HL Deb 02 November 1999 vol 606 cc801-19

7.48 p.m.

Lord Northbourne rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what they consider to be the role of fathers in the family and in the rearing of children, whether they believe that role to be important, and what they are doing to support men in their role as fathers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the enormous response to this debate has caused a ridiculous situation in regard to the time available to speakers, for which I apologise, although I am not responsible. I hope that the Government will note the response and perhaps give time For a proper debate on this subject in the next Session, whether or not I am here to speak in it.

It is a particular pleasure and delight to me that my noble kinsman, Lord Hood, is to make his maiden speech in the debate.

I rise to ask the Government a deceptively simple question: what is the role of fathers in our society today? Fifty years ago, that question would not have been worth asking. The role of a father was to protect and provide for his family, to love and cherish them, and to set a good example to his children. Some failed; some cheated; some died young—but for tens of thousands of years the responsibilities of fatherhood were clearly understood. Men developed strength and skill to fulfil them.

The same is not true today. Advances in technology have created a situation in which fewer jobs rely on physical strength, endurance or courage. After 50 years of relative peace, the demand for protection has fallen away. There is less demand for "brawn" and more demand for "brain". That is good news for many of your Lordships, but bad news for young men who have no education or training.

Social attitudes have also changed. Today most women want a career or job and also to bring up a family. These changes, good in themselves, bring with them two problems: young men with no role in their families and families without fathers. Today we are creating an underclass of young men who are detached from the socialising obligations of the family, who believe that they are unfairly excluded from the opportunities of the consumer society and who see no role for themselves in the legitimate economy or family.

A recent report entitled Leading Lads by Adrienne Katz at Oxford highlights the problem. That is a study of the attitudes of 1,500 young men across the country. She divided these young men into the "can do" boys—approximately the top 25 per cent—a fairly large middle group and, at the bottom of the pile, a group of about 12 per cent whom she categorised as "no-can-do" boys. She reports that among the "no-can-do" boys are many who are, uncertain about their responsibilities and depressed about their future". Most of these "no-can-do" boys have grown up rejecting education and now have little or no training and no prospect of a decent job. They will father children and then will either be rejected by the mother as a useless or violent partner or drift off because they feel that they have no fulfilling role in their own families.

The seriousness of this situation should not be under-estimated. Here are some of the boys speaking. Jake aged 14 says: Once upon a time there were men's jobs and women's jobs. Now women are doing men's jobs and men are not doing women's jobs". Another aged 17 says: I think what's contributing to 'Lad Culture' is a kind of identity crisis—no position in society for us to grow into". And another: It's the hardest thing in the world to be a Nineties New Man. There are no rules, no precedents. We just make it up as we go along—it's a scary place to be".

Many young men today do not behave responsibly because they do not see anything for which they need to be responsible.

The first problem is young men. The second problem is young families without fathers. We have created a society in which far more children than ever before are brought up in families without fathers. The percentage of children who grow up in lone parent households has trebled since 1968 from 6 per cent to 22 per cent.

Without in any way being judgmental or critical of lone mothers, who often do a tremendous job, let us look at some of the disadvantages from which they and their children suffer. Single parent families are poorer. Children who grow up in poverty in turn suffer multiple disadvantage. Sixty-five per cent of children in single parent families grow up in poverty compared with only 24 per cent of children in two-parent families. Children who live in lone parent families have a 79 per cent chance of being in the bottom 30 per cent of income distribution. Single parents have no one to share the work, responsibility and fun of bringing up a child; often they are lonely and stressed.

Children in single parent families enjoy less good health. Many studies show that for children of young lone mothers there is significantly greater likelihood of infant mortality, child ill health and risk of accidents.

The Newcastle 1000 Family Study report said: Parenting is probably the most important public health issue facing our society today". It is the single largest variable implicated in childhood.

Many single parents do a heroic job. Some of their children achieve their full potential, but the odds are stacked against them. The Government are addressing the issue by encouraging lone mothers to get into work. I do not believe that that addresses the root of the problem. The root of the problem is a generation of young men, some of whom are uneducated, untrained, unemployable, unsocialised and unwanted. It is on that group that I want to focus in the few moments that remain to me.

I believe that there are steps that the Government can take. I believe that in this country there is a need for us to change our image of masculinity. Small boys need to learn in primary school that it is not "uncool" to learn and that school work is not only for girls. This means male role models in boys' lives: fathers, grandfathers, football heroes, teachers—men who show that they value school learning for men. It means more learning in the family and the engagement of fathers in schools; and it also means more suitably trained male teachers in primary schools.

In secondary schools and beyond we need to recognise that many young men need to build their self-confidence through pride in their physical strength, endurance, courage and loyalty. Those are characteristics that have evolved over countless generations by natural selection for a role that no longer exists. Sport, adventure training, sailing, mountaineering and other challenges should be made available to all young men who want them.

One mother to whom I spoke recently about the role of young men said: The job for boys is to change the world". We need opportunities for active citizenship. We also need millennium volunteers. Perhaps for those who cannot afford to volunteer we need a one-year residential training and service option with a basic wage—a programme centred on personal development and community service, not war. In return young men must learn the need for and the advantages and rewards of gentleness and kindness in the family, how to share responsibility for bringing a child into the world and its upbringing and how to help build a home for it.

I argue that a young mother with a child is better off with a father helping her. Fathers are happy and more stable if they have a role to play. The Government should give just as much help to fathers, including prospective fathers, to get into work as they currently give to lone mothers. To do so will be a very good investment. Social security benefits to fatherless families today cost the taxpayer;£4 billion a year.

As we move into the 21st century has not the time come for us as a society to try to work out some shared values about our civic rights and responsibilities, in particular the rights and responsibilities of being a father? There are some things about which we cannot make laws but which are none the less critical to the welfare of children and to the common good. For example, what values about fatherhood will be taught in the new PSHE syllabus in schools? Will boys and girls receive clear messages about the needs of children, that fathers have a role in families, that children are likely to have a better chance if mothers and fathers bring them up together in a loving family, and that in an age of effective contraception there is no excuse for a man to bring a child into the world unless he has made the commitment to love and care for it for 18 years or more? A child is not a toy.

The Children Act 1989 starts with the words, When a court determines any question with respect to … the upbringing of a child … the child's welfare shall be the court's paramount consideration". Should not as much be expected of the child's father?

7.57 p.m.

Viscount Hood

My Lords, I thank all those in the House, Members and staff, who have been so helpful and welcoming since I took my seat two weeks ago. I also thank my noble kinsman Lord Northbourne for giving me this opportunity to make my maiden speech on such an important issue.

Good parenting is so fundamental to the progress of society throughout the generations that it is taken for granted. It is only when it is absent that one realises the time, effort and resources required to instil what good parenting should have provided. The role of the father is half the picture but one that may not acquire full focus until rather later than that of the mother when what might be described as the maternity phase is over. For a father, even in a stable family unit, the first phase may not be hugely rewarding, but he can justify his role by being able to provide. It is much more difficult for a young man who cannot play this role and whose family is likely to be as well off whether or not he is there.

If the family splits, or was never a proper family at all, the odds against the father playing any part in the child's upbringing mount considerably. As a lawyer specialising in divorce, I have seen how, even in middle-class or educated families, to be an assiduous but absent father requires huge stamina. There may be friction with the mother for any number of reasons. Periods of contact are often contrived and artificial. Sadly, a father who remains in contact is likely to pay more in child maintenance than the one who does not. And if the parents were never married in the first place, an application to the court for the grant of parental responsibility will often be required. For a father unaware of the importance of his role, the decision to walk away for good is an easy one. And so the cycle can be repeated.

I have for many years been a volunteer lawyer at the legal advice centre at Toynbee Hall. I have seen many young men with many different legal difficulties to whom the fact that they have fathered children appears entirely incidental to their existence. I believe it is significant that in all the time since the passing of the Children Act I have never once been asked to advise on how parental responsibility can be obtained if the mother is not consenting to it.

I am the father of four young children. My eldest son is going through the phase of realising that his father does not know and cannot do everything. I am finding this process rather more difficult than he is, but I consider it essential, if society is to progress, that our children are able to learn from us what we do know so that they may acquire for themselves what we do not.

8.1 p.m.

The Earl of Mat and Kellie

My Lords, it falls on me on behalf of the whole House to congratulate the noble Viscount, Lord Hood, on his excellent maiden speech. He hails from a family with a significant naval history, and, as he mentioned, has a continuing career as a divorce lawyer. It is ironic that I probably cannot say that we look forward to hearing from him often—but I cannot foretell the results on Friday. Nevertheless, the House has benefited today from his experience and the noble Viscount can take heart from the fact that he took the opportunity that he was briefly allowed.

The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, is to be congratulated on bringing the vulnerable position of fathers to our attention. Young men are facing dilemmas as to their very purpose in being. Women are finding their place in the world and not before time. Unfortunately, this advance seems to be at the expense of young men. This is not a call for women to rein back, but rather a call for men to find a way forward into a more, I suspect, androgynous future.

The expectation of the supposedly macho job in the steel works, ship yard and coal mine is over. Families must redirect their aspirations for their sons from broadly engineering work into the available work, which in Scotland is likely to be in electronics or a service industry. Since 1994, women have dominated the Scottish labour market. Men certainly make up the majority of full-time workers, but some women are doing work for which, it seems, men will not get out of bed.

Clearly, government cannot be held solely responsible for that. The family, both nuclear and extended, has a major role to play. Families need to sharpen up on how they encourage—or, often, discourage— their children about education and training. The take-up of higher education in Scotland is good, exceeding the UK average. Government need to strengthen "low level" training courses and schooling.

The boys of today must be encouraged to see learning and training as being manly, and not just for girls. Men must establish a new equilibrium with women. Until the parents are sorted, the children will not receive the lead they need.

8.3 p.m.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, first, I should like to pay tribute to my own father without whom I should neither be in this world nor in your Lordships' House. One of my happiest memories is of the many people who knew my father when he was here, and the lovely things they have said about him. He was a man with a great sense of humour and a lively wit who saw further into the future than most people.

Secondly, I pay tribute to my husband who has always been such a special father to our children. He shares many of my father's attributes combined with an enormous amount of patience. Nothing is ever too much trouble for him.

Thirdly, I wish to speak, not surprisingly, about war widows. Their children have been suddenly deprived of the blessing of a father. Some of these ladies would like to remarry but are nervous of doing so because it would deprive them of the pension to which their husbands contributed during their lives. They would like to give their children a chance of a second father. My noble friend Lord Northbourne made this very point in our debate last week. Noble Lords felt so strongly on the issue that they sent the amendment back to the other place.

I shall not easily forget those 47 children last Monday, stroking the noses of the horses on guard in Whitehall, meeting the Prime Minister at No. 10, picnicking in Westminster Hall and viewing the splendour of the red and gold in your Lordships' House, and having no father to go home to, to tell the story of their happy day.

8.5 p.m.

Lord Warner

My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, on giving us the opportunity to discuss this issue, albeit briefly, today. I, too, congratulate the noble Viscount on his maiden speech.

I must declare an interest as I was involved in the preparation of the Government's consultative document, Supporting Families. That document recognised that family structures are today more complicated than a few decades ago. Any development of public policy on the role of fathers has to take account of those new realities, and this, I believe, the Government are doing.

The critical issues for many fathers—and indeed mothers—are better financial support for families through measures like the working families' tax credit, better services and support for parents, programmes like New Deal, which tackle unemployment, family-friendly employment practices that help parents achieve a better balance between home and work, parental leave in early years, and measures which strengthen adult relationships. Those larger measures help fathers fulfil their roles in modern society.

We know that the single most effective way of helping boys and young men is encouraging the involvement of their fathers. Boys who have no contact with their fathers are statistically more likely to be violent, get hurt, get into trouble and do less well at school. The research evidence on that is overwhelming. It means that we have to look critically at father-child contacts when adult relationships break down. We know that large numbers of non-resident fathers lose contact with their children within five years. That is why it has been so important for the Government to tackle the disaster of the Child Support Agency. Not only will this reduce parental conflict and bring more money into families through a simplified formula; it will also give incentives for nonresident fathers to stay in regular contact with their children. I believe that we need to go further by expanding contact centres where non-resident fathers may see their children.

I mention two issues. First, there is the area of trying to reduce conflict in divorce and separation so that father-child involvement is more easily maintained. Secondly, there is the issue of fathering in stepfamilies. I hope that the Government will tackle those issues as they take forward family policy.

8.8 p.m.

Baroness Young

My Lords, first, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Hood on his maiden speech; and thank the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for introducing this short debate today. He is, if I may say so, a good example of a hereditary Peer who has great knowledge of education and social work. He is an expert in this field, and it is right that he should draw attention to one of the most important and serious issues in social policy today: the role of fathers. He is right in what he said and I agree with everything he said today.

In the short time available, I should like to make two points. First, we live in a world in which men, curiously enough, are now downgraded. I have spent much of my life trying to help and support women into top jobs and other jobs. Now I feel that I should do the reverse and support men. Statistics show that boys do less well than girls in tests at age 11. They fall behind girls in the GCSE examinations. They barely hold their own at A-level. They are more likely to leave school without any qualifications and to be unemployed. Finally, they are far more likely to turn to crime and find themselves in court.

The issue should worry us all and the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, is a real one. One of the prime causes is that there are families without fathers. The importance of the role of the father cannot be overestimated.

The second issue to which the Government should address themselves is what exactly they will include in the new curriculum changes on citizenship and personal, social and health education. Unless they address the importance of the role of the father; the required responsibility; the need for boys to have a role model; the importance of boys receiving a good education; and of boys accepting their responsibilities, we shall see nothing more than a continuation of the catalogue of disasters which is affecting boys.

8.11 p.m.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, there is not much time for compliments, but I must say what a privilege it is always to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Young, one of the strongest Christian influences in this House.

All fathers want to be good fathers, but what is meant by the phrase "a good father"? There are three elements. He has to be a good husband; he has to set a good example; and he has to be a good teacher. Tomorrow, my wife and I will have been married for 68 years. She was once asked whether she had ever thought of divorcing me and she replied, "No, but sometimes of murdering him!". I do not know whether that qualifies me as a good husband, but that is my record.

Perhaps we should take examples. My father died a war hero, leading his brigade into certain death at Gallipoli. I, in my youthful excitement, tried to follow his example. I joined the Army as a private before the war and very soon was invalided out with a nervous breakdown. That example did not quite work out.

My father's final words were delivered to someone called Fred Cripps, brother of Stafford Cripps who told me about it. My father said, "I wish you would stop ducking, Fred. The men don't like it. It doesn't do any good.". That at least has remained; I tried to avoid ducking.

As regards training, we have wonderful proof of what it can do. In my eyes, leaving out the Church, present company, my relatives and some of my closest friends, the Queen is the greatest woman alive. Do your Lordships know what her secret is? She said, "I have been well trained.". Her father trained her, so he was a great father.

Those are a few points. When all is said and done, the good father is a loving father and every father here tries to live up to that standard.

8.13 p.m.

Lord Alton of Liverpool

My Lords, in congratulating the noble Viscount, Lord Hood, on his maiden speech, I am sure that the House will want to congratulate also the noble Earl, Lord Longford, not only on his remarks but also on the longevity of his marriage and the advertisement for family life that he presents. Tomorrow is his wedding anniversary.

Noble Lords

Hear, hear!

Lord Alton of Liverpool

My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Northbourne for initiating tonight's debate. As he said, the number of people who have applied to speak in the debate, and the brevity with which we have to make our remarks, illustrate the need for a longer debate at some future time.

It is a staggering reality that some 800,000 children in this country have no contact with their fathers. Anyone familiar with areas of urban deprivation will know that there can be whole streets and urban estates where father figures are absent. About one in four of our children experience their parents' divorce; one-third lose touch with one parent immediately after separation; and another third lose touch with one parent within five years.

Part of the cause of that has been the move towards easier divorce and the ideology that argues that lone parenthood is a desirable present and future state. Fertility treatments which seek to exclude men, other than as donors, further degrade fatherhood. I hope that we shall give that aspect longer-term consideration.

Absent fathers have had a threefold effect on the state. Let us take, for instance, the debate on the green belt. It is not necessary to build more houses because of an increase in the population; it is necessary because there are many more households following the massive increase in the number of broken families and the 43 per cent divorce rate. The effect on the Exchequer is that it now costs more to support broken families than it does to support even the unemployed.

Let us examine the effect on the children. You can divorce your spouse, but you cannot divorce your children. Fatherhood and responsibility to one's children continues.

Being unable to perform their role as fathers also has an effect on men. In the United States, for example, single men are six times more likely to be imprisoned than married men. Marriage, stability and family life can work wonders for people in that situation.

Unless we make it abundantly clear that family stability is crucial for children and for society generally; unless we acknowledge that ideally a child should have both a mother and a father; and unless we reaffirm the importance of fathers in child-rearing, we risk a further long-term social collapse and civic disaggregation of society.

8.16 p.m.

Lord Ahmed

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for initiating this important debate and I congratulate the noble Viscount, Lord Hood, on his excellent maiden speech.

The Asian culture attaches enormous importance to the role of fathers in the family and in the rearing of children. It is the father's responsibility to provide guidance, support and protection as well as giving love, care and affection to the family.

In Islam, the father is charged with shouldering all the financial obligations of the whole family. He is under a legal obligation with regard to the maintenance of his family. The Qur'an says: Men are maintainers of women with the bounties which God has bestowed more abundantly on some of them than on others and with what they may spend out of their possessions". A father's responsibility begins long before the birth of the child. He has to provide psychological and moral support to his wife, showing more love and affection during her pregnancy. The Qur'an says: Wife and children are comfort of your eyes". The Prophet said: Of all that a father can give to his children the best is their good education and training". However, there are also rights with responsibilities in Islam. While it is the duty of the father to provide, the children's responsibilities are to show kindness and respect and to speak with affection.

My experience o f being a father is to provide money, take responsibility, deal with crises and act as a bank manager who does not receive repayments of loans. But the love and affection that I receive in return is unconditional and is probably the best experience of my life.

Sadly, there are many Muslim and Asian parents who have lost control within their own families. The gap between the first generation and the second is widening. There is mistrust and a lack of understanding, of tolerance and of the patience to understand each other. The gap in some cases has caused enormous problems in the community.

Perhaps I my conclude by saying that the vast majority of Asian parents are very responsible and provide excellent care, support and guidance, and particularly financial support to their families.

8.18 p.m.

Viscount Brentford

My Lords, I warmly congratulate my noble friend Lord Hood and thank the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne. I once watched a film of a middle-aged Peter Pan, I believe played by Robin Williams. Before the main actors fly off to Never-Never land, Peter Pan promises to spend time with his children over Christmas. But a business deal took priority and the children missed out on his time.

Perhaps "Dad has no time for me" is one of the most poignant complaints of our children today. If a father is reading a book at bedtime to his children and the telephone rings, do the children or the telephone receive priority? Fathers' relationships, particularly with boys, depend on spending time together, talking through their worries and interests, their sport and education.

The Government are responding commendably to the increasing concern in the country for fathers' involvement with their children, particularly sons. The right honourable Harriet Harman was right in saying to fathers, "Your children need not just your money. They need you." There is a large correlation, as already mentioned, between boys in trouble and the low involvement of their fathers.

I warmly commend parenting courses, but plead with the people advertising them to be positive to fathers; for example, to say, "Please come as caring parents for the sake of your children." Parenting courses for fathers should be for men only and led by a man. If there is a hint in the advertisement that the course is for better parenting, or for problem parents, I suggest that men will run a mile. I look forward to hearing what the Government's plans are to encourage fathers, and particularly teenage fathers, to be involved long-term with their children.

In conclusion, I say to fathers, "If you want the best for your child, love the mother."

8.20 p.m.

The Earl of Rosslyn

My Lords, I have been a police officer for 19 years. I am currently serving in the Thames Valley where I am head of youth justice for the force.

The principle aim of the youth justice system is to prevent offending by children and young people. The influence of parents is a key determinant in achieving that aim. We know a good deal about the risk factors which can result in criminal behaviour. They include poverty, poor housing, drugs and alcohol misuse, peer pressure, truancy and exclusion from school. But they include also poor parenting, harsh and inconsistent discipline, and lack of parental supervision.

A 1995 Home Office study revealed that 42 per cent of children who received low or medium levels of supervision offended, compared with only 20 per cent where the level of supervision was high. The same research showed that the quality of the relationship between parent and child was critical and that offenders were more likely to have a poor relationship with their father than with their mother. It has been shown also that children are protected against some of the risk factors to which I referred earlier if they are able to form strong affectionate bonds with their parents.

Helping fathers to develop good parenting skills is therefore an effective way of ensuring that the small problems in a child's development are identified and addressed, rather than growing into major difficulties for child, family and community. Within our force we are working with our youth offending teams to develop such initiatives, helping parents to increase their self-awareness and self-confidence and improving their capacity to support and nurture children.

We are discussing this issue at a time when there is renewed and welcome interest in mentoring and befriending schemes, where the mentor helps young people to achieve their potential through coaching, explaining, listening and guiding. Such schemes cannot diminish the importance of our role as fathers, but their aims are ones to which we too can honourably aspire.

8.23 p.m.

Lord Sheppard of Liverpool

My Lords, not for the first time, the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, has done your Lordships' House a major service in introducing this debate. I shall try to pick up just one of the points he made, which relates to the title of the debate, namely, what the Government are doing to support men.

If young men are to accept the sort of responsibility about which we have been talking, they need to respect themselves and have self-confidence. All through this century, women have had to fight for their place and their self-respect. In wide areas that I know in Liverpool and London, generations of working class men have been able to hold their head high because they have been willing to sell their strength, their readiness to work in a gang, and their readiness and ability to support their family.

As other noble Lords have said, those types of jobs have gone away. In many big estates around Liverpool and in the borough of Knowsley, the figures, certainly until two years ago, showed that 45 per cent of all children were growing up in a home where no one was in work. The story was often one of a third generation unemployed. It is a huge mountain for a young man to climb to believe that he is needed and that he matters, to find that self-respect and to break out of the destructive circle of generations without work.

The Government have an important first priority in saying that the best way out of poverty is to find a full-time job. The New Deal is of the first possible importance. So far, so good; employment has gone well. We need to break down the statistics. I read the other day that the south east of England has perhaps only 1 per cent unemployment while areas such as Gateshead still have 9.8 per cent unemployment. The Government have done a great thing in naming poverty for what it is and establishing a social exclusion unit which has talked not only about the individually socially excluded, but of socially excluded communities. We need to focus on those, and to make sure over the years that bringing jobs to those communities does not depend solely on prosperity in the whole country, but that real jobs are brought into those communities through which young men can find self-respect.

8.25 p.m.

The Earl of Listowel

My Lords, so much of the destructive behaviour that I see among the socially excluded young people with whom I work becomes explicable when one knows the family situation from which it grows. Those who study child development tell us that good fathers are vital. Their relationship with the mother shows children how to be intimate themselves when they reach maturity. I could not agree more with the noble Viscount, Lord Brentford, that to do the best for your child, you must love your wife, or in accordance with the Koran's command, love and honour your wife.

Longitudinal studies of children from divorced parents show clearly a far higher incidence of divorce in the next generation. If we want to reduce rates of divorce and crime, drug abuse, rough sleeping, school truancy and academic failure, we must offer support to fathers, particularly those who were neglected or abused by their own parents. We cannot afford to continue having the highest divorce rate in Europe. We cannot afford to continue throwing money at the symptoms of family dysfunction rather than treating the cause.

8.27 p.m.

Lord Ashbourne

My Lords, I too must thank the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for introducing the debate and giving us an opportunity to discuss these important matters. Perhaps I may congratulate the noble Viscount, Lord Hood, on an admirable maiden speech.

I must declare an interest. I am vice-chairman of the Lords and Commons Family and Child Protection Group, an all-party group made up of Members of both Houses, formed some years ago by parliamentarians worried by the repeated and vigorous attacks on the traditional family.

When the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill was introduced in 1990 by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, the then Lord Chancellor, it was pointed out that the Bill could lead to the introduction of fatherless children. I remember well raising the issue in the early stages of the passage of the Bill and being told that that was certainly not the intention of the Bill. I replied that whether or not it was the intention of the Bill, it would certainly have that unfortunate effect.

The Heritage Foundation, based in Washington DC, produced a report in March 1995 entitled The Real Root Causes of Violent Crime: The Breakdown of Marriage, Family and the Community. The report concluded first, that, among other things, over the past 30 years, the rise in violent crime parallels the rise in families abandoned by fathers. Secondly, high crime neighbourhoods are characterised by high concentrations of families abandoned by fathers. Thirdly, the rate of violent teenage crime corresponds with the number of families abandoned by fathers. And, fourthly, the father's authority and involvement in raising his children are a great buffer against a life of crime.

Still across the Atlantic, the sociologist, David Papenhoe, writes that the decline of fatherhood is the major force behind the pressing problems of American society; namely, crime, teenage pregnancy, educational failure, drug abuse and the growing number of women and children in poverty.

Fatherless children are more likely to be abused by stepfathers or unrelated men in the family. That is why David Papenhoe says in Lost Fathers that in no society has the birth of children out of wedlock been the cultural norm: a concern for legitimacy is almost universal.

It was President Reagan who once affirmed that the family is the fundamental building block of society and that families without fathers are dysfunctional and contribute to the breakdown of law and order in this country.

8.30 p.m.

Lady Kinloss

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Northbourne is to be thanked for raising this important Question. In today's changing world the role of both parents in a family is changing, both here and across Europe. The Family Policy Studies Centre has examined the role of the world of work and family life. The father is often working longer hours and finding it difficult to balance work with his family's needs. Drawing on interviews and surveys within a group, the centre's study looks at families with different parental employment patterns to see whether there is a connection between work and the way in which fathers engage in everyday relationships with their family. The study shows the crucial importance still attaching to a father's role as provider by his partner and children, and identifies some of the problems fathers experience when they cannot meet that expectation.

The National Children's Bureau has found that men's expectations of themselves as involved fathers are growing, especially when the mother is also working. The father is then taking greater responsibility for the children, often sharing the care of a sick child. At present there appears to be very little attempt to help fathers to reconcile work and family. Will the Minister say whether the Government are considering what help they can give to fathers to reconcile their work and the time spent with their families? Will he agree that one way would be to adopt father-friendly employment policies within a company which could benefit employers from the point of view of production and company loyalty?

Enabling fathers to have more satisfying relationships with their children helps to reduce their stress levels, improves their effectiveness at work and supports their relationship with their partner. That can lead to less employment disturbance and family disruption.

Will the Minister agree that the role of the father in a family is of equal importance to that of the mother? They can be equally good carers. In some cases that has proved to work when the father looks after the children while the mother works. That is very often the case when the father is unemployed.

8.32 p.m.

Viscount Bridgeman

My Lords, I know we are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for initiating this debate. I add my congratulations to my noble kinsman Lord Hood on an excellent and, I may say, expert maiden speech.

This is time for essentials only. We have today an under-class—at times, one has to say, an under-gender. Several speakers have referred to this: the easy availability of sex, frequently the pressure of a successful career by the mother, and also the loose ties of marriage and partnership which young couples see all around them, frequently involving those whom they would otherwise naturally look to as role models. There is an all too easy temptation for men to walk away from it all, despite the best efforts of the Child Support Agency, prompting the frequently heard complaint from mothers that the men hold all the cards.

However, let us look at the other less depressing side. I hope that I am not in conflict statistically with the noble Lord, Lord Alton. A survey by the British Household Study Panel found that, despite the increased rate of family breakdown, more than eight fathers in 10 still live with all their biological children and seven in 10 do so with their first family. In many cases they are coping with all the difficulties to which I have referred or with the appalling discouragement and feelings of low esteem of unemployment—the feeling of guilt that they are unable to fulfil their responsibilities. I suggest that that is a peculiarly male concern, whether or not the mother is working and earning. Therefore, it is to those points that we need to address ourselves, just as much as to the errant and absentee fathers.

I suggest that the media's portrayal of fathers as by and large feckless is not entirely accurate. A recent sample group survey showed that the interviewees wanted to be good fathers. But there is a great need for more support, particularly for the young fathers. It is an enormous challenge to the Government, and I look forward to hearing the Minister's remarks.

8.35 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, first, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for tabling this Question. It has stimulated one of the most interesting debates in which I have had the pleasure of participating in the time that I have been in your Lordships' House. It has led to some wide-ranging comments. I am bound to say that, given that there are some 17 contributors to this debate, I could spend my entire time at the Dispatch Box answering all those points. I hope that your Lordships will forgive me if I do not manage to deal with all of them, or even the majority of them.

I should also like to pay tribute to the noble Viscount, Lord Hood, for his maiden speech, which was full of wisdom on the subject.

We in government see families as the building blocks of healthy communities. We also recognise that modern families take many forms and we work to support them, however they are made up. Last November we published the first ever government consultation document on family policy, Supporting Families.

Supporting Families emphasised the importance of the father's role in the family and in his children's upbringing. There can be many pressures on a man in his role as a father. He may not live with his children. He may feel torn, wanting to spend quality time with his children, yet working long hours to provide for them. We have been looking closely at the support available for fathers in the modern world and are helping them in a variety of ways. First among those is the dedicated support the Government are providing for families, and in particular for fathers.

As the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, will know, in the past year we have spent over £1 million funding the work of organisations which provide support for families, including his own organisation. Over three years, £7 million of grant funding is available for this purpose. Through this funding we are providing practical support on the ground for families, and creating models of good practice in family support which can then be disseminated around the country. We are supporting parents to be able to do a tough job to the best of their abilities. We have set up the National Family and Parenting Institute as an independent charity. In its first year it will map the parenting support available all over the country, right down to local level.

The Parenting Education and Support Forum, with which the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, is associated, is doing valuable work to improve the standard of the parenting programmes available and is looking at accrediting them through a national training organisation.

We are also giving £1 million funding to Parentline Plus to expand its telephone helpline service for parents. That "listening ear" service will be available nationwide from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. It will provide information on a range of specific parenting problems, from bad behaviour to bullying.

We recognise that fathers are often less likely than mothers to access parenting support or this type of telephone helpline. Fathers may be put off seeking help and advice by stereotypes surrounding their role. They can feel hamstrung by feeling that as men they should not show weakness and should be able to provide for their families without asking for help.

To address these issues, we are funding Fathers Direct to work with Parentline Plus on the telephone helpline for parents. They will develop a marketing plan aimed at fathers to break down the barriers they feel prevent them accessing the helpline. They will then train the helpline's call takers to respond appropriately to fathers' needs.

That is just one example of the practical steps being taken to improve the support available for fathers. We are funding Fathers Direct to do more than just work on the telephone helpline. It will also provide information to fathers and highlight fathers' issues in public life. It is creating a website for fathers to provide information on fathers' groups and other resources. It will mount a media campaign to raise the profile of fatherhood. And it worked on the recently launched Bounty Guide to Fatherhood, the first practical guide of its kind for expectant fathers.

Fathers Direct contributes to the Government's concerted effort to change the culture around parenting support. We want parents to view asking for help and support in their role as parents in a new light and to view it as a positive step, taken by a responsible parent for the good of the family, not as a sign of weakness or an admission of failure.

The Government alone cannot change that culture, but through the organisations that we fund we are making an important start. We fund several other projects which will make a real difference to the quality of support available for fathers, and their likelihood to take it up. In fact, 60 per cent of the family support grant funding this year was dedicated to projects which work to support fathers. I shall give you details of just a few of those projects.

NEWPIN has worked successfully with parents for years, and is now developing and disseminating support services for fathers. YMCA is being funded to disseminate an intriguing programme called "Dads and Lads" which uses sport to bring fathers and sons together. Dads take their sons to football training on a Saturday and, while there, engage in a parenting support programme based around sport.

The Thomas Coram Foundation is approaching fatherhood from another vital angle. It is working with young black men and men of ethnic minority, tackling their concerns about fatherhood and masculinity. Those young men have been in local authority care and may have suffered from the lack of an involved father figure in their lives.

That brings me to another important issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne: the current underachievement of some young men. There are, of course, many factors that contribute to that trend, and the Government are tackling the issue on several fronts. An important one is the role of the father, and indeed the whole family, in the lives of young men. By helping fathers we shall also benefit their children, particularly boys and young men, who benefit greatly from the involvement of a father figure in their lives.

The Leading Lads report, to which the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, referred, highlights how important it is for young men's self-esteem, their attitude to school and a range of other factors to have a highly involved male in their lives. That man need not be their biological father, but any older male who has a supportive, constructive and engaged relationship with the young man. The report says, and I quote, Can-do people appeared in every type of family … although there are more No-can-do boys living without their fathers than Can-do boys, family structure proved less important than the way people parent". It is our hope that the family support measures that I have outlined will make a big difference in this area.

Another way of providing young men with such a highly involved finale is through mentoring. That is already being trialled by the Youth Justice Board. I pay tribute to the work of the noble Lord, Lord Warner, in that respect. The Youth Justice Board is spending £6.6 million on mentoring schemes which intervene in the lives of 10 to 17-year olds to prevent offending. Mentoring has proved extremely successful in improving the life chances of young men in the USA, especially those from lone-parent families.

Recent research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on Work and young men finds that, The nature of young men's underachievement is complex, and possibly less severe than some people may have feared". I believe that the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, put his finger on the point. It continues: Nevertheless, some men during the mid-1990s did experience problems securing paid employment. The study found that young men who lived with their parents or family were less likely to be unemployed long term, and concluded that providing support to families is an effective tool in improving the employment prospects of young men.

The education maintenance allowances which are being piloted will give financial help to the families of 16 to 17-year olds who are improving their long-term prospects by staying in education or training past the age of 16. Many noble Lords made reference to the value and importance of education. We recognise that. As we all know, having a job or solid training is the best insurance against the sort of social exclusion that faces some young men. On this front, as the noble Lord, Lord Sheppard, said, the New Deal for Young People has helped over 84,000 young people into sustained employment.

We believe that the holistic, multi-faceted approach to tackling the difficult issues that face young men will prove effective. In the same way, the steps that we have taken to support fathers go much wider than the specific, targeted measures I have mentioned.

Finance is a matter close to all our hearts, whether fathers or not. However, money worries can be a particular pressure on fathers. The new working families tax credit will make a real, appreciable and marked difference here, by guaranteeing families with one person in work a minimum income of £200 per week.

Perhaps the next most pressing problem for those fathers in work is finding enough time to spend at home with their families. How many of us here this evening would rather be at home with our children as they enjoy their spare time or work on their homework? But we have to strike a balance between work and home. The Government are consulting widely with businesses on making family-friendly employment a reality. That does not mean putting a burden on business or being prescriptive about how employees manage their work and home commitments. We are collecting evidence of good practice and we are researching the best ways of implementing family-friendly working practices.

Already we have made a major advance in improving the work/home balance for parents. From 15th December this year, parents will be entitled to 13 weeks parental leave to be taken over the first five years of their child's life. For the first time fathers will be entitled to time off to care for their children. That includes non-resident fathers. That is a major step forward in recognising and lessening the conflicting pressures on fathers. The leave will be unpaid, but we have made sure that it will be made accessible to those on low incomes. Lone parents and couples who are in receipt of benefits such as the working families tax credit will be eligible for income support while they take parental leave. That is a real and progressive move forward.

For non-resident fathers, maintaining a good relationship with their children can be especially difficult. Time off work under the new entitlement to parental leave will help. We are working to reduce tensions which arise out of the payment of maintenance by non-resident fathers. The reform of the child support system announced this summer will make the system of maintenance payment both fairer and simpler.

We plan to introduce the new child support system as soon as possible, but we must ensure that it works effectively. We shall not repeat the mistakes of the current scheme. We need to introduce new legislation and a new IT system and we must be sure that those delivering the new scheme are well prepared. It will mean a radical change of culture and working practices in the Child Support Agency.

Nevertheless, there are radical improvements that we shall have to make to pave the way for reform. The CSA has already increased the number of staff who work on the client helpline and the number of hours the telephone service is available. By the end of the year the CSA will have significantly increased the number of locally-based staff who will be able to carry out face to face interviews and visit parents at home when appropriate.

The reform of the CSA encourages non-resident fathers to share the care of their children with the parents who have residential care. The present system does not do enough to recognise fathers' caring responsibilities.

We believe that all these measures taken together will make a real difference to the quality of fathers' lives and help them in their vitally important role within the family.

Once again, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for initiating this debate and for the work that his organisation carries out on and for families. As your Lordships can see from the initiatives that I have outlined, we in the Government are concerned with what we can do to support both families and fathers. Our economic and social policies address issues in all areas of fathers' lives and we shall continue to look at what we can do to help more. This debate has been most helpful and useful in informing that important work.

Lord Burlison

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until 8.50 p.m.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 8.47 p.m. to 8.50 p.m.]