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Supporting families like a rope supports a hanging man

Irma Reilly does not want to share her private life with Jack Straw's army of marriage registrars and health visitors

New Labour's latest initiative to 'support' families shatters the traditional consensus that government should not interfere in people's most intimate relationships. Home secretary Jack Straw's policy proposals confirm that this is a government for which no corner of life is too private to merit intrusion.

Governments have long realised that explicit 'family policies' are difficult to manage. People usually have a gut reaction against being told how to live their private lives. While policies that target 'dysfunctional' families have generally been seen as acceptable, initiatives which attempt to shape the family lives of all have been regarded as a no-go area. But not for this government.

'Supporting families', the latest in a long line of government green papers - now known as consultation papers - takes the view that all families are in need of some assistance, and sets out to devise comprehensive 'support' measures. Whether or not you feel your relationship is in trouble, whether or not you want help, in future state agencies will be there to interpret your needs for you and to launch some pre-emptive action.

Every year about 155 000 marriages end in divorce, giving the UK the highest divorce rate in Europe. Prompted by their belief that 'marriage is the best way for two adults to raise their children', the Home Office has produced a paper which lists initiative after initiative aimed at persuading us to (i) get married, and (ii) stay married.

Jack Straw has made much of the fact that this is the first real policy initiative to address such basic family issues. This might suggest that the government has worked hard to develop innovative policies beyond the capacity of previous administrations. Yet, on inspection, most of the suggestions are simply banal and appear to have been inspired by two platitudes: 'You never know what goes on behind closed doors' and 'Marry in haste, repent at leisure'.

For instance, for reasons that are never explained, the government seems to have concluded that a major cause of marital breakdown is the propensity of couples to rush into marriage (and by implication parenthood) without considering whether family life is really for them. This is rather bizarre, as statistics seem to suggest that couples now think more carefully than ever before exchanging vows. Today, 70 per cent of couples who marry have cohabited beforehand - more than a third start their families before they formalise their 'union'. Both men and women are delaying marriage until later in their lives than at any time in the past 60 years.

Despite this, a top-line proposal is to end 'quickie weddings', in which couples marrying in a registry office need give only 24 hours' notice. If the green paper proposals are accepted, both partners (not just one as at present) will be required to attend the registry office to give notice of their intent to marry 15 days before the ceremony. On doing so they will be given a 'statement of rights and responsibilities', so that there will be a 'clear statement of what their new [marital] status means' and a recognition that 'marriage is a serious business'.

The role of registrars will change. Government is concerned that while those who opt for a religious ceremony attend classes to prepare them for their new commitments, those of us who opt for civil ceremonies escape such tutoring. They want registrars to give prenuptial counselling and to provide a 'marriage preparation pack'.

The suggestion that divorces might be prevented if people understood more about marriage before entering into it seems laughable. The overwhelming majority of newlyweds are aware of the pitfalls of marriage - they know people whose marriages have failed, they just think that their relationship will be different. For many it is - after all, the majority of people who get married stay married - but for others 'stuff happens'. The reasons why relationships break down can rarely be anticipated and are as various as the couples who experience them. People change - grow apart, get bored with each other, meet other people they like more. And so they leave one relationship to start another.

The rate of marital breakdown has increased because social changes have enabled more people to leave bad relationships. Perhaps these changes have also increased our egocentricity, so that individuals feel more entitled to satisfy themselves rather than make sacrifices for the good of others to whom they have responsibilities. The integration of women into the workforce has given many the economic independence to walk away, and has also, arguably, reduced men's traditional sense of family responsibility. The culture in which we live encourages us to be true to our feelings - to live for 'love'. Neither women nor men, in modern society, are expected to sacrifice themselves on the altar of family responsibility. Nor would many of us prefer to see the clock turned back to the days when couples were locked into loveless relationships based solely on notions of duty. The stigma of divorce has gone - and that is to be welcomed.

The pattern of marriage is unlikely to be changed by government edicts demanding that we take it more seriously, no matter how many times a registrar repeats the government line on what marriage should be about, or how glossy the registrar's advice pack may be. Nor will many marriages be saved by the accompanying proposals whereby couples would be required to attend counselling at least three months before the start of divorce proceedings, to discuss whether divorce is really inevitable.

It would, however, be wrong to dismiss the green paper's recommendations as irrelevant to our lives. They reflect a serious commitment which is at the heart of New Labour's mission: the drive to insert a 'professional' into our personal business, to steer us through problematic private areas.

It is as though the government has decided that ordinary mortals cannot be trusted to run their marital lives. Recognising that we are simply too pigheaded to seek help voluntarily, it wants to make counselling and professional assessment an integral part of those life moments when we engage with the authorities. So, those of us who reject the voluntary marriage preparation offered by religious institutions will be compelled to receive instruction from a civil servant - the registrar. Those of us who choose not to seek pre-divorce counselling from organisations such as Relate will again receive a mandatory review of our case - whether we like it or not.

The clearest expression of the government's intention to 'professionalise' our private lives comes in the suggestions to expand the role of health visitors. Along with midwives and other health professionals, they are to be asked 'to identify and offer help with relationship problems' in addition to their traditional healthcare functions. For the government, the problem is that while people are loath to seek marriage guidance from counsellors, many are happy to see health visitors following the birth of a child. Solution: get the health visitors to double up as nosy therapists. It is a clear case of relationship assessment by stealth, and it undermines a couple's ability even to decide for themselves whether they have a problem. What may appear dysfunctional to a health visitor may be an entirely acceptable way of life for those living it.

But in the intrusive world that New Labour is busy constructing, it is no longer for us to negotiate our own relationships. They must be policed and supervised by external agencies.

Time and time again, 'Supporting families' acknowledges that governments should 'be wary about intervening in family life', and swears that it is not New Labour's intention to nanny or lecture. It then proceeds to do just that. As the Independent observed, 'It seems that the urge to moralise is just too irresistible for this government' (5 November). These proposals, however, go beyond moralising. They will undermine our very capacity to negotiate marriage and family life for ourselves. And in taking away our right to make private decisions about our intimate relationships they threaten to destroy the essence of a personal partnership - the privately decided boundaries of the relationship.

In trying to reinforce family life, New Labour has shown that it has no understanding of what people value most about their personal relationships. Our partnerships need to be regulated by the standards and principles we set ourselves, not those that Jack Straw's army of marriage registrars and health visitors set for us. When my marriage is assessed and judged by an external agency, it is no longer my marriage - and that really will mark the end of private life as we know and value it.

Reproduced from LM issue 116, December 1998/January 1999



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