A senior Labour minister in the UK has signalled a major U-turn by the Government on the issue of marriage.
In the run-up to this year's general election, Ed Balls, Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, has admitted that the party's long-standing ambivalence towards marriage was a mistake.
The party is set to publish a green paper next month outlining new measures to shore up “stable parental relationships”, in a tacit concession that children fare better if their parents stay together.
However, Labour remain opposed to tax advantages for married couples. Ministers say this would discriminate against the 4m children brought up by non-married parents. David Cameron, the Conservative leader, has pledged to recognise the importance of marriage through the tax system.
The Conservative Party, which has made marriage and the family the centre of its strategy to mend what it calls “Broken Britain”, have dismissed Labour’s belated acknowledgment of the importance of marriage.
David Willetts, the party’s family spokesman, said: “It is extraordinary that after more than a decade in which Labour has focused exclusively on children, the penny is finally dropping.
“All the evidence is that marriage is strongly linked to greater stability for the child.”
The Tories are preparing their own green paper on promoting family units, setting the scene for an election battle for the parental vote.
Since 1997 Labour has directed resources at children rather than their parents, fearing voters would see attempts to shore up the declining traditional family unit as discriminatory or judgmental.
Ed Balls, the schools secretary, now admits the strategy was a mistake.
“Because we knew it was complicated we ended up not talking about families and talking about children instead. One of the things that we lost a little bit is that actually, while supporting children is very important, adult relationships are very important too,” Balls said.
“In the past I think our family policy was all about children. I think our family policy now is actually about the strength of the adult relationships and that is important for the progress of the children,” he said.
Labour’s change in policy comes amid concern over the number of children brought up in broken homes. One in four now lives in a single-parent family, compared with one in 14 in the early 1970s. Almost half of children are born outside wedlock. Married couples became a minority in Britain this year for the first time since records began.
While Labour will stop short of saying marriage is “superior” to other committed relationships, the new policy will highlight how much better children fare if their parents stay together.
The green paper is expected to suggest more resources for marriage counselling services such as Relate and to propose a change in culture in public services away from “mother and baby” to “mother, father and baby”. Balls is particularly keen to find ways to prevent partnerships from collapsing during the weeks after a baby is born.
Meanwhile Mr Willetts has warned that marriage in the UK is in danger of becoming the exclusive preserve of the middle classes.
He said government policy should aim to tackle social breakdown by restoring marriage as a “more widespread institution”.
The Conservatives are due to publish their ideas on the family in a Green Paper, arguing that the state and voluntary sector can do more to help fathers – especially at the crucial point where the first child is born.
The party will back recognition of marriage in the tax system, as well as providing relationship advice at civil ceremonies.
It is also expected to propose legal changes making it easier for fathers and grandparents to stay in touch when marriages break up.
In an interview with the Guardian newspaper, Mr Willetts said changes in attitudes to marriage were “extremely dangerous”. “The aspiration of marriage is becoming harder to achieve,” he said.
“Instead of it becoming just what you do in your 20s, it has become like scaling Mount Everest, a sort of great moral endeavour – and something that requires a lot of time and money. We think we need to ease some of the pressures.
“I think there are things that have gone deeply wrong with our country. The rate of family break-up is a disaster for children.”