Rob, thank you very much. Can I start by saying what a pleasure it is to be here this morning and by passing on my gratitude for the faith that the Fatherhood Institute has shown by inviting me along today. When I told my wife I was doing this speech, she asked why you couldn’t get a ‘real’ expert on fathers in, which was a little crushing, certainly being an MP is not the most family friendly job to be in.
I also quickly wanted to pay tribute to Rob, who I can honestly say must be one of the most dedicated, professional - and agile chief executives in the country. I spoke at a dozen fringe events at this year’s Conservative party conference, and somehow Rob managed to sprint between rooms to see nearly all of them. In fact he has become my stalker.
Fathers can be great resources where families go right and where families go wrong. This is the first real opportunity I’ve had to speak publicly about fathers specifically since the Coalition was formed in May, and I wanted to use it as an opportunity to thank both the Fatherhood Institute and all of you here for your work over the last few years.
Slowly but surely, it feels as if the campaigning that you have been doing - along with a more general shift in attitudes amongst fathers themselves - is helping to change the way society thinks about dads, with a far greater understanding generally of the role that they play in their children’s upbringing.
More people now know, for instance, that children who grow up with a supporting father are less likely to suffer from mental ill health, are less likely to perform poorly at school, and are less likely to get into trouble with the police.
Meanwhile scientists and psychologists are repeatedly telling us that fathers, or the absence of fathers, has a profound impact on a child’s general development, with various studies showing that girls are more likely to become teenage mothers if their dad is absent and that sons are more likely to display lower intimacy and self esteem in the absence of a father figure.
I think that starts before birth as well. It starts from the ante-natal and the delivery ward - fathers should be part of the process of giving birth and not left out by the midwife. The new Government want to support parents but not tell them what to do. It is the state’s role to support parents, not supplant them - especially fathers.
Men’s role is far more influential and wide-ranging than we would ever have imagined even just 30 years ago. We need to formulate policy based on the realities of life now -realities with which you are only too familiar. For example, figures on the amount of time fathers spend with their children reflect our country’s social development. Compared to thirty years ago, men spend eight times as much time with their children. Parents in general spent four times as much time on childcare in the year 2000 than they did in 1960s.
In the 1970s, fathers of young children spent less than a quarter of an hour per day involved in child-related activities. The EOC records that on average, fathers of the under fives now spend one hour and 20 minutes on child-care activities during the week and two hours and 30 minutes a day at the weekend.
In families where women work, fathers now carry out one third of the parental care. This one third is a greater amount of time than the child spends in any professional childcare setting.
These figures reveal that cultural changes and developments in Britain over the last half a 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, to the point where it seems almost unimaginable that someone like Margaret Mead could write now what she wrote back in the ’60s and ’70s about ‘fathers being biological necessities - but social accidents’.
However, what has not changed over all that time is that two parents are better than one wherever possible.
Even if we manage to achieve all of that, I bet that none of us will achieve the level of family involvement of the Aka pygmy fathers. The Aka pygmies are a hunter-gatherer tribe from northern Congo in central Africa and they have been branded the best fathers in the world. Aka pygmy fathers spend forty-seven per cent of their time in close contact with their infants, even letting them suck their nipples. As you can see - we still have a long way to go!
Nevertheless, there is a big difference here between what is generally understood, and what is generally practised. So, while the scientists and psychologists keep on reinforcing the argument and going to ever greater extremes to show how important fathers are, it seems to me that there is still a real risk here that dads will continue to be passively discriminated against by public services unless we take action.
We already know, for instance, that many men are left feeling somewhat disenfranchised by child health and family services. But I’d suggest that it goes a little deeper than that - to the point where we very often forget fathers altogether when we are dealing with family issues.
Very recently, for example, I went up to Stockport to shadow social workers for the week. On one visit we went to see a single mum with four sons between the ages of 12 and three, three with different fathers but none of them anywhere to be seen. The state of the flat was something to behold - with no carpets or furniture, and piles of clothes heaped on the floor.
The social worker I was with told me that one of the children had been suffering terrible toothache for weeks, which had left him writhing on the floor in agony. And yet, despite repeated advice, his mother had failed to book him an appointment to see the dentist. However, while we were there the mum herself developed toothache and immediately called for an appointment - without mentioning her son at the same time.
I remember walking away from there and telling the social worker that I would have had no hesitation in pulling those children out of the house into care - only to be gently reminded by the worker that the mum absolutely doted on her children and that they loved her deeply.
Never though, in all that time, did it occur to me to question where the various fathers were, or to consider their own failings and responsibilities to their children - and it is, rightly, something Rob pulled me up on at the party conference. Particularly as I suspect that if it had been a single dad looking after those children, the first question on all our lips would be: ‘where is mum?’ And in some of the high-profile cases involving child abuse, such as Baby P, was enough work done to see where the birth father fitted in and whether he could be part of a solution? We need to think smarter about non-resident fathers and at every chance continually challenge assumptions about non-resident fathers.
So, what is the answer? How do we reverse the decades, or most probably centuries, of tradition relating to the respective roles of mothers and fathers, to reflect modern thinking on dads and their importance to child development?
Clearly that’s not an easy ask - but it can be done, and in some places is being done helped by organisations such as the Fatherhood Institute. Much of it comes down to ensuring everyone involved in the public sector becomes better promoters and advocates of fathers than has been the case in the past.
In part, that means each of us - including fathers - taking greater responsibility. In part it means providing more supportive government. In part, it is simply a question of working smarter.
I have seen, for instance, some fabulous examples of projects where fathers have either been encouraged to take greater responsibility or where volunteers have given up their own time to act as a father figure. In my own constituency down in Sussex, we have a scheme in which young people from single-parent families - many of who are on the verge of being excluded from school - get the opportunity to go down to the fire station and work alongside the fire fighters there. And it has had incredibly positive effects on the young people who go through that programme.
The Big Society, which will involve many young people, is a good opportunity for this kind of work to be taken further and wider, with fathers playing a fuller role in their local communities and being encouraged to get involved in their schools, children’s centres and youth clubs far more than has been the case in the past.
In terms of providing a more supportive government, it means working harder to ensure fathers are recognised in public policy-making, and it means making life easier for the professionals who have to engage them. So, not only are we now looking at how parental leave might be better shared in future so that couples have greater flexibility over child care, we are also undertaking two major reviews that should begin to change the way that both the justice system and the social care system approach fathers.
The first of these is our review of family justice, which will look at how the courts manage cases involving children and at how we ensure that families reach easy, simple and efficient agreements that are in the best interests of the children when families break down. Whilst - critically - we are also looking at how best to support contact between grandparents and non-resident parents, who will often, of course, be fathers.
The second is the review of child protection that we have asked Professor Eileen Munro to undertake on our behalf - with the very clear direction that her team reduces the huge amount of bureaucracy that social workers currently have to deal with, giving them more reflective time to be able to seek out the non-resident fathers. That reports back in the spring, and we fully expect it to free up social workers so that they can spend far more time on the frontline eyeballing families - and crucially, give them the chance to find non-resident fathers and involve them better. Which is, I know, something that Rob has been talking about this week.
As to the third and final point around thinking smarter: This is simply a matter of working out what is excellent in the sector and making sure it happens everywhere. When there is a children’s centre in one part of the country getting dads involved by organising a football team, why is it not happening more routinely elsewhere? And when one local community is encouraging dads-and-lads reading, why is it not happening everywhere?
Similarly, we know that Family Group Conferences, which bring wider family members together to decide on plans of action for children at risk, are working wonders in some parts of the country, saving local authorities money and - more importantly - giving vulnerable children, fathers and grandparents far more say over their future. In nine areas alone, we estimate that some £11 million has been saved by local authorities as children have been prevented from going into care, or have been moved out of the care system back into the family home.
However, this is still only happening in around 70 per cent of local authorities, and even then it is not necessarily happening routinely. In short, there is still a huge amount of scope for local authorities, voluntary agencies, charities and government to share what works, so that fathers are routinely involved in family issues, and so that there are no excuses for not doing so.
To end, let me just thank the Fatherhood Institute once again and let me repeat that central message around the better promotion of fathers.
If you can imagine the flamboyant, if controversial, Don King promoting one of his boxing matches, you wouldn’t expect him to throw out a quick press release to the waiting world with nothing more than the height and weight of his boxer. He’d make sure everyone knew about the fight and that everyone bought into it.
In much the same way, we can’t simply rely on statistical evidence of the importance of fathers - or the work of scientists. We need to all become promoters of dads. It is a shared responsibility and one that will - I hope - become a reality in the Big Society. And I want to see fathers be a major and vociferous part of that.
And I’m delighted to help in a small way today by presenting the Fatherhood Institute’s fantastic ‘Dads Included’ award.