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Marriage Week

Volume 620: debated on Wednesday 1 February 2017

[Mrs Madeleine Moon in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Marriage Week.

It is a privilege to have secured a debate about Marriage Week, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. I pipped it to the post when I celebrated my 21st wedding anniversary last weekend, but the last 12 hours have brought home to my dear wife, Janet, the reality of the vow “in sickness and in health,” because there has been a bit of a bug going round our house. I welcome the aim behind Marriage Week: to draw attention to the importance of marriage for individuals, family life and civil society. All of us can take part in the celebration. It is not exclusive to those who are married; it is for everyone, because we all know that marriage is for the common good.

I welcome the Minister to her place. She has already answered my written question about the Government’s plans to promote Marriage Week, saying that

“we cannot afford to overlook the importance of the family as the basic building block upon which we build a successful economy and a stable society.”

That is indeed true, but I want to give her the opportunity to explain further the Government’s plans and the value that they place on marriage.

Many of my hon. Friends support the idea of having a dedicated Minister for the family, so perhaps this is an opportunity to make a bid for the Minister’s promotion—she regularly attends Westminster Hall and speaks about lots of issues. We want a dedicated Minister for the family —indeed, a Cabinet Minister—given that the topic covers so many areas and Departments. When I was looking through some old cuttings the other day I was reminded that back in 2004, the current Prime Minister was the shadow Cabinet Minister for the family. She came to my house when she was supporting my campaign to be the Member of Parliament for Enfield, Southgate, and we talked about families. The current Prime Minister got it, and talked about how important that role is, so who knows? Perhaps in time the Minister can follow that path.

The Minister was absolutely correct: we cannot afford to overlook the importance of family. Family provides social capital to those who have fallen on hard times, as we all have—that experience is common to all human beings. This celebration is not just of a domestic issue. In fact, on Monday Professor Bradford Wilcox will help us to understand the evidence relating to marriage’s global value, which it is important for us to recognise.

However, I would like the Minister to go further. It is important to be unapologetic about the social benefits not just of family, but particularly of marriage. It is difficult to celebrate marriage without using the M-word. As a candidate in 2004-05, I got hissed not when I talked about immigration or Europe, but when I mentioned marriage. Sadly, there is disdain and antagonism towards marriage in some circles, but we can avowedly be great fans of marriage—of the M-word. I am unapologetic about celebrating marriage not only because I am in favour of the family formation, but because of the growing evidence that marriage is socially just.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this important issue to the House. Is he aware of the ComRes poll showing that 21% of people support further increases in the personal allowance, but that 60% support increasing the marriage allowance? Does he feel that the Government should consider making the married couple’s allowance that is provided to couples in their 80s and 90s much more generous?

The hon. Gentleman and I share views on many issues, not least on how welcome it is that the marriage allowance is once again a transferable allowance. However, that is just a small dent in properly recognising marriage and giving it its true worth and value. That could perhaps be done not least by following the call from many of us, and from the Centre for Social Justice and others, to focus particularly on couples with young children. I would certainly support that.

Not all marriages last, and external support is often needed when there are difficulties. The Department for Education has said that for every £1 spent on relationship support, the Government save £11.40, yet the Department for Work and Pensions seems to be considering significant cuts in support for face-to-face marriage counselling services. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that would be a terrible mistake?

This celebration and debate is not just about putting everyone in a Persil advert of perfect families, where everything goes right. Things go wrong, and resilience is needed. That can come at an early stage through counselling, support or marriage preparation, or after marriage through MOT tests and further support, not least at crucial moments involving young children or debt. Statistics show that the Government spend only 1.6p for every £100 of social harm that is caused by family breakdown. More needs to be done to tackle the associated price tag of £47 billion a year, which is a conservative estimate.

The way in which a marriage plays out in our society should provoke the Government to do all they can to ensure that marriage and the social benefits it affords are accessible to everyone, for richer and for poorer. In 2015, the Marriage Foundation—I very much commend Sir Paul Coleridge, who is here today, and Harry Benson for the great evidence-based work that they have done over the years—found an alarming widening of the marriage gap between rich and poor, with wealthier couples being four times more likely to get married than those from poorer backgrounds. Some 80% of high earners marry, whereas only 24% of low earners do. The rich get married and the poor increasingly do not. That bias in favour of wealthy couples is a social injustice. In fact, to use the words of the former shadow Cabinet Minister for the family—now our Prime Minister—it is a burning injustice, which needs to be tackled by the Government and others. That is vital because marriage supports family stability and provides an important pathway out of poverty.

Marriage must not disappear; in fact, it should be central to Government policy making. I sometimes search Government policy documents on my computer to see where the M-word comes up, but it often does not. There should be family impact statements looking at the impact of marriage and the support it provides in a lot of arenas. The life chances strategy or the social reform strategy, or whatever it will be called, will be published shortly, and I will again search to see where the word “marriage” comes up, because it needs to. If we are tackling burning injustices, we need to support marriage.

I want to spell out some social benefits of marriage. Unmarried parents are six times more likely to break up before their first child’s fifth birthday. Children from broken homes are two-and-a-half times more likely to be in long-term poverty, and 44% of children in lone parent families live in relative poverty—almost twice the figure for children in couple families. Cohabiting couples make up just a fifth of couples with dependent children, but nearly half of all family breakdown. There are a lot of reasons to consider, but marriage is socially just and aids social mobility. Children who experience family breakdown perform less well at school, gain fewer qualifications and are more likely to be expelled from school. I therefore encourage the Government to commit more resources to tackling family breakdown by celebrating marriage.

I welcome the marriage tax allowance. We have mentioned the importance of that; it brings us in line with other OECD countries that have recognised family stability by recognising marriage. However, it is also important to build on that good work. The fact that 90% of a married person’s tax allowance remains transferrable means that although we have that recognition in principle, it does not really get to the heart of the problem.

There are many creative ways of celebrating marriage. As hon. Members have mentioned in their interventions, we can do much more. There is the financial element—we have debated whether that is important in the past—but more than that, it is about practical support and how we provide relationship support. I welcome the previous Prime Minister’s absolute commitment to that and the money that was provided for relationship support, which must continue—indeed, it should increase, because it is money well spent. Supporting fathers, which several hon. Members present have championed through the all-party group on fatherhood, is particularly important, as is broadening access to marriage preparation classes and marriage counselling.

I pay tribute to the Marriage Foundation, which is behind next week’s celebration, and to Harry and Kate Benson, whose life as a couple has recently received a lot of publicity. They recognise that marriage is not just a bed of roses. We all experience problems. Marriage Week is about recognising that we must not take our marriages for granted—we all need to work on them, and that applies to me as much as to anyone else—and nor should society or the Government. We should promote and celebrate this vital institution for a good society.

I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) for his tremendous speech, which I strongly support.

The most powerful statistic in this whole area is that, of all the parents who are still together when their children reach the age of 15, 93% are married. That says so much about why marriage matters. As MPs, we are here for all our constituents—we are here for the single mums who do an amazing job, and we are here for people who are not married—but it is right to celebrate marriage as a massively important social institution that builds resilience and is clearly really good for our children.

Three quarters of 20 to 24-year-olds say that they want to marry, so the aspiration for our younger people is very much there. Likewise, three quarters of lone parents and almost nine in 10 step-parents agree that it is appropriate and necessary for the Government to send the message that having two parents is important. That is all worth putting on record.

The Austrian political economist Joseph Schumpeter said that in a modern consumer economy, people might end up living for the present rather than having projects for the future. That involves things like saving less and borrowing more. Critically, he said that there would be less willingness for people to make long-term commitments to one another. Of course, the greatest long-term commitment that we can make is a marriage in which we bring up children.

There is so much more that we can do, including really good marriage preparation and really good marriage MOTs. We all get our cars serviced once a year; we spend time and money on it because we think it is important. But how much more important it is to have a look under the bonnet of our marriages, to make sure that what started off romantically, but might now feel a bit like running a small business with an ex-girlfriend, stays on track.

My hon. Friend has been a great champion of marriage for many years. He also has experience in Bedfordshire with voluntary organisations that try to help couples, particularly those who have just had a child. Some Government funding was coming through for such projects; does he know whether any progress has been made?

I am very pleased that the last Prime Minister doubled the amount of spending on relationship support across Government, as my hon. Friend already mentioned, but there are real pressures on the sector and on the Relationships Alliance. I will meet the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions next week to discuss those issues.

Was my hon. Friend as surprised as I was to learn that last year the Government spent more money on repairing cathedrals than on supporting marriage and family relationships? Will he join me in calling on the Government to put more resources into supporting marriage?

I am a great supporter of cathedrals, as I am sure my hon. Friend is, but it should not be either/or. We need to take care of the living as well as the buildings in which people celebrate great events.

I will end my short contribution by stating the importance not only of marriage preparation but of really good ongoing marriage support. I am afraid that many churches often provide some of the worst after-sales service of any organisation I know. We all get into bad habits—I put my hand up to that, and my wife would be the first to draw attention to it—but just one evening a year can make a huge difference. We do it for our cars, so why not for our marriages?

I call Fiona Bruce. I remind her that we still need to hear from the Minister. If she takes interventions, the Minister will have less time.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) for securing this debate on a subject that is too infrequently spoken of in this place but that is important to the people we serve. Some 80% of young people aspire to marry, because they recognise the benefits of marriage for the parties, for any children they may have and for wider society. As my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) said, marriage promotes stability in relationships. I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate that it is therefore a matter of social justice that the Government support marriage, particularly because it is the least well off who have the least resilience to cope with the consequences of relationship breakdown.

There are many benefits of marriage. The health benefits are powerful for women and men. Marriage is associated with a significant reduction in depression and marital status affects the progress of Alzheimer’s disease in later life—singles have twice the risk of developing it. Married people are more likely to survive cancer, and they have a lower risk of suicide. The longevity effect of marriage can even offset the consequences of smoking.

We are all rightly concerned about the cost and scarcity of social care, but the social care burden is significantly greater if elderly people are not being looked after by their spouse. Those living with a spouse are least likely to go into an institution after the age of 60. A European study of 20,000 older people found that men and women living with a spouse were more likely to be satisfied with life. Older people living with a spouse are also the most healthy group.

Obviously, many people in couples find themselves alone in later life, and single people may find themselves bringing up children. As we have said many times when discussing this issue, there is no condemnation of any individual when we speak about marriage. We know and recognise that single parents work valiantly and often very successfully to bring up children, but statistics show that marriage is good for people and for their children. Studies consistently indicate that children raised by two happily and continuously married parents have the best chance of developing into competent and successful adults. During early parenthood, the single biggest predictor of stability—even when controlling for age, income, education, benefits and ethnic group—is whether the parents are married. That challenges the assumption that factors other than marriage—so-called selection effects —are at play. As we have heard, 93% of all couples that are still intact by the time their child is 15 are married. Indeed, 9% of married parents split before their child’s fifth birthday, but 35% of unmarried parents split.

There is a huge level of interest at the moment in young people’s wellbeing and mental health, but family structure is very rarely considered to be the important factor it is. I am patron of a children’s mental health wellbeing charity in my constituency; the chief executive has told me that it is having to care for children at a younger and younger age, and in nearly every case family relationship difficulties are one of the chief causes of their mental health problems.

My hon. Friend is right to mention the benefits of raising children in a stable family home. Does she agree that the Government have a real opportunity and responsibility to promote marriage because of what it is and what it does for children?

Absolutely, particularly with respect to mental health. Teenage boys who live with continuously married parents have the highest self-esteem among teenagers, while teenage girls who live with continuously cohabiting parents have the lowest. I could cite a plethora of other research and statistics, but I am out of time. Marriage is indispensable to a flourishing society. We need to stop fighting that fact and start supporting it.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon, and to be able to respond to this very important debate today.

I do not intend to start by being facetious, but the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) have left me fearing for my own future good health. Nevertheless, I welcome the comments that many Members have made about the importance of lone parents in our society and the very, very hard work that they put in to bringing up their children.

Of course, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) on securing this important debate on Marriage Week, although not quite during Marriage Week, which I understand runs from 7 February to 14 February, coinciding very nicely with St Valentine’s day, which is coming up very soon indeed. I acknowledge his keen interest in social justice issues and that of the many other Members who have spoken. It demonstrates the importance that the House places on the subject that so many Members, from all parties, are here today for what is just a 30-minute debate, and have sought to make their contributions.

I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) on securing this debate. Does my hon. Friend the Minister agree that the fact that marriage is now open to all helps to embed social justice in our society?

I very much thank my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer) for that comment. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate on his 21 years of marriage to Janet, but I understand that my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green has recently also celebrated his wedding anniversary. Although he has only been married for two years, he has actually been with his husband for a quarter of a century. That is something that we can all be very impressed by and I extend my congratulations to them.

Of course, Marriage Week provides us with a very good opportunity to celebrate the commitment and connectedness that a stable relationship brings to a family. The Government view the role of families as fundamental in shaping individuals, and in having an overwhelmingly positive effect on wider society. We know that growing up in families where parents are collaborative and communicative gives children the skills they need to develop into happy and successful adults, and the vital institution of marriage is a strong symbol of wider society’s desire to celebrate commitment between partners.

The institution of marriage can indeed be the basis of a successful family life and many people make this very important commitment every year. As we have heard, marriage can lay the foundations for parenthood, and is emblematic of the love and security that parents need to give their children.

A stable family that provides a nurturing environment for children is something that the Government will continue to champion and encourage. That is why we are focused on helping families and children, to enhance the educational and employment opportunities available to the young, and to reinforce the benefits that parental collaboration undoubtedly has.

Since 2015, Marriage Care in Tyneside has provided counselling services to 54 couples and 48 couples have received relationship education, undoubtedly helping those couples to form healthier marriages and stronger family units. Does the Minister agree that the Department for Work and Pensions should continue to fund face-to-face marriage and relationship counselling services?

I thank the hon. Lady for that comment, and I have written the name of her constituency on my speech so I remember to mention specifically the point she has made about Newcastle upon Tyne.

The importance of marriage is reflected in the Government’s introduction of the marriage tax allowance. Furthermore, our commitment to supporting different types of family means that we have extended that tax allowance to include civil partnerships and, of course, same-sex marriages, which were introduced in 2014 and have been taking place since.

I understand that the take-up of the marriage tax allowance has not been as great as the Government had hoped. May I gently suggest to the Minister that the take-up would increase dramatically if she and her Department were able to make it a more serious allowance? Perhaps that is something the Government can consider.

I am sure that is also a matter for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, and recently it has been a subject that my own constituents have raised with me, following some publicity about take-up of the marriage tax allowance.

This debate is an opportunity for us to celebrate the diversity and vibrancy of marriage as the basis for family life across the United Kingdom, and we recognise that supportive families can come in many different shapes and sizes.

When it comes to the critical issue of improving children’s outcomes, the evidence shows that it is not the structure of a family that is important but the quality of the relationship between the parents. Recent research by the Early Intervention Foundation has shown that children exposed to frequent, intense and poorly resolved inter-parental conflict have poorer outcomes in later life. We also know that an improvement in parenting skills does not mitigate the worst effects if relationship issues are not addressed.

It is an unfortunate fact of life that marriages can and do break down, but the Government have been clear that, even when a family has separated, both parents still have a positive role to play in the lives of their children. Evidence shows that parental collaboration has a direct and positive impact on child outcomes. As we have heard, children tend to have better health, emotional wellbeing and higher academic attainment if they grow up with parents who have a good relationship and who are able to manage conflict well. That is why we are committed to supporting healthy relationships between parents—whether married or cohabiting, together or separated—in the best interests of children.

I just wonder whether the Minister could reflect on the statistic that 93% of couples who are still together when their children reach the age of 15 are married. Does that not speak very powerfully, notwithstanding what she said about the recent research by the Early Intervention Foundation?

I thank my hon. Friend for that comment and I will shortly make some very specific points about marriage that I know will make everybody very happy.

Over 48,000 couples have participated in counselling and more than 17,000 practitioners have been trained to help families in difficulty in the last four years, during which we have invested more than £30 million in services offering support to couples, to reduce parental conflict. In total, 160,000 people have been given access to support, to reduce that conflict. Alongside that, our ongoing child maintenance reforms are delivering a new programme designed to increase collaboration and reduce conflict between separated parents.

Our current programme was designed without the benefit of the latest evidence about the importance of good inter-parental relationships, while a focus on national commissioning of services makes it hard to establish effective referral mechanisms from local services. This means that, in some areas, take-up remains low, despite the prevalence of relationship distress. The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) made an important intervention earlier and we will soon announce plans to procure new services to help disadvantaged parents, and others, to address parental conflict.

I am really sorry, but I am now left with only three and a half minutes and I still have quite a lot that I would like to say.

The importance of both parents to children’s future outcomes is well known to all of us. Only around half of children in separated families see their non-resident parent every fortnight or more. Through both our programme to reduce parental conflict and our child maintenance reforms, we are specifically supporting fathers, as my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate mentioned, in both intact and separated families, to form more collaborative co-parenting relationships and hence improve their children’s outcomes. We know that some fathers feel that they are not recognised by public services as having responsibilities for their children and we want to explore how to give them the same chance to engage in their children’s lives as mothers.

Of course, we are aware that different organisations offer classes specifically aimed at preparing a couple for marriage, and those classes can offer very real benefits to people in those circumstances. We want to support programmes that have the biggest impact possible, which is why our new programme will offer support to all family types.

I acknowledge the great work of the community of organisations that advise my Department on family and parental conflict issues. I recognise the great breadth and depth of experience they have in this area. In seeking to draw on their valuable experience, on 23 January I met members of the Relationships Alliance—Relate, Marriage Care, OnePlusOne and Tavistock Relationships. We enjoyed a really productive and informative discussion about the challenges involved in addressing parental conflict, including in the most disadvantaged families, and the new national development of this important work.

The Relationships Alliance is an important organisation that plays a key role in promoting the many benefits of healthy adult relationships, and our objectives are very closely aligned. Members of the alliance have been long-standing partners of the Department, both in their capacity as subject matter experts, and as contract-holders for our current and past delivery programmes. They have given their time and expertise to policy development, and I thank them for that support. In particular, they have supported our efforts to create a new programme targeted at reducing parental conflict. We will continue to engage with the Relationships Alliance, and a wide range of stakeholders, in the future.

The Green Paper that we will bring forward shortly is a listening exercise as much as a tool to express our policy intentions. It will provide an excellent opportunity to hear from stakeholders to garner their views and expertise, and I look forward to exploring the outcomes in more depth. Disadvantaged children are a priority for Government support, and as such will also be a priority for our parental conflict contracts.

In conclusion, let me assure hon. Members that this Government are clear on the importance of the family and of marriage, in all the different forms that it can take, and we are continuing to work to drive up outcomes for children by increasing collaboration between parents, which we know is so crucially important.

I reiterate my thanks to all Members who have expressed their views and their particular enthusiasm and support for marriage. I welcome that, I acknowledge that and I reassure them that the Department intends to continue to work very hard to ensure that marriage gets the support it needs to continue being a strong bedrock for the families and the children for whom we want to secure the best possible outcomes in the future.

Question put and agreed to.