It says much about the intellectual depth – or lack thereof – of David Cameron’s keynote speech to the Tory Conference, this week, that I’ve had to go and dig out a transcript to find out what he actually said to find out if it included any meaningful political or policy content.
The fact is that if one goes simply by the manner in which it was reported in the press then all one actually seems to learn is that he gave the speech from crib notes rather than using an autocue – which is a nice bit of theatre for the debating society crowd but hardly that significant, it just means that he put a lot of effort into learning his lines in advance – and that the Tory faithful liked it, which is hardly news when applied to a party leader’s speech at a Tory conference.
Oh, and as a snarky aside, does anyone else think that Cameron’s efforts to put himself and the Tory Party across as young, fresh and modern were made to appear rather hollow every time the TV coverage – I did catch odd bits of it – cut away to from the speaker to show them addressing an audience that looked for all the world like a Darby and Joan club outing to an Old-Time Music Hall Show? That’s the trouble with Tory conferences, no matter how hard they try to project an image of modernity it all falls flat because most of the rank and file make the auditorium look like god’s waiting room.
What I was looking for, particularly, was exactly what Cameron had to say on the subject of marriage and the family. Not because I expected anything new – the Tories ‘ideas’ (if you can call them that) have been extensively trailed over the last few months in any case – but because, unlike many journalists and almost all the party faithful (I suspect), I’ve actually taken the time and trouble to hack through the source material (IDS policy review reports and Mad Frankie Field’s assorted witterings) and have actually researched the background and looked at the data myself to see what does, and does not, stack up.
To be fair, I should commend Alice Miles for (finally) catching on to the holes in Frank Field’s arguments on Tax Credits, which the Tories stupidly appear to have swallowed wholesale:
I wish the same could be said for Mr Cameron’s other “childhood” policy, rewarding couples with children with extra tax credits. Mr Cameron appears unable to see what every other numerate person can: his plan is rubbish.
It is not the case that couples who stay together are penalised and paid less in working tax credits than lone parents, an error parroted by people who are too well paid to know. Both families get the same. The Tories have been using a grossly misleading comparison, first cited by the Labour MP Frank Field, to back up their case.
…and in the process spawned this classic example of ‘Trailer Park Toryism’ from a commenter identifying himself as a Mr Tony Quick of Slough (the town on which John Betjeman famously invited friendly bombs to rain).
What a cynical socialist you are (but aren’t they all?)
Don’t you think that single parents lie about their status then?
Or do you believe that Nu Labour keeps a full and factual check on all of them with a Stalinistic police force? On second thoughts, you’re probably right, given that we have a Stalinistic government running the whole mess.
Tony Quick, Slough, UK
If, by any remote chance, you are responsible for the electoral roll for Slough and you do happen across this article, then can I suggest you look up Mr Quick and delete his entry – the man is clearly too fucking thick and pig ignorant to permitted to vote…
…No, seriously, you will be doing the country – and the standard of political debate in the UK – a massive service by erasing the twat from the register of electors.
What Cameron actually had to say on this issue is his speech was this:
You know there is a phenomenon in Britain that’s called LATs – that’s Living Apart Together and there are 2m people who pretend to live apart because the benefits system pays you more to live apart than live together.
[Banal Anecdote omitted]
We must be crazy in this country to be using the benefits system to drive people apart rather than bring them together. We’ve got a tax system that doesn’t recognise marriage and we’ve got a benefit system that actually recognises any form of co-habitation, any form of commitment and penalises it.
So what will we do to change that?
Well, as George has set out, we will end the couple’s penalty in the benefit system, so we don’t penalise couples, we will reward them and yes I believe we should recognise marriage in the tax system as well.
‘Living Apart Together’ is quite an interesting little euphemism, isn’t it, especially when Cameron goes on to provide the following definition:
there are 2m people who pretend to live apart because the benefits system pays you more to live apart than live together
Of course, a rather less euphemistic term that matches the same definition is ‘Benefit Fraud’, but I guess that doesn’t quite sit as well with the idea that ‘we will reward them’.
Frankly, I can’t wait to see the Tory poster campaign to go with this one…
Still the fallacies and miscalculations that underpin Cameron’s proposals for Tax Credits – and I should add that I’ve no problem with the principle of bunging low income families a bit of extra cash as long as it’s being done for the right reasons – are as nothing to those that underpin his belief that marriage should be ‘recognised’ in the tax system.
The central problem with Cameron’s policy on marriage, the family and family breakdown can be summed up in three words; Iain, Duncan and Smith.
Actually its not IDS personally so much as IDS’s personal and, especially, religious beliefs which are shot through the entire policy document on the family produced by the Tory’s Social Justice Group.
Look, let me show you exactly what I mean by quoting, verbatim, from IDS’s interim report ‘Fractured Families‘ (pdf, 2mb), which was published in December 2006.
We reject the comfortable mantra that policy can or hould be wholly morally neutral (see A8) on the grounds hat this is unworkable in practice. Although moralising in the pejorative and judgemental sense) is to be avoided, committed relationships are essential for the social ecology of the family, the community and the country, and families which are formed on the basis of these should therefore be encouraged.
So far, so good but with some reservations about the references to morality and moral neutrality.
The fact is that, and this is extensively supported by solid evidence, that family stability and strong, committed, familial relationships are highly beneficial towards both adults and, especially, children. Strong, supportive, families and a stable family environment are both a personal and a social ‘good’ and should be supported and encouraged, although it also has to be said that moral views on this are, to a considerable extent, a complete irrelevance because the core arguments in favour of the family, as a functional social unit, stand up on the basis of factual evidence alone – you simply don’t need to make a moral argument or take a moral position in order to argue validly that families are a good thing.
However, the report then continues with…
The policy-making community (which includes politicians,policy-makers and academics) has been markedly reluctant to grasp the nettle of family breakdown by being clear about the benefits of marriage and committed relationships, and the merits of supporting and encouraging them (see A7). The last forty years have seen sweeping demographic changes which have profoundly affected the whole of our society yet there is no significant debate concerning its causes, effects and likely remedies.
And therein lies the problem. At the heart of the report is placed the notion that marriage is a good thing in and of itself and moreover that is, in some unspecified way, different to or better than even a committed relationship. IDS wants policy makers to be clear about the benefits of marriage AND committed relationships, when the correct wording should marriage OR committed relationships because in terms of verifiable benefits that do accrue to families where there is committed and stable long-term relationship between two adults, marriage makes no significant difference to the beneficial effects that such families enjoy.
Right at the outset, the assumption that marriage is a good thing in itself sets up the entire report to try to prove the validity of that assumption. The report does not review the available evidence and then arrive at the conclusion that marriage is a good thing, rather it assumes that marriage is good and works, in some cases in a very selective and biased fashion, to try to fit the evidence to that central assumption.
To illustrate what I mean, lets consider the question of same sex relationships and ‘gay parenting’.
The final appendix to the report (appendix 6) provides what purports to be an overview of how changes in law over the last forty years or so have [allegedly] contributed to family breakdown, and in this appendix is included [briefly] the now standard trope that the introduction of civil partnerships has, in some unspecified way, acted to ‘undermine’ marriage. In reality, even if there were some evidential basis to support such an argument – and there isn’t – it would still be far too early to arrive at any conclusions about the impact, or otherwise, of civil partnerships on marriage because, as yet, there is insufficient data about either civil partnerships or their interaction – if any – with marriage on which to make even a cursory assessment.
This brief passage does indicate that the basis for this assertion is discussed in depth earlier in the report, and if one finds the relevant sections what one discovers is that, in the first instance, the report does acknowledge that there is currently very little solid data on civil partnerships and gay parenting but that what little there is is actually fairly encouraging:
Although not as mature as the literature on outcomes or children born to married and cohabiting parents, research indicates that amongst the one in five gay adults who are also parents, parental intent, nurture and provision is little different to that found amongst heterosexual parents. Outcome studies suggest young children do better with two gay parents than with one lone parent and that family breakdown affects children in similar ways to those of heterosexual parents.
However, what the more observant amongst may notice is that while the report makes the entirely correct observation that children ‘do better’ [statistically, of course] with two gay parents than with one lone parent, the report conspicuously avoids making comparisons between the evidence for families with two gay parents and those with two heterosexual parents.
Why is that?
Well, it because throughout the report much is made – as you might well expect – of the problems, issues and questions that arise out of ‘fatherlessness’, not just in terms of lone parenting but also within families where there is the natural (i.e. birth) mother and a ‘father substitute’, i.e. a live-in boyfriend or step-parent. There is a near relentless concentration on expounding the benefits of the presence of a father in the family home as a specifically masculine role, in keeping with the ‘traditional’ two-parent heterosexual model of the family and, of course, the detrimental effects of the absence of such a figure, all the data for which comes from studies comparing two parent heterosexual families with lone parent families.
The effect of this is to:
a) create a hierarchical view of family structures in which lone parenting sits at the bottom of the pile, with the conventional two-parent heterosexual family at the top and the family with two gay parents somewhere in between – better than having only one parent but not so good as having two heterosexual parents, and
b) ram home the argument that there is something special and important about the role of the father as a specifically male presence and male role model within the family.
Together this is presented as evidence in support of the idea that the traditional heterosexual marriage is a good thing in itself, if not the natural order of things to which all families should aspire.
That’s the fiction, now here’s the truth.
So far as there are studies comparing gay parenting to the ‘traditional’ family in terms of outcomes for children brought up in such environments – these being largely studies conducted in the US and looking a families with lesbian parents – there is no evidence of any significant statistical differences between the two family models but for a couple of studies that show that children brought up in a lesbian household may show a greater degree of social confidence than those brought up in a ‘traditional’ family.
There is also no evidence to support the all-too common fallacy that children who grow up with gay parents are either more likely to ‘become’ gay themselves or have any difficulties in adopting, understanding and taking on conventional gender roles.
In short, not only to children ‘do better’ with two gay parents than they do with a lone parent but they also do just as well, if not a little better, than they would in a traditional heterosexual family.
These facts, and the evidence that underpins them, are simply not acknowledged by the report.
Because they undermine the argument for the importance of ‘fatherhood’ as a specifically and uniquely masculine role.
There is no difficulty, whatsoever, is establishing from evidence that – all other things being equal – having two parents in better than having only one. However that fact alone does not necessarily support the view that what is best for children and families is a ‘traditional’ – and preferably married – two parent heterosexual model of the family. To demonstrate that requires evidence either that the traditional family model ‘outperforms’ the two gay parent model family – and there’s no evidence of that – or that there is something in particular about the combination of male and female roles and role models that confers advantages not present in other family structures, which is what the report actually argues, at some considerable length, while avoiding the inconvenient truth that the actual data on gay parenting torpedoes that whole line of argument below the waterline.
The truth is that two parent families provide [statistically] better outcomes than lone parent families for the simple reason that they have twice the number of people taking an active part in parenting and are, therefore, better equipped to provide the degree of attention, support and parental supervision necessary for children to thrive – whether the second parent (assuming the first, and primary caregiver, is female) has an XX oy XY arrangement of sex chromosomes makes no significant difference to the outcomes for the children or the success of the family unit.
Far from arguing that civil partnerships undermine marriage and, therefore, contribute to family breakdown, their introduction should be applauded for helping to support a model of the family structure that is equally beneficial to that of the ‘traditional’ family – and to be fair to David Cameron, he did move rapidly on the release of this report to stress that the proposal to ‘recognise’ marriage in the tax system would extend to civil partnerships.
That, however, does not address the fact that the benefits ascribed to marriage in the report are actually present for any stable two parent family where there is a committed long-term relationship – in fact the sole justification for privileging marriage over cohabitation (other than that derived from Christian notions of morality) is that of the relative success/failure rate of each form of relationship.
Much as with the arguments about ‘fatherhood’, the report relentless drills home the ‘fact’ that married couples are more likely to stay together that couples who merely cohabit and that those married couple that do stay together do so for longer.
The problem with all this is that what we’re dealing here are two self-selecting groups; people who either choose to get married or choose to cohabit, which means that we’re not making a like for like comparison.
To justify favouring marriage over cohabitation using evidence requires more than simply a raft of statistical data showing that cohabiting couples are more likely to separate than married couples, one also has to show that there is something specific to marriage, itself, that causes married couples to stay together in greater numbers than cohabiting couples – that marriage specifically creates that commitment, rather than it being the commitment to the relationship that influences couples to get married.
The report does not such thing, in fact on the rare occasions that it refers to the question of selection effects it does so either to write off their significance by limiting consideration of their scope to purely economic factor or – as in the case of the following study by Harry Benson of the Bristol Community Family Trust, which is included in the report as appendix 3, it ignores them entirely.
Although it is not the aim of this study to explain precisely why marriage makes such a difference, it is worth highlighting plausible explanations worthy of further UK research.
Commitment. The simplest explanation is that married couples have a higher level of commitment to one another compared to unmarried couples in the first place. This does not have to be true for all unmarried couples, amongst whom a continuum of commitment exists (Smart & Stevens, 1997). However the decision to move in together for an unspecified period of time generally represents a lower barrier-to-entry than the decision to get married for life. Having moved in together,the risk of pregnancy is similar for all couples,whether married or not (Ermisch, 2001). The increasing social norm to cohabit first and marry later also increases the likelihood of unmarried childbirth (Ermisch, 2006).
For married couples, the time involved in bringing up a child fits with the intention to spend a life together. For unmarried couples,the prospect of bringing up a child may set a time horizon beyond the expectation or intention of the relationship. Coming to terms with these long-term consequences may be too much for some couples to resolve.
A compelling new theory also suggests that men and women tend to see commitment in different ways. Whereas women view commitment in terms of attachment – moving in together – men view commitment in terms of a decision – getting married (Stanley & al, 2005). This gender difference in relationship intentions has the potential for considerable misunderstanding.
Commitment is one significant factor that influences self-selection behaviour in relation to marriage. Couples who marry do so in the belief that what they are making is a lifetime commitment and that they are ready for and capable of carrying out that commitment. That, particular when combined with religious/cultural factors that stigmatise separation and divorce, provides a powerful incentive to stick with the marriage and work through any difficulties, if that is possible, and incentive that may easily not operate to anything like the same extent for a cohabiting couple.
That does not, however, prove that marriage, itself, creates commitment. Rather its a reflection of how couples may perceive the kind of commitment required to enter marriage in the first place, i.e. their expectations of what it takes to make a marriage work, which predate the marriage itself.
In reality most, if not all of the seeming statistical advantages of marriage over cohabitation, in terms of longevity of relationship and likelihood of a couple staying together, can be accounted for by self selection effects and social/behavioural changes over the last forty years.
For example, one of the major trends in marriage over this period has been the demise of the shotgun wedding. In the late 60s right through to 1970-71, 7o% of first live births to married women under the age of 20 took place inside the first seven months after marriage, i.e. the child was conceived before the marriage took place and, in all the likelihood, the couple married so as not to have the child out of wedlock. Today less than 1 in 20 live births to married women in this age group take place within the seven month period after marriage, and the same downward trend is to be found in married women all age groups, all be it starting from a lower base percentage in the late 60s.
Couples have not simply taken to cohabitation as a social norm, they’ve also stopped getting married just because the female partner has fallen pregnant, i.e. in circumstances in which the decision to get married is predicated not on a free choice and an assessment of the couple’s willingness to commit to each other, but because of a need to comply with prevailing social conventions and mores.
This, like the data on gay parenting, is not acknowledged in the Tory’s report.
Without hacking through all the evidence in detail, what the long-term trend data for marriage and divorce shows clear is that through a combination of changing self-selection factors the net effect of changing social attitudes towards marriage, cohabitation and child-rearing has been to remove from the marriage/divorce statistics most of the weakest and least stable relationship, those which, even if the couple did get married, would be the least likely to succeed and the most likely to end in divorce. Marriage looks a better option on paper because of the effects of a form of Social Darwinism under which social and behavioural changes over the last forty years have stripped out the weakest and less successful relationships, these transferring instead to the cohabitation group.
‘Recognising’ marriage in the tax system through an additional tax allowance, effectively a financial incentive to marry, may well induce more couples to marry in the short term but over the medium to long term it is likely to prove counter-productive in the sense that any increase in the number getting married will be offset by a rise in the divorce rate. This is exactly what happened in Austria during the 1970s and early 80s, when the Austrian government responded to concerns about the country’s declining marriage rate by introducing a a modest cash incentive payable to couples entering their first marriage to assist with setting up home together.
This did have the effect of increasing, in the short term, the number of marriages – although only sufficiently to slow the overall decline in the marriage rate and not cause the trend to turn upwards, both on the introduction of the incentive and in the final few months (in 1982) between the announcement that it would be withdrawn and its actual withdrawal, as people married to take advantage on the financial incentive on offer. In between these two ‘spikes’, the net effect of the incentive settled on the lowest age group (16-20), where the incentive was perceived to give rise to the greatest benefit by those taking up the government’s offer.
This would be all well and good were it not for the fact that the effect of propelling couples into marriage in order to obtain the incentive offered by the government led, predictably, to a significant rise in the divorce rate, especially amongst those marrying while under the age of 20 during the period in which the incentive was in effect.
The moral of this story and that of the demise of the shotgun wedding – one that seems to escape IDS and those involved in the production of the report – is that marriage is only actually a good thing if people marry for the right reasons to begin with.
Oh, and it is also worth mentioning as well that just under half of the married couples (49%) who stand to benefit financially if this tax allowance in introduced, do not have dependent children either because they haven’t yet started a family or, in many cases, because their children are already adults and have long since flown the familial nest.
So, with the cost of this allowance estimated at around £3 billion a year – that’s the equivalent of a penny on the basic rate of income tax – just under half will land in the pockets of couples who don’t have any child-rearing responsibilities whatsoever.
Way to go, Dave. That’s really supporting families isn’t it?
If you’re going to play around with financial incentives as a means of trying to encourage or support family stability, then chucking a few quid here and there at married couples and at families on low incomes is not going to do it – although it may keep a few more divorce lawyers in pension contributions in the long run.