Christina Patterson: On paternity leave, I agree with Nick Clegg

Your mother may or may not acquire a partner, but an actual father is a concept as alien as a world without an Xbox
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The Independent Online

If you want to get on in journalism, it helps to be related to one of its stars. It's no great surprise, then, that Justin Webb, the most recent signing to the nearest Radio 4 gets to a premier league, a premier league where volleys and goals are swapped for with all due respects and vicar's-tea-party small talk that suddenly turns into laser-guided darts, should be the son of a former colleague of Today's rottweiler in residence, John Humphrys. The colleague was Peter Woods, a reporter on Fleet Street in the Sixties, and a TV anchorman for the BBC in the Seventies. The surprise was that Humphrys didn't know it.

Nor, it seems, did anyone else. Apart, that is, from Webb, and his parents. In an account more reminiscent of Downton Abbey than of the kind of growing-up-with-space-hoppers-in-the-Seventies memoirs more common for his generation, Webb this week described how his father, a "star reporter" at the Daily Mirror, had an affair with his mother, the newsroom secretary, and how, when she got pregnant, he, in the fine tradition of fictional, and, alas, real cads everywhere, abandoned her.

Webb was, he says, in a nicely rural twist to the tale, brought up in the New Forest, in, perhaps, a little cottage safely tucked away from prying eyes, with, perhaps, a reliable servant who could also act as a wet-nurse. Or perhaps he was, like me, brought up in a Sixties matchbox, with Vesta beef curry and Smash. He doesn't say. He does say that his father visited what, as a tabloid journalist, he would surely have called his "secret love child" only once, when he was six months old, and never saw him again. Webb went to boarding school (he doesn't say who paid for it) and then to the LSE, and then joined the BBC, and has, in recent years, been a super-suave correspondent for Europe, and then for North America. The kind, you'd think, whose silver hair matched his silver spoon.

What's shocking about his story, quite apart from the fact that it seems to belong to another era, is the secrecy, and the shame. It was the Sixties, for God's sake! Even if we take Larkin's view that "sexual intercourse began in 1963", which was, he adds, "too late for me" (but not, presumably, for Woods, since Webb was born in 1961), it was hardly unknown, has, in fact, always been hardly unknown, for a man to have sexual congress with a woman who wasn't his wife. Hardly unknown for that to lead to the birth of a bouncing baby broadcaster either. What's shocking is the fact that a man widely perceived to be middle class, even upper-middle class, should have been subjected to the kind of total abandonment more normally associated with a class we find so distasteful that we no longer even call it "working". Instead, we call it "under", as if it were a kind of hell.

For Webb, the legacy of his famous father's absence seems to have been no more than the odd moment of embarrassment, like the time when Neil Kinnock "waxed lyrical" over dinner about the fun he had with Woods when broadcasts were over, fun that Webb would, no doubt, have spent much of his childhood longing for. Perhaps his career path was an unconscious attempt to impress the father he only met once, or perhaps it was in the genes (though careers in broadcasting do tend to be only in the genes of the "hideously white" middle classes), or perhaps, like everyone else in the world, he just fancied being on the telly, which in those days meant you actually had to do something first. Who knows? The important thing is this. Whatever the effect of Woods' absence on Webb's psyche, it didn't stop him becoming what even a Chinese mother would have to call a success.

Justin Webb was lucky. Children with absent fathers are up to five times as likely to grow up in poverty as those who live with them. They're much more likely to leave school without any qualifications, much more likely to take drugs, or get involved in gang violence, or end up in jail. Seventy per cent of young offenders are from lone-parent families. Seventy per cent! Most of these, it's true, don't grow up in the New Forest, or go to boarding school. Most of these, let's be honest, grow up in households where the only resident parent doesn't work. Poverty alone is quite enough to make the odds against achievement in later life pretty high. Combine that with the massive void left by a father you know exists somewhere, but who can't be bothered to make his presence known, and you have – well, the kind of mess we're beginning to see now.

Fifteen per cent of all babies are now born without a resident biological father. That's without a resident biological father not in the Mili-sense of one who's too busy building his political career to get his name on the birth certificate, but who does actually live (in a £1.5m house) with you, but in the sense of someone you may never even know exists. Your mother may, or may not, acquire a partner, or series of partners, who try, or don't try, to fill that void, but an actual father is a concept that will remain as alien as a world without an internet, or an Xbox.

Clearly, it takes more than a few political pronouncements to address a demographic trend that's been getting stronger by the day. Frank Field's parenting lessons sound like a good idea, and rather better than a tax allowance that gives middle-class couples a couple of lattes from the taxpayer a week just because they're married, but the roots of family breakdown, if you can call something which sometimes never even started a breakdown, have as much to do with economics as culture. It's one thing for well-off parents to maintain two separate households and shunt the children from one to another. It's quite another for those in "alarm clock Britain", or whatever we're meant to call the "squeezed middle" this week. The chances of funding two households on a combined income of 40 odd grand, particularly somewhere like London, are not high. The chances for those on lower incomes are, of course, lower. If there was ever a time when multiple pregnancies were an excellent route to a council flat, and one for your absent partner too, it sure as hell isn't now.

Nick Clegg's announcement about paternity leave could come from a different world. It comes from a world where people say, as he did in the run-up to the election, that their families "mean everything" to them, and take jobs which mean that they don't have to see them all that much. It comes from a world where fathers gush endlessly about the joys of being a "dad", have screen-savers of their little darlings on their work computers, and embellish anecdotes, and political points, with stories about their bath-time apercus. It comes from a world where fathers generally live with their children, even if only at weekends.

Tempting though it is to wish he would spend a bit more time with his family, however, on this Nick Clegg is right. He's right that fathers should be actively encouraged to take time off work to be with their children in those vital early months, right that fathers should be reminded by the law of the importance of their role, right that employers should be reminded that the perpetuation of the human species isn't just an issue that affects the female sector of the workforce. Right, in fact, that symbols matter.

Justin Webb, by the way, decided to tell his story because he wanted his own children to know who their grandfather was. With a father like that, I suspect they'll do rather well.



c.patterson@independent.co.uk; twitter.com/queenchristina_

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