Cohabitation is the key driver of family breakdown, the Marriage Foundation has claimed.
In a new report, the campaign group, founded by High Court judge Sir Paul Coleridge, said the “stability of marriage has remained largely unchanged” in recent decades, with the most pronounced risk of divorce in the first years of the union.
“…virtually all of the change in divorce rates amongst couples marrying since the 1960s has taken place during the first five to ten years of marriage.”
The Foundation added:
“…despite all of the social trends and changes of the last fifty years – the stability of marriage has remained largely unchanged. The contribution of married couples to family breakdown thus relies entirely on the relative stability of couples during their early years of marriage.”
Cohabitation, meanwhile, has increased dramatically, fuelling the breakdown of families.
“Combining new data on family breakdown from Understanding Society with household data from ONS, further new research from Marriage Foundation shows that cohabiting parents now account for 19% of couples with dependent children yet 50% of family breakdown. The key driver of family breakdown today is therefore not the failure of marriages but the failure of unmarried cohabitations.”
The report calls on the government “to attempt to reverse the trend away from marriage by distinguishing, encouraging, promoting and incentivising marriage. “
Its suggestions include using the terms “married” and “living together as if married” on government forms, saying:
“The current conflation of categories, as if they are the same, helps perpetuate the bogus myth of “common law marriage”, a legal status that has never existed in English law and thus convince young unmarried couples that they have similar rights to married couples if they split up.”
The report criticises government plans to introduce tax breaks for married couples in 2015.
“…this general tax break for married couples is poorly targeted, further complicates the tax system, … and potentially undermines marriage in the long run because of the derisory net amount accruing per couple. Nobody marries for £3.85 a week.”
Instead, it claims, the government should the tackle the “couple penalty”, which can see parents of a single child receiving up to £7,000 in additional tax credits if they live apart.
”By introducing an additional child benefit involving £000s – not £00s – per year and targeting this only at married mothers with a first child aged under three, the government would be spending much the same money [as the marriage tax break] but with a far simpler policy that also has a realistic chance of changing family outcomes. Such policy would counter the bizarre “couple penalty” that disincentivises family formation and marriage in particular. It would also incentivise precisely the group most at risk of family breakdown – namely unmarried parents with children under three – to get married and thereby improve their odds of staying together, which is exactly what many will want to do anyway.”
The Foundation’s report was issued in response to the Family Stability Review, a recently launched government initiative to “assess evidence on measures to support family stability and make recommendations on future policy”.
So, no mention then, of introducing a much needed cohabitation law into the mix. Why not level the playing field? Why not make people think twice about the obligations they will incur by leaving a cohabitant relationship too? How many solicitors just this last week will have seen a woman with children at the end of a cohabitation fearful of her future, wondering where she will live and how she will support herself, having invested many years in the ultimately fruitless relationship? And how many will have seen wealthy men who know their partners have brought up their children, leaving them free to earn, and who can now leave cohabiting relationships with the vast majority of their wealth still intact? I have seen both.
Shame on the government for its continued refusal to acknowledge that these families need justice too. Doesn’t every family regardless of shape or size deserve justice before the law? But as I’ve pointed out before, this is a government which has already removed access to legal aid and lawyers for most people, so they probably aren’t keen to add to the clamour of litigants in person banging on the courtroom doors.
Far better to pretend they don’t exist.