Prenuptial deals backed in family Green Paper

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COUPLES COULD be urged to enter prenuptial agreements under the Government Green Paper on the family.

Ministers who drew up the consultation paper say prenuptial agreements should not be limited to pop and film stars in the United States. They could be entered into voluntarily by couples in this country, but the law could be changed to make them binding, removing the discretion of the judge in divorce cases to ignore them. The aim would be to make couples think more seriously about their responsibilities before they make their wedding vows.

"The agreements can serve a real purpose in bringing couples to face the reality of what can happen if things go wrong," said one ministerial source.

The Green Paper will also accept that unmarried people can provide a "loving, stable" home for bringing up children. The document, to be launched next week, emphasises the importance of rights and responsibilities of couples with children, but carefully avoids passing a moral judgement on unwed couples.

The Green Paper states: "The Government strongly supports the institution of marriage while recognising that many couples who chose not to marry provide a loving stable environment for their children."

Mr Blair was keen to avoid being dragged into a moral debate about "back to basics" which exposed the Tories under John Major to accusations of hypocrisy when they were hit by a series of sex scandals.

The Prime Minister told the Labour Party conference this month that "the family is central to our vision of a modern Britain built on the kinds of rights and responsibilities that we learn in the home".

The Green Paper makes it clear that it is the Government's job to keep couples together for the benefit of their children. Measures to help the family include expanding the role of health visitors to provide advice to parents, more community support for families, a new strategy to tackle domestic violence, and new powers for registrars to give pre-marriage preparation to couples.

Registrars could be asked to give couples advice before the marriage ceremony, matching the pastoral help provided by clergymen.

A member of the consultative committee which drew up the paper said on BBC radio that the Government's job is to set up the "learning infrastructure" for raising families.

The head of the marriage guidance charity Relate, Ed Straw, the brother of the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, who is taking a leading role in developing the policy, said ministers should not try to tell families how to raise their children. "It's terribly important that the Government does not get into telling people how to run their lives, prescribing how to do parenting or prescribing 'end state' families," he said. There was a role for persuading people that learning parenting skills mattered, but Mr Straw cautioned against trying to do so through legislation.

The Conservatives are ready to attack the Green Paper for failing to address the underlying cause of stress in many marriages - a lack of money. Their Social Security spokesman, Iain Duncan Smith, is developing a policy for equalising the tax treatment of married couples who have children with single people or couples with no children, who have gained considerable advantages from the tax system. Mr Duncan Smith said: "Marriage is the most stable environment in which dependants can be looked after. A whole raft of things have made it more difficult to get married - if you get married and one chooses to stay at home, the tax burden falls very disproportionately heavily on your shoulders."