Strengthening Families — [Mr Peter Bone in the Chair]

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 2:13 pm on 8th February 2018.

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Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough 2:13 pm, 8th February 2018

I congratulate my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce on a comprehensive and courageous speech, and for trying her best to solve what she described as one of the greatest epidemics facing our country. The strength of the epidemic and the misery that it causes seem to go beyond any solution that one could possibly dream up. In so many areas of Government, from the Ministry of Defence to the Department for Education, when we identify a problem, we have an idea of what we can do to counter it, but this is such an epidemic and it goes so much to the root of society that it is hard to know whether just appointing a Cabinet Minister for families, although a worthy aim, would keep families together.

However, at least my hon. Friend is trying to identify the problem. As she said, if there were other issues costing the nation, not £10 billion, £20 billion or £30 billion, but probably £40 billion or £50 billion, and that caused so many obvious problems, it would be considered a national emergency, but the problem is that society has so changed over the past 50 years and marriage has been so downgraded that Governments—Labour Governments, Conservative Governments, Scottish National party Governments in Scotland, French Governments, Italian Governments—have scratched their heads and wondered what they could do to resist the problem.

It is a pity, because all the evidence—I will not take a lot of time to go through it—is clear. There is an absolute wealth of evidence on the importance of marriage to the welfare of children, and a wealth of evidence that marriage works, in that couples are much more likely to stay together. It is all published, and one could go on and on.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies found that parents who cohabit are approximately three times more likely than those who are married to have separated by the time the child reaches the age of five. A 2009 report by the Department for Children, Schools and Families found that a child not growing up in a two-parent family is more likely to grow up in poorer housing, experience behavioural problems, perform more poorly in school, gain fewer qualifications, need more medical treatment, leave school and home while young, become sexually active or pregnant or become a parent at an early age, and report more depressive symptoms and higher levels of smoking, drinking and other drug use during adolescence and adulthood. None of that is to gainsay the fantastic job done by tens of thousands of single parents, many of them single parents through no fault of their own, but every study shows that marriage works.

I will mention one issue that has not yet been discussed. People are now saying that they want no-fault divorces, and that it is a charade that people must claim a reason for getting divorced. They say that it is a matter of tidying up expensive and messy legal paperwork and that such couples are totally irreconcilable anyway, and ask why we are going through with the sham of our divorce laws. They say that we should have a simple legal system—“I divorce you, I divorce you, I divorce you”—and that is that. However, I think that making life cheaper and easier for such couples would also send a profound, wrong message and would make it easier for hundreds and thousands of other families to break down. It would proclaim from this House that marriage is just a legal device, like buying a home or selling a company, and that we therefore want to get rid of any kind of explanation for why people want to get divorced. Producing that reform would be saying to the nation that encouraging couples to stay together in marriage is not our first priority.

Again, repeated studies have shown that 90% of couples who manage to stay together until their child is 15 will stay married. We know from all those studies that family breakdown is a key driver for poverty among women in particular, with half of all single parents living in poverty. Those are the factors for which datasets are increasingly allowing us—I hope—to understand the situation. We do understand the situation: we understand that marriage works and that the breakdown of marriage, or indeed marriage not taking place at all, drives many people into a poorer outcome for life.

My hon. Friend is leading the campaign, and we are encouraging her. We all want better educational treatment for our children and a decline in juvenile criminality; we want families to stay together. She is right to say that, despite the appalling complexity and strength of the problems, Government can at least attempt to be a facilitator of families and married people staying together, rather than an enabler of breakdown.

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the steps that some authorities are taking, such as family hubs. Benjamin Adlard Primary School is in Gainsborough south-west ward, which is one of the 30 poorest wards in the entire country. The headmaster, Sam Coy, runs the school, and I have visited it. So many of the problems that his children exhibit are due to family breakdown. I am delighted that he is leading the campaign to have a family hub in Gainsborough. Of course, having a family hub that gives help will not solve the problem—local authorities taking an interest will not prevent societal trends that have been so apparent for decades—but it is an attempt to do something. Brave young headteachers such as the headteacher of Benjamin Adlard Primary School should be given our encouragement.

My hon. Friend has mentioned the marriage allowance. A lot of people sneer at the marriage allowance and say, “It’s just ridiculous. Families don’t come together or split apart because of some change in the benefit rules,” but most developed countries and OECD members recognise family responsibility through family and marriage allowances.

Given that the cost of family breakdown is £47 billion, as my hon. Friend has explained, I do not believe that it is too much for the Treasury to recognise marriage in the tax system through a marriage allowance, for which I have campaigned for years. We are not trying to use the tax or benefit system to try to get people together or to stay together. All we are saying is that if one parent in a two-parent, married family wants to stay at home to look after the children full time, that should not be discouraged in the benefit system—that is a profound injustice.

We had to drag the previous Chancellor of the Exchequer kicking and screaming to bring in the allowance. He brought it in at a very low level and it has never been pushed properly. There are still many people inside Government and the civil service who do not like it and would like it to fade away, but all it is trying to do is right an injustice. If one person in a married couple wants to stay at home to look after the children full time, they should not be financially disadvantaged by the tax and benefit system.

Marriage rates among the better-off are still very high, but at the less well-off end of the spectrum they are much worse. Journalist Ed West noted that research for The Spectator showed that, in 2000, someone in the top socioeconomic class was 22% more likely to be married than someone in the lowest socioeconomic class. By 2017, that division had risen to 48%, and the crisis is growing. More needs to be done.

There are lots of sound recommendations in my hon. Friend’s manifesto, and she should be congratulated on putting pressure on the Government. Relate has written to us about a report it produced with Professor Lord Layard. He observed—this is such obvious common sense—that:

“In every study, family relationships are more important than any other single factor affecting our happiness…Of all the factors that affect happiness, your family life or other close relationship comes first.”

We all know from our personal lives what a blessing a long and happy marriage is. It is the most important thing in our life. Although in many ways society is infinitely more prosperous than when I was born in 1950, is not a happier place in many respects. That is nothing to do with the size of someone’s bank balance, the size of their overdraft or where their children go to school; it is to do with a sense of belonging in a marriage that lasts.

I sympathise with the Minister. His civil servants will have done their best, and no doubt he will say some warm words at the end of this debate. However, it is incumbent on us to have some courage when we debate this subject, not just to talk in simple terms about a new Cabinet Minister or something of that sort, although that is a good step, but to say that there is something profoundly wrong in society and that one of the reasons why society is an unhappier place now is the massive breakdown and decline in religion, which did and does allow people to raise their eyes above their present circumstances and gives them some support.

That massive decline is never mentioned by politicians, because we are afraid that we will be seen as putting ourselves on a soapbox and proclaiming that we are better than other people, or that people will say that the decline in religious observance and that sort of thing is a private matter. It is all far too difficult, but occasionally we have to have the courage to say what we believe in.

My hon. Friend is quite right. She gave a comprehensive speech. In the Minister’s response, I hope he will raise his eyes from his civil service text for a few moments, speak from the heart, and give a clue of how we can begin to address and be honest about the greatest problem facing our society today.