Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill [HL]

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:24 pm on 21st November 2007.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Northbourne Lord Northbourne Crossbench 4:24 pm, 21st November 2007

My Lords, when I used to be involved extensively in agriculture, people used to ask me, "What do you think about GM crops?". My answer was always the same: it depends who is using them and what they are using them for. I suggest that that is not a bad criterion for judging scientific discovery. All scientific discoveries are rather like the genie that you let out of the bottle: you know that you cannot put it back in again, and you know that the reason that you will be given for letting it out is that it will do all sorts of wonderful things. We have not really thought about the downside.

I will not say more on that subject, except that I very much support the proposal made by the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, and the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, that we need a national standing committee on bioethics to see whether we cannot limit the damage that will ultimately be done by charlatans using the discoveries that we will have authorised for good.

I know that the last thing that your Lordships want to hear any more about is fathers, but I fear that fathers and families is the bit that I have to speak about. I will try to keep it short.

I find it very depressing that this Government, who have introduced so many excellent initiatives to help children, propose to use words in the Bill that will undermine the role of fathers and families. Honestly, I do not believe that they mean to do so, but I fear that the words they have chosen will have that effect. As drafted, the Bill has major social implications, as I see it. I suspect that the Minister will say that the removal of the word "father"—I take as the central example Clause 14(2)(b), which has been spoken about by other noble Lords—makes no difference because the welfare of the child requirement will remain in place. I believe that he is wrong.

For most people, and especially for some fathers, the removal of that word will imply that the Government do not really think that the role played by fathers is important. It will also seriously downgrade the standing of the traditional family in the long term. It will downgrade the role of fathers to leave some children in limbo, not knowing their biological father—a point that has been made by many noble Lords. It will promote the idea that the mother's wishes are more important than the well-being of the child and it will encourage single parenthood.

Today, the state and local authority services are wildly overstretched and sometimes they have shown themselves not to be absolutely ideal surrogate parents. Our society surely needs more, not less, parental responsibility, especially more responsible fathers. It is not the moment to discourage fathers and suggest that they are not important.

During our debate on Monday, the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, who is not in her place, drew attention to our society's growing need to look to fathers to be more responsible for their child or children. If we want fathers to be responsible, the last thing that we should do is to carelessly send them a message that they do not matter.

Why, then, are fathers important? Parenting is one of the most important jobs in the world. It is also one of the toughest, especially if you are poor. It is very expensive; it is hugely time-consuming; and it is often emotionally draining. It is scarcely surprising that the parenting job is easier and the chances of success greater if there are two partners working together, sharing the physical, financial and emotional burdens. To say that is in no way to criticise those mothers who have to bear the burden alone, and often do so with courage and success.

An accumulation of evidence shows the importance of a father in bringing up children. I suggest that the father has four roles. The first is giving physical, financial and emotional support to the mother. The second is as a secondary, but still very important, attachment figure for the child, adding to its self-esteem and sense of security. The third is as a role model, showing a boy what it means to be a man, building his self-esteem, encouraging him to work at school and developing by example his social skills. The fourth is as a role model to both boys and girls, showing them how a man and a woman can live and work together in a loving relationship.

It is possible, but not proven, that a second mother can perform the first two of the roles that were traditionally those of the father, but she certainly cannot substitute for the father as a male role model. When most boys reach the age of seven or eight, they instinctively start to ask themselves what it means to be a man. They seek out heroes to be their role models. If there is a father, the child will instinctively love and admire him and will turn to him. If there is not, however, he will look elsewhere. With so few male teachers in primary schools today, he may have little alternative but to find a role model in his computer game or, as he grows up, in a gang leader on the street.

I recognise—I am sure someone will say this—that there are some bad fathers and some families with poor relationship skills. To be fair, some of us have been saying this for a number of years and have been pressing the Government to do more to encourage and empower young men and women to improve their relationship skills and to teach relationship skills as part of the schools curriculum. Of course there are also wonderful mothers who manage to bring up their child successfully on their own, but this does not alter the fact that the statistics show that, across the board, children who grow up with a dad, or with a committed surrogate dad such as a grandfather, are likely to have better chances in life, both at school and later.

My main concern is not so much with that small minority of children who will grow up in a lesbian household and who will have two women to look after them, but with the fact that Clause 14(2)(b) and other parts of the Bill will send a message to fathers that it does not matter if they abandon their child, and it will send a message to all prospective mothers that it does not matter whether their child has a dad. In this context there is a serious lack of government clarity about the responsibilities of parenthood. This is not defined clearly in any way in the law of England, although it is defined in the law of Scotland. I shall return to this matter in Committee.

Finally, the failure of boys to achieve in schools and in later life is tremendously linked—more linked than we realise—to the lack of a father at home, a point that has been made by other noble Lords. This Government have, to their great credit, committed themselves to the principle that every child matters and to the principle that primacy must be given to the best interests of the child. In this context, they are making a very great mistake in giving the impression in the Bill that fathers do not matter. I shall be interested to hear how the Minister will square the primacy of the best interests of the child with the Government's decision to sideline fathers in the Bill.