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Early Parenthood: Supporting Fathers

Volume 653: debated on Wednesday 30 January 2019

I beg to move,

That this House has considered supporting fathers in early parenthood.

As always, Mr Davies, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I hope you will forgive me if I make any minor procedural errors; it has been a while since I have been on the Back Benches of the Westminster Hall Chamber, rather than closer to the wise counsel of the Chair.

I begin with two quick disclaimers. First, although my debate is about supporting fathers in early parenthood, I am extremely conscious that there is still much to do to combat inequality during maternity. I am an avid follower of Maternity Action and support many of its campaigns, some of which I know are making good progress. Secondly, this debate is not meant as a dismissal of the wonderful mums out there who are single or in same-sex couples. It is not about mums versus dads, nor am I pontificating only about married parents—not least because that would make me a hypocrite. I simply want to speak up for the many brilliant dads out there who, in an evolving society, are doing an incredible job of bringing up children. I want to highlight some of the real challenges that they too face.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way so early in her speech. She is making a fantastic return to Westminster Hall from the dizzying heights; she is a principled person and we on the Opposition Benches all love her.

The hon. Lady mentions challenges. Is she aware of Dads House, which does all sorts of things to represent single dads? There are 400,000 single-parent families headed up by dads, which is 13.7% of all single-parent families. Dads House has its own food bank and does buddying, breakfast clubs and football—a sport that is close to the hon. Lady’s heart. Would she be interested in meeting members of the group? In fact, everyone in this House has a good opportunity to meet them, because after Prime Minister’s questions on 20 March they are coming to Speaker’s House for a reception with the all-party parliamentary group on single parent families—and all hon. Members are invited. The group does great work.

I would love to come. Single parents play an incredibly important role, but for various reasons they are often maligned. Meeting single dads who are doing their very best, in whatever circumstances they find themselves bringing up their children, is an incredibly important part of that conversation. I would be delighted to come to the event on 20 March.

I want to address three points: perinatal support, loneliness in new dads, and shared parental leave. The first comes wholly under the Department of Health and Social Care; the second does partially; the third might not, but is important to the debate because it relates to the overall wellbeing of our children.

In December, the Centre for Social Justice published a really interesting report, “Testing Times: Supporting fathers during the perinatal period and early parenthood”. It looked in detail at written evidence submitted to the Select Committee on Health and Social Care inquiry into the first 1,000 days of life by the Fatherhood Institute, which described support for fathers as “toothless” and noted criticisms that within health services,

“well-meaning…father-inclusive policy-making…has been more ‘rhetoric than reality’”.

On the back of those comments, the CSJ did some additional polling. It found that seven in 10 new fathers

“were made to feel like a ‘spare part’”,

six in 10 said that they had

“had no conversations at all with a midwife about their role”,

and nearly half said that they had

“received little or no advice at all…on their role as a dad.”

However, it also found that

“more than 9 in 10 are present ‘at the scans and the birth’”

and that there is

“strong correlation between active father engagement and improved childhood outcomes.”

That is a recurring theme in a really interesting book on equal parenting co-authored by one of our own lobby journalists, James Millar. It includes several quotations from the 2015 UN-backed report, “State of the World’s Fathers”, about how engagement in the first year of a baby’s life is good for the dad as well as the baby. Substantial and high-quality father involvement can encourage a child’s positive social interaction and lead to higher cognitive development scores.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing a debate on this important issue. It is hardly surprising that so many dads feel left out when the NHS guidance refers to them not as fathers or dads but as “birthing partners”. Perinatal depression in mums is linked to depression in teenagers: there is a 99% likelihood that a 16-year-old suffering from depression had a mother with perinatal mental health problems, including depression. What is overlooked is that 20% of fathers also experience perinatal mental health problems, which has a big influence on their parenting skills and on their engagement with and attachment to their own children. We need to do more about that.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point. I saw those statistics while researching my speech; perhaps the Minister’s reply will describe her Department’s work on post-natal depression for mums and dads. I do not have time to cover everything, but I agree that language is incredibly important. I appreciate that the term “birthing partners” is used in order not to cause offence, because our society and how we bring up children are very different now, but it is important that we think about the language and make our communication with fathers as inclusive as possible.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Was she struck, as I was, by the statistic cited in the CSJ report that

“95 per cent of births in the UK are to couples…with 85 per cent of these parents living together”?

Far more needs to be done to encourage and support the family and the community at that stage, to help improve life chances.

I did see that interesting statistic. I do not want to get into the details of family make-up in a modern society, because I do not want us to inadvertently criticise those who are not in such relationships—it is important that we respect different family make-ups. The point that I wish to raise today is about fathers and the role that they play.

The excellent book on equal parenting co-authored by James Millar notes the “State of the World’s Fathers” report’s finding that

“fathers who report close, non-violent connections with their children live longer, have fewer mental or physical health problems…and report being happier than fathers who do not report this connection”.

Given the well-understood positive outcomes of fathers’ engagement in their children’s development, it is only right that we should have the infrastructure and systems in place to support them. As the CSJ report states, we need to collect more data at the point of birth to get a better understanding of participation by fathers, but also identify “cold spots” for investment in supporting father engagement.

We definitely need to be a bit more dad-friendly in our language and correspondence about children’s healthcare. I agree with the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children that a “dad check” would be a valuable way for our health services to ensure that resources are open and accessible to new fathers. I also agree with the recommendation that NHS England should roll out schemes that increase support to fathers. That support should include either creating a new fatherhood fund or making the maternity challenge fund a general parental support fund and putting in additional investment.

The CSJ makes commendable recommendations for the Department of Health and Social Care to improve inspection frameworks, develop a dad test for the perinatal period and extend the reach of digital communications for new fathers. Those all seem sensible ideas; I accept that resources are always a challenge, but the long-term health and wellbeing outcomes must surely justify their consideration.

I thank the hon. Lady for her well-informed discussion of this important issue. She may be aware of my constituent Mark Williams, who has been a campaigner for the best part of a decade on fathers’ mental health after childbirth. He has been fundamental in pushing the campaign in all nations of the UK, including in the English NHS. He tells me frequently that—as the hon. Lady says—in the services that follow a baby’s birth the father is almost forgotten.

Mark had a breakdown—I know he will not mind my saying that on the Floor of this Chamber. It took him years to understand what was wrong, but now he champions the issue. Does the hon. Lady agree that we need more fathers like Mark to stand up and say that this is a problem? As she will be aware from her former role as a Minister, loneliness and mental health are an issue, and it is worse in men because we do not like talking about it. We need more people like Mark to speak up about what they face after having children.

I could not agree more. It is almost as if the hon. Gentleman has seen my speech, because I am about to start talking about loneliness in new fathers. We need to talk more about men’s mental health and to look at the triggers for poor mental health. It is a well-established consideration for mothers—health visitors and other members of the health services regularly ask about the mother’s mental health after a birth. It is not necessarily the same for men’s mental health. Quite often—although as I far as I can remember, it was not the case when my son was born, nearly three years ago—mothers are asked questions by health visitors that relate to the father of the child, rather than the father being asked directly, even when they might be in the same room.

Does the hon. Lady agree that there needs to be far more training in midwifery or mental health services on focusing on the father’s mental health as well—not just asking the mother about her partner, but creating a structure from very basic training that recognises that fathers are a person, too, in this context? They need the questions put directly. Often husbands and partners will simply not tell their partner how they are feeling or how they are responding to the birth of their child, so the partner might think that everything is fine, and it is all missed. That is the important point.

One reason why I wanted to hold this debate is that I feel it is hard for male colleagues to raise the subject. As a mother, I know that if my other half had come to me and said, “I am feeling a bit down,” I would have said, “But you didn’t give birth to the child!” For many years, we have forgotten that it is very much about a partnership. There are many issues that mothers still face—there are still huge issues around discrimination in maternity and everything else—but that must not mean that we forget the issues that fathers face, and that is why this is an important debate.

I completely understand why male colleagues might not have felt comfortable in raising this issue, because they may well feel that they would be accused of forgetting all the other issues around maternity discrimination. I feel very honoured to be raising it on behalf of all the dads out there. Perhaps I can talk about it with more ease.

The constituent of the hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) is doing a brilliant job in raising the issue of men’s mental health, post-baby. It is important that we do that. If that equates to having more training, that is what must happen, although I am always loth to say that our hard-working health professionals need any more training than they already get. They have a very important job to do, and by and large they are all doing it brilliantly.

One aspect of parenthood that can impact on wellbeing is loneliness. When Jo Cox stood in the Chamber and spoke of her own challenges with loneliness, including the example of becoming a mother, she widened discussion on the subject. I, too, had my own brushes with maternity-leave loneliness. While the rest of the world here was discussing the referendum campaigns, I was on maternity leave. I dealt with that by going to the supermarket every day, just for a chat.

For new fathers, it can be harder. When my other half took his three months shared parenting leave, he felt isolated from baby groups, as many were either branded “mother and baby” or were predominantly made up of mums, making him feel less inclined to go in. There are excellent apps connecting mums, such as Mush, which we profiled in the loneliness strategy, as did the CSJ in its report, but there are hardly any dad apps set up to connect full-time fathers. The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, with his digital background, may be interested in upscaling that from a health perspective.

The loneliness strategy, which I was privileged to publish on behalf of the Government in October 2018, specifically, on my request, used an infographic of a dad pushing a baby to highlight becoming a parent as a trigger for loneliness while at the same time reflecting that it is not a gender issue. The more we all acknowledge loneliness as an issue, the quicker we will reduce the stigma and instead create connections that help to combat it. I was pleased that the Department of Health and Social Care was a core partner in the delivery of the strategy.

The CSJ noted that children's centres are a key part of delivering opportunities for dads to connect, and that many were not doing so, despite its being a legal requirement. I know that children’s centres are a politically contentious issue because of funding and I would hate the debate to be bogged down by that, but the centres in my constituency, some of which have restructured, could play an enormously important role in creating support networks for dads. It is a shame that because of funding pressures, gaps in services are occurring.

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. The problem with the children’s centres—a fantastic asset—at the moment is that they are closed most of the time when dads can access them, particularly at weekends. Some of the best children’s centres are those that open at weekends, have football teams that dads and their children can come along to, and have computer-reading facilities latched on to that. It is a way of getting dads into the children’s centres. The centres need to be used much more at weekends and outside of working times when many fathers cannot access them.

I agree with my hon. Friend, but it is very important that we do not fall into the trap of talking about dads as weekend parents. The point of the debate is to discuss how society has evolved; there is a lot more equal parenting. I completely understand his point. I shall come on to talk about shared parenting. The take-up of shared parenting is so low that many fathers can play that meaningful role in parenting only at weekends, so we would want those services to be open. Children’s centres have an incredibly important role, which is not just about creating a connection, but also about, for example, trying to break the cycle in domestic abuse. They play a fundamental role. I know that the Stefanou Foundation is doing some excellent work in supporting such initiatives.

I accept that my own experience is based on good fortune, and that it could easily be criticised as coming from a comfortably-off middle-class professional, but we need to do so much more on shared parenting than we do at the moment. We lag very far behind other countries on shared parenting, particularly Scandinavian countries.

What I see from my other half taking shared parenting is a very special bond between him and our son. Sadly, there are still a significant number of men who are ineligible for parental leave, and for those that are eligible there is a financial disincentive to take it. The Fawcett Society found that nearly seven in 10 people believed that men who took time off work to look after a baby should be entitled to the same pay and amount of leave as women. In Germany, fathers on leave are paid two thirds of their salary and in Sweden it is 80% of their income. Here it is £145 per week. We managed because I am paid well, but an average or low-income family would inevitably struggle, so while many might want to, it is unsurprising that take-up of parental leave is so low.

I know that much work is being undertaken to improve the situation. I thought the speeches in our debate on proxy voting on Monday evening encouraging male colleagues to take shared parenting leave were really helpful, and we could set an example in this place. I commented earlier on the wider societal and health benefits of a father’s meaningful engagement in the upbringing of a child. To me, doing more to improve our shared parenting policies is a no-brainer.

There is so much more I could have spoken about this morning, including the emerging organisations that help support fathers, such as, which seeks employment with flexible, child-friendly hours, and the really funny social media accounts, such as Man vs. Baby, which might make light of some of the challenges that fathers face but also highlights that they exist in the first place. Ultimately, if we accept that meaningful fatherly engagement with their children is good for the health and wellbeing not just of the child but of the dad, making sure that we provide the infrastructure to support them, from neonatal to perinatal and beyond, is simply common sense, fair and equal—good economics but also really good politics.

Order. We have six speakers, which with my maths makes about six minutes each. I would like to introduce an advisory limit of six minutes. As with the EU referendum, it is not mandatory, but I strongly advise it. I invite Paul Masterton to start.

Thank you, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) on securing this debate, and I thank her for her support for new MPs who are also fairly new dads. I very much valued the advice that she gave to me in conversations in the Tea Room in my early days here, as I tried to struggle with the largely impossible balance of being an MP and having a young family.

I will touch on a few things from my own experience as a dad of two under-fives. Both my kids were born between midnight and 2 am. It is quite difficult, about 90 minutes after a child is born, for a father to have his wife and child go to the maternity ward while he is simply waved off to drive home. I am lucky; I live about 20 minutes from the hospital, the roads are good, and both my kids were born in May. Lots of dads will drive home in very difficult conditions and will be mentally, physically and emotionally exhausted. Would it not be nice if dads could spend a bit more time on the maternity ward in those early days? It sets much of the tone for how dads feel in those early months—as if they are one step removed from everything that is going on around them.

After I went back to work, my two overriding emotions were guilt and jealousy, neither of which are very healthy. I felt guilty that my wife had to do all the legwork, and jealous of the fact that she was spending all the time with the kids. I really welcome all the stuff that is being introduced by NHS England—and now also up in Scotland—to try to include dads more in those early parts of the services. As my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford said, things are quite good on the pre-birth element. Dads go along to the scans and classes, but then they are just chucked to the side in a lot of ways. We need to involve dads much more.

A lot of the support groups are very helpful. I always used to try to get away from work as early as possible and rush home, and I wanted to do loads when I got home. My wife used to say to me, “Well, no, actually, I need you to be the best version of yourself, so don’t feel guilty about getting a good night’s sleep. Don’t feel guilty about going to the pub or seeing your friends, because if you’re in a better frame of mind and feeling better, then you’re a better support for me.” It is important to help new dads to have that confidence in what they are doing.

The last thing I want to mention is although new dads are lots of things, they are not counsellors or trained mental health professionals. It is very difficult for a dad if he is not sure whether his partner is just feeling a bit down or whether there is something that he should be more worried about. I will never forget my wife saying to me one day when she was a bit upset, “I just feel like my world is so small and I don’t know where I stand anymore.” I did not know what to do about that or whether it was something that I should be bothered about. If I am supposed to speak to somebody, who do I speak to? The health visitor comes when I am at work, and I am not going to speak to my colleagues about it. I am not going to sit at my computer at work and type in, “Is my wife depressed?” on Google.

We should not think of support for new dads as just support for them as individuals; we should think about it as supporting new dads to support their partners better. That is the best way to ensure that kids get the best possible grounding in their early years, and to keep a strong, solid functioning family unit that is needed to give children the best start in life.

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I begin in the same way as my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) did, by saying that we are all here for mums as well, including single mums. In fact, the last debate of this nature that I shared with the Minister was on maternal perinatal mental health. A number of men led that debate, so it goes without saying that we are all 100% behind mums and single mums, just as we are behind dads.

Mums need support, so an important issue is involving fathers and helping them to play their role in equal parenting, which is a really important phrase—I am glad it has been introduced several times in this debate. We know from the research that we are not getting this right at the moment, because 69% of fathers feel like a spare part. If fathers are supported and helped to be involved, as the vast majority of them want to be, they have the ability to offer round-the-clock support to new mums.

There are some worrying figures on what is going on at the moment. Looking at income groups, less than 31% of people earning under £20,000 turn up to antenatal classes; among those earning more than £70,000, more than 71% turn up. We are not managing to reach really important groups of fathers who need that support. The inspection framework does not look hard enough at what areas are doing to help fathers—indeed, fathers are absent from a lot of the inspection frameworks.

From Government research in 2012, we know that if fathers are involved in the care of a young child, parents are a third less likely to split up. When the Minister was recently before the Select Committee on Health and Social Care to discuss suicide prevention, she said that debt and relationship breakdown are the two major causes of suicide. That is a really powerful reason, with a number of important outcomes, as to why we should help fathers to be involved in the care of their new-born children.

In 2016, we set up a £39 million fund at the Department for Work and Pensions to reduce parental conflict in workless families, which was an excellent initiative that I really support. We need a second fund to improve the quality of relationships between couples who are at risk of separation when they have new children. There is evidence to support that, and I think there is an overwhelming need. It would be really helpful for mothers. I ask the Minister to take it back to the Department and to the inter-ministerial working group on the first 1,000 days, with which she is fully engaged. That would be a really good development.

I want to give a plug for a little programme called “Let’s Stick Together”. I am not allowed visual aids, so I better not hold it up, but the course reading material could fit into a purse or wallet very easily. I have personally handed a copy to our last two Prime Ministers and encouraged them to take it up across Government. It contains some really simple tips to help the quality of a couple’s relationship when they have a new child. I commend the work of the charity Dads 2 Be, which is active in a number of hospitals in south London. It focuses on antenatal work for groups of dads and helps them with the changes to their life, and also focuses on improving relationship quality. My question to the Minister is very simple, and it is my overriding plea to her: given that we are doing this in some NHS hospitals, can we please do it everywhere, throughout these islands, across the whole of our United Kingdom? It is sensible and a no-brainer. Dads want it, and we know there would be better outcomes for mums and children.

I commend some quite simple changes. A health visiting team in Lincolnshire managed to increase the participation rate of fathers in the primary birth visit from 20% to 70% by addressing their letter, “Dear new mum and dad” rather than just, “Dear parent”. That is a really simple thing and did not cost any money. It said very clearly to fathers, “We want you. You’re important and welcome. We expect and want you to turn up, and we’re here to help.” We can do some simple things that do not cost a lot of money; they just cost some political will. They are really needed, and I ask the Minister to do them.

Dads are good for lads—I know, because I have two boys—if only because they can share the interest of football. More seriously, it is true that fathers are good for sons in many ways. Anything we can do to support that relationship—and by we I mean the Government—we should do. I echo the respect expressed by others, which I share, for the Herculean task that single parents—most frequently, mums—do to bring up their children. Where we can, we need to look at how we can strengthen family relationships in a society where, today, over a quarter of children live with mum but not dad. More than one in seven are born into homes where there is no dad present.

The implications of that are serious; I will share a couple of sad statistics. The lack of a good male role model in young men’s lives is helping to lure them into substitute families: gangs. Apparently, most of the 50,000 or so young people caught up in county lines activities have come from homes where there has been no good male role model. Similarly, 60% of the sons of men in prison are likely to end up in prison, too. That statistic is even worse if both the father and a brother are in prison—it is then a 90% likelihood.

Those are staggering statistics that show why it is so important that we and the Government try to support families more. That support is positive for children and for the wider community.

I hope that later on in her speech my hon. Friend will refer to “A Manifesto to Strengthen Families”, which I believe has been endorsed by more than 60 MPs and has been available to Government for over a year now. It would be good to see some of its policies championed by Government.

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point and I will indeed refer to it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), who introduced the debate so well, referred to a CSJ report from this year. Another CSJ report, “Every Family Matters”, which was produced as long ago as July 2009, said very similar things, such as the importance of strengthening families and of having a good, strong input into a child’s life. Yet I have here an interesting statistic: 43% of unmarried parents split up before a child’s fifth birthday, but only 8% of married parents do. That is an interesting factor for us to consider: if we are looking at strengthening family life, we should not forget that supporting marriage is part of that.

Sadly, the UK has one of the highest rates of family breakdown among the 30 OECD countries. Just two thirds of children aged nought to 14 live with both parents. In the OECD countries overall, 84% of children of those ages live with both parents. Very interesting work is being done on the link between those factors and British productivity, which is 18% below the OECD average.

I admire my hon. Friend’s determination to promote marriage, but I must give a plug for my private Member’s Bill on civil partnerships, which, if it passes through the Lords, will make civil partnerships available for opposite sex couples by the end of this year. They would be an additional incentive for those couples to stay together, as overseas statistics show, particularly for the good of the children.

It is so important that we do what we can. In the very short time that I have left, I will touch on some of the practical policies in “A Manifesto to Strengthen Families”, which more than 60 Members of Parliament support, and express a degree of frustration that the Government have not taken them up more practically. I know that individual Cabinet Ministers are very interested, but in order to see some real progress we need a senior Cabinet-level Minister who is responsible for drawing together the manifesto’s several policies.

I will touch on some of the manifesto’s policies on fathers. Policies 8, 9 and 11 talk about promoting the importance of active fatherhood in a child’s life. Policy 8 says:

“Maternity services should maximise opportunities to draw fathers-to-be in early.”

Policy 9 proposes that, where appropriate,

“The Government should…require all fathers to be included on birth certificates.”

Policy 11 proposes that “high quality marriage preparation” should be available at a cost-effective rate for young people thinking of getting married.

Finally, one of our key policies is the promotion of family hubs. As we have heard, children’s centres are not always as effective as they need to be. Families need support bringing up children, not just aged nought to five, but nought to 19. In the teenage years particularly, the input by fathers into their sons’ lives is often critical. We believe that it would be really positive to have family hubs in each local community, to support families at every stage of a child’s development.

I am disappointed that the Government have not taken that up more strongly. We shall continue to persevere and to press them to do so. The good news is that many local authorities have taken up those ideas very strongly and family hubs are springing up across the country. I invite colleagues to a family hubs fair, which will take place on 14 February. It is convened by Westminster City Council, which is setting up its own family hubs. The fair will flagship best practice from local authorities across the country that have set up family hubs, specifically to show how we can best support families with children. I am sure that there will be many examples of how we can best support fathers to engage in their sons’ lives, which is such an important thing on which we need to focus.

I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) for securing this debate. She showed that the role of champion that she played in ministerial office has continued into what I hope will be the short period that she is on the Back Benches. I also declare an interest: I decided to speak in the debate as a learning exercise, because I will become a father for the first time in just over five weeks.

That brings me to the point on which I want to start. This House has finally moved into the 21st century, following Monday’s decision on proxy voting. It took an awful long time to get to that stage, but it was a welcome step forward. Last night, we had the first proxy vote used in Parliament. I hope to be the first male Member of Parliament to use the proxy voting system in early March.

I commend the CSJ report for a number of points that it highlighted. One of the most shocking was that only 60% of dads had no conversations at all about their role with midwives. I am one of that 60%; I have had none of those conversations at all. My wife has had excellent care with her midwife, usually when I am down in London, that I hear about on the phone or when I get home. I am one of the 60% who have had no involvement whatsoever.

I found some of the report’s other findings shocking as well. Only 25% of fathers felt that there was enough support to help them play a positive role in family life, while 60% felt emotionally unsupported when they first became a father. Similar research in Scotland, by Fathers Network Scotland, concluded that NHS Scotland—this is not a critical point, but highlights feelings across the country—is failing to provide family-centred antenatal, maternity and health visitor services. Unless we accept that there is a problem, nothing will change.

The Fatherhood Institute identifies that poor relationship quality and engagement from fathers is a key driver in post-natal depression, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford. That is surely another good reason for more involvement by father, to their own benefit and that of the mother and child, which is acknowledged by the Royal College of Midwives.

There is a local element to the issue. I was not in Parliament on Monday for the debate on proxy voting because I had stayed my constituency to attend an extremely important public meeting on our maternity services. They had been downgraded at Dr Gray’s Hospital, and we no longer have a consultant-led maternity service. A great campaign, Keep Mum, has been running for a number of months to get that service back. Although Dr Gray’s does not have a consultant-led service, a large proportion of our expectant mothers have to travel to Aberdeen to give birth—that is more than 70 miles away.

At the moment, my wife is on a green pathway, so we will not have to do that, but we might have to travel the 70 miles to Aberdeen on one of the worst roads in Scotland—the A96 across the Glens of Foudland. This morning, there is an inch of snow in Moray. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton) very ably put it, a father is almost dumped after his wife has given birth, and heads home, not in a correct state of mind. What state of mind will expectant fathers be in, as they drive through snow for 70 miles to go to Aberdeen, with the mother of their child potentially giving birth in the back of their car? That is what Moray constituents have to do at the moment, which is why it is so important for us to return the Dr Gray’s maternity service to a full, consultant-led one.

I will finish with a few of the important recommendations in the CSJ report. I was surprised that one even needed to be made, and it reads

“all official correspondence relating to the care and health of a child should be addressed directly to both parents”.

It is incredible that at the moment both parents are not addressed.

I was, however, reminded of a constituency case that I am dealing with at the moment, which is extremely sad and involves a child who died shortly after birth. The mother contacted me because, when she went to register the birth of their young child, who only lived for a few hours, only one parent had the opportunity to sign the register. That tends to be the mother, who has gone in to do that. She was shocked that the father, who had been so important a part of the process, was not allowed to have an acknowledgement on the death certificate that he had a part to play in the child being born and, sadly, dying. I have written about it to the registrars in Scotland.

Another recommendation was:

“NICE should review the evidence”—

the lack of evidence—

“on…the antenatal and post-natal period and produce a single set of standards for health care professionals…on the role of fathers.”

That, too, is very important.

To follow up on the point made by the previous speaker, my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), about a champion in Government, the report recommends that a Government “fatherhood champion” should be appointed. It adds that the champion should be either a “peer or senior MP”, so I am not auditioning for the role at the moment. It is, however, a very good recommendation. We see in our local authorities and the Scottish Parliament, where I used to sit, that where we have a dedicated champion, the issues are highlighted in Parliament and Members have the opportunity to express their views. A champion to drive things forward can be a positive step.

I am about to enter another exciting chapter in my family life, in five weeks’ time. Looking around at all the hon. Members speaking as fathers today, I can see that it is a bright future—they are all bright eyed and bushy tailed. I look forward to it, and I greatly appreciate the time that my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford secured today to allow Parliament to discuss this important issue.

It is a pleasure to take part in this debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) on securing it.

In my constituency, many fathers are in single-parent families or play a significant role in childcare responsibilities, and it is important to recognise the invaluable role that fathers play in bringing up their children. That is not always an easy job—I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) for saying that, but he also has a lot to look forward to. Like my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton), I have two children under five myself, two boys. Parenthood can be a huge challenge, but becoming a father is my proudest achievement—even more so than being elected to this place, if anyone can believe that—and something that has changed my life entirely.

In my experience, parenting support groups are aimed largely at mothers and in the early days, weeks and even years, some fathers struggle to find support networks and others in a similar position. My hon. Friends talked about the statistics and fathers feeling like a spare part during pre and post-natal discussions and services. That mirrors my experience. My hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire talked about being sent home from hospital. My first son was born in the middle of the night, and I was out of the hospital within 45 minutes of that happening. I came back the next morning at 8 o’clock to be told that I would not be allowed in until visiting time at 10.30 am. Fortunately, in the end I managed to find my way in, but that is one example of the challenges.

Another example I remember is to do with breastfeeding. My first son was bottle-fed; I was involved in that, getting to feed him and connecting with him in that way. My second son was breastfed, and I felt thoroughly left out of that bonding process—in a way jealous, as my hon. Friend said, of that connection between my wife and son that I was not able to engage in. There are many examples of difficult and stressful circumstances that bring about emotions that are not necessarily helpful or healthy in that environment.

Young fathers need support. I represent the community of Mansfield, so I will highlight the particular challenges of working-class fathers, those on low incomes especially, who face the additional challenges of accessing housing or affording parental leave, for example. Mental health issues are not based on wealth or background, so we can all be susceptible to such difficulties. While it is widely acknowledged that working-class boys, for example, are likely to have lower educational attainment and fewer life chances, it is not acknowledged that their extra difficulties and challenges might extend to parenthood as well.

The added burden of a low income, trying to afford not only the cost of living but the additional costs of parenthood, is an extra stress that often falls on fathers in particular. We all know the shocking statistics on young men’s mental health, especially suicide, and the early weeks and months of having a first child in particular can be among the most stressful times in the life of a family and of a father, and difficult to cope with for our own mental health and wellbeing.

Since becoming an MP, I have looked at the area of early intervention for families and children, and I took part in the family hubs debate in Westminster Hall not so long ago. It seems obvious that if families do not receive that early assistance when they first need it, instead being left to deal with the issues alone, that will come out in later life, as has been discussed. The early years challenges show themselves later on, through school, when children with mental health and behavioural problems might often come at greater cost to public services than if they had received the early intervention.

The Children’s Society has produced some pretty shocking statistics to show that in Nottinghamshire alone, 1,000 children are known to children’s services because of abuse or neglect. That figure must be brought down, and I think that we can do that by being more proactive and by providing the intervention and support services in early parenthood, with training and help for fathers as well as mothers about their roles and responsibilities and the support available to raise children.

I strongly believe that a preventive approach is the right one. In such services, we tend to deal with crises and, increasingly, those services are built around crisis management rather than proactive and preventive support. Putting an emphasis on parenthood and establishing relationships between fathers and support services has to be a priority. Trust is hugely important.

I remember the experience of a social services visit after the birth of my elder son. They sent me out of the room to get a glass of water and asked my wife if I was abusing her. That is something that they do in all circumstances—it is the right thing to do, to check that the family environment is safe for mother and baby—but I felt pretty put out. Fortunately, my wife joked about it with me afterwards.

For a young man from a difficult background, however, someone who had problems at school or has been involved with social services historically, I imagine that that could add to the feeling of being labelled and held up as a bad person, a bad character, by the services that are meant to support parents. That can add to the challenges and the stress, and is another thing that might need to be discussed more openly in terms of the challenges that might face young, low-income working-class fathers in particular.

Nottinghamshire County Council is striving to achieve more co-ordinated and multi-agency support, which is vital. The more that we can do to reduce barriers between services the better. Across the piece, there is such a challenge of competing budgets and priorities, making services more difficult to deliver. I would welcome anything that the Minister can do to bring down the barriers between local authorities and health services that always exist. For example, co-ordination and support from the health service in particular is not always there for children’s services in Nottinghamshire.

That is a particular ask I have of the Minister. Effective use of funding, catching problems early, and having early preventive services, to prevent people from spiralling into crisis—saving money on more intensive intervention later—are also vital if we are to support children, families and in particular fathers in communities such as Mansfield and throughout the country.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) for securing this excellent debate. As I have tweeted, what a great group of Conservative dads are supporting the debate, although I feel slightly unhappy about speaking after three people who are young enough to be my children. That makes me feel a little bit old. I wanted to contribute because my early career highlights the difficulty that dads can have. I thank my first wife for being kind enough to have our children on a Saturday evening, which meant I was dismissed from the hospital, and about an hour after my children were born I was in the pub with about 30 friends and family celebrating the birth. It all turned out damned convenient for me, although having heard stories from others, I appreciate it can turn out differently.

I started life as a civil engineer, working on a building site in an obviously male dominated environment. I will not make excuses for that, but construction, particularly the very large-scale construction I was involved in, has a particular nature. The idea that I might have gone to work one day and suggested to my boss that flexible working would be a good idea, and asked whether I could come in a bit later, is incredibly difficult. By the time I was 25, I was running a building site with a gang of up to 50 blokes who would have thought I was crazy. We were on site at 7 o’clock in the morning in a process that meant that if someone did not turn up and do their job at a particular time, other people would not be able to do theirs.

Fortunately for me, I decided that working outside was too cold, and joined an American company called Cartus, where I was responsible for maintenance of the properties in its portfolio nationally. I found the world to be a completely different place. It was a much more welcoming environment with regard to flexibility in the workplace, but I may not have appreciated at the time the majority female workforce. I mention that because, in preparation for this debate, I read documents and papers from around the world, and I had not realised how difficult legislation is in America. I read a paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research, published in 2015, when a form of parental leave was just being introduced in California. The early research from that paper showed that if parental leave was introduced, fathers were more likely to be engaged in parental support, and that, interestingly, fathers are more likely to take up that parental leave for their first child or if the child is a boy.

Clearly, there is some work to be done to ensure that men do not lose interest after the first child and that they take equal interest in daughters and sons. I have one of each, and I appreciate the stress that goes with having a daughter. She seemed considerably more difficult for me to manage and look after than my son did. It is interesting that research suggests that there might be a difference in the way they are treated.

Government have a role to play, and that does not always have to cost money. We need to show intent; we need to show men that they have a role to play and that it is important in the 21st century that they play it to their fullest ability. For that not to be the case seems counterintuitive. I loved my role as a dad; in fact, I told colleagues earlier that I am ready to be a grandparent and I have made sure my children are aware of that. There is no rush, but I will be ready when they come. Indeed, the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq), who recently gave birth, sent me a photo, which made me immediately feel paternal.

We have a role to play, but what will we do to play it? Documents have been mentioned, and “A Manifesto to Strengthen Families”, published more than a year ago, has some excellent ideas for Government to follow. As has been mentioned, we have a more significant male population in prison, so it is very important to ensure that men do not lose contact with their families. To reduce reoffending rates, we need to maintain that bond.

My hon. Friend may not be aware that the Ministry of Justice commissioned the Farmer review, which offered 21 recommendations to strengthen the family relationships of prisoners, because there is evidence that that leads to less reoffending and keeps us all safe. The Ministry of Justice has adopted those 21 recommendations, so there has been some progress made in that area.

It is excellent and reassuring to hear of that progress. The point was also made about the amount of paternity pay—£145.18. When I started work on a building site, I earned £50 a day, so £250 a week. Even 30 years ago, it would have been very difficult for me, as a young man starting off with a young family, to cope on a reduced income of £145, for a couple of weeks. It is great that the opportunity is there for men to take two weeks of leave, but it is important to try to make sure that is not financially difficult.

This is a complicated area, so I conclude by referring my constituents in particular to the website of the Share the Joy campaign, where they can find more details of their rights with regard to maternity and paternity leave. They can get more details about sharing parental leave up to 50 weeks, so they can take leave together and share the parenting experience very early on in their children’s lives.

It is always a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. Like other Members, I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) on an excellent debate. I find coming to Westminster Hall like seeking refugee status in this place, having come out of the Chamber where there is an incredibly volatile and divided atmosphere. This debate has probably been the highlight of my week so far. We can have a debate with such consensus, and it would be better if we could do that more often. We have had an excellent debate so far. The hon. Lady kicked off by talking about perinatal depression and tackling loneliness; she made some points about shared parental leave, which I will come back to in due course.

The hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton) gave a very thoughtful and considered speech. Some of what he said resonated with me. He and I live relatively close to each other, so we share the geography of how far the hospital is. Later in my remarks I will return to the experience of having to leave the hospital very soon after the birth of a child. He spoke about the feelings of guilt and jealousy; I was walking across Westminster bridge this morning while facetiming my wife and my four-month-old daughter. As dads we feel guilt and jealousy, and he was right to place that on the record. The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) cited some statistics that hammer home the point that some income groups are not part of the antenatal experience; I certainly saw that in the last round of antenatal classes we went to.

The hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) has a very strong record of talking about family values; I know she was trying not to go down the route of single parents, but I was reflecting as she spoke, as someone brought up by a single mum. When I came home from school for the first time, my mum asked me what I had learned. I said, “I went to the toilet and there were walls that went, ‘Whoosh!’” That had made the biggest impact on me because, having been brought up by a single mum, I had never before been in a male toilet before. Perhaps others had a more formative experience on their first day of primary 1, but that was mine. The hon. Lady made a strong case for “A Manifesto to Strengthen Families”. I have not looked at that, but after the debate I certainly will.

The hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) is about to join the crazy club of fatherhood. I think I speak on behalf of everyone in the Chamber in wishing him every success in the run-up to March. It is simultaneously the most chaotic and blessed time in life. I know we all send him our good wishes. Rightly, he made criticisms of where we have not done things right in Scotland. I have been through the process of having children twice over the last three and a half years; more NHS support should be given. I would be very happy to work with him on that. He was unashamedly, as a constituency MP, talking about the situation of Dr Gray’s Hospital. I will not seek to defend that, because he made a strong point, although I suspect I will get in trouble for saying that.

I absolutely agree with the hon. Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) about the importance of family support networks. He also spoke about the importance of early intervention. The hon. Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes), in his inimitable style, spoke about his employment experience. I think we are all the richer for that, and I am sure he will become a grandparent sooner rather than later.

I hate being too personal in Westminster Hall, but I will do it anyway. I spent the weekend in Northern Ireland. I mentioned that I was brought up by a single parent. My dad spend quite a significant amount of time in prison. In November, at the age of 52, he died quite suddenly. I had been estranged from him. I have had lots of feelings as the debate has gone on—I have been thinking about prison and about being a single parent. I went to Northern Ireland to go to my dad’s grave and to meet my younger sister, who is only seven years old. Since I returned on Sunday night, I have been reflecting on the difference between me and my sister. I did not have that relationship with my dad—perhaps he did not get the support he needed when I was born—but I have taken great comfort since he passed away from the fact that my sister had such a good relationship with him. To spend that weekend with her and to see that he had made amends and moved on in life was incredibly comforting.

I want also to talk about my experience of becoming a dad. I think people know from my last question at Prime Minister’s questions that both my children were born prematurely and spent several weeks on the neonatal intensive care unit. One of the things I am trying to push in this place is an extension of paternity leave, particularly when a child is born prematurely. That relates to the point by the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire that, whether their partner is in hospital with their child for a day or for two weeks, the fact that we just send dads home as if they were the cleaner or the cook has a massive impact on their mental health.

I experienced the same situation when my son was born three and a half years ago. He was born and whipped away to neonatal intensive care, and I was left like a spare part. The only difference this time around, when my daughter was born and we went through exactly the same thing, was that about 10 days in we had the opportunity to see a psychiatrist, or a psychologist, to have a bit of counselling. That struck me as a very good thing. I certainly got more out of it then my wife did; she is one of those typical Hebridean women who is very strong—much stronger than me. It struck me as a bit unusual that we were offered that experience; it is only now, after a few months have passed, that I think it was really healthy to be able to sit down and talk about my feelings as a dad. Talking about our experiences is not something we do very well.

Finally, I want to touch on shared parental leave and the paternity leave we offer fathers. I have a degree of frustration about shared parental leave. I do not like the idea that we say, “You’ve got a certain amount of time, and the dad takes time at the expense of the mum.” I would like dads to get a bit longer for paternity leave. My experience of those first two weeks was different, since both my periods of paternity leave were spent on a neonatal ward. In any case, those two weeks tend to be full of family, with the mother-in-law visiting and the house going like an absolute fair. I would like the statutory paternity leave allowance to be doubled to four weeks. I know the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats committed to doing that in their 2017 manifestos. I just have a degree of concern that we provide shared parental leave at the expense of the other parent. It is equally important that mothers, particularly those who are breastfeeding, get that time.

This has been an excellent opportunity for us to come together to look at an area of policy where I think there is a degree of consensus. I very much look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say, because I think we can move this agenda forward. For that reason, I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford for initiating the debate.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) on securing the debate and on her excellent introduction. As the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) just said, it has been a very good and well-informed debate, and it has struck the right tone. Perhaps we should take that into other arenas.

The hon. Lady raised three main issues. She referred to the important work of the Centre for Social Justice and mentioned interesting survey statistics—for example, that seven out of 10 fathers said they felt like a spare part, and that six out of 10 had no conversations with their midwife. I think a lot of us would recognise that territory. I remember being on holiday with my wife and her going up to talk to a woman I had never seen before, who turned out to be her midwife. That shows how difficult it is to engage both parents. I know that the Government are pushing for greater consistency, with the same midwife throughout the journey, but the fact that we have 3,500 midwife vacancies makes that a challenge.

The hon. Lady raised the subject of loneliness, too. I thank her for her work to introduce the Government’s loneliness strategy in 2018, building on the Jo Cox Commission, which is led by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) and the hon. Member for South Ribble (Seema Kennedy). That is a hugely important part of Jo’s legacy, and I am sure that Members across the House recognise the excellent contribution that the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford has made to drawing attention to that issue. There are, of course, many triggers for loneliness, one of which is being a new parent.

The hon. Lady also raised the important role that children’s centres can play. Several Members raised concerns about whether they are well enough used. Cuts of 60% to local government funding in recent years have led to the closure of 1,000 children’s centres, which provide support to both mothers and fathers in those early years. There is no doubt that that has had an impact.

The hon. Lady is right that we have a long way to go to reach true equality, with shared parenting. Shared parental leave legislation, which has been about since 2015, enables employed couples to split 50 weeks’ time off work after the birth of their child. The Government originally estimated that 8% of parents would take up the option of shared leave. However, disappointingly, take-up at the moment is only about 1% or 2%. A recent freedom of information request showed that take-up is particularly low among new parents, with only eight out of every 1,000 eligible people taking up the option. Some 8,700 new parents took up shared leave in 2016-17, and that increased by only 500 the following year.

The Women and Equalities Committee highlighted a number of problems with shared parental leave, including the complexity of the system, low uptake and low pay, and fathers’ fears about taking leave because of its perceived negative effect on their careers. There is a cultural issue here, so will the Minister say what can be done to address that?

Shared parental leave does not extend to self-employed parents. At present, self-employed mothers are entitled to statutory maternity pay of £140 per week, but they must take all that in one go and they risk losing their payments if they undertake work outside their 10 allotted “keeping in touch” days. Self-employed fathers do not have access to that at all. I hope that hon. Members will support the Shared Parental Leave and Pay (Extension) Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin), which would enable self-employed parents to split parental leave and pay between them. Given that the ranks of the self-employed seem to increase every year, will the Minister say whether the Government have any plans to legislate in this area?

Better pay and the option of part-time take-up of shared parental leave would improve access to leave for fathers, particularly those from lower-income groups. There is strong evidence of the effectiveness of non-transferable paternal leave as a lever for encouraging shared care and reducing the gender pay gap. We know that fathers want to play an active role in their children’s lives and families want to spend more time together with a new baby. That is why, as the hon. Member for Glasgow East said, we made a manifesto commitment to double paid paternity leave to four weeks. Fathers are parents too and they deserve to spend as much time as possible with their family.

The hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton) gave a personal and touching account of his own experiences and set out well how fathers are almost removed from the scene shortly after birth, which is an experience that most of us who have been through that will recognise. Unfortunately, I think that sets a tone for the rest of the early years, if not the whole life.

The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) drew an interesting and important link between income and antenatal group attendance. He is right that fathers are not included as much as they could be in many of the inspection frameworks. His central point—this is something that we see across a lot of the NHS—is that the best practice is only in pockets, and does not always disseminate out into the whole of the system.

The hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) spoke about the importance of families and said that there can sometimes be a cycle of negative experiences throughout the generations.

The hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) gave us the good news about his impending fatherhood, and he raised an important issue about the proximity of maternity services. That does not just relate to the reorganisation of services, as in his case; it is a sad fact that last year, about half of all maternity units had to close their doors temporarily at some point, which meant that someone who was in the process of labour would have to find somewhere else pretty quickly, which can be distressing and inconvenient.

The hon. Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) gave a thoughtful and personal account of his experiences of fatherhood; we will all recognise many of things he described. He is right that parenthood is expensive, and that can add to the strain that young families experience. He made an important point about the silo-working that we often see across public sector agencies—a situation that we all want improved.

Finally, the hon. Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes) gave some contrasting examples of approaches to flexibility in the workplace and spoke of some of the cultural issues that we have already discussed. There is a need for a more consistent approach across workplaces.

As a father myself, I would like to spend more time with my children—or I certainly did until they became truculent teenagers; things got a little less pleasant then. Seriously, every parent wants to play as much of a role as they can in creating a safe, loving and stable environment for their children, so that they grow up into happy and healthy adults. We know that long working hours and the inflexible working approaches of some organisations make shared parenting duties a challenge. If we are to support men in taking a greater role in the family unit, we need to support men and women having a real and meaningful choice about how they organise their lives; that means family-friendly employment, applied equally to both parents.

It is a well-known fact that the gender pay gap is still here in 2019. The impact of women’s being more likely to be in part-time, low-paid or non-paid caring roles has implications for fathers in the workplace. We committed to tackling the gender pay gap and have pledged that in addition to reporting gender pay gap figures, companies will be required to demonstrate how they plan to close their gender pay gap, by producing action plans and taking steps to address the factors that contribute to the pay gap. That will include tackling unequal pay and discrimination and improving access to flexible working and take-up of shared parental leave, to ensure that all employees have a better work-life balance.

I note with interest the proposal from the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford for a dad test, which would be applied to the relevant commissioning and inspection frameworks for the perinatal period. We know that this country offers some of the best neonatal care in the world, along with some exemplary psychological and bereavement services. However, as we have already touched on, there is an unacceptable variability across the country. As many as 41% of neonatal units have no access to a trained mental health worker. As has been highlighted in the past few years in our debates about baby loss, that has been an unfortunate experience for some constituents, while others have had access to the very best services. I am sure that we want greater consistency across the board.

I welcome the commitment in the NHS long-term plan to enhanced support for perinatal mental health services, including assessment and signposting to professional supports for fathers and partners. The question—which is the same for a lot of the long-term plan—is, are the resources and staff there to deliver on those important aims?

In conclusion, we are on a journey—we are not there yet—towards a greater understanding and facilitation of the father’s role. Every day of a child’s early years is hugely important. The more we can do to encourage more and better-quality support during those earlier years, the better.

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 the Member for Moray (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 the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (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.

The hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (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 on 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 the Member for East Renfrewshire (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 the Member for South West Bedfordshire (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 post-natal 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. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence 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.

Will that encouragement of fathers include the time before the birth? As I understand matters—this is from CSJ—only about a third of fathers with a household income below £20,000 attend antenatal classes, compared with two thirds of those who are better off. One inhibiting factor is that if people cannot get a free antenatal class, a three-day course costs about £350. That is a lot of money for those who are already financially stretched.

The package of support that we are putting together, in terms of the continuity of carer, starts before birth and is designed to involve both parents. We are aware that there will be constraints on individuals’ ability to participate, and we need to make sure that the system is cognisant and respectful of that, and that it can make the relevant changes. My hon. Friend’s point is well made.

We need to promote initiatives such as Offload—a Warrington project for men aged 18 and over, in collaboration with rugby league. It helps men to learn the mental fitness techniques of professional sports players, to understand their own needs and help them cope. Such initiatives will enable new dads—because there is an issue with men facing up to mental health challenges—to reach out and get support from their peers.

The hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore), who is no longer in his place, raised the issue of loneliness, and my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford has done a great deal of work on that. Every father and family will have their own individual story. There is nothing like a life-changing experience to make one feel lonely, because all the familiar support networks are thrown in the air. We will expand social prescribing across healthcare services, so that all GPs can refer lonely patients to voluntary and community organisations. I reiterate that there is a role for the commissioning of the voluntary sector to do important work leading to better health outcomes. We will support spaces for community use, working with local groups to pilot ways to use space, to test how that can improve social connections. We need to make sure that we are keeping our eyes open for signs of loneliness, so that trusted support is given early.

In the short time I have left, I want to go further into the topic of mental health. Colleagues mentioned that 10% of fathers suffer mental ill health at the time of a child’s birth. We need to do more to support them. The “DadPack” used in Cornwall to help young fathers is a great development, and I want to champion all such models. I thank colleagues for the examples they have given.

We have had an excellent debate. It is only the start of our trying to do better at supporting dads and young families. I look forward to engaging with hon. Members on this important issue.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered supporting fathers in early parenthood.