Select Committee on Work and Pensions Written Evidence


Memorandum submitted by Fathers Direct

SUMMARY OF CONTENTS

  Introduction: who Fathers Direct is and what it has already done during the preparation of the White Paper.

  Discussion of five particular issues:

    —    public narrative about child support;

    —    changing the law on birth registration;

    —    education for children about shared responsibility;

    —    support services; and

    —    fairness.

1.  INTRODUCTION

  Fathers Direct, the National Information Centre on Fatherhood, develops policy recommendations based on the best interests of children, and repudiates the narrative of parental rights as a tool to achieve good policy. [50]The organisation works closely with both Government and Opposition on family and children's policy. It is represented on two key Government advisory groups, the Childcare Strategy Advisory Group (DfES) and the National Service Framework for Children Advisory Group (DH). Fathers Direct has assisted the Conservatives' Social Justice Commission, serving on one of the panels of enquiry. The CEO of Fathers Direct is also a board member of the Equal Opportunities Commission.

  Fathers Direct has traditionally steered away from issues surrounding separated families, focusing instead on maternity services, early years services and schools. But it has been drawn into the development of new proposals for child support, and has worked substantially with DWP to develop proposals for the White Paper. Fathers Direct's proposals have been incorporated into the White Paper.

  In 2006, Fathers Direct facilitated a joint statement of 42 organisations and prominent individuals, as far apart as Women's Aid and Families Need Fathers, which demonstrated complete consensus around two issues:

    —    The need to focus on the well-being of the child.

    —    The importance of integrating strong enforcement and strong support for separating parents in order to achieve maximum effectiveness.

    —    The need to support both the caring and earning roles of both parents.

  This document is attached (not printed).

2.  NARRATIVE

  We propose that the overall aim of the child support system should be declared as the following:

    —    Children should be able to rely on their parents for caregiving and financial support.

  The current narrative used in the media is the opposite: blanket media coverage of the White Paper has established a strong brand for the entire child support system that is punitive about parents, that focuses only on financial support and that mirrors the conflict between parents that everybody agrees is the worst thing for children. There is a gulf between this and what a child might say when his or her parents are separating.

  If the child support system is branded as punitive (which does not mean that sanctions should not be tough, readily enforced and clearly seen—these are key to any successful child maintenance system), then many separated parents will be reluctant to use it. This means the narrative is self-defeating.

  The remarkable emergence of consensus that was so easily achieved in the attached joint statement of 42 organisations and leading individuals happened when the language of hostility was replaced by a narrative of mutual respect for different perspectives—exactly the quality of engagement that children need their separating parents to adopt.

  In Australia, which has the most successful child support system in the world, there is extensive investment in promoting positive messages about the child support system as being about children.

  Keeping children's needs centre-stage would take the focus away from blaming one or other parent. It would thereby enable a broader understanding of the reasons why separating parents often struggle to meet their children's financial and other needs, and consequently enable more effective interventions to support positive solutions. In some cases, the problem is recalcitrant non-payment, in others it is more about the distrust, distress and misunderstandings that can exist between separated parents.

  We propose that:

    —    Politicians change the narrative of the debate about child support and start from the child's perspective.

    —    The Government invests substantially in promoting a narrative that reflects the views, experiences and needs of children.

3.  BIRTH REGISTRATION

  The White Paper has acknowledged that there is a deep cultural problem that makes it easy for fathers to drift away from their responsibilities. The foundation of this culture, also enshrined in law, is a perceived difference between motherhood and fatherhood. Motherhood is regarded as natural and immutable. Fatherhood is regarded as optional and conditional. So, for example, when a birth is registered, the mother's name is automatically recorded, whilst the father's name is recorded only if either of two conditions are met: the mother consents, 51[51] or a court determines that the father registering would be good for the child. This culture works its way right through family services and contributes to the low expectations of fathers to remain committed to their children and an astonishing lack of reaction against fathers who abandon their children, in complete contrast to the reaction when mothers do the same. Thus, our culture and family services do not adequately support—and hold responsible—men in their parenting role. The child support system deals with the consequences of this, and it is absolutely right that the White Paper looks to the causes of the problem.

  Fathers Direct has produced a detailed analysis of the new proposals on birth registration (paper attached) and compares them with the current system, which is poorly understood. The actual problems of the current system, which are considerable, and the potential problems of the new proposals are compared. Pragmatic suggestions are made for amending the new proposals so that they could be effectively implemented in practice, ensuring the welfare and rights of the child are protected. The paper does not reach firm conclusions—we believe the first step is intelligent debate.

  We propose that:

    —    The Work and Pensions Committee should lead a discussion about birth registration.

4.  EDUCATION

  The White Paper proposes investment in education of children around relationships. We believe this is of profound importance and should not become a marginal issue in the proposed reforms. Families cannot survive in a modern economy without greater sharing of roles between mothers and fathers—today, earning responsibilities generally exceed the capacity of just one parent, as do caring responsibilities. The current generation of children will have even more caring responsibilities than today's parents, as a result of an increase in the extent of eldercare. But we are not drawing to the attention of children the enormous pressures that they will face when they have children—pressures that result in many women losing career opportunities and many men losing a meaningful relationship with their children.

  We propose that:

    —    DfES creates a grant fund for schools and voluntary organisations to implement projects that pilot new approaches of working with children on these issues. The learning from this programme can then be fed into the curriculum.

5.  DEVELOPING SUPPORT SERVICES

  The reforms of the child support system will save money—the current system is extraordinarily wasteful. The Government's dedication to the welfare of children will, however, be proved by the extent to which it is prepared to invest some of these savings in support services that protect the welfare of children.

  The maximum impact of strong sanctions and enforcement of child support payment is achieved if they act as a clear framework for parents who are negotiating arrangements for their children with all the support and help they need at one of the most difficult transitions in their lives.

  The key principles of support services are (i) accessibility to both parents equally, (ii) responsiveness to the difficulties that separating parents face (not just emotional but practical, such as housing, debt, mental health), (iii) integrating strong enforcement and strong support for separating parents, and (iv) a strong grounding in the best interests of the child, which are generally met by the contribution of both parents to earning and caring for them.

  Fathers Direct proposed the national telephone helpline that features in the White Paper. We believe that this high profile Government backed initiative (though delivered by the voluntary sector) is an integral part of the reforms. We also believe that every separating couple should have access locally to face-to-face "separation management" advice, also delivered by the voluntary sector. We have made detailed proposals to ministers for how this support service should interact with the child support agency, so that at every stage, parents have access to support. Such a system will filter out the small minority of parents who deliberately flout the rules and whose children need the state to intervene to defend their interests. Staff working in both the child support agency, and local and national support services, will need adequate training to be able to deliver effective services to mothers and fathers.

  We have also proposed that the support services record users' contact details and offer to contact them annually, so that, should agreements atrophy over time, it is made easy for parents to re-connect with support and advice and, if necessary, with the enforcement agency.

  We propose that:

    —    The Government should invest seriously in support services as a foundation of the new child support system.

    —    The Government should fund a national training programme for all relevant staff in support services and the child support agency, to ensure an effectively integrated and sensitive service to separating parents.

6.  FAIRNESS

  Support services and enforcement only work if the system is perceived to be fair by a majority of people—justice must not only be done, but must be seen to be done. In part, that is achieved through procedural justice. Strong and consistent enforcement, with effective support services, also creates a sense of fairness. It may also be appropriate for the formula to be revisited, and we would recommend exploring the changes currently being instituted in Australia, which include taking both parents' income into account, and basing liability on the costs of raising children. In enforcement, particular attention should be paid to parents' suspected of minimising income. (If both parents' incomes are taken into account, this means both parents will be scrutinised.)

9 January 2007






50   The organisation has nothing whatsoever to do with Fathers for Justice. Back

51   Through marriage, agreeing to the dad being on the birth certificate, or signing a Parental Responsibility Agreement with the father. Back


 
previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2007
Prepared 15 March 2007