I’m delighted to be here today to launch Marriage Week.
I had the privilege of being invited to speak at the launch event back in 2007, and I have always been very supportive of what Marriage Week UK are trying to achieve.
My appearance in 2007 came just a few months after the Centre for Social Justice - of which I was then Chairman - published its report “Breakdown Britain”, which laid bare the impact that family breakdown was having on the UK’s social fabric.
Back then to speak of marriage made one something of a lone voice - at least within the political class.
That was because over the years the political establishment had frowned if a mainstream politician mentioned marriage.
The prevailing view was that to extol the virtues of this most fundamental institution somehow meant that you were going to stigmatise those who were not married.
This is an absurd and damaging assumption.
Support for our most basic and successful institution does not mean that you cannot be sympathetic to and supportive of families where one parent is left with the difficult responsibility of bringing up the children.
As a result of such two-dimensional arguments, successive governments shied away from proper discussion about the structure and importance of the family.
So I’m pleased to be able to stand here today and say that I believe the tide is beginning to turn.
The role of marriage in family life and the importance of stable families has become an important topic.
Not as a “finger wagging” exercise, as has sometimes happened in the past, for everyone is ultimately responsible for their own lives, not the government.
But because any balanced government must understand the effect that family breakdown can have on the wellbeing of both adults and children.
Financial and social costs
The financial costs of family breakdown are incredibly high, with estimates ranging at somewhere between £20-40 billion a year.
But what is most painful to see is the human cost - the wasted potential, the anti-social behaviour, and the low self-esteem.
The Centre for Social Justice has found that those not growing up in a two-parent family are:
- 75% more likely to fail at school
- 70% more likely to become addicted to drugs, and
- 50% more likely to have an alcohol problem.
And the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has found that children from separated families have a higher probability of:
- living in poor housing
- developing behavioural problems, and
- suffering from a host of other damaging outcomes, whose effects spill over to the rest of society.
Marriage and cohabitation
Of course I recognise that relationships can break down for unavoidable reasons, and as a consequence there are lone parents all over the country doing the difficult job of bringing up children and often succeeding against the odds.
They are to be applauded and we should do what we can to help them in adversity.
But we do a disservice to society if we ignore the evidence which shows that stable families tend to be associated with better outcomes for children.
And there are few more powerful tools for promoting stability than the institution of marriage.
Indeed, evidence suggests that even the poorest 20% of married couples are more stable than all but the richest 20% of cohabiting couples.
And approximately one in three parents cohabiting at birth will separate before their child is five years old, compared with one in ten married parents.
Of course I’m aware that there are other factors at play - those who marry tend to be slightly older, relatively better educated and relatively better off, all of which help promote family stability. Further down the income scale two parent family formation becomes even more problematic.
But, as the Prime Minister has argued for some time, there is something special about the active commitment which marriage involves - the willingness to openly and actively plan for the future - which promotes stability in other aspects of the relationship and family life.
This stability can, in turn, be key to ensuring that children are able to achieve a better education, and go on to become better off parents themselves in later life.
So commitment at every level of family income is crucial, which is why the Coalition supports civil partnerships, another expression of that binding commitment.
Marriage trends and aspirations
Given the costs imposed by family breakdown, it is worrying that marriage rates have more than halved in the last 40 years.
And the proportion of children being born outside of marriage rose from under 5% in the 1950s to 45% in the most recent statistics.
From this, perhaps the worst and most insidious causal assumption has been made, as some commentators have concluded that marriage is an institution which is no longer wanted or needed by modern British society, and that young people no longer value it.
However, I prefer my conclusions to be borne out by evidence not speculation.
That is why the research in this area is so fascinating.
When asked about their aspirations, young people are very clear:
- three quarters of those under 35 who are currently in cohabiting relationships want to get married, and
- some 90% of young people aspire to marriage
So perhaps the question we should be asking ourselves is this: if people from the youngest age aspire to make such a commitment in their lives, what stops them doing so?
Government cannot and should not try to lecture people or push them on this matter, but it is quite legitimate to ensure people have the opportunity to achieve their aspirations.
And that means that we have to look at how we can remove the barriers that currently stand in their way.
The Couple Penalty
Take the couple penalty in the benefits system.
Couples living together and claiming benefits receive less than they would if they each claimed separately.
So 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 low-earning and unemployed people are better off living apart than as a couple.
Only those with money say that money has no bearing on whether people stay together.
This was made remarkably clear in last month’s Panorama documentary on ‘missing dads’.
It featured a young man - Caleb - who desperately wanted to be a good dad and to live with the mother of his child.
But they were both on a low income, and would have seen their benefits cut by around £30 a week if they’d have moved in together.
As Frank Field said to Caleb in the programme - “If you were designing a crazy system to mess up kids, you’d come up with the system we’ve got now.”
Not only that, but this crazy system can have the effect of pushing the most disadvantaged in society into the most destructive behaviour - namely criminal activity - as they attempt to get around the couple penalty by committing living together fraud.
Such behaviour can never be condoned, but it is a tragic state of affairs that people should feel pushed into crime by having their genuine aspirations to build positive and committed families stifled.
But, beyond the money, research shows that today’s couples also face a growing problem of what they expect married life to be like.
Guidance councillors say that too many young people have an almost fairytale expectation of life after the marriage ceremony.
This puts huge pressure on newly married couples as too few have time to develop an understanding of the sacrifices needed to make their relationship work before they break up.
This is where the work of Relate and other community organisations is so invaluable, in helping to explain what is needed to sustain and build a strong relationship.
We could do so much more to reduce the level of family break up if we had more guidance available to couples when they need it.
The invaluable experience of these councillors shows us that getting to couples in difficulty early can have a huge effect on their future. Successive governments have undervalued this work.
These expectations can lead to financial problems as well.
Research shows that debt is one of the most prominent causes of family breakdown, yet we know the average amount spent on a wedding has risen to around £20,000, a huge sum.
It has become apparent that couples will not marry until they can have such a wedding and some couples will get into debt just to meet the costs. Starting married life with a large overhang of debt puts enormous pressure on from the start.
What seems to have been forgotten is that the point of marriage is love, commitment, and creating a safe environment in which to bring up a family.
None of these cost more than the price of a marriage licence.
Coalition behind this agenda
As I’ve already explained, we must no longer be afraid to talk about these issues.
Government has no place moralising about peoples’ relationships - but we do have a duty to do our best to ensure a balanced playing field, and to support people as they pursue their own aspirations.
I’m pleased to say that the Coalition is behind this agenda.
The Deputy Prime Minister gave a speech about parents and the family just last month, outlining the Government’s plans on flexible working and shared parental leave.
And the Prime Minister addressed Relate in December of last year, outlining his support for the family and the Government’s commitment to family stability.
In that speech he announced new funding for relationship support - £30 million over the spending review period - and he explained that we are currently speaking to relevant organisations about opening up Government buildings after hours so that they can increase their capacity to provide support.
It was also on the Prime Minister’s initiative that the family task force was set up, and his commitment is shown in the fact that he chairs it too.
Within my Department we are working hard to see 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 will help meet our commitment in the Coalition Agreement to tackle the couple penalty in the tax credit system.
And 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 decisions to commit.
Equally important, the Universal Credit will provide a framework within which tackling the couple penalty becomes more feasible.
By simplifying the system governments will be able to make clear decisions over how they increase support for certain groups - and the public will find it much easier to hold them to account for the decisions they make.
Marital status on forms
I have also asked my Department to ensure references to marriage are included on relevant forms and research in the future.
The previous Government excluded information on marriage from the reports of important research like the Families and Children Study, which was undertaken by the Department for Work and Pensions.
This particular study has now finished, but I’m keen to ensure that we give marriage the status it deserves in similar research in the future.
I’m also aware that the Prime Minister continues to be committed to recognising marriage in the tax system.
And I believe it’s important that we do more to recognise and value the commitment people make to one another.
Today through our celebrity focussed media we give awards to so many different groups: film stars, soap stars, pop stars and football stars.
We extol the virtue of public institutions and private business and we even give awards to politicians.
Yet the most basic institution, which nurtures each generation and from which so many of us draw our strength and purpose, goes unnoticed and unrewarded.
Fashionably dismissed or taken for granted, the commitment of two people to put selfish interest to one side for the sake of each other and the children they raise is simply the very best of us as human beings.
Furthermore, marriage is perhaps the best antidote to the celebrity self-obsessed culture we live in, for it is about understanding that our true value is lastingly expressed through the lives of others we commit to.