Politics: Marriage vows are only real family values, says Hague

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Conservative principles place a higher value on marriage than on cohabitation, William Hague said in the first of a series of set-piece policy speeches last night.

In a statement which had clear echoes of the Tory leader's recent attacks on the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, for taking his partner on official trips, he said couples who lived together should not be given the same legal rights as those who had married.

Mr Hague said people who chose not to get married often did so because they wanted to avoid the obligations that its legal status brought. They should not, therefore, be given the privileges afforded to the married.

The Conservative leader suggested that the government in which he served had been wrong to phase out the married couples' tax allowance. Although he did not believe that well-off couples with no children should necessarily receive tax breaks, families with children on low budgets deserved them more.

The speeches, the first of which was in London, are designed to "map out" Conservative policy. Mr Hague began setting out his strategy a few hours earlier, though, at a conference for sixth-formers in Westminster.

He told the gathering of around 2,000 16-18 year-olds that he wanted to double Conservative membership, thought to be about 400,000, in the next two years. He wanted half the new members to be younger than his 36 years, he added.

"The Conservative Party is going to communicate its real beliefs while thinking afresh and while listening to people in this country over the coming months and years," he said.

"The country needs the Conservative Party to do that, and the Conservative Party owes it to the country to get its act together."

Mr Hague, whose appearance and departure were both greeted by cheers, joked that his relationship with Tony Blair had been somewhat tricky since the Prime Minister received a hoax call from someone claiming to be him last week.

"He phoned me last night. You can imagine what it's now like on the telephone when the Prime Minister and I have a conversation. We go: 'Is that really you? Are you sure this isn't a hoax?"

The Tory leader added that his conversations with Mr Blair were usually cordial, though.

"I probably get on better with the Prime Minister than John Prescott does actually," he said.