Who knew? The EU destroyed the traditional nuclear family

ring by Eivind Barstad Waaler on Flickr

"Heaven preserve us from pundits and experts" begins Paul Coleridge, in his recent opinion piece in The Telegraph : Brexit is an opportunity to reverse the tragic decline of marriage in Britain.

Indeed.

I've got a right strop on.

You'll be relieved to hear that I am going to spare you my views on Brexit itself, and will focus on the main hypothesis in this piece, which is basically that in Brexit lies the cure to the social malaise that is epitomised by the decline in marriage and the epidemic of single mothers.

For those wondering whether this connection between Brexit and marriage is entirely opportunistic, it is apparently National Marriage Week. So, whilst for the other 51 weeks of the year Brexit is more commonly described as a metaphorical divorce (a metaphor that has endless potential), this week the tables are turned :

So, with that in mind, let me explain why our decision to exit the European Union and revert to full self-government of the UK might revive marriage and enhance family stability.

Oh, go on then. Hit me with your hypothesis...

Apparently it boils down to national psychology. We joined the EU out of weakness not strength. And the EU has caused our "traditional independence and self-confidence [to] wither".

Also, there's some statistics and a graph. We are told that before EU 90% of new parents were married, but now we've got 2 million single parents - we are presumably intended to infer some sort of causal relationship between our membership and this devastating social decline. I've no quibble with those statistics, but I will eat my wig if this trend is not replicated in pretty much any western country you care to name whether inside or outside the EU.

If you are wondering how it is that the EU has had such a corrosive effect on us, its all to do with the EUs "behemothic" ambitious legal nannying tendencies. Remember that stoned, satiated look when a baby has just drained the last dregs out of a massive feed? That's how I imagine poor Britannia, bloated and unable to do anything for herself, swaddled in EU regulations (sorry my metaphor key got stuck down).

Anyway, this particular passage is just my bestie favourite in the whole piece :

And this “State will provide” attitude infected our national domestic life too. The generous welfare system did nothing to discourage family breakdown and it became economically possible for a woman to support children without financial support from herself or a husband. More and more items of our household expenditure were picked up by the State. Notions of individual family self-reliance faded.

Dammit, how I *wish* we could go back to those good ol' times when it was economically impossible for a woman to support children without financial support (and permission) from her husband. If only it weren't for women's pesky notions of individual self-reliance we could go back to those happy days where people were forced to stay in unhealthy and abusive relationships that damaged themselves and their children.

I'll confess that I'm struggling here to reconcile Coleridge's enthusiasm for our national spirit of independence with his apparent wistful regret about the development of women's independence. I don't think he's noticed the massive contradiction at the heart of his article. Do you think this might be the point where I'm supposed to suggest Sir Paul should "check his privilege"?

It's pretty clear from Coleridge's description here that his vision is of a vast population of single mothers (not fathers) all happily claiming benefits and lounging on sofas. Look at the passage above - it's not men who unfortunately also become economically able to leave, thereby wrecking society with their selfishness and the emergence of "individual self-confidence" to leave abusive relationships. It's just women. In this dystopian landscape there are no self-reliant working women or feckless fathers, and probably no benefit dads with care. It's just us girls spoiling things by not letting our husbands provide and be independent for us.

Quite apart from my feminist rage, there is another huge non-sequitur in Coleridge's argument. The capacity of a parent or family to be independent (or not) is nothing to do with marital status. It is to do with wealth, and to do with the economic on-costs of relationship breakdown (whether married or cohabiting) - two households cost more to run than one. Marriages break down too.

Coleridge neglects half of the equation. It is basic logic that for every single mum there is a single dad somewhere. And when I last checked, being unmarried or separated did not relieve the absent parent of his (or her) obligation in law and conscience to maintain a child where that parent is financially able. Much (though not all) benefit dependence is a function of the failure of an absent parent to honour that duty (sometimes wilfully but sometimes because it genuinely cannot be done). A failure to maintain is something that in my experience both formerly married and former cohabitants are equally likely to be guilty of (indeed many with assets and a decent income may resist marriage precisely to ensure their poor partner never acquires any marital rights).

I'll skip over the usual Marriage Foundation marriage propaganda about how children of marrieds do better blah blah blah (completely unconnected to the fact that marrieds tend to be better off, and entirely down to the magical magickness of marriage as a thing).

 

Coleridge finishes with this :

Of course, no one could sensibly suggest that Brexit is a magic bullet for the restoration of the stable married family. 

(says the man who has just written an article pretty much saying that exact thing).

I prefer to switch that around and say that no one could sensibly suggest that marriage is a magic bullet for our social problems. And my humble prediction is that the only impact Brexit will have on marriage rates is probably those poor families including one parent is an EU citizen from another member state who are desperately trying to work out how to secure their right to remain together with their family post Brexit.

 

Feature pic courtesy of Eivind Barstad Waaler on Flickr - thanks!

What the law commission is really saying about pre-nups

It seems that the Law Commission are keen to correct some of the information swirling around out there. This press release arrived earlier this week, embargoed until now, with the subject line "what the law commission is really saying about pre-nups". So, here you go. Unedited by moi :

Making it easier for separating couples to manage their finances and property

The Law Commission is recommending a set of measures to make it easier for couples to manage their financial affairs on divorce or at the end of a civil partnership. These are:

  • guidance to help couples assess and agree financial needs
  • an assessment of the feasibility of using formulae to help agree financial settlements, and
  • “qualifying nuptial agreements” to allow couples to decide how their assets should be shared if they separate.

When married couples or civil partners separate, the courts in England and Wales have a wide discretion to make financial orders, including capital payments and ongoing maintenance. An important element of those orders is to ensure that the financial needs of both partners are met. The Law Commission believes that the objective of such orders should be to enable both partners eventually to achieve financial independence. That is already the outcome of the majority of cases, and there is no need for a change in the law.

However, there is evidence of regional inconsistencies in how the courts approach orders  for financial needs, which can make the outcome unpredictable. And, while the law is largely well-understood by family lawyers, it is not clear to the general public who are increasingly dealing with the financial consequences of separation without legal assistance.

Agreeing financial needs

We are recommending that the Family Justice Council produce authoritative guidance on financial needs. The guidance would explain the outcome a judge would aim for in determining a settlement, including achieving eventual financial independence. This would enable couples to reach an agreement that recognises their financial responsibilities to each other. The guidance would also help to bring more consistency to how the law is applied in the courts.

Making settlements more predictable

Guidance from the Family Justice Council would provide an explanation of the sort of outcome that should be aimed for but it would not provide figures. The Law Commission is also recommending that the Government commission a long-term study to assess whether a workable, non-statutory formula could be produced that would give couples a clearer idea of the amounts that might need to be paid to meet needs. Formulae are already used successfully in other jurisdictions such as Canada, where they produce a guideline range of outcomes within which couples can negotiate.

Qualifying nuptial agreements

The Law Commission is recommending the introduction of “qualifying nuptial agreements”.

Qualifying nuptial agreements would enable married couples and civil partners to make a binding agreement about how their property or finances should be shared if their relationship breaks down. The agreements would be enforceable as contracts but would apply only after both partner’s financial needs, and any financial responsibilities towards children, have been met. And they would be binding only if, at the time of signing, both parties had disclosed material information about their financial situation and both received legal advice.

Under the current law, couples can make pre- and post-nuptial agreements. The courts may follow these agreements but they are not binding and the parties cannot be certain they will be upheld.

Professor Elizabeth Cooke, Law Commissioner for property, family and trust law, said:

“We believe that married couples and civil partners should have the power to decide their own financial arrangements, but should not be able to contract out of their responsibilities for each other’s financial needs, or for their children. The measures we are recommending would help couples understand and meet their financial responsibilities and, where appropriate, achieve financial independence.

“Pre- and post-nuptial agreements are becoming more commonplace but the courts will not always follow them and lawyers are therefore not able to give clear advice about their effect. Qualifying nuptial agreements would give couples autonomy and control, and make the financial outcome of separation more predictable. We have built in safeguards to ensure that they cannot be used to impose hardship on either party, nor to escape responsibility for children or to burden the state.”

The Law Commission’s report, Matrimonial Property Needs and Agreements, includes a draft Bill that, if implemented, would bring qualifying nuptial agreements into effect.

More (Bump &) Grind Required

Written betwixt Paddington and Templemeads last night...

I didn’t hear Sir Paul Coleridge on the Today programme this morning (yesterday), owing to my broken foot (I had to cadge a lift to work with my brother who is allergic to Radio 4. Sadly, I am allergic to Kiss FM but this cuts no ice).

I confess that of the “Marriage Foundation” I know only that which is available via headline – plus a short article in the Evening Standard read on the train en route back from the divorce capital. But such lack of in depth knowledge never stops anyone else from commenting on anything at all, so “What the hell”. And besides, its rude not to complain about the Standard at least once on every visit to the ol' smoke.

Headline: “Judge: Hello! Approach is fuelling family breakdown”

Apparently, “He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “In terms of the impact that family breakdown is having on society, nobody has the experience that the family judiciary have”. Pause there. NOBODY. Not the mediators, counsellors, extended family, teachers or – god forbid - the parties to divorces. Carry on.

“He insisted he was not mounting a moral campaign but wanted to set-out the facts in a “non-preachy” way”. Hold. That. Thought.

“He said he wasn’t “knocking” the magazine, but added: “I normally find the people who are in there are in my court within about a year or two.””

Pause there. Rewind. “In terms of the impact family breakdown is having on society, nobody has the experience that the family judiciary have”. Apparently limited to the experience of that portion of society that is displayed in Hello! magazine. I wonder if the experience of the District Judges is quite the same. More Coronation Street than Hello! I suspect, and most of them managing to get in a sufficient pickle to end up falling upon the judiciary without ever having said “I do”.

“We all know, all of us who have been in relationships for a long time, that the only way they are made to work and the only way they become really qualitatively good is by absolutely grinding away at it”. Pause there. Remember that not-preachy thing? Er...I could ask the vexed question of just how far one should persevere with a “difficult” relationship and when it is ok to divorce (how much grinding does one have to tolerate?) - but it’s late, I’m ill informed, and it would be more amusing to snigger at the unfortunate choice of language. Juvenile I know: but a bit of mickey taking is just as key to any healthy adult relationship… Once the kids arrive you have to find something to replace the grinding, right?

Postscript: For those who want to find out about the Marriage Foundation their website is here. There is a useful link to their first newsletter in the centre of the home page. I have previously written about this topic here.