CARE believes that marriage, the commitment of one man to one woman for life, is ordained by God for human flourishing.
While marriage is in some ways a private matter between husband and wife, its wellbeing or otherwise has very clear public policy consequences, as set out in CARE’s Pamphlet, The Public Policy Benefits of Marriage.
One of the central public policy benefits of marriage is that it brings stability.
While a child born to cohabiting parents faces a nearly one in two chance of living in a single parent family by the time they reach their fifth birthday, the comparable figure for a child born to marriage parents is just one in twelve. This stability brings extensive public policy benefits to the wellbeing of adults and children. Instability and family breakdown by contrast brings with it very significant costs. The central difficulty is that whereas in 1960 just 2.54% of children in Northern Ireland were born out of the context of the marriage commitment, today 43.2% of children are born to parents who are not married, injecting into child development a far greater measure of instability. Across the United Kingdom the annual cost of family breakdown to our society is currently estimated to be a staggering £47 billion and the bulk of this comes from the breakdown of very much less stable cohabiting relationships. On a pro-rata basis this would suggest that family breakdown in Northern Ireland costs over £1 billion a year. Considering the fact that the Executive budget per year is around £10 billion, this is not an inconsiderable sum of money.
Given these facts Government should prioritise two action points:
First, it is vital that at the very least Government does nothing to dis-incentivise marriage. Sadly, though, this is the effect of current UK fiscal arrangements which, even with the new small transferable allowance for married couples (which came into effect in April 2015), create a net fiscal incentive not to marry. If Government really wants to maximise positive outcomes, however, it will look to not only end all state incentives not to marry but also to positively encourage couples to commit to marriage. The need for a fully transferable allowance is primarily a challenge to the Westminster Government and our MPs, although MLAs can and should be encouraged to highlight the need for this change.
Second, it should look to put in place a comprehensive vision of ‘marriage support’ to be delivered by charities. This is primarily the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Executive. Marriage support should consist of ‘marriage preparation’ for couples before marriage, ‘marriage enrichment’ to support existing marriages that are not in difficulty and ‘marriage guidance counselling’ to help existing marriages that are in difficulty.
All the research suggests that this is tax payer’s money very well spent!
In their Families Matter report, the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety recognised the importance of relationship support and counselling in preventing family breakdown. DHSSPS provides core funding to Accord (NI), a Catholic charity which provides marriage and relationship counselling.
In 2014, The Department for Social Development backed and provided funding for “Let’s Stick Together”, a relationship education programme for parents in early stages of family life run by Christian organisation, Care for the Family.
However, with an average of over 2000 divorces taking place in Northern Ireland annually, more can, and should, be done to ensure access to family support services which include marriage guidance counselling for marriages in difficulty.
Questions for Candidates
- Given that research demonstrates that the provision of a comprehensive package of marriage support investment provides a very good return on the investment, enhancing the wellbeing of adults and children, what steps will you take to press for more Northern Ireland Executive investment in marriage support services?
- Given the huge public policy cost of family breakdown – £47 billion – and that the majority of this is driven by the breakdown of cohabiting relationships that have never involved the till death us do part marriage commitment, what will you do to highlight the current fiscal incentives not to marry (eroding the incentive not to marry) and to make the case for the Westminster Government to positively nudge people to consider marriage?
 DHSSPS, Families Matter: Supporting Families in Northern Ireland Regional Family and Parenting Strategy (2009) 33