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.
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.
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