. As many noble Lords will know from their personal experience, and indeed their personal cost, children in today’s complex and advanced societies are often dependent on their parents even longer than was the case in the past: the need for stable parenting relationships is even greater today.

It is possible to agree with most of what I have said so far and yet to press the question: why does all this point to marriage? Why could a society not evolve in which the benefits of the marriage bond were enjoyed by those who cohabit on the basis of equally strong private and personal commitments? The difference, it seems to me, lies precisely in the social context in which the vows and promises at the heart of a relationship are expressed. Perhaps I may make an analogy—not an exact analogy but, I think, a helpful one—with war: after all, we are told that all is fair in love and war. Going back to 1939, could the British Government have sent a note to Berlin declaring war but saying that they wanted to review things at Christmas? They could, of course, have reviewed how things were going at Christmas but not as a pre-condition of the declaration of war. You cannot really have a trial war; nor can you really have a trial marriage. I suggest that there is a certain contradiction in terms in both cases. The problem with the current fashion for cohabitation is that it tends to devalue the underlying currency of marriage. There is indeed a sense in which the social institution of marriage is the gold standard for all relationships.

Individual marriages have always failed or become unhealthy. I have no desire to promote an image of marriage as a potential millstone. I have always supported the possibility of divorce and, for that matter, the possibility of marriage in church after divorce. But, equally, giving a certain precedence to supporting the underlying social institution of marriage for the good of society as a whole needs a clearer acknowledgement than has sometimes been the case in recent years.

The role of government here is limited, but nevertheless vital, and I briefly want to point to some practical things that Governments can, and should, do. The first would be to revive the recommendations of the report by Sir Graham Hart, which was commissioned by the then Lord Chancellor, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg. The noble and learned Lord accepted its recommendations. That report built upon the enabling Section 22 of the Family Law Act 1996, which was promoted by the then Lord Chancellor, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, who expresses his regret that he cannot be present because of attending a funeral in Scotland.

Grants towards marriage support services were made, but seem to have disappeared into a more nebulous grant scheme which does not specifically target or even mention marriage support. The new Government have identified relationship support as a key area, with the Prime Minister, as recently as 10 December, pledging £7.5 million towards that. But the papers for funding applications fail to make any direct reference to marriage. The social institution of marriage will be recovered in our society only if we are bold enough to refer to it in public, and in public policy, as a unique and distinctive bedrock of society. We need to recover the perspective of marriage and relationship support, as set out in the Family Law Act.

I suggest that would support the Government's broader intention to foster a society which moves beyond the dialectic of state or government activity on the one hand to private choices and rights on the other. This requires a sustained recovery of the place of intermediate social institutions, between the state and the individual. Marriage, I submit, is just such a social institution in a way in which relationships could never be. It is a key social institution, arguably the key social institution, and needs to be named more clearly as such in public policy.

If noble Lords, or the Government, are not convinced by my arguments thus far, I would refer to the financial cost of the breakdown of marriage and indeed of cohabitation in today's society. I refer again to the research done by the Relationships Foundation, published in Counting the Cost of Family Failure. The extraordinary figure is offered of more than £40 billion a year. The purely economic case for marriage support services is overwhelming. Those services should include marriage preparation for those who are planning to marry, marriage enrichment for those who are married and marriage guidance counselling for those whose marriages are in difficulty.

I turn finally to a second area where the Government should act and where the Prime Minister, in his first Prime Minister's Questions after the election, stated his own convictions. He said:

“I am an unashamed supporter of families and marriage, and I simply do not understand why, when so many other European countries … recognise marriage in the tax system, we do not”.—[Official Report, Commons, 2/6/10; col. 428.]

Apart from the UK, only 18 per cent of OECD citizens live in states that do not recognise marriage in their tax system. Most of that 18 per cent live in Mexico and Turkey. In 2008-09, a single-earner married couple with two children and on the average wage bore a tax burden which was a third greater than the OECD average. The comparative figures for 2009-10 will show a further deterioration. They will be the subject of a seminar I will host in Committee Room 4 on 9 March, at 1 pm. I pay tribute to the work of the charity CARE in sponsoring the associated research and to the wider role which it plays in support of marriage and human flourishing. I declare an interest as an active supporter.

The Conservative Party manifesto at the last election promised the introduction of a transferable allowance for one-earner couples, a promise which is in the coalition agreement. I hope that this can be introduced without delay and I look forward to the Minister's reassurance on this.

I do not believe that people should be offered financial inducements to marry against their will, but I think that public policy on taxation carries a social and moral message, as do all laws, concerning, in this case, the value which society puts on the institution of marriage. In unintended ways, public policy can contribute to a climate which subtly undermines marriage.

I look forward to this debate. I am delighted that so many noble Lords have entered the speakers list, especially the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, who is to make her maiden speech. I have avoided any reference to the religious or theological symbolism of marriage, to which the various religious traditions of our world would bear eloquent witness. Perhaps other Members of your Lordships' House will be bolder than the Bishops’ Bench in such matters. However, with the indulgence of the House, I will end by quoting one of my favourite verses from the Bible, from the second chapter of the Book of Genesis, in the King James version:

“It is not good that the man should be alone”.

My Lords, these days in your Lordships' House we seem to have either feast or famine, filibuster or a 4-minute sprint, although we now have an extra minute or two, thanks to the indulgence of my noble friend the Chief Whip. In my few minutes, I have two points to make in what is a very packed debate which has attracted so many speakers. Like the right reverend Prelate, the whole House and I look forward to the forthcoming maiden speech of my noble friend Lady Tyler of Enfield.

One of the themes of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester was the need—I think he was speaking to the churches as well as to the secular world—for the churches to be bold in what they say. Over the years, I have had a sense that those in the churches have been very willing to speak to the converted and perhaps rather less willing to enter into the public policy debate about the importance of marriage generally. I happen to be a Roman Catholic, rather than an Anglican, but the Roman Catholics had a good run in the last Question before the debate started. I would encourage both churches and all religions to speak out much more boldly, to borrow the phrase of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester, on the importance of marriage.

All that said, there seems to be an odd conspiracy of silence concerning the public promotion of the overwhelming evidence that marriage promotes everything from a decent level of sustained happiness, via helping to accumulate resources and so promoting independence from state help, to apparently reducing depression and slowing down the progress of Alzheimer's disease in later life. All these findings come from peer-reviewed academic journals, such as the British Medical Journal. They do not come from some right-wing think tank which has made it up to support this outdated institution of marriage. The evidence shows variously, through, say, the work of the Prison Reform Trust or the Centre for Social Justice, that young offenders are much less likely to come from married families. It is exactly the same with health.

The excellent and notable University of Exeter family study clearly demonstrated the huge disparity between the lower levels of health problems of those in intact married families and those who are outside them. I shall not go on through each government department looking at their areas of responsibility but, for example, I can find absolutely no evidence in recent decades that argues to the contrary that, for example, children from married homes generally perform better and have better life chances, although I recognise, as did the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester, that such statistical generalisations mask heroic individual outcomes to the contrary from those who are not married.

That said, these I think are simple facts not judgments. Politicians and bishops should not be fearful of facts. I increasingly recognise what I think of in public discourse as marriage denial. There undoubtedly is that. Why is it politically and socially correct on the basis of incontrovertible facts to assert loudly that drunken driving is bad, yet people are generally so muted in saying that marriage is a personal and public policy good, based on similarly incontrovertible facts? To me that seems to be daft and to be the reverse of the boldness which the right reverend Prelate was seeking us all to take on.

My second point relates to what the Government should do in the current zeitgeist. They should fearlessly and to the public good promote knowledge of the facts. That cannot be denied, whatever personal views there are about marriage or individual life. Above all else, Governments should not send contradictory messages on marriage, as were sent out, alas, by the Family Law Act 1986, which on the one hand provided for support for marriage services, the subject of the debate in the name of the right reverend Prelate, but, at the same time in the same Bill, introduced what the tabloids accurately, if rather colourfully, called quickie, no-fault divorces—provisions which were, mercifully, repealed very quickly.

Alas, also, to avoid that trap is difficult in the face of the very different views on marriage of the coalition. We all know the dangers of surfing the web. I did a little light Googling on liberal views about marriage, but once I saw what Mr Clegg thought about the institution, I felt that it was best for me to ask my internet provider to block my access to such hard-core material in future. That said, by comparison, I know that I can look to my right honourable friend the Prime Minister to continue to say in the clear language that he is so good at that he supports marriage and to encourage those of his Ministers who feel the same way to pump out the facts again and again like hamsters on the oratorical wheel until they are more understood in the intervening years between now, when I believe that critically important expenditure reductions must continue, and when it should surely be possible to spend a bit more on marriage support in future, in exactly the way that the right reverend Prelate asks.

My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester for introducing this timely debate. It is particularly timely, following as it does the debate that we had only last week in your Lordships' House on parenting. Rereading Sir Graham Hart's report, I was struck by the similarity of its conclusions to those of the more recent reports which were referred to in the debate last week.

The 1999 Hart report was prompted by deep concern about the rate of marital breakdown and the damage it causes to couples and their children, to family lives and to society. Sir Graham highlighted the then £5 billion-a-year cost to society of family breakdown and divorce. Alongside the financial costs, he highlighted the huge cost in human misery resulting from marital conflict and breakdown. Similarly, last year's Demos report, mentioned frequently in the debate on parenting last week, focused on the damage caused to families by conflict in couple relationships. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester highlighted, the cost of that damage has risen markedly. It is now estimated by the Relationships Foundation as £41.7 billion or, put another way, a cost of £1,364 a year for every current UK taxpayer.

I take the view, reflected in all those reports, that we need to focus on the importance of supportive loving couple relationships providing support for parents and families, and not restrict ourselves to those couples who are married, but I reinforce the point made by Sir Graham Hart and reflected in the Demos report, which stated:

“Support for couples should be offered before problems arise to prevent breakdown rather than alleviate problems after they start”.

I believe emphatically that, although it is vital to provide support for children, if there is only minimal support for parents, children could, for example, have an excellent session with a counsellor but come back home to find parents being physically, emotionally or verbally violent with each other, or using them as weapons, which largely defeats the good of the help that the children receive.

I look forward to the maiden speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler of Enfield, who I know will have enlightened and passionate words to say on these issues. From my contacts with Relate—which, as noble Lords will be aware, is now the country's largest provider of relationship support—I know that that is its core business. Support for couples is crucial to the support of children. I welcome its campaigning work to put relationship support for children, adults and families at the heart of the social justice agenda.

As Sir Graham Hart recognised, the work of Relate is fundamental in tackling those issues. Any development of family policy must recognise that. I am particularly impressed with the way in which Relate uses volunteers. Sir Graham Hart focused particularly on the essential role played in the field of relationship support by bodies which had traditionally relied heavily on trained volunteers to carry out that vital work. Indeed, I believe that Relate is unique in that there is no difference in the type of clinical work or the training of its volunteers and paid counsellors.

It is the role and expectations we place on those volunteers in today's society which prompts my intervention today. I speak as the former chair and current vice-president of Voluntary Service Overseas, an organisation which has spent the past 50 years harnessing the expertise and enthusiasm of volunteers to transform lives, with localism and partnership the cornerstone of its mission.

A thriving society needs its volunteers. That simple truth is a core element of the Government’s big society, about which we have heard rather a lot in recent days. Noble Lords will know that the comments made earlier this week by Dame Elisabeth Hoodless, the retiring executive director of Community Service Volunteers, about the impact of government cuts on services, have struck a chord with many. Her call for co-ordinated, strategic thinking in providing services echoes Sir Graham Hart's recommendations, accepted and acted on by the then Government 12 years ago. After all, voluntary work does not happen for free—it costs money to run it. How will the Government respond to Dame Elisabeth’s call for the setting of targets for the use of volunteers in public service, particularly in the vital area of family support?

The Prime Minister's announcement last December of £7.5 million-a-year funding for relationship support was indeed welcome news. I am sure that organisations such as Relate, Kids in the Middle and the Tavistock Centre will use it well. We need research into family breakdown, and families need practical support when things go wrong, but the bigger picture—where this fits into strategic thinking, the basis of the big society—remains blurred. Training in this area is crucial, yet there is no longer the infrastructure of the grant for training. How will help be provided in relationship support to train people who act as volunteers? If individuals themselves pay the £6,000 that it costs, how likely is it that they will work as volunteers? If they are to be paid, the cost of service delivery will go up and an invaluable opportunity for dedicated and hugely useful volunteering will be lost.

I referred earlier to the huge cost to this country of relationship breakdown. The previous Government put supporting parents at the heart of their family policy. I hope that the Government will ensure that they reinforce support for services such as those provided by Relate and other parts of the infrastructure for family support, such as Sure Start centres—perhaps making a commitment through the ministerial Childhood and Families Taskforce. I hope that they will spell out clearly how they all fit into the strategic aims of the big society.

My Lords, I add my thanks to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester for securing this debate and for his eloquent support of marriage. I also say how delighted I am to be speaking in this debate with my noble friend Lady Tyler of Enfield, who will make her maiden speech.

Before I come to my main point, I make two others. The first concerns education in relation to marriage and relationships in schools, where it all starts. Although an Ofsted survey in 2009 found a great improvement in that area, with the majority of schools making provision within the personal health and social education curriculum that was either good or outstanding, a significant proportion of schools surveyed had inadequate teaching, insufficient time and, consequently, a poor level of understanding of marriage and relationships among their pupils. Much more needs to be done in that area, and I hope that it will be.

The second point concerns cohabiting couples. Sir Nicholas Wall, the President of the Family Division, was widely reported last week as saying he believed that cohabitating couples should have the same rights upon breakdown as married couples. Sir Nicholas was kind enough to speak to me about this last night, and he did not say that. To be fair to the Times, which interviewed him, it was not the Times that misreported him. He merely said that the proposals of the Law Commission in 2007 to give a right to limited relief to cohabiting couples on breaking their relationships should be implemented to right a significant injustice with the present law. It is important, if we are properly to support the institution of marriage, and civil partnerships for that matter, that we give the voluntary long-term commitment to mutual support that is fundamental to marriage the separate and distinct importance that it deserves, leaving those who choose to live together without making that commitment free to do so.

My main point relates to prenuptial agreements. The Supreme Court’s widely reported decision in Radmacher v Granatino has changed English law which previously rejected such agreements. In that case, as is well known, the French husband of a German heiress left investment banking to become a student again. On divorce he claimed a share of her fortune. She relied on a prenuptial agreement. The Supreme Court swept away the old law, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Phillips, saying that the courts should in general give effect to a prenuptial agreement if it is freely entered into by each party with a full appreciation of the implications, unless in the circumstances it would not be fair to do so. He added that the interests of children should not be prejudiced and pointed out that time and unforeseen circumstances may affect the question of fairness.

That decision has been widely welcomed by wealthy families keen to protect their young from those they see as gold diggers. But there is another view. Prenuptial agreements can be oppressive and threaten the long-term fundamental commitment to mutual support involved in marriage that I mentioned earlier. Radmacher had unusual facts and demonstrates the adage that hard cases make bad law—and, I would suggest, the principle that wholesale change is best introduced by Parliament after full and wide debate, rather than by judges necessarily and inevitably concentrating on the facts of the cases before them.

Noble Lords may find profoundly unattractive the notion of a wealthy husband placing the ring on his bride's finger with the time-honoured words, “With all my worldly goods I thee endow”, with the other hand firmly behind his back, fingers crossed, and thinking, “subject to clause 2 of the contract we signed last week by which you get nothing”.

Prenuptial agreements threaten the concepts recently and carefully developed by the courts of fairness, sharing and compensation which have massively helped wives who have given up careers to bring up families and be home-makers, enabling their husbands to go out and earn. As the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Hale, said in dissent in Radmacher, there is a gender dimension to this issue perhaps not best decided by a court of eight men and one woman. I fear that the decision may lead to an unfair two-tier system: one set of rules for those tough and worldly enough to impose prenuptial agreements on their weaker and more romantic fiancées, and another set for the rest.

The Law Commission has produced a consultation paper following Radmacher and, at the very least, some of the ideas canvassed in its paper should become law: legal advice should be essential; full financial disclosure should be required; the birth of a child should markedly diminish the effect to be given to the agreement; no agreement should be enforced if either party would be left unable to meet his or her reasonable needs; and the longer the marriage the less significant the agreement. These would be important safeguards that might alleviate the dangers. But at the moment this is a dangerous area for marriage, and one on which the law now is left very unsatisfactory.

My Lords, I, too, congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester on initiating this vital debate on the future of marriage in Britain, and I do so for a simple reason. Our children are going to have it very much harder than we did. They are going to find it harder to get a job, harder to buy a home, harder to find security in a world changing almost faster than we can bear. The economy will face ever increasing global challenges. Government expenditure will not be what it was. The competition for almost everything, from university places to jobs, will become ever more intense, and it is almost impossible for us as a society to prepare them in advance for the challenges they are going to face because, in Donald Rumsfeld's phrase, the unknown unknowns are multiplying daily.

There is, though, one thing that we can do. We can try to ensure that as many of our children as possible grow up in strong, stable, supportive families. It is in families that we learn the self-confidence, the trust, the discipline and the resilience that stay with us for the rest of our lives. It is in families that we learn emotional intelligence and the habits of the heart that make for happiness. It is in families that we learn to co-operate with and care for others so that we become responsible shapers of our individual and collective future.

Children lucky enough to be born into strong families are advantaged in almost every area for the rest of their lives: school attendance, educational achievement, getting and keeping a job. They will earn more. They will be healthier. They will be more likely to form strong families of their own. Children who do not have that good fortune will be disadvantaged for the rest their lives.

Strong families—not always, but mostly—need the institution of marriage and only political correctness and the desire to be non-judgmental lead us to deny that fact. It is said that marriage is just a piece of paper. It is not. It is a publicly demonstrated act of commitment. It is said that cohabitation is just as good. It is not. The average cohabiting relationship lasts a mere two years, and even when it leads to marriage, increases the chance of eventual divorce. It is children who pay the price. Britain, which has among the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in the world and one of the world’s highest rates of childbirth outside marriage, was found by UNICEF in 2007 to have the unhappiest children in the western world.

I come from a faith and a people that have survived for 4,000 years, often under difficult circumstances, and that still today contribute disproportionately to almost all facets of British life because they made the family their highest joy, the home their citadel, marriage a sacred covenant and parenthood the highest responsibility. If the Jewish experience has anything to say to Britain today it is: recognise marriage, not just cohabitation, as in the best interests of the child. Do so in the tax system. Do so in the educational system. Do so in relationship support. Otherwise, our children will pay the price—financial, educational, medical and psychological—for generations to come. Without stable marriages we will not have strong families, and without strong families we will not have a big society.

My Lords, I share the gratitude to my colleague and right reverend friend the Bishop of Chester for achieving this debate, and for the sharpness, clarity and passion of his opening speech on the need for major support for marriage within our culture. I, too, look forward to the contribution by the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, and to her passionate reflections and instincts on this theme.

I want to make two points. First, I shall say a bit about what we can learn from marriages in cultures other than our own. We live in a highly individualised society, as has already been explored very effectively by the noble Lord, Lord Marks, who spoke about pre-nuptial agreements. Even, I suggest, within the life of the Christian Church, there is much less emphasis now than once there would have been upon the biblical truth that in marriage the two become one and on what that means for relationships within a marriage and for the way that marriage is seen within our society.

My contacts with Nigeria, Uganda and Sri Lanka, for example, put me in contact with marriages which often seem more secure and joyful than our often overpressurised marriages. It is very easy to be cynical about and critical of different cultures by pointing, for example, to the danger of forced marriages and to the exploitation of women that sometimes occurs in violent marriages—though that is hardly unknown within our own culture. However, in cultures other than our own there is very often support which is established by the wider family and by its place in the context in which marriage is lived. Parents, cousins and aunts provide the background to the marriage which is crucial to support and encourage the love between husband and wife.

We have already had excellent speeches by the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, and the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, which emphasised and stressed the importance of children within the life of the family and as part of the expression of marriage. I just want to add to that the importance of adult children in helping and encouraging the elderly in their marriages. Those marriages, too, need support and encouragement. In some of those societies, there is also the expectation of more from the marriage of husband and wife and their need for time for each other. In our society, we need not only family-friendly policies but marriage-friendly policies too, so that human beings are given time to develop their relationships and deepen that commitment. It may be that the practices of this House could be reorganised to give us more time to develop those relationships.

We need to defend marriage, not least against those who would misuse it for financial gain. Noble Lords will know of well-publicised cases where Church of England clergy as well as local registrars have been targeted by those arranging sham marriages between European Economic Area nationals and non-EEA nationals in order to gain immigration advantage. To combat this, so far as the church is concerned, we have prepared new guidance from the House of Bishops to help the clergy. The guidance will be sent out when it has been approved by the Immigration Minister and UK Border Agency lawyers. If the Minister could promise to help to speed up that process, I and my colleagues would be delighted.

That said, one must do nothing at all to discourage genuine marriages or to put off those who are seeking it. Marriage is a human right, and we must ensure that it is encouraged and supported. Faith communities have a crucial role in this, and we look forward to working with the Government to achieve those aims.

My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester for securing this debate and introducing it with great passion and eloquence.

I would have liked to speak about the role of marriage and marriage support in general, but I am struck by one absence in the debate as well as in the work that has been done. If one looks at the Hart report, there is virtually nothing about ethnic minorities and their patterns of marriage and matrimonial breakdown. If one looks at the excellent briefing notes provided by the Library, the same absence is very striking. I therefore thought that I would say something about the ways in which this problem is faced within ethnic minority communities.

At one level, ethnic minority communities face the same problems as the rest of society, but there are other areas in which their problems are very different and distinctive and require a great deal of cultural sensibility if they are to be understood in their own terms. The percentage of matrimonial breakdown is much lower in ethnic minority communities and the rate of cohabitation is much lower, as is the rate of divorce. However, the situation is changing. As ethnic minorities are integrating into our society, they are beginning to share some of its weaknesses and mistakes.

If we are to address those problems, we will have to show a great deal of cultural sensibility. That is what I thought multiculturalism was about, and I am sorry that the Prime Minister chose to attack it in his recent rather uneven speech because, ultimately, multiculturalism is an attempt to understand how different communities, historically located in different places and embedded in different conditions, face the same problems and deal with them in their own peculiar ways.

I want to highlight six or seven important problems that ethnic minorities face. The first is forced marriages, which are declining but are still there in very significant numbers. They need to be tackled. If forced marriages are to be tackled effectively, the Government cannot rely on bureaucracy alone but will have to depend on the support of ethnic minority communities. That requires taking ethnic minorities into their confidence.

Secondly, sensitive marriage counselling is absolutely key. When I look at courses on marriage counselling in our colleges and universities, I find that the multicultural dimension is not as fully emphasised or appreciated as it should be. Therefore, we will have to pay some attention to who does the counselling, where it takes place and how the counsellors are trained.

Thirdly, within ethnic minority communities, families have traditionally been joint families. Young couples have been eased into marriage and helped to face the problems of marriage in times of crisis by family elders. In some cases, the elders are here; in some cases, the elders are elsewhere in the countries from which people come or from where women or men have arrived for marriage. I generally find that our visa regulations make it extremely difficult for elders, from the sub-continent in particular, to come here to help out young couples in times of marriage difficulties.

Fourthly, within ethnic minority communities there is a strong network of support. Communities move in at difficult times when they detect the subtle ways in which the marriage is beginning to face problems. I think we have to find some way in which the network of support that ethnic minorities have built up is encouraged, not replaced by bureaucratic methods.

Fifthly in relation to marriage in ethnic minorities, indiscriminate cuts are leading to the closure of all kinds of support networks, especially Sure Start and other mechanisms. Sure Start has played an important role in looking after children and relieving stress that happens to families passing through a difficult crisis. These cuts are going to impact very badly on ethnic minorities as well as on society at large. I very much hope that the Government will rethink the likely consequences of small economies in the long run.

In Asian families, one issue that is not widely noticed is that marital crises occur not only in the first 10 to 15 years of marriage; sometimes, they occur much later in life, when people are in their 60s or even 70s. I was struck by that when I was deputy chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, when these things were constantly brought to our attention. In such families, people get married for all kinds of reasons and perhaps there has been no initial friendship. As a result, during the marriage their children become their bond and, through children, they are able to sustain their relationships. When the children grow up and leave, the two individuals are left facing each other in their two solitudes. No bonds have been built up other than those through their children, who have gone. Grandchildren live miles away and are not able to visit regularly. Therefore, couples in their 60s can begin to drift apart, facing each other in their intense solitude, which leads to domestic violence, mental illness and all kinds of acute problems. When we talk about marriage counselling, let us also bear in mind the problems of elderly couples.

The last issue that I want to raise follows from what I have said so far. Many noble Lords might have been surprised by some of the facts that I have mentioned or some of the problems which I have alerted. This simply goes to show why research into the marital problems of ethnic minorities and the ways of dealing with them is crucial. Whatever research the Government undertake, they must set aside resources for consultation with ethnic minorities.

Finally, on the nature of marriage, I hope that we can make a better case for marriage than that it helps people to avoid Alzheimer’s disease or that it reduces costs to the national budget or whatever. If that is all that marriage does, I do not think it is an institution worth saving. Ultimately, marriage differs from cohabitation in four important respects: it implies mutual commitment; it implies ritualisation of a relationship; it is public, in so far as a public announcement is made; and, finally, it creates a collective unit, which is not simply two individuals together but a single unit encompassing two people. In so far as marriage has these four features, it is better than cohabitation, but one should not make the mistake of thinking that cohabitation is not a viable alternative.

Let us find ways of encouraging marriage and let us recognise the difference between marriage and cohabitation, but let us not turn this into a qualitative, categorical difference, which it is not.

My Lords, it is a huge privilege to address your Lordships' House for the first time in this debate. I congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester on securing such an important topic. However, first, I thank the staff and the officers of this House for their warmest of welcomes. Their help and support has been unstinting and their professionalism of the highest order. My introduction day is one that my family, my guests and I will remember for many a long year, along with the generosity of the welcome that I have received from all sides of the House, not least in today’s debate.

I should also like to extend my heartfelt thanks to my two supporters. My noble friend Lady Barker, a personal friend and a highly respected colleague in the voluntary sector, has acted as my mentor and has been so generous with her time and advice. During my Civil Service days I had the privilege to work for my other supporter, the noble Lord, Lord Bichard, whose reforming zeal for public services is well known. In addition, I pay tribute to those who work tirelessly in charities and the voluntary sector, both volunteers and paid staff, to help the most vulnerable in society. They are so often motivated by their passion for a cause rather than by personal gain. This country benefits enormously from one of the longest established and most diverse voluntary sectors in the world, which we should fight hard to preserve.

As someone who on previous visits to your Lordships' House was confined to the officials’ Box, I know what a challenge the huge wisdom and expertise of this House rightly poses to Whitehall. Today’s debate, which is being held in Marriage Week, is most timely. In 1999, the Hart review looked at the funding of marriage support, but its outcome was called the Advisory Group on Marriage and Relationship Support. This reflected the reality that all relationships between adults are part of the spectrum which includes the institution of marriage. As we know, marriage rates have declined since a peak in the 1970s and divorce rates are low and falling. Of course, the two are connected.

As we have heard, marriage and relationship breakdown is widespread: 45 per cent of marriages end in divorce and one in three children will see their parents split by the time they reach the age of 18. Stepfamilies and cohabitation are commonplace. According to figures in 2009, at least 34,000 couples had entered civil partnerships.

As ever, the reality that lies behind these headlines is more complex. More than 80 per cent of couples today cohabit as a precursor to marriage. In a recent study, it was encouraging and illuminating to find out that 90 per cent of young people in this country said that they aspire to get married. There is also plenty of evidence of the adverse impact of badly handled marriage and relationship breakdown on adults and children, which has been well rehearsed in today’s debate.

I declare an interest as the chief executive of the charity Relate, which fully recognises the reality of modern-day relationships. We are optimistic about the future of marriage as a strong public manifestation of commitment which works well for many people. But from our work with our clients, we know that what matters most is the quality of a relationship, rather than its formal status.

The more that an engaged couple can discuss their attitude to marriage, child-rearing, work-life balance and, indeed, the in-laws, the more prepared they are for the inevitable bumps along the road. Two-thirds of new parents say that contrary to their expectations, their relationship went downhill after the birth of their first child. Divorce is common in the first three years of a child’s life. We believe that forewarned is forearmed and that couples need to be aware of these pressure points, to know what support is out there, and to be encouraged to seek it early before things reach a crisis point.

A Hart report for this decade might usefully investigate how best to incentivise or nudge—to use the trendy term—people into accessing relationship education and support before they commit to a relationship, particularly before they have children, as well as when they start to hit problems. Some people are now using light-touch relationship support—perhaps a befriending or mentoring arrangement—simply to maintain or to strengthen their relationship. It is a bit like taking your car to the garage annually for an MoT or having a regular check-up with the dentist. I should like to see that become the norm.

A new Hart report should also look again at the funding of relationship support both nationally and locally. In this financial year, central government funding for relationship support amounts to £5 million. As we have heard, the Prime Minister has pledged £7.5 million for next year. When compared to the total cost of relationship breakdown for this country—these estimates vary but the estimate from the Centre for Social Justice is £24 billion per year—the case for investment in early intervention is clear.

Here, I must sound a note of warning. As local authorities finalise their budgets over the next few weeks, many local charities, including Relate centres, are facing a grim future. As we all know, so-called discretionary services are always the easiest to cut. As the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick of Undercliffe, so eloquently said, highly skilled volunteers of the type that we are so lucky to have in Relate do not come free. They need to be trained and supervised, and there is currently no funding for that.

For me, it is a matter of profound social justice that relationship support is available to all our fellow citizens, particularly the most disadvantaged and those on low income. High-quality relationships—we might call them happy relationships—lead to the best outcomes for adults and children. While not perhaps her most famous quote on the subject, in Pride and Prejudice Jane Austen wrote:

“Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance”.

To modern-day ears this sounds rather fatalistic. But, today, supporting marriage and relationships should and must mean supporting happy marriages, and making sure that support is there for couples to help them get back on track when they need it most.

The great constitutional historian Walter Bagehot once said that women care 50 times more for a marriage than a ministry. As a former civil servant and as chief executive of Relate, I hope that I can show this House that I care equally about both.

My Lords, it happily falls to me to warmly congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler of Enfield, on her thoughtful and erudite maiden speech. The fact that it was knowledgeable and eloquent was no surprise, bearing in mind that this debate on marriage and marriage support could have been constructed specially for her in her role as chief executive of Relate. But it was a bonus to have her added insights into marriage support. She has worked for 20 years in influential government positions focused on improving the life chances of children and young people and tackling social exclusion. Her knowledge at the policy coal face, devising practical ways of measuring some of the impacts of government policy, will be valuable in this Chamber. We look forward eagerly to hearing her speak often in the future on the topics that she has made her own.

I turn to marriage. I add my thanks to those offered to the right reverend Prelate for raising this topic. I agreed with so much of what he said. The speeches by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester and the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, also really caught my heart.

I love being married. It is so great to find that one special person whom you want to annoy for the rest of your life. That was not my observation unfortunately; it was said by the Jewish American comedienne Rita Rudner. A kindlier quote is from Bernard Shaw, who said:

“Marriage is an alliance entered into by a man who can't sleep with the window shut, and a woman who can't sleep with the window open”.

Is that not true?

We keep stubbing our toe on the awkward issue of how widely government should interpret their responsibilities across matters of personal relationships. We stub our toe on whether cohabiting is okay or whether it has to be marriage. To me, the contract of marriage is entirely justified by its impact on the public purse and the emotional and intellectual growth of children, our society's future.

There is a difference between marriage and civil partnerships on the one hand and cohabiting on the other. The overwhelming majority of young people in Britain want to marry. There is a striking relationship between income and family structure, and a poverty divide between the marrieds and the non-marrieds: it is the divide between the haves and have-nots.

If young people are in stable employment, they will eventually marry. Stable employment, not tax breaks, enables them to marry. Commitment happens when the circumstances are right. Middle-class cohabitees either marry eventually or, in the same way as married couples, split up. Eventually, however, they usually marry. Non-marriage and parental separation in the UK today disproportionately represent the problematic, as opposed to the progressive, elements of family diversity. We misjudge the importance of family structure in undermining our equalities agenda, perpetuating inequality both between the classes and the sexes. A child born to cohabiting parents is nearly twice as likely to see his parents break up before his 16th birthday as a child born to married parents. An unmarried parent is therefore much more likely to become a single parent.

It is all very well being non-judgmental about mothers and children in separated families—it is a worthy aim with which anyone can have sympathy, but, in reality, legitimises irresponsible fathers. So what should we do? First, we must end the situation whereby the benefit system encourages families to live apart or to pretend that they do. It is estimated that 200,000 more people claim support for single parents than in reality live alone. Secondly, all policies around the family should favour equal responsibility between men and women for child-rearing. Even if the relationship ends, the responsibilities towards children do not. Child poverty is strongly connected to the failure of non-resident fathers to contribute financially. I ask the Minister how the Government plan to strengthen the collection of child maintenance and provide a better range of options for separated parents.

Should marriage and relationship counselling be more freely available? Should the Government commit more funds to it? Perhaps because I am a psychiatrist, I am quite sceptical and worried about how we best target that support. Sure Start has faced similar challenges. It has often unfortunately been targeted at well heeled, knowledgeable people. If we need to reach people who do not understand why marriage is so important, we need much better targeted support. We must therefore be very careful before just investing more money in non-fiscal support, even if, as we know, the support that can be given by organisations such as Relate produces remarkably satisfactory outcomes.

I raise finally our discriminatory laws in relation to humanist marriage ceremonies. At the moment, only the religious have the option of a ceremony conducted according to their own religious beliefs without the need for an added civil ceremony. That was not the case when I married in a Catholic church in 1969. Then, all Catholic weddings, as I am sure the Bishops will remember, had to be witnessed also by a superintendent registrar. That has now changed, but not for humanists. Why do the Government not recognise that this discrimination is out of date and change it as we have done for non-Church of England churches? They have put this right for humanists in Scotland. Why not here in England, too?

My Lords, I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate for choosing this topic. I am also very pleased to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, on her maiden speech. I am sure that we all wish her a long, committed and happy relationship with this House.

I intend to be largely pragmatic and legal, albeit firmly in favour of marriage, female independence and equality. Bearing in mind the national deficit, my proposals are designed to reduce marriage breakdown but not to involve expensive action. The overall cost of family breakdown has been variously estimated at between £24 billion to £40 billion. As a society, we cannot afford serial marriage breakdown and cohabitation on this scale. Ironically, it is being proposed by the Ministry of Justice that at least £350 million be sliced off legal aid, and the people on whom the cuts will fall are those who are adversely and expensively affected by family breakdown. Let us save a few families and save on legal aid. Sadly the planned cuts to legal aid and to support for citizens advice bureaux may make divorce and breakdown even more likely. If legal advice is unaffordable, couples are less likely to get the information that might help at the outset. Mediation has a place, but it also has to be paid for.

It is marriage that makes all the difference, for only 8 per cent of married parents split up before their child is five compared with 43 per cent of the unmarried. According to the Telegraph, in response to a survey conducted in 2008, children under 10 revealed that if they could make a new rule, they would ban divorce. Marital splits were named by the children as the second worst thing in the world after being fat.

But politicians will not talk about it. We live in a nation that is health obsessed and expects its citizens to take care of each other and the environment. There are government messages about obesity, alcohol, drugs, smoking, school food, eating five portions of fruit a day, AIDS, seat belts, exercise and recycling. We are told that we should say no to supermarket bags and use public transport. You cannot take a photograph of a child or drive children to school without being checked. But a parent may abandon their children and pay nothing for them in the future without any such condemnation. The evidence about broken relationships is off limits.

I have some inexpensive proposals. First, we need to make sure that divorce law is not made any easier. Research across 18 European countries indicates that 20 per cent of the increase in divorce rates during the past 40 years is due to legal reforms. Fortunately, the previous Government did not implement the no-fault divorce provisions of the Family Law Act 1996. I propose the introduction of a waiting period to stop divorce being granted as quickly as it is by adding to the present grounds for divorce a provision that no decree shall be granted until at least 12 months have elapsed from the service of the petition. Others have called for a three-month cooling-off period before proceedings can start, in which finances and the impact of divorce could be explored. Marriage education at school should be promoted as strongly as the health and environmental issues that I mentioned.

Secondly, there should be no more legislation equating cohabitation with marriage. Statistics show that the best thing for children is to live with two married parents. The construction of a forced—indeed, illiberal—law of cohabitation may deter even more men from making any commitment, let alone marriage. We ought not to risk adding to the number of one-parent families by tempting men to walk out before they reach the threshold qualifying period for such a law—say, two years—in order to avoid financial liability, because all recent studies show that Britain's children are near the bottom of European leagues for outcomes. Concern for children should keep us from doing anything that would encourage more instability and abandonment. Cohabitants' children are already protected by Schedule 1 to the Children Act 1989.

Thirdly, the Government should swiftly enact a law to validate prenuptial contracts. If these were certain to be upheld, it might encourage couples to enter into marriage without the fear of drastic rearrangements and loss of family assets if the end were to come. Opponents of this seem to think that women marry only for money. This is not so. The current law on maintenance is unfair and liable to be used to split family businesses or inheritance, which would not be subject to such orders in most other countries. Financial provision divorce law is in urgent need of reform so that couples will spend less on lawyers and will be able to divide their marital assets with certainty, as happens in many European nations. This would also make savings for legal aid.

Most of all, we need to hear Ministers speak of marriage with as much enthusiasm as they show in discussions about, for example, the environment—and please may we drop the word “partner”, which should be confined to tennis and solicitors' firms, and be less shy about marital status? After all, being married is the most public way that men and women have been able to invent over thousands of years of showing a permanent bond with each other and with their families. There can be no family tree without public recognition and preservation of its roots.

My Lords, I, too, congratulate the right reverend Prelate on securing the debate in National Marriage Week. Whether this is coincidence or spiritual power, at least it gives me the opportunity to say a few words. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, on her excellent maiden speech, and look forward to hearing more about her expertise in this field.

While marriage is a private choice for some people, it is not for Muslims. If you can afford it, marriage is compulsory and encouraged. Cohabiting is not allowed. As we have heard, in many other religions and cultures, marriage is also desired and encouraged, as the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, and the right reverend Prelate, said. My noble friend Lord Parekh has expertise in ethnic minority issues and gave his expert advice to the House.

For many of us in the first or second generation, arranged marriages worked well. Unfortunately, however, the divorce rate for arranged marriages, too, is getting higher, as we heard from my noble friend Lord Parekh. In 2001, I was joint chairman of the forced marriage working group. We produced a report called A Choice by Right. Much has been done, but unfortunately some marriages do not work well. A very high percentage of arranged marriages works well in the first, second and third generations. Sometimes we read bad stories in the newspapers. A very small minority of marriages are entered into for economic purposes with partners from overseas who become what I would call domestic servants to young men who might be involved with drugs and alcohol, and whose parents arrange a marriage from abroad because they think that the boy will then involve himself with the marriage. Unfortunately, those marriages have great difficulties.

Ethnic minority communities, and in particular the Muslim community, have in the past sorted out these problems alone; they have never needed help from the state. After 7/7, the Government asked me to chair a working group, the Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board. We thought we would be dealing with the training of imams to deal with marriage guidance, teenage pregnancies and other challenges of modern British society such as drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence and conflict resolution. Unfortunately, MINAB has not gone forward. I would be obliged if the Minister would say whether there is any financial support for MINAB or for any other organisation that helps to support marriages and families in difficult times. We must also target communities with these particular problems.

My final point relates to divorce. When the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, introduced a Bill on divorce in 2000, he asked for a provision to be made available to women of the Jewish faith to apply for a divorce in court to obtain a religious divorce before a decree absolute was given. The provision was also to apply to other religious minorities. Unfortunately, judges are not aware of that. Therefore, when Muslim women or women of other faiths go to the British courts for a divorce, they get a divorce from the court, which is a legal document, but their religious ties are not broken. Therefore, for khula or its equivalent in other religious groups, women have to go abroad and it takes years before they can move on. The man is allowed to move on and remarry because he has his legal divorce, but the woman cannot. Perhaps the Minister will say what guidance is given to judges and courts on this matter.

My Lords, I, like others, congratulate my friend and colleague the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester on securing the debate, and thank noble Lords for their excellent contributions, not least the maiden speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler. As others have said, we look forward to hearing more from her in due course. Naturally, like others, I welcome hugely the opportunity for the House to focus on marriage in National Marriage Week. I will say more about that later.

The particular slant of my words will be on and will connect the instability in relationships and families and its consequences with the evidence for the greater stability that marriage provides. Like other noble Lords, I would encourage us as a culture not to be as shy as we have been to speak of marriage and to emphasise the evidential base that it is right and good. As we acknowledge in the marriage service, it is a gift of God in creation: a gift not just for the couple but for society. We ignore this at our peril.

I give a few statistics. Children are more likely to live in poverty where there is family instability. Women are 40 per cent more likely to enter into poverty after separation. There is likely to be poorer adult physical and mental health. Family instability in one generation makes it more likely, tragically, in the next. Conflict might be a cause of the breakdown of a relationship—whether marriage, cohabitation or civil partnership—but it can also be a consequence of that breakdown. We have already been reminded by several of your Lordships of the huge cost to the national purse—a cost that is not only to be measured in cash terms, but is in cash terms horrendously large.

By contrast, there is huge evidence that marriage makes for more stable relationships and therefore gives a base for our children to be brought up in more stable homes. Currently two-thirds of all first marriages can be expected to last a lifetime. Less than 10 per cent of cohabiting relationships have lasted 10 years. Less than 5 per cent of children whose natural parents are still together when they are 16 will become unmarried parents. Harry Benson’s research, published only two months ago, shows that unmarried families account for 80 per cent of the cases of family breakdown and apparently 86 per cent of the costs. We have been reminded already of the statistics that the parents of children born of married couples are hugely more likely—I was told 10 times more likely—to stay together until their children are 16, compared with just 7 per cent of cohabiting couples, which is a tenth of that figure. The evidence is there and we need to speak of it, encourage it and strengthen it.

There is another aspect of the social dimension of marriage that we pick up in our marriage service. The priest asks the congregation, “Will you, their family and friends do all in your power to uphold them, this couple, in this marriage?”. That is a lovely addition to our service that picks up a profound truth. We all—those of us who are married, as I am—need the friendships, families and encouragement around us for support at critical points.

We have been reminded of the aspiration of young people to be married. That prompts us to ask, “What are the barriers?”. I was at the launch of National Marriage Week two days ago, at which the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the right honourable Iain Duncan Smith, spoke excellently. He was prepared to speak of the couple penalty and say unequivocally that his department will look at changing the benefits system to remove that penalty, which is undoubtedly one of the barriers. Another barrier, which has already been referred to, is the issue of stability prior to a wedding—stability from work and from having a home. We could do so much more to reduce the level of break-up if more guidance was available and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, said, available early. Marriage preparation is mostly in the hands of voluntary agencies and particularly in the hands of the church. That, too, is something that we could encourage far more.

In conclusion, 90 per cent of our young people aspire to be married, which is something to celebrate and rejoice in. Let us, therefore, not only help them to be better prepared and support them in it, but do so by making early support available. We should encourage the professionals with whom they have contact to be better able to recognise some of the signs and better able to pass them on for more professional counselling and support when that is needed. I would be grateful for the Minister’s affirmation of the greater resources to be put in for that support—perhaps a higher proportion than our Prime Minister has already offered. For the sake of children, parents and society as a whole, let us be bolder in celebrating, encouraging and delighting in marriage itself.

My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the right reverend Prelate for securing this debate. I declare an interest as an honorary member of the British Society of Couple Psychotherapists and Counsellors. I especially enjoyed the maiden speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, and agree wholeheartedly with her emphasis on the need for good preparation for marriage.

Extensive research has now documented that the breakdown of couple relationships has deleterious effects on the psychological and physical health of the couple, as well as on their children. Children suffer not only from the upheavals of the divorce process but from the impact of turbulent, conflicted marriages. Although divorce has apparently reached a plateau, couples that divorce today do so at an earlier age, with an anticipated 45 per cent of British marriages in 2005—perhaps more now—expected to end in divorce. As fewer couples marry, much relationship breakdown remains unreported.

The right honourable Iain Duncan Smith, in his comments earlier this week as part of National Marriage Week, estimated that the costs of relationship breakdown could be somewhere between £20 billion and £40 billion—rather more than the 1995 estimates of only £5 billion—in health consequences, the impact on children and lost working income. As the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, alluded to, while the Government have committed support to relationships, they have allocated only £7.5 million per year for marriage support.

I am also very concerned about the lack of financial support for marriage, especially since results from the 2007 adult psychiatric morbidity survey showed that the second most important predictor of mental illness was family debt. A recent international tax comparison by the charity CARE highlighted the fact that among OECD countries Britain is relatively unusual in failing to recognise marriage in the tax system. This has unfortunate effects, including the tax burden on one-earner married couples with two children, who have an average wage a third greater than the OECD average. There is clearly a need for the Government to fulfil their promise to recognise marriage in the tax system. I refer noble Lords to page 30 of the coalition agreement.

Although the consequences of relationship breakdown can be devastating, mental health professionals can now treat relationship breakdown, as well as contribute to its prevention through strengthening couple relationships. When breakdown occurs, mental health professionals can minimise the harm to children, adults and families. Vulnerable periods in the life cycle of a couple can be identified so that targeted interventions can be offered, as was suggested by me and others in the debate about early intervention and parent-infant relationships just last week.

There are also some vulnerable groups of couples in society. Perhaps surprisingly, young marriage and young parenthood are actively discouraged today, with young mothers feeling criticised by first-time mothers old enough to be their grandmothers, despite the biological advantage of young parenthood. They also increasingly have to begin married life without the advantages of support from their extended family.

Another group among whom marriage and parenthood are discouraged are people with learning disabilities—a group that I have worked with for the past 30 years. Research shows that such families do well when there is a reliable and constant supporter, such as a grandmother, social worker or health visitor. These parents may also benefit from relationship support when they have difficulties in sustaining their intimate relationships. However, such relationship support requires rather more specialist skills from the marriage counsellor.

Very little funding has been made available thus far to evaluate the effectiveness of psychotherapeutic interventions, and the lack of an evidence base, relatively speaking, impacts negatively upon the funding situation for organisations that study and treat dysfunctional relationships. What plans do the Government have to provide more research funding to evaluate the effectiveness of support, given the huge cost to society of marriage breakdown? What plans do they have for support in the tax system for married couples?

My Lords, I join in the thanks that have been expressed to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester, particularly for the way in which he introduced this debate.

The Relationships Foundation has been mentioned already, and it has set out clearly the benefits of marriage, first to couples, secondly to society, and thirdly to the public purse through the nurturing and launching into the world of children. The trends, however, are obvious: fewer marriages per year, and later marriage. In 2008, 45 per cent of births were outside marriage, and we see rising marriage and family breakdown.

In 1999 the annual cost of the latter was put at £5 million, plus a much higher suicide rate among divorced and separated people. In 2010, Relate put the total direct costs of breakdown at £42 billion, as the right reverend Prelate himself pointed out. That report also pointed to the impact of breakdown on schools. Emotionally damaged children often lose the ability to learn. We also have to take into account the enormous costs of taking children into care. We should reflect on the often unsatisfactory results of the care that those children have received.

I suggest that we are in fact living on the accumulated capital of past long-term stable marriages and families, in which parents cared for children and those children later cared for their ageing parents. In the 1970s the Finer committee reported on one-parent families. Housing associations, in which I happen to be involved, made some limited provision for them. Now the number and proportion of one-parent families has jumped up, sometimes casting a blight on whole neighbourhoods. I suggest that we face a crisis and need to invest in marriage and in longer-term committed relationships of partners to each other and to their children.

I welcome the coalition’s statement on this and the Prime Minister’s offer of £7.5 million per year, starting next year, as my noble friend Lady Hollins mentioned. I question whether this is sufficient in view of the huge costs of family breakdown. The Government should provide help for serious marriage preparation. I had personal experience of this in the 1960s. The Government should also encourage faith and secular groups to provide preparation using trained volunteers. Existing spouses and couples often need quite specialised counselling, and this has been touched upon. The Government should cover the core costs of organisations providing such counselling.

I tentatively suggest that, without being intrusive, the Government and society should encourage informal cohabitants to enter into civil partnerships. Partnerships of this kind would define the duties and rights of the cohabiters. Civil partnerships should not be reserved just for same-sex couples. Heterosexual partnerships would avoid the couple penalty in the benefits system. My suggestions can fit in with current notions of the big society. They could be fleshed out at local level by local support groups for marriage and by family circles for parents, small children and even teenagers. These could help each other, for example, with babysitting, with young people’s discipline and with other practical problems.

Couples should stand alongside single parents. Social clubs, credit unions, holiday schemes and youth organisations all have supporting roles to play. Partnerships between government at all levels and local and voluntary groups are what we need, but far more detailed thought will be required to sustain and improve committed long-term relationships.

It has been said that marriages are made in heaven. I suggest that they also need divine grace to survive. There is, however, a huge amount that all of us can and should do in support of divine grace.

My Lords, it is a relief to have this consensual debate after the turbulence of the past few weeks. I therefore congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester on securing this debate. I also congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, on showing her own expertise; indeed, one feature of the debate has been the expertise shown by so many Members of your Lordships’ House.

In rising to speak I should perhaps declare an interest as someone who approaches marriage from a Christian perspective, but I also recognise that we have much to learn from those of other faiths, as we have seen from the contribution of the noble Lords, Lord Sacks and Lord Ahmed, and, from the Hindu tradition, of the noble Lord, Lord Parekh.

I have two points: first, that it is in the national interest to promote marriage; and, secondly, that neither Government have done enough to promote marriage and to remove disincentives to it. There is a consensus that marriage is indeed special. At one end of the spectrum it provides the most stable environment for child development, while at the other—this has perhaps not been sufficiently emphasised—it plays a hugely important role in caring for the elderly, where one married partner provides significant care for their sick spouse.

In an age where we are told that how we live does not matter so long as we love and respect each other, there is research evidence that points in the opposite direction. Children need stability, and research suggests that they are more likely to find that where their parents are married than in a cohabiting relationship. Equally, such children are more likely to have stable relationships themselves. I shall not go over the statistics that have been given, but the most recent wave of the Millennium Cohort Study data shows that the risk of breakdown by a child’s fifth birthday was much greater—indeed, four times higher—among unmarried couples than for those who were married. We should also remember that stability begets stability and that the social science evidence clearly demonstrates that the children of married parents are likely to have better health and educational outcomes.

The challenge for government, therefore, is to develop public policy that develops the legal framework to make it easier for marriage to thrive. We fail on two counts. First, we fail as a country. We are one of the few developed countries not to recognise marriage in the tax system. The figures relating to the OECD averages have been given. Therefore we await the coming budget. Good words have been said but we have yet to see those good words translated into practice.

Secondly, we need to support marriage by having adequate marriage support services provision. The benefits of marriage support were recognised by Parliament in 1996 when the Family Law Act was debated. Section 22 of that Act made provision for government funding for organisations promoting marriage support services, and Sir Graham Hart’s report in 1999 suggested that there should be increased levels of funding. In 2004, however, the marriage and relationship support grant was scrapped and replaced by a general family support grant that made no reference to marriage at all. The latest funding round launched in December followed that sad precedent.

The change in policy on relationship support over the years has had a real effect on the ground. I could show your Lordships the directory on marriage support services produced in 1996. Alas, many of the organisations that specifically related to marriage no longer exist. In January 2008, an Answer to a Written Parliamentary Question in another place revealed that Section 22 of the 1996 Act was no longer used. I very much hope that the Government will express a readiness to use Section 22 again to ensure that at least some money is invested unashamedly and instinctively in marriage support. I hope that the Minister can reassure us on that point.

In conclusion, I submit that the well-being of the institution of marriage is in the national interest. It should be reflected in our laws, in our practitioners and in our education system. We should even perhaps give consideration to this; just as in Bills the Minister has to certify that the Bill is in conformity with the European Convention on Human Rights, so perhaps in relevant fields such as social policy and taxation there should be a section in which a Minister sets out the likely effects of promoting the stability of marriage. I commend that to the Minister.

My Lords, I also thank the right reverend Prelate for introducing this important debate today in such a timely way. I also congratulate our maiden speaker, the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler of Enfield, on her speech. Clearly, as my noble friend Lord Sacks said, this is a very difficult time for many families, and it will become increasingly difficult. The noble Baroness’s expertise will be invaluable in our discussions on this matter. I was concerned to hear that there is a lack of funding for volunteers and their supervisors. I hope the Minister will take that to heart and that we will have a response on that point in correspondence or today.

I wish to concentrate on fathers and sons, but I will make a brief comment on marriage. I have not looked in detail at this issue for some years. I suppose the critics might say that one has to be careful not to confuse cause and effect with simple association. Middle-class families marry and middle-class families are more stable. Looking at the Scandinavian figures for outcomes of couple breakdown, what is interesting to see is that they have fewer breakdowns for both married and unmarried couples. What strikes me is that we must keep this in proportion. Marriage is important, but housing, education and Sure Start, combined together, are much more important. Where there is a good social infrastructure, families thrive, but even there, married couples do better than unmarried couples. This is a fairly superficial analysis, but I hope it might be helpful.

Turning briefly to Sure Start, which the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, mentioned, it would be helpful if the Minister could gather together some of the best practitioners around the country for a conference in Westminster so that local authorities could learn from best practice in children’s centres and ensure in the course of the cuts that are coming that best practice is employed by local authorities and the most effective use is made of the scant resources available.

Returning to the theme of fathers and sons, when speaking to nursery workers I have been struck in the past by their concern that sometimes when there is no father in the family the mother ends up treating her son as a little man—taking him to bed with her, for example. That is an exceptional but very real issue. Moving on to school, I spoke to a deputy head teacher yesterday with responsibility for inclusion in the school —incidentally at a meal hosted by The Place2Be, a mental health charity that works in schools. She was saying that among the issues for her boys growing up without fathers are in an increased chance of poverty, the lack of a clear male role model, and a sense that they are somewhat inferior to their peers who have fathers with whom they can do activities over the weekend. A couple of other issues also concerned her.

If we go beyond that to the care system, I can think of one boy in a children's home whose father was constantly promising to turn up for Christmas and birthdays and always letting him down; or you can visit Feltham young offender institution in the secure estate and talk to prison officers who acknowledge that many of the young men had never had the experience of a father. For them a prison officer can be a father figure.

I visited Cookham Wood young offender institution recently with colleagues. I was pleased to see the recognition that many of the young men there did not experience the joy of having a father. Some of them had experience of the Phoenix programme at this institution. They spoke very positively of this programme in which a black middle-aged man—a very solid man with great gravitas—ran a number of sessions with the young men. He spoke to them about things that their fathers might have spoken to them about such as the need to think about the consequences of their actions before acting. He introduced them to Machiavelli and talked about the fox and the lion and explained that it is sometimes better to use the fox’s way than the lion's way. He also used the technique of showering the boys with words of praise, which the boys really enjoyed. They could enjoy for a minute or two words of praise said by the group around them.

Clearly, anything that can be done to secure strong relationships between parents and enable especially boys to have the experience of an interested father in their lives has to be welcome, and I look forward to the Minister's response to the debate.

My Lords, I congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester on securing this debate. I, too, join noble Lords in congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, on her insightful maiden speech. She was a lot less controversial in her maiden speech than I was, so I could learn some lessons.

We would do well to heed the challenge and good advice given to us in this wonderful debate by the noble Lord, Lords Sacks, by learning from the Jewish tradition. In the Jewish way, stability of marriage has been the one enduring quality of life that has sustained them. I hope that we will take that to heart and find out how they do it and how it sustains them. Then those lessons could be learnt somewhere else.

Marriage, as we heard from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford, is a gift of God in creation. We should see marriage as a gift and as something to celebrate—something that sustains family life, especially in giving children emotional intelligence as well as creating the habits of the heart, which form us in our responsibility for other people.

I am reminded of children during the Second World War in this country who were evacuated and taken to safe places and to families in which there was stability of marriage. Supposing we had another crisis, are we certain that there are homes to which children of that kind could be evacuated so that they could learn from those families about that stability, that life and that wonderful thing? Marriage for me is a good thing, a place in which security can be created and real love can actually flourish. I was raised in Uganda in a long, extended family—uncles, aunties and grandparents. During vacations as a child, I was sent to spend my holiday time with one of my grandparents. The lessons that I learnt there have sustained me. When I was a parish priest in Tulse Hill, we tried to create for single parents the possibility of extended families to support the children. This is not just about the couple and their two children—they need also the openness of other families around them.

During National Marriage Week, I suggest that as a nation we learn from Jewish people and those who have come from places where there are extended families that actually support marriage. When Margaret and I arrived in this country, we did not have children; since then, we have had them. We did not have the joy of grandparents, uncles and aunties, but we were very fortunate to be in a church life in which our children could have that extension of learning from other people. I suggest that we should explore how we can create these extended families in which marriage can be supported. In the home where I was raised, divorce was unheard of, simply because the uncles, aunties and grandparents always tried to help the marriage along the way. It would be a good thing for us to create the possibility of extended families.

Finally, marriage is a good thing. I hope that we can all celebrate the gift of marriage without giving the impression that those who are not married are less loving and less caring. Nevertheless, if you find a good cure it would be quite selfish not to sell the product and not to tell those who need this wonderful product. In England at this particular moment, marriage is one of those good things that is kept a secret because we dare not offend or sound self-righteous or as if we were pushing other things. I suggest that it is a good offer and that all of us—not just the Government but everyone in the country—should be proud to speak about it and support it.

My Lords, I add my thanks to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester for calling this important debate. I share an interest with him in the rights and dignity of prisoners, an area in which I know he has been very involved. I need not remind noble Lords of how many of those in our prisons come from backgrounds marked by family breakdown, disadvantage, poverty and the lack of stable and loving relationships. I therefore welcome the opportunity to discuss the role of the state in supporting people to enter into and sustain stable and committed relationships, and in particular how that can strengthen our communities and society as a whole.

Many excellent points have already been made and the quality and interest of the contributions show just how important this debate is. Before I make my own small contribution, I take a brief moment to add my warm welcome to the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler of Enfield, and thank her for such an insightful, extremely relevant and clearly purposeful maiden speech. I truly look forward to her future contributions in debates in this House.

We heard last week in our debate on children and parenting how important it is to have stable relationships in our earliest years. It is clear from some of the points raised so far that there is much in common between that debate and the one that we are having today. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford said in his thoughtful and welcome maiden speech, children flourish best in the context of the relationships of stable, loving couples. This is what must be at the forefront of our minds today in discussing marriage and marriage support; it is simply not enough to talk only of marriage.

I am mindful that, notwithstanding the many benefits that have been recognised around marriage, we cannot ignore the fact that in recent decades the proportion of children living in lone-parent families in the UK has steadily increased from 12 per cent in 1981 to 23 per cent in 2008. In addition, divorce and remarriage create stepfamilies, with their own challenges. In 2005, more than 10 per cent of families with dependent children in Great Britain were stepfamilies.

Let us also not forget the growing number of same-sex couples entering into civil partnerships. Indeed, I welcome the Government’s commitment to sustaining support for civil partnerships and, in particular, their intention to allow same-sex couples to register their contracts in religious settings for the first time. It is often overlooked that there are many same-sex couples, especially among lesbian couples, who have children.

A number of noble Lords have raised other issues—of diversity, faith, extended families and age—which must not be ignored. All these issues are summed up by the statement that my friend, the right honourable Harriet Harman, made when discussing these matters. She 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”.

We have to be careful in suggesting that support for one form of loving, stable union between couples should be favoured over another. We must also bear in mind the great many numbers of cohabiting couples who have clearly made a choice not to formalise their union but who nevertheless need support in difficult times.

The danger in focusing support on married couples only, such as with tax breaks, is that we risk not only alienating the many unmarried couples but supporting married couples without children at the expense of families with children, which is clearly unfair. We should focus on the provision of support for people to enable them to enter and maintain stable and long-term relationships. That support must not be solely a matter of fiscal policy—I think that another noble Lord mentioned that—but part of a much wider, co-ordinated approach to tackling the deep-rooted structural inequalities that exist in our society.

That point was recognised by the previous Labour Government, who made families a priority in a way that had never been done before. Issues such as childcare and support for parents were brought into the policy mainstream for the first time. The commitment of the previous Government to support parents and families was also clearly underlined by the establishment and the work of the Department for Children, Schools and Families, which took the lead responsibility for these issues.

I am anxious that this Government have shown something of an ambiguous commitment to families, despite making the family an important tenet of the election campaign. For example, the Department for Children, Schools and Families was quickly dispensed with and is once again simply the Department for Education. That ambiguity concerns me because, in the past decade, we have seen fiscal support for families increased significantly. I am sure that none of us would wish to see that lost.

In the 2002 spending review, £25 million was allocated to the Parenting Fund to invest in parenting support. That first round of funding was followed by two more rounds of £14 million and £12 million respectively. In 2008, the then Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families announced a further £5.1 million of funding for organisations delivering relationship support services and £5.5 million of funding for better co-ordinated local support for separating couples. I think that the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, mentioned some of that funding.

The Children’s Plan was published by the Department for Children, Schools and Families in 2007. It particularly recognised the significance of the adult couple relationship and one of its components was to ensure that outreach workers from Sure Start children’s centres received training to give them the confidence to support relationships after the birth of a child. However, I am greatly concerned that the tightening economic climate and the increasing limitations on resources mean that these vital services are facing dramatic reductions in funding.

A recent survey by the Daycare Trust and 4Children found that: 250 of the centres are expected to close over the next 12 months; 2,000 such centres will provide a reduced service; 3,100 centres will have a decreased budget; and, at 1,000 centres, staff have already been issued with “at risk of redundancy” notices. The Government’s response has been to establish an early intervention grant, which they believe will give local authorities the freedom to make the best decisions for families in their areas. The Government claim that this grant will support the existing network of children’s centres, but its level is 11 per cent lower than the equivalent funding for the previous year and the protection around children’s centres has been removed in the shake-up of budgets.

It is important for us to understand just how vital these services are to families across the country, particularly the most vulnerable, and what a devastating impact this will have. This was recently made clear to me when I was contacted by the husband in a married couple in my home town of Bradford. Mr Paul Farmer has given me permission to share his letter. In fact, he has asked me that the questions he raises are answered by the Minister. Let me read it out:

“Dear Lord Patel of Bradford,

Let me first introduce myself, my name is Paul, I live in the Buttershaw area of Bradford and I am married with one child and one child due in a few weeks. Both myself and my partner work as civil servants with jobcentre plus and to do this we place our son in nursery 5 days a week.

When Christopher was born 3 years ago my wife experienced quite serious post natal depression. This was alleviated by the health visitors in the area, friends and family and by the local sure start children's centre. Here she met other parents, learnt baby massage (which helped both of them a great deal), received tips, help and sometimes just a shoulder to cry on.

As I stated earlier we are now expecting our second child after losing a previous pregnancy in terrible circumstances. We were looking forward to using the children’s centre, receiving the same help and support, and purchased a buggy so that my wife (who is disabled) could walk to the centre when needed.

Last Saturday we were informed that the centre is to close, the nursery attached (the nursery my son goes to) is to close and all help will be lost.

Reevy Hill children’s centre has been a god send. This has come at the WORST possible time for all of us, Christopher will be unsettled, my wife has support taken away from her and our new baby’s health and well being may suffer as a result.

We were assured that none of this would happen and for it to happen with such little warning is disgusting. Please can you tell us why this has happened and what can be done about it, we are desperate for help and this valuable resource needs to be preserved and built upon, not closed.

Yours sincerely, Paul Farmer”.

I am sure that your Lordships will feel, as I did when I received this letter, that the situation Mr Farmer and his wife find themselves in is both tragic and unnecessary. His letter more than adequately describes a situation being faced by a great many couples, as the full impact of the closure of vital support services is being felt. The impact this is having on ordinary parents and families who are already struggling to cope with job cuts and higher costs of living cannot be underestimated. When we talk about support for relationships, we must realise that this involves all those services that affect families and children, as these things cannot be separated.

The Minister assured us last week that Sure Start children’s centres remain at the heart of the Government’s vision for early intervention. In fact, Sure Start has been widely recognised as a highly valuable service and the Prime Minister himself had promised to protect it and build upon it. Those assurances are greatly welcomed but I remain concerned about the commitment to their practical delivery.

In particular, I ask the Minister three key questions. First, why has the protection around children’s centre funding been removed? Secondly, as the level of the early intervention grant is 11 per cent lower than the equivalent funding for the previous year, how can this Government expect local authorities to have the resources to continue to provide support services to the most vulnerable parents and families? Finally, will the Minister make a commitment to build on the achievements we have seen during the past decade in family policy and provide the support needed to build strong and stable families?

I want to make it clear that the aim of my arguments here, while noting the progress we have undoubtedly made, is to emphasize that there is clearly a lot more to do. A truly integrated and mainstream family approach across the whole range of government departments and local services is still a long way from being realised. We need an integrated approach to support for relationships that embraces all aspects of government policy across areas as diverse as housing, criminal justice, disability, asylum and refugee status and neighbourhood renewal. I also echo particularly the issues that were raised about volunteers and their funding.

In conclusion, I once more thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester for introducing this debate and I hope that noble Lords and the Minister will agree with my concerns: that we must approach this on a broader basis, encompassing all support for families and parents—not just those who are married—especially during these difficult and challenging times.

My Lords, like others, I begin by congratulating the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester on securing this important debate on the role of marriage and marriage support. It has been an extremely good discussion with interesting suggestions, a number of which I will follow up in writing, if I may. The themes of the debate have emerged fairly clearly and I shall return to those in a moment.

I also congratulate my noble friend Lady Tyler of Enfield on her excellent maiden speech. I welcome her out of the officials’ Box—a journey which I myself have made. My advice to my noble friend is, “Come on in, the water’s lovely”. Today’s debate comes a week after the excellent debate led by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, on the importance of parenting, which has been referred to. As the noble Lord, Lord Patel of Bradford, said, there have been common themes in both debates, of which perhaps the most striking is the benefits to children of being born and brought up in a stable and loving family. That point was made very eloquently by the noble Lord, Lord Sacks. Strong and stable families are the bedrock of a strong and stable society. They are the key to making sure that children grow up in a loving and nurturing environment and develop into healthy, happy and successful adults. As many noble Lords have pointed out, that makes sense financially, but much more importantly it makes sense socially.

None of this is to say that single parents do not often do a wonderful job bringing up well-adjusted, happy, successful children, nor that a fighting married couple cannot do terrible damage to their children. We all know from our personal experience the dangers of generalisation. We also know—and it has become clear in the debate—that relationships ultimately are not about statistics. We should not have KPIs for marriage, although I am sure that a management consultant somewhere is working on them as we speak. However, we should consider figures of the kind referred to by my noble friend Lord Patten and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford, among others.

The Centre for Social Justice has found that those not growing up in a two-parent family are 75 per cent more likely to fail at school, 70 per cent more likely to become addicted to drugs and 50 per cent more likely to have an alcohol problem. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has found that children from separated families have a higher probability of living in poor housing and developing behavioural problems. Evidence from the Millennium Cohort Study referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Swansea, suggests that even the poorest 20 per cent of married couples are more stable than all but the richest 20 per cent of cohabiting couples. Approximately one in three parents cohabiting at the birth of their child will separate before the child is five years old, compared with one in 10 married parents. Those all seem to me compelling facts that we should take into account.

I start from the standpoint that government have to be extremely careful about poking around in people’s private lives, but as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester argued, there is a connection between personal decisions and society as a whole. That is why government have a role in ensuring that there are no penalties to living together, helping people who want to stay together, developing family-friendly policies—as the noble Lord, Lord Patel of Bradford, said—and a role, through education, in helping young people to understand the importance of stable relationships.

As has been well explored, the evidence also shows that the strength and stability of adult relationships are vital to the well-being of children. If the relationship is strong, the adults are more likely to support each other through whatever challenges they face. As a result, their children are more likely to succeed. If the relationship is weak and there is a lot of parental conflict, then, sadly, the opposite is true. Indeed, so strong is this link that the quality of parenting is the single most important determinant of the life chances of a child.

Although we need to be realistic and sensible about what is possible and what is within the realms of any of us individually, and the Government in particular, to do, I accept that government can make a positive difference in this area. We need to have a range of practical policies that can have a positive impact on families.

Twelve years ago, Sir Graham Hart recommended that government should raise its level of support to the voluntary sector as a worthwhile use of public funds. At that time, central government spending was some £3 million a year. His arguments for public funding remain as valid today. They are arguments we have listened to and acted upon.

In announcing that annual funding for supporting relationships will increase to £7.5 million a year from April—£5 million more than last year—my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has, I hope, sent a clear signal about the importance we attach to the family and to giving support to people whose relationships are in difficulty. I certainly understand the argument made in the debate about the importance of training and volunteering. I understand that some of that grant can be used for training, but I will follow noble Lords’ points and respond to them specifically.

There is a lot of evidence to suggest that while people initially look to families and friends for help with problems they face, when things get more difficult they need more expert advice. When couples are helped through their problems, relationships can be revived and, if not, breakdown can be managed in a way that ensures the best possible outcome for children. That is why we are working with the experts in the voluntary and community sector, including organisations such as Relate, Marriage Care, the Tavistock Centre for Couple Relationships and One Plus One. Providing them with the resources they need to support relationships strikes me as an effective use of money in these financially straitened times. I also take the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick of Undercliffe, about the importance of early advice, on which we agree. The £7.5 million will be dedicated to supporting relationships over the next four years to provide a degree of certainty for funding, which I hope will help organisations plan for the future.

Another area where the Government and perhaps the Church can help is in tackling the stigma against seeking relationship advice. Many people feel they cannot seek help because of what others might think; and when they seek that help, it is often too late to save their relationship.

Another area where the Government can act is in reviewing sex education in schools, so that young people learn about the importance of relationships early on. As we are announced in the White Paper, the Importance of Teaching, we will review how schools can be supported to improve the quality of PSHE teaching, including giving teachers the flexibility to use their judgment about how best to deliver it. My department is carrying out an internal review of that. I hope that that picks up on comments of the noble Lord, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames.

I certainly recognise the work of the previous Government in setting up the network of Sure Start children’s centres. I entirely endorse the point of view expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Patel of Bradford, that they can play a key role in supporting families. We have put enough money into the early intervention grant to retain a national network of children’s centres, but I accept the point that he and other noble Lords made in previous debates: that the removal of the ring fence pushes responsibility for those decisions down to a local level, which will lead to difficult decisions for local authorities in prioritising their funding. I agreed with the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, about the importance of learning from best practice in Sure Start children’s centres and I shall certainly relay that suggestion to my honourable friend the Minister of State for Children and Families.

All the evidence shows that there are particular times in a family’s life that put extra pressure on relationships—for example, when a first child is born. We know that more parents split up in the first years after a child’s birth than at any other time. A Swedish study has shown that couples are almost a third less likely to split up if the father is involved early on. As my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister announced recently, we will be consulting on a system of more flexible parental leave to enable mothers and fathers to share childcare during that important first year. We are also increasing the number of Sure Start health visitors by 4,200. Crucially, we hope that they will act as a gateway to other services that a family might need, including, if necessary, relationship support.

We are also addressing how best to support adults and children when, regrettably, relationships founder. Our recent child maintenance Green Paper sets out proposals to offer parents more choice and to encourage them to reach family-based arrangements that are collaborative, flexible and based around the welfare of their children. Too many couples break up without fully understanding the consequences for their children and without positive arrangements being put in place to support their children post-separation. We know that children are more likely to prosper and do well in later life when both parents continue to be involved in their lives. Therefore, we want to ensure that parents are encouraged to play a full role in their children’s lives and that co-parenting is the norm post-separation.

One theme that emerged concerned what I think at one point was described as a penalty on marriage. This was mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford and the noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Swansea. It relates both to the tax system generally and the benefits system. It is the case that couples living together and claiming benefits receive less than they would if they each claimed separately. Therefore, it is no surprise that research by the Centre for Social Justice found that a majority of people out of work or in part-time work think that low-earning and unemployed people are better off living apart than as a couple.

The Government are looking hard at how we can reduce the couple penalty in the welfare system. A recent report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies confirmed that the universal credit should help to meet our commitment in the coalition agreement to tackle the couple penalty in the tax credit system. Our own analysis suggests that the universal credit will reduce the couple penalty where it will have the greatest impact—among low-earning couples. This is the group under most financial pressure when it comes to a decision on whether to commit to marriage.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester, the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, and the noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Swansea, asked specifically about tax. I confirm that the Prime Minister remains committed to looking at recognising marriage and civil partnerships in the tax system. As noble Lords will know, given the current economic situation, the Government’s first priority is to help people on low and middle incomes, but we remain committed to looking at ways to support marriage through the tax system. Proposals on that will be brought forward by the Chancellor of the Exchequer at the appropriate time.

Pre-nuptial agreements were referred to. Speaking for myself, I am a heart rather than a head man, and I certainly had no thought at all of financial considerations when I plunged headlong into marriage. The Government will await the outcome of the Family Justice Review before making any decisions on comprehensive divorce law reform. I listened with great care to the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, and the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, about the implications for Muslim communities, as well as the comments of my noble friend Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames about pre-nuptial agreements. The interim report from the Family Justice Review is due out at the end of March and I shall ensure that a copy is laid in the Library of the House. The Family Justice Review will also consider the Supreme Court’s finding on pre-nuptial arrangements and any subsequent recommendations from the Law Commission. The commission itself launched a consultation in January, inviting views on reforming the law on pre-nuptial, post-nuptial and separation agreements. That consultation closes on 11 April.

The question of forced marriage was also raised, with the distinction being properly drawn between forced marriage and arranged marriage. The Government take seriously the need to tackle forced marriage and they also place great emphasis on tackling early child marriage. Measures to tackle it will form part of the Government’s new violence against women and girls strategy, due to be published in the spring. However, I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, about the importance of working with ethnic communities on these sensitive issues. The Government have stepped up their efforts to tackle forced marriage in a range of ways: by strengthening legislation; by providing statutory guidance, practice guidelines and online training for professionals; by raising awareness and understanding of the issues, including among children and young people; and by providing one-stop support for individuals through the Forced Marriage Unit.

I was asked by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds whether I could use my influence to speed up the agreement of guidance by immigration Ministers. The Government very much welcome the initiative of the House of Bishops to produce guidance for the clergy to reduce the incidence of marriage to circumvent immigration requirements. I shall certainly raise the issue with the immigration Minister and follow that up.

From today's debate, a very clear theme has emerged of the importance of families and of stability for children growing up. Particularly important is marriage, which, according to statistics, alone seems to demonstrate better results, as regards the environment in which children grow up, than any other form of relationship. I was struck by the summary of the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, about the nature of marriage: that it is a mutual commitment; that it forms a ritualisation of a relationship; that it is a public commitment; and that it helps us to form collective units. All noble Lords who have spoken in the debate recognise that.

I also recognise the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Patel of Bradford, that in today's society relationships come in all shapes and sizes and that the key is to support a stable couple relationship whether or not they are married. However, I do not think one should ignore the evidence of the figures about the benefits of marriage—the case for marriage—as enunciated by the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York.

I am extremely grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester for securing this important debate, coming as it does during National Marriage Week. It was also particularly timely coming only a week after our debate on parenting. There is broad consensus across the House that we must return to these issues. The Government recognise the strength of the case that has been made today, as was the case last week. On behalf of the Government, I underline our commitment to addressing these issues and to working with a whole range of organisations—religious organisations, the charitable sector and others—to see what further progress we can make in encouraging and supporting the strongest possible families.

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for their contributions to the debate. I am delighted that I was able to provide the perfect opportunity for the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, to make such a brilliant maiden speech.

I have closing comments on two areas. The first is that I was struck by the contributions from different religious and racial traditions, from the noble Lords, Lord Sacks, Lord Ahmed and Lord Parekh. One of the enduring contributions which immigration will prove to have made to our society is the recovery of some proper understanding of marriage and family life gained from those different traditions. That is not sufficiently recognised in our public discourse.

As an individual on these Benches, I would not begin to speak for the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York, but I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, that there should be a completely level playing field for different religious and non-religious traditions in relation to marriage. The Minister did not respond to that point but I express my personal support for that.

The focus of our debate has been on marriage, and rightly so, but I end by emphasising that there must also be proper support for relationships other than marriage. In that sense, at least, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Patel, although I thought he still gave some evidence of the nervousness of using the “m” word, which possibly characterised the previous Government. I encourage the present Government to plunge headlong into studying this debate and all that has been said this afternoon.

I have a final comment on cohabitation. It suits men. The noble Baroness, Lady Deech, and the noble Lord, Lord Marks, drew attention to that. I have two daughters, one of whom is a successful lawyer here in London and one of whom is qualifying as a doctor. They both had complete equality of opportunity, but it has been on men's terms. They have had to conform to a male world, and our society needs to think deeply about what will genuinely support women in our society. That has been an underlying theme of our debate. On that note, I ask the indulgence of the House to beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion withdrawn.