Dads and dinosaurs: a challenge to politicians (The Guardian, 1 June 2004)

11 May 2005

By Jack O’Sullivan, Fathers Direct

The nature of fatherhood has changed dramatically – and it’s time our male politicians acknowledged this.

It has been 10 days since the purple powder protest in the Commons. In that time David Blunkett has said nothing about the centrality of fathers in cutting crime. Charles Clarke has failed to mention the crucial role fathers play in children’s educational achievement, missing an opportunity to highlight his department’s pioneering work in this area. And John Reid has not said a word about how fathers can help support breastfeeding.

And with their silence, our male leaders have once again allowed fatherhood – an issue that affects nearly every family in the country – to be relegated in the public mind to a minority interest characterised by conflict between men and women.

I don’t primarily blame Fathers4Justice for this catastrophe, much as I dislike their tactics. I blame the hundreds of male politicians upon whom that purple powder fell. Many are fathers themselves. All bear a responsibility for ensuring that the public policy implications of father-child relationships are fully explored. Yet, as the dust has settled, has a single one of them had anything sensible to say on the subject?

As a dad myself, I feel abandoned by my political representatives during an extraordinary social revolution. Statistics speak of modern male transformation and its impact on children. Fathers of under-fives in dual-earner families now do a third of the childcare – their care-taking has rocketed 800% since 1975 – according to the Equal Opportunities Commission. We know that father involvement cuts crime, raises educational outcomes, has a lasting impact on mental health, improves health outcomes for girls, cuts relationship breakdown and enhances women’s job opportunities. A Joseph Rowntree Foundation study recently found that the option preferred by men – not just by women – is to share work and childcare.

I am part of this huge but largely silent social change. I sleep next to the cot and work full-time flexibly around our children. I feel affronted by dinosaur male politicians who have nothing to say about this revolution and its impact on child welfare, work, relationships, the provision of family services and gender equality. I cannot afford to wait another 20 years until we spawn articulate politicians able to relate men’s changing lives to public policy. By then I will be a grandfather. More important, today’s children will have missed too many opportunities because the men in parliament were asleep on their watch.

I focus on men, because many female MPs have recognised the revolution around active fatherhood and herald the benefits it offers, not only to men and children, but also to women. Progressive feminists such as Patricia Hewitt, Margaret Hodge, Tessa Jowell and Yvette Cooper spring to mind.

But where are the men? Certainly, Alan Milburn was courageous to acknowledge when he resigned at health secretary that he could not square his children’s needs with the demands of the job. But why did his NHS – despite producing 630,000 new fathers a year – fail to develop a plan to support them during the paternity leave that his colleague, Patricia Hewitt, introduced last year? Imagine the benefits of well-trained, well-informed dads, if only to the 20% of mothers who spend those two weeks recovering from caesarean sections.

Perhaps male politicians mistakenly imagine that if they talk about fatherhood, it will open their own private lives to unwelcome scrutiny. Yet, such fears do not, for example, prevent them debating health and education. Possibly, they are worried that their progressive credentials will be called into question if they lead a policy focus on men’s relationships with children. But I suspect that the chief reason for their silence is that children and parenting are still effectively banished from the working lives of many male MPs.

It doesn’t have to be like this. Recently I met a group of male BT managers, men in their 40s and 50s with serious jobs, just like MPs. Yet, they could speak eloquently about policy issues surrounding fatherhood. The reason? They had been encouraged to take flexible working options that mean their work and parenting are interwoven and inseparable.

Who, among today’s male politicians, will lead a fresh approach? I hope Gordon Brown will surprise us. An expert on public and social policy, he has said publicly that being a good father is now his first priority. That was brave. Still braver would be for him to lead debate now on how fatherhood is central to achieving success in key policy areas such as crime, education, health and child poverty.

To those male politicians who would stand on the sidelines for fear of being tarnished by the tactics of Fathers4Justice, I would quote Millicent Fawcett, leader of the moderate suffragists. When a man at a dinner party told Fawcett that he would never again do anything for women’s rights because of the way the more extreme suffragettes had behaved, she merely smiled and politely asked him: "What have you already done?"