Work and Families Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:45 pm on 25th April 2006.

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Photo of Lord Northbourne Lord Northbourne Crossbench 4:45 pm, 25th April 2006

My Lords, Amendment No. 2 concerns the definition of the person who is to be considered as a father for paternity leave. It is a probing amendment and I should like to thank the noble Lord for his letter on the subject, which has enabled me to table this amendment. In a nutshell, the Government's argument for the definition proposed in the Bill is that the present definition for ordinary paternity leave is working well, so why change it? It may be worth considering whether this is a valid reason for assuming that there should be no change and for assuming that the same formulation will work equally well for this six-month period of paid additional paternity leave. Obviously, for the latter, the stakes are much higher. We are talking about a big amount—perhaps 10 times as much money. Therefore, there may be the greater temptation to dishonesty.

However, this is not the argument that I want to advance this afternoon for my amendment. I want to raise what I believe to be a more important issue. We are all agreed—and the Government agree—that our concern in this Bill must be to enhance the well-being of the nation's children. As your Lordships all know, there is today ample good research showing that the presence of a committed father or a father figure in the life of a child is likely to increase the child's well-being and his chances of success in education and in later life. So should we be taking every opportunity to increase the probability that fathers will make a commitment to their child?

It is not clear what the existing proposed tests as printed in the Bill mean. It says that the person in question must be responsible for the upbringing of the child. What do those words mean? Do they mean that he may or will for the period of six months help to look after the child, as a kind of childminder, or does it mean a long-term commitment by that man to that child?

In order to find out and perhaps to propose a solution to that point, I have inserted the words "parental responsibility". Parental responsibility implies a long-term commitment to the child. It may not be perfect; it may not always work, as in a marriage, but at least there is a commitment at the beginning. To have paternal responsibility in law, a father must either be married to the mother or have signed the birth register of the child or obtained paternal responsibility by application to the courts. Each of those is a positive act of showing commitment. Obviously marrying the mother or signing the birth register implies such a long-term commitment, but there may be reasons why a man does not want to marry. However, signing the birth register is something that any reasonably committed father should want to do for his child.

Conversely, any father who cannot be bothered to turn up and sign the birth register might be considered an unsuitable person to look after the child on his own for six months. A person who is not married and has not signed the birth register has to appeal to the courts to obtain paternal responsibility, but there is no such condition for a person who signs the birth register—he is free to walk in and do so. It is an option open to every father.

My contention is that if parental responsibility were part of the definition to qualify for paternity, that would be a powerful incentive to encourage any father who had the slightest intention of being a good father to sign the birth register. Fathers who do not bother to do so are scarcely likely to be suitable. I have inserted a second part to my amendment, which is a kind of failsafe. It may be that as time goes by there will be other ways in which fathers can signify their commitment to their child. For example, a draft Bill was introduced in another place by Frank Field for naming ceremonies for a child in which a formal commitment to the child would have been given had the Bill proceeded.

My argument is that the amendment should lead to more unmarried fathers taking seriously their duties to their child and to the greatly increased well-being of some of the nation's children as a result. The Government should have a record of all those who have parental responsibility, so it does not seem that any great administrative problems will be involved. I beg to move.