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Tom Richmond: The drawbacks of financial rewards for marriage

Tom Richmond, a columnist for Tory Radio, questions the value of marriage incentives without being coupled with divorce disincentives.

"My family, and my marriage, are the most important things in my life" said David Cameron, when interviewed about the Social Justice Report produced by Iain Duncan Smith and his policy group.  His personal touch to politics makes David Cameron seem almost human by political standards and despite a few grumbles from some media commentators, the report has been greeted with open arms in many quarters.  The best Gordon Brown has come up with is to tell his Ministers not to talk about marriage – hardly the fighting spirit we expected.

The proposals from Iain Duncan Smith have been carefully worded and given a gentle tone so that David Cameron can weave in his own ideas and stake his claim as the future Prime Minister who cares about the family.  Not only does David Cameron stand to gain from popular initiatives, the tax and benefits system is an excellent route through which he can make more progress in setting out the themes, such as social responsibility, that he continually refers to.  Having a range of policy ideas for different areas of government that all share a common theme will do his credibility the world of good.

Did the Social Justice Policy Group provide Gordon Brown with another chance to score political points over the Conservatives?  The positive reaction from the media and public suggests not.  There is little fertile ground for political debate, as few politicians would be brave or stupid enough to withhold support for marriage and stable families, although there are still a few holes in the rhetoric which deserve some exploration.  Even the modest tax allowance of £20 per married couple would cost billions every year.  Whilst economic cost is no reason to turn away from the proposals, the Conservative Party must bear in mind that we could inherit a national debt running into the hundreds of billions by the time the next election comes round and it will take a superb financial rescue mission to steady the ship, let alone find new funds.  Having said this, if one takes the proposals from the Social Justice Report as a whole it is clear that savings will be made elsewhere in the tax and benefits system, such as toughening the rules on job seekers allowance, and this will go some way to bridging the financial gap.

Even though Iain Duncan Smith has put together an excellent package for repairing our ‘broken’ society, the logic behind changes to the financial implications of marriage is questionable.  A stable, loving household is without doubt the best environment in which children can grow up. However, offering financial incentives for couples to marry is playing with fire.  If you are a young couple looking to build a long-term relationship but not wishing to commit to marriage, you will now lose out.  Given the suggested changes to the tax system, there would now be a plain and simple motive for couples to tie the knot.  This may not sound disastrous, but how would this system of incentives make people more likely to stay together in the long run?  Offering tax breaks to married couples sends out the right message, but without changing the divorce laws at the same time he risks increasing the number of marriages that ultimately break down because people could be unduly influenced by the financial implications of marriage rather than the desire to form a life-long bond and provide a suitable environment for raising a child.  If there is no significant penalty for divorce (which there isn’t – you can still get a divorce if you just live apart for two years), why would people not get married?

Providing new incentives for marriage with no disincentives to make people appreciate the serious implications of divorce for their children is not the right approach to promoting stable and caring life-long relationships. David Cameron must view Iain Duncan Smith’s policy group findings on marriage as a small piece of a very large and very complicated puzzle.  More people getting married solves nothing in itself and gets us no closer to mending our broken society.  The next Conservative government should make marriage the most financially beneficial form of relationship to encourage us to build strong family units, but leaving the embarrassingly weak divorce laws in place will draw more people into marriages that were not meant to be, and could lead to even more families falling apart – and this is an outcome that British society cannot afford to face.


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