The mother and father of a lost opportunity

The Parent Trap: children, families and the new morality by Maureen Freely (Virago, £10.99, 245pp)

Reading Maureen Freely's polemic is rather like being accosted by someone at a party who bends your ear. It's something in the prose style, spare and stripped down, so the short sentences gallop along at a tremendous pace. Freely's aim is to demonstrate "how our panic about the family is not based on evidence that would stand up in court". She hopes to rebut the arguments of the new moralists who blame lazy, selfish parents for social breakdown and seek to stop the rot by re-educating and, where necessary, punishing them.

Reading Maureen Freely's polemic is rather like being accosted by someone at a party who bends your ear. It's something in the prose style, spare and stripped down, so the short sentences gallop along at a tremendous pace. Freely's aim is to demonstrate "how our panic about the family is not based on evidence that would stand up in court". She hopes to rebut the arguments of the new moralists who blame lazy, selfish parents for social breakdown and seek to stop the rot by re-educating and, where necessary, punishing them.

In reply, she argues that the problems have been exaggerated; they stem not from wicked individuals but from the effects of disadvantage and rapid social change. They can be cured only by a revolution in the workplace to take the pressure off harassed parents, and by large-scale community-based programmes to empower the poor.

Social affairs is a notoriously difficult arena. Often the statistics comparing then and now do not exist or, if they do, are open to a range of interpretations. Even so, dialectics like Freely's usually rely on a solid argument based, in part at least, on indisputable facts.

This is where The Parent Trap falls down. Freely has pretty much abandoned data, preferring instead to concentrate on newspaper coverage of the crisis in the family. She sees the media as all-powerful. Its accounts have dominated the debate with a distorted picture that has robbed individual parents of confidence.

For anyone who takes a daily newspaper, the inevitable re-telling of old stories that this approach entails is as tedious as being cornered by that party bore. And the analysis just is not sharp enough. For example, Freely insists that the contrasting cases of Diane Blood and Mandy Allwood persuaded many people in this country that "our government is allowing... the wrong people to have children, while actively obstructing those who should be having them instead."

When it comes to fertility treatment, our anxiety is often the one Prince Charles identified when he spoke about GM crops: we feel a deep unease that we are meddling with the sacred. But nature has always allowed "the wrong people" to have children.

Where interesting ideas crop up, they dangle undeveloped. Freely examines what she calls the cast of stock characters employed by the media to explore family problems. Among them is the paedophile. She argues that "we owe our present level of anxiety to years of campaigning by social action groups" but, frustratingly, no more is said. The impression is of a rough first draft.

There is also an extraordinary claim that it is "now perhaps too easy" to secure a conviction in cases involving child abuse. Freely declares that "this is the only crime for which there is no need for corroborative evidence".

Child sex abuse is like any sex offence in that it takes place in private. As with allegations of rape, where there is an absence of physical evidence juries must decide who is telling the truth. In cases involving children, only a tiny percentage of complaints end with a conviction. This has actually changed very little in the past 20 years.

The rare moments where some solid research does intrude are so enlightening that the reader longs for more. Despite Freely's assurances that family life now is not as bad as painted, she admits that step-fathers are massively over-represented as child-batterers and sexual abusers, even when you correct for variables like poverty and maternal age.

Therein lies the main problem with the whole thesis. If you set out to prove the opposition's arguments do not bear close scrutiny, then you really must marshal evidence that would "stand up in court" to support your own case.

Anecdotal accounts about your own complex family arrangements, or those of your friends - interesting though they are - just will not do. Too often this is Freely's fare.

The book tails off into the homespun wisdom of the author's personal proposals for a new bill of rights for parents. It extends to 14 clauses, some rambling and banal.

This was the point when I lost patience: "All parents must have the right to an independent life, even if they chose not to use it, firstly because they are not just parents but people with their own needs too, and secondly because if they have no access to an independent life, they will not be able to support their children."

As Freely points out, the new moralists have seized the initiative and formulated the ideas that propel government initiatives on family life. But The Parent Trap is not a sufficiently powerful rebuttal, even to begin to turn the tide.

Winifred Robinson is a presenter and reporter for BBC radio

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