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House of Commons Hansard
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Fathers in the Family
01 March 2017
Volume 622

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Before I call Neil Gray to move the motion, I point out that eight hon. Members have put their names down to speak in this debate. We also have the wind-ups, which will start at 10 past five. Depending on how long Mr Gray chooses to speak—it is his debate—there will be a time limit on speeches. If people are here to make interventions, I ask that they are kept brief and that Members are mindful of colleagues who may wish to speak later in the debate. I call Neil Gray to move the motion.

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered the role of fathers in the family unit.

I am delighted to be leading this debate with you in the Chair, Mrs Main.

One of my proudest moments, not only as a father, but as a parliamentarian, was taking my young daughter and son through the voting Lobby with me on Friday to see the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) pass its final stages in the Commons. I hope that by ratifying the Istanbul convention on gender-based violence we are taking another step to eradicate domestic violence and violence against women and girls.

It is thanks to Nick Thorpe of Fathers Network Scotland and Frank Young from the Centre for Social Justice that I applied for this debate. I was involved in a very small way in helping to promote Scotland’s Year of the Dad in 2016, but at a relatively recent meeting with Nick, I agreed to do what I could to help promote reflection on last year and to encourage something similar elsewhere in the UK.

Dad, father, stand-in dad, daddy, step-dad, foster father, adoptive dad, daddies who have to be mummies too—there are so many ways to describe the male role in the family, but its meaning is slowly starting to change. In 2016, Scotland celebrated the Year of the Dad to help promote the contribution fathers or those in a fatherly role make to child development, families and society, and to provide greater understanding of the benefits reaped from organisations acknowledging the family roles of men.

The Year of the Dad was established by Fathers Network Scotland and supported by the Scottish Government because we are at a tipping point in our cultural evolution. The project’s review paper states:

“The old stereotypes of dad as breadwinner and mum as carer no longer serve us in an age of increasing diversity and gender equality at home, work and throughout society.”

Some 95 events reached nearly 15,000 people, more than half a million people were reached through media coverage, and there were tens of thousands of visits to the website, where more than 40 resource documents for families, services and employers were available. Some 5,800 individuals and 1,300 organisations signed up to the campaign in 2016, highlighting the positive message about fatherhood and the importance of dads in child development and parenting.

It should be obvious that recognising the role fathers play or should play does not in any way diminish the role mothers play—quite the opposite. I am clear, and the research shows, that society as a whole benefits from the positive involvement of fathers. As I see it, the increased wellbeing, confidence and educational attainment of children is the biggest benefit. So getting it right for fathers is about getting it right for every child.

The Scottish Government were clear that supporting the Year of the Dad was a central part of their gender equality policy. Male parental leave is key to narrowing the pay gap that disgracefully still exists for women. Clearly, it is all about having choices and giving parents the ability to choose what is best for them, but from a public policy perspective, we need to change societal norms to give parents a better opportunity to choose what is right for them. The current vicious circle of expensive childcare, low pay and societal pressures on women and men keeps many women in the primary caregiver role instead of allowing them to return to the workplace if that is what they want to do.

Last week, after patiently waiting almost a year for the UK Government to respond to its recommendations on tackling the gender pay gap, the Women and Equalities Committee set out its three priorities for the Government, including a more effective policy on shared parental leave. Unless the UK Government recognise the value of men and women sharing care responsibilities equally, and encourage men to take parental leave, we will not see any changes to current behaviour. Recent research from PwC found that, on current trends, it would take another 24 years to close the gender pay gap between men and women, which is clearly unacceptable.

If a woman faces discrimination when she returns to the workplace after having a child, such as not receiving a promotion in line with her male counterparts or being dismissed for requesting flexible working hours, that does not incentivise men to do more at home to care for their children. Of course, some men do not need incentives—they want to be at home more—but workplace norms make that request awkward to make. Why should a man be at home when his wife could be there? Research from Plymouth University from earlier this year stated that dads face a “fatherhood forfeit” when applying for part-time employment in the workplace—dads who want to work reduced hours or on a flexible basis are perceived as suspicious or deviant and questions are raised about their commitment.

The SNP Scottish Government are working hard to promote and reward flexible working and childcare in Scotland, using our devolved powers. They have supported the “Happy to talk flexible working” job advert strapline, which I added to my own recent job adverts. Working in partnership with Family Friendly Working Scotland, they have supported the top employers for working families awards. This year’s award ceremony is taking place next week, and I look forward to attending.

The Scottish Government are also committed to almost doubling free early learning and childcare to 1,140 hours a year by 2020. The UK Government need to ensure that advice and support is available to fathers so that they are aware of their rights to paternity and parental leave.

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The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech, and I congratulate him on securing this important debate. I wonder whether he has seen the helpful Barnardo’s briefing, which points out that without appropriate support, young and vulnerable fathers in particular can end up feeling isolated and marginalised by services and agencies. It goes on to recommend that local authorities should have an identified lead professional responsible for co-ordinating work.

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Order. I ask that interventions are brief, otherwise I shall overrule them.

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I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. That is sage advice from Barnardo’s, as is normally the case from that organisation.

Shared parental leave was introduced by the last UK Government, but there was a widespread admission, including from its architect Jo Swinson, that the current policy does not go far enough. We need to ensure that employers are supported in offering all employees the opportunity to take a period of leave to care for their child, so that the responsibility does not fall de facto on women’s shoulders. We need an effective shared parental leave policy that will help men at home and also women at work. It would also help the economy, because a 2014 Centre for Economics and Business Research study suggests that a “work from anywhere” culture would add an extra £11.5 billion a year to the UK economy.

Some mums want to stay at home for as long as possible and would not choose to share parental leave with their partner—I can perfectly understand that—but we are failing to help the mums who want to return to work and the dads who want to spend more time at home. In a similar vein, employees now have a right to request flexible working, but there is no definition of what that means, nor any compulsion on employers to do anything other than just consider it. As a society we are starting, rightly, to move away from the definition of fathers as the breadwinning disciplinarians, but we have not yet caught up in the workplace. The shift in fathers’ desire to be more involved at home does not match the predicted uptake of parental leave by men of between 2% and 8%. There is still a reticence among men to ask to be at home more and a market expectation on them to continue in the traditional role as working breadwinners.

The only way to shift societal norms is to support or incentivise behaviour through policy, but employment law is currently decided here at Westminster. The UK Government must acknowledge the reality that gender-based discrimination against both men and women is not only hugely detrimental to individuals and our society but is harming our continued economic growth.

There was no prouder or more important moment of my life than when I became a father—on either occasion, in case my daughter or son look back on this and suggest any favouritism—but fatherhood and parenthood is clearly not a single event; it is a lifelong adventure and responsibility. My experiences as a dad are already different from my father’s, as society moves on. The Year of the Dad highlighted why being a dad is so important. I have raised this issue today to suggest to the UK Government that they need to do more to help in that regard. We need to support the changing societal ideas about what being a dad is about and support employers so that dads can live up to the new expectations and aspirations of fathers. I make an offer to the Minister today to help constructively to ensure that the UK Government’s employment law is directed towards supporting all mums and dads to be able make the choices that are right for them and their children.

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Order. Before I call the next speaker, I must tell hon. Members that we are operating on a four-minute time limit.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I am pleased to speak in this debate and to follow the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray). I, too, am a father—I have two little daughters, one who is barely a month old and one who is two. I agree that fatherhood is a lifelong commitment. Fathers are part of the family unit and mothers matter too, so we should consider the role that fathers and mothers play together as families.

Families sometimes need help, and I believe the Government have a role in ensuring that families get the help they need when they need it most, which is why I am concerned that the tax burden on families is much higher in the UK than it is elsewhere in the world. At the OECD average wage for the UK of £36,017, the tax burden is 20% greater than the OECD average for single parents with two children and 26% greater for one-earner married couples with two children. That unfavourable position for single-parent or single-earner households mainly results from the fact that UK income tax does not sufficiently take account of marriage or family responsibility, which puts a burden on both fathers and mothers. We need to be mindful of that.

Let me put that in context. The UK has low taxes overall. In contrast with the position of single-earner families, single people without family responsibilities pay 8% less than the OECD average, 21% less than the EU15 average and 19% less than the EU21 average. I believe that the Government should consider the support they can provide families through the tax system. They should recognise that although for plenty of families, including many in my constituency, it is totally the norm for both spouses to work, there are also many families for whom it is not, whether because one spouse cannot work or because they want to be at home. I do not think the Government should tell families what they must do. They should not tell families that both parents have to go to work and that childcare will be provided for them. It should be for families to decide those things. It should be for mothers and fathers to make those decisions for their children.

In that vein, the Government should be more neutral on these matters. They should say, “Yes, great—we are going to do more to provide childcare for those who want it.” They have a great agenda on that, but they should also ensure that people who want to look after their own children are not forgotten.

Each year, £1 trillion-worth of unpaid work is done in this country. That phenomenal amount of work goes on under the radar and is uncaptured by most statistics. It is important that we do not allow people up and down this land to be forgotten. There is good that the Government can do, and they can do it for married-couple families too.

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I congratulate the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) on securing this important debate. I want to make a brief contribution as the chair of the all-party group on fatherhood. I welcome the work of the Women and Equalities Committee, which looked at this important issue in solidarity with all fathers across the country.

This is a cross-party issue that really ought to command the attention of all political parties, but unfortunately the political class in this country is behind the general public. All political parties are sometimes hijacked by other agendas. In my party, the attention on rights—particularly on women’s and children’s rights, although they are important and I stand by them—has sometimes drowned out the ability to talk about fatherhood. I also think that my political tradition’s emphasis on the state and state support, particularly for poorer families and poorer fathers, has meant that we have sometimes tended to think that the state should do everything, and we have found it hard to talk about children and the role of fathers. For colleagues on the right of the political spectrum, sometimes, just sometimes, the emphasis solely on marriage and the way the state and tax breaks can be used to deal with marriage has made it difficult to talk about other sorts of arrangements in our country, and specifically about fathers. Sometimes the language can slip into talking about feckless fathers.

Perhaps those are the reasons why we stand so far behind many of our continental European brothers and sisters in other countries, who are much further forward on this agenda. It is deeply worrying that the figures for parental leave are so low for fathers, and that we do not recognise, as the public do, that couples make these decisions every day of the week. If we give them a year or so off to care for their children, they will decide between them who is going to do what bit.

We know that fathers want to spend time with their children. They want to be engaged right from the get-go. How can we as a state facilitate that? I was worried when I was mooting changes to child benefits, because there is a very strong group that believes that we cannot give dad the child benefit or put it in his name because he is going to run off down the pub with the money. That seems a very old-fashioned view, and is not my experience of the fathers I meet up and down the country.

I am very worried about how we support young fathers. We cannot deal with teenage pregnancy unless we support young fathers and think about their housing and how they are going to be connected to their children. We need to think about the fact that our public services really do not respond to young fathers, particularly those from a working-class background, whether white or black. Some children’s centres have not even got a male toilet—such is their low expectation of those fathers. There is much to do, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts on securing this important debate.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main, and to follow the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy). I congratulate the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) on securing this important debate.

As far as I am concerned, being a dad is the best thing in the world. It is the most important job I will ever do. I often say to people that, even if our nation were unfortunate enough to have me as its Prime Minister, I would still consider being dad to my boys to be far more important than that role.

Sadly, there is a growing crisis of absent fathers in our country. It is a sad fact that 3 million children in the UK live in lone-parent families, 86% of which are headed by the child’s mother. When we talk about family breakdown, more often than not we are actually talking about dad leaving the family home. There are 1 million children in our country today who have no meaningful contact with their father at all, and a 15-year-old boy today is far more likely to have a smartphone than a father at home. That surely must be a wake-up call for our country. Fatherhood should be seen as a social justice priority. Unless we tackle the issue of absent fathers and provide more support for fathers to be better dads, we will not effectively address the issues of social justice and social mobility in our nation.

Children from low-income households who have an active father figure at home are 25% more likely to escape the relative poverty they are growing up in. At the most extreme, 76% of all male prisoners come from households without a father figure in the home. Boys with little or no involvement with their fathers are twice as likely to become offenders as boys with highly involved dads.

Research commissioned and collated by Care for the Family found that children with dads involved in their lives had better attitudes towards school, better behaviour at school, higher educational expectations, greater school progress, higher qualifications and greater enjoyment from being at school. Surely those are all things that we should want for every one of our children.

I stress at this point that I am not putting down households of single mothers. I know from my experience of helping lone parents—the vast majority of them are single mothers—that they provide a loving, caring and positive environment for their children. They are often the unsung heroes of excellent parenting, even in challenging circumstances. However, we cannot ignore the fact that we do have a crisis of fatherhood going on. The right hon. Member for Tottenham alluded to the fact that there are changing attitudes in our country today, with a far greater desire particularly among millennial fathers to be more involved in their children’s lives, whatever their situation with regards to a family. We should welcome that and support it.

I put it to the Minister that the Government should be doing more to support fathers. Will the Government consider following the example of Scotland, which last year had a Year of the Dad—it is not often that I congratulate the Scottish National party, but on this occasion I am more than happy to—and call for a UK-wide Year of the Dad, where we can celebrate, support and promote the important role of fathers in our country? Will the Government also consider putting together a working group of colleagues with an interest and experience in this issue, in conjunction with their forthcoming social justice Green Paper, to work to identify policies that are effective in supporting fathers?

This issue is far too important to leave to chance. We need the Government to take a lead and to put policies in place to support dads.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. Let me thank the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) for securing this important debate. I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), who made an outstanding contribution, as did my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), who made a passionate and smart speech on these important issues.

I share the view of the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay on the Year of the Dad. I was not aware of it until earlier in the week, when I started researching it, but I agree that we could see it rolled out not just in Scotland but across England, Wales and Northern Ireland. That would be welcome.

What I have studied of the campaign has been overwhelmingly positive. That businesses, charities and public sector organisations are all coming out to promote and celebrate the role of fathers is to be appreciated. I read the comments by the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts on the PoliticsHome site with regard to the shockingly low number of men who take up parental leave. We have a lot to do to change the culture so that men feel more comfortable in approaching their employers to be able to take time off to support the children and mothers.

The other issue I would like to raise is dads’ lack of fair access to their children after separation from their partner—if we are honest, it is often the dad, as the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay made clear. Perhaps we have to look at changes in legislation to make access for fathers easier and simpler when a separation has occurred. Another particularly important point that has not been mentioned yet is parental alienation, where, following a separation, one or indeed both parents psychologically harm the child—it is effectively child abuse—by convincing the child that the other parent is not doing a good job, does not love them or something like that. That really warrants further debate and examination in this place and in wider society.

Even in the best of circumstances, separation can cause and exacerbate problems for the individuals involved. Matt O’Connor, the founder of Fathers 4 Justice, has spoken about several tragic cases where fathers who have lost contact with their children have thrown themselves under trains or off bridges. He has also highlighted Department for Work and Pensions data showing that parents who leave their children are almost three times more likely to die earlier than the average. Those statistics clearly need attention.

In summary, I welcome the success of Scotland’s Year of the Dad campaign, which should be rolled out across the country. It would particularly help fathers who are separated from their children, and we should build on its successes.

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I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) on bringing this important debate before the House and the tone with which he introduced it. I am also grateful to the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) for saying that he wants to take party politics out of the issue. This should be a no-brainer for us all and something on which people from different political traditions can come together.

It is right that we need to be careful about language. We all support the fantastic work that single mums do—indeed, many of us are passionate about this issue because we want single mums to have more help with the very tough job of being a parent. When Gordon Brown left Downing Street for the last time, he said that he was going on to do an even more important job and devote himself fully to being a father to his children, which he viewed as more important than being Prime Minister of our country.

I am encouraged by Early Intervention Foundation research, which the Government are taking very seriously as they work on their social reform White Paper—we all look forward to seeing that shortly—showing that the role of fathers is increasingly recognised as an important influence on child development. I am grateful to Tavistock Relationships for pointing that out. That has not always been recognised, and it is important that we do so.

It should be hugely concerning to us that there are what are sometimes called “dad deserts” up and down the country. The Centre for Social Justice, which also provided a very good briefing, identified 236 hotspots across the country, which should concern us from a social justice and inequality standpoint. When the number of fathers in a community diminishes, it gets harder for the fathers who are there to take their role seriously and to be good role models.

We must also think about how we can ensure that both young women and young men make wise choices about who they partner with. Young women need to look to men to be the fathers of their children who will be there for the long haul and take their important responsibilities seriously. We need to have frank conversations with young men about the incredible joy but also the responsibility of bringing a child into the world. One of the animal charities says that a dog is for life, not just for Christmas. How much more should that be true of having a child?

I am impressed by quite a lot of what happens in this area in north America. The National Fatherhood Initiative has existed in the United States for some time, and there is bipartisan support from Democrats and Republicans. President Obama made incredible father’s day speeches, which were really moving and powerful, not least because he did not see a lot of his own father when he was young. He said that we can pass all the laws in the world, but it takes parents at home to do the long, hard work of bringing up children, and we want more dads to be present to help mums to do that important work.

I know that the Government take this matter seriously and I am encouraged by the Early Intervention Foundation research. I know that the Minister absolutely gets this issue, and I look forward to hearing what she has to say about it.

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Thank you, Mrs Main, for your chairmanship of this debate. I thank the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) for calling the debate, in which I am pleased to take part.

Strong families, stable relationships and fulfilling familial ties between children and their parents, grandparents and extended families are the bedrock of our society, but for too long, regardless of which party has been in power, a narrative of deadbeat dads, mothers knowing best and hapless fathers has prevailed and a damaging culture has become entrenched in some of our institutions.

To be clear, I am not condoning irresponsible fathers who do not pay their child support upon a divorce or family breakdown or, even worse, as I encounter frequently in my surgeries, fathers who deliberately change their employment status from salaried to self-employed in order to escape the radar of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the Child Support Agency. That is irresponsible. Nor am I condoning perpetrators of domestic abuse. As a barrister who represented victims of domestic abuse, I saw up front the tragedy that that causes. I am talking about the treatment of fathers in the family justice system when a marriage sadly breaks down.

The truth is that there are 114,000 divorces per year, half of which involve children. There are 1 million children growing up without a father in their lives at all, and 35% of children of non-resident parents do not see that parent at all. That is a tragedy, and it is unfair. The truth is that our justice system treats fathers unfairly. Good dads are systematically shut out of their children’s lives by the system, and 50:50 access is rare. A father is doing well if he gets a couple of weekends and a weekday per month. If he wants greater access, he needs to perform feats or miracles involving the courts, expensive applications, re-litigation of facts and an extended and drawn-out procedure.

The debilitating legal framework presumes that the father’s equal access is a privilege, not a right. That is unjust. The Children and Families Act 2014 went some way to addressing that issue, requiring involvement of both parents to be instilled in child arrangement orders. However, that parental involvement can be direct or indirect, and there is no minimum access of 50:50. In some of the worst cases, the maximum can be a Christmas card or a birthday card every year. How can that be a meaningful relationship between a father and his child?

Another problem is the lack of enforcement against resident parents—who are, in large part, the mothers—who breach those child arrangement orders and stop non-resident parents seeing their children. They can get away with it without any consequence or enforcement. Will the Minister consider some ways of reforming that?

Lastly, we need to encourage more mediation as an alternative to litigation. Many divorces start off amicably and reasonably and end up high-conflict and very expensive, ruining the father and mother both emotionally and financially. That can be avoided, and there are many examples around the world of how. Children need both parents. I hope the Government will take action to remedy this burning injustice.

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I congratulate the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) on securing this debate. I declare an interest, as not only a father but a criminal defence solicitor. I refer to the latter because I certainly can amplify the stats given by my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double). When I reflect on the consistent themes in my filing cabinet, there were issues of addiction and mental health, but the predominant theme was an absence of involvement of fathers in the lives of those young people—predominantly men. It is clearly an issue of social justice. We must take the role of fathers seriously.

Some 36% of male prisoners come from households without a father’s involvement. Of those male prisoners, 50% have a child, and we need to take their responsibilities as fathers seriously. We cannot just cast them out from the justice system. Those responsibilities have an important role to play in their future rehabilitation. When I think of those prolific offenders, the light switched on not only when they took responsibility for themselves and for their habits—getting the next fix or the next stolen item—but when they suddenly realised they were a father.

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I appreciate the hon. Gentleman making that point. The Year of the Dad campaign specifically went into prisons to talk to fathers. Will he commend that work and encourage the Minister to pick up where Scotland has been leading on that?

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I will. There is also good work in—

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The Farmer review.

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My hon. Friend reminds me about the Farmer review, which is looking in particular at the relationship with fathers and at making that link. It is about that responsibility for another. The opportunity for rehabilitation is so important in the long term.

Involving fathers is a route out of poverty, as has been mentioned. Therefore, we must recognise that it makes social and economic sense to take the role of fathers seriously. In dealing with family relationships and crucial moments such as the birth, the early days, weeks and months, maternity services should involve paternity services. Barnardo’s makes that point clearly. The relationship with midwives and health services must involve fathers. Children’s centres, which the Government are looking at, and family hubs must take seriously how to involve fathers. There are some good examples in my constituency and elsewhere of involving fathers in such work. Fathers can play a crucial antenatal and postnatal role. Sadly, that has become too much a middle-class preserve, with the national childbirth trusts and others involving fathers. All of us may have been involved in that, but sadly fathers from more disadvantaged backgrounds are not involved. We must look practically at how to get fathers involved from the early stages before birth and afterwards.

Preventive work in terms of education is also important. As I should have said at the beginning of my speech, I pay tribute to the Centre for Social Justice for championing the role of fathers, along with other organisations, such as the Relationships Alliance—reference has been made to it. We must recognise the preventive role. Education can play an important role in that. Today, the Government rightly responded to cross-party calls to require relationship education in primary schools, providing a foundation for sex education. That is crucial in terms of the role of fathers and understanding that from a very young age.

The Minister has a cross-cutting role in this area. There is an issue of equality here. She has responsibility for equality. We have made a cross-party call on a practical issue of equality—the joint registration of births. That has been on the table since 2009—schedule 6 to the Welfare Reform Act 2009 provides for the joint registration of births. That happens automatically for mums, but why not for unmarried fathers?

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Is the hon. Gentleman as concerned as I am that 500,000 fathers are not on birth certificates every decade because of a failure of the political establishment to sort that easy problem out?

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Yes. The measure must be implemented, rather than having the elongated process to get on the birth certificate. There are already exceptions in law to deal with violent fathers who should not be anywhere near the mothers, and we recognise that. However, that is not an excuse. We must implement that as soon as possible. It is a very practical measure. We talk here about the role of fathers. There are lots of ways to do this, but this is a matter of law. We all battle for a change in the law. That happened in 2009. Implement it, so that we can say loud and clear on the registration certificate that there is a joint enterprise of mothers and fathers and that we are taking it seriously. It is there from birth—it should be in the registration. We are saying loud and clear that of course mothers matter, and fathers matter too.

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Before I call the SNP spokesman to wind up, I point out that I would like to offer Neil Gray a minute or so at the end of the debate.

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I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) on securing the debate. We have had a number of speakers, including the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), who invited us to imagine him as Prime Minister. I can only point out that the unexpected can often happen in politics. There is clearly an appetite to debate this issue, and perhaps we can revisit it in a longer format in future. It is also good to hear so many MPs from south of the border looking to copy Scottish Government initiatives—it is always a welcome thing to hear, as an SNP Member.

Thankfully, the days of dads being passive players in the raising of their children are increasingly rare. Nowadays most dads want to get involved in every part of their child’s life. The modern-day father comes in various forms, and today’s family unit thankfully no longer has to conform to the traditional parenting paradigm of the man being the traditional breadwinner and disciplinarian in the family. He can be single or married, an employed or stay-at-home dad, gay or straight, an adoptive parent or step-parent, and a more than capable caregiver to children facing physical or psychological challenges.

The purpose of the debate is not to downplay the critical role that mothers play in families, but simply to celebrate the father’s role, and to debate what can be done through Government and workplace policy to enhance that role. From my experience of helping to raise two beautiful daughters aged 10 and six—Eilidh is seven in two weeks and four days, as she is keen to remind us—I know that the modern-day father wants to be there for their child at every stage. We want to help feed the baby, change their nappies, read them their bedtime stories, drive them to after-school activities and actively discourage any interest from any potential suitor until at least their mid-20s. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] I feel your pain.

However, our society still makes it difficult for fathers to be actively involved in raising their children. Some 53% of millennial dads want to downshift into a less stressful job because they cannot balance the demands of work and family life. If I thought it was difficult to achieve a good work-life balance in my old job, it has pretty much gone out of the window with this one. However, after two years in this role, I know that I must try to do better in striking some sort of balance, for the sake of not just my children but my wife, who is a full-time student, a part-time worker and, for half of the week, has to juggle those roles with being a full-time parent with no assistance whatever from me.

Our economy also retains bias about the role of fathers in the family unit. According to University of Plymouth research, fathers face a “negative bias” from managers when seeking time off work to take care of their children. I know from speaking to other dads that workplaces tend to question their commitment to the job should they request a period of flexible working in order to look after their children. That complements University of Edinburgh research that showed that many dads would prefer to lie and say that they had a dentist appointment, rather than admit that they were leaving work to look after their children.

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My hon. Friend is making a powerful point. Does he agree that the problem of fathers not seeking parental time off is more pronounced among young fathers at the outset of their careers? In fact, their being able to be more flexible on that would actually improve outcomes for children and families.

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I could not agree more with my hon. Friend; he makes a powerful point. I think we have all seen circumstances in which that is definitely the case.

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Does my hon. Friend agree that all the evidence from the work of the Women and Equalities Committee—including the gender pay gap report, the pregnancy and maternity discrimination report and the current fathers and the workplace inquiry—outlines that there is an economic benefit to fathers playing an active role in their children’s lives?

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I could not agree more with my hon. Friend; if she had waited a few seconds I would have come on to that. Those factors help to create a situation in which men in the UK still spend only 24 minutes caring for their children for every hour that women do. Policies to create an economy that empowers and promotes the positive role of fathers in the family would help to achieve equality for women. In Sweden, it was found that for every additional month of leave dads took, mums’ career earnings increased by 6.7%.

However, despite some progress—such as the Scottish Government’s Year of the Dad initiative, which highlights the positives of active dads and which my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts spoke of in detail earlier—there is still a lot of work to do in creating an economy that allows dads to achieve an appropriate work-life balance. Attitudes towards the role of the father have changed somewhat, and for the better, but our economy has not adapted to the changing role of the modern dad. I think we all want to see any dad be able to achieve an appropriate, family-friendly work-life balance. That would benefit not only families but our economy.

In closing, it would be remiss of me not to speak of families in which the parents’ relationship has not survived, and there is either no father figure, or one whose influence is via scheduled weekly access. Like an increasing number of children, I experienced growing up in a traditional family unit, but following my parents’ separation when I was around eight, I was brought up, in the main, by my mother through my formative years. Although we talked earlier about promoting parental equality and enhancing the role of fathers, we must ensure that those who bring up children on their own—be they male or female—are fully supported, and we must try to end the stigma that the Daily Mail and other such publications attach to such parents.

Let us be clear: in the vast majority of single-parent families, it is women who bring up the children. They are often vilified in said press, whereas a single father will often be depicted as brave and an all-around good egg. That inherent bias aids no one and must end now. The truth is that although we would all like to see relationships succeed and children growing up in stable and loving families, that has become more an exception than the rule. Equally, there can be no doubt that children brought up lovingly in single-parent families have a better environment in which to grow up than children whose parents constantly argue and are trying to stay together for the sake of the child. That rarely works.

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Order. Can the hon. Gentleman be brief? I thought he said “in conclusion” quite a long time ago.

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I do not often say this—in fact, I may have never said it—but I would like to thank my own mother for doing a fantastic job in raising my sister and me following my parents’ separation. I would like to reiterate that there is no one perfect model for perfect parenting—

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Order. The hon. Gentleman is eating into other Members’ time. I have to call the Opposition spokesperson.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I congratulate the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) on securing this interesting debate.

We know that families come in many shapes and sizes. Regardless of the gender of the parent, children need a safe, loving and stable environment in which to thrive and develop into healthy and happy adults. We also know that many fathers wish to spend significantly more time with their children than they are currently able to, in order to create that loving environment. However, many fathers find themselves unable to avoid working long hours or are subject to an inflexible working environment that prevents them from sharing parenting duties more equally.

Many of the underlying causes of those issues are inextricably linked to the same deep and corrosive structural barriers that hold women back in the workplace and contribute to a persistent gender pay gap of 18.9%, which, at the current rate of progress, could take 60 years to close. Occupational segregation, for example, sees women stuck in low-paid and undervalued sectors of the economy. Women make up more than 60% of those earning less than the living wage set by the Living Wage Foundation. Meanwhile, men continue to dominate the best-paid positions. Women make up 67% of the management workforce in entry-level roles, but only 43% of senior managers and 29% of directors. Those factors, taken together, often give families little choice as to whose wage they rely on.

Women continue to play a greater role in caring for children and sick or elderly relatives. According to Office for National Statistics analysis of time use data, women put in more than double their proportion of unpaid work in cooking, childcare and housework. As a result, more women—42%, compared with 11% of men— work part time, and those jobs are typically lower paid, with fewer opportunities for progression. The issue therefore becomes cyclical.

The impact of women being stuck in low-paid or non-paid caring roles has implications for fathers in the workplace too. Research undertaken by the TUC last year shows that as many as two in five new fathers are ineligible for shared parental leave, as their partners are not in paid work or they fail to meet the qualifying conditions. That prevents fathers from spending time with their newborn children. Will the Minister tell us what steps she is taking to ensure that all new fathers who want to take shared parental leave are able to?

Another solution to enable greater flexibility for parents is to provide high-quality, universal, affordable childcare, as Labour has promised to do. We believe that childcare can play a vital role in promoting gender equality, particularly by making it easier for parents to balance the competing demands of work and family life. The Government’s promise of 30 hours of free childcare a week for three and four-year-old children of working parents is looking more and more likely to collapse as each day passes. Research by the Family and Childcare Trust shows that providers and local authorities feel that the 30 hours requirement will mean either that they are forced to reduce the total number of places on offer or that they will simply no longer remain financially viable.

The Government have also admitted that the majority of children who are eligible for the current universal 15 hours of childcare per week will not be eligible for the expanded entitlement, leaving hundreds of thousands of children from working families—particularly those with parents on low or insecure incomes—shut out of the 30-hour-a-week offer. Will the Minister tell us what the Government are going to do to ensure that providers and local authorities can afford to provide 30 hours of free childcare? Does she have plans to expand the current entitlement?

Finally, the Women and Equalities Committee report on the gender pay gap recommends increasing paternity rights, particularly those around leave, to ensure that men can spend more time with a new child. Increased paternity rights for men, on top of existing maternity rights, would make both men and women’s lives better. 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, which is why Labour would increase both paternity leave and paternity pay.

One of the most pervasive underlying causes of the imbalance between men’s and women’s roles in the family is workplace discrimination. Government research with the Equality and Human Rights Commission estimates that 54,000 women a year are being forced out of their jobs due to maternity discrimination. Does the Minister agree that extending paternity leave and consequently increasing workplace flexibility would be one way of addressing that appalling discrimination? Does she also agree that women suffering maternity discrimination must be able to uphold their rights, yet—

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Order. Will the hon. Lady finish her sentence and then conclude?

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Okay, sure. If we are to support men in taking a greater role in the family unit and, as a consequence, tackle the barriers facing women, we need to support men and women in having a real and meaningful choice when it comes to accessing well-paid and family-friendly employment.

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It is a great pleasure to serve under your stewardship, Mrs Main. I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) on securing this really important debate. I also congratulate both him and other hon. Members on doing such a great job of articulating clearly how involving dads in their children’s lives is good for the emotional health and wellbeing of both parents, great for childhood development and really good for society.

As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, this debate is timely, as the Women and Equalities Committee recently launched its important inquiry into fathers in the workplace. We welcome that inquiry and will look with great interest at what the Committee comes up with. The role that fathers play in family life is a subject of great importance for me in my role as Minister for Women and Equalities and for the Government more broadly, and it is intrinsically connected to the work that the Government Equalities Office is doing to close the gender pay gap.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for drawing the House’s attention to this year’s successful Year of the Dad campaign in Scotland. Highlighting fathers’ really important role in child development was key to that campaign, and I wholeheartedly support that sentiment. Nothing is more important than childhood development. My hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), among others, asked whether we could have a UK-wide Year of the Dad, and I will certainly consider that. It is vital that we support fathers and encourage businesses, employers and society more broadly to do the same.

We know that dads want to be more involved in their children’s lives, and we are committed to supporting them to do that. The role of dads in family life is already changing. Increasingly, men are choosing to work part time. Although mothers continue to do the majority of childcare, dads do ever more. Dads these days are much more actively involved in their children’s lives—they are not afraid to change a dirty nappy or spoon-feed some pureed carrot into an unwilling mouth—and that is great. The Year of the Dad campaign has rightly sought to advance father-friendly practices among employers and others.

Tackling the gender pay gap is a central part of what the Government are trying to do to ensure that there is a balance between work and family. The gap is now 18.1%, which is the lowest on record, but there is still more to do. Its causes are broad, but one is the time that women spend out of the labour market caring for children. Helping fathers and mums to share that responsibility will not only help us to reduce the gender pay gap but, crucially, allow fathers to better balance work and family. It will also build stronger relationships between fathers and their kids, and help us to build a stronger and more productive economy. That is why we will introduce legislation next month requiring large employers to publish their gender pay gap. That will shine a light on the inequality in business and encourage employers to do more to ensure that they have family-friendly policies and actively promote and encourage their staff to take advantage of those policies.

One such policy is shared parental leave, which this Government introduced in April 2015. It enables working parents to share up to 50 weeks of leave and up to 37 weeks of pay in the first year of a child’s life, if they so wish. That is designed to give parents more flexibility in who cares for their child in that first year and to give fathers a bigger role. Shared parental leave also helps to strengthen working parents’ connection to the labour market, giving them more flexibility to combine work with family responsibilities. It gives mothers and fathers the opportunity to equalise care and work responsibilities, and it is crucial in helping mothers to retain a link with the labour market. Neither parent should have to make a binary choice between having children and having a career, so we hope that shared parental leave will address long-standing gender stereotypes. There is nothing more important in a child’s development than the role of parents, and it is essential that we support them both in playing a full part in their children’s life.

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Will the Minister give way?

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I think the hon. Gentleman will have time to sum up at the end, so he can speak then.

The Government have extended the right to request flexible working to help men and women maintain a better work-life balance. Since June 2014, all employees with 26 weeks’ continuous service have had the right to request flexible working, and that extension has doubled the number of employees who are able to make that request to more than 20 million people.

We already have one of the most diverse ranges of working arrangements in Europe. The OECD rates us as the fourth most flexible place to operate a business. Flexible working is steadily becoming more popular. Some 60% of employees surveyed in 2011 had done some form of flexible working; that was up from 56% in 2006 and continues to rise. It is great news for business and the economy that employers have access to the widest pool of talent, but it is also good for individuals.

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Does my hon. Friend agree that it should be the parents’ decision whether they work or not if they can afford it?

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Absolutely; that is fundamental. Parents should make their own decisions about whether they want to work or stay at home and look after their children, and about which of them decides to do that role.

Flexible working can allow fathers to spend more valuable time with their children and achieve a better work-life balance. Some Members and the Women and Equalities Committee have called for shared parental leave and flexible working to be made compulsory, or for the regulation to be extended. All I will say is that these are relatively new regulations. It is going to require a culture shift in order for these things to take off properly, and that will take time.

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Will the Minister give way briefly?

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I have very little time. If my hon. Friend does not mind, I want to make a bit of progress.

I am determined to keep further action on this in my back pocket to see how these policies bed in for just a little bit longer, especially when we bring in the gender pay gap regulations next month, before imposing any further changes that would impose significant costs on business and the public purse. I do not want to do that unnecessarily.

We know that for families with young children childcare is not an issue, but the issue, and is hugely important for both mothers and fathers. That is why we are increasing our spending to a record £6 billion per year by 2020—more than any Government ever. That means we are doubling the childcare entitlement to working parents of three and four-year-olds from 15 hours to 30 hours. That will start in September 2017, saving parents who get the full entitlement about £5,000 per year.

The hon. Member for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff) is wrong—we have eight early implementer areas that are already delivering that. I have met most of them, and the policy is going really well and making a measurable difference to parents up and down this country. More than 80% of local authorities will see their money go up. We are spending a record amount of money on this, so it is unfortunate scaremongering to say that it is not going to be a success. It comes in addition to the 15 hours a week we give to the 40% most disadvantaged two-year-olds. She asked about parents who are not in work; we are also helping with 70% of childcare costs for people on low incomes through working tax credits, and 85% for parents on universal credit.

We will shortly publish an early years workforce strategy, which aims to support and attract the best people into the early years workforce. Crucially, it will include how we can get more men into early years work. If we are going to focus on how we get more girls into science, technology, engineering and maths, it is only right that we get more boys into caring roles, and it will do something to break down gender stereotypes and ensure that more men work in caring professions.

The hon. Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) and my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Suella Fernandes) mentioned family law. As my hon. Friend mentioned, the law changed in 2014, bringing in a statutory presumption that both parents should be involved in their children’s lives. I will certainly pass on their comments to my colleagues in the Ministry of Justice, along with those of my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) on the issue of joint registration.

My hon. Friends the Members for St Austell and Newquay and for Enfield, Southgate talked about offenders who grew up in fatherless households. Positive family relationships have also been identified as a factor in preventing reoffending. For example, research has found that prisoners who reported improved family relationships while in prison were less likely to reoffend after release.

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Order. May I ask the Minister to wind up to give one minute to the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts?

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Absolutely. We are entirely committed to achieving gender parity in the workplace. I conclude by paying tribute to the dads, the stepdads, the foster dads, the grandads and the other remarkable father figures up and down the country, including my own, who are making a positive difference to young lives and old lives on an hourly and daily basis.

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First, I thank all Members who have contributed today. We have had a fantastic turnout and a very positive debate, which is what I hoped it would be. I am pleased that the Minister has committed to considering a UK-wide Year of the Dad. I hope that that takes off, and I know other Members who have spoken today will put pressure on to ensure that it takes place. I am slightly disappointed that she said she would not utilise further powers to push shared parental leave and incentivise it better, but most of all, I am clear that this debate has been about being positive about the role of dads. It is an equality issue. I am clear that enhancing and promoting the role of fathers at home helps women at work.

Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).