The Times

Tuesday, February 2, 1999

New proposals support those committed to marriage and children.

Chris Barton reports

Can Labour save the family?

The Times

When the Government unveiled its plans for boosting the family last November it did not have in mind a promotion of blind date weddings. But what did it want? This week is the deadline for responding to those plans, outlined in the consultation paper, Supporting Families. The paper trumpeted the merits of marriage, but was careful to insist that it was not lecturing and noted that "we in government need to approach family policy with a strong sense of humility". Have they come up with other good points?

Marriage registrars and health visitors will have far bigger roles in advising and supporting couples; grandparents are to help more; and prenuptial contracts are mooted. But on its general theme, the paper is ambivalent: it suggests that marriage is the best unit for bringing up children but also says that lone parents and unmarried couples successfully rear children.

It confirms that unmarried fathers will gain parental responsibility by jointly registering a birth, and says that "many unmarried couples raise their children every bit as successfully as married parents".

On the other hand, because ministers "share the belief of the majority of people that it provides the most reliable framework for raising children", they have decided to strengthen the marital family. But rather than giving spouses preferred status in, say, fiscal matters, ministers seem to believe that the best way way forward is to jazz up weddings and to make divorce less trying. Before the knot is tied, it is hoped that the couple will undergo preparation to consider "how their finances will be organised, where they will live and whether they will have children". To give them time to do this, they will have to give at least 15 days' notice of their intention to wed (as opposed to the present minimum of one clear day). They will both have to attend the register office for this purpose, spelling the end to those television programmes in which one party is pressured into celebrating an unplanned wedding immediately.

Following the trend set by the Marriage Act 1994, the nuptial act itself is to be further deregulated, with registrars being "flexible about the format of the marriage ceremonies couples choose". Will we witness the emergence of a new profession, that of marriage director?

Compared with previous progenitors, such parents are also destined to spend more time with health visitors, whose role is about to shift from solving problems to preventing them. In future, they are to provide advice about "parenting skills", which may include corporal punishment, with the help of "innovative techniques such as video and cartoon formats".

Emboldened by the results of a survey which showed that 92 per cent of grandparents have regular contact with their grandchildren, and that 47 per cent help to look after them - and no doubt hoping to defray costs that might otherwise fall to the public purse - the Government is looking for ways to enhance the link.

Hidden away on page 26 is the most thrillingly liberating legal reform of our time: "Time off for urgent family reasons is to be introduced for all employees, regardless of length of service". This will cover looking after a child, or an elderly parent who has fallen ill, or any other domestic crisis.

Supporting Families does not, sadly, contain further details of length of notice (none, presumably), duration, pay or time off in lieu. But it is believed that employers with the right policies in this regard will be better placed to recruit and retain skilled staff.

On publication of the paper, it was the proposals for premarital contracts that most caught the public imagination. But the Government seems to have fallen for the Solicitors' Family Law Association arguments in favour of these. Such arrangements are to be binding, but only in the absence of one of the following: one or both parties not receiving independent legal advice, the couple having offspring or the enforcement of the agreement causing injustice.

Although we may sympathise with the needs of divorce lawyers (whose business is threatened by mediators) to become marriage lawyers, it will hardly help their reputation to become involved in contracts that contain the seeds of their own invalidity. Nor will such contracts help the Government to "support families", marital or otherwise.

The author is Professor Barton of Staffordshire University's Centre for the Study of the Family, Law & Social Policy. His colleagues, Mary Hibbs and Jo Beswick, also contributed to this article.

Copyright 1999, Times Newspapers Ltd.