The Big Question: Why does the marriage rate continue to decline, and does the trend matter?

Why are we asking this now?

The Office for National Statistics released provisional figures yesterday suggesting that marriage rates were at their lowest level since records began. The number of marriages registered in England and Wales in 2007 was 231,450, a 3.3 per cent drop on the previous year, and only three quarters of the number recorded in 1991.

The biggest fall has been in church marriages. Only 77,490 marriages, or one out of three, involved a religious ceremony – half as many as in 1991. By contrast, the number of marriages conducted in premises such as hotels or stately homes went up slightly to 99,760, a 4.2 per cent increase from 2006.

Is it not just that people are taking their time to get married?

The average age at which people marry, if they marry at all, has crept upwards. Marrying is not generally something teenagers do any more. Mr and Mrs Average Newly-Wed in 2007 were aged 36 years and five months, and 33 years seven months respectively. This figure is pushed up, of course, by the increasing number of second marriages. The averages ages of people getting married for the first time were fractionally below 32 for men, and 30 for women.

In 1991, the average first marriage was between a 28-year-old man and a 26-year-old woman. But this is not enough to account for the extraordinary drop in weddings. Sixty out of every thousand men in England and Wales and 48 out of every 1,000 women got married in the year 1980. By 1991, those figures had dropped to 40 and 33. In 2007, the figures fell below 22 and 20 respectively.

Surely it was no different back in the Swinging Sixties?

Back in the days when the Beatles were singing "All You Need is Love", mothers still drilled it into their daughters' heads that actually they needed a marriage licence too, to avoid the financial hardship and social stigma of singe parenthood. True, things had improved since the 1950s, when the Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher, habitually referred to children born outside marriage as "bastards", as if they were to blame for their sinful parents.

In 1969, a man whose mother had been unwed became the elected head of a European government; that was the West German Chancellor, Willy Brandt. But unmarried women were encouraged, or even forced, to give their babies for adoption – Clare Short being a famous example – and it was considered shocking that a film star such as Vanessa Redgrave could be pregnant and not marry the father. At that time, 92 per cent of all babies were born to married couples, though a large number of these were "shotgun" weddings, in which the bride went up the aisle with a tell-tale bump beneath her wedding gown. The government was desperate to reduce the remaining eight per cent.

Why have attitudes changed?

Those who deplore the fall in the number of marriages blame the spread of permissive ideas that started in the 1960s. Certainly, the availability of contraception, and the growth of feminism lifted the burden of shame from women who chose to sleep with their boyfriends. The decline of religion, and the Church of England's more tolerant attitude to sex, also lifted the sense of sin from extra-marital sex. In 1981, the Royal family was still insisting that Prince Charles must marry a virgin, but that attitude was very out-of-date by then.

Most people felt under no great social pressure to marry their first sexual partner, which knocked away one reason for marrying at all. But it is not sex outside marriage that now worries social legislators. It is that 24 per cent of children are being raised by lone parents, predominantly lone mothers, which is a major cause of child poverty and means that young boys are growing up without male role models.

Is the recession a factor?

The statistics published yesterday cover the year 2007, so they are not affected by recession. However, many jewellers, photographers, shops selling bridal dresses etc., say that their business has fallen off since the recession began to bite. Young couples appear to be deferring the decision until times are more certain. One good reason is that a lavish marriage ceremony, of the kind portrayed in Four Weddings and a Funeral, is hugely expensive.

If you are thinking of inviting 300 guests to celebrate in a heated marquee with staff to serve the food, live music and a free bar, you could be looking at an outlay of around £70,000. Even if it is the bride's father paying, not every woman has a father that rich; and increasingly young couples are covering their own wedding costs.

Could politicians do anything to incentivise marriage?

Arguably, politicians could set an example to the rest of the nation, as Richard Nixon did by ensuring that every man who worked for him in the White House was married. It used to be difficult for an unmarried man or woman to become an MP, especially in the Conservative Party, and no politician could get away with openly living with someone to whom they were not married.

That changed in the 1990s. Alan Milburn, the future Cabinet minister, was the first MP to insist that his partner, who was the mother of his children (whom he has since married) should have the same rights as an MP's wife. Alastair Campbell and Fiona Millar were another well known unmarried political couple.

Has the Government ever legislated to encourage people to marry?

For a very long time, it was assumed to be part of the role of the state to encourage marriage, and discourage sex outside marriage. Children were taught in school that sex before marriage brought nothing but misery. The tax system made it financially worthwhile to marry. In the year 1986, for instance, the Treasury handed back £4.5 billion worth of tax allowances to married men, over and above what they would have received in allowances if they had been single.

When it was objected that the married man's tax allowance was sexist, the Conservatives replaced it with a married couple's tax allowance. But that was abolished by Gordon Brown in 2000, and replaced with a child tax allowance, on the grounds that the government's job is to prevent children growing up in poverty, not to judge the conduct of the parents.

For similar reasons, sex education in school now emphasises ways to avoid unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases rather than insisting on abstinence.

Should the Government intervene?

There has always been a school of thought which says that the government should be more interventionist. Often it is the same politicians who are most opposed to state intervention in the economy who are keenest on intervention in the bedroom.

Gordon Brown's abolition of the married couple's tax allowance was roundly condemned by the Tories who say there is now an "anti-marriage bias" in the tax and benefits system. A commission headed by Iain Duncan Smith was asked by David Cameron to explain this as part of their investigation into social breakdown, and has recommended a transferable allowance that could be worth £20 for a married couple where only one spouse is in paid work. This is not yet official Conservative policy, but David Cameron has certainly warmed to the idea.

Should the government intervene to persuade people to marry?


* Statistically, married couples stay together longer than couples who cohabit

* Over-generous child allowances give unmarried girls a financial reason to get pregnant

* The decline of religion leaves government as the only force able to make a difference to marriage rates


* Private morality is no business of government's

* What children needs is loving care, not a licence that formalises their parents' union

* A tax system cannot reward marriage without penalising unmarried mothers, one of the most economically vulnerable groups in society