Joint Birth Registration: A Fatherhood Institute Analysis

16 June 2008

The Government’s White Paper Joint Birth Registration: Recording Responsibility, published on 2 June 2008 is, potentially, the most significant advance in fatherhood policy made by this Government.

This is not just because of the requirement that unmarried fathers’ names be registered on their babies’ birth certificates, but because – in order to achieve this – fathers must be, for the first time, acknowledged and addressed directly, by perinatal services.

As engaging with fathers around the births of their babies is the ‘golden opportunity moment’ for intervention with them, this may have a substantial knock-on effect in terms of fathers’ engagement with services – and in their children’s lives.

What does the White Paper cover?

The White Paper sets out:

Changes to the law in England and Wales to make birth registration a legal requirement for unmarried fathers, as it is already for married fathers and all mothers, unless this is decided by the registrar to be impossible, impracticable or unreasonable. Mothers have a new right to insist that the unmarried father acknowledge his responsibilities to his child by registering on the birth certificate. And unmarried fathers have a new right to insist that they are registered. In very difficult circumstances there is no compulsion on either parent to register but reasonable efforts are to be made to discover and register the father’s name, alongside the mother’s.

A series of non-legislative measures to promote and support joint birth registration. These include, most importantly, a duty on maternity staff and registrars to engage with both parents on the subject of the father’s birth registration – and are likely to draw all fathers (not only unmarried fathers) into ante-natal services on a formal basis (at the moment, no-one has to speak to the father or speak about him, or record his name).

Previous legislation

All this follows on quite naturally from the first substantial piece of fatherhood legislation introduced by this government: the awarding, in December 2003, of automatic Parental Responsibility to all unmarried fathers registered on their babies’ birth certificates – a right which, until that time, had only been automatically conferred on married fathers.

Why is further government intervention necessary?

Every year around 45,000 children in England and Wales have only one parent (their mother) named on their birth certificate. This is 7% of all births – and double the proportion in Australia, where only 3.5% of births are registered in the mother’s name alone. It is likely that Australia’s excellent record in joint birth registrations is due, in part, to its granting, way back on 1975, automatic Parental Responsibility to those unmarried fathers who signed their babies’ birth certificates – and, shortly afterwards, requiring all unmarried fathers to sign (unless there were compelling reasons why this would be unwise).

The Fatherhood Institute is particularly pleased with the British Government’s new stand on birth registration. We published a discussion paper, Birth Registration and Parental Responsibility, in March 2007 when the Government was first considering the issue, and identified in it some of the costs and benefits to fathers, mothers, children and society of the Government’s taking a more pro-active stance towards joint birth registration for unmarried fathers.

What about violent men?

Campaigners against this legal change are worried that the 7% of fathers whose names are currently not on their children’s birth certificates are the 5-6% of fathers who use violence in their homes at this point in time – and that mothers have been, wisely, seeking to exclude them.

In fact, the Government’s own research carried out in 2007 found that this was not the case: domestic violence did not loom large as an issue around registration; and failure to record the father’s name was largely accidental. Unmarried parents had more difficult ‘hoops’ to leap through to include the father’s name, and many were young and socially excluded and didn’t understand the process.

It is not surprising that domestic violence did not loom large. Since DV is found across all social classes, a substantial percentage of the 5-6% of men who use violence during their partners’ pregnancies are already married to them (and so will have their names recorded automatically on the birth certificate anyway); or would have been insisting on it under the old legislation, due to their need for power and control within the relationship. This new change in the law is unlikely to bring very many new extremely ‘dangerous dads’ into the equation.

For these, safeguards are in place: the new measures include provision for Registrars to permit sole registration; and for a professional to advocate for this on the mother’s behalf. This safeguard is similar to safeguards in child support legislation all over the world, where mothers have been generally expected to provide the names of their children’s fathers – unless their own or their children’s safety would be compromised. Such safeguards have worked well.

In fact, the new legislation may actually help some vulnerable mothers: in the past, a violent or otherwise seriously problematic unmarried father could simply be ‘left off’ the birth certificate, no questions asked. Now if a mother must identify him as a risk in order to prevent his registration, this makes the situation visible and provides an opportunity for support to be provided to both of them: to ensure her safety; and to engage with him on behaviour change, or through the criminal justice system.

Non-legislative changes

The Fatherhood Institute sees these as perhaps the most exciting part of the new proposals. They are currently set out in Chapter 4 of Joint Birth Registration: Recording Responsibility under the title “further proposals” – and will impact significantly on culture and practice in maternity and teenage pregnancy services.

How and why? Now that every unmarried father is subject to a legally enforceable duty to register his name on his baby’s birth certificate, all these services must have a conversation with the mother about this fact, and must seek to engage with the father.

These are the changes envisaged:
• comprehensive new information about the changes produced and given to both parents
• midwives encouraged to inform parents about registration – and the benefits of both parents’ signing
• the opportunity for fathers to register ante-natally in the health service records alongside the mother
• training for registrars in the new way of engaging with both parents
• community outreach to reach fathers as well as mothers
• an ‘acknowledgement of paternity’ event at the birth where father and mother could jointly sign a form. Clutching this form, either parent could then register the birth in both their names – just as, at present, a married parent can do with a marriage certificate.

Read more . . .

The Government’s White Paper: Joint Birth Registration: Recording Responsibility
The Fatherhood Institute’s discussion paper, Birth Registration and Parental Responsibility
Information for fathers on Parental Responsibility

Birth registration and parental responsibilty

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