Harriet Harman believes recognising marriage in the tax system “doesn’t work” but critics say her approach ignores the institution’s importance.
Miss Harman’s comments came on the same day that David Cameron said marriage is “a good institution”.
Addressing a public policy think-tank, Miss Harman said: “No-one needs a tax incentive to value their marriage. It matters more to that person than to any Government.
“The idea of splashing billions on doing something where there is no evidence that it is effective in keeping families together, but there is evidence that it stigmatises, is just wrong and they should drop that proposal.
“The fundamental thing is that it doesn’t work.”
David Cameron has defended his party’s plans to recognise marriage in the tax system.
He said: “My view is that there is an importance of trying to say that commitment and relationships and marriage are good institutions.
“They are good things. We shouldn’t be completely neutral about them as a society.
“I think the tax system and the benefits system as well as helping people in the here and now as it should, also does need to think about what other long-term signals that we are sending out as a society.
“We should be sending long-term signals that are about commitment and the things that encourage commitment.
“It doesn’t disadvantage other people, it’s just saying that this is a good institution that society should recognise in such a way.”
However, Mr Cameron clarified that he included same-sex relationships, saying: “As far as I am concerned, commitment matters whether it’s between a man and a woman, a man and a man or a woman and a woman.
“To me a strong family is defined most of all by the love that’s in it. I don’t think this is incompatible with our support for committed relationships.”
Media commentators have not focused on this point but criticised Miss Harman’s comments pointing out the many benefits of marriage for children.
An editorial in The Daily Telegraph said: “The Minister for Women and Equality is being disingenuous, for the facts say otherwise.”
Answering concerns about the cost of recognising marriage in the tax system, the editorial concluded: “It is a costly policy – but nowhere near as costly as the dire consequences of social breakdown.”
Allison Pearson, writing in the Daily Mail, said Miss Harman “knows full well that being brought up by married parents gives a child the best possible chance in life”.
The columnist continued: “That’s not a political prejudice, it’s a fact.
“Kids who are raised by a mum and a dad, even if they live in poverty, are far less likely to end up with mental health issues or go to jail.
“They do better at school. They have fewer drug and alcohol problems, and fewer teenage pregnancies.
“They are also more likely to stay married themselves, and to stick around for their own children.”
Melanie McDonagh of The Daily Telegraph pointed to a new report which says how much children benefit from being part of a two parent home.
She said that “it makes sense to reward marriage as a way of recognising that two parents are, by and large, better than one”.
The writer concluded: “That does imply that one model for the family is preferable to the others – because it’s true.”
Social policy think-tanks and a family charity have also spoken out against Miss Harman’s comments.
Norman Wells of the Family Education Trust said: “To recognise that there is a strong link between marriage and stable family life and to encourage people to get married and stay married is not dictating how people should live, or stigmatising and dishing out blame to those who choose not to get married.
“The evidence overwhelmingly shows that children thrive on the stability that comes from knowing that their parents are committed for life to each other as well as to them.”
Jill Kirby, from the Centre for Policy Studies, added: “Harriet Harman was deliberately missing the point which is that every argument being made for supporting marriage through the tax and welfare system is about providing a stable home life for children.”
Miss Harman’s comments also drew fire from think-tank Civitas which said the Equalities Minister was “ignoring” marriage.
Anastasia de Waal, Director of Family and Education at Civitas, said: “Labour’s view is that marriage is a lifestyle choice rather than the best institution within which to bring up children.”
Former Bishop of Rochester Dr Michael Nazir-Ali also commented on the issue saying: “The voice of the Church, and of its leaders, has been little heard in this debate so far.
“Let us hear them, loudly and clearly, arguing for the abiding importance of marriage and family, especially as we approach the family-festival of Christmas.”