Britain debates value of marriage

Conservatives argued that strengthening the institution would reduce social breakdown, which costs £102 ($208) billion yearly. They proposed new tax incentives.

As nuptials go, it was like something from Four Weddings and a Funeral. Bridesmaids dithered demurely, kids shrieked on a bouncy castle, conversation burbled and, later on, the groom crooned and people danced badly to "Play that funky music."

Britons love a good wedding, as illustrated by the 1994 comedy. But it's a different story when it comes to marriage, an institution that – as in other countries – has been tarnished by a generation of divorce, apathy, and shifting values. In 2005, fewer Britons got married than in any year on record.

Now however there is a stirring debate as to whether the state should do more to encourage people to get married and stay wed. Opposition Conservative leader David Cameron often repeats the message: children do better in families with married parents; troubled kids tend to come from broken homes; And yet, he regrets, the state does nothing to encourage people into marital ways. The last tax benefits for married couples disappeared under the Labor Party seven years ago.

"We've always supported marriage. We think it's what's best for the child," says George Eustice, Cameron's chief spokesman. "If you focus on the child you realize that a stable family is the best thing you can do for it."

And stable families, the Conservatives say, have married parents. They point to statistics showing that by a child's fifth birthday less than 1 in 12 (8 percent) married parents have split up compared with almost 1 in 2 (43 percent) cohabiting parents. "Married couples are more likely to stay together, couples that aren't married are much more likely to split up," says Eustice.

'Biggest shake-up' since 1940s

In a far-reaching study published last week, the Conservatives produced a stream of data to support their argument. Social breakdown is costing Britain £102 billion ($208 billion) yearly, with £24 billion attributed to family breakdown and £60 billion to crime. But 70 percent of young offenders are from single parent families, they said.

They also cited an opinion poll showing that 80 percent of people agreed with tax breaks for married people, and a similar percentage agreed that children benefit from being looked after by parents rather than paid caregivers.

Calling for the "biggest shake-up of the welfare system" since the 1940s, the report proposed offering new tax breaks – worth around $2,000 a year – to married couples.

To a newlywed like Tina Quadrino, it's an eye-catching suggestion. She and Chris Stallwood took their time getting down the aisle – they have been together for 10 years. "If there had been a government incentive, i.e. as soon as you get married you get tax breaks, like you used to, who knows, we might have done it sooner," she says. "Eighty quid [pounds] a month is not to be sniffed at." But she adds that getting married is unlikely to make their relationship any more robust than it already is. "For other people, it might give them that extra layer of security, but not for us."

Unhappy marriages bad for kids

This is one of the principal objections that experts raise to the Conservative idea: that you can encourage people to marry but you probably won't be able to convince them to stay that way. Christine Northam, a marriage counselor who knows more than most about the crisis that can demolish a marriage, says: "Anything that encourages and supports stable relationships is a good thing. But I'm not sure £20 a week will help. £20 is nothing these days. Investing in families in general would be better."

She adds that inducing feuding couples to stay together might not in any case be best for anybody. It's a point readily taken up by psychologist Fiona MacCallum, who has conducted research into how children cope in differing kinds of families.

"There are still many couples that feel they should stay together for sake of the children and in some cases that is not the best thing for the children because the parents will be in high conflict," says Dr. MacCallum. She adds that the solid black line that apparently links children from broken homes with crime and underachievement may be misleading. The downward spiral into crime and delinquency may be more closely correlated to poverty, she says. "If you have single parents who have social support and are not living in poverty then the children seem to do as well as in two-parent families," she says.

The Labor government argues that supporting marriage misses the point. Prime Minister Brown said last week that he wanted to support "all parents with children and not just some." That point was reinforced by a response to the debate from a Times reader. "We are a family that believes in and practises marriage," the reader wrote. "Currently we have a son, married, no children, and a son-in-law, widower, three school-age children. Would Conservative policy support the married couple, or the single parent?"

EU marriage rates

Britain's marriage rate hit an all-time low in 2005. But it's still higher than in many other European countries, almost all of which have tax breaks for married couples. Britain did away with tax incentives several years ago, but the opposition Conservatives proposed last week a new tax incentive worth about $2,000 per year. Below, a sampling of marriage rates (per 1,000 people) across Europe. The US rate is 7.5 per 1,000 people.

Denmark 6.5

Romania 6.2

Poland 5.1

United Kingdom 5.1

Spain 5.0

Czech Republic 4.8

France 4.6

Germany 4.6

Italy 4.5

Sweden 4.4

Source: United Nations Statistics Division, 2003

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