21 Oct 2007

Standing ovations and obfuscation make for poor marriage and family policies

Iain Duncan Smith won a well deserved standing ovation for his speech at the Conservative Party conference, but will the Tory faithful get off their seats to take his ideas forward?

Iain Duncan Smith said later:


“The decline of marriage is a difficult social trend to reverse. It would be too simplistic to argue that a tax break will reverse this trend and we have made 29 recommendations on the subject, including more education on how to sustain relationships.”

Despite this evident common sense, his colleagues and government ministers continue to talk only about tax breaks and not at all about relationship education and support.


Theresa May said, “In the latest Government flip-flop, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury has said: ‘It’s not wrong that the tax system should recognise ... marriage’.

She called on the government to “commit to a debate in Government time on how to support families in the tax system?”

If she is serious, surely the Conservatives will allocate some Opposition time to a debate, as there is no chance – and Theresa May must know it – that the government will want to leave their ambivalent policies towards marriage and the family open to scrutiny.

The previous day Gordon Brown said,
“As far as the tax issues are concerned, it is because we recognise marriage in the tax system that we have made the changes that we have on inheritance tax ……….. But as far as children’s tax credits and child benefit are concerned, I believe that the duty of every citizen of this country is to support not just some children in our country, but all children.”

This is very confusing. What Gordon Brown seems to be saying is that it’s Ok for there to be just a little bit of recognition in the tax system for marriage, but when it comes to benefits it’s Ok for the government to squander money on people however tenuous their relationships, even if it means giving 200,000 cohabiting couples benefits to which they are not entitled, there being that number more claimants of single parent benefits than there are registered single parent households.

This makes no sense, especially since in other respects – such as pensions - the benefit system penalises married couples compared with single people. Gordon Brown then starts talking piously about,
“the duty of every citizen of this country is to support not just some children in our country, but all children” as if this lets the government off the hook when it comes to supporting families.

It is worth recalling what Paul Boateng said in 1996 during the passage of the Family Law Bill. He was then the Opposition spokesman on marriage for the Lord Chancellor’s department:


“In 1971, in the aftermath of the last great reform of divorce law, Lord Scarman said:

"The law is groping its way towards a new conception of the duties of married life."

The duties of married life have been cast aside. Married life and the importance and value of marriage are being widely questioned. Marriage is undervalued, marriage is not supported, marriage is now something that one can win on a game show.

If one turns on the television on a Saturday night, one can see someone win a marriage. The young couples who walk down the pink staircase--I do not know why the staircase is not white; no doubt pink looks better on television--get more preparation for marriage, in terms of what they will get at the end, than we give them in relation to civil marriage today…..

At the moment, there is no preparation at all for civil marriage, and there is absolutely nothing on the face of the Bill to give any hope whatsoever that that will occur or is envisaged. Are we going to have any assurances about that tonight? That is something that hon. Members want to hearThe 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. Only then can hon. Members rest easy in terms of the consequences of their deliberations today.”

Iain Duncan Smith deserved the applause and his standing ovation at the Conservative Party conference earlier this month. Unfortunately the implications of what he is saying are lost on most of his colleagues and on most members of the government. But we must be thankful to Andy Burnham [like Paul Boateng who was also later], Chief Secretary to the Treasury, for keeping the issue in the public consciousness.

No comments: