I recognise absolutely that this an incredibly emotional debate, and I want to tread as carefully as I can for that reason, but perhaps I will come on to some of the reasons—all kinds of reasons—why it is not just an intellectual case I am making, but an important pragmatic one.
I really worry about the attempt to create, in effect, two tiers of marriage. Apart from any of the other lovely things about it, marriage is what social scientists call a “commitment device”: it is a way of binding ourselves in for the future. That is one reason why it is a big public occasion and if a couple get married in the Church of England everyone will be asked to shout, “We will” to support them. I am aware that I am playing into my right hon. Friend’s point about sounding too intellectual when calling it a commitment device, but it is lots of other things, too. Why is such a device needed? It is because life is hard, as is staying together. If people are lucky enough to have children, they find that is incredibly tiring and hard, and they are more likely to split up in the years when the children are small. One big problem, and one of the reasons why relationships often break up—we are not trying to create a perfect happy families world in this House; we have no power to do that—like many of the world’s problems, comes down to men. Men, in particular, have a habit of sliding rather than deciding; they want all the benefits of being in a relationship but they do not want to lose the option to bale out. So there needs to be a moment when they fully commit.
About half the children born today will not be living with both parents by the time they are 15, and it is profoundly sad that they would be more likely to have a smartphone than to grow up with a father living at home. I grew up in a very average household but I consider myself rich because I was lucky enough to grow up with two parents who got on and got on with us. Not everybody in this House has had that benefit. Parents who are married before they have a child are far more likely to stay together, and nearly all parents—about 93%—who stay together until their children reach 15 are married rather than cohabiting. Cohabiting parents account for about 19% of couples with dependent children but for about half of all families with family breakdown.
It worries me that we would do something that creates a status that is sort of halfway between marriage and cohabitation—a sort of marriage-lite. Some of the reasons given for doing this make me nervous. People say marriage is a patriarchal institution, but it is not; I am not oppressing my wife by being married to her. People say it is a religious institution, and actually there is a profound difference between civil marriage and religious marriage—