Predicting re-marriage numbers

By Robert Whiston

Predicting the future number of re-marriages has taken a complicated turn of late with the publication of three Consultation Papers. All have a bearing on marriage and divorce.

Firstly, there is the Family Justice Review issued in Dec 2010; then the January 2011 revamping of the CSA, [1] and thirdly a tentative acceptance of Pre-Nuptial contracts by the Law Commission.

There is every indication that– all things being equal – confidence may well return to the marriage market. A ‘confidence’ normally associated with trading in the City of London and other financial centres around the world. But before any strategising can be done it is essential for look at the reasons for the ‘collapse’ of marriage since the 1960s.

  1. Marriages reached their peak in Britain in 1971, the same year as the Divorce Law Act 1969 reform began to bite (see Fig 1)
  2. Births to married couples have, since about that date, fallen
  3. Illegitimate births, since about that date, have increased (see Fig 2)
  4. The birth rate has now fallen below the replacement level
  5. Fiscal, monetary and state benefit support to prioiritise married families have, year by year, gradually been withdrawn
  6. Couples, one has to suppose, continued to form family units (and the same level as before), though less of them became marriages.

From 1956 to 1971 re-marriages actually exceeded divorces by (in ball park figures), approx. 20%. This was probably because re-marriages took place not just among divorcées but widows and widowers.

Between 1971 and 1984 further divorce and property larceny legislation was enacted and the numbers re-marrying gradually veered away from a parallel but surplus course to one of deficit for the following years. By 1986 the earlier surplus of, say, 20 % had been reversed into a deficit of 20%. (see Fig 1).

Far from increasing marital numbers by strengthening, marriage and remarriage, a 40 year long collapse began from an all time high in 1971 with ‘first time marriages’ taking the greatest hit (see Fig 2).

Fig 2.  Number  of  Marriages. (first time) England & Wales. 1961 – 1995 (thousands).

Opposite Trends

As if not wanting to know, successive governments have behaved like the proverbial ostrich and buried their heads in the sands. Presumably, they were wholly dependent upon and advised by the civil service, who saw no dangers in these trends.

During the same period (roughly 1965 to 1996), when the number of marriages and re-marriages were declining, the overall birth rate was also falling. However, divorce was increasing, demand for housing was increasing and illegitimate births were increasing. [2] The following graph shows the number of live births outside marriage, i.e. illegitimate (1961 -1997).

Fig 3. Illegitimate Live Births Outside Marriage – number, Eng & Wales (1961 -2007). Source: ‘Population Trends’ No 92. Table 10, et al

[ Note the steep rise during the Thatcher Years (1981 – 1991) – not something one supposes was a Tory policy or designed to happen as a consequence of other policies ].

The birth rate is complicated by the availability of abortions. If the abortion figures over this time frame are added back in to the total live births replacement level is achieved, and Britain moves away from the present average of 1.8 children per family to 2.4 (see “Born but not properly counted It is also complicated by the Finer Report of the mid 1970s and its ramifications (see Appendix A).

It could be argued that we should welcome illegitimate births, if only to partly off-set the collapse in births among married couples. While mildly welcome, such births do not wholly make up the number of live births lost to abortions or redeem the unwelcome decline among married couples, i.e. legitimate births.

Illegitimate births should not be unconditionally welcome by the state or the tax-payer since, as a category, they are extraordinarily expensive children to finance (see Fig 4).

Fig  4. Treasury Expenditure 1970 – 1997 (£m) (inc. FIS, Child Benefit & Family Credit).

Fig 4 , above, is an amalgam of all the benefits paid to low income claimants – a goodly portion of which are single mothers. The graph suffers from the disadvantage that it represents absolute costs per annum and not purchasing power per annum. That is to say, it is unadjusted for inflation and so may exaggerate the yearly increase. Dr Patricia Morgan has undertaken a similar exercise and discounted the cost to the taxpayer by accounting for inflation. Roughly stated, this effectively cuts in half the year-on-year rise so that in 1997 is not costing £6,000 million but in the region of £3,500 million per annum.

The technical note accompanying Fig 4 (above), includes a variety of State subsidies to single mothers – one of the lesser ones is the One Parent Benefit. This is highlighted below for the years 1984 to 1994 to show the rate of increase over time (see also Appendix B).

Fig 5.   Expenditure on ‘One Parent Benefit’ only (£m).

Fig 5 (left), shows the curious inverse relationship of falling child numbers in general but resulting in greater government spending, i.e. One Parent Benefit.

It also underlines – as does Fig 4 – what must be the increased ‘unit cost’ of each child to the state.

 Learning from Singapore

Guided by the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), the hope of the present government is probably that they can bring a degree of rationality and reason to the present chaotic regime that impacts modern marriage and divorce (see Feb 7th ).  They might even be contemplating a reversal of the trends mentioned above.

All the characteristics found today in Western democracies, e.g. low birth rates, delayed family formation, limiting family size, a disproportionately larger older generation etc, were all identified in Singapore in the mid 1980s and by 1987 incentives and measures to counteract them had been put in place (see “The British Family ).

The pension panic that grippedBritain less than a decade ago was already identified by Singapore as a threat in March 1987. Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister announced that incentives would be paid to couples to have more children (the reverse of China’s one child policy). Singapore wanted couples to have more children and preferably more than three.

So while Britain spent the same years unpicking the traditional family structure, and was forced to pay for the dubious privilege, Singapore went in the opposite direction and bolstered the family unit.

Singapore’s action is proof enough that the official UK claims that “. . .government of itself cannot influence family formation” or age of child bearing is a lie. Singapore did no more than Australia and New Zealand offered in the immediate post-war period, namely offering stable couples, i.e. married couples, a head start in a new land by assisting with housing costs and tax breaks.

DWP  Renaissance

The DWP’s Green Paper of a revised Child Support package may yet prove pivotal in giving couples a second chance. In this regard the pernicious inverse incentives will hopefully be tackled by the Coalition government.

The impact of child support payments, and their high setting [3] vis-à-vis income, has prevented further family formation (in the case of divorced couples), deterred further child births (except where it is extra-marital), dampened new household formation (in the case of re-marriage) and discouraged the unmarried from matrimonial entanglements).

 The effects of the proposed Child Support reform package (post 2011), might elegantly mesh with the ‘autonomy’ principle contained in the Law Commission’s perception of how future marital break- ups should be conducted using pre-nuptial contracts.

There is room in their suggestions for couples to pre-ordain what will be paid and in what circumstances. Whether ‘the powers that be’, i.e. Whitehall, the Law Commission, and the political will exist to allow this to happen is another matter.

One has to suppose that re-marriages exceeded divorces from the 1950s to 1971 either because certain incentives existed for divorcées, widows and widowers or in the alternative (and more likely), divorcing couples did not have obstacles placed in their way (other than money).

It will be interesting to see if the latest DWP paper (“Strengthening Families .. . ”, etc), actually does strengthen marriage, or reduces the number who divorce, or makes re-marriage more feasible by not placing obstacles in the way of those wanting to re-marry. 

Will the dual reforms of the DWP and pre-nuptial contracts effectively recalibrate re-marriage which today is put beyond the economic reach of most divorced men and women ?  Noises off stage from Norgrove, who is heading up the Family Justice Review – the third leg of the reform measures – may well torpedo any progress into the modern age. His panel’s Interim Report looks as if it is paddling in the opposite direction. There is something Hegelistic in Norgrove’s appraoch, ie the theory of the state positing that individuals are merely parts of the whole and therefore secondary to the state.

Pre-1969 divorce regulations demanded that a petition for divorce could only be granted where an ex-husband could make sufficient financial provision for his ex-wife to avoid her becoming a ‘burden on the state’, i.e. on the tax payer. And curiously, with more women in the labour force than in the 1950s, the DWP paper on reforming child support payments (see “Strengthening Families ... ”, etc), seems to be edging back towards the position of self-sustainability – albeit only in regards post-nuptial child support and in concert with pre-nuptial contracts (by making child support payments more reasonable ?).

The divorce reformers of the 1960s expected a short-lived surge in divorce numbers with a remarriage rate that would settle down at a stable parallel rate in the decades to come. This never happened.

Ruth Deech, once an ardent divorce reformer in the 1960s, is now certain of her errors and has set about opposing Lord Lester’s Bill for cohabitees. [4] This would give them the same sort of command control over a wealth and assets as female divorced spouse now enjoy in what is euphemistically termed ‘ancillary relief’.

Ruth Deech’s words of 10 years ago regarding ‘ancillary relief’ still ring true today:

  • Our ancillary relief is already a vengeful process and is based on the premise that all husbands should maintain their wives regardless of conduct, and regardless of her ability to keep herself. The pressure to settle . . . . .  make[s] it worse in every respect.” – Family Law Bill, Hansard, 24 Apr 1996 : Column 505.

More recently Deech said in a lecture at Gresham College (Sept 2009):

  • “The notion of “compensation” recently put forward by judges as a basis for awards is unrealistic.
  • It is covering up for the fact that our divorce rate is high because in part the law has made it easy, and we are punishing men and trying to limit the welfare liability of the state by making them pay over assets and pension funds.
  • Perceptions of what might happen to their funds on divorce may affect men’s willingness to commit (and women’s, if they have means). This adds to the high cost to society of marital breakdown overall. ..  .”  [5]
Her  comment re: ” . . . punishing men and trying to limit the welfare liability of the state by making them pay over assets and pension funds” was first picked up in an inter-departmental paper in 1984 – a time when the state’s policy was to shoulder the various costs resulting from widespread divorce in order to make the reforms work. It took the Thatcher administration to realise it was simply uneconomic to finance such a notion.

Addendum :  Daily Telegraph (UK), 12 May 2011. Quote: Outdated family laws have fuelled an “alarming” rise in marital breakdown, causing “profound” damage to millions of children, a High Court judge has warned. [6] 

  • “Mr Justice Coleridge in the family division of the High Court, said the current law governing divorce and cohabiting was “no longer fit for purpose”.
  • He condemned successive governments for “ducking” politically contentious reforms with the result thatpre-nuptial agreements and cohabiting relationships were being legitimised by “stealth”.
Marriage Trends

Deech is referring to yesteryear’s successful agenda (1996),  to financially cripple former husbands by generous ‘redistribution’ measures. The last Labour government’s plans were an adjunct to that, namely, to financially cripple male, and only male, cohabitees.

Mr Justice Coleridge’s words today, in 2011, are proof enough of the Men’s Rights Movement’s long-standing allegation that the system has always been unsuited for its task and biased. Add to that Deech’s conclusion that the process is vengeful and the position to do nothing becomes untenable.

Below can be seen the cumulative effects on marraige of those enacted agenda items (see Fig 6). Without intervention the prognosis does not look good, as Fig 7 depicts (‘Adults aged 20 to 34 living with their parents: by sex’). Critically, more men than women aged 20 to 34 live in their parent’s house. Adult children living with their parents are unlikely to become parents or become financially independent – a situation repeated among the young and fertile in Japan and in Italy (called bamboccioni). In 1995, Japan was estimated to have 10 million parasite singles between the ages of 20 and 34 living with their parents.

Fig 6. Marriages, United Kingdom, 1951 – 2006

Fig 6 offers a more comprehenive view of the various forms of marriage than that seen in Fig 1, above. 

The arrival of the Coalition’s three consultation papers will, if implemented, scupper those two processes, ie the vengeful punishing men and limiting the liability of the state.

The importance of both cannot be over–emphasised. Estimates vary but conservative evaluations put the cost to democracies of divorce to the equivalent of reducing  a nation’s GDP  by between 1% and 3%  (equivalent to a background recession). It  hardly needs adding that an increase of 1% would be most helpful to the economy in its condition.

Fig 7. Adults aged 20 to 34 living with their parents: by sex, UK Source: Social Trends , Households & families (April 2009)

In these times of economic constraints it is perhaps being realised that divorce and separation (family breakdown) is characterised by ‘wealth destruction’ – the very antithesis of the virtues of wealth creation and wealth accumulation that are presently required to restore the health of the nation.

Some years ago John Haskey, who for many years produced social statistics for ONS’s Population Trends wrote in a Foreword that: [7]

  •  “For the best part of thirty years we have been conducting a vast experiment with the family, and now the results are in: the decline of the two-parent, married-couple family has resulted in poverty, ill-health, educational failure, unhappiness, anti-social behaviour, isolation and social exclusion for thousands of women, men and children.”

There is much debate about the fashionability of marriage and cohabitation but overlooked in the debate is the self-interest of both. The cost of a wedding and the cost of a divorce (in the case of marriage), have both been cited as contributory causes for falling marriage rates. The natural yearning to protect any remaining wealth and assets (after a divorce), is the reason for divorced couples to choose to cohabit. Among low income couples the high cost of a wedding is the deterrent and dictating their choice of cohabitation.

The proposed ability to more freely negotiate child support payments between divorcing parents will be a key move to removing both the poverty of ‘Second Wives’ and perpetual indebtedness of former husbands (and the attraction of the ‘grey economy’).

The DWP proposals for child support reform will see more (if not all) of the money fathers presently pay nominally to the ex-wife as Child Support (but which is actually retained by the Treasury), actually reaching his children.

‘Downstream’ effects of reversing 40 years of deliberate policy making are difficult to predict. It is likely that divorce at older ages which are currently rising and are more costly because of the greater accumulation of wealth that has to be re-distributed, will taper off.

Handled correctly, re-marriage should become more wealth enhancing and people will alter their behaviour and spending / savings in response to these marital status changes.

All these subtle changes may actually encourage marriage and or re-marriage.

The consequence of once marginalised children living in low income families (child  poverty) might even be alleviated more quickly and more permanently than any Gov’t sponsored ‘poverty action’ scheme.


Appendix A

Following the Finer Report the number of lone parents in receipt of state benefits increased by 86% (ie between 1981 and 1988).

A determined, orchestrated official campaign to eliminate the stigma of illegitimacy in combination with Finer Report benefit realignments for SMH and changes to State benefits policies, e.g. discriminating against cohabiting couples, actually encouraged lone parenthood and together each separately aided the trend. 

The working class, which for so long had a near-monopoly on illegitimacy found it was now acceptable among the middle classes. For instance, Virginia Bottomley MP, (nee Garnet) from the well-connected left wing Jay family (Margaret Jay, daughter of PM Jim Callaghan), had her first child three months before marrying Peter Bottomley in 1967. [8]

Did policy follow practice and current social mores ? Indeed, should it have followed practice ? Or should it have or aimed higher and discouraged fashionable morals, branding them as passing fads.

What is indisputable is that claims for benefits no longer depended on contributions paid into the National Insurance Fund but on a social ideal of “need.” That made no economic sense whatsoever and it should have been obvious to the minister, Peter Lilley, and a Conservative administration.

Government found, probably to its horror, that only 7% of the cost of Benefit paid to unwed mothers (aka single mother households, or SMH), was being recovered from “liable relatives” ie putative fathers (ref. Davies G, ‘Child Support in Action’, (1998), p6).

Thatcher’s new industry

Policies to eradicate ‘unprofitable’ companies had led to mass redundancies in the early Thatcher years. In the same period, ie 1981 to 1988 structural unemployment had profound effects outside the commercial world. However, in this period government appeared unable to control illegitimate births. Therefore, one is driven to conclude that unnamed policies adopted immediately following the election of a Conservative government – or a combination of policies / events – triggered the sudden increase in lone parenthood.

The Thatcher government’s response was radical; it decided to import and deploy a new industry – what was to become known as the CSA. This might be considered a success by some given that the Child Support Act 1991 appeared to lead to a fall in the yearly increase of SMHs. But even this attenuation (seen after 1991), actually precedes the CSA measures which were not introduced/enacted until 1993 (see Table below).

The growth trend shown in Fig 3 above (“Illegitimate Live Births Outside Marriage 1961 -2007) is derived from the following yearly totals:

The term ‘maintenance payments’ is associated with 1). mothers of illegitimate children and 2). the payments made directly to former spouses (as under the pre-1969 divorce rules). Therefore, when Davies writes that; “Regular maintenance had fallen from 50% to 23% in the same periods and by 1988,” is this how it should be interpreted, i.e. in the wider context of falling child support payments for SMH and divorcees or purely by divorced fathers ? [9]

The CSA apparatus was an unwelcome new industry; lone parenthood seems connected to structural unemployment but in keeping with a yesteryear regime of industry tax breaks and incentives used to keep failing companies afloat, this new industry was to prove extremely expensive. From official sources we find its set-up costs and first years running costs were put at £2 bn. [10]

At a time of industry shutdowns, lone parenthood was the fastest growing (only) ‘growth area’ on the government’s books. In 1980, there had been 330,000 lone parents in receipt of Income Support (IS) and by 1989 this figure was 770,000.

In the same year, 70% of lone parents were in receipt of IS, and the cost to the benefit bill had risen from £1.3 billion in the year 1981 – 82 to £4.3 billion in the year 1990 – 91 (this excludes all the other benefits thatwere claimable by SMH). By the late 1990s the aggregated cost to the Treasury of subsidising single mothers had reached over £11 billion per annum.

Single motherhood has never been economically viable and it remains so today. In this regard it is the antithesis of marriage. Subsidising this alleged alternative lifestyle will not trigger a sudden transformation – it will always be economically expensive.

Therefore, it can be seen that laudable measures intended to alleviate hardship can, as in this case, serve only encourage it (the ideals and ambitions of Finer Report 1976). This echoes the findings of Patrica Morgan where she describes how ‘targeted subsidies’ fail to be as effective as universal allowances.

Appendix B

One Parent Benefit and Child Benefit  


[ extract ]

Differentiate payment between one and two parent families

“Child Benefit Increase, renamed One Parent Benefit in 1981, was introduced in 1977. Originally intended to compensate lone parents for extra costs, it was first introduced as an interim measure, Child Interim Benefit in 1976, payable for the first child.81 When Child Benefit was introduced for all first and subsequent children in 1977, lone parents retained their Child Benefit increase.”


Ref: UK Bristol Community Family Trust (Harry Benson), Sept 2006

Further investigation is needed to find out why couples described themselves as “closely involved”, implying being a couple, rather than “cohabiting”. Family breakdown risk is especially high amongst the former category, part of which may be due to being younger and less well-educated. It is also possible that some mothers in this category may be “living apart together” (Haskey, 2005), potentially claiming additional lone parent benefits whilst not wishing to admit publicly to being a couple. Recent evidence suggests there appear to be more claimants of lone parent benefits than there are lone parents (Brewer & Shaw, 2006). Further research is needed to establish why those “closely involved” are so unstable and whether this self-description is influenced by welfare policy.



[1] “Strengthening families, promoting parental responsibility: the future of child maintenance”  Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), Jan 2011,

[2] Demand for housing far outpaced increases in population growth by a factor of 3 or 4.

[3] Here defined as the excess over actual cost of basics, e.g. feeding and clothing but ignoring marginal costs incurred anyway, e.g. rent, heating and lighting.

[4] The Law Commission’s 2006 paper proposed compensation upon separation for female cohabitees which would have undermined the right of couples to arrange their own life and assets.

[5] See also Guardian, 15 Sept 2009

[6] Daily Telegraph May 2011 

[7]Experiments in Living: the Fatherless Family”. Civitas.

[8] At Essex University she is remembered as “a very strong-willed student with left-wing sentiments” .–the-ugly-no-100-virginia-bottomley-1609970.html

[10]  In 1997 the CSA announced its failing £600 million computer system was to be scrapped


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