Britons remain true to family values

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The married mum and dad with 2.4 children are no longer the norm but the idea of the family remains at the heart of society, according to a report published today.

But all the signs are that the family ideal is under pressure. The number of divorces has almost trebled since 1970, the number of first-time marriages has halved since its peak in the same year and the number of lone parents has risen to 22 per cent of all families with children.

But Social Focus on Families, a report from the Office for National Statistics, shows this is by no means the whole picture.

Although a third of all births were outside marriage last year, four times the number in 1971, four-fifths were registered by both parents. Where families have split, only 3 per cent of absent fathers never see their children.

And 83 per cent of people expect to spend Christmas with their families who, in most cases, still live nearby. Nearly a third of parents live within 15 minutes' travelling time of an adult child. Only 13 per cent of people would rather spend time with their friends than family.

"Blood is still thicker than water," Peter Newman, one of the authors, concludes. "All in all, families continue to play a very central part in people's lives."

Attitudes to marriage have changed. Hardly anyone believes it is better to have a bad marriage than no marriage at all. Cohabitation before marriage is now the norm. And fewer people think a wife's job is to look after the home than did so 10 years ago.

But change has gone only so far. Although two-thirds believe it is acceptable for a couple to live together without marriage, 57 per cent still think people who want to have children should tie the knot.

Last year, married couples with children constituted 41 per cent of families, compared with 4 per cent of cases where children lived with cohabiting couples. Thirteen per cent of families consisted of lone parents with dependent children.

The most significant change to family finances is dependence on two incomes. The number of married families with children with both parents working has risen from 50 per cent in 1985 to 62 per cent a decade later.

Yet while more women are out to work, their traditional responsibilities still endure. Mothers spend three hours a day on housework and cooking, four times longer than fathers spend on the same tasks. The family situation varied between races. More than half of black families with children are headed by a lone parent compared with one in six in South Asian families.

Social Focus on Families is the fourth in a series which began with a report on children in 1994 followed by one on women, then ethnic minorities. It brings together statistics to give what the editor, Carol Summerfield, called an "in-depth look at different groups of people in society".

Social Focus on Families, available from Stationery Office bookshops and other booksellers, price pounds 30.

Leading article, page 11