Examination of Witnesses (Questions 288
TUESDAY 8 MAY 2001
288. Can I welcome our witnesses from Families
Need Fathers. Would you introduce yourselves and say a bit about
(Mr Parton) Yes. My name is Jim Parton, I am the Chairman
of Families Need Fathers. We have given evidence in other Select
Committees on the CSA and pension splitting in divorce. We have
been going for 27 years. We are often characterised as a pressure
group, which we do not like because we are not a pressure group.
If only we could exert pressure on certain institutions, we would
like that. Really we are a self-help group. We have got around
3,000 members. People come to us, married fathers and unmarried
fathers, who are having difficulties seeing their kids and we
give them "been there, done that" advice. We are not
professionals but most of us have either been through a divorce
or In my case I was married and went through a divorce
and John is unmarried. I will probably do a lot less of the talking
than John because John is the author of our submission, which
I hope you have all got copies of, which we wrote to the Lord
Chancellor's Department in 1998.
289. Can I say that we have got copies but,
unfortunately, they only arrived this morning so we have not had
a chance to read them. Mr Shirley, perhaps you could introduce
yourself briefly and summarise the key points of your concerns
in relation to this legislation?
(Mr Shirley) I am a single father of a nine year old
son. I share parental responsibility for him with his mother and
that was reached by agreement. I have not been married. I made
something of a study of the question of parental responsibility
when my own case was involved obviously. When the Lord Chancellor
put out the consultation paper two years ago I was chairing a
group of our members who considered the question for unmarried
fathers. Obviously our concern in this Bill is principally limited
to clause 91. We welcome the clause as such, it is a considerable
step forward and it will sort a real difficulty out for a large
number of people. I suppose there are a number of concerns that
we have about it. The clause as it is at the moment still allows
parental responsibility for unmarried fathers to be revoked. That
seems to us to be an anomaly. I suppose our thinking on this issue
starts from the point that in relation to the welfare of a child
it is no longer tenable to maintain any distinction between married
and unmarried parents in terms of their relationship with the
child. Obviously both parents of a married couple who have children
have automatic parental responsibility and that cannot be removed,
that is a life time obligation of that couple. Nor can the parental
responsibility which is at present given to unmarried mothers.
It seems to us anomalous that it should be revokable in the case
of unmarried fathers. That is a slight concern that we have about
the clause as it is written. I would hope that you might feel
able to look at the issue slightly more boldly and to consider
the awarding of parental responsibility to all unmarried fathers
with obvious exceptions. I think the exceptions would be very
few but the obvious sort would be a convicted rapist, for example.
In the vast majority of cases we feel that the unmarried father
does have a commitment to his child. There may be a number of
reasons why he does not sign the birth certificate, which is the
qualification that is put on it at the moment. We would like to
see it broadened out. We would like to push further on that. I
think where the father is not present at the birth registration,
which again relates to the qualification for here, we would like
to see a duty placed on registrars to put in place steps to see
if it is possible to establish who the father is because, of course,
there are a number of reasons why a father would not sign the
birth certificate at the time. In so far as the clause goes, we
welcome it. I suppose I am just hoping that you might consider
(Mr Parton) Can I add just a brief anecdote which
was a case that came to me. He was a guy who was from Plymouth,
an unmarried father. The mother was an alcoholic and I think maybe
she had mental problems as well. She decided that she could not
cope and she put their twin girls up for adoption without telling
him. He discovered rather late in the process that this was going
on, by which time the whole thing had gathered its own momentum
and it appeared there was no way of stopping it. He was a perfectly
decent, stable, ordinary kind of guy and he could have looked
after those children. He went to court to try to stop the process.
I think by that stage, as I say, it had gathered its own unstoppable
momentum and people did not want to back down. Because he was
an unmarried father without parental responsibility there was
not even a legal duty on anybody to find out that he existed but
there should have been because there was a birth parent who could
have looked after the children had anyone taken the trouble to
find him. That is one of the reasons why we think PR is important.
That is a real life case.
290. Thank you for those comments. Can I put
to you a point I made earlier on which is the issue of whether
this measure has got the balance right between the welfare of
the child and the rights of the actual family. The issue of achieving
this balance has challenged numerous governments over the years.
We have heard different views this morning as to whether it has
been achieved. Do you feel that it has?
(Mr Parton) We would say that it has, yes.
291. It has?
(Mr Parton) Yes.
Chairman: Thank you. Has anybody else got any
292. I would like to come back to this point
about not signing the birth certificate because it would seem
to me if a parent is taking responsibility they would do so at
that stage. It seems strange to me that you are advocating that
somebody could potentially come along later if they feel it and
suddenly demand their rights. Surely they have a responsibility
in that case to have their name put to the birth certificate.
I am not quite sure how you would define a father, as it were.
Sometimes these things are disputed, shall we say.
(Mr Shirley) Indeed. I take your point entirely. Obviously
the birth certificate is the most sensible starting point for
it. When we thought about this, we were looking at ways in which
you could almost test the commitmentthat is a slightly
unfortunate phrasethere needs to be evidence of a commitment
involved and we felt that the birth certificate was certainly
the most useful one. There are cases where there are disputes
between mothers and fathers at the time that registration occurs,
there are cases where mothers would take a child to be registered
without the knowledge of the father, there are cases of disputed
(Mr Parton) Which we have addressed elsewhere in our
paper. It is a different subject.
(Mr Shirley) Yes. Where there was a dispute of paternity,
a child may be registered without the birth father's name on it,
and that may only become identifiable subsequently.
293. It would come back to the responsibility
of the registrar, maybe, but you would need a different change
in the legislation to deal with that surely?
(Mr Shirley) I think you probably do, yes, but I just
want to make the point because I think it is relevant.
(Mr Parton) Also there is an information gap. I am
a married father and I do not recall going to the Registry Office
when our child was registered. I am not even sure if I have seen
the birth certificate but I should think my name is on it somewhere.
Generally the parent who is available, it tends to be the mother
if the dad is out at work or whatever, goes and physically does
it. When the mother meets the registrar very often she is given
absolutely no information. One of the things that we hit upon
time and time againI think there are about a quarter of
a million unmarried births a year, something like that, but there
are only three or five thousand PR orders taken upis people
just are not told. They are not told when they go to register,
they just do not know. Every time I do a radio interview on this
subject, for a start the presenter is absolutely astonished, he
quite often is himself an unmarried father, "what, I have
no rights", and then the telephones go buzzing, people just
do not know. There is a big information gap and I think registrars
should have a duty to ask some fairly stark questions about who
the father is and should he not be on the birth certificate and,
if not, why not.
(Mr Shirley) I think it is true, also, where there
are cases of dispute very early on that the father's attitude
may change. A father's attitude may become more positive which
is what you would want. I think that at the moment you would still
have to go through court proceedings to get that parental responsibility.
I suppose one of the things one wants to try to do is to reduce
the rate of growth
(Mr Parton) There is a point about court proceedings
which is that they are incredibly intimidating. If I need a new
tax disc for my car, I take my MOT certificate and my insurance
certificate and I pay a fiver, fill in a form at the post office
and it is done. To get PR you have got to apply to a court and
most people do not know how to do that, you have got to go before
a judge. You have hopefully got to get the agreement of the mother
as well and if not then you have to sign affidavits and have this
ghastly adversarial system which the lawyers love so much. It
seems to me that it all needs to be made a whole lot easier and
that signing some form of acquisition of parental responsibility
at the early stage would be a good thing.
294. I do not know if it is in the national
guidelinesthe point you made, for example, about this guy
from Plymouth is a good onebut I would expect it would
be in the national guidelines that when the social worker is undertaking
an assessment of a child who is likely to be put up for adoption
that they have to go through a rigorous process in order to trace
all those people who have a relationship with that child, not
least of all the birth father.
(Mr Parton) I should have thought so too but in this
case apparently it did not happen. I think it is outrageous that
it did not happen in this case.
295. If my colleagues have not got any further
questions, can I ask why do you feel that it has taken so long
for Parliament to come round to this change in respect of unmarried
(Mr Parton) I think it is political. On the one hand
you have, I do not know, Simon Heffer, Peter Hitchins, rent-a-rants
about unmarried fathers, and on the other side you have a view
which I think is still in existence of old 1970s man-hating feminism
in which men are teed up as little better than murderers quite
often. You have these two pressures and no-one quite dares take
it on. To me it seems really quite a simple change that could
be put through for the benefit of everyone, saving great hassle
later on in people's lives. I think it is extremism that finishes
it off every time. No-one quite dares take on certain lobby groups,
left or right.
Chairman: Any further questions? If not, can
I thank you for your evidence, we are very grateful. Thank you.