On both the right and left of British politics, there are those who believe that debating ?the importance of marriage? is the last thing a politician should do.
Either because of a libertarian approach to ?social? policy, or because of an aversion to appearing ?judgmental?, commentators from all sides are quick to warn legislators against straying into the political minefield that is marriage and family policy.
I strongly believe that these views are wrong. In fact, for any politician genuinely concerned with the condition of our lives and the quality of society, there can be few issues more important than taking the right approach to marriage and the family as a major public policy issue.
Being in favour of marriage need not mean denigrating people who choose not to marry. It is not for politicians to sit in judgement on them. And we also have to recognise that all too many marriages end in failure.
But the evidence still speaks for itself. As William Hague explained in a recent speech on ?Freedom and the Family?, study after study shows that wherever most families are married the crime rate is lower, more people find work, young men more readily find a role in society and even reported rates of mental illness decline.
So, at the very least, politicians should avoid policies that undermine marriage, Ideally, they should find policies that actively support it.
Unfortunately, for several decades, as the pressures on marriage have been growing ever greater, Government support for marriage has more or less unintentionally been eroded.
Of course, Conservatives must shoulder some of the blame for the tax system?s treatment of marriage. When we reduced the Married Couples? Allowance, we failed to supplement or replace it with an alternative focused on married families with children. We will not make this mistake again.
At the last election, one of our best proposals was to remove the accidental discrimination against married couples where one parent stays at home to look after children or a dependent relative. At present, they lose one of their personal allowances. If they kept both allowances, whether or not both worked, that would ease the pressure on many young couples and leave them a fair choice of whether and when both should go back to work. We will look at this again as part of our policy review. We will also look at the possibility of a child tax allowance.
Either way, we will find a way of ensuring that the tax system recognises the very substantial costs of bringing up children.
Many on the Left have always viscerally opposed marriage as a ?bourgeois and outmoded convention?. Hence the massive left wing revolt (100 MPs defied a 3 line whip) when asked to implement my proposal to equalise benefits for single parents and married couples – instead of discriminating against the latter. So it was heartening when Tony Blair indicated that he would support marriage.
However, as so often with this government, they signal right and turn left. They use Conservative rhetoric to cover left of centre policies.
Their recent Green Paper, Supporting Families, did contain a chapter called ?Strengthening Marriage?. But nearly half its proposals were about facilitating divorce! And there was not a word about financial support for married couples.
No-one will or should get married for a tax break. But lower taxes can ease the pressures on married couples and send positive signals that society values the marital commitment.
Far from supporting marriage, Labour are about to put it under renewed attack.
It now looks likely that this year?s Budget will pile a new tax on Child Benefit for higher-rate taxpayers – without offering compensating tax cuts elsewhere. And because the tax system does not recognise any link between couples who live together without being married, it seems that only married couples will be liable for this new tax. So the system will actually discriminate against marriage – not in favour of it. Labour?s plans will provide a clear incentive for couples to live together without cementing their relationship through marriage.
One of the reasons why Conservatives lost the 1997 General Election so badly was that we allowed ourselves to be seen as a Party solely concerned with economic issues. Of course, there were good reasons why we devoted so much energy to tax reform, privatisation and labour market deregulation. These policies put Britain back on her feet. But some people thought our intense focus on economic reform meant that we did not care about anything else.
Many of the great challenges of the new millennium will be questions of social policy, not economics. Policy makers will need to show that their ideas can turn round failing schools, tackle drug-related crime, improve conditions on our worst estates, confront welfare dependence and help people take responsibility for their own lives.
These are difficult questions. There are no easy answers. But supporting the family and recognising the importance of marriage must be a good place to start.