Written evidence from Mr Trevor Sidnell [HAB0215]

I am a concerned citizen who wants the best for our nation, which means supporting those policies which are for the greater public benefit.

If human beings grew on trees and sex were merely recreational and not procreational, then the differences between cohabitation and marriage would be of interest only in the private sphere, in terms of the pursuit of happiness and living with integrity. But because sex leads to children, and children need a secure and stable home in order to thrive, the difference between cohabitation and marriage has significance in the public sphere, for everyone benefits when children become well-adjusted adults, and everyone suffers when they turn out maladjusted. As Bertrand Russell put it, “But for children there would be no need of any institution concerned with sex. It is through children alone that sexual relations become of importance to society and worthy of being taken cognisance of by a legal institution.”

The State has sought to regulate and safeguard marriage for one reason, and for one reason only: children. Marriage confers tremendous benefits on a couple in terms of companionship, friendship, emotional security and sexual delight and intimacy, but these are all private goods which do not merit the State’s involvement. But the State’s concern is with the public good that marriage brings of parenthood and children. Not every marriage produces children (either through choice or inability) though the overwhelming majority do (that is the main purpose of marriage), but every child has parents, and children fare better if those parents are married.

(There are private goods which are also public goods. Research has shown that marriage benefits both men and women in terms of physical and mental health: they are likely to live longer, have fewer strokes and heart attacks, have less chance of depression and suicide, likely to survive cancer for longer time and survive a major operation more often [The health advantages of marriage, Harvard Health Publishing, 2016]. In addition, married women are far less likely to suffer physical abuse than cohabitees or single women. And the prospects for financial stability and security are better for married couples than for anyone else. All of these private goods mean that married couples are likely to be less of a burden on the health service and the benefits system, which of course is also for the public good.)

A cohabitating couple may look like a married couple, but the dynamics of the relationship are different. Cohabitees have not promised to commit to an exclusive and lifelong partnership; married couples have. Due to human frailty (plus societal and cultural factors) marriages do break down and promises are broken, but the simple fact is that on average marriages are more stable than cohabitations.

There are many figures that one might quote to support this; for example, Benson (2009) finds that around 27% of couples that were cohabiting when their child was born have separated by the time the child is aged 5, compared with 9% of couples that were married when their child was born. Multiple studies show the same thing: marriage is the best way to secure an enduring partnership between a man and a woman. That is now beyond dispute, even if it is uncongenial to the current liberal mind-set.

But what research has also shown is that children fare better in intact families where they are brought up by both biological parents; on every count children are more likely to flourish if they live with both mother and father. This can be asserted negatively; children fare far worse in single-parent households. Countless studies across the Western world have shown the dismal effects and social pathologies that fatherlessness gives rise to: poverty, poorer physical and mental health, behavioural problems, truancy, reduced educational attainment, greater likelihood of abuse and neglect, drug and alcohol addiction, gang membership, crime, sexual promiscuity, teenage pregnancies. Not every child brought up solely by its mother will necessarily reap any or all of these outcomes, by a huge number will reap some or many of them (and they will be less likely as adults to get married themselves, and so will repeat the cycle). Consider these sobering facts: the single most important factor in determining if a boy will end up in prison later in life is whether or not he has a father in the home; and record numbers of children in the UK have been taken into care due to neglect or abuse, reaching 100,000 for the first time in 2020.

These outcomes of fatherlessness are first and foremost tragic for the individuals concerned, but they are also a huge cost to us all, destabilising society, increasing crime and the likelihood of becoming a victim, chewing up resources (special educational provision for excluded pupils, more prison places, drugs bill for mental health problems etc); the cost to the taxpayer is staggering.

All of which means that if the State wants to promote the stability of society and the welfare of its citizens, it had better stop attacking marriage (easier divorce, higher tax rates for single-earner households, sex education that promotes sex outside marriage) and start promoting it instead. Which means that it should be encouraging cohabitees to get married if they want the same legal rights and protections as married couples, not giving them the rights that belong properly to marriage. Why should the State underwrite unstable partnerships that are more likely to disadvantage children when a stable option is available to them?

Cohabiting couples have freely chosen not to marry; treating them as if they were married is somewhat patronising, and very perverse. If couples want the legal protections of marriage, they should get married.

I imagine that someone will raise the two current obsessions with ‘equality’ and ‘discrimination’. But it is just here that clear thinking is needed, not sloganeering. As we have seen, marriage and cohabitation are different things with different outcomes for adults, children and the overall cohesion of society. The old axiom that we should ‘Treat like things equally and different things differently’ is applicable here: the State is justified in giving legal rights to that form of sexual partnership which gives better outcomes, and not to the other.

And we need to rehabilitate the notion of discrimination, and no just use it as a pejorative. We must recover the distinction between good discrimination and bad discrimination. The latter occurs when favour is shown (or withheld) on the basis of incidentals: skin colour, accent, social background and the like. But good discrimination is a vital part of life, and happens on a daily basis when we choose between different things: I discriminate when it comes to eating – so for instance I choose to eat the pizza not the plate – and I choose an age appropriate DVD for my 7-year old to watch rather than an adult one. Every choice is an act of discrimination. We can and should discriminate between good and bad, and between good and better. It used to be a compliment to say that someone had a very discriminating taste in wine, for example. We desperately need to recover the idea that choosing one course over another is not inherently a bad thing, and may indeed be a very good and very necessary thing. We need to be more discriminating about discrimination.

The current notion that all discrimination is bad is being used for ideological purposes to impose poor values on society; as Aristotle said, “The worst form of inequality is to try to make unequal things equal.

So of course the State should discriminate in favour of marriage: it benefits society more than any other familial relationship.

July 2021