But the important issue claiming our attention should not be marriage. Whether people plight their troth in church, the register office or simply privately and unofficially is their own business. Many people feel that - for them - marriage is an outdated arrangement. That view should be respected. The tax authorities have no business in discriminating between the different ways in which people form couples.
The issue that does need attention is couples with children, be they married or not. These couples are responsible for rearing 80 per cent of the country's children yet they have been bearing more and more of the tax burden. Our failure to support couples and make allowance for the extra costs they face suggests that, despite all the rhetoric, we do not properly value either the family or children.
In her recent book, Farewell to the Family, Patricia Morgan highlights how the lowering of tax bands, the cutting of tax rates and the removal of allowances during the 1980s mainly benefited single people and double- income couples. More recent tax increases have fallen disproportionately on couples with children and are expressly targeted on those with one main income. "Soon," Ms Morgan writes, "the family man will pay all national taxes at the same rate as a single man, while paying 25 per cent more council tax as part of a couple."
Statistical evidence points to the economic plight of couples with children. Since 1979 the percentage of two-parent families with a household income half the average has trebled from 8 to 23 per cent.
It is extraordinary that we have tolerated this decline in the prospects of such families at a time when we are beginning to recognise the full costs of family breakdown. Policy has rightly focused on supporting lone parents who face serious difficulties: 60 per cent of them are living on below half the average income. Surely we should also be doing our best to reduce the strain on couples so that fewer new lone-parent families are created.
The problems lie not only in tax policy but in our general culture. Even though many of us can now hope to live until we are 80, we expect adults to cram their most important activities into a few years. Increasingly, western Europeans are forging their lifelong partnerships, having babies and working hardest from their late twenties to their mid-forties. They face the almost impossible task of being good partners, caring parents, effective career-builders and reliable mortgage-payers. It is little wonder that the over-busy family frequently breaks down under the strain.
Eleven out of 12 children are registered at birth by both parents: public policy and our institutions should give those relationships the best possible chance of success. Yet for all the talk of families being society's mainstay, they are neglected. It is wishful thinking to believe that love will conquer all the obstacles placed in its way.Reuse content