James Purnell: Couples marry for love, not for tax breaks

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The Independent Online

When two children are reported to have tortured others, everyone is shocked. But we should beware politicians who then use the case to argue for a belief they held all along.

The Tories last week called the events in Doncaster a "stark snapshot" of Britain's "broken society". It reminded me of David Cameron calling Karen Matthews an example of the same thing, saying that everyone on benefits could potentially turn into someone like her. He thus stigmatised everyone on benefits, particularly those on the estate where she lived. Yet, people in Dewsbury Moor in West Yorkshire spent weeks helping to look for her missing daughter, Shannon. Far from being an example of what is wrong with Britain, they showed what good neighbours do.

When this was pointed out to him, David Cameron said he would visit the estate. He still hasn't. I'm visiting there this week to listen to local people's views about the real problems they face. There's an important debate starting here: is Britain broken?

Labour believes that for the most part, Britain is a great society. Most families are not broken.There are new pressures, but also new opportunities. Our goal should be to help children grab today's opportunities, while navigating modern problems such as addictions and mental health issues.

So, families now get £8,000 in financial support in the first year of a child's life – up from £2,600 in 1997. Parents can balance work and caring much better. Ed Balls has already announced that we will do more to help families who are experiencing relationship problems, through work with specialist organisations, such as Relate, and by expanding counselling in schools.

And, from this week, Jobcentre Plus will work with Relate to help families under stress – a partnership that will be open to all families, not just those where the parents are married. But we can't support relationships unless we also eradicate child poverty.

We know relationships that are struggling with money often struggle to survive. So, Labour's commitment to abolish child poverty is financial, but it's also a policy to prevent family breakdown. The Tories argue that Britain is more broken than working. Their priority isn't abolishing child poverty – instead they will give tax breaks to married couples where only one parent works. They want to spend about £3bn on help that four-fifths of families in Britain would be excluded from.

Marriage is an important institution, but we cross a dangerous line when we start saying that we will give tax breaks to a married couple but not to a lone parent, a widow bringing up her children, or cohabiting parents. Moreover, this policy won't work. People marry for love, not money. A few pounds a week won't start off a relationship on the right foot.

Over the past 10 years, we've made progress in reducing poverty – more, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, than any other industrialised nation. Now we need to get through this recession fairly and create a welfare state so that even more parents can go to work. In return, Labour thinks that, once their children are old enough, unemployed parents should be expected to prepare for, or seek, work. The Tories voted against this.

We will never lecture or stereotype single parents or use the tax system to signal that some relationships are more acceptable than others. The right way to help parents through the pressures they face is to help all families, and not to stigmatise any.

James Purnell is Secretary of State for Work and Pensions