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Fatherhood and the Care of Children

11 am

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Thank you for calling me, Mr. Olner. I am delighted that the subject of fatherhood and the care of children has been chosen for debate this morning. I welcome the Minister to her place and look forward to hearing her response.

For me, today has been all about fatherhood. I have just had a meeting with the Nappy Alliance, whose chairperson lives in my constituency, and an esteemed company called Bambino Mio, the UK market leader in reusable nappies, which is based in Brixworth in Kettering. I should like to dedicate the debate to my baby son Thomas, who is just over one year old. I am sure that he would be delighted if he knew that he was appearing in parliamentary records so early. Unfortunately, he cannot be here because he is with his mum, Donna, at the village coffee morning. Both of them send their apologies.

The main themes on which I want to touch are the importance of the contact between fathers and early-years children and of increasing parents' active responsibility for their children's behaviour, and the need for us to do four things: to do more to promote the institution of marriage; to get back to the idea that it is important to be able to afford and provide for a family before becoming parents; to tackle the issue of teenage pregnancy; and to make it easier for fathers to engage in fatherhood.

I started my research by going to the House of Commons Library to look up the dictionary definition of fatherhood. Unfortunately, despite the Library's huge resources, although I could find a definition of father, I could not find one of fatherhood. In my view, paternity—the Hollobone definition of which is the act of fathering a child—is very different from fatherhood, the participatory process of caring for and nurturing one's child or children. Fatherhood has demonstrable benefits. My wife said at the weekend that Thomas behaves differently with me than he does with her. Of course there is a very close bond between mother and child, and the relationship between father and child is different. However, the two together have been for centuries—and, I would suggest, will continue to be—the best way to bring up children.

The Equal Opportunities Commission has published magnificent research into the benefits of fatherhood. One of its recent studies suggested that children whose fathers have been actively involved in their lives do demonstrably better, with higher educational achievements, more satisfactory relationships in adult life and less likelihood of getting into trouble with the police. The EOC goes on to say:

A report called "What Good Are Dads?", a review of 20 years of research into fatherhood by Charlie Lewis, professor of psychology at Lancaster university, was published in June 2001 by Fathers Direct. The research showed that involvement of fathers with children aged seven to 11 predicts exam success at 16. If fathers are involved before the age of 11, children are less likely to
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have a criminal record by the age of 21, and pre-school children who spend more time playing with their dads are often more sociable when they enter nursery school.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): My hon. Friend is speaking about the importance of the relationship between fathers and their children. As a new Member, my experience is that the Child Support Agency is the biggest problem in my surgery every week and in my telephone calls every day. It strikes me that in its present form, the organisation is not helping the father, the mother or the child. It seems actually to develop hatred—

Mr. Bill Olner (in the Chair): Order. That intervention is a little too long.

Mr. Bone : I apologise, Mr. Olner. Very briefly, will my hon. Friend give his views on the CSA?

Mr. Hollobone : I am grateful for my hon. Friend's intervention. Indeed, I planned to come on to the CSA later. Perhaps I could mention at this point that among the top three issues that I as a new Member deal with, letters and correspondence with the CSA on behalf of both mothers and fathers in the Kettering constituency rank number two. I very much share my hon. Friend's concern that the CSA seems to be far more involved with fathers who want to contribute to the welfare of their children but sometimes struggle with resources than it is with fathers who do not want to be responsible for the welfare of their children, who often escape the net.

A huge demographic shift has put pressure on fatherhood. I have some interesting statistics about households in the United Kingdom in 2000 which I hope will prove instructive: 18 per cent. were individuals who lived alone without children, 25 per cent. were couples without children, 58 per cent. were households with children, and 10 per cent. of that 58 per cent. were lone parents. It is now the case that 21 per cent. of all children live in lone-parent families—that is up from 7 per cent. in 1972.

Interestingly, the pressure on fatherhood also shows itself in a trend away from marriage. Compared with just 10 per cent. in the late 1970s, 40 per cent. of births are now registered outside marriage. Of those, 78 per cent. are jointly registered by the mother and father living at the same address. It seems that marriage is under more pressure than fatherhood, but there is a link between the two.

Perhaps of most concern is that the trend away from responsible fatherhood is greatest among teenage parents. Ninety per cent. of births to women under the age of 20 take place outside marriage, and 27 per cent. of those births are sole registrations, compared with just 4 per cent. for mothers who are in their late 30s or early 40s. A concern was raised in the 27 June edition of the Evening Telegraph, which is a highly respected local newspaper in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone). It stated that one in every 24 girls aged 15 to 17 gets pregnant. It is worrying that the rate is rising in Kettering, going up from 39 in every 1,000 between 1998 and 2000 to just under 50 in every 1,000 between 2001 and 2003.
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The concern is that the younger a father is when his baby is born, the less likely he is to remain in contact. Recent research by Bristol university states that if the mother and father are both 17 or under when their child is born, only 2 per cent. of fathers are involved with the child nine months later. As men's ages rose, so did their involvement. The proportions grow to 43 per cent. for men between 18 and 21, and 100 per cent. for men aged 22 or over. The research goes on to say:

The facts about dads today are quite startling. More than a third of all male employees have dependent children and 89 per cent. of fathers are in employment. However, few fathers have part-time jobs. Only 4 per cent. of fathers work part-time, compared with 9 per cent. of men without children, whereas some 60 per cent. of mothers with children work part-time, compared with 32 per cent. of women without children.

The Government have tried to address, in a limited way, the issues of fatherhood, but there is far more to be done. I humbly suggest a number of recommendations that I hope that the Minister might wish to consider. The Government need to recognise the importance of fatherhood far more ostentatiously. The fatherhood quality mark has been produced by organisations such as Fathers Direct, which has an excellent website: The quality mark is a new tool for improving outcomes for children by recognising organisations that are father-friendly.

I understand that the Law Commission expects to begin a two-year project to consider the law relating to cohabiting couples, starting this month. I suggest that pressure needs to be applied to the Law Commission to encourage it to consider the role of promoting fatherhood in the context of cohabiting couples.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): There is an important issue involved here. The Office for National Statistics did a report on young offenders and it found that in cohabiting households the rate of disorder among juveniles was as high as in single-parent households and three times higher than in married households. The idea that cohabiting produces the same outcome as marriage is not borne out by the facts. The ONS is hardly an offshoot of The Daily Telegraph. It is a totally independent official organisation, and it is important that the lessons from its report are understood.

Mr. Hollobone : I am grateful for that intervention, and I agree with my hon. Friend 100 per cent. He and I would both agree that the institution of marriage has worked extremely well over the centuries and needs to be promoted far more than it is at the moment. Nevertheless, we need to recognise that there will always be some parents who will not get married. Given that there will be parents who are cohabiting, we should not miss the opportunity offered by the Law Commission report to ensure that effective parenting and fatherhood in the context of cohabiting couples is promoted.

Her Majesty's Government should also look again at the non-registration of fathers' details. In this day and age, when we are all concerned about identity, it is
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unacceptable for a father's details not to be recorded. Fathers need to be made responsible for their children, and if there is some way in which they can evade their responsibilities, that needs to be addressed.

We have mentioned the Child Support Agency. The Government need to take urgent steps to simplify and reform the way in which the CSA goes about getting support to those children who need it, but they also need to recognise fathers who are responsible about their offspring.

The other day I asked the Solicitor-General a written question about parental responsibility for miscreant children. The reply that I received was illuminating:

One of the major concerns in my constituency is that residents want parents to be held accountable for the behaviour of their children. In part, the answer that I received suggests that the mechanisms in place are not being used as effectively as they might be.

I am grateful for the opportunity to start this debate and look forward to the contributions that hon. Members will make. I close with a call for the Government to do more to recognise the importance of fatherhood, but preferably in the context of the stable, long-standing, effective and traditional institution of marriage, which offers the best prospects for bringing up well-adjusted children.

Several Hon. Members rose—

Mr. Bill Olner (in the Chair): Order. Before I call the next speaker, I remind hon. Members to be reasonably brief so that they can all get in. Several people have written asking to catch my eye and I shall endeavour to call as many as I can. However, I am afraid that unless hon. Members are brief, there will be more speakers than time.

11.16 am

Mr. Stephen Crabb (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) on securing this important debate.

We use the word "crisis" a lot in this place, in our press releases and in our speeches. Last night we were discussing council tax and the crisis affecting certain income groups, and last week we were discussing the crisis affecting NHS dentistry. All are important issues and certainly worthy of parliamentary time, but this morning we have the opportunity to focus on something that I truly believe is a national crisis. However, it is rarely discussed properly, either because of political correctness, which sucks the very heart and value from any debate on social issues, or because it is so easy to fall back on generalisations and caricatures, stigmatising vulnerable groups or harking back to a bygone age.

We in the UK face a social crisis as a result of the absence of fathers from the lives of hundreds of thousands of children. The absence of fathers from
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family life is surely the most socially consequential family trend of our era. Some 15 per cent. of babies born at the turn of the millennium now live just with their mothers. Of those, nearly half see their fathers at least once a week, but nearly four in 10 have no contact with their fathers at all.

We see that phenomenon all around us in our constituencies, especially in communities centred on social housing developments. We are familiar, I hope, with the complex and interrelated problems of social exclusion that characterise those communities: poverty, low aspirations, educational failure, truancy, crime—the list goes on. Rarely do we hear discussion in this place about the link between family structure and such outcomes for children and young people, however. The evidence is there, but it is staggering how often people involved in family policy refuse to acknowledge it.

The proportion of children being raised by lone parents has increased by a quarter under this Government—there are now more than 3.2 million of them—and we are in danger of becoming the lone-parent capital of Europe. According to EUROSTAT, lone-parent families make up more than 70 per cent. of households with children—more than in any other country in Europe. That is partly because the absolute number of children living in one-parent families is so large, but also because the birth rate among intact couples has fallen. As a result of those twin developments, the percentage of children living in one-parent households is now much higher in Britain than elsewhere.

It is so easy inadvertently to frame the debate in terms that lay the blame at the door of the single mum, but that is absolutely not the purpose of my speech, or of this debate. One of the Conservative party's great errors of the past 20 years was to view social fragmentation through a lens that saw single mums as the principal problem. To a large extent, the problem is also about men, and about men behaving irresponsibly and fathering children. Often, they too have been brought up in lone-parent homes, with no understanding of what real fatherhood is about, and they then replicate the cycle in the lives of their own children.

There has been a lot of research in recent years about the socio-economic changes affecting the male population in post-industrialised countries. My hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) has written at great length about those changes, describing what has happened to the marriageable pool of men. Often in communities there are men whom women will happily sleep with, and have children with, but with whom they would never in their wildest dreams set up home.

Many children living in single-parent homes will eventually end up in step-families. Social parenting, as opposed to biological parenting, is an important new phenomenon in family life. It is essentially about stepfatherhood. More and more men are raising other men's children, while in many cases their own children grow up elsewhere. No fewer than 17 per cent. of dads born in 1970 are stepfathers, nearly double the number among men born just 12 years earlier.

The most rapidly growing family type is the step-family. Since most children remain with their mother following divorce or separation, most step-families have
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a stepfather rather than a stepmother at their head. Not nearly enough research has been undertaken into the pressures on step-families, especially as the Child Support Agency is often lurking in the background of those families' lives, and payments are being made to the previous partners.

There has been a great deal of research about what social fragmentation means for children and society in general. Although many lone parents and step-parents do a superb job raising their families, the children are at much greater risk of abuse, of neglect and of worse social, educational and health outcomes than children who live with both their natural parents.

The decline of the traditional family unit is harmful to children and to wider society. As an example, I dug out a Home Office report on young people and crime from about 10 years ago. It undertook extensive research into the factors that drive young people to criminality. One conclusion stated:

Those living with one natural and one step-parent were the most likely to start offending.

A few years ago I paid a visit to Cardiff prison, where I met a group of young men in their late teens and had a discussion with them about their lives. All had had chaotic home lives; all had grown up without the presence of a father; all had failed at school, played truant and committed criminal acts; and a few of them had found themselves in a revolving door situation, in prison for the third or fourth time. Several of those young men had already started to father children, thus repeating the pattern.

Family fragmentation matters. One of the most important factors to understand in this debate, although by no means the most important, is the fiscal framework surrounding the family structure. During the election campaign two months ago, I spoke to one young family at their home in Haverfordwest. They had two young children, the mother stayed at home and did not work, and the father had a modestly paid job earning less than £16,000 a year. They told me that their calculations showed that they would be better off if they divorced and the mother raised their children as a single parent. What a staggering conclusion in this day and age: a family can make that judgment and those calculations, and find that they would be better off splitting up and having the mother raise their children alone.

I have seen research undertaken by people such as Jill Kirby at the Centre for Policy Studies, which claims that the tax and benefit system subsidises marriage break-up. It shows that the average couple family in which one partner has a job is only £1 a week better off than the average workless one-parent family, because lone parents get so much extra support from the state. I do not believe that the perverse incentives created by the tax and benefit system go anywhere near far enough to explain the social trends that we are debating, but they are important factors that Ministers need to address.

One point that I want to draw attention to, which is linked to the main issue, is the wider absence of male role models in the lives of young people, particularly in schools. The General Teaching Council for Wales noted two months ago that there were so few male teachers in
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Wales that many pupils had gone through their primary years without ever being taught by a man. In primary schools, only 16 per cent. of teachers are men. In secondary schools the figure is 40 per cent. I would welcome the Minister's thoughts on why, despite the campaign by the Teacher Training Agency, the overall percentage of male teachers is falling. It was 28 per cent. last year and it is 27 per cent. this year.

What more can be done to address that problem? In other areas of life we see many examples of positive discrimination to rectify gender or racial imbalances. Should Ministers not be taking a more active approach in this area as well?

We in the House are doing the country a huge disservice when we fail to promote marriage, and fail to tell the truth about how the collapse of family life seems to fuel every social problem, including truancy. This is not about a mission for moral rearmament, and it is certainly not about demonising single mums, the vast majority of whom do a fantastic job. It is simply about recognising that children who grow up with their fathers do far better emotionally, educationally, physically, and in every way that we can measure, than children who do not. That conclusion holds true even when differences of race, class and income are taken into account. The simple truth is that fathers are irreplaceable in shaping the competence and character of their children.

11.27 am

Mr. David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) on introducing the debate, which is of great significance. I, too, must declare an interest. I am a father of five children. To follow my hon. Friend's lead, they are Barnaby, Harriet, Dougal, Dorothy and Noah. Perhaps we should all declare a significant interest—we all want children to get off to the best start and there to be a reduction in the antisocial behaviour that we see in our communities. We all have an interest in trying to ensure the presence of a responsible father in our homes.

I have been a solicitor dealing with criminals for the past 11 years. Yesterday, I handed over my files to my replacement, so I spent some time looking back at old files. I thought about the characteristics of criminal clients. Invariably, they are young men, who show irresponsibility. Often they are drug addicts with learning difficulties and are from homes in which there was a single parent. They invariably had little or no contact with a father and no older male role model.

One such client was my first client at Enfield police station. He was a young man who had previously had high expectations—he had hoped to be a weightlifter for England—but had, sadly, been tempted by drugs. His lack of discipline and respect showed itself in what was the first of many criminal offences. Over the years, he became one of the most prolific offenders in Enfield. It was not uncommon for him to commit 100 burglaries in a week. He has now become my last client. He is in Pentonville serving a stretch of three years for robbery.

During the 11 years that I have known him, there have been periods of stability in his life. I will consider the characteristics of that stability. It has been when, as a father of two young children, he has, for brief times it
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must be said, showed responsibility. He has then been able to reconnect with society. When he took seriously his responsibility as a father, that connection was made. He suddenly woke up to the fact that he had duties and responsibilities in society. That had a profound effect on him not committing offences. Yes, he was no doubt helped by drug treatment and testing orders and by probation supervision, but of most significance, as he would say himself, was when he faced his responsibilities as a father.

It is that challenge that we need to face. The cost to Enfield of those 100 burglaries a week and the cost to his family and to others have been because of that individual and others like him. The big challenge for such people is to reconnect with society and with being fathers, and to take their responsibilities seriously.

It is significant that when I visited that person in the cells at Enfield magistrates court or at Pentonville he was often distraught or in tears. The bravura of being a prolific offender had peeled off and he was just a young child in many ways. The first thing that he would always say was that he wanted his father and that he wanted his father to show some interest in him. That had a profound effect on him, and it is now showing itself across the generations as he is not taking seriously his responsibilities as a father. We must tackle the issue of fatherhood, not only for his benefit but for that of the community.

Statistics have been produced, which I will not seek to repeat. It is shocking that the rate of lone parenthood in this country is more than double that of our European neighbours. Teenage motherhood and teenage pregnancy rates are rocketing. Enfield has one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy of any London borough. The challenge, which we need to tackle early, must be to ensure that fatherhood has an important role. Young men should appreciate their responsibilities at an early stage.

Fathers who are on the scene and the time that they spend with children are also important matters. One survey researched a number of fathers, who spent on average three minutes a day with their children. We should compare that with the fact that the same research showed that children spent three hours in front of a television. We have serious problems in our society with the time that fathers take with their children and with fathers being absent from the home.

We should perhaps learn some lessons from America, where there has been a debate about family breakdown. I am sure that we can all agree that family breakdown has dire consequences. The debate on welfare to work has been followed by a number of programmes, aimed at getting lone parents back into the work force. The Government are taking that part of the equation seriously. However, we cannot stop there, and we need to accompany that with the role of fathers. That role is vital, and we need to promote it, as my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering said. The equation is important. There is an imbalance if we rely on getting people back to work and do not properly value the importance of fatherhood.

We need to wake up effectively to the profound financial and social costs of family breakdown. Disintegration can no longer be tolerated by a
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responsible Government. Firm action is needed and it has to happen now. Welfare policies have sought to create a habit of getting people back into work. At the same time we need policies that will restore the important role of men in family life. That is important and it needs to accompany any welfare-to-work policies.

We need to examine some radical measures, such as joint registration of births, joint interviews for benefits and encouraging the family and father link in housing. In Enfield, we have been particularly keen to consider the family and generational link for housing preferences. Where the state is involved in funding, we need to be creative and maybe even radical to ensure a role for men in family life and in the important decisions. Whenever welfare is handed out, a contract is involved and that needs to be a proper contract that includes fathers.

The vital challenge that we need to take up is to reconnect fathers to families. The debate is not simply about fathers paying their child support and having supervised contact. That is not good enough. We need to go further. We need to promote and value the role of fatherhood, and to harness and encourage voluntary groups and faith-based organisations that promote fatherhood.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering said, we need to be bold and to recognise that generally, although not exclusively, marriage sustains fatherhood. We should promote and reward those groups that promote not only fatherhood, but, explicitly, marriage. We must support trusts that work hard practically to support and encourage stable and long-lasting marriage, because that is in the interests of fatherhood and children. We therefore need to ensure that all our welfare and family policies promote family, fatherhood and marriage. That is in the best interests of us and our children.

11.36 am

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): I, too, am delighted to speak in the debate. I shall address my remarks primarily to the Minister because I hope that when she replies she will not approach the debate as though this were an issue of party-political infighting. It is far too serious and important for that. I hope also that we will find some common ground, because this issue is vital to the future of our country. Father absence is the biggest domestic issue that we face in the UK today.

A few days ago, one of our leading building societies released some research saying that many people—more women than men—go on to have new, happy lives after divorcing or splitting up, but that research did not show anything about the effect and impact on children. The data on that are overwhelming: it is all too clear that losing a loving, committed parent from their home is hugely detrimental to children's emotional development and many forms of achievement.

I hope that we can move on from some of the constraints that have made this area a difficult subject for us on both sides of the House. We could all say that many, if not most, single parents deserve medals for what they do. I am a father to three children; my wife and I struggle to get through the week and do all the things that we want to do with our children. How parents—mothers or fathers—cope with that huge work
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load on their own defies belief. They need support and encouragement, and I would not want anything said in this debate to be seen as an attack on them. I hope that we can take that as common ground, and move on to say that it is hugely in our national interests to encourage and value committed, loving and responsible fatherhood. There are ways in which we can do that.

The Government have made the defeat of child poverty one of their key objectives. That is a noble and worthy aim, and I salute the Government for trying to achieve it, but the Minister will know from her time in the Department for Work and Pensions that 45 per cent. of children who live in poverty live in single-parent homes. The latest figures that I have seen show that a quarter of children in the UK live in single-parent homes. That cohort of children contributes disproportionately to the number of children who live in poverty. I hope that the Minister will ask her colleagues in her Department and her former Department to consider how the encouragement of responsible, committed fatherhood could be a real weapon in the Government's armoury with which to defeat child poverty—an issue that is rightly close to their heart.

What can we do? We can reel off statistics, of which we have heard many this morning. I shall not go through them again, as it would be rather depressing to recite them. In far too many debates we agree that there is a problem. We analyse that problem and spend only the last few minutes coming up with things that we could do about it.

I have a number of suggestions for ways in which we can tackle the problem together. First, I shall take us to America and something that was started there in 1994. I am well aware that American society is very different from that in the UK, and that we cannot simply introduce here things that have worked there. Having said that, an organisation called the National Fatherhood Initiative was set up in America in 1994 by Wade Horn, who is currently an assistant secretary in the Department of Health and Human Services in the American Administration. The organisation changed the culture in several ways.

About 10 years ago, it was possible to go into the pubs and bars of America and find young men leaning against a bar stool bragging about how many illegitimate children they had. That was all right; it was an acceptable form of being macho. In the past 10 years, however, the initiative's campaign has managed to make that less socially acceptable. Of course there are still far too many illegitimate children and father-absent families in America, but the cultural tide has turned. The Minister will know that all Governments need that backing—that groundswell of opinion among the electorate as a whole—in order to make progress in this area.

How did the National Fatherhood Initiative do that in America? It used public service advertising, among other things. I urge the Minister to go back to her Department and consider speaking to our embassy in Washington to ascertain whether it would give serious consideration to the American experience and to see whether there is common ground between us and lessons that we can learn about using public service advertising in the United Kingdom to launch a similar initiative. Perhaps the Minister will comment on that suggestion when she replies.
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The second major area that I want the Government to consider is that of community family trusts. Again, those organisations sprung from work in America, but were brought to this country, localised and made to work in the UK. There are many of them in the south-west—Bristol has one—but they have also spread out across the country and can be found in places such as York and elsewhere.

The trusts are charitable organisations that receive some Government funding, some local disorder partnership money and other local authority money. Their focus runs all the way through from primary schools, secondary schools and colleges to workplaces, GPs' surgeries, and registry offices, which hold 62 per cent. of all the marriages that take place in the UK. They provide advice to couples both before they get together and, crucially, afterwards; they do, if one likes, provide aftercare services for couples. We know that the key pressure points in relationships are often when children come along and several years later, and the trusts provide practical and easy-to-understand relationship support. The data from America, which academics at the University of Texas have independently analysed, suggest that the trusts have saved about 33,000 marriages and relationships in the areas that they cover. We could make use of them.

I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) attended the earlier part of the debate. He will know that the Conservative party was committed to providing funding for these organisations. It would not take a massive amount of funding, but I seriously believe that the data and evidence from America, which are available for the Minister to examine, show that these voluntary community-based organisations could be a huge help and could change the culture in this country to ensure that we had much greater couple stability, which is how we will get committed fathers to live in their children's homes and to take an active and continuing interest in their children's lives.

We have heard about the importance of fathers realising their financial responsibility from the moment they father a child all the way through that child's life. I am well aware that mothers are allowed not to register the father's name for understandable reasons, such as fear of domestic violence, which, sadly, is all too often a serious problem in this country, but if young men in particular were aware that they would incur a financial penalty throughout their lives that they would not be able to evade, that would make them think seriously before they fathered children and then cleared off, leaving the mother to cope on her own, and the state and the community to pick up the pieces.

A few weeks ago, when there was a certain amount of press attention on the family that had pregnant 12-year-old, 14-year-old and 16-year-old daughters, I was pleased to see that some of that attention was directed not at the significance of the three pregnant young women, but at that of the three people missing from the picture. The thing that struck me about the photograph of the family was: where were the fathers? It was not the three mothers and the three children who were significant; it was the three absent fathers. My hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) focused on that in a piece that he wrote in The Times, and he was right to do so.
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Having been a Minister in the Department for Work and Pensions, the Minister will know of the concerns about our benefits structure, and the fact that, at times, it appears to give couples financial disincentives to stay together. Single parents incur greater costs for the simple reason that there is only one of them to provide child care. However, I would ask the Minister to go back to colleagues in her old Department and to seek a rigorous audit, perhaps with independent outside help—many independent commentators who are former tax inspectors, and others with no political axe to grind, have concerns in that area. I am sure that it is not the intention of the Minister or her Department that many couples, now referred to as LATs—living apart together—live in separate households in order to receive increased benefits and tax credits. That is not healthy for children and it puts extra pressure on housing space, which is in short supply in many parts of the United Kingdom.

Finally, all the evidence is that fathers actively want to be physically involved with their children—to spend time with them and to perform routine tasks with them week by week—and that is something that mothers would welcome. We have to look more imaginatively at flexible working. That is a difficult thing for MPs to talk about; we are, by definition, extremely bad role models as parents because of the nature of our job and the hours that we work. No doubt that is true of many other people who work long hours. Anything that we can do in that area will be extremely worth while.

11.48 am

Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): I am genuinely grateful to the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr.   Hollobone) for having raised the important subject of fatherhood and the father's role in child care. I very much agree with the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) that there is a need for nationwide consensus on the matter.

My approach is a little different from that of the Conservatives. I shall discuss some other mechanisms through which we can support the principles of fatherhood. I shall not list my children's names, but I, too, must declare an interest, albeit a rather limited one in recent weeks. Most hon. Members would agree that our society is witnessing a trend towards a better work-life balance and, in parallel, a desire on the part of fathers to be more involved in the lives of their children. I welcome that trend—the time that young children spend with their parents has increased from perhaps 15 minutes a day in the 1970s to some two hours a day in the 1990s. With my background in primary education, I believe that fathers and male role models generally have much to contribute to a child's development and sense of security.

Although I endorse what the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire said, his statistics are wrong: the Welsh teaching profession is down one male since my election to this place. There is a need to attract more men into primary education and into child care in general. Given the Government's acknowledgement of the need to recruit 160,000 people to work in child care by 2008, can the Minister tell us what plans there are to attract
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men to work in that sector? The positive role that men can play is another reason why we should attract more men into education, an area traditionally dominated by women. I was often told that, as a man, I would have no problem getting a job in a school, and that proved to be the case, although I must confess that the shortlist was not particularly big.

Today, however, we are exploring the move towards active fatherhood and the mechanisms to bring it about. Some are already in place, but others are non-existent or need to be developed more fully. Notwithstanding what has been said about statistics, the Equal Opportunities Commission has produced optimistic figures suggesting that 80 per cent. of fathers and 85 per cent. of mothers agree that employees should be able to balance their work and family lives. A high number of employers— 62 per cent.—also recognise that, signalling their commitment in principle. Most importantly, however, 79 per cent. of men want to spend more time with their children. That is progress, and I welcome it. There is a drift towards parenting as a principle as well as a practice, and towards giving parenting the respect that it deserves.

The influence of parenting is visible in many ways. Given my background in schools, I have no doubt that proper parenting gives rise to the behaviour that we expect in our schools, in adolescence and beyond, and the links between bad parenting and crime are well established. Notwithstanding the fact that the definition of the family in Britain is far wider than it used to be and there is no longer a universal structure, I have no doubt that the male role model is important.

It would be churlish not to applaud parts of the Employment Act 2002, which I am sure the Minister will mention, but there are still issues that make it difficult for men to assume a greater role in their children's lives and therefore in their care. Men are generally the higher earners, and when the father earns more than the mother the family decision that the father will continue to work full-time is inevitable. Generally, it is still the mother who has to alter her working pattern or face the pressure of work and a family career. Continuing to address the gender pay gap will do much to counter the traditional gender roles of father as breadwinner and mother as carer and to promote equality of opportunity in the caring role.

One concern is that employees—both men and women—are unaware of the proactive mechanisms in place to promote family-friendly policies, because these have not been communicated effectively. Such mechanisms include the opportunities for flexitime, a shorter working week and the capacity to work from home. Although the number of flexible working requests that have been declined has fallen, I should like to ask the Minister why only 58 per cent. of parents with children under six are aware of the new flexible arrangements.

I mentioned that the role of either parent may not necessarily be positive, and there are often tugs of war with the child in the middle. In such cases, there should not be a presumption in favour of equal parenting. We are not parents as of right. I prefer a child-centred approach. Where there are challenges in terms of the care role, the child's interests are paramount. I would strive for a blend of parental involvement that recognises the role of fathers and mothers, but best benefits the child.
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On access rights, I start from the principle of equality of access, but not necessarily equality of time, because I have seen the ramifications of that all too often in my classroom. It is important that children have opportunities for good-quality contact time with both parents, but we need to pay attention to the potential for mental or physical abuse. We should not underestimate parents' capacity for mental abuse. Decent child care centres are needed, and that is an issue of some concern in the Cardigan women's refuge in my constituency.

Laudably, the Equal Opportunities Commission has called for shared parental leave rights in the second six months of a child's life, whether or not the mother was working before the birth, to give both parents an equal opportunity to bring up the child, rather than simply transferring parental leave to their partner after six months, as the Government suggest. I would be interested to hear the Minister's views on the issue and I hope that it will be considered seriously in the Government review of leave policy in 2006.

Notwithstanding what many hon. Members have said about the changing dynamics of family, which are having an important effect on society, there is recognition that fathers want to play a greater role in their children's lives. That is a step forward.

Mr. Bill Olner (in the Chair): I can call Mr. Binley and Mr. Hurd to speak if they are very brief.

11.55 am

Mr. Brian Binley (Northampton, South) (Con): Thank you, Mr. Olner. I apologise for not letting you know earlier that I wanted to speak and am grateful to you for calling me.

In my maiden speech in the House, I talked about a dear friend of mine who was the Labour agent in Kidderminster when I was the Conservative agent. I said that when we cast aside our political differences, we were surprised by how much we agreed on and how much work we could do together. It is in that spirit that I make my contribution today, because there is much that we can do together. If the Minister sees this as a political attack requiring a political defence, we shall fail, but I am sure that she does not, and that encourages me.

I shall concentrate on the impact of the absence of a permanent male role model, commonly called a father, in family life, particularly the way it affects the education of boys aged 12 to 14. Some 50 per cent. of boys brought up in two-parent families have the chance to achieve meaningful educational qualifications, but, sadly, only 30 per cent. of boys from homes in which one parent—overwhelmingly the mother—has played almost the sole parental role have a chance to achieve the same. That is a massive difference of 40 per cent. If anything shows the import of male role models in parenting, it must be that.

I have discussed the matter with teachers in upper schools in Northampton, and it is clear that boys brought up in homes without a permanent male parent are more likely to reject the benefits of education when aged 12 to 14, seeing it as a waste of time in many respects. Teachers think that, sadly, the interest of such boys is consistently more turned off than that of the majority of young men from homes with a permanent male role model. Equally importantly, such boys are
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also much more likely to reject authority because, in a way, they see having authority as a male activity. It is not difficult to see how important that is in other aspects of life as they proceed through their lives.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) said that fatherhood is the participating process of nurturing and progressing the life of a child. There is support for that in the 2000 Ofsted report, which said that

That is the point from which I start: the life chances of a child are created through the learning process, particularly our education process in this country. It is clear from all the evidence that when fathers are involved in their children's learning, those children's exam results and school behaviour improve, they exhibit less criminal behaviour later on, and they have better relationships in their adult lives. I did not say that—

Mr. Bill Olner (in the Chair): Order. On that positive note, I invite the hon. Gentleman to wind up his speech so that his colleague can speak.

Mr. Binley : I apologise, Mr. Olner. I shall do as you suggest.

To conclude, I return to my opening remarks. I said that I hope we can work together. We have heard many creative ideas today. I believe that we should create a culture of change. We should start a crusade by working together. I hope that the Minister will take that on board.

12 noon

Mr. Nick Hurd (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): I am grateful to you, Mr. Olner, for squeezing me in. This important debate goes to the heart of a growing concern in my constituency about the perceived breakdown in the values that once bound the community together—respect for the law, respect for property and respect for each other.

A growing voice has linked that breakdown with the way in which children are being brought up today. It is not just the voice of nostalgia for a golden age of parenthood that probably never existed. I have spoken with senior London policemen who have to deal with the fact that 40 per cent. of street crime in London is committed by 10 to 16-year-olds playing truant. I have spoken with the headmasters of secondary schools who often find parents who obstruct rather than support their efforts to instil more discipline in their schools. A growing body of research summarises the evidence of family breakdown in Britain and its harmful impact on children.

It is striking how out on a limb we are. Britain is the divorce capital of Europe, with 25 per cent. of children living in lone-parent households. That is twice the European average as measured by EUROSTAT, and the trend shows no sign of slowing. The Government's approach has been to respect personal freedom and to help those facing the challenge of bringing up children on their own in conditions of poverty by providing them with support. Those good intentions are to be supported—they are thoroughly respectable—but I would argue that they have unintended but damaging consequences.
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I would like to pick up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb), which is that the tax and benefits system now discourages low-earning parents from forming two-parent families. That message comes through strongly in research from a wide range of organisations, including Civitas, Care, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Centre for Policy Studies. It is the inevitable outcome of a system in which income tax is based on individual assessment, with no allowances for marriage, and benefits are based on a joint assessment; arguably, penalties for marriage are built in to the system.

If that is true, Government policy may be helping to increase the number of children being raised without a father in the home, despite increasingly clear evidence that there is a link between marriage or stable cohabitation and a better outcome for children in terms of health, performance at school and crime. That being so, is it not time to confront the awkward truth that children growing up outside the family unit do not have equality of opportunity? Is it not time to re-examine where the interests of children lie and ask whether it can be in their interests to penalise couples and subsidise lone parents? Faced with the growing tension between the need to respect personal freedom and the desire to give children the best possible chance, I argue that the Government should at least be neutral in the signals that they send via the tax and benefits system.

I was canvassing on an estate in Ruislip during the general election when I was pursued down the street by a young man in a dressing gown. He wanted to tell me that his decision to marry his girlfriend would cost him £400 in lost benefit. He was going to do it anyway, because he thought that it was the right thing to do, but he wanted to know whether it was wrong for the Government to be sending that signal to young people. I said yes, and I would be interested to hear the Minister's response.

12.4 pm

Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone); our debate has raised many interesting issues. I stand here with some trepidation, in view of the line-up of hon. Members behind me. I am a mother, and to protect myself from further comments, I can tell the House that I have been married for more than 35 years. I also declare an interest in that I am a trustee of Poole community family trust. I share many of the enthusiasms of the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), and his interest in the topic. Of course, the trust receives Government money.

I was slightly disheartened when I first saw the title of this debate, because I always think that we should put children first, and I thought that the title should be "Children and the Role of Parents". However, many hon. Members have addressed that point. It is clear that childhood, and therefore parenting, are increasingly complex in today's society. We have to understand the needs and rights of parents of both sexes, and of children, in the context of the economic and social environment in which we live.
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We are getting it wrong in so many ways. I would like to add just one more statistic: ChildLine reports that 1,500 suicidal children phone its helpline every year, often citing problems of abuse, neglect and low self esteem that build up during childhood. We have a lot to answer for.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) made some particularly interesting contributions about work-life balance. Most people would agree that ideally, caring roles should be shared by women and men, with support from employers. Interestingly, that probably does not mean a 50:50 split, although we hear a lot about 50:50 splits in the debate on child contact. That is a sad reflection on the number of hours that our fathers work—the longest hours in Europe. One in eight fathers work excessively long hours—60 or more a week. That does not give much chance, or time in the day, for the development of fatherhood. Even so, overall, fathers' time spent with their children accounts for one third of total parental care time. On that basis, we have to value the contribution of fatherhood to caring for children.

We have mentioned the need for flexible working time, and we need to be concerned about the lack of opportunity for flexible working practices and the lack of take-up by fathers. When fathers have been actively involved in their children's lives, the children have better outcomes. We have heard about a number of such outcomes today.

Fathers often face the conflict of being both a parent and, frequently, the main breadwinner. What can we do in terms of maternity and paternity leave—paid and unpaid—and flexible working time? We need to applaud the Government for making a move. From April 2003 there has been a fortnight's sort-of paid leave, although there is not very much pay, which is not a great incentive. Indeed, where not enough money is paid, it might even be a disincentive for fathers.

It is clearly an advantage to have the father around during those all-important early years. What more can we do? I look forward to the new measures that the Government will announce shortly. I also agree with some comments about encouraging active fatherhood; I am not sure that I agree with all the ways of encouraging it, but the principle is sound.

I would like to touch briefly on the importance of family support mechanisms. With changing structures in society, support mechanisms have become much more important. Being a parent is probably the most important job that we can ever take on in life, yet most of us have no training whatever. Parental training should not be seen as something to be scorned, but should be available for everybody; it should be seen as the thing to do, rather than as the result of some failure.

To return to relationships, which I care so much about, I am sure that we can do much more pre marriage, pre relationship and post relationship, particularly in schools. We could start at the age of five, and have a curriculum that embraced the importance of relationships. In the other place the other day, Lord Northbourne suggested that

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There is so much scope there. Without being preachy about the situation, we can actually improve the family's chances and the children's life chances within that.

As far as fathers are concerned, I am particularly keen on early bonding. That is happening in some places, and the early and prenatal involvement of fathers is all-important. Once that bond was formed, it would be likely to continue on in life, and perhaps we would not have so many disputes over child contact.

Important scientific evidence is also emerging that without a strong bond with at least one adult, a baby is likely to suffer brain damage, which can lead to all sorts of antisocial behaviour. We need to study the first six months closely; we need to think about the child and both parents. That is critical to later life. I also endorse the point about the male role model in school. My perception is that things are changing. However, for a long time there was a noticeable absence in primary schools, which was significant.

Before I finish, I want to mention the Child Support Agency, with all the mistakes that are made, and the other issues involved, as a clear example of not putting children first. We must also be mindful of domestic violence. We must ensure that women—or men, if that is appropriate—and most of all children, are protected.

Many of us are exhausted from the long hours that we work, and perhaps we do not take enough time out to think about what we do. We need to love and care for our children and value their great achievements. We must appreciate that we bring precious beings into the world, and that they should come first.

12.11 pm

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): We have had an excellent debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) on securing it. This is the first time that this subject has been tackled in the Chamber in all my years in the House. It is an enormous subject.

When we talk about fathers in the media and politics, it tends to be in negative terms—what Fathers4Justice and "Superman" may have been getting up to, and problems with the Child Support Agency and errant fathers. However, there are an awful lot of positives, too, and some have been mentioned by my hon. Friends today. Certainly, lack of involvement by fathers has been and is still the cause of enormous social fragmentation, as my hon. Friends the Members for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb), for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley) and for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd) have said.

I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate. I find it extraordinary, particularly given the strong interest that the hon. Members here have shown, that not a single Labour Back Bencher has contributed to a debate on a subject that covers a multitude of matters of direct and key relevance to many of our constituents. That is a cause of great sadness.

Many organisations, particularly in the voluntary sector, are contributing to the debate about how we can be better fathers. Fathers Direct has been mentioned several times, and it produces excellent publications, among which "Working with Fathers: A Guide" is worthy of a mention.
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It is worth contemplating some of the changing social patterns that mean that fathers spend more time with their children than they ever used to. Despite some of the assumptions rightly made by the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) about the pressure of work, parents in general now spend four times as long on child care as they did 40 years ago. Interestingly, men now spend eight times as long with their children as they did then. There has been a drastic change between the amount of time that my father would have been expected to spend with me in the early 1960s and the amount of time that I might be expected to spend with my children now. As hon. Members have said, however, Members of Parliament are perhaps not the best role models in the matter of finding quality time for bonding with children.

Things are getting better. Almost eight out of 10 working fathers in a survey revealed that they would be happy to stay at home and look after their baby, while almost nine out of 10 felt as confident as their partner—hopefully their wife, in many cases—about caring for children. In families where women work, fathers now carry out one third of the parental care. "Househusband" is no longer a demeaning term, but a real qualification for many people. In 24 per cent. of families with two parents, the father carried out most of the child care on one of the two days monitored for the time use and child care survey.

There have been changes in employment practices, too. Two in 10 new fathers made work pattern adjustments at the time of the birth, including one in 10 who reduced their working hours and 4 per cent. who took advantage of flexitime. That is a message that needs to go out to employers. Flexibility in work patterns for both parents can lead to better employees. It is in the interests of everybody to help to achieve that. British Telecom is piloting a flexible working scheme from which it is seeing benefits for its work, not just benefits in social conditions for families. So there is a mutual interest.

According to Lisa Harker of Children Now, British fathers have yet to match the level of family involvement of the Aka pygmies, a hunter-gatherer tribe from northern Congo in central Africa. Those fathers are branded the best dads in the world by Fathers Direct. Aka pygmy fathers spend 47 per cent. of their time in close contact with their infants, even letting them suck their nipples. So in this country, we still have a long way to go.

However, cultural changes and developments in Britain in the last half century have produced a generation of fathers who are more eager than ever to play a central role in the daily lives of their children. The Government should be conscious not to put any unnecessary obstacles in the way of fathers who want to engage with their children. Too often, the stereotyping in many Government publications—good publications on Sure Start and the child care work force, for example—still concentrates on women and their role. Not enough is being done to promote the role of fathers.

We also know that there is a distinct lack of men in the child care work force. I do not see enough being done about that problem. My hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire and the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) both mentioned it, particularly in the context of teaching. When I go round
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primary schools, it is rare to see a male teacher—and if I do, it is usually the head. I was at a primary school in my constituency last week and I was absolutely gobsmacked to see a male classroom assistant. He was the first one I have ever seen, and he was doing a fantastic job.

Despite everything that the Government do, I still have concerns. They do many good things, such as promoting the child care work force, extended schools and the greater roles that professionals play—but we must not forget parents. The people who know best about bringing up children are, in 99.9 per cent. of cases, the parents of those children. Please let us not create a professional work force that looks to usurp the role of parents, but create one that complements and works with both parents, wherever possible, so that love, affection and attachment to the child are present in the home 24 hours a day.

We know of the problems when fathers are not properly involved. Children without fathers are more likely to live in poverty and deprivation. My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) said that 45 per cent. of children in poverty were in single parent households. Such children have more trouble in school. Forty nine per cent. of prisoners have been excluded from school. Non-father families have a higher risk of health problems, and children in them are at greater risk of suffering physical, emotional and sexual abuse. They are more likely to run away from home, more likely to experience sexual health problems and more likely to become teenage parents. As my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes) rightly pointed out, they are also more likely to offend. Of those convicted of an offence by the age of 32, some 59 per cent. are the sons of a convicted parent.

Mr. Gerald Howarth : Does my hon. Friend accept that there is a consequence of this issue? Apart from the personal anguish that it causes, there is a cost to the nation—

Mr. Jimmy Hood (in the Chair): Order. Can we make interventions short, please?

Mr. Howarth : I was planning to make my intervention short, Mr. Hood.

Mr. Jimmy Hood (in the Chair): I want them to be shorter than that.

Tim Loughton : I think that my hon. Friend was going to talk about the cost of the break-up of those families. It is not just a personal cost, but a financial cost, because the state must step in.

Mr. Howarth : I just wanted to remind my hon. Friend that I produced a report five years ago that pointed out that the cost of family breakdown in this country is £30,000 million—one third of what we spend on education.
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Mr. Jimmy Hood (in the Chair): Order. I ask the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) to wind up now, to allow the Minister time to respond to the debate.

Tim Loughton : I certainly will, Mr. Hood. My hon. Friend's report was very fine.

The Government face big challenges, such as the imbalances in maternity and paternity leave and in the work force. Women and girls are invariably the targets for family and children's services. Men need to be included much more. The housing and benefits system so neglects the needs of non-resident parents that many children spend at least part of their week in abject poverty and poor accommodation with fathers whose parental responsibilities are invisible to the welfare system. There is over-reliance on training women, as opposed to men, in child care and we need to promote the merits of good fatherhood, rather than putting barriers up to it. We have heard many good solutions, and I hope that the Government will take them on board.

12.19 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Maria Eagle) : I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) on securing the debate. It has clearly evoked a lot of interest—particularly, I must admit, in his party. None the less it is a subject that matters to people from all parties, whether they are here today or not. I know from my postbag that it matters a great deal in any constituency. In dealing with their constituency case loads, all Member will recognise the issues and concerns that have been raised today by Opposition Members.

I concur with the point, which was the point of the entire debate, that the contribution of fathers to bringing up their children matters a great deal. There will be no disagreement in any part of the House, or in this Chamber, about that. I had not realised that there were quite so many nappies in Kettering, but one learns something every day. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman's interest in this matter comes not only from his own recent fatherhood, which is bound to make one think about such issues very deeply, but from the fact that he has organisations that deal with nappies in his constituency. It is important to tie in the bringing up of children with good environmentally friendly policies—a double whammy—and I am sure that he will learn a lot from the local organisations to which he referred.

The hon. Gentleman made a number of points, which I shall take some time to deal with. Despite the protection that you offered me, Mr. Hood, I do not have enough time left to deal with all the points. If I miss out points that Opposition Members specifically wanted answers to, I will contact them by correspondence after the debate.

A number of themes came through. We can agree about the importance of fatherhood in bringing up children, and we all agree that fathers should be as involved in bringing up their children as mothers are. That is not a controversial thing to say; we know that many fathers do just that. Many hon. Members know that from personal experience and have referred to it in a wide context.
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We are not saying that there is a problem with men, or with men who happen to be fathers. We know that many fathers do an excellent job and have well-adjusted children and happy families as a result. As Members of Parliament we tend to come across issues and problems, so perhaps it is natural that we should concentrate on situations where things do not turn out quite so well, but that does not take away the fact that in many instances there are no problems with fathers or families.

The hon. Member for Kettering said that fatherhood was different from paternity, and I understood what he meant. He is right: we need to ensure that young men who become fathers do not see involvement in their children's life as something that they should not aspire to or something that is nothing to do with them. They should see it as part of their responsibility and part of what life is about when one has children. We must ensure that we encourage that, particularly where there are problems.

Opposition Members mentioned particular areas and factors that they felt made matters worse, and the Government can intervene to ensure that we do the best possible job in deprived areas to give children a proper chance in life. We are committed through the local Sure Start programmes to focus on deprived areas to ensure that children there have the best possible start in life. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of that because he has a Sure Start local centre in his constituency, based on the Grange school main site, which I am sure he knows very well. That local programme, which is doing very well, already has a fathers group. It is important that Sure Start does not forget fathers where it is up and running and spending significant resources to tackle issues. It should not assume that it should be dealing only with mothers. The best such programmes already realise that and are active in that regard. When I visit Sure Start local centres, I do not find that they are designed just for mothers.

The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) and many Opposition Members, some of whom have had experience as teachers and may perhaps been active in teaching until recently, expressed some concern about the lack of male role models. That theme came through in several speeches, and questions were asked about precisely what we are doing to tackle the problem. The hon. Lady said that as far as she was aware, things were getting better. That is right, and we are working with the Teacher Training Agency to try to recruit more male teachers, in primary schools in particular, to provide the role models that hon. Members have been calling for.

The agency provides support services and holds events to encourage men into teaching. I suppose that for many men an overwhelmingly female work force is quite a barrier to venturing into teaching. The issue is not just about the fact that men might not want to be teachers, it is about how welcome they feel when entering an environment overwhelmingly composed of the opposite gender. That is not easy on either side.

We are having some success. Support and advice are available for individuals when applying for training, there are events in schools to attract men to the
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profession, and there are wider opportunities. We can only keep trying and hoping that we will succeed. We do not consider the increasing emphasis on the professionalisation of the child care work force to be a substitute for good parenting, as the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) feared. It is an important part of our plans to improve the skills and the esteem of the child care work force, so that it will prove more attractive to men, and I hope that that will have a real impact.

Several Opposition Members, including the hon. Members for Kettering and for East Worthing and Shoreham, referred to Fathers Direct. In the Department for Education and Skills we work directly with that organisation. It has a great deal of contact with us, and we involve it in our work. In particular, there was ministerial attendance at its conference in April—although that was before my time in this job. I was interested to hear about the fatherhood quality mark, and I shall have to look into it, because I do not know much about it. I quite like the idea that it can offer something positive. Further, the organisation's chief executive, Duncan Fisher, is on one of our ad hoc groups, advising us on parental support and the development of our strategy for supporting parents.

We see the importance of involving the organisations set up to represent fathers and fatherhood, and we do not try to put them to one side simply because some groups of fathers, to which the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham referred, have undertaken high-profile stunts. It is regrettable that the more positive examples of activism are ignored.

Mr. Gerald Howarth : Before the Minister finishes, will she respond to some of the calls from the Opposition for the Government to do much more to promote marriage?

Maria Eagle : The Government have acknowledged, and continue to acknowledge, that in terms of stability and good outcomes, marriage is one of the structures in which children can best be brought up. However, we do not purport to tell people how they should live their lives, and we have to deal with family structures as they are. I hope that the hon. Gentleman understands that we shall not promote one type of family structure as opposed to another. We must deal with people and families as we find them, and we must try to ensure that whatever structure children are brought up in, they have the best possible chance in life. In 97 per cent. of cohabiting couples, the father registers the birth of the child with the mother. We should not be prescriptive about precisely what the best structure is.

Mr. Howarth : That is not what you said in your document.

Maria Eagle : We acknowledge, and always have acknowledged, that for bringing up and supporting happy and well-balanced children, the institution of marriage clearly works—

Mr. Jimmy Hood (in the Chair): Order. It is time for the next debate.
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