29 Apr 2009

A lesson from Australia – are the Conservatives about to be hoodwinked by the Local Government Association over marriage preparation?

The Honourable Kevin Andrews was elected to the Australian Parliament in 1991. He chaired the House of Representatives Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee (1996–2001), which published 'To Have and to Hold' in 1998. He also served as the Australian Minister for Ageing (2001–2003); Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations (2003–2007); and Minister for Immigration (2007). He is currently Deputy Chairman of the House Economics Committee and Chairman of the Coalition Policy Review. He is married to Margaret, and they have five children. He delivered an address at the International Conference on a Conservative Vision for a Free and Just Society, sponsored by The Heritage Foundation and held in Washington, D.C., on November 19–20, 2008. It was published on the web on 23rd April 2009.

  • Kevin Andrews concluded “.... there is one lesson that clearly emerges from the events of over a decade. It is that marriage breakdown and child support are the tail that wags the body of family policy. As a consequence, government support for marriage education has been caught in the crossfire of debate about the causes, meaning, and consequences of family breakdown over the past four decades. Numerous inquiries have been conducted, and hundreds of millions of dollars are now expended on the consequences of marriage breakdown. Despite the fact that marriage breakdown costs the nation billions of dollars each year and leaves both men and women substantially worse off, little is spent by way of comparison on prevention. Yet the research indicates that programs of prevention, education, and skills development can enhance the prospects of successful marriage.”
Politicians around the world – with notable exceptions, like Kevin Andrews – are inclined to discount the evidence that supports the efficacy of preventative education. They prefer to spend billions on the consequences of relationship breakdown rather than small sums on prevention.

In the UK, the Local Government Association represents local councils with large workforces. These include many people who work in social services, schools and colleges and are dealing with the consequences of relationship breakdown. In addition to these, police and health workers respond to the consequences of domestic violence and truancy and the other results of disaffection including drug and alcohol addiction. There are vast armies of people whose jobs now depend on - or whose significance is substantially enhanced by - the consequences of relationship breakdown.

Search the web sites of the Local Government Association and its subsidiary LACORS and you will be very pushed to find a reference to any work being done or contemplated to prevent relationship breakdown.

It was surprising, therefore, when a new policy was announced by Maria Miller MP, Shadow Minister for the Family, at the Conservative Conference on 30th September 2008:

  • "Most young couples now get married in a civil ceremony. Unlike a church wedding, there is no tradition of pre-marriage preparation for couples marrying at a registry office. We want that to change. We want local registrars to start signposting couples to pre-marital education as a matter of routine. The Local Government Association who co-ordinate the role of wedding registrars, agree and I am pleased to say that they (are) putting forward this policy so that every young couple getting married will be made aware of the benefits they would get from relationship support at this critical point in their life. In the US, couples who have this type of pre-marriage education are a third less likely to divorce. We want this type of support for couples to be routine in Britain too."
More predictably, a spokesman for the LGA said recently:

  • “I believe Maria Miller MP misunderstood the LGA’s position on this. We are broadly supportive of the notion that as a society, we should do more to support committed relationships, including marital ones but not only those, and that this would in particular benefit children where couples are parents. LACORS …. is the part of the LGA that deals with regulatory services and provides information for registrars. Colleagues in LACORS are putting together some guidance for registrars to help them provide information to couples on pre-marriage advice services available in their area. This information is, I understood, due to go out in May this year [2009].”
To return to the experience of Kevin Andrews; he continues in his address:

  • “In 1980, my wife Margaret and I, along with a small group of like-minded couples, established the Marriage Education Programme in Melbourne. In almost 30 years, we have provided marriage education courses to some 20,000 people. The work is undertaken on a voluntary basis, apart from the employment of an administrative assistant. We receive a small grant from the federal government. Otherwise the work is self-funding. It is an example of a group of people recognizing a need and responding to it. It is an example of how government can support the voluntary sector.
  • Following the election of the Howard government in 1996, I established an inquiry into strategies to strengthen marriage and relationships in Australia. The resulting report, 'To Have and to Hold', noted the significant costs of marriage breakdown for individuals and society and recommended increased funding for programs of education, skills training, and prevention. The publication of the report was seminal in the discussion of marriage education policy. It was the first time that a legislature had undertaken a thorough review of the field, and it became a stimulus for other policy discussions.
  • The report led to increased government funding for marriage education and related services, but suggestions for a more equitable basis for the funding were ignored. A pilot scheme of education vouchers was introduced and, although successful, was never implemented universally. More recently, the Howard government established 65 Family Relationship Centres around the country to act as a gateway to family support services. Their introduction had its origins in the ongoing dispute about child support.
  • Soon after the introduction of a child support scheme in the late 1980s, there was an ongoing campaign against what was seen as an inequitable system, especially towards non-custodial parents, invariably fathers. Soon after my election to Parliament, I was appointed to an inquiry into the scheme. The crossparty committee agreed that there were inequities that should be remedied. Yet within an hour of the release of the report, the then Minister categorically ruled out any substantial change. Apart from the substantive issues involved, the curt response was unproductive.
  • It was part of the reason, I believe, why child support remained a political issue for so long.The issues had not been resolved when the Howard government was elected in 1996. On regular occasions, government MPs would raise the issue in the Party Room. Many of the MPs complaining about the inequity were women. As a consequence, further inquiries were established, leading ultimately to further reforms and the creation of the Family Relationship Centres.
  • Whether these centres will fulfil the expectations for them remains to be seen. The government set out a series of key performance indicators at the time of their introduction against which future judgments can be made.”

The Family Relationship Centres can be accessed through Family Relationships Online which:

  • “provides all families (whether together or separated) with access to information about family relationship issues, ranging from building better relationships to dispute resolution. It also allows families to find out about a range of services that can assist them to manage relationship issues, including agreeing on appropriate arrangements for children after parents separate.”
‘Building better relationships’ presumably includes marriage preparation, but it is clearly a minor service in the mix of ‘dispute resolution’ and ‘arrangements for children after parents separate’.

As Kevin Andrews says
  • “.... there is one lesson that clearly emerges from the events of over a decade. It is that marriage breakdown and child support are the tail that wags the body of family policy.”

In the UK the Local Government Association spokesman said:

  • “Colleagues in LACORS are putting together some guidance for registrars to help them provide information to couples on pre-marriage advice services available in their area.”

LACORS have commissioned One Plus One to provide this information. It will be interesting to see whose views it reflects.

Kevin Andrews again:

  • “I remarked earlier that there is a danger that government can seduce community groups into becoming its mouthpiece. There is also a danger that government will see the voluntary sector as just an extension of itself.”

Organisations working in the field of family relationships can all too easily be ‘seduced’ into following the government line. Some charities in the UK are little more than government sponsored quangos.

Let us hope the Conservative Party learns the lesson of what occurred in Australia and makes sure that its policy is not just “broadly supportive of the notion that as a society, we should do more to support committed relationships” but actually promotes marriage and preparation before it.

On the one hand, David Cameron said at their recent Spring Forum in Cheltenham:

  • “For example, when it comes to poverty, Labour’s approach is just to treat the symptoms by spending more money.
  • Our approach is to understand why people are stuck in poverty in the first place, and help them break free by tackling welfare dependency, addiction, debt, poor schooling and above all, family breakdown.
  • There is no way this country will prosper in the twenty-first century, let alone deal with the debt crisis if we keep asking taxpayers to foot the £100 billion a year bill for the broken society.”

But on the other hand, in 'Rising to the challenge' - The Conservative local government response to the recession – [launched at the same Forum by the Conservative Councillors Association] the report suggests [page 26]:

  • “Looking at social care for families, for example, there is clear and unequivocal evidence that early, targeted intervention into the lives of families at risk yields better results and has the potential for major savings to the public purse. Under the current system, however, families on the border of social exclusion can be the subjects of multiple interventions from several professionals over the course of years. The results of this failure to solve problems are depressing and the cost to the taxpayer is immense.”

It begs the question “So what do you do when 50% of babies are born to unmarried parents, 200,000 abortions occur each year, and the UK tops the European league tables for most of the statistics that reflect fragile or broken relationships and promiscuity?”

It is a bit late in the day - when there is already a pandemic - to be reacting by relying upon ‘targeted intervention into the lives of families at risk’.

It is surely high time the Conservatives started to explain and - indeed, to implement policies in local councils they control - showing how they propose through prevention to bring about a wholesale cultural revolution to overturn the “every choice of lifestyle agenda” of the Labour government, instead of just bewailing the social and fiscal consequences of the pandemic which have been manifestly obvious for a long time, anyway.

The unequivocal promotion of preparation for marriage would signal a good start towards cultural change, provided that the LGA does not try to subvert the policy and revert to the “every choice of lifestyle agenda” of the Labour government - and its recent predecessors - which has proved such a catastrophic failure.

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