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It's not just absent fathers, Mr Cameron. Family breakdown is driven by single mothers on benefits PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Melanie Phillips   

Lone mothers are often trapped in loneliness, depression and poverty, and — along with their children — far more likely to suffer physical or sexual abuse

At first sight, David Cameron’s remarks yesterday on the vital importance of fathers to their children’s lives might have produced a sigh of relief.

To traditionalists, the Coalition Government has shown alarming signs of wobbling away from the totemic promise made by Mr Cameron while he was in opposition — to restore the importance of marriage and thus tackle the disastrous breakdown in family life.

So banging what appeared to be the traditional family drum by lambasting ‘runaway dads’ might seem a welcome return to the Prime Minister’s original position. Alas, his Father’s Day strictures nevertheless merit only two rather queasy cheers.

Certainly, he deserves credit for stressing once again the terrible toll of disadvantage suffered by children in fractured families.

He was right to point out that parenting is not a unisex activity, and that mothers and fathers play vitally different but complementary roles in their children’s upbringing.

And he deserves praise for grasping that the opinions voiced by politicians about social and cultural trends play an important role in influencing people’s behaviour for better or worse.

It is therefore all the more regrettable that the Prime Minister nevertheless trotted out the flawed assumption that has bedevilled this debate for more than two decades, and which spectacularly fails to get to the heart of the problem.

Singling out ‘runaway dads’ for censure, he said that such individuals should be treated like drunk drivers — people who are beyond the pale and upon whom should be heaped ‘the full force of shame’.

Now, excoriating ‘runaway’ or ‘deadbeat’ dads is a familiar refrain. We all know the scenario: feckless youths getting one girl pregnant after another and abandoning each one in turn, playing next to no part in the upbringing of the children they have serially fathered.

This is, indeed, reckless and reprehensible behaviour. But it is only part of a much more complex and deeply rooted problem.

Most pertinently, it totally ignores the fact that there is another feckless actor in this dysfunctional family drama — the mother, who may be having children by a series of different men.

In line with politically correct thinking, Mr Cameron presents such girls or women as the hapless victims of predatory males. But that is just plain wrong. For at the most fundamental level, this whole process is driven by women and girls.

In those far-off days before the sexual revolution, relations between the sexes were based on a kind of unspoken bargain.

Women needed the father of their children to stick around while they grew up, in return for which a woman gave a solemn undertaking to be faithful to this one man.

For his part, the father’s interests were served by being offered not just a permanent sexual relationship but a guarantee from the trust placed in his wife that the children were, indeed, his.

With the combination of the sexual revolution, the Pill and the welfare state, however, women’s interests changed. Suddenly they were being told sex outside marriage was fine, unmarried motherhood was fine — and crucially, that the welfare state would provide them with the means to live without male support.

Among upper-middle-class trendies, marriage became an irksome anachronism and ‘living together’ became fashionable.

At the bottom of the social scale, however, these permissive signals from above combined disastrously with widespread unemployment among young men, whose lack of income made them an unattractive marriage prospect.

As a result, girls decided that, while they wanted a baby, the available fathers were usually a waste of space and so they didn’t want them to remain a part of their lives.

These young men then treated the message that they weren’t wanted as a licence for irresponsibility. And so the ‘runaway dad’ was born.

To single out these boys for censure — while calling lone mothers ‘heroic’, as Mr Cameron did — is not only unfair and perverse, but will fail to get to grips with the problem.

If it is to be remedied, women and girls have to come to a different conclusion about where their interests lie.

That means the welfare state has to stop playing the role of surrogate husband through the benefits it gives single mothers.

And that entails the risk of courting, once again, the accusations of heartlessness that ripped the Tories to pieces in the ‘back to basics’ fiasco of the Nineties.

So you can see why Mr Cameron preferred to pick on ‘runaway’ fathers instead. But unless he faces up to the true complexities of this problem, he will get nowhere.

Indeed, we’ve heard it all before. In 2006, John Hutton, then Labour’s Work and Pensions Secretary, said that fathers who failed to pay maintenance for their children would be ‘named and shamed’ on the internet to make them honour their family responsibilities.

And in 2007, another politician called for tougher rules to ‘compel’ absent fathers to take financial responsibility for their children by taking money out of their bank account or benefits and giving it to the mother. The name of that politician? David Cameron.

Well, here’s some friendly advice to the Prime Minister. He would do well to understand that, far from representing a throwback to the Tories’ ‘nasty party’ image that he is so desperate to bury, acknowledging the role of women as well as men in family breakdown would chime with his goal of giving the Conservative Party a conscience.

For the point that has always been missed is that the motivation for tackling family breakdown is not to apportion blame. It is to avoid causing further harm to the vulnerable.

Fatherless families cause pain and misery to everyone. They damage children. They hurt men. And they also harm women.

Far from being ‘liberated’ from men, lone mothers struggle to cope with life. Those in the media and intelligentsia who turn up their noses at marriage may be well-heeled enough to cushion themselves from the worst of the problems.

But, at the bottom of the social scale, lone mothers are often trapped in loneliness, depression and poverty, and — along with their children — far more likely to suffer physical or sexual abuse.

So Mr Cameron should not be taking nervous refuge in the tired old feminist demonisation of men. He should be saying instead that the disintegration of the traditional family is, in general, a disaster for women, along with children and men.

He should say it is vital to rescue women and girls from the cruelly false prospectus laid out by a culture that has told them they can go it alone in raising children without fathers. And he should say that the state must stop encouraging this harm.

One way of doing this would be to remove the ‘couple penalty’, the welfare incentive to parents to live alone rather than as a family unit. Yet because of the anti-family Lib Dems, the commitment to end this ‘couple penalty’ has been scaled back to merely reducing it. And the Prime Minister’s aim to restore incentives to marry in the tax system has similarly been reduced to a mere aspiration, with no hope of being implemented.

Mr Cameron should be commended for wanting to provide a moral lead. But to do so, he has to pick the right targets. He must also back up his words with concrete policies.

On both fronts, it seems he has a considerable distance to travel if he is to avoid the suspicion that Father’s Day merely provided him with another cynical platform for opportunism.


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