BBC Panorama’s investigation into “Britain’s army of absentee fathers” began with a bold statement from the Coalition Government’s Poverty Tsar, Frank Field, who has called for “feckless fathers” who are unemployed to be forced to either work or have their benefits removed.
According to the Labour MP for Birkenhead:
“We are the first generation in recorded history where society has not made the man who begets a child responsible for that child.”
But Frank Field’s focus on “feckless fathers” in the UK is “unthinkably crass and damaging to poor young men and their families who deserve better from the UK’s Poverty Tsar”, says The Men’s Network chair, Glen Poole.
Field’s controversial assertion is also at odds with the equally controversial view of the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, who had announced on the day of the broadcast that one of the primary causes of the so-called “feckless father” phenomena was a benefit system whose rules penalize low-income parents who want to bring up their children together.
”These rules patronise women and marginalise men,” said Clegg.
“They’re based on a view of life in which mothers stay at home and fathers are the only breadwinners. That’s an Edwardian system that has no place in 21st century Britain.”
“Women suffer,” Clegg continued. “Mothers are expected to take on the vast bulk of childcare themselves. If they don’t, they very often feel judged. If they do, they worry about being penalised at work.”
And Clegg didn’t stop at the suffering of mothers, he went on to address the suffering of children who miss out on their dads.
“Children suffer, too often missing out on time with their fathers,” he said. “Time that is desperately important to their development.”
But that wasn’t the end of it, because men in the UK are suffering too according to the Liberal Party leader, here it comes:
”And men suffer too. More and more fathers want to play a hands-on role with their young children. But too many feel that they can’t.”
If the focus on all this “suffering” was a little dramatic, the truth of the argument still rang out through Panorama’s investigation into “Britain’s Missing Dads” but the strange thing was, that Clegg was nowhere to be seen.
Having nailed the issue so completely by identifying that the key problem is our Edwardian benefit system that takes a view of life that fathers are the only breadwinners – and as a result mums suffer, children miss out on their dads, and dads want to be more involved in parenting but can’t – why on earth did Panorama not show this footage?
There was a very simple reason for this. The Edwardian system that Nick Clegg condemned yesterday as having no place in 21st century Britain wasn’t the benefit system that makes it financially more rewarding for low-income mums to live apart from dad, it was the UK’s parental leave system.
And yet the parallels are obvious. Both systems seek to support parents who are bringing up children and both systems work on the sexist “Edwardian” assumption that men are the breadwinners and women look after the children.
The difference is that while Clegg, Cameron and their mates understand what it’s like to be a modern dad struggling to find the right balance of breadwinning and childcaring between them – they have no idea what it’s like to be a poor young man who didn’t have a father, underperformed at school, has limited work options, gets a young woman who didn’t have a dad herself pregnant, has little idea yet how to manage a career or take care of a child – let alone how to juggle to two – and be told that you are a “feckless father” and that “we the state” demand that you be the primary breadwinner whilst “we the state” continue to provide financial and practical support for the mother of your child to stay at home on benefits.
If this Edwardian approach to family life has “no place in 21st Century Britain” when it comes to the UK’s parental leave system, then why is it okay to impose such a system on young dads who have had a pretty wretched start in life?
A few months before he came to power (albeit shared) with Mr Clegg, the Prime Minister, David Cameron pledged to make the next Conservative government “the most family-friendly government ever”.
Now in Government, Cameron’s Inter Ministerial Group on Equalities has also pledged to “encourage shared parenting from the earliest stage of pregnancy” and “support mothers and fathers to share their child’s care between them” in its new Equalities Strategy.
But what do they mean by shared parenting?
So far the focus has been on the welcome news that parental leave will be reformed to give mums and dads “in all types of families” greater flexibility to share both childcare and career.
But what about separated families?
In the UK while the former Equal Opportunities Commission found in 2007 that couples now share childcare about 50:50 (though mums still do more housework and dads do more paid work) – when couples are separated – before or after a child is born – only 11% share childcare – according to the Fatherhood Institute’s Family Fairness Index.
So if this Government is serious about its worthy intention to tackle inequality in the UK by supporting mothers and fathers to share parenting then it has a very long to go because in nearly 1 in 4 families in the UK mums and dads are separated and not sharing care.
For established couples who separate, family law reform is long overdue, not just for the many Fathers 4 Justice dads but also for couples who need help and support to work things out together.
And for the “feckless fathers” in last night’s Panorama programme we need radical reform of the benefits system and a transformation of services for men, boys and dads
We need to see projects like the excellent St Michael’s Fellowship in South London, featured in the programme, available right across the country. They gave us a very different view of “feckless dads” as young men “who want to be the best dads for their children – young men who very much want to be good dads”.
The charity has reconnected more than 100 dads with their children helping these young men to tackle issues they are facing such as homelessness, illiteracy and unemployment first.
We saw one young dad who described himself as “lost” and “left out” of his child’s life who was getting help to be more involved in his daughter’s upbringing than his own father was in his. We also met a “feckless dad” who wanted to live with his partner and child but couldn’t afford to because she would lose a chunk of a benefits if he lived in the same house as his family.
It was at this point that Frank Field agreed that the benefit system keeps fathers away from their children by paying parents to remain apart.
“If you were designing a crazy system that would mess up kids you’d come up with the system you’ve got now,” he said. “I think the tide is changing because people are seeing what the consequences for children are when you have a benefit system that pays parents to remain apart”.
And here a big unanswered question hung in the air.
If it is the Edwardian benefit system that pays parents to stay apart, shouldn’t our Poverty Tsar be waging war on the system first, rather than demonising poor young men who are “lost” and “left out” as “feckless fathers” who should simply get a job or lose their benefits?
And if that challenge is too big for Frank Field – as it proved in 1998 when he walked out on his jobs as Minster for Welfare Reform – shouldn’t he at least be backing projects like St Michael’s that are working hard to support young dads who want to share in every aspect of parenting with the mother of their child (like privileged dads like Cameron and Clegg dads) – and not just be seen as ‘feckless” when they fail to live up to the expectations of the Edwardian breadwinner?
Sadly, Field dismissed the reporter Declan Lawn’s notion that we need projects like St Michael’s all over the country changing attitudes and working with young as an idea from “cloud cuckoo land”.
But surely if the right to share parenting in “all types of families” is now deemed to be an issue of equality by the Government – and the Government is to reform the parental leave system to give privileged fathers like Cameron and Clegg support to share parenting with their partners – they why on earth would we not also take action to support the poorest, most challenged young fathers in the country?
In a recent speech to the Charities Parliament, Frank Field bemoaned the fact that the sector hadn’t “woken up to the huge opportunity that is being offered to it” by the Big Society agenda by “picking up the ball and running with it in its own direction”.
Surely in a Big Society that works it isn’t a “cloud cuckoo land” idea that every community has a project like the St Michael’s Fellowship championing and supporting struggling young dads to be the great fathers they so badly want to be.
Yes it’s a Big Idea – maybe even a Big Society idea – but all of the biggest ideas start with one person having a conversation that inspires other people to take action.
Mr Field priding himself in trying to “think the unthinkable” when he was Minister for Welfare Reform – that was a great conversation to start.
This conversation he has started about “feckless fathers” is unthinkably crass and damaging to poor young men and their families who deserve better from the UK’s Poverty Tsar.
What poor young dads need is people of Mr Field’s position to start conversations about reforming benefits that keep dads out of their children’s lives, reforming a family law system that leaves just 11% of separated dads parents sharing care and championing the idea of developing support services like St Michaels for every dad, in every community whether these are delivered by charities, community groups, businesses or the public sector.
We already have a national infrastructure in place for supporting mothers and children through maternity services, health centres, Sure Start centres, teenage mother projects, schools and other local partners – all we need now is an unthinkable vision that theses services could be developed to provide services to all dads too.
If supporting parents like Cameron and Clegg to share parenting by reforming our Edwardian parental leave system is not unthinkable, then it shouldn’t be unthinkable to reform our Edwardian benefits and social care systems to support fathers and mothers equally and make it easier for mothers and fathers in “all types of families” to share responsibility for caring for and providing for their children.
Glen Poole, Chair, The Men’s Network