My Lords, I congratulate the Noble Lord, the right reverend prelate the Bishop of Chester, for initiating this vital debate on the future of marriage in Britain. And I do so for a simple reason.
Our children are going to have it very much harder than we did. They’re going to find it harder to get a job, harder to buy a home, harder to find security in a world changing almost faster than we can bear. The economy will face ever-increasing global challenge. Government expenditure will not be what it was. The competition for almost everything from university places to jobs will become ever more intense. And it is almost impossible for us as a society to prepare them in advance for the challenges they’re going to face because, in Donald Rumsfeld’s phrase, the unknown unknowns are multiplying daily.
There is one thing we can do. We can try to ensure that as many of our children as possible grow up in strong, stable, supportive families. Because it’s in families that we learn the self confidence, the trust, the discipline and the resilience, that stay with us for the rest of our lives. It is in families that we learn emotional intelligence and the habits of the heart that make for happiness. It is in families that we learn to cooperate with and care for others so that we become responsible shapers of our individual and collective future.
Children lucky enough to be born into strong families are advantaged in almost every area for the rest of their lives: school attendance, educational achievement, getting and keeping a job. They’ll earn more. They’ll be healthier. They’ll be more likely to form strong families of their own. Children who do not have that good fortune will be disadvantaged for the rest of their lives.
Strong families, not always but mostly, need the institution of marriage, and only political correctness and the desire to be nonjudgmental lead us to deny that fact. It’s said that marriage is just a piece of paper. It isn’t. It’s a publicly demonstrated act of commitment. It’s said that cohabitation is just as good. It isn’t. The average cohabiting relationship lasts a mere 2 years, and even when it leads to marriage it increases the chance of eventual divorce. And it’s children who pay the price. Britain, which has among the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in the world, and one of the highest rates of childbirth outside marriage in the world, was found by UNICEF in 2007 to have the unhappiest children in the Western world.
My Lords, I come from a faith and a people that have survived for four thousand years often under difficult circumstances and still today contribute disproportionately to almost all facets of British life, because they made the family their highest joy, the home their citadel, marriage a sacred covenant and parenthood their highest responsibility.
If the Jewish experience has anything to say to Britain today it is: recognise marriage, not just cohabitation, as in the best interests of the child. Do so in the tax system. Do so in the educational system. Do so in relationship support. Otherwise our children will pay the price, financial, educational, medical and psychological, for generations to come. Without stable marriages, we will not have strong families and without strong families we will not have a big society.