Strengthening Families — [Mr Peter Bone in the Chair]

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 2:41 pm on 8th February 2018.

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Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Conservative, New Forest West 2:41 pm, 8th February 2018

I entirely agree with the case that has been made for the manifesto, of which I am a supporter. I will draw to the attention of the Minister—in so far as it has not been drawn to his attention already, because it most certainly has—the magnitude of the problem we face. My hon. Friend Fiona Bruce drew attention to the quite shocking statistic that this country has the most volatile family life of the entire developed world for children under 12, and that comes with huge consequences.

Tomorrow I will hold a surgery, and the 10 or so people who attend will have a range of problems. Some of them will come and tell me about their debt, with the perhaps unrealistic expectation that there is something I can do about it. Equally, there may be a problem with housing—perhaps the completely inadequate nature of someone’s housing, which may be too small, or too damp, or bed and breakfast accommodation, or indeed appalling neighbour problems. It might be to do with schooling—not being able to get their child into the school of choice, the school not being near enough, problems with getting the child to the school, problems with the child’s performance at or behaviour at school. For children in my part of the country, the problem might be lack of access to mental health provision. It might be some other aspect of poverty, such as having to use food banks or whatever. But scratch the surface, and one finds that however that problem may have presented, for nine out of 10 of the cases that came through the door, the cause will have been family breakdown. It is the surest way to poverty and it is for that reason that I support my hon. Friend and this manifesto. Family breakdown is costing us billions and we have to make sure that, across all of Government, we pursue policies that will deal with this epidemic—and it is an epidemic.

Let me draw attention to two particular areas. We had a debate in Westminster Hall on Tuesday last week on marriage. In summing up, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend Kit Malthouse, slipped into what I hope the Minister who is here today will not slip into—indeed, my hon. Friend Sir Edward Leigh warned him not to. I mean that habit of quoting civil servants, or whatever. The Under-Secretary responded to the debate by saying, “Well, of course, of course, families come in many shapes and sizes.” I intervened and asked him, “How many? How many shapes and sizes?” and I challenged him, saying, “A family is not just any collection of people who happen to share a fridge!”

When it comes to this education consultation that is going on at the moment with respect to relationships, I do not believe that it is satisfactory to say that, whatever the continuing education requirement is, relationships education must include family life. Actually, it is the other way round. The law now is clear—the education must be about marriage. Of course, we want relationship education—the strength of relationship education—to be about marriage and other relationships, not relationships including marriage. The emphasis is the other way round, which brings me neatly to the Bill that passed last Friday promoted by our hon. Friend Tim Loughton.

That Bill seeks to make civil partnerships available to mixed-sex couples. Civil partnerships were introduced in 2002 only for single-sex couples—same-sex couples—because marriage was not available to them. His intention is that civil partnerships should be extended; there should be equality and they should be extended to mixed-sex couples. I understand that the Government’s intention is that the Bill will be amended in the Bill Committee so that there is a review of whether there should be such an extension. I have an open mind. I was accused of seeking to undermine marriage by my support for the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013; my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham accused me of that in the Bill Committee. My fear was that introducing some sort of step-down marriage is the danger that will undermine marriage. However, I have an open mind about what a review under the current Bill should look at.

It seems to me that there is a possibility that extending what is a clearly protected, committed, legal relationship to people who would not otherwise have entered into one may actually be a significant advantage. Equally, it may be that, by introducing some form of “marriage-lite”, we actually undermine marriage, by persuading people who do not feel that they could go for the full-fat version that they can enter a civil partnership, on the basis that it is not quite the real deal. In fact, it is: the legal obligations and protection that provide for civil partnerships are identical to marriage in almost absolutely every respect, and I think it would be a mistake to persuade people that somehow they were entering into a relationship that was less committed if they were to enter a civil partnership.