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Nick Gulliford: The Government could be doing much more to encourage strong relationships

Nick_gulliford Nick Gulliford works with Affinities which helps people learn more about themselves and their relationships through research-based psychometric inventories and interactive learning. He stresses the importance of healthy marriages and relationships and proposes some reforms to the process of registering births and marriages.

Two recent Acts of Parliament applicable in England and Wales – the Statistics and Registration Service Act and the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act – and a report from the Audit Commission, “Hearts and minds: commissioning from the voluntary sector” have – to some small extent - brought into sharper focus issues concerning family life that successive governments have tried to sweep under the carpet.

These challenges, including whether staff in Register Offices should be signposting couples to marriage preparation and relationship education services, and whether local authorities should be publishing local policies to promote domestic and social cohesion, hover on the edge of the political agenda. Most political angels fear to tread there. 

Labour politicians deny there is a breakdown in society; Conservatives make speeches, but omit any reference to divorce or relationship breakdown as a cause of it in their local government election manifestos. However, David Cameron has recently brought the issue into sharper focus.  He said:

"Now I know there are some who think politics should stay out of issues like relationships... I think politics has been way behind the public on this. People are talking about family, marriage, parenting, relationships - about how to bring up kids - like never before... In 1996, President Clinton introduced funding for projects that "encourage the formation and maintenance of two-parent families." And President Bush continued, setting up the 'Healthy Marriage Initiative', which funds 'marriage education services' nationwide. For too long, politicians here have been afraid of getting into this territory, for fear of looking old-fashioned or preachy.”

Should we be surprised at this reluctance to engage realistically with difficult family issues? Not really; they have been with us since Cain killed his brother Abel. Why does the current situation require an exceptionally creative response? Quite simply, it is not sustainable. 

There are many statistics which could be used to illustrate the extent of the consequences of family breakdown, but one of the starkest can be found by examining the family structure in which prisoners were raised in the US. A child of divorce is twelve times more likely to go to prison than from an intact family. A child born out of wedlock is twenty two times more likely to be incarcerated. 

In the UK one quarter of the adult prison population has been in care and almost 40 per cent of prisoners under 21 were in care as children; 49% of children brought up in care go straight to prison. The government pretend that family structure is not the issue; they argue it is the quality of the family relationship that counts. This is true. But the figures show that poor outcomes are skewed significantly towards the least traditional family structures, which suggests that ignoring family structure is a flawed policy.

In any case, the government belies its own profession of neutrality towards family structure by discouraging teenage parenthood, even to the extent of publishing league tables of local authority performance in reducing it. It begs the question of why other aspects of domestic and social cohesion are not monitored through indices by neighbourhood comprising the married/divorced ratio, incidents of domestic violence, abortion, out of wedlock births, sexually transmitted infections, truancy, Anti Social Behaviour Orders etc. 

The short - and only - answer is that neither the government nor the opposition has the political will to get the figures out into the open so that the issue of domestic and social cohesion can be properly monitored and in order that the effectiveness of educational programmes to improve it can be evaluated. Very belatedly, the Audit Commission has spotted this.

The Social Exclusion Unit named eight indicators of deprivation and the Neighbourhood Renewal Unit then asked the Office for National Statistics to publish seven indices of deprivation, omitting ‘family breakdown’ without explanation.

The facile excuse given later by the Department for Communities and Local Government for the omission of an index for family breakdown – or domestic and social cohesion - from the list is:

"The Government recognises that family breakdown is a serious matter and can be a major cause of deprivation or disadvantage.  We have policies in place to help tackle the consequences.  But while it can be a driver of other forms of deprivation it is not a direct measure of deprivation in its own right. Family breakdown may have negative effects on family members but conversely it may have positive effects (such as if the relationship involved violence). Measuring the negative effects of family breakdown and expressing these at an area level is therefore not possible."

The absurdity of this explanation can be seen, not only because the SEU had already listed ‘family breakdown’ as one of eight indicators of deprivation, the validity of which can scarcely now be denied, but also because no measure is perfect. For example, a high level of education may point to advantage, and poor education to disadvantage, but there are always converse circumstances where a high level of education is associated with deprivation, and a poor one with affluence.

In "Hearts and minds: commissioning from the voluntary sector" the Audit Commission recommended that local public bodies should, “Improve how they measure value for money in public services, by shifting the current focus on inputs, outputs, and unit costs, towards long-term measurement of outcomes and effectiveness.” Will local authorities heed what the Audit Commission is saying?

It was a Labour Shadow Minister, Paul Boateng who began the argument for the signposting of couples by Registrars towards marriage preparation on 24th April 1996 during a debate on the Family Law Bill:

“At the moment, there is no preparation at all for civil marriage, and there is absolutely nothing on the face of the Bill to give any hope whatsoever that that will occur or is envisaged... The Government also have to come forward with proposals in relation to preparation for marriage and with proposals that recognise the need for concerted and focused action to support the institution of marriage and the family.”

Marriage preparation and relationship education were outlined in the White Paper "Delivering Vital Change" and in the House of Commons debate when the Labour Treasury Minister, Ruth Kelly, said:

"In our White Paper, [Delivering Vital Change] the Government explained that the registration service is ideally placed to act as a focal point for information about services associated with births, deaths and marriages, such as ........ marriage preparation ...... I believe that there is a genuine opportunity for local authorities to develop those services innovatively to meet the needs of their communities, now and in future. A wider role for the registration service will improve on the current piecemeal approach by local authorities and will be underpinned by the proposed national standards."

What can be done now? The role of local authorities in marriage preparation and in promoting domestic and social cohesion should be developed along the lines set out in the White Paper “Delivering Vital Change”. The Statistics and Registration Service Act alters the employment position of registrars who became employees of the local authority on 1st December 2007.

However, the LACORS division of the LGA “has produced a new councillors’ handbook – ‘Registration, celebratory and citizenship services’ – outlining how councils can not only generate revenue but also engage with local people and achieve corporate objectives through well run registration services.

Does it explain how “the registration service is ideally placed to act as a focal point for information about services associated with births, deaths and marriages, such as ........ marriage preparation”? Well, Er “No”! Bereavement, “Yes”; but despite being controlled by Conservative councillors the LGA funked this. David Cameron, please note!

As a part of Local Area Agreements for well-being in the community, local authorities should publish a local policy for the promotion of domestic and social cohesion and follow a code of practice approved by the Local Government Association. This should include the provision of Internet terminals in register offices for use by couples. 

All couples expressing an intention of marrying whether as a sponsor or when attending a register office should be invited to complete an online pre-marital inventory (areas in the US adopting a similar policy have reduced divorce and cohabitation rates significantly, as well as teenage pregnancy and truancy). 

Unmarried couples registering a birth should be offered the opportunity to undertake a relationship development inventory and a parenting education programme. Couples completing approved programmes in good faith should be rewarded with a choice of retail store vouchers. 

Failure to complete the inventory satisfactorily should be sufficient grounds for Registrars or Entry Clearance officers to decline to process applications if they are suspicious that an intended marriage is bogus or forced. 

Failure to obtain a certificate from a facilitator that a pre-marital inventory had been completed in good faith together with the completion of a programme of marriage preparation should be sufficient grounds to revoke leave to remain in the UK. 

The evidence provided by one of the couple following the completion of a pre-marital or relationship development inventory in conjunction with a registered facilitator would be crucial in determining if abuse of marriage is occurring, and be sufficient grounds for referral to the senior legal officer in the local authority.

These are just a few ideas. The Government can no longer afford not to address these issues.


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