The post that follows is a guest blog post by Nick Langford. Nick is a regular commenter on this blog. He and I have disagreed about many things in the comments threads, but always (I think) in respectful if robust language. I am happy to extend the opportunity to Nick to write a one off post – as per usual I don’t agree with all of it. Nick has asked for a debate, and so to kick it off my comments, are at the end of the post.
Hunger 4 Justice – Nick Langford
I am extremely grateful to Lucy for allowing me to write a guest post on her blog; I hope it will provoke some interesting debate. We need a debate.
On Sunday 10th July Matt O’Connor, the founder of Fathers 4 Justice, commenced a hunger strike outside the house of the Prime Minister, David Cameron. Such an action is clearly a dramatic departure from the style of campaigning normally associated with F4J, featuring middle-aged men in lycra. This is campaigning of a more serious, sombre character, and O’Connor’s supporters wore dark suits and black ties.
The action was prompted by two factors; the first was Cameron’s failure to honour the commitments made by the Conservatives prior to the Election regarding the family justice system. The second was Cameron’s Sunday Telegraph article on Father’s Day.
The Conservatives’ pledges – not widely reported but presented to F4J in a meeting with Henry Bellingham, Shadow Minister for the DCA – conformed closely to what F4J had been campaigning for. They began with moving parental disputes out of the courts and promoting early intervention and mediation through “Australian-style” family hubs, a proposal also made by Sandra Davies of Mischcon de Reya and by Iain Duncan Smith’s Centre for Social Justice.
There would be a legal presumption in favour of automatic shared parenting within a context of equal parental responsibility and a new definition of cooperative parenting to ensure parents knew clearly what was expected of them before they entered the courts, denying them the option of prolonged litigation.
Contact orders would be made enforceable and there would be zero-tolerance of excuses, delay and false allegations, including (controversially) the withdrawal of benefits from parents who unreasonably withheld access.
Above all the Conservatives committed themselves to reducing the intolerable cost to the economy caused by family breakdown and prolonged litigation at taxpayers’ expense and to ending the ruinous destruction of children’s aspirations and potential.
What impressed F4J was the clear grasp of the issues Bellingham demonstrated, and the work and research which had manifestly gone on behind the scenes. He promised an urgent and thorough review of family justice with an interim report in the Autumn of 2010. In an email to F4J on 3rd May Nick Clegg gave his backing to this review.
What the Coalition delivered, however, was a continuation of the very restricted review already set in motion by Labour. As MP John Hemming expressed in an EDM, the panel was “dominated by the family justice establishment” and failed to “challenge the status quo”. Sir Paul Coleridge told the charity Care it was concerned only with procedure and not with principle; “The law in this field is in desperate need of comprehensive, root and branch overhaul after prospective – i.e. forward looking – review of family policy by a non political grouping.”
The family hubs were reduced to a website and helpline, the promise to remove the requirement for grandparents to apply for leave to make a Section 8 application was dismissed, and the commitment to introduce the presumption that parenting should be shared was rejected.
Though the Report met with approval from lawyers’ groups and social workers, it was universally condemned by parents. Perhaps its worst failing was its refusal to countenance views – plainly submitted to the panel – with which it did not agree, or to grapple seriously with the arguments presented. The case against a presumption of shared parenting, for example, was provided in Annex P, presented as the Panel’s conclusion, and set against a background of similar conclusions by other writers. No argument was advanced for the position taken, and the evidence cited was ruthlessly selected to support a position opposed to shared parenting.
In a meta-analysis of the available evidence Robert Bauserman (2002) found court-ordered joint custody promoted better child adjustment than sole mother custody. He found no evidence that having to adjust to two households harmed any aspect of a child’s wellbeing, and evidence that joint custody could reduce levels of parental conflict over time. In a survey of over 100 studies Linda Nielson (2010) concluded “the research is abundantly clear on this: only allowing fathers and children to live together 15 or 20 percent of the time is not in most children’s best interests. Our society and our legal system can – and must – do better than this”. These surveys, and the studies they are based on, were omitted from the Interim Report.
On Father’s Day Cameron wrote, “We need to make Britain a genuinely hostile place for fathers who go AWOL. It’s high time runaway dads were stigmatised, and the full force of shame was heaped upon them. They should be looked at like drink drivers, people who are beyond the pale.”
Cameron believes the epidemic of family breakdown and fatherlessness – which no one denies – is driven by irresponsible fathers abandoning their families. Fathers 4 Justice believe it has been driven by decades of anti-family legislative change and by the family courts themselves.
Following the Russian Revolution the Bolsheviks introduced unilateral divorce, the separation of sex and child-bearing from marriage, the legalisation of abortion, the legal equivalence of marriage and cohabitation and the approval of formerly outlawed sexual behaviour such as adultery, homosexuality and even polygamy. Family life almost ceased to exist, 7 million homeless children, the besprizorniki, roamed the streets, joined gangs and sold themselves for sex. Society lost its capacity to sustain itself: when crises struck there was no family to turn to for support.
Ideologues are trying the experiment again. We have the highest rate of youth crime in Europe, the highest rate of teen pregnancy in the developed world, an epidemic of abortion. Unlike Russia we have a welfare state which we expect to pay for it all, but already our welfare bill has exceeded income tax receipts. The situation is not sustainable.
Cameron’s evasion is criminally irresponsible. There is no evidence to support his position. A study of non-resident fathers by Jonathan Bradshaw of York University concluded, “There is no need to enforce parental obligations – they exist and are accepted already.” They just need to be enabled. “Financial obligations cannot be imposed. They have to be negotiated in the context of other issues – contact, property, capital.” The capacity of fathers to pay more child support is over-estimated; Cameron’s policies are unlikely to extract more money, but they will cause hardship and erode contact.
Fathers 4 Justice spent 3 years doing what people asked. We did the political dialogue. We did the talking. But it is now time to hold David Cameron to account over his comments, and over the promises made last year to reform family law. We are no longer prepared to live in a country that treats fathers as drink drivers, as cashpoints, that thinks it tolerable to allow children to be separated from a parent. This demonisation of fathers is as wicked as racism or sexism, and it is more dangerous because it has become acceptable. And David Cameron is its cheerleader.
O’Connor says, “Perhaps the only way he is going to understand the pain, the misery and the suffering being inflicted on parents separated from their children… is for us to bring the campaign home to him, to his home: from my home to his home, father to father.”
Lucy’s Comments (Familoo)
Ok, let’s get this debate started. Shall I play devil’s advocate?
This is the first I’ve heard of the Bellingham pledges, and I must say I’m surprised that such apparently concrete pledges would be made (and given credence) in the context of the Family Justice Review that by then had already been announced and was creaking into action. Personally, I’d have taken such pledges with a spoonful of salt myself, but then I’m not predisposed to trusting the Tories.
In any event, once in office they endorsed the FJR. It has now reported – on an interim basis – but I am slightly mystified by cries of “Betrayal!” at this juncture. There will be a final report in the autumn. It may reach different conclusions. It’s conclusions may be accepted by the coalition. They may not. Legislation may follow. It may not. But my gut reaction is that it might be a little premature to put the padlock on the O’Connor’s cookie jar: they’ll need all their energy for the several hurdles ahead. I would have focussed on a response to the interim FJR report and a response to whatever final recommendations come out of it. If at that stage the pledges are not honoured then they should complain.
I doubt that the FJR interim report was universally condemned by parents. I am sure that it will have been roundly condemned by some groups of parents, or by some campaigning groups.
I doubt also that the Bolshevik analogy is of much assistance to anyone. I’m no social historian, but the parallels seem limited to me.
I agree that the tendency to demonise fathers is to be decried (and I wrote about that after the unfortunate Father’s Day remarks by the PM). I wonder though at the wisdom of an approach that says in effect – “We’ve behaved like grown-ups for three years and you’ve still not given in to our demands. So now we’re going to play up again.” Engagement in dialogue is only likely to be fruitful if it is entered into wholeheartedly and in good faith – just like mediation between ex partners, it will either fail or produce unfair results unless all parties respect the fact that there is more than one perspective. You’ve got to take part in the process to come out with an agreement (one weakness of mediation though, is that sometimes the bully does gets what s/he wants, and the vulnerable party gives in for a quiet life – is that a paradigm that is either desirable or applicable here?).
I struggle with the idea that the kind of theatrical actions that F4J is now engaging in (albeit more serious on one level, particularly for the O’Connor family) are really evidence of a matured organisation – the lounge suits are a means of dressing up what remains in essence a petulant act of foot stamping. It might now be a law abiding stunt, but I wonder if it will enhance the ability of fathers’ rights groups to achieve political and legal change or drag it backwards. The danger is that it will damage the legitimate political capital that F4J have worked over recent years to acquire.