Speaking in a debate on marriage and government policy, Iain Duncan Smith tells MPs that marriage “is probably the most fundamental institution that society has ever managed to construct to make society better” and calls for more pre-wedding education to help people prepare for the most important relationship they will ever make towards delivering a stable family and happy life.
I welcome the Minister to his place. I have worked with him over a long time, and having run the Department I have a fair idea of the challenges that lie ahead of him. I am going to add to them. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on obtaining the debate, particularly this week, of all weeks.
Under the previous Prime Minister I was nominated to construct the family test against which everything was going to be measured. When I finally left—of my own volition, by the way—at no stage had I managed to get agreement from any of the key players about what it would consist of. While there was a principle, which was that the Prime Minister wanted a test that all decisions would be set against, the reality was that the Treasury in particular was not keen on any of it. I urge the Minister to press for a definition of the family test, by which all the effects of policy decisions could be looked at to see whether they would damage the family or make things more difficult. That would make logical sense.
I want to be brief, as I just want to make a start on a couple of issues, beginning by asking what the debate is not about. The trouble is that we all tiptoe around and get amazingly worried about the word. We think: “If I mention marriage, does that automatically mean worrying about whether marriages break up or other people do not choose to get married, and so on?” I know of nothing else in the purview of government where such a fear reigns in quite that way. We do not talk about business policy on the basis that some businesses will fail. We do not immediately say, “We must not talk about business or try to set policy to help businesses survive.” We do those things, because it is logical. Of course, in society as in economic life there will always be things that do not work out, but that does not mean people should set their life around what does not work out. If we all did that, frankly we would look a lot like North Korea. The point is we do not do it, so let us now make policy around what works and what is clear.
Marriage, frankly—this is not an arrogant statement—is probably the most fundamental institution that society has ever managed to construct to make society better, give children a better chance and improve the incomes and wellbeing of those within the process, as has been said. That is not to say that when, sadly, a marriage breaks up we should not do our level best to help people, and try to find them a better way and support them. That is critical. However, it means there is a need to recognise a couple of features. I am chairman of the Centre for Social Justice, which has been making this argument for some time, and we did a poll. What we found was the thing that always most intrigues me: when young people between about 18 and 28 were asked without reference to marriage what one thing they aspired to more than anything else, more than 70% aspired to be married, with stable families and a happy life. They did not aspire to be brilliantly successful at business; that was not their No. 1 aspiration. They did not aspire to have a fast car or a smart house. Their aspiration was for a social arrangement that would deliver them a happy outcome for the rest of their lives.
In any other area of life we would worry about such aspirations never being met by the reality. What, then, given that young people start with that aspiration, are we doing to make it less likely that they will achieve it? If that happened with respect to any other process, in school or in society, and we said “That is not a problem,” then of course we would be causing damage, but in this case we walk away from the issue. My arguments about policies on marriage are not to do with favouring marriage. I do not think it needs to be favoured in any way. People’s basic instinct and sense of direction will take them towards the thing that benefits them and their families most. I am certain that that is the nature of the situation. The question we really need to ask is what we do that stops people who have that aspiration getting to where they aspire to be.
I have a couple of points to make about that, beginning with the OECD’s view of what it costs for two people to live together, in comparison to the cost of living for one person. It makes a base calculation and comes up with a figure. It is not the same as two people together—the calculation includes how savings can be made within a couple. We understand and accept that. The UK, peculiarly—this emanates from the Treasury and every other Department—somehow takes the view that we need to go further. Financial policy here makes it more difficult than it is in almost any other country for a couple—particularly if they are married—to stay together. The cost of getting married is higher here than in any other country, because taxation is set against doing it.
I have been told by a number of my colleagues, “No one gets married for money.” Only someone from a reasonably well-off middle-class background will endlessly take that view. People in a low-income family where every pound really matters will calculate how best to manage their affairs. If one situation makes them better off, there is enormous pressure to decide on that as their direction of travel. I should love us to look carefully at why the UK persists in making it financially more difficult for people to come together to marry, and to stay together. Those are really big issues, and the figures are there.
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that, because universal credit is set up so that there will be a single recipient in a household, many women are subject to financial control, which makes it far more difficult for those who face domestic violence to leave a relationship, because they cannot afford to?
Not really. I do not accept that at all. Universal credit operates by looking at the household, which makes it more likely that couples are supported to stay together. The hon. Lady knows that the vast majority of married people—and, by the way, even cohabiting people—have joint accounts. The figure is way over 80%, and I think it is close to 90%. For those in an exceptional position, it is clear that the money will follow the person with the duty of care. Those rules are written into universal credit, so I simply do not agree with the hon. Lady. I think that universal credit will help enormously to get rid of what I and the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) referred to as the couple penalty.
The cost of weddings is another issue that we need to consider. There is an idea that people cannot get married now unless they have a fantastic celebrity wedding. The average cost of a wedding is now more than £20,000, whereas what people actually need is a marriage licence. There should be pre-wedding education to tell people: “You do not need to make such a big fuss about it. What you want to do is get married.” One big reason for so many marriages breaking up—probably more than anything else—is debt. If people start married life in debt because of making such a big issue of it, that puts enormous pressure on couples.
A pastor in my constituency told me something that struck me, which was that up to the early 1980s many couples who married were happy to live in rented accommodation, perhaps with other people’s crockery and cutlery. They did not need everything to be perfect, but later on that changed and people felt they needed all new white goods, and so on. That may have been a disincentive to marriage. Does my right hon. Friend recognise that picture?
I think that with the whole Hello! culture around the idea that people have to have a perfect fairy-tale wedding, no one is preparing them for the fact that once they are married, they will make compromises and face huge difficulties and stresses, and it is about how they cope with those. That would be far better than telling them some fantastic fairy tale: “Nothing will ever be a problem, and you’ll live happily ever after.” No relationship I have ever seen has ever been like that. The question is how to manage it, and preparing people properly for that is an enormously important feature of what we do.
The other area I will talk about is counselling. Earlier on, when I was in Government, we drove through more money to help support marriage guidance and counselling. The one thing we know, and some of them will say this, is that with the proper counselling and support probably close to half the families that are heading for break-up can change, re-stabilise and stay together. That is a critical point. We are now investing £30 million in that, yet the price of the after-effects of break-up is numbered at closer to £50 billion.
Even though I have argued for more money to go in, and I thank the Government for putting more money in, it seems like a pretty mealy-mouthed concept that we invest so little money, when that money really reaps a dividend in stabilising families and helping them stay together. If it were anything else in life, we would consider it a major benefit that that amount of money returned such a phenomenal cost saving. That cost of £50 billion would fall quite dramatically. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) mentioned the stability on divorce; one of the reasons for that is that we started investing in marriage guidance and counselling. Imagine what we could do if we spent even more money on getting people immediately into counselling. That would have a huge effect, and I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to view that straight away.
The last point is marriage prep. I stand with all those who say that the key thing is to educate people to understand what it really means to start out on arguably the most important agreement they will ever make. People get terribly fussed about being members of things like golf clubs, where there are all sorts of peculiar and stupid rules around what they can and cannot wear, and everyone is very strict about it. If we mention that there are things people can and cannot do in marriage, however, everyone immediately says, “This is not something we need to lecture people about. We should not talk about it.” The answer is that the most important thing we will ever do is to form that relationship and ultimately, if we are lucky, to bring up children, and we want to make it as stable as possible.
If any Government sit there and worry about what people will say when they say they support marriage, because some will break up and there will be problems, we will never get anywhere. We now need to make the case for stability and strength, and help those who are unable to make that process.
Earlier intervention in the same debate
My hon. Friend is right that promoting and supporting marriage is not about saying that every other choice is bad, but it is worth recognising that marriage and cohabitation are fundamentally different relationships. Too often they are elided together as though there is just a marginal difference. There is not: there are fundamental reasons why people choose to cohabit, which are hugely due to their level of commitment. A good example of that is that when a child is born to a married couple, the likelihood of that couple breaking up falls dramatically, but when a child is born to a cohabiting couple, the likelihood of that couple breaking up accelerates dramatically. That shows there is a fundamental difference between the two, so it is important to look at them separately.
As I said, by the time they do their GCSEs, 93% of teenagers whose parents are still together have married parents, so I support what my right hon. Friend says.