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19 December 2013

ONS changes its mind over traditional marriage

ONS changes its mind over traditional marriage

The Alliance has welcomed this week's climb-down from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) that it will now ensure it "will publish marriage and divorce statistics in the future where figures for opposite-sex and same-sex couples are shown separately".

The move represents a move away from their previous proposals which the Alliance had strongly rejected, along with many others, calling on the ONS to present marriage statistics in a transparent way.

Seeking to defend itself the ONS indicated in a public statement that it had been necessary 'to clarify its position on publishing marriage figures ... amid claims that it was planning to "airbrush" out traditional family structures'.

The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 makes provision for the marriage of same-sex couples in England and Wales, either in a civil ceremony (in a register office or approved premises such as a hotel) or on religious premises (provided that the religious organisation concerned is in agreement with the marriage being solemnised through a religious ceremony). This new legislation will impact on marriage, divorce and civil partnership statistics published by the ONS. The ONS therefore is required to publish statistics on civil partnership formations and dissolutions and marriages and divorces of opposite-sex and same-sex couples.

Just as the government were announcing they have brought forward the date for the first same-sex marriages from summer to March 2014, the ONS, claiming that it "wishes to understand user requirements" for published statistics had announced a consultation aimed at gauging the public's views "to ensure future statistical releases meet user needs". The consultation was largely unreported and therefore unnoticed by those who may have wished to respond.

Statistics are critically important because they are used by governments to develop public policy and by the public to hold politicians to account. However, the ONS appeared to be considering obliterating the historic gender basis for marriage by suggesting that statistics covering marriages between men and women would be merged with same-sex marriages. It was also proposing to publish statistics relating to divorce that make no distinction between traditional and same-sex marriages and which also included civil partnerships that dissolve, effectively merging everything under the category of 'legally recognised partnerships'.

The Alliance welcomes the ONS's apparent climb-down because we believe it is vital that our national statistics do not amalgamate the figures for what the ONS terms 'opposite-sex' (i.e. traditional) and same-sex marriage. The publication of separate figures is an obvious question of transparency. Other countries that have redefined marriage have continued to publish separate figures. Evidence from such countries suggests that introducing same-sex marriage can affect heterosexual marriage rates. The impact would have been impossible to gauge if marriage statistics could not be distinguished. There is no need for the number of same-sex marriages to be treated as a state secret.

Opposite-sex and same-sex marriages, not to mention civil partnerships, are fundamentally different institutions and important family research data and evidence would be unavailable. Important evidence-based social debate would be prevented. Lawyers, medics, sociologists, insurance companies and others all rely on detailed differentiated statistics. Without separate figures, it would have been impossible to measure the impact of redefining marriage and it would no longer have been possible, for example, to compare and contrast the relative stability or otherwise of different forms of legal relationship. Comparisons with decades of existing marriage research would have been rendered useless if it were not possible to compare like with like. The many studies that repeatedly evidence the health and well-being benefits of marriage for adults and children would also no longer have been possible.

Divorce statistics are a key indicator of the stability of relationships. Research shows that marriage between a man and a woman is the most stable form of relationship for family life. How can any comparisons be made between family types if there is no distinction made in the statistics? In the long-term, separate figures for divorces of opposite-sex and same-sex couples will be vital for comparing trends and patterns in the breakdown of relationships. Without separate presentation of the divorce figures, it would have been impossible to assess from government statistics.

It is difficult not to conclude that in some way political pressure and ideology aimed at erasing from public consciousness the tradition of marriage as between one man and one woman had some part to play in the way this consultation was produced. Before the recent decision, Family Education Trust director Norman Wells commented: "It is vital that the ONS is completely open and transparent about the statistics it publishes on marriage, civil partnership and divorce. If we are going to be able to assess the impact of same-sex marriage on traditional marriage, the figures will need to be published separately and not merged into a genderless mush ... if the government is serious about pursuing family policy based on sound evidence, it is of the utmost importance that all the relevant statistics should be readily available and not hidden from view."

The Alliance would like to thank the many supporters of marriage who responded to the consultation and who are responsible for helping produce this welcome change of mind.