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Last Updated: Tuesday, 10 July 2007, 23:42 GMT 00:42 UK
Love, marriage and... tax breaks?
By Jenny Percival
BBC News

Tax breaks to support marriage are back on the political agenda, with the Conservatives considering a 20 a week incentive. In fact, they never fully went away - although figures seem to show they have little influence on marriage rates.

Would a tax break of around 20 a week encourage you to get married or stay married? Supporters say it strengthens families, while critics see it as discriminatory and a waste of money.

A tax break of 20 a week or around 1,000 a year clearly is not going to turn a frog into a prince. Anyone who really wanted to marry for money would be looking for a lot more compensation than that.

Nor is it going to save a marriage that has broken down because of infidelity or years of abuse.

And the Conservatives' social justice policy group accepts those arguments.

But it believes that a transferable personal tax allowance would provide recognition for the institution of marriage.

Under the proposal, spouses would be allowed to transfer any unused tax allowances to their partner.

Why should children be disadvantaged because of the perfectly reasonable decisions their parents have made about the way they live their life?
Family and Parenting Institute

This would particularly benefit couples where one spouse stays at home to look after children or elderly relatives.

In a section on family breakdown, the group's report argues that a tax break would "indicate that marriage is valued because of its benefits to children and wider society".

Dr Samantha Callan, of the Centre for Social Justice, helped put the Conservatives' proposals together.

"What we are trying to do is support an institution that does, on average, deliver better outcomes for children and adults," she says.

Steady decline

Married couples already benefit from some chinks in the tax system.

If you are married, your spouse will not pay inheritance tax on your estate when you die. And a married couple has an annual capital gains tax exemption of 17,600 a year - compared to 8,800 for a single person. This would allow a couple to share the gains from a house sale or sale of shares.

And marriage is even recognised in the income tax system - but only if at least one spouse was born before 6 April 1935.

Ironically, it was the Conservatives under John Major who began cutting the married couple's tax allowance in 1994/95. It was finally abolished by a Labour government in 2000.

The allowance appears to have had little effect on the marriage rates in England and Wales. Marriage has been in steady decline for many years.

The Office for National Statistics says that 370,022 weddings took place in England and Wales in 1980, compared to 283,012 in 1995 and 244,710 in 2005 - the latest figures available.

Marriage rate graph

The rates were 60.4 marriages per 1,000 unmarried men over 16 and 48.1 per 1,000 unmarried women in 1980, compared to 24.2 and 21.6 in 2005.


The Family and Parenting Institute acknowledges that the figures support the view that financial incentives alone will do little or nothing to change the marriage or divorce rates.

Its spokesman Michael Scanlan says it does, however, support the idea of financial support for parents who stay at home to look after children because "there's no greater predictor of family breakdown than poverty".

But he says the institute, a charity not linked to any political party, believed that all families, married or unmarried, should benefit from such a scheme.

"We're four square behind the institution of marriage and figures suggest that it's something that three out of four under-35s aspire to.

"And we would welcome financial support for parents at home - but if it's only for married parents then we feel it would discriminate against other families.

"Why should children be disadvantaged because of the perfectly reasonable decisions their parents have made about the way they live their life?"

Gary and Emma Neville
Newlyweds Gary and Emma Neville - perhaps not relying on a 20 break

'Benefit well-off'

Relate, which offers relationship counselling, is more dismissive of the Conservatives' proposal.

Jenny North, head of public policy, says it is "gesture politics" and "naive" to think that financial incentives would keep couples together.

"It's true that married couples stay together longer than co-habiting couples. But it tends to be better-off couples who get married and 20 a week will make very little difference to them. It will benefit people who are already quite well off."

She also pointed out that widows, widowers, and parents who had been left by their spouse would be discriminated against.

Finally, anyone tempted into marriage by a welcome 20 a week extra should bear in mind that with the average cost of a wedding running at 17,000 it will take at least 16 years of married bliss to offset the tax break.

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