Thursday, 15 March 2012

The Government supports marriage in theory if not in policy

Earlier this week the Government launched the Social Justice Strategy Paper which received many headlines because of its vigorous defence of marriage as the best place to raise children. When you dig down into the policy their defence of families is somewhat half-hearted and there’s not that much actually about marriage. The strategy sets out two ways in which it can defend family: by reducing the couple penalty in the benefit system and helping promoting positive relationships within families. The second point is backed by providing funding for relationship counselling and courses for first time parents. This could prove to be a great scheme helping struggling families.

In other ways, the Government’s support for families is somewhat lacking. They highlight that the new Universal Credit benefit system will include an earnings disregard which means that families where one member works will get to keep more of their benefits than if they were to live in separate households. However the amounts involved in this increase are dwarfed by the couple penalty introduced by the benefit cap. As the benefit cap is calculated by household regardless of size it provides a massive incentive (tens of thousands of pounds a year for some families) for families to split up. This incentive could mean that families could stay in the same area where they currently live, not force their children to move schools and not have to move away from relatives, if they split in two. The Baptist Union of Great Britain, United Reformed Church and Methodist Church warned the government about this huge couple penalty when they were contemplating the benefit cap and their only response was to state that they did not believe it would have that effect.

If you read this post and were wondering where the policy is that talked about marriage specifically rather than couples more generally, then you are in a similar place to anyone who has actually read the document. The only policy that directly relates to marriage is a proposal to fund marriage preparation classes. Marriage preparation classes are frequently helpful to those that undertake them and are given freely by many churches, and would indeed be useful to those not marrying through a church. Whilst this support for marriage preparation is certainly something, it really doesn’t justify the amount of media coverage trumpeting the importance of marriage. Marriage and stable relationships are crucial. Government policy needs to support them in a whole variety of ways not just with press releases and token policies.