Earlier this week David Cameron criticised “runaway dads”, saying they should be “stigmatised” in the same way as drink-drivers. Emine Saner brings together the founder of Fathers 4 Justice Matt O’Connor (pictured far right) and Tory MP Bill Cash – fathers of three each – to discuss the government’s record on families.
Matt O’Connor: Last year, the Conservative party made a series of explicit commitments with regard to family law reform. Those commitments have been reneged on. That’s bad enough, but then for Cameron, who is fighting a war in Afghanistan, is fighting a war in Libya, but at home seems to be waging a war on fathers … I’m outraged. He didn’t seek to separate out the fathers who struggle to see their children, who have court orders allowing them to see them but are denied access. He didn’t say he recognised that was a problem, he just besmirched fathers and played to the stereotype of the deadbeat dad.
Bill Cash: The responsibility for making sure children are given a fair chance in life is equally dependent on the behaviour of fathers and mothers. Focusing on the fathers is not getting the argument straight, because there are faults on both sides. There is also enormous fault with what used to be the CSA [now the Child Maintenance Enforcement Commission]. There is a controversial provision in the bill that wasn’t debated– the idea of a contribution towards the cost [of pursuing the other parent: under plans, single parents – mostly mothers – will be asked to pay £100 upfront towards that cost, and the CMEC will take "commission" from future payments]. I’m waiting to see what the House of Lords does with it. But fundamentally, I’ll never be able to stand up and support fathers who deliberately shy away from their responsibilities. I believe in families, and I know David Cameron does, too.
MO: He’s not showing it. Look at scrapping child benefit [for higher earners]. You’ve still got a prime minister masquerading under the cover of saying he is pro-marriage and pro-family, while demonising fathers. Doesn’t the Conservative party recognise the damage these comments make?
BC: To me, fathers walking away from their children is as bad as it gets.
MO: We never hear you or your party say anything about feckless mothers having children with multiple partners. One in three children in this country are growing up without a father. We’ve got the highest rate of young offending, we’ve got a teenage abortion epidemic. We’ve got boys growing up without a father, who are going to repeat the same behavioural pattern, saying ‘dads aren’t important’. Cameron’s message, demonising fathers, is so profoundly damaging. The Conservatives came in saying you’re pro-family, you’ll sort out the family courts, and you’ve done nothing, it’s a betrayal.
BC: This is an issue about children. The CMEC actually has a responsibility to get it right, and it’s not. That needs reform.
MO: The CMEC can’t work because what Cameron is doing, which is what Brown and Blair did, is to give fathers the status of sperm banks and cashpoints. You can abandon your children tomorrow, provided you pay. Child support should be emotional and financial, and until that enlightened approach becomes currency it is never going to change. There is a simple way of recognising the authority of parents and putting fathers back into the family, and that’s for this government to give children the right, in law, to see both parents. And grandparents. Explain how it can be in the child’s interests to deny access. We have a regime in this country – secret family courts – that is as brutal and barbaric, in my opinion, as any around the world.
BC: It’s a moral issue, it’s about the most fundamental human rights. I have a problem accepting the idea children should not be allowed to see both parents, except in circumstances where there are safety issues and there is violence within the family. I really do not think it’s a fathers-only issue.
MO: What we’ve been campaigning for is to take the conflict out of the court system. We want a court system that is based on transparency and scrutiny. We have an unelected, unaccountable judiciary operating in complete secrecy. If you put fathers back into the lives of their children, you also make them responsible for the financial and emotional upbringing of their children.
BC: But there are statistics that demonstrate that there are a significant number of fathers who are, as David Cameron put it, going awol.
MO: I do not accept that. A lot of fathers walk away because they know the misery and suffering and living bereavement of not being able to see their children. Why does your leader continue to demonise dads? I have had thousands of emails in the last few days since David Cameron’s comments, saying: ‘We would love to be responsible for our children, as long as we were given the chance.’
Emine Saner: Bill, do you think Matt is overstating the case of fathers? Only 40% of single parents receive maintenance from the other parent. That suggests there are quite a few feckless fathers …
MO: It suggests there are a lot of children growing up without a father.
ES: It suggests there are a lot of men who aren’t paying maintenance.
MO: You have to look at the circumstances. Are those men who have walked away, the stereotype deadbeats? Are they men who have tried to see their children and been denied access? There are a lot of women out there who say a man is superfluous to their requirements, they do not want a father.
BC: Anyone who says that is not looking at the interests of the child.
MO: The state is already the surrogate father. It comes in and provides the benefits. What I want are children to have the love, emotional and financial support from both parents, and until we change the mentality of war on fathers that won’t change. Family breakdown is an issue, and we need to find a solution based on reconciliation. David Cameron wasn’t attacking single mothers, he was attacking fathers.
BC: I wouldn’t call it attacking. You and I agree that there is a recognition that in certain circumstances fathers should rightly be criticised.
MO: So should mothers. Can we stop talking about fathers?
BC: I do agree that this is largely a problem of family law. I think it’s a tragedy that we’re still having this discussion and it’s not a problem that has been resolved.
MO: What we need is justice, to be treated equally in the eyes of the law. I’ll tell you how serious I am. I want you to pass a message on to David Cameron. On 10 July, I will be outside his house starting a hunger strike about this issue. That’s how strongly I feel.
BC: I’ll certainly be under an obligation to make sure that message gets to him.