THE ARRIVAL of marriage on the political stage this week, so early in the protracted General Election campaign, is a cause for alarm rather than satisfaction. The Church is, of course, a champion of marriage, having consistently upheld it as the natural crucible of human love and the best foundation for the raising of children. But there is much sloppy thinking about marriage, and never more than when politicians get involved.
First, there is no justification for favourable tax arrangements for married couples. There is no intrinsic benefit to the state from the condition of being married which warrants any sort of financial incentive or reward. It is extraordinary how this has become the shibboleth to prove whether this party or that party “backs marriage”. All that people should expect from the next government, of whatever flavour, is that it ensures that the tax system is fair. This, naturally, involves the removal of anything that might be construed as a penalty for couples. The pension credit allowance, for example, ensures a minimum of £130 for a single person, but only £198.45 for a couple. Why? People live in any number of different pairings: a parent and a child, a householder and a lodger, two friends. There is no reason why married couples or committed partnerships should be expected to live more cheaply than other individuals.
One justification for tax adjustments is when the state benefits from marriage. Another is when there are children. Children thrive when they grow up in a stable family, and are consequently more likely to be contributors to the state and not dependants on it. Unfortunately for the policy-makers, commitment to a partner is not exclusive to legal marriage, though this is by far its commonest expression; nor, as evidenced by the divorce rate, is marriage synonymous with long-term commitment. A further benefit to the state is when one partner tests the marriage vow “in sickness and in health” to the full. Untold hours of patient, sacrificial care are hidden inside marriages, as partners struggle to cope with illness, disability, and dependency. Again, though, this is a common duty of children to their parents, as well of one spouse to another.
The answer in both these instances is to provide specific support where it is needed most. For families, this means counselling, support workers, advice and training, even discretionary payments where need can be shown; for carers, a far more developed network of respite care and home help. The most support will need to go to the poorest couples and the most chaotic families — the people least likely to vote, and therefore of least interest to politicians. Indeed, as the next government attempts to cut spending in order to reduce the deficit, these services look to be among the most vulnerable. It is important that those who truly wish to champion marriage let the parties know that this is where their intentions will be judged.