It is a great pleasure to be at National Marriage Week for the second time in three years and a privilege to follow the Chief Rabbi. Jonathan Sacks' contribution to our nation's life extends well beyond his leadership of Britain's Jews. He patiently reminds the whole country of its Judeao-Christian foundations and the folly of ignoring them. And the way that British society has neglected marriage has been one of the greatest follies.
My whole life has shown me the importance of marriage. I grew up with the unfailing care of a wonderful family built around my parents' marriage. Now I have been fortunate to marry Ffion and become part of her extended family, too. The opportunity that I have as a politician to stand up for this vital social bond is a responsibility that I enthusiastically embrace and I am grateful for the platform that the increasingly influential National Marriage Week provides.
The Archbishop of Westminster was 100% right when he said that 'all sensible people in this country know that marriage is at the heart of a healthy society'. Every society depends upon strong, loving families. The influence of families is felt throughout life: from the careful preparations before a child is even born, throughout education and until the final days of life. Politicians often avoid promoting the family because they fear the reaction when their own or colleagues' relationships experience difficulties as, sadly, they sometimes do. But such cowardice is irresponsible. The public knows that politicians aren't perfect! But the public will respect politicians more if they aspire to high standards rather than pretend they don't even exist.
People remain committed to the ideal of marriage but modern life provides an inhospitable environment for that ideal. And here we face a paradox. Because - as the Chief Rabbi has argued marriage matters more today because of the stability it provides in these uncertain times of rapid cultural and technological change.
I believe in marriage not because I want to impose a lifestyle upon people - but because I want to help the majority to fulfil their aspiration to marry and stay married.
Because marriage joins more than a man and woman together it benefits the whole of society. Marriage brings extended families and communities together, too. Married couples, for example, are best placed to share the joys and challenges of caring for ageing relations. Many single parents rely on the support of married couples in the testing task of raising children alone. Many single parents, themselves, also hope that their own children will enjoy the companionship and security of married life.
Labour's 1997 manifesto was right when it said: 'how and what Governments tax sends clear signals about the values they wish to be entrenched in society'. But by abolishing the married couples' allowance, what was Labour signalling to the 80% of teenagers who aspire to marry?
The next Conservative government will reintroduce an explicit recognition of marriage into the tax system. Michael Portillo and I will be defining the nature of that commitment soon.
But our support for marriage goes further than the changes to the tax system. Today I want to describe the breadth of support that Conservatives will give to marriage and to all parents.
Family breakdown has tragic consequences for everyone involved - parents, children and society. If there are ways in which some of those breakdowns can be avoided by making sure help is available to couples if their marriage runs into difficulties, then it is obviously in all our interests to take them. Often, voluntary bodies, which are part of people's own communities will be the best placed and most approachable source of help.
The last Conservative government allowed voluntary agencies, such as the Jewish Marriage Council and the Asian Family Counselling Service, to bid for the existing public funds allocated to marriage guidance.
At the moment there is too little research into how effective these services have been. The new Office of Civil Society, that I announced yesterday, will remedy this. If, as I suspect, community and faith-based groups deliver real results we will expand this approach and allow such voluntary organisations to take a greater share of the money the government makes available.
Conservatives will make government work for all families. The Office of Civil Society, headed by a cabinet minister, will make sure that the importance of marriage and parenting is reflected in all decisions which the Governments make which have an impact on family life, going beyond the narrowly financial assessment which Whitehall usually makes.
Family life is under most pressure in disadvantaged communities. Alongside Conservative plans to deliver physical regeneration we will explicitly recognise the role of families, community groups and faith communities in addressing the varied personal and spiritual needs of damaged communities. The people who hold communities together must be the starting point for regeneration.
Political correctness is the enemy of social inclusion when it discourages the contribution of married couples, good neighbours and faith communities to the well-being of disadvantaged neighbourhoods.
The next Conservative government will introduce Family Scholarships for full-time parents and carers returning to work. Family Scholarships will be available for professional training, refresher courses or a first degree. No parent who has sacrificed earnings to care for a child should be penalised for that worthy choice. There is no greater responsibility in life than being a parent and full-time parents deserve a level playing-field from government.
I would like to conclude by focusing on fatherhood. Children need fathers. They need them as role models, for support, encouragement and financial stability. Yet hundreds of thousands of children will go to bed tonight without a dad in the home.
We need to give a fresh dignity to fatherhood. Fathers are not an optional extra. Women have a right to the support of fathers because as one mother put it, 'bringing up kids is hard'. The author Rob Parsons has written that the best thing that a father can do for his children is to love and cherish their mother.
The Conservative Party's commitment to raising the status of fathers will not impose a certain kind of model. Government cannot produce good fathers but it can do more to help those who work alongside them. I would highlight the work of Positive Parenting, the YMCA's Dads and Lads programme or the ministry of Care for the Family.
So thank you for listening to me. Gathered in this room are some of Britain's leading advocates of family life. Your work could not be of greater consequence to the future of our country. I pledge the next Conservative government to the support of your work and to stronger families for everyone.