Derek Thomas is MP for St Ives.
When we talk about family breakdown, what we really mean is dads leaving families. According to the latest ONS data, 2.7million children have no father figure at home and over one million children have little or no contact with their birth father. Forty-one per cent of non-resident fathers have little or no contact with their child. Some years ago the Centre for Social Justice identified 236 fatherlessness hotspots in England and Wales, where more than 50 per cent of households with dependent children had no meaningful contact with their birth father. As a country we are sleep walking into a fatherlessness crisis. This which is one reason I’m supporting a Manifesto to Strengthen Families with Fiona Bruce MP and dozens of colleagues.
To some extent, the Government gets it. Just before the General Election, the Department of Work and Pensions released a policy paper called Improving Lives which made it clear in Whitehall jargon that ‘services’ have a long way to go to recognise fathers and ensure they play an active role in the lives of their children. Only one in four dads feel that there is enough support to help them play a positive role in family life. The Government indicated it might review how to support fathers. My hope is that, despite the many other priorities, the Government seizes this opportunity rather than kicks it into the long grass or simply forgets to do it.
Positive fatherhood puts rocket boosters on improving school standards. An Oxford University study found children whose fathers were more confident about being a parent, and who were more emotionally positive about the role, were less likely to show behavioural difficulties by the ages of nine and 11. The children of active fathers are up to 28 per cent less likely to suffer behavioural problems in their pre-teen years. What’s more, DWP agrees; research collected by the department shows that children with highly involved dads do better at school, have higher self-esteem, and are less likely to get into trouble in adolescence. Whichever way you cut it, dads really matter and we need to wake up to this.
It’s also an often forgotten social justice issue. At its most extreme, 76 per cent of all male prisoners come from households without a father figure in the home. Boys with little or no involvement with their fathers are twice as likely to become offenders compared to boys with highly involved fathers. Children from low income households who have an active father figure at home are 25 per cent more likely to escape the poverty they are growing up in.
A good first place to start would be to finally bring into being Schedule 6 of the 2010 Welfare Reform Act 2010, which requires all fathers to be included on Birth Certificates (with appropriate exemptions). Currently, seven per cent of all UK fathers are missing from Birth Certificates. Mandating, where appropriate, all fathers to be included on Birth Certificates would enable local authorities to identify almost all fathers in their local area, helping to kick-start support for dads at the early stage. This is a simple and long overdue reform. In an answer to a Parliamentary Question from David Lammy, the Government confirmed it was still ‘considering’ the responses to a review on this issue in 2010 – all 27 of them.
Certifying the birth of a child is an absurdly out of date process and missed opportunity. The Manifesto for Strengthening Families recommends that this simple, bureaucratic procedure is reformed and refocused on pinpointing how we can support new parents, rather than pressing print on a computer. If we want to help dads, especially low income dads, we first of all need to know who they are.
In 2016, the Centre for Social Justice released a Father’s Day opinion poll where they quizzed a nationally representative sample of UK dads. This poll uncovered some worrying results. When asked whether there was any information or guidance provided for new fathers, 55 per cent of low income fathers in particular said they were simply left to “pick it up themselves”. Fifty per cent of new fathers said they felt there wasn’t enough support to prepare them for fatherhood or help them with parenting, and almost half of the same dads (42 per cent) said the NHS didn’t cater well for their needs.
The NHS has an important part to play giving fathers the best start. This is the first place where almost all new fathers will show up for the first time. In a recent Oxford University study of first time fathers, researchers found new dads felt under-supported by health staff and complained that too often services were aimed at mothers, with no specific support for fathers.
Our manifesto challenges maternity services to open their doors to fathers-to-be, and help these dads from the beginning, long before a child arrives. Fathers should be personally invited to antenatal appointments. Fatherhood preparation classes, to help them support their partner and be ready for the early stages of parenthood, should be standard. These classes should help fathers recognise, with their baby’s mother, the strains on their own relationship and how to cope with them. Long term research from Professors Carolyn and Philip Cowan in the United States shows that the arrival of a newborn sends relationship quality plummeting.
Maternity wards are where it all begins. Anyone who visits a hospital is inundated with performance facts and figures displayed prominently in public areas. The days of calming landscapes and tatty artworks are long gone. This is the NHS run by management consultants. Maternity units should collect information about the specific experience of fathers as part of the well-established NHS Friends and Family Test, to refocus maternity services on supporting the whole family.
There is so much the Government (along with local authorities) can do to tackle the UK’s staggering levels of family breakdown. Positive fatherhood is a big piece of that jigsaw, which is why I and so many other Conservative MPs are supporting the Manifesto to Strengthen Families. We need to catch fathers right from the beginning – which is why challenging the NHS to do more and changing the way we register births to target and support fathers most in need of support would be a big step in the right direction.