High Sherriff, Headmaster, thank you for inviting me to this ancient institution. I suspect from time to time in the last few decades this institution has felt under threat, if not actual attack. I would like this evening to talk about another ancient institution which is I think also under threat and attack as never before.
The clue to what I am going to address this evening is, as they say, in the title. I added the word “Discuss” because it reminded me of all those school exam questions where I sat in a hall gazing at an exam paper hoping that at least one of the subjects I had revised would be found there. Invariably it wasn’t. But that was because I had spent far too much time trying to predict the contents of the paper rather than actually revising.
Boiled down to its essentials, the question posed by the title can be broken into three parts:
– Is there a tide of marriage and family breakdown?
– Does it matter?
– If so, is there anything which we can and should be doing about it?
Three preliminary points
1. My views only
Let me stress, as I have in the past, that any views I express this evening are my own. They are informed by nearly four decades in the business. They are not in any sense the collegiate view of the Family Division or the wider Family Judiciary in the country. For all I know, many may disagree. Thankfully, judges are by nature fiercely independent-minded. However I know that many of those I would count as my friends within the wider judicial family are strongly supportive of my views and observations, albeit they are perhaps rather more reticent about expressing them in public. In that respect I no longer share their traditional restraint. Times demand, I think, more open discussion, or even protest.
In this respect I wholly endorse the remarks of Lord Justice Wall, a family judge far more senior than me, who last November in a speech delivered to the august Association of Lawyers for Children said this:
Neither I nor any of my colleagues has any wish to engage in politics. But I do think – certainly in the field of family justice – the time has come when the historical and indeed instinctive judicial reluctance to go public over matters properly within our sphere of activity must come to an end. In common parlance, we must come off the bench. We must say what we think and if we feel the exercise of our proper functions is being impeded by anyone or anything we should say so, loud and clear and in plain language.
2. Do I know what I am talking about? Or, to adopt the words of Lord Justice Wall, is this within my sphere of activity?
Or is what I say this evening just the ramblings of another member of the so called “out-of-touch judiciary” or Mr Justice Victor Meldrew on a bad Friday? That is such a tedious and cheap riposte. But I am afraid much of the public, and much of the media, would consign us to an ivory tower and dismiss our views as irrelevant, uninformed and not worthy of consideration. That neatly side-steps the need to confront the issues. My only reaction to that response is, to plagiarise Winston Churchill’s famous phrase, “some ivory, some tower”!
The forensic diet to which we are subjected on a daily basis would shock or horrify most of the audience in this room, made up, I suspect, of the broad-minded local intelligentsia. I make no special comment on the recent headline case of Baby P, with which I happen to have had some judicial involvement, but the awful fact is that that was far from being an isolated case. Dozens of not dissimilar cases make up our regular fare. And it is getting worse.
In the public law field, that is cases involving local authority intervention, there has been an astonishing 30-40% increase in the work in the past 18 months or so. But there is also the area of private law; the avalanche of private money and child disputes between separating parents. There has been a significant increase (up to 20%) in this work too.
No, it is the general public, the media and governments throughout the last twenty years or so who are in the ivory tower, with, if I may mix metaphors, their heads in the sand, unable or unwilling to face up to the sad and awful truth.
3. We need to beware of preaching
It is very difficult to discuss, let alone address, the question posed by the title without sounding censorious, judgmental and sanctimonious. Especially if one is fortunate enough to have survived the slings and arrows inherent in any long marriage. If we are to have a useful debate on these sensitive issues it is essential that we do not pretend to be the sole occupants of the moral high ground. A land inhabited only by the sane and responsible. Or that marriage by itself is the panacea for all ills. It is not. It is one way of coping with the daily grind of life which has proved to be most enduring and so in the end most fulfilling for its participants, and most useful for the raising of children and so society.
So, to questions one and two: is there really a tide and if so, does it need to be stemmed or just left to ebb and flow? Is it just that we are all having to learn to adapt to a new definition of family and a new way of family life which in due course we will all learn to live with and accept? Are we merely going through a period of change, painful sometimes, but that is all? Do not assume that the answers to these questions are a given.
Reactions to my speech to Resolution in April 2008
In April 2008 Resolution, the large and well-organised national association of family solicitors, kindly asked me to open their annual conference in Brighton. I took the opportunity to talk about the parlous state of family justice against the background of the scale of family breakdown in this country.
I would be either disingenuous or naïve if I suggested I did not expect any reaction to what I said. However I was genuinely interested, surprised and, to an extent, gratified by the scale of the reaction both in sheer numerical terms and intensity. It seemed to demonstrate to me, if nothing else, the very deep anxiety felt by swathes of the population about the whole subject. And it was not just reaction from this country which was provoked. Because the speech inevitably found its way onto the internet, I received communications from as far afield as, for example, the USA, India and Poland. All identifying with the main themes of the speech. Since then I have had invitations to speak at conferences in Malta and Australia.
In this country I received reactions and communications from every quarter. Because, of course, almost everyone has a view on this topic almost always informed by their own personal experience rather than the hard evidence.
Let me mention a few; they are, I think, instructive.
By 5pm on the afternoon of the speech one MP was offering his comments on the BBC about what I had said, as the speech had been reported on the national BBC news.
The MP’s position could be summed up as “problem, what problem?” He went on: “Latest statistical data shows that 70% of households are headed by two parents”. Ergo, I suppose everything in the garden is rosy or at least ok. Even assuming one accepts the raw data (sometimes a brave assumption where government statistics are concerned) and even assuming that we write off the other 30 % (a far from insignificant minority), the 70 % figure by no means establishes a state of healthy stability in the nation’s family life.
For what that figure does not reveal is
1 How long any such household has been in that state i.e. how stable the relationship really is and has been, nor
2 How many other relationships the individuals in the household have been in prior to the present one?
I am not doubting, indeed assert, that there is a deep human longing and desire for stable family life in this country as elsewhere. No, what, I hope in all humility, I am drawing attention to is the endless game of “musical relationships,” or “pass the partner,” in which such a significant portion of the population is engaged, in the endless and futile quest for a perfect relationship which will be attained, it is supposed, by landing on the right chair or unwrapping a new and more exciting parcel. And it is this attitude which is one of the main drivers of so much family dispute which inundates the family courts.
Certainly the view that everything is pretty rosy is espoused by many of the chattering classes and the media. Let me illustrate.
In August 2008, in an edition of that very well known Radio 4 programme Any Questions the following question was posed by a member of the audience:
Does the panel agree with the judge who recently claimed that family breakdown is a greater threat than global warming to our society?
I was the judge referred to, and it was supportive of my view that there is a high level of public concern, I thought, that this question had been asked four months after I had made the speech and from a member of the audience in a small Devon town.
The panel’s off the cuff responses were, perhaps not surprisingly, somewhat confusing and mixed, some broadly agreeing with me but others not .
Mary Beard, Professor of Classics at Cambridge responded in this way:
I get so fed up with people sounding off like this whether it is judges or Prince Charles, actually. I mean by the time you get to be my age you live through so many things that are going to bring the planet to an end…. At my age… you have lived through all these. Everything is either going to bring the planet to an end or bring British civil society to an end and that has been population explosion, it has been global warming it has been GM crops, it is binge drinking, gun crime, excessive marmalade eating, you know imagine anything. When I hear this I think it isn’t necessarily bad, it turns attention sometimes briefly on to something we may need to notice but actually if you say what is going to bring civil society in this country to an end? It is ignorance and lack of education not being able to judge old judges who come out with platitudes like this, you know that is the problem. Fine well meaning stuff but we need to think hang on a minute Mr. Justice who ever you are, are you right?
She is certainly right to pose the question “are you right?”, but it is her dismissive attitude to the whole problem which is I think concerning and one I do not share.
Tim Smit founder of the Eden project in Cornwall, another panellist, was rather more direct, he said
I find the way judges sound off, they ought to almost always be mystically shrouded in something because they tend to sound off …you know about old fashioned values and all that and most judges I think should have been retired quite a long time ago.
Do I discern amongst those responses from those intelligent people, the attitude that all is fine if we would just take on board and accept the inevitable? Do I also discern the jangle of the keys to the ivory tower argument!
Jonathan Dimbleby was at least gracious enough to acknowledge that I might not be 100 quite yet. And there were some broadly favourable comments from the other panellists. But the underlying serious question remains; is this just a storm in a tea cup, a fuss about nothing?
Here is another view, well articulated in a serious newspaper. In the Sunday Times in October 2008. Gemma Soames wrote a long and thoughtful article entitled
“It’s all change on the traditional 2.4 kids front”. Let me quote a few passages from it:
In fact, there are so many non-“normal” families, there is no normal any more. Divorced — so what? Stepbrothers — how many? Grandmother as your nanny? Well, of course. Family is now an elastic term, applicable to any number of permutations beyond the Volvo-owning married mother and father of 2.4. Now there might be a mum and dad, two mums, two dads, no mum, no dad or multiple combinations of all the above. And what’s more, they might all get together for Sunday lunch…. Because just as old ties are being broken, new ones are being formed. For many, the old family model does not fit. But that does not mean that they’re opting out of it entirely, they’re merely reinventing it.
In December last year Katherine Rake, head of the government funded Family and Parenting Institute repeated these views. The nuclear family, she maintained, is an out dated institution being replaced by new models of family life where children are brought up by an assortment of relatives and other adults. She used her platform to discourage politicians from attempting to encourage “traditional families”.
So according to them the tide should be left to ebb and flow, everything in the garden is new, exciting and rosy or at least not at all bad really.
Or is it? It is not for me or any of us perhaps, apart from the leaders of the faith communities, to make a moral judgment about the way in which people chose to live their lives. But it is for everyone to consider the implications or at least have a view.
Is the way in which life is depicted in the quotations I have used, a description of a social Utopia which we now, as a society, have attained? A society entirely and happily free from taboos and stigmas and other self-applied constraints on behaviour? Are the new models, sleeker, simpler to operate, faster and more fun?
Or, on the other hand, is it a description of a kind of social anarchy, a complete and uncontrolled free for all where being true to oneself and one’s needs is the only yardstick for controlling behaviour?
I wish I could agree with the Utopian viewpoint. It sounds so beguiling and superficially attractive. Let us all do what we want when we want and sort out any mess later.
Of course, I fully accept that our way of life and our social arrangements are bound to change over time. One has only to read Dickens or Trollope or Hardy to see how far we have come, especially in the last a hundred and fifty years. And many of the evolutions were and are excellent and long overdue in many areas; freeing women, in particular, from much of their past semi-serfdom.
But surely the test for the merit of any social evolution or development is whether it enhances people’s lives or makes them more miserable. Does the new model do the job better than the old model? Are the participants’ lives rendered more fulfilled and happy by the changes?
And this is where I take issue with this modern or post modern view of family. If it is so successful as a model, so happy and fulfilled, why are the statistics for separation of all kinds so appallingly large and at record levels?
And the effect of family breakdown on the psychological health of the parents and, even more importantly the children, both in the short and long term is well researched, documented and now utterly uncontroversial. Children from broken families are on every measure of success including happiness, less likely to achieve their proper potential.
And, as significantly, why are the family courts utterly overwhelmed with cases, both public and private law, especially involving broken relationships and the damaged, miserable or disturbed children of those breakdowns, requiring resolution by one means or another?
Be under no illusion, M/s Soames and Rake, the fate of Baby P and his metaphorical brothers and sisters are, I am sure, a direct consequence of this life without any boundaries. They are the regular subjects of investigation in our family courts. Indeed more often than not the perpetrators of these horrible abuses are the new casual partners of one of the parents.
“Guest parents” is the new euphemism recently coined for their doubtful status, I gather. It is an apt description for the transient but sometimes catastrophic role which they play in the lives of the children of the household through which they pass. To be contrasted, obviously with the serious dedicated, real step-parent.
And what of the private disputes between separating parents? How do the children caught up in these private disputes, some serious, some less so, involving their separated parents, exposed to this new way of living, really feel? Do they relish the endless changes of partner? How do they feel about having to absorb into the family a new guest or step-parent and new step-siblings? Are they really happy to share their parents with the new family? Is that what they would choose or really want? Or are they just resigned to the inevitable?
Even in the well-regulated contact arrangements, how do they feel about endlessly moving from one parental camp to the other, in the hope that a scheme which shares them between the two families, is fairest for all and therefore best? It may suit the parents, reduce dispute and keep the record straight as between them. The parents may indeed see it as “fair”. Most of the fathers’ organisations think so. But do the children really enjoy, as opposed to tolerate, endlessly moving from one home environment to another and having to adapt to the different home cultures?
Do they experience Utopia?
The big lie, of course, is that “fortunately, my children have not been affected”. It is, for the courts at least, a real relief that most separating couples do sort out the arrangements for their children in a sensible, and mostly child-centred way, but I am afraid I take a great deal of persuading that even this group of children are happy about it and blissfully unaffected, however well it is organised.
And that is where the parents can sort things out without recourse to others to resolve disputes. But a very great many cannot. Then the children are caught up in the conflict of their parents’ unresolved relationship issues and court proceedings which can leave them scarred, sometimes severely scarred, for life. One thing I do know is that no judge relishes this extremely stressful work which frequently is no more than the application of common sense solutions with the aid of ever scarcer national resources.
What is certain is that almost all of society’s social ills can be traced directly to the collapse of the family life. We all know it. Examine the background of almost every child involved in the Public Law Care system or the Youth Justice system and you will discover a broken family. Ditto the drug addict. Ditto the binge drinker. Ditto those children who are truanting or cannot behave at school. Or indeed any of the other ills which are so regularly trumpeted by the media as the examples of national collapse. It almost always comes back to a broken family or the complete lack of any stability within the family. Scratch the surface of these cases and you invariably find a miserable family, overseen by a dysfunctional and fractured parental relationship, or none at all. I emphasise, as I have always, that I am not saying every broken family produces dysfunctional children but I am saying that almost every dysfunctional child is the product of a broken family.
So, at the risk of sounding too Jeremiah like, I suggest that family life in our society is on a steep downward trajectory and urgent and comprehensive action is required. We all know it and surely it is time we faced up to it and more importantly tried to do something about it?
And I conclude, based on what is happening in family courts, criminal courts, the schools and the hospitals, both in volume and severity, we do indeed have a mighty problem which cannot and should not be ignored or brushed aside with the response that this is just a natural and rather exciting development of our society and there is nothing to be done except to lie back and relish it.
I shall proceed from here on the basis that society does have a serious problem and as such we need to search for solutions. (If you disagree, please make your way quietly to the door!)
However before tackling that area, solutions, the most intractable part of the whole debate, I think it may be instructive to try and discern the route by which we arrived here for in so doing, the way forward may become clearer. So, let me touch briefly on how and why we got here.
What are the causes?
Once again I stress that I am not here to judge (not in this context at least!) preach, teach or moralise . I want merely to point out some of the facts based on my own observations, primarily of the business of the family courts over the years.
As I suggested earlier, I think no one would disagree with the assertion that there have been fundamental changes in the way society behaves and orders itself over the comparatively short period of about the last 50 years. In other words over the span of about two generations since about 1960. Put shortly there has been a social revolution or experiment in progress since about 1960.
What are the obvious indicia but also drivers for that change? I link the symptoms with the causes because unusually the chickens and the eggs are often indistinguishable and in some cases they feed on each other, as I hope will become clear.
In my view the main generic cause for this revolution is the evaporation of three interlinked, social stigma or taboos which fifty years ago attached to particular aspects of social conduct and which in the past acted as the governors and regulators of family behaviour. They are or were:
1 The stigma of illegitimate birth, both for the mother and the child.
2 The taboo of living together as if married, whilst remaining unmarried.
3 The stigma attached to divorce and being a divorcee.
All three were thriving in 1960, all three are now consigned to social history.
So let me say a little more about each of these stigmas.
When I was a child, the idea that one of my sisters might become pregnant prior to getting married was, so far as my parents were concerned, simply completely non-negotiable. It was anathema. And it followed from that attitude that illegitimate children were regarded as in many senses, second-class citizens. Whilst things were not as bad as when Edmund delivered his soliloquy on being a bastard in Act I scene 2 of King Lear in the early seventeenth century, the taboo and stigma of illegitimate birth still endured. Illegitimate children had very curtailed legal rights to inheritance and the like. Catholic adoption societies thrived, spiriting from view and finding homes for the products of illicit passions.
It was this deep-seated fear of unwanted pregnancy which kept the number of illegitimate children down to small numbers. Children were only born to married couples and the Family Courts only rarely dealt with unmarried parents and their children.
But now that taboo is dead and buried. And the attitude behind it would be regarded as antediluvian, another a piece of history. Every strata of society now shares the same approach, children of unmarried parents are a recognised and accepted part of life. No-one gives the point a moment’s thought. Legislation has recognised and reinforced this situation.
With these changes, of course, has come the explosion in single parenthood. And, perhaps of especial concern, single parenthood amongst very young, school-aged mothers.
A corollary of the stigma attached to illegitimacy was the accepted norm that on the whole you did not sleep with your partner before marriage either. And indeed most did not, or not openly. So there was quite naturally a clearly understood taboo that you did not cohabit in the full sense whilst unmarried. And the middle aged and elderly certainly did not.
The term “living in sin” (remember it?) was coined or at least dusted off and used to describe the rare occasions when in the seventies, a couple lived together out of wedlock (itself rather an old fashioned way of describing those who were not married).
But now sleeping together is taken as read by all, from young adolescence upwards, and cohabitation prior to or instead of marriage is as much a part of life as marriage. Cohabitation is now the norm. All age groups and all strata of society accept these arrangements which, fifty years ago, would have led to at best whispering behind the hand or, at worst, a measure of social ostracisation.
Marriage now has perhaps even a slightly quaint feel to it. And if you do not live together as a young couple prior to marriage you are very exceptional indeed. Almost everyone gets married from a state of cohabitation not true singleness.
The third stigma which has melted away is that attaching to divorce. To be a divorced person, particularly as a woman was, until the 1969 legislation, to be regarded as less than entirely OK or proper. Divorce was messy and something you kept quiet about; an absolute last resort for the ending of the utterly intolerable union.
But now that is not the case. 40% of marriages now end in divorce and of that 40% most end within a period of around ten years. No stigma attaches to be being divorced and long marriages, i.e. those which reach a silver wedding anniversary, are unusual.
Good or bad, right or wrong, it is the disappearance of these three social stigmas which has, I believe, led to the current instability and lack of longevity in relationships both unmarried and married and with it the loosening of the whole social fabric. No one can feel safe or secure in their relationship any more, however old or however long their present relationship has endured. As we see in the courts now, divorce amongst the over sixties is no longer uncommon as once upon a time it most certainly was.
What underlies the changes?
What has driven these drastic and sudden changes of attitude, the melting of social taboos and the disappearance of the restraint on relationship mobility? This in itself is a huge topic and the drivers are many, various, interlinked and, I suspect controversial. May I suggest a few? Others may disagree or identify others.
The arrival of the pill in the sixties heralded a complete revolution in sexual behaviour. The fear of unwanted illegitimate pregnancy was removed, more or less, overnight. As a result sleeping with your partner quickly became the norm. No doubt egged on by men, the natural tendency of the female of the species to be sexually monogamous became itself less in evidence. Women began to feel, if not compelled, then at least free, to emulate male behaviour. And as there was no longer a fear of pregnancy there was no worry about living together. Do you discern the chicken and the egg?
Perhaps also a lowered pain / tolerance threshold of unacceptable domestic behaviour combined with unreal or unjustified expectations about the quality of long term relationships has fuelled their meltdown. Partners are less willing to tolerate decline in the excitement of their early relationship, however unrealistic such an attitude is.
At the same time as these changes have taken place, the old rule books have been consigned to the attic. The morality common to all the major religions, particularly the Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions, have ceased to exert their previous external influence except amongst those who take their faith seriously. Those generally accepted basic rules of life which had provided a highway code for living and which had governed the behaviour of all, devout or not, and which had endured for about 5000 years no longer exert much influence. We no longer have that underlying cultural acceptance of sacred or Biblical values. And if you tear up the Highway Code, the traffic is liable to go haywire, accidents will inevitably increase.
We have become a society without boundaries. And this is odd because every child psychiatrist will tell you that children brought up without boundaries are unhappy and unfulfilled. So children apparently need boundaries, but adults apparently not. Or do they?
And all these changes have happened so quickly, over comparatively such a short time. This has been revolution, in contrast to previous changes which have been more in the nature of evolution. Society has had no time to absorb the changes or consider or evaluate their long term consequences.
The law and the courts have played their part too, I suggest. Whilst these ructions in society have been playing themselves out, the law and the courts have tried to keep pace, both in terms of remaining in touch with the changing mores and, as importantly, coping pragmatically with the vast increase in the volumes passing through the family courts, all at a time of endless restrictions on public expenditure in this field.
The law has had to streamline itself to manage the flood. In so doing I think it can be criticised for sending the message that divorce is easy. If the message that divorce/separation is easy has become common currency it is, of course, totally misconceived. The legal formalities may have been simplified but the pain and suffering caused by it, to all the participants, are as awful and scarring as ever. And they can last a lifetime and beyond.
And in order to deal with the all these cases in a discreet and tasteful manner the forensic processes have gone on in private. The thinking behind that has never been a desire to protect the process from scrutiny and. It has been to allow people to discuss their most private lives in private and to protect children away from the media’s prying gaze. Until quite recently I readily admit that I was a supporter of that view. However, I am sure that one of the unintended consequences of this desire for discretion has to been to mask the sheer scale of the problem. The epidemic has been gathering pace unnoticed and unappreciated except by the professionals. The new drive for openness is laudable for that reason alone but we must not damage vulnerable children in our rush for transparency
I have touched on a range of factors which have, I believe, contributed to the current state of affairs. As I say, there are no doubt others. They have, I think, acted cumulatively and fed each other and upon each other. Apportioning blame and being sanctimonious or, worse, judgemental gets us nowhere.
So to Question 3. What if anything can be done, can the tide be stemmed or turned?
So what if anything can be done to improve things? Nothing?
I refuse to believe that counsel of despair. Not because I am an eternal optimist who refuses to face up what some see as the inevitable but because it is new public attitudes and behaviours (made up of the behaviour of individuals) which have driven us here and it is by that route, I suggest, we shall stop the decline, improve things and move forward.
There are three areas which call for our attention; the behaviour of us as individuals, government action and private enterprise.
1. Let us start with the behaviour of individuals. We all, as individuals, have to share the responsibility and the blame for too easily and uncritically espousing the new models of family life. None of us like to be thought of as out of date and out of touch and some parts of the media have, wittingly or unwittingly, fanned the flames of this attitude. But just as the greed of individuals, not the institutions they inhabit, drove us into the banking and credit crisis, the same ambitions, but properly directed will ultimately pull us out.
It is always so much easier and pain free to blame central government, social services or the courts for everything…… but in the end it is the behaviour of individuals which has driven us here and it is only changes in behaviour which can make a radical difference and ease the burden on the services.
And that is every one of us in our own private lives. It includes the judiciary and politicians amongst whom there is as high an incidence of relationship breakdown as in any other walk of life. No section of society and no one is immune. No one has a right to preach (except perhaps the preachers who should do so with more vigour) but we do have a duty to draw on our experience, explain what is happening and draw attention to the plight of those affected.
The popular jargon is systemic failure. It is apt to describe the whole range of influences which have played their part and gone on unconsidered and unchecked for the last fifty years whilst this great social experiment has been in operation.
The fundamental change in individual attitude and behaviour that is required is in our assumption that the way in which we conduct our private lives in relation to both the production and parenting of children or the break-up a parental relationship, is a private matter which only affects the individuals directly concerned.
No, it is not. It is a public matter; of real public interest and real public concern. And in the end public finance. The ripple affect, as I have described it, is very, very far reaching both on the wider family of the individual, the local community and ultimately the wider community and the whole country. We all pay the bill. The cost of family breakdown is variously put at £24 billion according to the Centre for Social Justice or according to the latest research by the Relationships Foundation nearer £42 billion; both figures are huge and unaffordable.
In the short term, the termination of a relationship which has become boring, stale or worse seems an attractive solution especially if another, newer partner is in prospect. It seems like the easy option and as a society we like to think there are simple, painless solutions to everything. And it seems like just a private choice. But not only is that attitude short-sighted and short-term for the partners, it is actually a matter of public concern because children damaged by broken and dysfunctional families affect us all, whether directly or indirectly, when the fall-out has to be expensively managed by the institutions of our society in the person of teachers in the classroom, or doctors or Cafcass officers or courts. It is all extremely costly.
I am not suggesting that all relationship breakdown and termination can be avoided in all cases. Of course it cannot. Genuinely intolerable relationships have to be ended with as much dignity and lack of distress as the parties and the system can manage.
There is certainly no one, simple, quick fix solution to all the problems of relationship breakdown despite the many hobby horses that are flying around! Indeed there are no quick and easy solutions at all.
2. Government Action
Governments of all hues, whether national or local, no doubt have an important part to play. Imaginative and sensitive legislation can certainly alter attitudes. But I do not believe government has been the main architect of the problems and I am more than ever sure it cannot by itself solve them.
There are encouraging signs from all political parties that they are taking this whole subject seriously, at last. That is a start. Indeed, it is really heartening to see the whole subject forcing its way more and higher onto the political and media agenda where it rightly belongs with all political parties now vying to outdo each other with their family focussed policies. All of that is excellent news. Maybe the squeaky wheel does occasionally get a little oil.
The reports from the Centre for Social Justice are very high quality. Whilst I would want to take issue with, or at least debate, one or two of the more detailed suggestions of The Interim Report of the Family Law Review I would respectfully agree with most of it; it seems to me to be firmly on the right track.
There are other government interventions which would assist. Support for individual families before they reach crisis point is known to be effective in improving statistics for breakdown. Government can play a huge part here. But it has to be recognised that with a population of 60 million it is very expensive of resources of all kinds. But then, as I have shown, family breakdown is also massively expensive of resources too.
However, there are three major constraints on the activities of government. Firstly, the bottom line for all parties is the need to be elected. Accordingly to espouse a radical line or policy in this area risks alienating a significant portion of the electorate who by implication are being criticised or are not of the same view. As a result, as elections approach, what appear to be hard-edged policy commitments become softened and diluted. What are needed are unequivocal statements and policies. They will not in the end be found forthcoming from politicians. Instead, blander and broader, high-sounding phrases, full of sound and fury and trying to be all things to all men and women will be heard.
Secondly, the life of a parliament is 5 years. Any serious remedies will take longer than that to have any real effect. Unless they have cross party support (and now I am in the fantasy world) they will be in danger of disappearing as elections and other national issues dominate the minds of government.
Last but not least, there is no spare public money and support for families by large-scale public programmes is potentially very, very expensive of resources.
Similarly, blaming the agencies by e.g. endless scape-goating and examination of, say, the processes and systems of social services departments is all well and good but it is by itself totally inadequate and does not begin to address the causes of the mischief. The law and the courts can certainly be improved, and so help with the putting in place of the right substantive laws and procedures would be a good idea. But it too is not the whole answer either and this evening I am not going to embark on another critique of the chronic problems currently facing the creaking family justice system. I have done that before and it is for another day.
The education of parents and children in the nature and validity of long-term relationship and commitment is a field in which government can properly engage and help. For instance, I wonder if there is any real evidence about how many people, who have been through divorce or separation, really think, say, five years after the break up, that they made the right decision and that they are now net better off, emotionally or in other ways, when into the equation is factored the whole range of new problems created by the break up.
So individuals and governments have a very important part to play but there is a third force involving major private non-government enterprise in this area too.
Marriage as the gold standard.
Realistically, the problem of family breakdown cannot be tackled on every front simultaneously. I would suggest that we should identify the main hole in the dike and deal with that first. You might then create a breathing space in which other related leaks can be tackled.
To that end, the reaffirmation of marriage as the gold standard would be a start, with all its faults. Marriage is by no means perfect or the only way or only structure for living with a partner but statistically it has proved to be the most enduring and, statistically, the children of such relationships perform the best. The evidence from every study is now incontrovertible. It is a simple provable fact which has to be faced, however unpalatable to its detractors. Support for marriage therefore makes pragmatic common sense because it is demonstrably in the public interest and ultimately saves money (like eating healthily, or not smoking or recycling your litter!) That can properly engage government policy to some extent but, as I have suggested, unequivocal and wholehearted support for marriage is not going to come from any political grouping.
In the very recent Centre for Social Justice report “Every Family Matters” published in July last year the following appears:
Married couples are far less likely to break up than couples who live together without getting married even after adjusting for the influence of such factors as income, age and education. Data shows that only 8 percent of married parents, compared to 43 percent of unmarried parents, had separated before their child’s fifth birthday. The empirical evidence….shows that intact marriages tend to provide more beneficial outcomes for adults and children than cohabitation or single parenthood. Children tend to do better in the areas of physical and emotional health, educational achievement, financial security and their ability to form their own future stable families. Despite this clear and overwhelming evidence there has been a lamentable lack of active government and parliamentary support for marriage.
Last week the Jubilee Centre published new research based on evidence of a sample of 30,000 families. It found that married couples are ten times more likely to stay together until a child’s sixteenth birthday than the children of unmarried couples.
Unequivocal support for marriage therefore is not only a matter of morality or religious persuasion (if that approach offends you) but it makes pragmatic common sense and is demonstrably in the public interest i.e. it has the potential to save huge amounts of public money. Married couples are five times less likely to break up before a child’s 5th birthday than unmarried ones and, as I have said, the children of the married are most likely to succeed and far less likely to drop out of school or become involved in expensive anti-social behaviour of one kind or another.
But marriage is in decline and statistically at its lowest level ever although ironically the desire to live in stable lifelong partnerships remains the aspiration for the overwhelming majority for both sexes.
As everyone knows marriages are never perfect or without their faults. If they are to last they require endless understanding, compromise and forgiveness. And they are most certainly not exciting all the time. (I always think they are a bit like a cricket test match as opposed to a game of 20/20. Most of the time not very much happens but every now and again there are exciting moments or periods. The beauty of the match is that it is played out over many days and at the end there have been ebbs and flows, happy times and sad, all going to make up the whole memorable performance. No relationships will ever be lived like 20/20 games with adrenalin pumping excitement every over). And in the end it is the best we have got, there is no better system on offer.
So the education of children, especially, dare I say it, young women in the huge advantage of marriage as opposed to cohabitation when it comes to having families is vital. Let me say to all the unmarried females in this room today: why settle for second best for your children, why increase the chances of your relationship breaking down and your children not succeeding and you being left with almost no rights at all?
This whole area could properly engage government at least to some extent but it is not only up to government. We, each one of us, must tackle the problem ourselves. I am convinced that real change must be generated, at least in the first place, by private initiative and private money.
In the 1920’s it was recognised that there was a need for a national trust to preserve old buildings, the existence of which the country had for years taken for granted but which were in fact in urgent need of repair and preservation. Marriage is now in a similar situation.
The Marriage Foundation
So that is why I want to see the establishment of an independent autonomous NATIONAL MARRIAGE TRUST.
I would call it the Marriage Foundation (a play on words!) – at least initially. It would to focus its entire activity on this vital area of national life. It would be entirely non-sectarian and seek support from across all parts of the community and all faith communities.
Its overall objects would be simple; to preserve, support, enhance and promote marriages and the institution of marriage as “the gold standard” for relationships. It would seek to be the primary engine to influence and where necessary change public opinion and by that route and where necessary, government policy and private behaviour.
How will it do it?
Raising awareness of the benefits (psychological, social, and FINANCIAL) to individuals, families (especially children), communities and the nation of supporting marriage and especially long marriages
Celebrating and promoting the advantages of long marriages
Discouraging cohabitation and single parenthood by emphasising their financial, legal and psychological disadvantages
The following might be some of the means employed to achieving these ends:
The promotion of a lengthy, high profile media campaign to change attitudes and explain benefits to all along the lines of “why settle for second best” for yourself and your children, “Divorcing is bad for your health”
Lobbying for measures (of all kinds including fiscal) by government to support marriage (positive discrimination in favour) designed also to change the public attitude to marriage.
Education at school of benefits of long term relationships and especially marriage and the effects of family breakdown
Specific education for couples before marriage of benefits
Support and positive encouragement for families during marriage to prevent breakdown
Enhancing all aspects of the marriage experience
Counselling at time of marriage crisis to prevent/postpone breakdown
Sensible divorce laws designed primarily with the interests of the children as the primary factor
to make people think twice or even more before divorcing
Separate with dignity and without excessive acrimony
ALL WITH THE SIMPLE GRAND OVERALL AIM OF
1. Increasing the rate of marriage AND
2. decreasing the rate of divorce
If such initiatives reduced the rate of divorce by the modest target of 20% and increased the rate of marriage by the same factor the effect on the life of the country would be absolutely dramatic. Family breakdown would begin to be consigned back to its minority activity status in the country where it rightly belongs.
This may sound like a grand venture but I am confident we can change attitudes and stem the tide and turn the tanker. We all know it makes sense and the benefits are incalculable in terms of the health and happiness of every citizen and the community as a whole.
A Business Plan
Perhaps you think this all may sounds like a vague and idealistic pipe dream? I do not believe so.
With the invaluable assistance of an ex senior business development planner from Accenture I have for some months now been trying to put some flesh on the bones of this idea. Let me give you just a very few edited highlights taken from our first draft business plan which runs to six closely typed pages
The central objective might be “to encourage couples to form and maintain happy and lasting marriages.” This would be achieved through a series of sub-objectives each with a tangible output.
Building An Intellectual Repository: The creation of a one-stop-shop website that makes accessible the most powerful academic research evidence supporting marriage. It should aim to have the top Google ranking for searches on “marriage” and “relationships”. The website would be a principal outlet for a research team which would also be producing papers underpinning the Foundation’s press releases.
Media Relations the Foundation’s spokespeople and experts should aim to produce at least one press release each week.
Political Impact: Lobbying to achieve changes in legislations.
Educational Impact: The Foundation could provide pre and post-marriage counselling – establishing a franchise network for local groups akin to Alpha and the Marriage Course but not confined to Christians.
There are a number of layers of governance that could prove useful:
Council of Reference/ Trustees: high profile individuals representing different faith groups, and leaders in the media, legal, governmental, scientific, sport, business and other worlds. It would demonstrate the breadth of appeal of the message and its influence.
Governing body. This would be the decision-making body who would approve the strategy, budget and appointment of the executive leadership.
Sub Committees: These would cover operational issues (e.g. finance, media relations, lobbying, alliance relations)
Secretariat: this would have the co-ordination role implementing Governing Body decision, running the events programme, day-to-day web management. Initially it might be just one or two people.
In due course there would need to be a Research Team, a Marketing and Communications team and, of course the all important Fund Raising.
There is a huge web of organisations whose work touches on the relationship area.
Potential support could be triaged into the following framework:
a) members of the Foundation: those sold on supporting marriage and who see the Foundation as the best vehicle for their time and money
b) alliance partners: groups supportive of the message but who wish to maintain their separate organisational approach. If the Foundation is seen to be the dominant pro-marriage think tank then this category might start to view the Foundation as an ‘umbrella’ for their activities
c) discussion partners: organisations involved in the relationship debate but who have distinctive views e.g. Relate. They might want to associate with the Foundation in so far that they see it as an influential resource.
There are at present over 50 organisations of one kind or another working in the field of family and relationship breakdown and doing great things.
See diagram attached below:
They are all doing fantastic useful work in their own chosen fields. No one would want to impede or interrupt their work but, I ask, would not a common marriage-focused organisation achieve a critically important mass and so pack a much harder punch if these other bodies (or some of them) were affiliated in some way under one umbrella with some common aims and objectives?
So in the end, unpalatable though it is to face up to, we shall get nowhere if we wait for government to wake up and act decisively. They never will. So it must all come back to our own individual behaviour which we must retrain and restrain and our own efforts and money.
After this necessarily superficial and personal tour d’horizon of where we are, and how we got here, these are my broad conclusions:
1 We need to recognise that as a society we have real problems caused by the way we live and we need to face up to them, try to understand them and their causes and then try and fix them.
2 Although, superficially, these are private issues they become matters of public concern when they are happening on such a huge scale and affect detrimentally such a significant proportion of the population of all types and ages. What is a matter of private concern when it is on a small scale becomes a matter of public concern when it reaches epidemic proportions. An epidemic is a matter of concern for us all especially where so many children are infected by it. Happy, stable families make for a happy, stable community.
3 Winding back the clock is not an option even if it was right or feasible. We are where we are, not all the changes are for the worse, many are for the better. The removal of judgemental stigmas and taboos is positive, if society can manage itself and its excesses in a more intelligent and sophisticated way for the greater benefit and happiness of all. But the re-emergence of a public attitude which is anti relationship destruction, a new stigma perhaps, could do a lot to stem the flood. Recycle your rubbish, by all means, but be very slow indeed to recycle your partner.
4 Government can play a part but it is not and never will be capable of implementing and sustaining long term solutions.
5 Marriage, as the best structure in which to raise children, needs to be reaffirmed, strengthened and supported. An independent Marriage Foundation with a single major objective should be established as a matter of urgency and priority to carry the flag of change.
We have come a long way, very fast and in a very short time. But surely we have learned from our experience along the way and matured? And surely we can now, steeped in that experience both good and bad, stand back, put aside our preconceptions and personal prejudices, fashion some improvements and remould our behaviour for the benefit of us all, especially children.
I fervently believe so.