Today is Father’s Day, the day when we celebrate the role of fathers in society and when those of us who still have fathers can spend time with them, or send them cards and gifts. This makes it an opportunity for advertisers to persuade us to buy useless junk for our fathers – cufflinks, mugs, DIY items, gardening stuff, toys and chocolate. For many children, however, Father’s Day is an occasion of bafflement, indifference or grief.
Today is also, traditionally, a day when the papers invite journalists to write pieces about fathers. Increasingly these give the anti-father lobby an opportunity to denigrate and belittle fathers. Two years ago the Telegraph published an appallingly ignorant and bigoted item by David Cameron, attacking non-resident fathers and showing a dismal lack of understanding about what causes fatherlessness,
We need to make Britain a genuinely hostile place for fathers who go AWOL. It’s high time runaway dads were stigmatised, and the full force of shame was heaped upon them. They should be looked at like drink drivers, people who are beyond the pale.
This year the Telegraph carries a more appropriate interview with the author and patron of Families Need Fathers, Louis de Bernières, “Marriage has degenerated into an anti-male institution, heavily weighted against fathers, and made worse by lawyers using the adversarial system to ratchet up confrontation over custody of the children when the marriage comes to an end”. Elsewhere in the paper, however, self-appointed fatherhood expert Ian Douglas condemns Thursday’s vandalism by Tim Haries of the painting of the Queen in Westminster Abbey, saying it has set back fathers’ rights by decades; Matt O’Connor responds that he would agree if fathers had any rights. Douglas is a fool with no comprehension of the issues, but he has a point, even if he exaggerates. It will certainly set back Tim’s case.
The event brought Fathers 4 Justice back into the public eye – for all the wrong reasons again – but has overshadowed more grown-up efforts to tackle the issue of mass fatherlessness such as the report published this week by the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), a think-tank established by Iain Duncan-Smith, called Fractured Families: why stability matters.
Wanton criminal damage of this sort, albeit of a fourth-rate daub, will not enhance the F4J campaign, and, sadly, because F4J hogs the limelight, largely for the sake of it, the rest of the equal parenting movement will be tarred by the same spray-can. This will not play well with the public, nor with the politicians whose support we need. There was a time when O’Connor brought humour and colour to the campaign, but he has given up trying to capture “hearts and minds” and now just rails against the system.
The CSJ press release which heralded their report stated that, “Around one million children grow up with no contact with their father”.
When I was research director for F4J, a job I fulfilled from about 2006 until last year, Matt O’Connor used to ask me each year to find out how many children that year would not be seeing their fathers on Father’s Day. It was an impossible figure to determine because the data are not recorded and, while Matt found that frustrating, it seemed to me an indication of how little anyone actually cared about fatherlessness.
It turns out that the CSJ’s one million figure comes from a report by the Fatherhood Institute (a wishy-washy, pro-feminist outfit of surrender monkeys) which estimated a figure without explanation or justification between 1 and 2 million – the CSJ should know their figures will be pulled apart and should be far more rigorous with their research.
Fathers 4 Justice themselves posted on Facebook this week, declaring, “3.8 million children are fatherless in the UK”. A confused Matt O’Connor blustered, “This [1 million] figure is at odds with other figures by the Office of National Statistics which cites 3.8 million children living in single parent households, the majority of which are headed by mothers”.
Their figure is a misinterpretation of a 2010 Office for National Statistics figure for the number of children not living with their biological father. Many of those households will have stepfathers in and many of those children will see their biological fathers regularly, and some will have good levels of contact, but for F4J, if dad isn’t the custodial parent, that child is fatherless. When Matt’s former colleague Glen Poole corrected him Matt continued to use the false figure.
The CSJ went on to state that the number of lone parent families is increasing at the rate of 20,000 a year and will hit 2 million by the next general election (the ONS figure for 2012 is 1,986,000).
The report also discusses the paucity of male teachers in schools (who can provide male role models to fatherless children) and the growth of what it (rather inelegantly) calls “men deserts”: areas of the country where the majority of households are headed by a single mother.
The report reserves its harshest criticism, however, for David Cameron’s government which, it says, has turned “a blind eye to its commitment to promote family stability” (the Government celebrated Father’s Day by announcing an increase in court fees by as much as 44%). In 2007 when UNICEF produced its devastating report on child well-being in which Britain came bottom out of 21 countries Cameron declared, “Sometimes a piece of research is published which goes straight to the heart of the national debate – it holds up a mirror to the whole of society and makes us see ourselves as we really are”. He said he wanted the report to represent a turning point in the country’s history, and announced a new Conservative commitment to put families ahead of the nation’s wealth.
And yet here is another such report, on Cameron’s watch, and Cameron has been found sleeping.
As I blogged last week, Cameron promised in December 2010 to make Britain “the most family-friendly country in Europe”. In August 2011 he proclaimed,
from here on I want a family test applied to all domestic policy. If it hurts families, if it undermines commitment, if it tramples over the values that keep people together, or stops families from being together, then we shouldn’t do it.
In the Mail Peter Hitchens has taken the CSJ report as the starting point for a superb exposition of the War on Fatherhood, blaming it on the Great Cultural and Moral Revolution of the 1960s and ‘70s.
The fiery heart of this was the Divorce Reform Act of 1969. This change was very popular. It is interesting to note that, just before it began its way through Parliament, Engelbert Humperdinck’s hymn for would-be divorcees, Release Me, pushed the Beatles off the top of the music charts for weeks on end.
The new law pretty much embodied the song’s plea, ‘Please release me, let me go/For I don’t love you any more/To waste our lives would be a sin/Release me and let me love again.’
Portrayed at the time as a kindness to those trapped in loveless marriages, the new law made it much easier to end a troubled union than to fight to save it.
And once this had become general, marriage changed with amazing speed from a lifelong commitment into a lifestyle choice. And from a lifestyle choice it changed into a risky and often inconvenient contract. Divorce wasn’t shameful or embarrassing any more…
But everyone, throughout this great period of release and revolt, forgot one small thing. What was to become of the children?
Now we are finding out. And a generation which has never known fathers, or family life, or fidelity or constancy, is now busy begetting children of its own.
Ironically, he quotes D H Lawrence, “Break [marriage], and you will have to go back to the overwhelming dominance of the State”. It is the married family which is our greatest defence against tyranny.
Predictably, there has been hostile reaction from some corners to the alleged vilification of lone parent families by the Centre for Social Justice.
Bristol barrister Darren Lewis, for example, tweeted, “I detest the stigmatisation of single parents”. Darren was raised by a single mother and is keen to defend his “Mam” – it is rare that single mothers or their children will admit that raising children without fathers is not ideal; these children often repeat the denigration of their fathers – and thence of all fathers – they were taught by their mothers. This is logic of the “I was dropped on the head as a baby and it didn’t do ME any harm” school.
Gingerbread, the organisation which promotes lone parenthood, said the picture painted was “melodramatic” and denied that the proportion of lone parent families was increasing, a claim flatly contradicted by ONS statistics. They were more concerned with making absent parents pay, an antediluvian approach which has failed repeatedly because it is based on a false premise, and demanded yet more measures to enforce payment. No doubt they believe that if government does the same thing over and over again often enough the results will eventually be different.
Residents of some of the “man deserts” argued that fatherlessness was not as high in these areas as claimed because some families were falsely claiming lone parent benefits with the fathers registered at other addresses, but this, too, is a terrible indictment of government policy which actively encourages benefit fraud and the formation of lone parent families.
The Guardian commissioned an attack on the CSJ report from hack Sarah Ditum who urges, “Whatever you do on Father’s Day, don’t buy into the fear of ‘men deserts’”. She seeks to discredit the figures and undermine the findings, but reveals only an irresponsible lack of concern for the effects of fatherlessness. Her use of terms like “spunkless years” and “fanny ghetto” do her credibility no favours and she hasn’t the knowledge or the ability to critique the CSJ’s statistics. It is fairly standard feminist, bash-the-patriarchy fare, with its idea that a father’s contribution must be mediated through the mother,
this report, with its wobbly stats and its exaggerated claims, isn’t actually about what’s best for children: it’s about the fear that some women and children might be perfectly OK without a masculine hand hanging over the household.
David Lammy, also writing in the Guardian, makes the same mistake. Another man brought up by a single mother, Lammy typifies the way the left see fathers only in terms of what they can offer mothers, “Because we expect too little from dads who don’t want to be there and are too hard on dads who do, mothers lose out either way.” But it isn’t mothers who lose out so much as the children, and he seems not to see that as the paramount concern. We should not be too harsh on him: he is one of the good guys, and promotes some valuable ideas, such as ensuring that all fathers are named on their children’s birth certificates, an idea which has been mooted and dropped repeatedly by the politicians. He has written a report, Doing Family: Encouraging Active Fatherhood, and submitted it to Labour. While there is clearly a vacancy, it is far too early for Labour to become the party of the family, after their appalling record under Blair and Brown.
Natasha Phillips in her Researching Reform blog does the same thing, celebrating father-figures “whether your father is your biological dad, your adopted dad, your step dad, a loving uncle or friend who has loved and supported you through difficult and delightful times”. Presumably she thinks all these roles are interchangeable, though I doubt she would say the same about biological mums, adopted mums, step mums, aunts or female friends. It is so careless and unthinking, this denigration of fathers.
Louis de Bernières thinks that the Children and Families Bill, currently making its way through Parliament, will help, but he shares FNF’s over-optimistic view of it, believing that it “aims to create an assumption of shared parenting when partners separate”. Sadly it will do nothing of the sort, and only contains a presumption of “involvement” which will fall short of what is really required. Sky News this week was even more confused, thinking that the legislation had become law back in November.
Prize for the nastiest piece of Father’s Day writing today has to go to the Huffington Post article by Louise Pennington, Father’s Day: Celebrating ‘Good Enough’ Fathers Is a Waste of Time. It clearly offends Ms Pennington that anyone should celebrate fathers, so she treats us to the usual feminist list of fathers who are violent, fathers who abuse, fathers who don’t pay child support, fathers who kill. She ends with a bizarre list of tips on how to be a father – bizarre, because few men, I suspect, would seek advice on parenting from a radical man-hating feminist. It is an unpleasant bit of writing, written with undisguised hatred, but what is sadder is the need organs like the Huff Post have to commission these sort of things for Father’s Day. It is also identical to the piece she wrote last year – perhaps the rad fems have run out of vitriol.
If it proves anything, this rough-and-ready round-up of today’s Father’s Day stories and articles reveals the profound lack of knowledge and understanding of this most serious of issues, this national emergency. There is a need for understanding, and for solid research and evidence, not the crude, poorly-researched school-boy essay of the Family Justice Review. We need to have a national debate which goes beyond the equivocation of the Fatherhood Institute, or the pro-feminism of the Guardian, but we cannot while F4J stands in the way, portraying fathers as vandals and buffoons. And finally we need action: not the feeble half-measures of the Children and Families Bill, but a full dismantling of the Children Act and its replacement by something which will deliver robust relationships between children and their fathers.