Divorce rate falls but UK still tops European league

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The Independent Online

Britain has the highest divorce rate in the European Union and one of the highest rates of babies born outside marriage, a survey revealed yesterday.

The UK, with Finland, came joint first in a divorce league table, with 2.8 divorces per 1,000 people per year. This compared with an average of 1.8 divorces per 1,000 people across the EU and a rate of just 0.6 in Luxembourg.

But while other European nations saw an increase in the number of divorces during the 1990s, Britain experienced a decline. The number of British couples divorcing fell from 165,000 in 1993 to 144,600 in 1999, but the slight drop in the divorce rate coincided with a fall in the number of couple getting married.

The figures compiled by the EU's statistical office, Eurostat, also showed that more British babies are born to unmarried couples than in most of the rest of Europe.

In Britain, 39 per cent of births are outside marriage compared with an EU average of 26 per cent. Just 4 per cent of babies in Greece are born outside marriage, with Sweden at the other end of the scale on 55 per cent. Little more than a decade ago, just 27 per cent of babies in Britain were born outside wedlock, but this figure grew steadily throughout the 1990s with the increase in couples who cohabit.

Mary MacLeod, chief executive of the National Family Parenting Institute, said: "The divorce rate in the UK has actually been falling since 1996 but so has the number of marriages. The general trend across the European Union is for fewer marriages and more divorces. People are also getting married and having their first child later. However, marriage is still extremely popular in the EU: more than 90 per cent of couples are married."

The Eurostat report also reveals that Britain spends less than most other EU nations on health, with only Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Greece spending less per head of population. Expressed in terms of a "purchasing power" index, the EU average for health expenditure is 1,768. Greece, at 1,167, has the lowest expenditure, with Germany spending most at 2,424. Britain's rating is 1,461. In America, the rating is 2,794.

The survey shows that 40 per cent of British people have mobile phones, a huge increase on the 1995 figure of just under 10 per cent. Finland has the EU's highest rate of mobile phone ownership at 67 per cent.