My Lords, I begin by declaring my interests as a patron of the Marriage Foundation, and as a former governor with 21 years’ experience.
I am privileged to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, whose sentiments I share. In a recent report, the Marriage Foundation found that family breakdown is the biggest factor behind the UK’s child mental health crisis, and that more than a third of children whose parents have split up reported poor mental health, compared to only a fifth with parents who were still together. Only half of today’s teenagers will marry, although it is said that a lot more than that aspire to it. The report analysed Millennium Cohort Study data on 10,929 mothers with 14 year-old children. It found that children whose parents were married had reduced rates of suffering mental health problems, regardless of whether their parents split up or not.
The Marriage Foundation’s research found that a child born in the UK today has only a 50:50 chance of being with both their parents by the age of 15. Children are more likely to have a smartphone than a father at home. This think tank, dedicated to promoting stable families, commented that,
“mental health problems during childhood cast a long shadow over future life chances, affecting work, relationships and well-being on into adulthood”.
Children need two parents, committed to each other in a stable relationship. The Marriage Foundation believes that genuine early intervention means encouraging couples to make a clear commitment to their future together before having children. It believes that that is the best way to give children the best possible chance of a happy and healthy upbringing, which of course has an enormous benefit to society.
I would go even further. I believe that to be genuinely effective, early intervention means equipping children—the parents of tomorrow’s children—with sufficient knowledge and understanding of two crucial points. The first is the crucial importance of making a commitment to a partner before deciding to have children together; the second is knowing how to work on their relationship so that they stay together once they have children.
While practising as a divorce lawyer, I have seen first-hand the effect of family breakdown on children and the untold misery it causes. I have worked in a law centre and in private practice. Marital breakdown is faithless and classless, albeit that the super-rich are more buffeted from the financial consequences. The effect on many children is devastating. It is all too common a cry from the many and diverse people I have represented that their marriage breakdown was a result of simply marrying Mr or Mrs Wrong, Lord or Lady Wrong or, since the introduction of same-sex marriage, Mr or Mr Wrong or Ms or Ms Wrong; that is, someone with whom they were fundamentally incompatible from the outset—someone who was wrong for them.
Putting on my school governor’s hat, I looked into what schools do to educate children about the most important decision they are ever going to make: choosing a life partner and raising a family. Schools now teach life skills, which plays a vital role in the national curriculum. Life-skill teaching tends to specialise in the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse, sex education and career advancement and choices. These are obviously all very important. However, there seems to be an enormous vacuum, even in the private sector, and a real lost opportunity for educating tomorrow’s parents about relationships and parenting. That is particularly important for children who are victims of the breakdown of their parents’ relationship, as they have nothing to emulate and no domestic blueprint to encourage them. The endemic pattern of family breakdown has to be broken. As I have already said, if current trends continue, a child born in the UK has only a 50:50 chance of being with both their parents by the age of 15. I believe that earliest intervention, or indeed pre-intervention, is the best. Educating our school-age children in an attempt to cure this emotional illiteracy is the best way to equip them with the tools to help them make a wise, or at least informed, life-partner choice and how to work on staying together afterwards.
For over 35 years, the RSPCA has been sending out its seasonal message that “a dog is for life and not just for Christmas”, yet there is no such compelling message relating to the commitment of marriage. In this context, I have sponsored a three-year research project at the University of Exeter to discover what lessons can be learned by children in a school context about relationships; for example, what makes a good marriage and what is likely to make a bad one. This has been done with a view to providing material, either by video or by an app, to be introduced into the national school curriculum. I urge the Government to consider seriously the benefits of introducing such advice and instruction as a mandatory part of a child’s education, to be rolled out nationwide. If this can encourage some of our country’s future parents to avoid disastrous and unhappy unions, with the fall-out for their children, it will have been money well spent. It is my humble view that prevention is always better than cure and that tinkering with what happens when there is fall-out is inferior to making a truly well-informed and educated decision in the first place. It is my dream that through this particular kind of education, a contribution will be made to a flourishing and skilled society.
I conclude by thanking the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury for bringing about the debate and enabling a light to be shone on this neglected and unfashionable area of social policy.