Britain needs to support marriage to counter the damaging affects of family breakdown, according to the Conservative minister responsible for family policy.
David Willetts said that a policy for marriage is needed that “restores it as a more widespread institution as we had in the past”.
He pointed to evidence demonstrating that married couples stay together longer than cohabiting couples, to the benefit of the children.
He said: “Any society in which something as massive as this institution of marriage with a deep history, with roots in its culture, with public recognition, where it didn’t affect behaviour would be very odd indeed.”
Mr Willetts’ comments came during an interview with The Guardian newspaper in which he warned that marriage could become “a middle-class preserve”.
He said: “There is quite a lot of evidence coming from America about how we are in danger of heading towards a society where middle-class people get married and people on low and erratic incomes don’t get married, and that in turn leads to a divergence of a whole host of other outcomes.
“In my view it would be extremely dangerous if marriage became something only for the affluent elite and that is what will happen, unless we try to get some kind of policy that restores it as a more widespread institution as we had in the past.”
The Conservatives have pledged to recognise marriage in the tax system and abolish the couple penalty in the benefits system if they are elected next year.
Mr Willetts argued that this would bring Britain back in line with other European countries.
He said: “If you look at the analysis of the way in which most tax and benefit systems work, it looks as if the group that gets the raw deal in Britain compared with other advanced western countries is one-earner couples.”
Mr Willetts comments come as the Conservatives prepare to publish a green paper on the family.
The Tories also plan for couples to be given leaflets on marriage guidance and counselling at register offices to help prevent further marital break-ups.
Press reports indicate that the Conservatives’ green paper will argue that the state and voluntary sector can do more to help fathers, particularly at the birth of the first child.
The green paper may also reflect David Cameron’s stated desire to extend benefits for marriage to cover same-sex civil partnerships.
In September the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, called for greater support for marriage. He pointed to marriage being “devalued” and said “the impact upon young people is incalculable”.
While earlier this year, a leading family judge, Mr Justice Coleridge, warned that marriage urgently needed to be reaffirmed as the “gold standard” of relationships. He said an “epidemic” of family breakdown was damaging children.