HL Deb 30 April 2001 vol 625 cc438-9

2.59 p.m.

Baroness Young asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether support for marriage remains one of the Government's aims for family policy.

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Irvine of Lairg)

My Lords, yes. There has been no change whatever in the Government's support for marriage. I repeat what I said in your Lordships' House on 17th January in a debate promoted by the noble Baroness: A loving marriage between two parties of the opposite sex provides, for the overwhelming majority in our country, the best assurance of a happy personal life and provides the surest foundation upon which to rear a successful family".—[Official Report, 17/1/01; col. 1162.]

Baroness Young

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord for that reply and remind him of other parts of his speech in that debate. He made it clear that government policy was primarily to support single mothers and children. Does he agree that every single piece of research evidence shows that what is best for children is to be brought up within the framework of a married couple and that marriage should be promoted as a better lifestyle than any other?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, in my view, the Government ought not to, and could not, force people to marry; nor could we prevent people who are not married from living together. Moreover, we cannot prevent people from divorcing if they have made up their minds to do so. We live in a free society and we must respect the choices that people make; we must not condemn them. We could not be—we should not be—condemnatory of cohabiting relationships outside marriage.

Baroness Billingham

My Lords, surely it is always the case that children must come first. They should not be discriminated against by the state on the basis of the status of their parents or their parent.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I completely agree with that; our primary concern must be the welfare of children. We are committed to the provision of a safe, secure and loving environment for the upbringing of children. That does not mean criticising or penalising people who choose not to marry; nor does it mean that the Government do not recognise the validity of or the stability provided by other relationships, such as one-parent families. Many lone parents and unmarried couples raise their children just as successfully as do married parents.

In my view, the role of the state is to encourage, not to compel, and to provide practical help, not to preach. Children of unmarried couples are not outsiders in society; they are as much insiders and worthy of support as are the children of couples who have chosen to marry. I could not begin to contemplate an apartheid of preferred children and non-preferred children that was dependent on the status of their parents.

Lord Boardman

My Lords, how does the noble and learned Lord reconcile his policy with the Government's taxation policy, which jeopardises many of the tax advantages once enjoyed—they existed for a long time—by married couples?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, our fiscal priority is to put children first. We concentrate resources where they are most needed: on families bringing up children, especially those on lower incomes. I repeat that it is wrong to discriminate against children on the basis of their parents' status. By October 2001, families with children will on the average be £1,000 per year better off as a result of measures introduced during this Parliament and 1.2 million children will be lifted out of poverty.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord see any connection between the decline in the number of parents who are married and the increase in so-called yob culture among, in particular, boys and young men?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I find it difficult to draw a connection.

Baroness Buscombe

My Lords, we are told that this year the Law Commission will propose giving legal rights to live-in couples. Will the noble and learned Lord define for us the term, "live-in couple"? Would live-in couples have to be having a sexual relationship in order to have those legal rights or would those rights also pertain to other couples, such as two sisters or two other relatives living together in the same home?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I doubt whether the Law Commission is as concerned with the sexual relations of people who live together as are some others. However, it is currently undertaking a review of the law as it relates to the property rights of home sharers. The Government will of course consider what it proposes. The working paper is currently expected later this year and it will be followed by a report in due course. The Government have taken no decisions whatever in this area.

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