Fatherhood and the Care of Children

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 11:16 am on 5th July 2005.

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Photo of Stephen Crabb Stephen Crabb Conservative, Preseli Pembrokeshire 11:16 am, 5th July 2005

I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Hollobone on securing this important debate.

We use the word "crisis" a lot in this place, in our press releases and in our speeches. Last night we were discussing council tax and the crisis affecting certain income groups, and last week we were discussing the crisis affecting NHS dentistry. All are important issues and certainly worthy of parliamentary time, but this morning we have the opportunity to focus on something that I truly believe is a national crisis. However, it is rarely discussed properly, either because of political correctness, which sucks the very heart and value from any debate on social issues, or because it is so easy to fall back on generalisations and caricatures, stigmatising vulnerable groups or harking back to a bygone age.

We in the UK face a social crisis as a result of the absence of fathers from the lives of hundreds of thousands of children. The absence of fathers from family life is surely the most socially consequential family trend of our era. Some 15 per cent. of babies born at the turn of the millennium now live just with their mothers. Of those, nearly half see their fathers at least once a week, but nearly four in 10 have no contact with their fathers at all.

We see that phenomenon all around us in our constituencies, especially in communities centred on social housing developments. We are familiar, I hope, with the complex and interrelated problems of social exclusion that characterise those communities: poverty, low aspirations, educational failure, truancy, crime—the list goes on. Rarely do we hear discussion in this place about the link between family structure and such outcomes for children and young people, however. The evidence is there, but it is staggering how often people involved in family policy refuse to acknowledge it.

The proportion of children being raised by lone parents has increased by a quarter under this Government—there are now more than 3.2 million of them—and we are in danger of becoming the lone-parent capital of Europe. According to EUROSTAT, lone-parent families make up more than 70 per cent. of households with children—more than in any other country in Europe. That is partly because the absolute number of children living in one-parent families is so large, but also because the birth rate among intact couples has fallen. As a result of those twin developments, the percentage of children living in one-parent households is now much higher in Britain than elsewhere.

It is so easy inadvertently to frame the debate in terms that lay the blame at the door of the single mum, but that is absolutely not the purpose of my speech, or of this debate. One of the Conservative party's great errors of the past 20 years was to view social fragmentation through a lens that saw single mums as the principal problem. To a large extent, the problem is also about men, and about men behaving irresponsibly and fathering children. Often, they too have been brought up in lone-parent homes, with no understanding of what real fatherhood is about, and they then replicate the cycle in the lives of their own children.

There has been a lot of research in recent years about the socio-economic changes affecting the male population in post-industrialised countries. My hon. Friend Mr. Willetts has written at great length about those changes, describing what has happened to the marriageable pool of men. Often in communities there are men whom women will happily sleep with, and have children with, but with whom they would never in their wildest dreams set up home.

Many children living in single-parent homes will eventually end up in step-families. Social parenting, as opposed to biological parenting, is an important new phenomenon in family life. It is essentially about stepfatherhood. More and more men are raising other men's children, while in many cases their own children grow up elsewhere. No fewer than 17 per cent. of dads born in 1970 are stepfathers, nearly double the number among men born just 12 years earlier.

The most rapidly growing family type is the step-family. Since most children remain with their mother following divorce or separation, most step-families have a stepfather rather than a stepmother at their head. Not nearly enough research has been undertaken into the pressures on step-families, especially as the Child Support Agency is often lurking in the background of those families' lives, and payments are being made to the previous partners.

There has been a great deal of research about what social fragmentation means for children and society in general. Although many lone parents and step-parents do a superb job raising their families, the children are at much greater risk of abuse, of neglect and of worse social, educational and health outcomes than children who live with both their natural parents.

The decline of the traditional family unit is harmful to children and to wider society. As an example, I dug out a Home Office report on young people and crime from about 10 years ago. It undertook extensive research into the factors that drive young people to criminality. One conclusion stated:

"For both males and females, those who lived with both natural parents were the least likely ever to start to offend, followed by those living with a lone parent."

Those living with one natural and one step-parent were the most likely to start offending.

A few years ago I paid a visit to Cardiff prison, where I met a group of young men in their late teens and had a discussion with them about their lives. All had had chaotic home lives; all had grown up without the presence of a father; all had failed at school, played truant and committed criminal acts; and a few of them had found themselves in a revolving door situation, in prison for the third or fourth time. Several of those young men had already started to father children, thus repeating the pattern.

Family fragmentation matters. One of the most important factors to understand in this debate, although by no means the most important, is the fiscal framework surrounding the family structure. During the election campaign two months ago, I spoke to one young family at their home in Haverfordwest. They had two young children, the mother stayed at home and did not work, and the father had a modestly paid job earning less than £16,000 a year. They told me that their calculations showed that they would be better off if they divorced and the mother raised their children as a single parent. What a staggering conclusion in this day and age: a family can make that judgment and those calculations, and find that they would be better off splitting up and having the mother raise their children alone.

I have seen research undertaken by people such as Jill Kirby at the Centre for Policy Studies, which claims that the tax and benefit system subsidises marriage break-up. It shows that the average couple family in which one partner has a job is only £1 a week better off than the average workless one-parent family, because lone parents get so much extra support from the state. I do not believe that the perverse incentives created by the tax and benefit system go anywhere near far enough to explain the social trends that we are debating, but they are important factors that Ministers need to address.

One point that I want to draw attention to, which is linked to the main issue, is the wider absence of male role models in the lives of young people, particularly in schools. The General Teaching Council for Wales noted two months ago that there were so few male teachers in Wales that many pupils had gone through their primary years without ever being taught by a man. In primary schools, only 16 per cent. of teachers are men. In secondary schools the figure is 40 per cent. I would welcome the Minister's thoughts on why, despite the campaign by the Teacher Training Agency, the overall percentage of male teachers is falling. It was 28 per cent. last year and it is 27 per cent. this year.

What more can be done to address that problem? In other areas of life we see many examples of positive discrimination to rectify gender or racial imbalances. Should Ministers not be taking a more active approach in this area as well?

We in the House are doing the country a huge disservice when we fail to promote marriage, and fail to tell the truth about how the collapse of family life seems to fuel every social problem, including truancy. This is not about a mission for moral rearmament, and it is certainly not about demonising single mums, the vast majority of whom do a fantastic job. It is simply about recognising that children who grow up with their fathers do far better emotionally, educationally, physically, and in every way that we can measure, than children who do not. That conclusion holds true even when differences of race, class and income are taken into account. The simple truth is that fathers are irreplaceable in shaping the competence and character of their children.