Select Committee on Adoption and Children Bill Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 288 - 295)

TUESDAY 8 MAY 2001

MR JIM PARTON AND MR JOHN SHIRLEY

Chairman

  288. Can I welcome our witnesses from Families Need Fathers. Would you introduce yourselves and say a bit about your organisation?
  (Mr Parton) Yes. My name is Jim Parton, I am the Chairman of Families Need Fathers. We have given evidence in other Select Committees on the CSA and pension splitting in divorce. We have been going for 27 years. We are often characterised as a pressure group, which we do not like because we are not a pressure group. If only we could exert pressure on certain institutions, we would like that. Really we are a self-help group. We have got around 3,000 members. People come to us, married fathers and unmarried fathers, who are having difficulties seeing their kids and we give them "been there, done that" advice. We are not professionals but most of us have either been through a divorce or— In my case I was married and went through a divorce and John is unmarried. I will probably do a lot less of the talking than John because John is the author of our submission, which I hope you have all got copies of, which we wrote to the Lord Chancellor's Department in 1998.

  289. Can I say that we have got copies but, unfortunately, they only arrived this morning so we have not had a chance to read them. Mr Shirley, perhaps you could introduce yourself briefly and summarise the key points of your concerns in relation to this legislation?
  (Mr Shirley) I am a single father of a nine year old son. I share parental responsibility for him with his mother and that was reached by agreement. I have not been married. I made something of a study of the question of parental responsibility when my own case was involved obviously. When the Lord Chancellor put out the consultation paper two years ago I was chairing a group of our members who considered the question for unmarried fathers. Obviously our concern in this Bill is principally limited to clause 91. We welcome the clause as such, it is a considerable step forward and it will sort a real difficulty out for a large number of people. I suppose there are a number of concerns that we have about it. The clause as it is at the moment still allows parental responsibility for unmarried fathers to be revoked. That seems to us to be an anomaly. I suppose our thinking on this issue starts from the point that in relation to the welfare of a child it is no longer tenable to maintain any distinction between married and unmarried parents in terms of their relationship with the child. Obviously both parents of a married couple who have children have automatic parental responsibility and that cannot be removed, that is a life time obligation of that couple. Nor can the parental responsibility which is at present given to unmarried mothers. It seems to us anomalous that it should be revokable in the case of unmarried fathers. That is a slight concern that we have about the clause as it is written. I would hope that you might feel able to look at the issue slightly more boldly and to consider the awarding of parental responsibility to all unmarried fathers with obvious exceptions. I think the exceptions would be very few but the obvious sort would be a convicted rapist, for example. In the vast majority of cases we feel that the unmarried father does have a commitment to his child. There may be a number of reasons why he does not sign the birth certificate, which is the qualification that is put on it at the moment. We would like to see it broadened out. We would like to push further on that. I think where the father is not present at the birth registration, which again relates to the qualification for here, we would like to see a duty placed on registrars to put in place steps to see if it is possible to establish who the father is because, of course, there are a number of reasons why a father would not sign the birth certificate at the time. In so far as the clause goes, we welcome it. I suppose I am just hoping that you might consider—
  (Mr Parton) Can I add just a brief anecdote which was a case that came to me. He was a guy who was from Plymouth, an unmarried father. The mother was an alcoholic and I think maybe she had mental problems as well. She decided that she could not cope and she put their twin girls up for adoption without telling him. He discovered rather late in the process that this was going on, by which time the whole thing had gathered its own momentum and it appeared there was no way of stopping it. He was a perfectly decent, stable, ordinary kind of guy and he could have looked after those children. He went to court to try to stop the process. I think by that stage, as I say, it had gathered its own unstoppable momentum and people did not want to back down. Because he was an unmarried father without parental responsibility there was not even a legal duty on anybody to find out that he existed but there should have been because there was a birth parent who could have looked after the children had anyone taken the trouble to find him. That is one of the reasons why we think PR is important. That is a real life case.

  290. Thank you for those comments. Can I put to you a point I made earlier on which is the issue of whether this measure has got the balance right between the welfare of the child and the rights of the actual family. The issue of achieving this balance has challenged numerous governments over the years. We have heard different views this morning as to whether it has been achieved. Do you feel that it has?
  (Mr Parton) We would say that it has, yes.

  291. It has?
  (Mr Parton) Yes.

  Chairman: Thank you. Has anybody else got any questions?

Sandra Gidley

  292. I would like to come back to this point about not signing the birth certificate because it would seem to me if a parent is taking responsibility they would do so at that stage. It seems strange to me that you are advocating that somebody could potentially come along later if they feel it and suddenly demand their rights. Surely they have a responsibility in that case to have their name put to the birth certificate. I am not quite sure how you would define a father, as it were. Sometimes these things are disputed, shall we say.
  (Mr Shirley) Indeed. I take your point entirely. Obviously the birth certificate is the most sensible starting point for it. When we thought about this, we were looking at ways in which you could almost test the commitment—that is a slightly unfortunate phrase—there needs to be evidence of a commitment involved and we felt that the birth certificate was certainly the most useful one. There are cases where there are disputes between mothers and fathers at the time that registration occurs, there are cases where mothers would take a child to be registered without the knowledge of the father, there are cases of disputed paternity.
  (Mr Parton) Which we have addressed elsewhere in our paper. It is a different subject.
  (Mr Shirley) Yes. Where there was a dispute of paternity, a child may be registered without the birth father's name on it, and that may only become identifiable subsequently.

  293. It would come back to the responsibility of the registrar, maybe, but you would need a different change in the legislation to deal with that surely?
  (Mr Shirley) I think you probably do, yes, but I just want to make the point because I think it is relevant.
  (Mr Parton) Also there is an information gap. I am a married father and I do not recall going to the Registry Office when our child was registered. I am not even sure if I have seen the birth certificate but I should think my name is on it somewhere. Generally the parent who is available, it tends to be the mother if the dad is out at work or whatever, goes and physically does it. When the mother meets the registrar very often she is given absolutely no information. One of the things that we hit upon time and time again—I think there are about a quarter of a million unmarried births a year, something like that, but there are only three or five thousand PR orders taken up—is people just are not told. They are not told when they go to register, they just do not know. Every time I do a radio interview on this subject, for a start the presenter is absolutely astonished, he quite often is himself an unmarried father, "what, I have no rights", and then the telephones go buzzing, people just do not know. There is a big information gap and I think registrars should have a duty to ask some fairly stark questions about who the father is and should he not be on the birth certificate and, if not, why not.
  (Mr Shirley) I think it is true, also, where there are cases of dispute very early on that the father's attitude may change. A father's attitude may become more positive which is what you would want. I think that at the moment you would still have to go through court proceedings to get that parental responsibility. I suppose one of the things one wants to try to do is to reduce the rate of growth—
  (Mr Parton) There is a point about court proceedings which is that they are incredibly intimidating. If I need a new tax disc for my car, I take my MOT certificate and my insurance certificate and I pay a fiver, fill in a form at the post office and it is done. To get PR you have got to apply to a court and most people do not know how to do that, you have got to go before a judge. You have hopefully got to get the agreement of the mother as well and if not then you have to sign affidavits and have this ghastly adversarial system which the lawyers love so much. It seems to me that it all needs to be made a whole lot easier and that signing some form of acquisition of parental responsibility at the early stage would be a good thing.

Mr Shaw

  294. I do not know if it is in the national guidelines—the point you made, for example, about this guy from Plymouth is a good one—but I would expect it would be in the national guidelines that when the social worker is undertaking an assessment of a child who is likely to be put up for adoption that they have to go through a rigorous process in order to trace all those people who have a relationship with that child, not least of all the birth father.
  (Mr Parton) I should have thought so too but in this case apparently it did not happen. I think it is outrageous that it did not happen in this case.

Chairman

  295. If my colleagues have not got any further questions, can I ask why do you feel that it has taken so long for Parliament to come round to this change in respect of unmarried fathers?
  (Mr Parton) I think it is political. On the one hand you have, I do not know, Simon Heffer, Peter Hitchins, rent-a-rants about unmarried fathers, and on the other side you have a view which I think is still in existence of old 1970s man-hating feminism in which men are teed up as little better than murderers quite often. You have these two pressures and no-one quite dares take it on. To me it seems really quite a simple change that could be put through for the benefit of everyone, saving great hassle later on in people's lives. I think it is extremism that finishes it off every time. No-one quite dares take on certain lobby groups, left or right.

  Chairman: Any further questions? If not, can I thank you for your evidence, we are very grateful. Thank you.





 
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