Witten evidence from Dr Francis Sansbury [HAB0361]



To the Women and Equalities Committee


You published a consultation about “The Rights of Cohabiting Partners.”  Please find my evidence below.  I submit this as an interested private citizen.


I believe that the government should not seek to regulate or regularise cohabitation.  The government should instead seek to support marriage.  Marriage involves a public commitment in its wedding vows.  This gives families much greater stability.  People think before they make that commitment.  Giving similar rights to those who choose not to make that public commitment does not give that stability.


That stability has far-reaching effects.  For example, the director of policy for the Centre for Social Justice has reported that marriage is the factor that stands out separating the achievers from underachievers in the UKEdward Davies writes that “the disparity in marriage between rich and poor white families in the UK is very, very stark. In the wealthiest fifth of white families by income, 84 per cent are married and reaping the benefits of that stability, with a further 12 per cent cohabiting. In the poorest fifth just 19 per cent are married with a further 9 per cent cohabiting.”


The children in the wealthiest fifth have a 96 per cent chance of living with two parents.  For children of the poorest families it is 28 per cent.  This figure is falling.  There creates a problem of fatherlessness among poorer white families.  Among ethnic minorities however, marriage rates remain high, including among poorer families.  Edward Davies argues that this shows its effects in the educational achievement that their children have.  Poverty creates family instability.   Davies says that it is also true that “family instability causes poverty.”


Parental separation is a far higher problem for cohabitation compared with marriage. Over 50 % of children of cohabiting parents will experience their parents’ separation by the age of five.  This is the case for 15 per cent for children of married parents.  This indicate that cohabitation (as opposed to marriage) associates with family instability, which applied to the figures above, would suggest that cohabitation associates with poverty.


Family breakdown is exceedingly expensive for society.  It costs us over £50 billion every year. This will only worsen if the government does not maintain or promote special legal status of marriage.


There is also the question as to for how long two people would have to live together as if they were spouses to gain cohabitation rights.  Would it be after one night?  A week?  How would the law distinguish between two people living in the same home as lodgers or tenants who then become cohabitants – living as if they were spouses?  How would the law work when two such people disagree as to their status?   In contrast, when couples marry, they make a public promise of a lifelong commitment to each other. This is why the start of a marriage is the obvious point to give spouses rights.  It is why the law has provision for the death of a spouse.  Such rights should not automatically apply to cohabitants.  They have made no such promises, and may in fact disagree amongst themselves about whether they should make them.  If the government does give any rights to a cohabitant, some couples may disagree as to whether this applies to their situation.  My fear would be that men may be less keen on it applying to their situation than women.  Marriage, on the other hand involves a clear public declaration of the status of a person’s spouse.


Creating another relationship status in addition to those we already have, of marriage and civil partnership, is unnecessary.  Couples can always choose to get married or choose not to do so. Extending rights to an extra group of cohabitants undermines marriageI suspect doing so would lead to fewer marriages, and an increase in the number of children growing up with separated parents.


We should also note that marriage benefits physical and mental health. Smoking and drug use is lower in married women than those cohabiting.  Married men have better heart health and cancer survival rates.  The Government should support marriage on public health grounds as well as because of the legal advantagesWhatever people think of the government of Hungary, its public support and incentives for marriage, though, have led to a 72 % rise in marriage rates over 5 years.  There has not been a corresponding rise in divorce rates.  (Divorce rates continue to fall for those married in 2015 and 2016, since the policies started.)  Similar support for marriage by the UK government could lead to family stability, public health benefits for the married couple, and educational benefits for the children of those marriages.


July 2021