Friday 30 September 2016

We should be glad when a politician does something for fathers - but Varadkar really needs to do more

Published 24/06/2016 | 02:30

Leo Varadkar should also consider what enhances the chances that fathers will play an active role in the lives of their children Photo: Damien Eagers
Leo Varadkar should also consider what enhances the chances that fathers will play an active role in the lives of their children Photo: Damien Eagers

Leo Varadkar's announcement that fathers are to receive two weeks' paid Paternity Leave is broadly to be welcomed. Justifying the measure a few days ago, Varadkar said: "There is plenty of evidence showing the vital role that fathers as well as mothers play in the life of newborn babies and young children. The more time fathers can spend with their babies - the better. I hope that the Government will be in a position to extend this provision further in the years ahead."

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When you think about it, in today's febrile, offence-taking environment, this was quite a daring thing for a politician to say.

His statement that "the more time that fathers can spend with their babies - the better", could be construed as an insult to women doing their best to raise their children alone. It's not that, of course. Varadkar is simply saying that having a father is a good thing as well, but he was still running a risk saying it.

His acknowledgement of the "vital role" that fathers play in the lives of their children would also appear to be a direct contradiction of the Government's contention during the marriage referendum last year that fathers are the same as mothers, and mothers are the same as fathers.

If 'all a child needs is love', as we were continually told, then in what way can fathers as fathers, rather than simply as a second parent of whatever sex, play a "vital role" in the lives of their children?

Still and all, when a senior politician says anything good about fathers, we need to simply say, 'thanks', because we so rarely hear good things being said about fathers by the people who run the country.

Varadkar should also consider what enhances the chances that fathers will play an active role in the lives of their children.

He could profitably read 'Watch them Grow: Unmarried-cohabitant and Solo Parenthood in Ireland' published in 2014 by Teoir, a support group for unmarried parents.

It found that as time passes, non-resident fathers are less likely to have contact with the mothers of their children, and presumably therefore, with their children also.

By the time a child reaches age three, a third of solo parents have no contact with the non-resident father, and fully 54pc of non-resident fathers make no financial contribution to the support of their children.

The report says that "increased father-child contact and improved quality of parents' relationship may be beneficial to both child development and maternal health". It says greater involvement by non-residential fathers should be facilitated where possible. Absolutely it should.

But of course, what we should strive for first is a situation whereby the father will be resident with his children and their mother. Where at all possible, this is surely what we should be aiming at and it ought to go without saying that he is more likely to be living with them if he is married.

Some people might at this point claim that cohabitation is just the same as marriage from the child's point of view. It's not. A major piece of research called the British Millennium Cohort Study found 27pc of cohabiting couples have split up by the time their child is five, as against just 9pc of married couples.

The incidence of cohabitation has increased hugely in Ireland over the last couple of decades. It was almost non-existent as recently as the 1980s, but by the time of Census 2011 had reached 143,600 couples, a 360pc increase compared with 1996. As at 2011, about 7pc of children were being raised by cohabiting couples.

Policymakers should also note that the chances a child's father will be non-resident and therefore will be less likely to play a "vital role" in his child's life varies hugely according to social class.

A report issued last week by The Iona Institute (which I head up) called 'Mind the Gap: how marriage and family differ by social class', shows that people in the top income group are more than twice as likely to be married as people in the bottom income group.

The gap is 34 points, which is twice the gender pay gap, for instance. Very little research is available in Ireland into why such an enormous gap exists, but we can make an educated guess. A big reason is almost certainly that people in the upper income groups feel financially secure enough to marry, and those in the bottom income groups do not.

Another reason could be the 'marriage penalty' that is built into the social welfare code. If two people on social welfare (one being a lone parent) marry, they lose income. A 2008 report commissioned by the Department of Social Protection itself put the figure at that point at €66 per week, which is a lot when you are on social welfare.

The huge marriage gap by social class obviously affects whether a father is living with his children or not. Only 14pc of children whose parents are high income are living with a lone parent or cohabiting parents. If the child's parents are in the lowest income group, there is a 36.4pc chance they will be living with a lone parent or with cohabiting parents, another big gap.

So if, as Varadkar says, fathers play a "vital role", we ought to be extremely concerned about this gap. He and his Government colleagues, and indeed the whole of the political establishment, ought to be concerned about the gap. This isn't even a particularly ideological point to make, or maybe it is a cross-ideological point to make. Those whose primary concern is the welfare of marriage will be concerned. But those whose primary concern is equality will also be concerned given that the more we move down the income scale, the more our chances of marrying diminishes, and therefore the more the chances of a child being raised by both parents diminishes. In acknowledging the vital role of fathers, Leo Varadkar has done a good thing. This needs to be built on. Its implications need to be fully followed through, and this goes way beyond the introduction of paternity leave.

Irish Independent

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