Written evidence from Dr Frances Elizabeth Jones, Community Paediatrician, Newcastle Upon Tyne NHS Trust [HAB0259]
I am writing to you as a retired Community Paediatrician and someone with many years of experience in voluntary youth work.
Marriage and cohabitation are not the same. Marriage relationships which involve a public commitment of one person to another have been shown to be more stable and long lasting than cohabiting relationships. Many cohabiting relationships break up after a very short time and the most important consideration resulting from this fact is the negative impact it has on the lives of children. Studies have shown that by the time a child is 5 years old, 50% of children experienced their parents separating if the parents were cohabiting and 15% of children if their parents were married. Therefore, in order to give children the best start and opportunities in life, nothing should be done to undermine marriage. Giving cohabiting couples parallel legal rights to married couples only weakens marriages and damages children further.
In spite of the lack of acknowledgement in the public arena, most people like myself who have worked with children, know that family breakdown is detrimental to children. If you talk to teachers, social workers, community nurses or doctors they will tell you that the vast majority of children and young people with mental health problems, of whom we are seeing an increasing number, have experienced some sort of family breakdown or dysfunction. Furthermore, this is often multigenerational in its impact and extremely costly to the public purse. Why then should we be considering measures that are likely to further weaken marriage and family life?
While some cohabitations are long-lasting and as such resemble marriage, the vast majority of cohabiting relationships are short-lived and either end or lead to partners actually marrying each other, often when children are born. If they do not marry, but still maintain a long-lasting cohabiting relationship, it is possible in the case of death to write a will to benefit the partner.
Lack of acknowledgement of the benefits of marriage particularly short-changes young people in lower income households who are less likely to have experienced the benefits of marriage in their own families. Marriage is far less common among low income parents (bottom quintile 55%), while many more high income couples marry (top quintile 83%). These differences are important, not only because of the profound effect they have on family stability and outcomes for children, but also as an issue of social justice and equality.