A certain national newspaper is at it again, blaming relationship breakdown for all the ills of society. On this occasion we are being told (not for the first time) that those naughty people who have the gall (rather than the misfortune) to be in a failed relationship are responsible for the national debt, or at least a significant chunk of it (those nice bankers of course had nothing to do with it).
The dramatic headline proclaims:
Family break-ups cost taxpayer £48billion a year in extra welfare and legal costs, report finds
The report to which the headline refers comes from the Relationships Foundation, an organisation with a title scarily similar to the we-know-best-for-you Marriage Foundation (I assume the word ‘foundation’ is believed to convey the solidity of their views, although foundations can, of course, be built on sand). Sure enough, a little look into the foundation’s website tells us the two ‘foundations’ are, indeed, linked: “In recent years the foundation has focused on family policy as well as working with former High Court Judge Sir Paul Coleridge in setting up and establishing Marriage Foundation.” Now there’s a surprise.
The report gives us the shocking information that: “the 2015 cost of family breakdown to the taxpayer is £47 billion – costing each taxpayer £1,546 a year.” Those poor hard-working taxpayers. The £47 billion figure (note, not £48 billion, as the headline states), we are solemnly told, has risen by £1 billion in the past year and £11 billion since 2009. In actual fact, as we shall see, the report does not tell us anything about the cost of family breakdown in 2015, as all of its data is based upon figures for previous years, generally going back to 2012-13.
Leaving that point aside for a moment, the £47 billion figure is the total from five categories of expenditure for which those whose relationships break down are apparently to blame: tax and benefits, housing, health and social care, civil and criminal justice, and ‘education and young people not in education employment or training’. I will not go through all of the categories or figures, but instead make the following points:
- Firstly, the report seems to assume that all lone parents (who cost us money in lone parent benefits, etc.) live alone as a result of relationship breakdown. This is simply not the case – many were never in a real relationship with the other parent, and for some the other parent will have died.
- The report lists as one of the costs of relationship breakdown the fact that people who have been through such a breakdown are more likely to be unwell. Whilst I don’t doubt that this is the case, surely it is an indication that they didn’t want their relationship to break down in the first place? Relationship breakdown is something that happens to people, not something that they choose. Do we blame people for getting ill? The foundation maintain that they are not in the “blame game”, but that denial rings hollow.
- The cost of domestic violence is also included as a cost of relationship breakdown (although, as we know, many victims of domestic remain with their abusing partners). As we shall see in a moment, the foundation is calling for more to be done to encourage couples to stay together– are they including victims of domestic violence in this?
- To link some of the ‘expenses’ to relationship breakdown is a little far-fetched, to say the least. For example, blaming those whose relationships have broken down for not looking after elderly parents(!). And isn’t attributing a quarter of all criminal justice costs to family breakdown stretching the argument a little too far? Similarly, education expenses such as the cost of dealing with behavioural problems in children and vandalism in schools seem to me to be more to do with other issues than relationship breakdown.
- The report assumes that 98 per cent of child care cases are due to family breakdown. This figure appears to emanate from a quote by Conservative peer Baroness Seccombe in the House of Lords in 2004 who said: “‘Of the 60,000 children living in care 98 per cent are there due to family breakdown”. Now, I don’t know much about Baroness Seccombe or her qualifications for making such a pronouncement, but it seems that abuse, neglect and family dysfunction are all included in her somewhat broad definition of ‘family breakdown’. This is absurd. In any event, a reading of the law reports will quickly tell you that in a very large proportion of care cases the parents are still together, and are jointly opposing the care proceedings. You can’t just lump in the reasons for the proceedings being issued in those cases under the term ‘family breakdown’.
- The report of course includes the cost of legal aid relating to relationship breakdown. However, as I indicated above, the figures they use are pre-LASPO, so take no account of the fact that legal aid for most private law family matters has been abolished.
- Lastly, and on a similar note, the report includes the cost to the taxpayer of the child support/maintenance system. Again, the figures they use are out of date. The new Child Maintenance Service will operate with a far smaller number of cases than the previous systems and does, of course, recoup much of its cost by charging for applications, collection and enforcement.
And what does the Relationships Foundation propose be done to rectify the appalling cost to those honest taxpayers caused by those awful people whose relationships break down? Well, the newspaper report tells us that: “the think-tank [that awful phrase again] called on Chancellor George Osborne to reform the tax and benefits system to provide greater incentives for couples to stay together.” Here we go again. The idea that people can be bribed into staying in an unhappy relationship by a few extra quid a week is both absurd and naïve. As I’ve said before, if my twenty-five-odd years practising as a family lawyer taught me one thing, it is that people do not want their relationships to break down and do not commence the legal steps to bring those relationships to an end lightly. To suggest that they do is an insult.
People who suffer relationship breakdown deserve compassion and respect. The last thing that they need is to be burdened with the additional guilt of the cost that they are causing to the taxpayer.