Page last updated at 09:54 GMT, Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Marriage becoming middle class institution, Tories warn

Wedding rings
Marriage rates have nearly halved over the past 40 years

Marriage is in danger of becoming an exclusively middle class institution, the Conservatives have warned.

Tory frontbencher David Willetts said government policy should aim to tackle social breakdown by restoring marriage as a "more widespread institution".

The Tories are to publish their ideas on the family in a green paper.

Labour says child welfare is best promoted through stable and lasting relationships between parents whether they are married or not.

Schools secretary Ed Balls has accused the Tories - who say they would aim to recognise marriage through the tax system - of judging relationships other than marriages as second class, which was not in the interest of children.

'Disaster'

But Mr Willetts argued that marriage helped couples stay together, for the benefit of the children.

The shadow universities and skills secretary, whose responsibilities include family issues, told The Guardian: "I think there are things that have gone deeply wrong with our country.

"The rate of family break-up is a disaster for children."

The aspiration of marriage is becoming harder to achieve
David Willetts, shadow universities secretary

But he also admitted that because of financial constraints Tory plans to recognise marriage in the tax system would not be in the party's first budget if they win power next year.

Among the measures in the Conservatives' green paper, are proposed legal changes making it easier for fathers and grandparents to stay in touch when marriages break up.

The Conservatives also claim the state and voluntary sector can do more to help fathers - especially at the crucial point where the first child is born.

The green paper proposes home nurse visits for new families with more emphasis on help for the father.

Other ideas include the offering of relationship advice at civil ceremonies.

Marriage rates

In his Guardian interview, Mr Willetts warned changes in attitudes to marriage were "extremely dangerous".

"The aspiration of marriage is becoming harder to achieve," he said.

"Instead of it becoming just what you do in your 20s, it has become like scaling Mount Everest, a sort of great moral endeavour - and something that requires a lot of time and money. We think we need to ease some of the pressures.

"There is quite a lot of evidence coming from America about how we are in danger of heading towards a society where middle-class people get married and people on low and erratic incomes don't get married, and that in turn leads to a divergence of a whole host of other outcomes.

"In my view it would be extremely dangerous if marriage became something only for the affluent elite and that is what will happen, unless we try to get some kind of policy that restores it as a more widespread institution as we had in the past."

Marriage rates are at a historic low in the UK, with only 270,000 people married in 2009, compared with 480,000 at its peak in 1972.



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