Divorce: men vote with their feet

The family-values camp appears deeply muddled, as the line blurs between moral welfare and a free market
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Monday's publication of the Green Paper on "pension- splitting" for divorced couples was greeted with a good deal of moaning and groaning. After all, the move was forced on the Government, as the price of support for the Family Law Bill, by a right-wing phalanx who want divorce to be "more difficult".Perhaps the most amusing response so far is the idea that we can't implement the changes this millennium because the computers can't cope.

But underneath both the repressive moralism and the genuine complexity of the fiscal arrangements some questions are beginning to emerge. At what point will interventionist laws to "stabilise" traditional marriages - by making it more difficult, and more expensive, to get out - start to deter men from getting in in the first place?

At the moment, men get more out of marriages than women. Women lose rights, lose money, and enjoy less leisure and less mental health by being married rather than staying single. With men, it is the reverse: the mental health of married men is better than that of their single peers; and they gain access to their own children, as well as extremely cheap domestic services.

Yet, oddly enough, it is men who are voting with their feet, as they depart from the traditional family in droves, object to maintaining their children, fail to do their share of the housework, and consume more than their share of the household income.

You might think that a government committed to family values would best spend its money on more carrot rather than stick: a national poster campaign showing how well men do out of marriage, perhaps; a cash reward, not for getting married in the first place, but after twenty-five years of staying so, or for the coming of age of each child you share a house with. These might be more in the Government's interest, rather than complicated and ill-thought out "punishments" for leaving.

This will not happen of course (nor should it), but it does point up the fact that the whole family values camp is deeply muddled. In the first place there seems to be a real confusion about what it wants these "traditional families" for.

Moral welfare should not be the business of free-market politics. Trying to "make people good" or even "happy" was what was wrong with the nanny state. The endeavours of individualistic capitalism ought to be to get the law out of private relationships. If workers in other fields don't need a minimum wage and don't need employment protection, why are married women any different? Surely, to be coherent, a woman who is so "feckless" that she does not negotiate a contract, including pension rights of her own, or charge her husband a decent wage for leaving the external job market and entering the unregulated reproductive-and-service sector, should not be looking to the State for support. Least of all should she expect such a government to prosecute and punish her employer if she is made redundant. On your bike,woman!

If, however, this is a fiscal issue, and the argument is that traditional families are the most cost-effective way of maintaining a healthy work- force and bringing up a future one, we can all do without the moral posturing. Some government ministers have made it clear that their objection to pension splitting is about the loss of Income Tax revenue.

It is so much cheaper (for the nation) to have children brought up at home by unpaid carers than by any other method The trouble is that fewer and fewer women are interested in taking it on, and no-one wants to call it a job.

There is another possibility, and one sincerely and disinterestedly held: children - the collective responsibility of all citizens, for both moral and financial reasons - flourish best in small households where both biological parents are present, regardless of their interpersonal harmony and satisfaction.

I personally do not believe it. But nor do I believe that true concern and positive care for our children's well-being and happiness directs the thinking, planning and economic policies of any political party or right-wing pro-family pressure group in this country. (I would only believe it from an organisation that made real opportunities and equal pay for women a central part of any pro-child platform.)

Promoting family values has become a knee-jerk reflex in a vote- chasing political environment - the next stop on from the Law-and-Order sloganeering of recent elections. It has little real political content. Given how difficult it is to generate foreseeable social results by tinkering with existing legislative structures, I think the government is probably wise to be suspicious and reluctant about this "pension-splitting" burden it has had foisted upon it. It seems at least as likely to discourage earners from getting married in the first place, or keeping up substantial payments for future provision, as it does to keep them in miserable marriages.

PS: Who else noticed the pleasing irony that another leading domestic news report yesterday was also about the wages and conditions for the provision of sexual services: the legislation of prostitution.