Friday, 4 February 2011

Britain's Missing Dads - Panorama BBC TV programme.

Watch or download:

(Dont be put off by the first 10 minutes of dad-bashing. This programme goes a long way to explain the real reasons behind Britain's 'feckless fathers')

Declan Lawn:

'Over the last two decades in Britain, there's been a sea-change in attitudes about fatherhood.

Dads in this country are spending more time with their children than ever before. Im a dad myself. Like most fathers, I see it as the most important part of my life.

Meet Keith McDonald. The papers have dubbed him Britains most feckless father. Keith has 8 children by 8 different women. He never see's them.

Here's the question: How representative is Keith of the phenomenon of feckless fathers? We all know he's become a tabloid freak show, but is he really that unique?

A recent study based on a sample of children under-5, found that about 1 in 8 of them never saw their father.

Feckless fathers are now becoming a political issue, because there is a correlation between absent dads and poverty. Last year David Cameron asked former Labour minister Frank Field to report on the life chances of poor children.

His conclusion? bad parenting plays a major role.

Birkenhead, Merseyside. This is Frank Field's constituency, where he says he's seen a growing number of feckless fathers emerge over the course of a generation.

Im here to find out why it is that so many men are missing from their childrens lives. In this part of the world, nearly half of all households with children are headed up by single parents, thats nearly twice the national average.

The Tranmere community centre in Birkenhead. Its a charity run by the Methodist Church that supports young parents. This morning a group of expectant mums are learning how to look after their money. Most of them rely on benefits like income support.

All of the young women in this class told us they were still involved in a relationship with the father of their child. So far, so good.

But there is a twist. According to the centre's director, in too many cases, dads who are around in pregnancy are not around after the birth.

Jill Quayle: "When we first meet them (the mothers), they nearly always have a partner involved in their lives. When they become young mums, and we see them again, very few have partners that are involved."

Interviewer: "So at some point, the young men, around the time of birth, are disappearing?"

Quayle: "Yes."

Just ask this lot. These are the mothers who've had their children. And as predicted, most of these young mums say the fathers are no longer involved.

Becky is one of them.

Becky's 20, and she's the head of the household. Today, she and her children are moving into a council house. (Her son) Terrance is just 8 weeks old. John-Paul is 2. She also looks after her 10 year old half-sister, Adena. Its their sixth move in 2 years. This time they're hoping its for keeps.

Interviewer: "So Becky, you're moving in here today because you needed a bigger house basically, is that right?"

Becky: "Yeah, because we were overcrowded in the old house, because we only had 2 bedrooms, and a boy is not allowed to share with a girl over the age of 10."

This is the house of absent fathers. Becky and Adena dont see their dads. The boys fathers are not even on the birth certificates, and Becky tells us that Terrance's dad denies he's the father.

Becky: "John-Paul's dad doesnt have much contact at all, but Terrance's dad has no contact whatsoever."

Interviewer: "How do you feel about that? Do you ever think your sons are missing out? Do you think they need their fathers around?"

Becky: "I dont think they need them around, but they should know who they are."

Adena, Becky's 10 year old half sister, has never met her dad, although we're told he does pay maintenance for her. She lives with Becky, because her mother found it difficult to cope with looking after her.

Interviewer to Adena: "What do you think of living with Becky? Do you like it?"

Adena: "Yeah."

Interviewer to Adena: "And what does she do for you, how does she look after you?"

Adena: "She feeds me."

Beckys case may be extreme, but the issue's are far from unusual. Just around the corner lives her friend, Kayleigh.

Kayleigh is bringing up her son Callum alone. She says Callum's dad was gone before the child was born. Kayleigh, like Becky, didnt see much of her own dad when she was growing up. And so far, Callum has only seen his dad 3 times in 19 months.

Callum's dad says thats because the few visits he did have felt awkward.

Some families here in Birkenhead are now on their second or third generation without a father. The jobs lanscape for young men here in Birkenhead has changed completely over the last couple of generations. This once great ship building and sea-fairing town, has been stripped of that industrial employment base. And recent research seems to suggest that there is a correlation between high male unemployment, and absent dads.

Frank Field: "One of the reasons why we've had such a big increase in very young single mums, has been the unemployment rates amongst young dads. We've de-skilled them in their social role, aswell as their economic role."

What this adds up to, is that in Birkenhead, many young women are opting for parenthood, just not with a father as a part of the deal. And what makes that decision possible, is benefits.

Becky: "I get about £250 a week."

Interviewer to Becky: "And thats for you, and the three children. Does that include rent? or is that after?"

Becky: "Thats after, because the council pay the rent aswell."

A single-mother is entitled to income support, child tax-credits, and child benefit.

But if there were a man in the house, they would lose money, about £30 pounds a week if he's unemployed, much more if he's in work. Its a powerful incentive for young women to stay alone, and for dads to keep their distance.

Economics is one thing, but I've always thought there is more to fatherhood than just bringing home a wage.

So I decided to ask the experts. My own daughters (who are about 5).

Interviewer: "Girls, can I ask you a question?"

Daughters: "Yeah!"

Interviewer: "Whats your favourite thing your daddy does ever?"

Daughter: "Comes back home from London."

Interviewer: "What else?"

Daughter: "I like daddy coming here to the park."

Daughter: "I love, erm, daddy, for him giving me a hug."

So is there a cost to Britains missing dads that goes beyond the material issues?

I returned to Beckys house a week later.

Interviewer to Becky: "What strikes me is, your getting by fine financially maybe, but a dads role is not just about that, is it?"

Becky: "What else do they need? All they need is food on the table, clothes, toys..."

Interviewer: "But isnt there more to being a dad than just putting food on the table? Speaking from my own experience, dads can do so much more for children and spend so much time with them, and give them so much apart from just material support. Do you not think that?"

Becky: "No."

But perhaps because she's a child, Adena see's it differently..

Interviewer to Adena: "Do you think dads have a role to play in peoples lives?"

Adena: "Yeah."

Interviewer: "What do you mean? What would you like? Why do you want your dad?"

Adena: "I dont know."

Interviewer: "You dont know. But would you like to?"

Adena: "Yeah"

Kayleigh doesnt mind the idea of Callums dad involved to some extent later in his life.

But Callum's grandmother, Christine, thinks aslong as a child has a loving environment, it doesnt need a father around.

Christine: "I dont think its 100 per cent necessary. Yes, its nice if they are there, yes its nice. But when people say that you should have a male, I dont agree anymore. If you've got a strong family, community, around you, who lives close by, who can support you, I think thats just as important as having a father."

What strikes me about what I've heard here, is this lack of expectation that dads should be involved.

Speaking as a father myself, I cant help but feel that this must have implications not only for the children involved, but also for the community, and society as a whole.

Brixton, south London. Part of a borough with the highest rate of single mums in the country.

Im here to visit a pioneering project which is having remarkable results in reconnecting absent fathers with their children.

What they're finding challenges the idea that there are lots of truly feckless fathers.

Sue Pettigrew of the St. Michael's Fellowship: "We see dads who really want to be the best dads that they can for their children. We see young men who are finding it difficult maybe not knowing where they can get support."

The St. Michael's project say they've succeeded in reconnecting more than one hundred dads with their children over the last two years. They've tried to help many more be good fathers, and they've acquired a powerful admirer.

Frank Field wants more like it, but he says there are bigger issues.

Field: "If you actually think that if we have enough St. Michael's projects to change opinion of young blokes, to help them be dads, your in cuckoo-land."

Interviewer: "So what do we do? What is the answer?"

Field: "Well part of the answer is trying to address the government ear, saying the whole of your welfare reforms have concentrated on the mums, one of the the reasons why we've had such a big increase in very young mums has been the unemployment rates in young dads."

Last year, Frank Field suggested that young fathers who refused to work to support their children should lose their benefits.

So how will his theory's play out in real life amongst real fathers? We've arranged for some young dads from St. Michael's to meet him in Westminster.

What the St. Michael's group say they need are jobs that pay them enough to support their children.

Kieran to Field: "How the benefit's system is set up in this country is that when you start work, after all the deductions, the disposable income is just about what you'd be getting on benefits."

Khaleb to Frank Field: "There is more advantage being a single parent, than a stable home. Mummy, daddy, kids."

Frank Field: "On the benefits issue, I totally agree with you, and I think the tide's turning on this, because people are actually seeing what the consequences on children are, where you have a benefits system that pays parents to remain apart. If you were designing a crazy system which to mess up kids, you'd come up with the system we've got now."

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