|Previous Section||Home Page|
The institute has shown that middle-income bands face the largest proportion of cuts in after-tax income and that working couples, most of whom are middle-income households, are the biggest losers. Couples with two children and earning between £215 and £390 a week will lose, on average, 4.15 to 4.2 per cent. of their after-tax income--between £9 and £16 a week. The highest earning tenth of the population will lose more than 3 per cent. of their after-tax income, which is less than the average. The poorest tenth will lose 2.3 per cent. of their income.
Even the Government's figures show that a family with one earner and two children and a projected £20,000-plus a year will pay more than an extra £22 a week in income tax in 1995 and more than £12 extra from this April.
The House of Commons Library figures show that a family with two children and one breadwinner, on average earnings of nearly £20,000, with a mortgage of more than £30,000 and interest rates of 8 per cent., will lose £1.85 on the married couple's allowance ; £2.24 in mortgage income tax relief ; 34p as a result of the freezing of personal allowances ; £3.17 as a result of the rise in national insurance to 10 per cent. ; 38p as a result of the wider 20p band ; and £1.13 once VAT is added to their fuel bills. In addition, their extra insurance tax will amount to 35p.
Lady Olga Maitland : Does the hon. Lady agree that the most important factor for any family, whether middle income or not, is to have a stable economy, low interest rates and low inflation ? We now have a reduced mortgage rate and the lowest interest rates in the whole of Europe, so what is she complaining about ?
The Conservatives have made the tax system much more unfair to middle- income and poor families. The number of taxpayers paying the top rate of tax has increased by 28 per cent. between 1992-93 and 1994-95. That means that 500,000 taxpayers will have been dragged into the higher rate of tax, despite falling incomes during the recession brought about by this Government. A rate of 40 per cent. tax is paid on earnings above £27,000, which is only 1.5 times the average earnings.
Even worse, people earning £23,400 a year face a lower income tax combined with national insurance rate than people earning £7,000. That is extremely unfair, but it is not new to us. We have seen that it is part of the long-term Conservative programme. It is like Robin Hood in reverse-- the Government rob the poor and give to the rich. The Institute of Fiscal Studies has found that all the tax changes between 1985 and 1995 will make the tax system much less progressive. [Interruption.] I regret that Conservative Members find it so amusing that all our constituents are suffering because of their tax proposals.
The poorest 10 per cent. will have lost on average £3 a week and the richest will have lost £30 a week. But the unemployed with children will have suffered most. We have already heard about the fall in mortgage interest rates, but Conservative Members do not tell us that those rates were far too high in the first place. They were so high because they were pushed up by an economy that had been caused to overheat by one of their Chancellors.
Mr. Willetts : I invite the hon. Lady to contribute to the spirit of this debate by saying something about families. Or is it the Liberal Democrats' view that all that can be said about families can be said by a tax accountant ?
Mrs. Maddock : The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well, because, like me, he has a family, that the most important thing is trying to keep that family. The Conservatives' tax changes are important to families because the stresses and strains caused by money are a great cause of family break-up. We have heard some good speeches by other hon. Members this afternoon about the strains and stresses on families. It is important that people feel financially secure. I doubt whether the family of any hon. Member in the Chamber has not had money problems that have caused stress. Even if it did not involve their own personal finances, it may have involved those of their children or parents. We have heard much about carers today. I make no apologies for discussing the Government's tax changes, which are hitting families in my constituency.
In drawing up our proposals on taxation, the Liberal Democrats' primary object was that everyone should contribute according to his or her ability to pay and that no one should be asked to pay more than he or she can afford. We want a system with two higher rate bands rather than smaller jumps, and a first higher rate that starts at an income level significantly above the present 40 per cent. rate. Most important, the top rate should be charged only on very high incomes.
Column 475Mortgage interest tax relief is neither fair nor progressive and should be phased out. It distorts the market and favours buying rather than renting. We welcome the fact that the Government will phase out mortgage income tax relief, but when I asked the Minister in the Finance Bill Standing Committee what the Conservative proposals were and whether the Government had a long-term policy of phasing it out, he would not come clean. My party has been perfectly honest about our policy on that matter.
Liberal Democrats propose also that housing benefit should cover mortgage interest as well as rents. That would help people in providing housing, another matter that has been discussed today, which is particularly important to families. If a family does not have a decent home, tremendous strains and stresses are placed on it.
Miss Widdecombe : The hon. Lady referred to a very interesting proposal to extend housing benefit to cover mortgage as well as rent. Can the hon. Lady tell us exactly how much it will cost and exactly how the Liberal Democrats propose to raise the money to pay for it ?
Mrs. Maddock : The proposal--which we call housing cost relief--has been around for a number of years. I cannot tell the hon. Lady at the moment exactly how much it would cost. I doubt very much whether she could stand up and tell me what housing costs at the moment. The important point is that if mortgage income tax relief were phased out, there would be extra money which, under our proposal, would be distributed more fairly so that people received help according to their housing need. That is the whole basis of the proposal. We also want to see the married couple's allowance phased out. Again, the Government have not come clean about what will happen about that allowance in the future or even what families can expect to happen next year.
Crime and the fear of crime have increased markedly under this Government. Despite more than 60 pieces of criminal justice legislation, reported crime has doubled since 1979. If we look at the impact on middle-income families, we see alarming statistics. Burglary is more likely to be suffered by a middle-income C1 group than any other group and, according to a 1993 survey, 35 per cent. of the group had been victims of burglary. That compared to a rate of 33 per cent. for the whole sample. Home Office figures show that burglary and car crime has been the largest contributor to the increase in crime in the past 20 years. The average cost of goods stolen in each burglary is about £1,210. It is the middle-income families who are suffering from the dramatic rise in burglaries. There has been not only a rise in the number of burglaries and other crimes, but an accompanying rise in the fear of crime. Despite all the rhetoric that we have heard from the Conservatives, the fear of crime has increased dramatically. The results of a MORI poll asking families how they feel about this issue are very revealing. More than three quarters of the people surveyed fear having their home--where families live--burgled. That compares with three fifths of people in 1987.
More than half the people surveyed fear having their home--where families live--or their possessions vandalised. Half the people surveyed fear being mugged, compared with only one third in 1987. Some 80 per cent.
Column 476of people surveyed fear some form of theft. I am inundated with letters from elderly people, in particular-- [Interruption.]
Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Have you noticed that the more worried Conservative Members are about losing their seats, the ruder they are to new Members who are trying to make a contribution to the debate ?
Mr. Deputy Speaker : I have been listening attentively to the debate and there have been sedentary interventions from both sides of the Chamber. -- [Interruption.] Order. The hon. Gentleman is now interrupting the Chair. I should be most grateful if he would listen
Lady Olga Maitland rose -- [Interruption.]
Mrs. Maddock : I am fairly used to the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) interrupting. I think that she faces a big threat from the Liberal Democrats on her doorstep and she tends to get rather hysterical when I appear on the television or when I am in the Chamber. She points and waves at me regularly.
I return to the issue of broken promises in the area of crime. The Conservatives promised in their manifesto to give the police the support and resources that they needed. That is what families in my constituency wanted, but it is not what they got. Chief constables requested extra officers in 1993 and 1994, but the Government gave them none. The Government have refused to allocate any more funding to policing. But families in my constituency want to see more police on their streets.
As if the crime statistics are not enough, families are now being taxed on that crime through the insurance premium tax. At the same time as the Government are changing the tax regime, they are imposing an extra tax on crime on families in my constituency. Some 16 million households--85 per cent. of all households--will pay that tax. The Chancellor believes that it will cost a typical family about 35p per week, but his calculation is not based on a total annual premium. Many families might pay £600 for motor, home contents and building insurance--all the things which help to make families feel secure in their homes--and one insurance company has claimed that an annual figure of £1,000 for motor, home contents and building insurance is much more realistic.
Some estimates of the annual cost for the average family run as high as £50 per week--that is equivalent to 1p in the pound in income tax. The typical house and car insurance bill for a family living in a three-bedroom semi and driving a 1666 cc car obviously varies from region to region, but we can expect it to be between £800 and £1,000.
These are taxes on essential household items which most families have very little choice about whether they should buy. Families have very little control over the premium level. If one is unfortunate enough to live in an inner-city area, one may not even be able to get any insurance on which to be taxed.
The Association of British Insurers has predicted that the costs of insurance will need to be passed on to policyholders. One insurance specialist has warned that the
Column 477tax will inevitably lead to a considerable increase in the number of under-insured or uninsured. That is of considerable concern to many families in my constituency.
Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) : I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way, especially as I was not in the Chamber when she began her speech. I apologise for that. I should like to ask the hon. Lady a question about her party's policy arising out of what she said about crime and street crime. Could she confirm whether her party has under active consideration the legalisation of prostitution, with state brothels, and an equalised age of consent for boys and girls ? These issues concern many families and are relevant to what the hon. Lady said about street crime.
Mrs. Maddock : I can confirm that at our annual spring conference in Cardiff we debated what is a very important issue for us all. We in no way said that we wanted state brothels. We looked at the issue and put forward proposals to try to regulate prostitution in a way that is helpful for families.
Mrs. Maddock : If one is unfortunate enough to live in an area where one's children are accosted in the street--as used to happen in my city of Southampton--one knows that something has to be done in those areas to try to stop it. It is not pleasant to live among prostitution and we have tried to face the issues and put forward a series of proposals. If the hon. Gentleman is interested, I can ensure that he receives a copy of our proposals.
I can categorically assure the hon. Member that we are not about funding state brothels. We are merely trying to tackle a problem which, as he says quite correctly, is of great interest--although some of his hon. Friends do not seem to think so--to people who live in inner-city areas and whose children are accosted on the streets. We have heard a lot of rhetoric about education from the Conservative party. We have seen lots of legislation and a stream of Education Ministers. But we believe that the Conservatives have failed Britain's families by failing to make the essential investment in education that is needed to ensure a good future for our children.
There are places in nursery education for just 35 to 40 per cent. of children between the ages of three and five years. Five years is the compulsory school age and that is why my figures may not be exactly the same as others which were quoted earlier. This compares not at all favourably with a rate of 95 per cent. in Belgium and France and 85 per cent. in Italy and Denmark. Britain is ahead of just one European Union country in the provision of nursery education--Portugal.
I was pleased today to hear support for nursery education from Conservative Members. It is important that our children get a good start. We have seen studies that have proved that giving children a good start saves much time later when they grow up and become young people.
I can remember clearly that, when I was a councillor in Southampton, I was told that I was left wing and subversive because I was promoting nursery education. It was not just me ; other councillors were also involved. I do not know whether the suggestions are still on the shelves of Tory Central Office, but that is where they came from. I am extremely heartened that all hon. Members can now
Column 478agree that nursery education is important and we should invest in it because it will be of great benefit to our families, not just now, but in later years.
I know that the Prime Minister continues to say that nursery education will be a priority for the Government, but the Secretary of State for Education continues to deny that the resources will be available. I hope that today the Secretary of State for Health, who has given us her commitment in her new role of co-ordinating family policies for the Conservative party, will be able to convince the Secretary of State for Education of the need to fund nursery education.
Parents and families in my community are also concerned at the dreadful state of repair of some of our schools. There is a tremendous backlog-- £7.6 billion needs to be spent to make the buildings safe and fit for our schoolchildren. My constituents are also worried that there are not enough teachers in the schools. There are 11 per cent. fewer teaching staff now than in 1980, but 82 per cent. more students.
With members of my county council and another local Member of Parliament, I recently went to see the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire). We were concerned that there was not enough funding for education in Dorset. We were also worried about how to fund the teachers' pay rise. We were sent away with the message that schools would have to have larger classes.
The parents of children in my constituency do not want them to be in larger classes. We know--I know as a teacher--that large classes do not provide the best start. An important factor in helping children to get the best start is to teach them to read. It is impossible to give a class of 40 five -year-olds that sort of good start. I hope that the Secretary of State for Health will do her best to obtain a financial commitment for her support for nursery education.
I have children who are almost grown up--one will be leaving home and going to college. Another great worry for parents is how to support their children through further education. That worry causes tremendous strain. The Government have cut grants by 10 per cent. and raised loans by 44 per cent., which is another broken promise. During debates on the student loans legislation, Baroness Blatch promised that that would not happen.
Lady Olga Maitland : I thank the hon. Lady for giving way now, as we would otherwise be rushing on to other matters. I wish to return to the subject of nursery education. Has she calculated how much the nursery education that she envisages will cost the country in terms of income tax ? Why has she made no reference to the importance of raising standards in schools, which is what parents want ?
Mrs. Maddock : We have been perfectly clear--we made it clear in the last general election and have done so ever since--that we realise that one has to pay to obtain the standards that Liberal Democrats believe should exist in education. I have been in public meetings and have spoken to people in my constituency about that subject, and people agree with the Liberal Democrats. When we asked them how we should pay for those standards and said that it would mean paying more in income tax, people said that they would be prepared to do that. We have calculated that our proposals will cost 1p of income tax. That has always been our commitment and remains our commitment. There have been a variety of speeches today about family policy. My speech is not a comfortable one for the Government, but it involves the issues that my constituents come to talk to me about. The families that I see in my surgeries and those I talk to on the streets raise those issues. Once again, we have heard much rhetoric from the Government. We have had a serious debate, as well as Back-Bench games. People outside the House are not fooled. The electorate live in the real world and understand only too well what is happening to their families and the finances that affect their families.
I started by talking about families in my constituency--families who want to work hard, pay their taxes and live by the rules. Those families want their children to have a good start in good-quality educational establishments and they want to be able to live in safe communities. I hope that today's debate will result in a little less rhetoric from the Government, and a little more action and fewer attacks on the economic base of our families.
Mr. David Willetts (Havant) : It is a great privilege for me to be the first Conservative Member to speak who is not a member of the Bottomley family. So far, they seem to have taken on the massed ranks of the Opposition single-handed, and to have managed very well. One of the surprises of the debate has been that, although the motion was tabled by the Labour party, when hon. Members had the opportunity to speak, only one Labour Member seemed keen to contribute, compared to seven Conservative Members. No doubt the Labour Whips have been around the Tea Rooms trying to haul in a few extra contributors. It seems an odd way for the Labour party to approach a debate for which it called.
The starting point for the debate has to be something on which all Members of the House can agree : the importance of the family as an institution. That importance goes beyond the financial and economic matters covered by the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mrs. Maddock), important though they might be.
I do not know how many hon. Members have seen the moving film "Schindler's List". One of the most interesting findings of the research done on those Germans who tried to help and rescue Jews in Nazi Germany was that many of them shared an important
characteristic--many came from particularly close and stable family backgrounds. There seemed to be a connection between the moral strength on which they drew in those times, and a stable and clear family upbringing. In the debate, we must try to stray beyond financial and economic matters.
Although, as always, the hon. Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Wicks) made a most interesting and thought-provoking speech, it is a pity that, despite his
Column 480manifest learning and expertise on the subject, he tiptoed around the fact that there is a clear moral and cultural consensus in this country. It is a consensus that upholds certain basic propositions : for example, that it is better for children to be brought up by both parents if at all possible--we know that it is difficult to live up to that principle in practice.
We all know the pressures that families are under, and it is certainly not for us glibly to criticise people who find that proposition difficult to sustain in practice. We know the pressures that membership of the House of Commons places on family life due to the bizarre hours that hon. Members work. However, if we do not feel that we can even speak of such things nowadays, we do a disservice to the cause of the family, which hon. Members from both sides of the House claim to support.
There was another disappointment in the contribution of the Labour Front- Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor). It is clear that, in her opinion, all family problems are caused by the Government, and all solutions involve the expenditure of more public money. That is a particularly odd position for the Labour party to adopt at the moment, given that it is trying to present itself as the party that does not believe in high taxes.
Some rather expensive spending commitments were made during the hon. Lady's speech. We heard a commitment to nursery education and a commitment to child benefit that seemed to me to be inconsistent with the Labour party's attempt to give the impression that it would be tough on spending, and therefore able to hold taxes down. But, in addition, what we heard today failed to recognise the complexity of the changes that are taking place in family life. The hon. Lady referred, for example, to homelessness, particularly among 16 to 18-year-olds. This is undoubtedly a problem. It is easy to talk about changes in the benefit rules, but rather more tricky when one reflects on the family circumstances of many of the young people who, tragically, are homeless.
What is the crucial connection between many of these personal tragedies ? It is that the people come from broken homes. Often, after marital breakdown, the mother takes on the responsibility of looking after the children. In many cases of relationships arising from mothers' taking new boy friends, the young people are not able to get on with the new man in the household. That theme lies behind much youth homelessness nowadays. It does not do any good to approach such social problems simply as matters to be explained with reference to the technicalities of the social security system.
Mr. Frank Field : If the hon. Gentleman were to talk to homeless people in the Strand, they would confirm what he has just said. However, if he were to continue the conversation, he would learn that most of those who sleep rough come from households where people have no work, no prospect of training and no benefit. The new man in the house has an incentive to expel and to be nasty to the old family.
Mr. Willetts : The hon. Gentleman does not do justice to his normally rich understanding of social problems. This is not simply a financial matter. We are talking about something that the hon. Member for Croydon, North-West raised, but did not pursue as I hoped he would-- reconstituted families. I am perfectly happy to accept that
Column 481we Conservatives, in our preoccupation with some questions concerning single parents, have in many ways ignored the even more difficult questions that arise from reconstituted families.
Mr. Field : I was not denying the hon. Gentleman's point. Indeed, I was adding to it. If he thinks that there has been such misrepresentation of the facts, let him join me in doing a survey in the Strand. That would show who is right.
Mr. Willetts : I have often pursued these matters with the hon. Gentleman, and I am always happy to do so. I greatly enjoyed serving under his chairmanship on the Select Committee on Social Security. However, the experience on which I am drawing is based not only on conversations with people in London but also on my contacts with people in the constituency of Havant.
I wish to refer to a social problem which is discussed glibly but which, with deeper digging, reveals the complexity of the forces at work. I refer to child abuse. It appears that there is more child abuse now than there was in the past. Some left-wing pundits leap at this as a very convenient opportunity to claim that the traditional family is an oppressive institution from which people need to be rescued.
The evidence suggests that by far the greatest likelihood of child abuse is to be found in the home where there is a non-natural parent--the new man in the relationship. Because there are many more children living in reconstituted families, we appear to be experiencing an increase in child abuse.
But what do we find ? We are presented with a left-wing agenda claiming that this is an example of how the family is an inherently dangerous institution. Pressure is put on social workers to go round investigating apparent cases of child abuse, often hysterically exaggerated. In fact, the most serious attacks on the family in the 1980s have occurred in places such as Middlesbrough and Orkney. These were launched by social workers who had fallen prey to this particularly pernicious doctrine.
Mr. Duncan : Will my hon. Friend admit that a constructive comment at the Easter conference of the National Union of Teachers was that many teachers, even in that union, feel that they were wrongly accused of child abuse ? To a certain extent, perhaps, this can be interpreted as the sad reaping of the preaching of political correctness.
Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill) : Would the hon. Gentleman, before pursuing this nonsense any further, care to say which Opposition spokesman has ever said that the family is a dangerous institution which is inimical to the interests of children ?
Mr. Willetts : I shall be very happy to cite people writing from a left-wing perspective on family policy. Such people have seized on cases such as that of Jasmine Beckford and presented them as examples of the failure of the family, without digging into the real circumstances. [Interruption.] In response to the hon. Lady's invitation, I shall try to find some quotations to support my point.
Column 482Beatrix Campbell is a well-known left-wing commentator on the family. I quote from her book "Unofficial Secrets : Child Sex Abuse" :
"The ghost of dead children--Jasmine Beckford, Tyra Henry and Kimberley Carlile . . .--smiled out from the newspapers . . . it all seems to vindicate Thatcherism's scorn for the busy-body welfare state. But not quite : these children died within the family, the institution sanctified by Thatcherism."
Mrs. Fyfe : I am sorry to interrupt again, but I have to make the point that the hon. Gentleman must realise that the Labour party is not responsible for the entire spectrum of left-wing opinion in this country. I asked him specifically to quote a view expressed by an official Labour spokesperson. He has clearly failed to do so. Let him stop trying to smear the Labour party.
However, I want to move on to another topic, and one that is equally misunderstood--child care. We are all aware of the obvious attractions of appealing for more provision for child care. We all know of the pressures on families where both parents work. It is necessary to arrange child care, and that is often expensive. But before the Labour party rushes headlong to advocate more state expenditure in this area, it should bear two factors in mind. If provision were to benefit mostly two-earner families, its impact on income distribution would not be to help poor people. We can be confident that, by and large, families headed by a two-earner couple are unlikely to be at the bottom end of the income scale. The risk behind the pressures that are building up for public expenditure in this area is the invention of another spending programme that grows and grows and grows--a programme financed by taxes often borne by people with modest incomes but, in general, benefiting affluent two-earner families.
There is a second risk, which was illustrated in the fascinating speech of the hon. Member for Croydon, North-West--the fact that much child care in this country is informal. Many people like to argue that it is informal only for want of something better--faute de mieux--that everyone would like to buy institutional child care but, sadly, have to settle for in-laws or grandparents.
The situation is not quite like that. Many people have a preference for that arrangement. Many grandparents enjoy contributing to the family, and in many neighbourhoods a host of voluntary arrangements are made, such as, "You look after our children today, and we'll look after yours tomorrow."
The trouble with state child care provision and finance is that it distorts provision patterns and starts favouring formal, institutionalised paid arrangements as against the informal and non-institutional. People may be tempted into the most absurd manipulations of the system, such as invoicing their grandparents to claim a child care voucher.
Alternatively, those who have already made arrangements that admittedly may be haphazard, imperfect and painfully negotiated may feel, on discovering that a big public expenditure programme has been introduced, that they are somehow fools for having made arrangements that do not fit within the new parameters of provision. We should consider those risks before espousing the popular cause of state child care provision. I hope that Labour Members will reflect before making another expensive public expenditure commitment.
Column 483The hon. Member for Christchurch (Mrs. Maddock) was right to say that families struggle with child care costs, but the danger of focusing on the demand side of the equation--finance--is that the supply side is ignored. How can we encourage more provision ? There is a sad history of heavy-handed and excessive regulation, which makes it difficult for people who want to establish child care facilities. It would be interesting to know what approach Labour councils in London or elsewhere take to planning applications from people who want to set up a private nursery or day care centre. They need not be just for the well-off.
Arrangements can be made whereby some places are reserved for the children of parents with modest incomes, which could be paid for by the council or in other ways. It is difficult to obtain planning consent from many councils because of change of use, and an attitude to private provision that leads councils to being hostile when they should be encouraging.
As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, the Children Act 1989 encouraged some local authorities to be over-zealous in regulating child care providers.
Lady Olga Maitland : Is my hon. Friend aware of a case in my constituency in which the Liberal-controlled council insisted that a child carer sign an agreement not to discipline or smack a child in her care ? When she refused, she was banned--but took the council to the High Court and won.
The rhetoric of offering high-quality care for everyone is something that politicians of all parties find tempting, but introducing over-ambitious regulatory standards means that, in practice, some child care providers go out of business. Instead of provision that may not be perfect, more young children are left on their own without any child care.
We should examine whether reasonable if not perfect child care providers, nursery groups and playgroups are finding it more difficult to provide services because of the burden of the Children Act 1989. That significant problem ought to be addressed as part of the Government's deregulation initiative.
Another difficult problem is the connection between single parenthood, unemployment levels in some inner-city areas and crime levels. Some connections are too obvious to mention, and one that has not been made in this debate is that relating to young men aged 15 to 25, who often find it difficult to find jobs. If one's partner does not have a job, he will bring less to the marriage or relationship. Such young men often become involved in petty crime--and who wants to marry or enter into a stable relationship with someone who is involved in petty or more serious crime ?
The task of taking a 15-year-old male from a family environment and shifting him, so that, at the age of 25, he is in a new stable family and in employment, is one that this country seems to have found more difficult since the
Column 484war. The transition from the parental home to a home that one has created oneself has become more difficult to negotiate.
The reasons are more complicated than simply unemployment levels, and the problem grew during the boom years of the 1980s. Hon. Members who now tell us that there is a link between unemployment, recession and crime were telling us a few years ago that the brash, vulgar materialism of the 1980s was the explanation for rising crime. We are told in the good years that a boom produces crime, and in the bad years that a recession does so.
The challenge is to make it more possible for young men to manage the transition from their own family home to creating a new family home. We can help them only if we are prepared to lay down simple, credible and coherent rules of the road. We do not need to sermonise or to lose contact with the pressures that those young men are under--but we ought to tell them that they should not drop out of school, because their chances of holding down a job successfully later will be much worse ; warn that they should not become involved in petty crime ; and draw their attention to the fact that the family is a civilising influence.
The single most important reason given by young men for giving up crime is that they are in a stable relationship with a woman who does not want them to carry on committing crimes. Putting aside all other factors--such as employment, unemployment, income and social background--young men who are married are less likely to engage in crime than young men who are not. Marriage is a civilising influence. The debate is not solely captured by the financial and economic arguments that preoccupy Labour.
Many people choose nowadays not to marry, or to marry only at the point when they are bringing children into the world. We all understand some of the reasons for that social change. One particularly worrying aspect of what sociologists call consensual unions--partnerships in which there is no formal marriage contract--is that many of the men and women in such relationships, but particularly women, exaggerate their rights.
Research shows that women believe that they have the same rights as married persons to future claims to their partner's income, and men assume that they have the same right of access to their children, when those rights accrue only in the legal institution of marriage. One of the dilemmas that we will face in future is how to handle that.
There are two ways to go about it. The first is to say that those people have taken a perfectly reasonable decision in not wishing to take part in the legal institution called marriage. Who are we to try to impose on them the legal obligations that come with it ? If we go down that route, the people who are in those consensual unions need to understand the limited legal framework that would surround them. The second way to go is, in effect, to extend marriage to people who have not gone through a ceremony and decided to enter into it as a legal institution. That is what Sweden has done. Sweden is misunderstood as an example of how marriage will change in future. The point about Sweden is not that everybody has opted out of marriage, but that the state decided that everybody who lives together is to be treated as married.
There is no way in which one can opt out of marriage in Sweden. If one settles down with someone and has lived with them for a certain period, all the legal rights and responsibilities, which we in this country associate with