Marriage debate is just beginning

PUBLISHED: 11:17 19 July 2007 | UPDATED: 12:39 04 May 2010

THE recent focus on marriage and the role it plays in society has raised a number of important, albeit highly emotive, issues. Let me begin by saying that I don t think it is for me - or any other politician - to make unsubstantiated and moralising judge

THE recent focus on marriage and the role it plays in society has raised a number of important, albeit highly emotive, issues.

Let me begin by saying that I don't think it is for me - or any other politician - to make unsubstantiated and moralising judgements about whether marriage is the 'right' or 'wrong' way in which to bring up children. What I do believe is that politicians and policy-makers should examine the evidence, and then explore ways to support and encourage what is shown to work.

The current debate about marriage has been sparked by a Conservative policy review whose remit was to recommend policies to tackle 'social breakdown', which is estimated to cost more than £100 billion each year. Of this, crime takes up £60bn, family breakdown £24bn and educational under-achievement £18bn. The human cost behind these numbers is immeasurable.

I often visit areas in my constituency where anti-social behaviour is a common problem. I have no idea what proportion of those responsible are from broken homes but many will tell you that this is the root cause. Indeed, the available evidence supports this view, as crime is strongly correlated with family breakdown. Some 70 per cent of young offenders are from lone parent families and one third of prisoners were in local authority care (yet only 0.6per cent of the nation's children are in care at any time).

Among a large representative sample of adults, social problems were also more prevalent among those who had experience of family breakdown. Those not brought up by both parents were more likely to have experienced educational problems, drug addiction, alcohol problems, serious debt problems, or unemployment.

We have the highest rate of family breakdown in Europe. And we have the worst social problems in Europe. Are these things really unconnected? If marriage is the best defence against such breakdown, we must not be cowed into ignoring it by taboos and political correctness.

So is encouraging and strengthening marriage the way to tackle some of the most serious problems that society faces? The evidence suggests that it might be. Should the tax system be biased towards married couples? The issue is more about re-setting the balance, which is tilting away from marriage and penalising people who want to stay together.

These are all highly charged questions and ones that are fraught with difficulty as there are clearly thousands of fantastic parents who are unmarried or separated. These people should not be discriminated against - and neither should their children. But I am not talking about promoting marriage at the expense of single parents.

Marriage has been undermined by the tax and benefits system under the current government. The couple penalty in tax credits, for example, disincentivises low-income couples from living together and especially from making a co-residential arrangement unambiguous by marrying. This must be addressed.

If marriage rates went up and more couples stayed together for longer, our society would surely be better off. The debate is only just beginning.

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