Only three per cent of couples who stay together until their child is 15 are unmarried and most cohabiting couples either get married or split up, a new report reveals.
The findings dispel the myth of stable long-term cohabitation.
The report, prompted by the recent battle between political parties over family policy, challenges the Government’s claim that it is not necessarily the institution of marriage that is important in combating family breakdown.
Labour Families Secretary Ed Balls accepted that marriage is a good thing but claims children’s welfare is not necessarily best protected through marriage.
Speaking on the BBC’s Today Programme recently, Mr Balls insisted: “Once you adjust for the fact that people who are married tend to marry older, be better educated and have higher incomes, you find it is not the legal form, it is the strength and stability of the relationship which is the most important thing.”
But the author of the new report, Harry Benson of Bristol Community Family Trust, contests this claim, saying that new parents’ marital status is the number one predictor of whether or not they will stay together.
“It doesn’t matter how rich or well educated you are, cohabiting parents are at least twice as likely to split up as married parents of similar income or education”, Mr Benson said.
He told the press: “Based on data of 15,000 new mothers, marriage is the single biggest predictor, above and beyond the effects of income, education, age, ethnic group, benefit receipt and birth order”.
He added: “In a new analysis using census data, I found that 60 per cent of families remain intact until their children are 15. Of these, 97 per cent are married.”
Mr Benson has released his findings, based on Britain’s largest and most up-to-date family surveys, in a briefing paper entitled: Married and unmarried family breakdown: Key statistics explained.
The paper shows that the vast majority of cohabiting parents go on to either marry or split up.
Mr Benson said: “It’s commonly assumed that parents can bring up children perfectly well without getting married.
“The reality is that only one in seven unmarried couples stay unmarried whereas two thirds of married couples stay married”.
“Divorce rates haven’t changed in 30 years”, he added.
“Any Government serious about tackling rising family breakdown has to work out how to deal with the trend away from marriage.”
The report also states: “Amongst unmarried couples, separation is concentrated in the early years of parenthood.
“One in three couples separate before their child’s 5th birthday, four times the rate of married parents”.
It continues: “Although background accounts for some of this gap, unmarried cohabiting parents remain at least twice as likely to split up across every category of income and education.”
Conservative Party families’ spokesman David Willetts reaffirmed the Party’s plans for marriage tax breaks.
He said: “This is something we are committed to doing in the lifetime of the next Parliament. It is not something we are likely to be able to do in the first budget.”
In December Tory leader David Cameron attacked Labour’s “pathological” refusal to endorse marriage as the key to tackling family breakdown.
He said “evidence shows marriage is a good institution which helps people stay together, and commit to each other. A society that values marriage is a good and strong society.”
But traditionalists are cautious about Mr Cameron’s promotion of marriage because he wants to extend the same benefits to same-sex civil partnerships.