Opposition parties also criticised excessive government intervention into private life and warned against stigmatising children who were not in "government-approved relationships". But children's charities and the church welcomed the emphasis on marriage and said it was a "significant step" towards better support for parents.
Gingerbread, the campaign group for lone parents, said it was impossible to promote marriage as the ideal without risking the stigmatisation of other families. "They shouldn't be focusing on marriage," said its chief executive, Liz Sewell. "For children in single-parent families, if you're consistently told that your family is second-best and you're more likely to end up a juvenile delinquent, it hurts and it scars people."
"The breakdown of so many heterosexual relationships is a cause for concern, but saying marriage is always best won't put everything back together again, " said Angela Mason, the executive director of the gay rights organisation Stonewall. "The question the Government should have looked at is how all of us, as parents and as a society, can do the best for our children. It doesn't help children to assume that some families are better than others," she added.
The Conservatives said Mr Straw's plans would lead to more state intrusion into family life. "Jack Straw plans to nationalise baptism, turn over- worked health visitors into secular vicars and introduce an unprecedented level of intrusion into family life," said Peter Lilley, the Conservative deputy leader.
The Liberal Democrats said that the Government should be careful not to discriminate against children because they are not in a "government- approved" relationship. "The evidence suggests that strong, stable family relationships provide the best start for children," said the home affairs spokesman, Alan Beith. "Where possible, government should support such relationships but they must be wary of straying too far into the territory of telling parents what is best."
The Child Poverty Action Group warned that the "scourge of child poverty" would not be ended "by current policies alone. Clear and ambitious targets are needed," said a spokesman.
However the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, described it as a "most welcome step. I particularly welcome the explicit recognition that marriage provides the surest foundation for raising children and the undertaking to strengthen the institution of marriage," he said.
The National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders said greater support for families could help cut crime. "Children are more likely to become delinquent or anti-social where there is family conflict, poor supervision and excessively harsh or inconsistent discipline," said its principal officer, Paul Cavadino. "The evidence shows that parental skills courses and support for parents under stress can help to improve parenting and to reduce family break-up."Reuse content