Early Parenthood: Supporting Fathers — [Geraint Davies in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:45 am on 30th January 2019.

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Photo of Jackie Doyle-Price Jackie Doyle-Price The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care 10:45 am, 30th January 2019

I have enjoyed listening to everyone’s contributions this morning. It is often said that MPs do not live in the real world, but we have heard some frank accounts this morning that very much prove that we do; we do share those experiences. I am proud of my hon. Friends who have been raw in their accounts of fatherhood. I hope that my hon. Friend Douglas Ross has not been put off by any of the things he has heard today.

The tone for the honest and frank accounts was set by the opening comments by my hon. Friend Tracey Crouch, who was characteristically honest in her expositions. I am grateful to her for obtaining this debate. It is time that we gave a big shout-out to dads.

Dr Huq, who is no longer in her place, mentioned the 400,000 single-parent families headed by dads. My partner was one of those 400,000; he raised his son alone for the first 10 years of his son’s life. It is often challenging for single dads, as things are focused around the mums. When he first started taking George to primary school, he was viewed as a bit of a curiosity by the mums and the teachers. A lot of low-level discrimination takes place towards dads in those circumstances, which we ought to be more alive to. That is probably symptomatic of discrimination towards dads. We have heard frankly today that it is all about the mum and the baby, and that the dad is a spare part. My hon. Friend Paul Masterton described driving home, having gone through the trauma of childbirth, and asking, “What happens now?”, then not being able to visit mum the next morning. Collectively, society needs to be a lot more understanding and welcoming of the father’s role in those early days, weeks and months, not least because it gives children the best possible start in life if dad is fully engaged.

We know that now, more than ever. My hon. Friend Andrew Selous is my conscience on these issues. He constantly emphasises to me that good-quality relationships are critical for every member of the family. He is absolutely right. Where society can bolster that, obviously we should take those steps. He has highlighted some things for me to look at, and I assure him that I will.

Childbirth and parenthood is life-changing and my hon. Friends have shared their experiences to illuminate that. Having support from a father as well as a mother is extremely important. We know that there are very real barriers to that involvement, including the pressures of work, which a number of colleagues have alluded to, particularly where employers in particular fields of employment are less than understanding about the fact that family is dad’s work as well as mum’s. That is something that we need to tackle. We have mentioned that services are not always tailored to dad’s needs as well as those of mums.

There is a general lack of information. A life-changing thing happens, and people are kind of expected just to suck it up and go along with it. It can be extremely challenging and scary, so we need to be more understanding of that. We also need to be cognisant of the fact that it is the time of most acute stress and strain on relationships. It is probably the riskiest time for relationship breakdown. We need to make sure that wraparound support is available to dads who need it.

I would like to say that I was satisfied with progress. It is true that progress is being made, but the debate, and the research that has been mentioned, show that we need to do more. Among the things that we are putting in place and expect to deliver, our first steps clearly need to be in maternity services. We believe that they should do more to maximise fathers’ involvement, at a time that clearly offers the most important opportunity to engage them in the care of their partner and the upbringing of their children. I can tell my hon. Friends who did not have that experience that we have invested £37 million to support the involvement of fathers in labour and postnatal units, including en suite rooms and double beds adjacent to maternity wards. Clearly, that would be a much better experience for new fathers, and we will make sure that that arrangement is rolled out more and more. NICE guidance states that women, their partners and their families should always be treated with kindness, respect and dignity. We need to make sure that that is done properly. Scrutiny will be through Care Quality Commission inspections, which will be designed to ensure that maternity services deliver what we expect.

Interestingly, according to CQC’s survey of women’s experience of maternity care, 96% of women said that their partner was able to be involved as much as they wanted during labour and birth. Clearly that is not consistent with the figures that we heard today, but the explanation is probably that the question was asked of mums rather than dads. It illustrates what has been said about feeling like a spare part. My hon. Friends have been honest about their emotions at the time in question, and we know that men are not always frank in exposing their emotions. What the survey tells me is that a mum does not always know that the dad feels completely useless and like a spare part. That tells us that we have an issue to tackle. Seventy-one per cent. of women said that their partner or companion was able to stay in hospital with them as much as they wanted, but that is not borne out by the feedback today. My message going out to the health services is that in addition to inspections and standards there needs to be much more sensitivity and leadership, to make sure that dads are properly considered during such an important period.

I constantly challenge the instinctive prejudice within the system to spend the considerable amount of resource that the Government make available to the NHS on clinicians and clinical support, when we know that wraparound services, as often provided by the voluntary sector, are complementary to the services given by health professionals. When we are talking about supporting families and giving children the best start in life, the voluntary sector can obviously play a part. We have heard good examples of that today.

To move the subject on from birth to early parenthood, children clearly do better when both their parents are involved in their life. Where relationships are less strong, there is a risk of poorer outcomes in the long run, as we have heard today. The quality of fathers’ involvement matters more than the quantity of time they spend with their children and partner. We need to champion those who support their partners, which is facilitated by a father’s bonding with their baby or young child. When a father is an active parent, the secure attachment that is built as a consequence makes a big difference to the child as they develop their own relationships and resilience; it leads to better outcomes in life. For fathers it can be a positive experience, often helping them to re-engage with education, employment or training, and altering their outlook on life. My hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford shared the experience of her partner’s doing exactly that.

How can we best support fathers in doing what I have described and exploring how to have the most satisfactory parenting experience? I see health visitors as our army in doing that. We have clear expectations about their work with new families. They keep an eye on them, with a view to getting the best outcomes for children and making sure that the family environment is secure. I see health visitors in that way because they often build a less formal and deferential, and more trusting, relationship with the new family. Often they are the only person who interacts with the dad. We shall be expecting health visitors to do much more to support fathers in the early months and years of a child’s life. We expect them to work to ensure that fathers are part of the holistic assessment of family fitness.

Where possible, both parents should be included in health reviews. I have heard the messages from various Members who said that that was not their experience, and we shall give a clear set of messages to the system about addressing that. Such an approach can only boost the chances of intervening early and getting proper support for the mother, the child and the father when it is needed. In doing my job I have been moved by health visitors’ accounts. We know that post-birth is a challenging time for mums, when they are most at risk of poor mental health. The feelings of isolation and helplessness on dads’ part in those circumstances are extremely difficult, and health visitors are incredibly well placed to provide support then, and steer them towards additional help.