A simple policy on marriage for Mrs May

Government policy on marriage is lukewarm at best and downright ambivalent at worst. On the one hand, the state is terribly interested in marriage. We have

Government policy on marriage is lukewarm at best and downright ambivalent at worst.

On the one hand, the state is terribly interested in marriage. We have strict laws on who can marry and how marriages can end, and we have special rules that favour transfers of assets between husband and wife in life and after death.

But on the other hand, our politicians are strangely reluctant to distinguish the special nature of marriage in public, in contrast to their enthusiastic embrace of marriage in private.

And then there’s the marriage allowance that allows some couples with one medium earner and one low earner to pay £238 less tax over the course of a year. Alas that won’t persuade anyone to marry when the alternative is a bribe of £7,000 or more in additional tax credits for parents who don’t get married and who can persuade the tax man that they live separately.

£238 to stay together. £7,000 to stay apart. It doesn’t look good.

So, following my earlier post about the ‘burning injustice‘ that the poor don’t marry, here are three ideas that Theresa May could implement quickly and cheaply if she really wanted to boost marriage, and therefore commitment, and thus reduce the tide of family breakdown that has swept this country.

First, get Cabinet support for a proper marriage policy. In the next full Cabinet meeting, ask how many members are married. The answer is 24 out of 29, or 83 per cent. However all bar one, that’s 97 per cent, have been married at some time. It should therefore be apparent that marriage is hugely important in the personal lives of almost every Cabinet minister. If marriage is good enough for them in private, there should be no barrier to backing it unashamedly in public. A marriage rate of 24 per cent among the poorest parents is indeed a ‘burning injustice’.

Second, counter the ‘couple penalty’, the perverse policy that pays parents thousands in additional tax credits – and even more in Universal Credit – if couples are not married and live apart, or pretend to do so. Not only does this policy encourage parents to cheat the system, it also dissuades them from formalising their relationship. Since the vast majority of family breakdown happens in the first two years of parenthood, and overwhelmingly among unmarried parents, it’s reasonable to suspect that there may be a link.

One way to reduce instability in these early years would be to axe the current small and badly focused marriage allowance and target it as a far more substantial additional child benefit specifically for married first time mothers with children under three. In this way, the playing field can be leveled. In place of the temptation to cheat the system by staying unmarried, couples will still be able to gain a similar amount, but this time obtained legitimately by being married.

The key to stability and commitment is about making a clear plan for the future. That is self-evident among married couples but much less so among cohabiting couples. The resulting ambiguity is a major reason why so many unmarried relationships fail. Tempted by a significant extra child benefit instead, unmarried couples would necessarily have that all-important conversation about the future, and by getting married give their relationship greater clarity and security.

Having bribed people not to marry with great success to date, it makes sense to flip the incentives the other way. Given the scale of family instability, the grounding of this policy in commitment theory, and the fact that it would cost the taxpayer nothing extra, a targeted policy towards young first time parents just might work. It’s a zero-cost opportunity to try to turn the tide and would also send a huge signal that the government really does back marriage.

And third, adjust all government paperwork to distinguish marriage and plans to marry. At present HMRC and other forms ask if you are ‘married or living together as if married‘, as if they are the same. They are not. Where children are involved, most marriages succeed whereas most cohabitations fail. The introduction of a distinction between two simple categories ‘married or living together with plans to marry‘ and ‘living together without plans to marry‘ would push couples to decide which category they are in and hopefully have that all important conversation about the future.

These three simple measures would recognise both the problem and its solution, send all the right signals, and have a net cost of near zero. 

Mrs May knows the importance of marriage herself, knows about marriage in her previous role as shadow families minister, and has even shared a platform with me at a conference on marriage and relationships! This should be familiar territory. So what are we waiting for? 

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