Cllr Siobhan Baillie is a family law solicitor and a councillor in Camden.
Conservatives were the champions of same sex marriage legislation and understand that strong families provide the best foundations for society. So why do Conservatives get in such a pickle talking about relationships?
At a packed conference fringe event in Manchester, a former High Court Judge raged that family breakdown was not mentioned on the main stage. Iain Duncan Smith and other members of the panel spoke passionately about the negative impact of parental separation on children and why the poorest suffer the most.
Powerful arguments for strengthening families were winning the room – until, cohabitation was mentioned. Judgmental comments from the floor about non-marriage life choices did not assist, and cohabitation was described as inherently unstable. I want to prevent family breakdown and believe we should encourage more committed relationships in all their forms to do so.
We need to modernise this debate, overhaul the language we use and bring in support so that non-marriage relationships can survive but there is a simple legal framework available if they break down.
As a lawyer, I was at the coalface of divorce, separation and nasty fights about children for well over a decade. I have seen the damage that can be caused and the scale of the problem: half of all children are no longer living with both of their parents and over one million children have little or no contact with their fathers.
Parental conflict is known to damage a child’s educational progress at school. Family breakdown also costs the country upwards of £48 billion each year. This really needs attention, right? It does not get attention, though, as governments seem to get in a muddle about marriage and others do not want to talk about anything else.
We need to make make the case for strong relationships generally without worrying about one group in particular. And it may feel counterintuitive to some Conservatives, but acknowledging the increasing role of cohabiting relationships, particularly with the young, could be pivotal.
Cohabiting families are the fastest rising group, doubling to nearly 3.3 million between 1996-2016 – 17 per cent of all families. A fair chunk of Party conference delegates will have chosen to cohabit with a partner. Younger voters, whom the Party is actively courting, will cohabit as they settle into relationships. As a result, denouncing cohabitation – even if there is evidence supporting the argument – will not make marriage any more appealing, nor prevent family breakdown.
One area ripe for change is the law: cohabitation is of course already happening, but couples rarely understand the lack of legal protection they have until it is too late. There is no such thing as a ‘common law’ husband or wife. A partner who has lived and contributed to the relationship can be left with nothing. The law is complex and expensive to fight, with the vulnerable and financially weaker parties losing out.
By changing the law to give basic protection to couples living together, protections in the event of a death and protection if the couple were to separate – we can bring into renewed focus that living with somebody requires commitment and creates responsibilities. It will become an active choice with transparent consequences (like marriage) rather than couples sliding into an unknown situation.
Marriage may follow for many cohabiting couples as a natural step. If they do not choose to marry, the committed status of the relationship with legal protections on separation will help the children of those families.
It is also worth remembering that the ‘traditional’ view of marriage and family life has already been overhauled by the Conservatives, with fabulous success. David Cameron’s fight for marriage recognised the need to modernise to preserve it. He was not frightened of talking about relationships.
At the 2011 Party conference, Cameron said: “…yes, it’s about equality, but it’s also about something else: commitment. Conservatives believe in the ties that bind us; that society is stronger when we make vows to each other and support each other. So I don’t support gay marriage despite being a Conservative. I support gay marriage because I’m a Conservative.”
Cameron effectively ensured that even more people can enjoy the benefits of stability and unity arising from commitment and responsibility. He stood on a national stage and argued the case for the family, based on Conservative values.
We can do this all over again to support the modern family. In my view, we should be considering new policies: on cohabitation as above; transferable tax allowances for couples with young children or when one person is caring for an elderly relative; increasing access to relationship support; assisting prisoners and their families; teaching relationships in schools, and supporting parents with children’s mental health and wellbeing.
Conservatives care deeply about families, so there is no need to get in a pickle talking about relationships. You will recall that ConservativeHome recently published a family-focused article every day from various MPs, while 44 Conservative MPs and many Lords support the amazing Manifesto to Strengthen Families. I was fortunate to be at the launch of the manifesto’s 18 wide-ranging policies designed to help many different communities.
I fundamentally believe in our ability to help families help themselves and in all that they can achieve. Families are the front line for mental health issues, debt, financial shocks. They provide the support needed to achieve social mobility and productivity.
It is a positive and compassionate agenda to talk about families and relationships with ease and confidence. The issue should be on the main stage.