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Paul Coleridge

Sir Paul Coleridge set up Marriage Foundation after four decades in the family courts in order to spearhead a campaign to tackle and reduce family breakdown. He has since resigned as a High Court judge to concentrate on the work of the Foundation.

International Marriage Week runs from the 7th to 14th of February. This year is its 20th anniversary and Marriage Foundation is in charge of promoting it.

Its purpose is to provide an annual focus on the importance to the family and society of marriage. It surely also provides the perfect opportunity to consider the Government’s and Conservative Party’s current attitude to Marriage and Family breakdown.

Two questions immediately arise. One, what is their current attitude and policy driven by that attitude? Two, what should it responsibly be, in the light of the plethora of recent and substantive research on the subject?

Question one is answered in a sentence or two. The Governments current policy in this area is both outdated and inadequate, and as such it is irresponsible.

High-sounding and largely meaningless soundbites abound. At the Westminster Hall debate last week focusing on Marriage Week Caroline Nokes trotted out the conventional and rather tired platitudes, which repeatedly conflate marriage with families but do nothing to reassure that they understand the distinct added advantage to society that marriage itself instils.

Her statements during the debate: “The Government view the role of families as fundamental in shaping individuals, and in having an overwhelmingly positive effect on wider society”, and “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.”

These fail entirely to address the real point, which is that stability is the key to children’s successful development and that stability is far more likely to be found within marriage.

The best and most recent research shows that “structure” is indeed central to the rates of stability of families. Her remarks in this regard are as yesterday as Tony Blair. And of course there was nothing to indicate an intention to enhance the married tax allowance, which some would say is worse than useless.

So question two: where should the Government, and the Conservative Party, now stand on this issue? An issue which is not a backward-facing, old-fashioned Tory moralising campaign but a matter of vital importance to public health. It is at bottom about the healthy development of our children. It is what drives Marriage Foundation’s work.

Let me very briefly, for those who are not up with the current research and statistics, provide the context for this discussion.

Family breakdown, with its appalling pain and distress, is at an epidemic level, and lies at the root of almost all our social problems. It particularly affects our children and it is a primary cause of inequality.

The media and government’s current intense interest in the unhappy state of children’s mental health in this country is pointless unless considered in the context of disrupted families. Speak to anyone in the field (or any family lawyer, of which I have one been for over four decades) and you will hear the same story.

Children from stable families do not tend to have mental health problems. It is a glaring symptom of family breakdown. You do not, save in the most exceptional circumstances, have one without the other and so it is idle to consider one without the other.

Reversing the current declining rate of marriage is, ultimately, the single most effective key to reducing family breakdown because, even nowadays, marriages are much more durable than less formal partnerships.

In other words the single most important factor in a child’s healthy development is the stable relationship of the parents and, on every measure of successful development, including happiness, children from stable families fare best. Such stability is invariably found within marriage.

By the age of 16, the shocking fact is that 50 per cent of British children do not live with both their birth parents – but they are three times more likely to do so if their parents are married. Divorce rates have plummeted over the past three decades but the number of lone parents has doubled in the same period.

Why is that? Because unmarried parents make up only 20 per cent of cohabiting parents but are responsible for 50 per cent of all family breakdown. The UK has almost the highest rate of family breakdown in Europe and the cost (current estimate £48 billion) shows no sign of decreasing. Sixty per cent of lone parents are on Housing benefit, against only ten per cent of intact couples.

There is also an alarming and ever widening “marriage gap” in society. The better off continue to marry at the same rate as always, around 90 per cent. The less well of no longer do so, with rates at only 24 per cent. This must mean that the less well-off experience a disproportionate share of family breakdown, along with the other obvious disadvantages inherent in their position. A social justice issue if ever there was one.

Marriage Foundation has been trumpeting this message, based on our own top-quality research, since 2012. Perhaps politicians and the public have screened it out, or filed it in the too difficult tray.

But this Marriage Week it received new and entirely independent impetus and verification from across the pond. Brad Wilkinsl Professor of Sociology from Virginia University and acknowledged expert in the field, took the trouble at his own expense to come to this country to present the latest in depth research commissioned by the Social Trends Institute of New York and Barcelona.

It was a co-sponsored report and the first serious study of this as an increasingly global problem. We had no input into its production. After a survey involving 100 nations (including all the developed ones) they reached two clear conclusions.

“Births to cohabiting unions contribute to instability in children’s family lives. Individual children born in cohabiting unions experience more union transitions before age 12 than children born in marital unions regardless of the mothers educational attainment. There is much variation between countries… but there are few exceptions to the patterns; children born to marital unions have the best chance of stability across various cultures, legal systems welfare regimes and levels of cohabitation”.

The United Kingdom has among the highest rates of family instability in the developed world. Three in five British children (62 per cent) born to unmarried parents living together experience family breakdown before they hit their teens. In contrast, only 45 per cent of American children, 15 per cent of Belgian children and six per cent of Spanish children born to cohabiting parents undergo the same experience.

In the UK, children born to cohabiting parents are 94 per cent more likely to see their parents break up before age 12, compared to children born to married couples

This report is stuffed with detailed evidence confirming its findings and research. It is academic, low key and neutral in tone. There is much more besides but those two findings stand out and are surely enough to justify a major rethink of government policy in this area. So where does that lead us?

Whether we like it or not, and whether this suits are own personal views and life decisions, marriage in and of itself is proven to work as a very important antidote to family breakdown, with all its attendant effects on the development of children. Anything less than unequivocal support by the party and Government for marriage is an abnegation of responsibility to ensure a socially just society.

Policies (including fiscal policies) need to be fashioned and implemented which encourage commitment via marriage or at the very least do not, as now, actively disincentive it.

Above all a radical and undiluted approach by the Conservative Government to the marriage issue, recognising what the best modern research is saying, is long overdue. The medium and long-term benefits for society are evident.

32 comments for: Paul Coleridge: The Government must do more to support marriage

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