This week I organised a joint letter to Sarah Teather, Minister for Children and Families, asking her to support new legislation that would make it the default for unmarried fathers, like married fathers, to sign the birth certificate. It was a response to the story in the Daily Mail saying that she is blocking the enactment of this legislation, which has already been drafted.
The letter is below. We put the letter on-line as an e-petition for more people to sign.
Currently 7% of fathers do not sign the birth certificate. In Australia, where the default is that both parents sign irrespective of marital status, this percentage is 3.5%. If the UK reached that percentage, then 28,000 more fathers would be signing the birth certificate each year, thereby signing themselves in for a lifetime of commitment to the child.
The opposition to the change bases itself on the claim that a new default would put some women and babies in danger of violent men. There is no evidence that birth registration would be a tool for dangerous men to be even more dangerous – it is just a theory. At the heart of the opposition’s position is the low valuing of fatherhood – the cost of the current system, namely 28,000 fathers not signing up for commitment, is so small in their opinion that it can be written off against an unevidenced possibility of harm to some mothers and babies. This is the dividing line in the debate about fatherhood – those who value it and those who do not.
Here is the letter.
To: Sarah Teather, Minister of State for Children and Families
We write to commend the enactment of legislation that creates a new default for birth registration – that both parents sign, even if they are not married.
There is a consensus amongst those who have led our growing understanding of the important role fathers play in children’s lives that this change would be of considerable symbolic and practical significance. The current arrangement is a throwback to a time when as a society we had not grasped how crucial fathers are to the wellbeing and sense of identity of children. Put simply, it matters whether or not a father (or indeed a mother) is on a child’s birth certificate – and public policy should be framed to take proper account of that. The current law still sees fathers as dispensable in a way that does not apply to mothers – it embodies the low expectations of fathers, particularly in vulnerable families, that are still so much a characteristic of our services and our wider culture. Placing a stronger expectation that fathers should be on their child’s birth certificate except in exceptional circumstances sends a clear and effective message to fathers about the vital responsibilities they have as parents, and gives children a stronger right to have their identity legally recognised. It makes the expectations on mothers and fathers, as expressed in law, equal.
There is ample evidence to show that even very small shifts in expectations of vulnerable fathers can lead to quite remarkable positive changes on their part. A trial in the USA showed that when midwives simply learned and used the names of fathers in vulnerable families, this correlated with them paying more child support. Changes in expectation are highly effective and the change in birth registration would be a game changer in some families. It would also place a duty on all professionals to inform parents about the expectation, so catalysing more substantial engagement with fathers.
There has been much ill-informed talk about the risks this law might pose to mothers from violent men. The previous Government rightly took these concerns very seriously while framing the legislative change. The safeguards that were designed are robust and no mother will be pressured or required to reveal the name of a violent father if she thinks this places her or her child at any risk. Despite exhaustive enquiry, the civil servants who put together the proposals could find no evidence that this system, already operating in some other countries, does anything to increase risks to mothers or children. Indeed, if the question to the mother about the father results in an expression of concern on her part, this opens up the useful possibility of giving her the extra support she may well need.
This change is not about fathers’ rights. It is fundamental in creating a society where we expect more from fathers and where children receive more care and support from their fathers.
We ask that you allow this legislative change to be enacted.
With best wishes and thanks for all the work you are doing for families,
Rebecca Asher, Author of Shattered: Modern Motherhood and the Illusion of Equality
Adrienne Burgess, Fatherhood Institute
Matt Buttery, Family Matters Institute
Judy Dunn, Professor of Developmental Psychology, King’s College London
Dr Hamish Cameron, Child & Adolescent Psychiatrist
Leroy Edozien, Consultant Obstetrician, Engaging Partners on Childbirth (EPiC) research project
Duncan Fisher OBE, Social Entrepreneur in family services
Sebastian Kraemer, Honorary Consultant Tavistock Clinic
Michael E Lamb, Professor of Psychology and Fellow of Sidney Sussex College at the University of Cambridge
Charlie Lewis, Professor of Psychology, Lancaster University
Yvonne Roberts, Fellow of The Young Foundation
Karen Woodall, Centre for Separated Families