For the sake of our children

Men are letting down their children, in part because they no longer know wbat fathers are for
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The Independent Culture
IT'S BEEN another fantastic week for children. Or rather, in exactly 20 years there will be a fantastic week for children, when we can all celebrate the wiping out of child abuse by the NSPCC and the wiping out of child poverty by New Labour. Both groups have asserted that their aim is possible within a generation, and the existence of the second pledge tends to give more - though not enough - credence to the first.

Labour's pledge was announced yesterday by Tony Blair, as he delivered this year's Beveridge Lecture in London's East End. Calling for a return to the progressive image of welfare, which was fostered at the time of the Beveridge report in 1942, Blair spent much time reiterating the Government's successes so far in this department - thanks again for that budget, Gordon - and talking of "radical welfare reform", the details of which remained rather more sketchy.

Blair also stressed that the real growth of social security spending had been cut by almost 1 per cent a year and pounds 5bn less had been spent than the last government had planned for. The implication seems to be that child poverty can be eradicated cheaply. Maybe that's why it's going to take 20 years. Child poverty in Britain, like human hunger in the world, is one of these problems we could sort out by midsummer's eve if we really wanted to. And Blair knows perfectly well that we don't really want to.

Which brings us to the second theme of his speech, which is tackling the problem that really will need at least two decades to sort out. That, of course, is persuading the comfortably off that the only way to make Britain a better place for them to live in is for the advantaged to shell out their hard-earned cash not on themselves but the disadvantaged.

Frankly the benefits of doing so are easy to imagine, for we know that poverty breeds not just more poverty, but also crime, teenage motherhood, neglect and abuse of children, educational failure and a host of other social ills. Meanwhile the folly of failing to subsidise the poor is something we live with every day.

The solution of the middle classes to the problem of living in a society that includes millions of children living below the poverty line is kiddie apartheid. It starts with the morning school run in the gas-guzzling car to the school that does well in the league tables, rather than the school that the children could get to under their own steam. And it ends with the bedroom television-watching that the LSE says half of all six-to seven- year-olds indulges in.

Parenting culture is becoming ever more concerned with keeping its kiddies away from the bogey-kiddies to the severe detriment of both groups of children and all levels of society. And as well as being bad for children, maintaining kiddie apartheid costs a lot more time and money than would be spent on subsidising the poorest.

Which brings us to another interesting point. While I was impressed by Flash Gordon's children-centred budget, there are two notable aspects to the general policy underlying the budget that belie its own aims.

First, there's the emphasis on work. This doesn't apply only to lone mothers, who the Government would clearly prefer to see in work, even if it is detrimental to their parenting. (Although, to its credit, the Government has allowed them to retain the right to parent full-time if they strongly feel they should do so.) It applies to all parents.

While the budget helped families a great deal, the families it rewarded the most were poor working families, who benefit from the 10p starting rate for income tax, the 1p cut in income tax, children's tax credit and the family allowance. Obviously, for the really poor - parents living on benefits - only the last of these measures will be applicable.

While New Labour asserts that these measures will lift 700,000 children out of poverty, it is estimated that a staggering 3.9 million will still be left below the poverty line. Clearly there are only two ways in which these children can be helped out of poverty - either by getting their parents out to work, or by raising their benefits.

What New Labour is clearly afraid of - witness Blair's recent tough presentation of the benefit-fraud "crackdown" announced a few weeks ago by Alistair Darling - is raising the benefits of lone mothers, thus making it yet more tempting for deprived teenage girls to have babies alone and bring them up on welfare. But the vast majority of lone mothers haven't in fact chosen to live this way. It is the men who are letting down their children, in part because they no longer seem to know what fathers are for.

While the difficulties of bringing fathers to account financially have been well illustrated by the workings of the Child Support Agency, I believe that moving the burden of breadwinning, as well as parenting, on to single mothers is fraught with difficulties, not just for poor children, but for the institution of the family that New Labour is sincerely but misguidedly trying to help. What we really have to start learning to value is parenting, not just the parenting that mothers provide, but that which fathers provide as well.

This is the next seismic shift that society has got to make if it is to progress. There is a wealth of evidence all around us that the new model of parenting whereby both parents work is not a good one. It tires women, it causes dissatisfaction, it creates strains between men and women which end with broken families. While women don't want to lose the advantages they have gained over the pas 30 years, there is a growing awareness that the kind of equality whereby women simply live more like men is not a suitable way for families to thrive.

And while Freud was condemned by feminists because of his continual assertions that case study A to case study Z had psychological problems because of their mother's smother-love, it seems to me that it's possible that all of our babies have been thrown out with the bathwater. Maybe Freud's observations don't mark him out as a misogynist at all. Maybe they instead warned us right at the beginning of the century that the working patterns that evolved along with the industrial revolution left too much of the parenting burden with women and not enough of it with men.

I know a couple of men who gave up work when their babies were born, since their partners earned more than they did. Both of them have brought up their daughters marvellously, even though they share some of the problems that women did in the days when they were expected to stay at home.

What we clearly need now is more equitable parenting, in which both mother and father do some breadwinning and some homemaking. To achieve this (and, as a by-product, full employment) we need shorter working hours for a start - ours are the highest in Europe - and far more part-time work. In fact, as life becomes yet more complex, there's a very good case for a four-day instead of a five-day week.

We also need to prepare more for the years during which our children are small. While the Government is right to concentrate resources on this period in people's lives, we should be thinking about providing for our parenting years privately as well, with parent plans supplementing pension plans; the acceptance by employers that men are as likely as women to need time off, or even some years of part-time work, to look after their children; and, immediately, tax breaks for childcare costs.

This is the revolution we should be planning over the next 20 years. Child poverty we can eradicate by the end of the next Labour government. Only money can stop poverty. Radical reform should be directed at creating far more complex kinds of change.