THREE-QUARTERS of children in some parts of Britain will be born to unmarried mothers within the next parliament, official figures indicate.
The number of births to single mothers and unmarried cohabiting couples is set to exceed 50% across the country in the next five years.
However, data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggest that births outside of wedlock in some areas are already the norm and continue to rise.
Knowsley, Merseyside, one of Britain’s most deprived areas, has the highest proportion of children born to unmarried mothers, with the figure on course to hit 75% by 2014.
Critics believe the trend is further evidence of a deterioration in family values under Labour. It will present David Cameron with a pressing social problem if the Tories — who have pledged tax breaks to less well-off married couples — win power at the general election.
“It’s tremendously worrying,” said Ann Widdecombe, a former Home Office minister. “I think marriage has become devalued, as people don’t respect their wedding vows and therefore others don’t see the point of it.
“Children do much better at growing up against the background of two parents who are married and stably so.”
When new Labour came to power in 1997 the proportion of births outside wedlock was 36.7%. That had risen sharply to 45% by 2008, the latest year for which data are available — an annual rise of almost one point.
Some 30% of children were born to unmarried cohabiting couples, while up to 15% were born to single mothers.
The region with the highest proportion of births outside of marriage is the northeast (57%), closely followed by Wales (56%) and the northwest (52%).
By contrast, London has the lowest proportion of children born to unmarried mothers — 36% in 2008.
This is explained in part by greater affluence and large immigrant populations, particularly the Asian community, where marriage levels remain high.
“Marriage is closely linked to class,” said Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at Kent University. “Being married is a marker for lower middle-class and middle-class behaviour.
“But for people who are relatively economically marginalised, marriage is not really seen as something that you associate with bringing children into the world.” Furedi said regional disparities were linked to class and social deprivation rather than a simple north-south divide.
In Knowsley the proportion of births outside of wedlock jumped from 60% in 1997 to 68.5% a decade later — and will reach 75% by 2014 on current trends.
Emma Bostock, 23, had already split from the father of her 18-month-old daughter, Elizabeth, by the time her child was born.
“We’d been together for about six months when I got pregnant, but things didn’t work out and he did one [disappeared],” said Bostock, who relies on her own parents to help raise her daughter. “I don’t know if it’s worse [in Knowsley] than anywhere else.”
Other areas near the top of the league for unmarried mothers are Hartlepool in Co Durham, the former constituency of Lord Mandelson,where 68.1% of children are born outside of marriage, and nearby Sedgefield, Tony Blair’s old constituency, where the figure soared from 45.8% in 1997 to 63.4%.
The areas with the lowest proportion of unmarried mothers include Harrow, west London (21.5%); St Albans, Hertfordshire (22.9%); and London’s Kensington and Chelsea (23.6%) — all relatively wealthy locations.
However, with fewer couples rushing to tie the knot, a child born to unmarried parents may not, of course, necessarily be at a disadvantage.
The novelist Susan Elderkin, 40, lives with her long-term boyfriend Ash Ranpura, 34, a neuroscientist, and their 15- month-old son, Kirin, in Primrose Hill, north London. Elderkin said: “The most important thing is that we are happy and that we are there for him. That doesn’t make any difference whether you are married or not, as far as I’m concerned.”
Family life getting better – and friendlier
Children have friendlier and more open relationships with their parents now than 15 years ago, a study shows.
The research also reveals that almost three-quarters of mothers and more than half of fathers feel they now spend “about the right amount of time” with their offspring.
Richard Nicholls, economics editor at the Future Foundation, the think tank behind the study, said reduced working hours, increased flexitime and innovations such as smartphones were helping to improve family life.
“Parents are spending at least as much time and often more time with their children, and have a more open relationship with them than they themselves had with their own parents,” said Nicholls.
He added: “There is a myth of decline in family life, but the reality is that in many respects things are getting better.”
Although 83% of people believe families eat together less often than they did five years ago, the study shows that 82% of parents with children under 16 come together for an evening meal all or most of the time.