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Big Brother is watching your marriage


he nine most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help’,” Ronald Reagan used to say. The joke works not just because he was king of the one-liner – as president, he kept dozens of his best scribbled on 3x5-inch index cards – but because it overflows with menace. You can’t imagine replying: “I don’t want your help”, and getting away with it. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and “medication time” spring to mind.

But if those nine words seem terrifying, how about: “I’m from the government and I’m here to save your marriage”? From next year, that’s roughly what new parents are going to hear when they answer that officious knock on the door.

It’s just been announced that health visitors are going to be trained to instill “basic concepts such as love, compassion and trust” in couples with children. They’ll be on the lookout for “the signs of relationship difficulties”. And then they’ll respond with their trademark sensitivity and judgment.

Sorry for that sarcasm, but it was my initial reaction. Since when was it the state’s role to save marriages? And will it do any good? We’re paranoid enough about the authorities snooping on us. Now they’re going to keep an eye on mums and dads’ relationships – and try to correct them when they deviate from official guidelines.

As creepy as it first sounded, though, this idea comes from Iain Duncan Smith, the devoutly Catholic Work and Pensions Secretary. He has staked his reputation on fixing a welfare system that writes off hundreds of thousands of families by effectively rewarding worklessness with cash. When he speaks about social justice – and it’s clear that marriage helps to achieve this – I tend to shut up and listen.

The truth is that there is a tsunami of family breakdown that is swamping the country. The Centre for Social Justice, which IDS co-founded, says that half of all children born today will experience family breakdown by the age of 16. That means millions going through their parents divorcing or splitting up.

Iain Duncan Smith has highlighted the colossal importance of strong families




This affects them in ways we’re only beginning to understand. A survey published last month, reported in shocking detail on the front page of the Times, revealed the cost of divorce. Almost two thirds of children whose parents divorced said that the break-up affected their exam results. One in eight said they turned to drugs or alcohol to deal with the stress. About one in three said their eating habits changed.

Almost a third of children surveyed said one parent had tried to turn them against the other. Nearly a fifth said they never saw their grandparents again. The scale of this is enormous: 230,000 people in England and Wales go through a divorce each year, and many more couples separate.

So Mr Duncan Smith is on to something of colossal importance. On current trends, family breakdown is going to devastate up to half of all children born today, and that’s before you consider how it drives poverty and social exclusion among the poorest families in the country.

The Government is in a unique position to act, but – sorry, IDS – I’m still sceptical about whether it can make a lasting difference. The jargon-filled report that announced the health visitor idea says family breakdown is to do with “demographic, socio-economic and cultural characteristics”. What does that mean?

The report also states that “partners’ perception of low levels of relationship quality and satisfaction are also associated with separation and divorce”. It says: “These associations may only be correlations and cannot be assumed to be causal”.

To be honest, this waffle is exactly what I expected: even with the best intentions, governments are not very good at this stuff. They don’t speak human. In fact, the report makes it sound almost like they’re trying hide their confusion behind academic language.

I’m not an expert on marriage. I’ve only been married since August, and haven’t yet started a family. But I do know, thanks to the best of our marriage preparation from the Church, that the secret to a long-lasting marriage is to respect the institution in the first place. Call me defeatist, but I don’t think health visitors can bring that about. Will Heaven is the comment editor of the Sunday Telegraph


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