Chapter One Introduction
1.1 The Legal Studies Research Team of the Scottish Executive and the Nuffield Foundation jointly commissioned the Scottish Centre for Social Research and the Centre for Research on Families and Relationships to include a module on family issues in the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey 2004 in order to canvass public views and knowledge on a range of family matters including knowledge of the law about and attitudes to wider kin relationships. Here we report on the key findings from that module.
1.2 The Scottish Executive and the Nuffield Foundation have both been aware that the wide-ranging demographic changes in family life, such as in partnership formation and parenthood, create new issues and challenges for public policy. There is also a commitment within Government to ensure new policy and law is built on a firm base of evidence. One component of that body of evidence is a good understanding of both public knowledge and public opinion on personal, often controversial, matters. While evidence about public attitudes to responsibilities of wider kin relationships and public understanding of family law is only one input to policy formation in family law, it is an important one if social and family policies are to go with the grain of public opinion.
Background to the family module
1.3 The module seeks to produce evidence of the public's understanding of and attitudes towards the moral and legal responsibilities and rights that exist between partners and across generations in the light of the radical and rapid social change in family relationships in recent decades. It is based on interviews with a representative sample of the adult Scottish population that took place just before Scottish family law was about to undergo significant reform, in order to bring it more into line with current patterns of family formation and behaviour. The findings from the module will help policy makers ascertain the extent to which family law reform is likely to produce a good fit between family law on the one hand and related public attitudes and knowledge on the other. They will also provide a baseline of evidence for any future assessment of public knowledge and attitudes following major family law reform.
1.4 One of the key functions of family law is to codify the responsibilities and rights of the various parties in the event of the death of a partner or the dissolution of an adult partnership. Hitherto much of much of this has been achieved through the law on marriage, once by far the most common form of adult partnership relationship. But now many heterosexual couples choose, initially at least, to cohabit even if they do eventually decide to get married. Meanwhile same sex cohabitation has become more visible. More importantly, whatever the form of a relationship, it is less likely to be for life. Marriages 'till death us do part' may not have disappeared but they are typically described in more conditional terms of mutual love and 'commitment' rather than obligation (Lewis, 2001). In any event, a high level of marital breakdown is outstripped by the rate of dissolution of non-marital unions. As a result there have been demands that the law needs to provide better protection in the event that forms of partnership, other than marriage, come to an end.
1.5 The most obvious impact of couple dissolution is on the partners themselves. One partner may be in need of financial support, while in the event of death the surviving partner will be affected by the law on inheritance. One important question that thus arises is whether the responsibilities and rights that married couples have when these eventualities occur should also be extended to co-habitees and single sex relationships. But high rates of couple dissolution and reformation also affect intergenerational relationships. For example, step-parents and co-resident partners (including same sex partners) may become involved in parenting roles for co-resident children despite not being their biological parent. However, at present they have no legal rights in respect of these children. Further, we know little about how the public views the moral obligations of social parents in the event of couple dissolution. Meanwhile, there is also some evidence that single parents are more reliant on grandparents to help look after their children, and that indeed they can play an important role in fostering resilience amongst children who have experienced parental break up. Yet it is not clear what responsibilities and rights the public thinks that grandparents should have if a child does not live with both biological parents, whether those responsibilities and rights are viewed differently if the parents are not married, or whether they are thought to extend to a step-parenting arrangement.
1.6 There is therefore a need for a more systematic understanding of the public's knowledge of and attitudes to these questions. Some aspects have been tackled in previous work. Attitudes to cohabitation versus marriage, and views and knowledge of the legal responsibilities and rights of cohabiting couples have been previously analysed by the British Social Attitudes Survey (Barlow et al 2001) and the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey (Barlow, 2002). Similarly, attitudes to the role of grandparents, including experience of and the nature of contact between grandparents and grandchildren, together with views about the value of grandparents' contribution to bringing up children were examined in detail on the 1998 British Social Attitude survey (Dench et al, 1998). But this latter project did not examine views on the legal and moral responsibilities and rights of grandparents, while the former largely neglected the responsibilities and rights of same sex partners and step-parents. By bringing these subjects together this study provides the first systematic portrayal of the perceived responsibilities and rights of each key group and thus identify what distinctions, if any, the public draws between different kinds of partnership and intergenerational relationships as to the responsibilities and rights they should engender.
1.7 This study also comes at an opportune moment. The 1999 Scottish White Paper, Parents and Children was a comprehensive package of proposed change in family law that covered many of the issues in this study and its proposals are largely embodied in the Family Law (Scotland) Bill introduced in the Scottish Parliament in February 2005. Inter alia, the Bill, if enacted, will extend parental responsibilities to many unmarried fathers, allow some step-parents to acquire parental responsibilities, and extend to cohabitating couples some financial obligations and property rights that pertain when a marriage ends. In addition civil registration for same sex partnerships will become possible under the provisions of the Civil Partnership Act 2004. While there are currently no proposals to extend the rights of grandparents, voices such as the voluntary organization Grandparents Apart are lobbying for such change. By undertaking this study at this time we can inform public debate and assess how far the imminent family law reform is in line with what the public think that law both should be and currently is.
About the study
1.8 Thus, the principal aim of the family law module was to develop a body of current evidence on public understandings and attitudes on key questions about the moral and legal norms that do and should apply to some of the wider range of family relationships that are becoming increasingly commonplace, and to address three key questions:
- How far is current family law out of line with existing social norms?
- How far do the reforms to current law improve the fit between the law and social norms?
- How accurate is the public's understanding of family law?
The questions focused on aspects of knowledge and attitudes towards
- Unmarried fathers
- Unmarried cohabiting couples, both opposite and same-sex
- Sexual relationships in various circumstances
- Married couples, as a basis for comparison
1.9 Respondents were also asked within this module about some of their own familial circumstances and histories that are not routinely covered in the core questions of the survey. The module is reproduced in Appendix 1.
1.10 The module consists of a total of 50 items. The Scottish Executive has funded 20 of the module items on cohabiting partnerships and on grandparenting, most of which have previously been asked on previous Scottish and/or British Social Attitudes surveys. The Nuffield Foundation has funded 30 new items on same sex partnerships, step-parents and grandparents. Both organizations have agreed that the report should integrate the two halves as a single report.
1.11 The questions asked relate to many of the issues addressed in the Family Law (Scotland) Bill, which was introduced in the Scottish Parliament on 7 February 2005. This Bill is the result of a long period of deliberation and policy development by the Scottish Law Commission and the Scottish Executive, a period which included a Green Paper, a White Paper and three stages of public consultation (Scottish Executive 2005). These findings will provide policy makers with a baseline of evidence of the Scottish public's knowledge and attitudes towards many of the issues addressed by the legislation.
1.12 A 'scenarios' approach was adopted in order to ground questions in a small number of familiar cases that exemplify important wider issues and to understand how those views vary across the population. This approach is well suited to get at public understandings and attitudes on key questions about the moral and legal norms that do and should apply to some of the wider range of family relationships that are becoming increasingly commonplace.
1.13 The scenarios chosen are presented in full in the figures at the beginning of the relevant chapters (see Appendix 1 for full the full module). These relate to
- Married and unmarried heterosexual couples
- Same sex couples (half of the respondents were asked about male couples and the other half about female couples)
Following these, respondents were asked about their attitudes towards sexual relationships generally and also about their family circumstances and biographies.
1.14 In this report we summarise and analyse, in relation to each of the areas identified above, the responses to these questions for the Scottish population as a whole, and then compare how responses vary across the population by major social divisions such as age, gender, social class, educational qualifications, household income, housing tenure and marital status/history. For the purpose of this analysis, we classified respondents into two or three categories for each of these key socio-demographic variables, as in Figure 1.1 below. Of course, some of these variables are inter-related, such as age and educational level, since younger people are more likely than older people to have educational qualifications.
Figure 1.1. Classification of respondents by educational level, sex, age, social class, marital status, income quartile and housing tenure
40 or more
Recoded into income
1.15 We compare how attitudes vary according to respondents' knowledge about the legal position. In the next chapter (2), we look at attitudes towards unmarried cohabitation, compared with attitudes towards marriage. In chapter 3 we look at attitudes and knowledge about same sex couples. Chapter 4 focuses on step-parents and chapter 5 on grandparents. Chapter 6 presents findings on attitudes towards sexual relationships generally. Chapter 7 is the concluding chapter.
1.16 Where possible, we have sought to draw comparisons between these results and earlier data produced in the British Social Attitudes Survey and the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey modules on family law issues in relation to marriage and cohabitation mentioned above.
The Scottish Social Attitudes Survey
1.17 The Scottish Social Attitudes survey has been conducted annually by the Scottish Centre for Social Research since 1999 ( SCSR; formerly known as the National Centre for Social Research Scotland and a full part of the National Centre for Social Research who conduct the British Social Attitudes Survey). It is designed to provide high quality data on Scottish public opinion in order to facilitate the academic study of public attitudes and to inform the development and evaluation of public policy. The survey is funded on a 'modular' basis, with up to five different funders in any one year. The topics of the other non-core modules in the 2004 survey were young people and crime, environmental justice, and drinking and smoking. Funding is most commonly obtained from the Scottish Executive, the ESRC and other grant awarding bodies.
1.18 The data in this report are taken from a module of questions asked in the 2004 Scottish Social Attitudes survey. This survey involved a face-to-face interview with respondents and a self-completion questionnaire, completed by around seven in ten of these people. The survey was designed to yield a representative sample of adults aged 18 or over living in Scotland. The sample frame was the Postcode Address File ( PAF), a list of postal delivery points compiled by the Post Office. A total of 1637 adults were interviewed, with a response rate of 61%, as outlined in Table 1.1.
Table 1.1 Scottish Social Attitudes Survey 2004 Response analysis
Vacant, derelict and other out of scope2
Interview not achieved
1.19 Data were weighted to take account of the fact that not all households or individuals had the same probability of selection for the survey. For example, adults living in large households have a lower selection probability than adults who live alone. Weighting was also used to correct the over-sampling of rural addresses. All the percentages presented in this report are based on weighted data, the unweighted sample sizes are shown in the tables.
1.20 Fieldwork ran between July and December 2004 (with 80% completed by the end of August). An advance letter was sent to all addresses and was followed up by a personal visit from a Scottish Centre for Social Research interviewer. All interviewers attended a one day briefing conference prior to starting work. Interviews were conducted using face-to-face computer-assisted interviewing (a process which involves the use of a laptop computer, with questions appearing on screen and interviewers directly entering respondents' answers into the computer). All respondents were asked to fill in a self-completion questionnaire which was either collected by the interviewer or returned by post.