13 Feb 2007

Social exclusion - "force" lone parents into work [strong words at the Guardian] - or encourage them to get married first and stay married?

"......... ministers are fully entitled to now begin examining ways of increasing the pressure on lone parents to rejoin the workforce"

"Mr Hutton [John Hutton - Work and Pensions Secretary] is now in Australia looking at ways in which their church groups and other parts of the voluntary and private sectors have contributed to an apparent success story there. Some will bridle at the government's interest in such options. But if they prove to have been a better way of helping some long-term unemployed lone parents back into work, then it is hard to see what the argument either of principle or of practice against the approach can be" - runs the Guardian leader [Tuesday February 13, 2007].

Perish the thought that "church groups" and "other parts of the voluntary and private sectors may have contributed to an apparent success story" that can be translated to the UK! The prospect seems to stick in the gullets of some Guardian readers, for example:

"No! Forget Thatcherism, the Blairites have now turned to Duncan-Smithism for their inspiration! Churches and charity is not the route to take. What next, the workhouse?"

But what if churches and other community groups can contribute to actually reducing the number of single mothers by providing marriage and relationship education?

Lord Lester's Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Bill which is an amendment to The Family Law Act 1996 is intended "to make provision for protecting individuals against being forced to enter into marriage without their free and full consent, and for connected purposes." [please see previous item in this blog]

Let us hope John Hutton will be considering the "connected purposes".

Towards the end of last Conservative government, Paul Boateng, then Shadow LCD spokesman in the House of Commons [Hansard Column 484 and 485 24 Apr 1996] said:

“........ there is no preparation at all for civil marriage.......... the Government also have to come forward with proposals in relation to preparation for marriage and with proposals that recognise the need for concerted and focused action to support the institution of marriage and the family......... ".

This was a sentiment expressed in opposition which has not found any active reflection when in government by New Labour - nor very much, until recently, by the Conservatives - but, 'heigh ho', which of us is always entirely consistent?

Nor does the Church always follow through on its best ideas. The Review of the Year by Dr David Edwards, Provost Emeritus of Southwark, for The 1997 Church of England Year Book, contained a reference to pre-marital couples and to a certificate or agreement between them before marriage:

"It would be no panacea, but it might be useful, if it was made compulsory for the couple to sign and keep a certificate that the main obligations of a marriage between Christians, put in plain language, had been discussed and accepted."

In the recent debate on Lord Lester's Bill [Second Reading Friday 26th January 2007], Lord Desai said:

"When they grant visas to decide entry to this country, Her Majesty's Government should try to have a separate interview with the bride to see whether she is being used as an excuse for coming here. The interview should include people who can facilitate conversation, not only interpreters but socially-skilled people who could reassure the woman that if she tells the truth she will not be victimised."

We can see here the beginning of a convergence of ideas around the value of marriage being voluntarily entered into with "free and full consent" between the parties, and then maintained, and how properly facilitated conversations beforehand about the issues commonly faced in marriage can be used to assist engaged individuals in making a valid commitment to each other.

As John Hutton may discover, they do a lot more of this sort of marriage preparation in Australia - using research-based premarital inventories - than is done here. How else can you demonstrate "free and full consent"?

Furthermore, the research evidence is mounting that preventative programmes are working, though doubtless it will stick in the gullets of some Guardian readers, and - as Archbishop Dr Rowan Williams might say - in those of "the commentating classes of North London".

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