REAL LIFE / Absent fathers: The Government is fed up with footing the bill. But is this about money or morals? Geraldine Bedell hears the arguments

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A MOTHER'S STORY

THE message in the Father's Day card perched in Lisa Howard's sitting room says: 'To Daddy, love you more than anything else in the world . . . Sophia.' But there is no daddy here. The man who impregnated Lisa Howard has disappeared, and she doubts that she could trace him, even if she wanted to. She will try to give eight-month-old Sophia a sense that fathers exist, and are worth loving, by herself.

Lisa, 22, got pregnant by the first man she slept with, and was 'ecstatic' when she found out. Fourteen months on, she has been through bed and breakfast accommodation and a hostel; recently, as a priority case, she was rehoused on a new estate. She is just the sort of single mother who so troubles John Redwood and other ministers who resent supporting women with babies whom they consider to be careless about becoming dependent on welfare.

Lisa left her parents' home on a council estate in Staines, Middlesex, when she was 12. 'I couldn't get on with my mum while I was living with her, so I went to live with my nan. My dad moved out about the same time.' Her father is a lorry driver, her mother a nurse.

Lisa left school at 16: 'I wanted to earn my own money and be independent. And then my gran died, so I had to pay for a flat.' She worked her way through various jobs to become chief telex operator for British American Tobacco, earning pounds 11,000 a year, rented a bedsit, lived on her own and felt she was doing well.

Getting pregnant, she says, 'just happened. I was on the mini pill to stabilise my periods, but it didn't work.' Her boyfriend was on holiday from Pakistan; she had been seeing him for just a couple of weeks. 'I hadn't had other boyfriends. And because my periods were always upset, I was three and a half months pregnant before I realised. But I wouldn't have had an abortion anyway; I was over the moon. I felt I would have somebody to care for.'

Her landlord evicted her when he found out so she took herself off to the council's housing department and stayed there for two days, sleeping on the pavement when they closed for the night, until they sent her to a bed and breakfast. 'There were cockroaches in the rooms, they locked the doors at 11pm, and security guards paced outside. It was horrible: I got a kidney infection and had to go into hospital.'

Discharged a couple of weeks later, Lisa was given a place in a mother and baby hostel: 'People helped each other out - you could always go and borrow a tea bag from someone, and girls passed on baby clothes when they left, which was useful because I had to give up work after the kidney infection, and I had pounds 30 a week to feed and clothe myself, and buy everything for Sophia.' She doesn't think Mr Redwood's suggestion that single mothers and their babies should live in hostels is a bad idea. 'I was very happy there,' she says.

Lisa stayed at the hostel for five months after Sophia was born. The council then recommended her to a housing association and she now has a two- bedroom flat on a pleasant suburban estate. 'I was in tears with relief when I saw this. I feel a bit guilty: I've seen places my friends got - on the 14th floor of tower blocks, dirty places that need a lot doing to them. I am incredibly lucky: I was able to move straight in here.'

Lisa is currently living on pounds 68 a week, including child benefit, for food, clothes, bills, and 'I rent a washing machine, though I know it's a luxury'. Housing benefit takes care of her rent.

'I'd like to go back to work. I don't want to rely on the Government. I feel bad that people are paying taxes to keep me, and I want to bring home my own pay packet. But unless I can earn a good salary, by the time I've paid childcare and rent I could be quite a lot worse off. Childminders cost pounds 80 a week, or more. That's how the Government could help, by paying for childcare. I don't mean they should pay the whole amount, just help.'

Lisa doesn't worry that Sophia will suffer from the lack of a father, 'although I would like to meet someone eventually, someone I could be serious about'. The Father's Day card suggests she wants to give Sophia a sense that she does have a father, but she doesn't know yet what she will tell her about him. 'I have no worries about her future with me. But I dread those questions.'

WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY

THE RIGHT-WING THINKER

David Green, director of the Health and Welfare Unit, Institute of Economic Affairs

Thirty years ago, if a boy got a girl pregnant nobody would defend him - not his parents, not his mates. The pressure was on him to marry the girl or get the baby adopted. Now young men are willing to impregnate a girl and not marry: there has been a great rise in male irresponsibility.

It has also become much easier to live without the support of a husband. Governments have made a non-viable lifestyle economically viable. I don't want to penalise children in one-parent families, to open myself to accusations of cruelty, but being in a one-parent family itself penalises children. We are forced to choose between two evils, and if you make one-parent families more viable, you increase the numbers.

The biggest group of single parents is of divorced people: we have lost any idea of self-sacrifice in marriage. There has been a trend for radical feminists to assume that fulfilment for women can only come from the workplace, and that marriage is drudgery. But many women do find fulfilment through the self- sacrifice of motherhood, and that is one of the pillars of a decent society. This is not an argument against every aspect of women working - when children are at school there is every reason why women should be able to work.

We have come to hold in contempt the idea of fulfilment through self-sacrifice. The decent man of the past often disliked his job but he would stick with it for the sake of his wife and children. Both partners have to be self- sacrificing in different ways. We should think about recreating a moral ethos of that type.

THE CHURCHMAN

David Sheppard, Bishop of Liverpool, chairman of the Church of England's board of social responsibility

The emphasis on individualism and consumerism, rather than citizenship, hasn't helped - the idea that we should look for anything that gratifies us, and that sex is something that everybody ought to enjoy regardless of whether they are in a trusting and lasting relationship. I do think men fall more easily into those selfish attitudes than women. But as for how to call such men to responsibility, I wish I knew. Sermons from bishops and fierce speeches from politicians are no use if people aren't listening.

I wouldn't want to imply that all the problems are to do with unemployment, but joblessness has substantial connections with single parenthood. Going to work is a way of joining the adult world - mixing with people of different ages, backgrounds, beginning to think in different ways. And many men are not getting the chance to grow up.

I believe that God's ideal is lifelong marriage, and that the best way for a child to grow up is with a father and mother in a loving partnership. But people must be able to admit that their marriages are in difficulties. In the Church, we want to create an atmosphere in which people can shout for help early enough. We are not going to tell people to go to hell. We need to stand by them and help them to make the best journey they can, even if it's not the marriage journey. And the way that we live our lives does more commending than what we do or say: the greatest tragedy is to hear young people saying: 'What I've seen of marriage doesn't make me want it.'

THE CAMPAIGNER

Sue Slipman, chair of the National Council For One-Parent Families

Since the beginning of the century, women and children have gradually been claiming rights of their own, rather than existing as the property of men inside marriage. This, with increased educational opportunities, has resulted in a downturn in the numbers of women who want to stay at home and be kept. Meanwhile, the collapse of staple industries means that men in the bottom social classes are no longer breadwinners. Marriage no longer has the ethos of a religious contract, and increased secularism has also led to the sense that adults have the right to pursue individual happiness: there are no more shotgun weddings. A child born outside marriage also has exactly the same rights as one born within marriage.

What I think the Government is really worried about is not the small percentage of teenage mothers, but the numbers of 20- to 24-year-olds. But politicians ignore the disappearance of marriageable men. Changes in the economic structure have infantilised men: they are not bringing money to relationships, but they aren't bringing anything else, like parenting skills, either. The Government complains about vandals, but they don't ask themselves: why would any woman in her right mind want to take one home with her?

Chasing absent parents is incredibly important, because one thing we do all agree on is that children have the right to be maintained by their parents. But the Government should also realise that women could, with a little investment, become breadwinners themselves: 55 per cent of single parents would go to work tomorrow if they could afford childcare, and 90 per cent want to work in the longer term. The real reason the Government is horrified by that is fear that women could get by without men and be independent of the state. But if they helped women to work, they could end up solving the benefit problem. All this talk of hostels, which sound a bit like the workhouse, is part of the attempt to keep women infantilised.

I hope we won't see a matrilineal society. I have never met a single parent who would not give her eye teeth for a loving relationship with a man. But at the moment the power play between men and women is leading to very high levels of divorce. There is not just a crisis of one-parent families; there's a crisis of two-parent families.

THE POLITICIAN

Graham Riddick, Conservative MP for Colne Valley

Many of the current social problems are down to the permissive society of the Sixties, which with the welfare state and the lack of leadership from churches and schools, has led to a reduction in personal responsibility. I would like to see the bishops saying it is wrong for women to have children out of wedlock. But they don't seem to have the courage to do it.

Current council housing policies give encouragement to single women to have babies: a small number get pregnant to get housing, but more generally, there is a feeling that it's not the end of the world to become pregnant and not be married. Perhaps it should be seen as the end of the world. The idea that there are no marriageable men is nonsense. Absolute rubbish. I have never heard anything so ridiculous. There are always men.

The reality is that without the disciplining figure of a father young people are more likely to commit crime, though the feminists may deny it. Single parenthood has got more to do with the welfare state than with the feminists, but then I've never taken the feminists very seriously anyway.

THE HOUSING OFFICER

John Perry, policy director, Institute of Housing (the professional body for housing officers)

I've not been able to find a single housing authority which discriminates in favour of single parents over couples with children. The homeless get priority, but there is no suggestion that a homeless single parent gets priority over a homeless couple.

I don't think anyone has ever satisfactorily proved that girls are having babies to get housing, and in any case, the majority of single parents are separated or divorced. If it were shown that girls were having babies to get homes, that would be an appalling comment on the shortage of rented accommodation.

The Government's current statements fly in the face of the Children Act, which is founded on the assumption that children are the most vulnerable members of society and should get priority. If a child is homeless, that is where the priority lies. Moral judgements are not relevant to the fact that that child exists and has needs.

THE SEX EDUCATIONIST

Karin Pappenheim, spokeswoman,Family Planning Association

A lot of people are taking a high moral stand, implying that young people are having lots of fun and getting into trouble. In fact, young people find sex very, very stressful: they are under pressure to be sexually active, and you still get all those letters to problem pages from girls saying, 'My boyfriend says if I really loved him, I'd sleep with him.' Young people aren't being given much support to make responsible decisions: biology is explained to them, but nothing of what it's like to go out with someone and discuss whether they are ready for sex.

One in three pregnancies is said to be unplanned: teenagers have a much lower rate of unplanned pregnancy than other age groups. You might just as well tell older people they should know better.

Very few of those who end up as single parents ever intended to do so. Most of the young women we see thought the boy was going to stay. What is sad is that for some girls, a baby is the only possible way of giving their lives emotional meaning. Family life may have been unhappy; their relationships with boys may not have been particularly loving and affectionate; they have little positive to look forward to in terms of jobs or careers. Motherhood is portrayed as a woman's essential role. It's not surprising they have a rosy view of it.

THE LEFT-WING THINKER

Patricia Hewitt, deputy director, Institute of Public Policy Research

I don't think we have very much choice but to accept the new shape of families. If, for example, you were to make divorce more difficult, you would probably just see an increase in the numbers of couples having children without marrying, or remarrying. What is really needed is for men to reinvent themselves inside families - and there are things that governments can do to help here. Statutory paternity leave would be a good way of sending a message that fathers matter, and matter not just for the money they provide, but emotionally.

Having a child often provides an impetus for increased maturity and responsibility for a teenage mother: there are parentcraft courses, mother and baby groups, pre-school education for the child and continuing education for the mother. The child grows, the mother grows, but the father is left behind. But it needn't be like that. Children need from fathers much the same as they need from mothers: consistent, committed emotional support. But although the man's role is far more than financial, money does matter. The single most important element in lifting single parents out of poverty is enabling mothers to work.

A REPORTER'S VIEW

SEVERAL times last week I had to switch off the radio before my children could hear somebody telling them they were about to become under- achievers, turn to crime and die early. With thousands of other single parents, I did not recognise my family in the glib caricatures of civic decay drawn by politicians who have identified us as a threat to the nation's moral health.

These politicians lump together the great variety of single parents - unmarried, divorced, widowed - and imply that they are all 17-year-old girls who got pregnant to jump a housing queue, all a drain on the public purse, all symptomatic of decline from the days when the boy married the girl. Lisa Howard is one of the people the Government is talking about, but meeting her, you realise that even she is not part of a homogeneous group: she doesn't meet the full requirements of fecklessness and calculation.

When you talk to the moral authoritarian right, it is plain that they have a point: marriage used to be a public, as well as a private commitment, a declaration that a couple would stick together and bring up children together. Now marriage is more and more seen as a private transaction, an emotional arrangement with no public ramifications which may not be formalised at all. When things go wrong, it dissolves. The state has to pick up the pieces, because if children face emotional and financial impoverishment that is everyone's problem. This is both expensive and, if you believe the state ought to be encouraging people to take responsibility for their lives, undesirable.

The question then becomes whether we accept that marriage has changed, that we are entering an era of serial monogamy in which people will expect to have two or three partners in a lifetime. That would involve accepting a new definition of the family, which may well be more matrilineal and would certainly be more diverse. This, broadly speaking, is the left's view. The left thinks the old nuclear family was only sustained at the cost of sacrifice on the part of women.

The right's response is that permissiveness positively encourages people to break up marriages, or get pregnant casually. It highlights research suggesting that children in two-parent families do better at school and concludes that a return to the nuclear family must be forced. This means stigmatising existing one-parent families as a deterrent to others (which is partly what has been going on this week). But when it comes to practical penalties, such as withdrawing benefits, it is a much harder act to pull off: there will always be too many deserving, tragic single mums to pull on public heartstrings.

People almost invariably say, when asked by researchers, that their ideal is a lifetime partnership with the same person. There are many causes for the fraying of relationships, but people have not become indolent or careless of their emotional lives, rather the contrary.

If the moralists want reasons for the apparent decline in morality, they need to look first at an educational system which fails a high percentage of the population, leaving them with little rewarding to do besides have children; at the scarcity of employment opportunities for young men, so that they never quite become adults; and at the persistent failure of men to involve themselves sufficiently in parenting.

There has indeed been a decline in the idea of personal relationships as an expression of civic responsibility. But civic responsibility is a two-way traffic; individuals first need a community to believe in. GB

(Photograph omitted)

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