Deborah Orr: If men want to be seen as fathers, they must take fatherhood seriously

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The Independent Online

Which seems to defeat the principle of maintenance payments. The idea, surely, is to get absent parents to take financial responsibility for their children.

Many of Mr Mears's examples, however, are not quite as unfair as he appears to believe. He cites a man ordered to support his children, even though their mother had stabbed him in the stomach. This he finds absurd. But it is not. Giving financial support to one's offspring is about the relationship between the parent and the child. The idea that the obligations of one parent should be wiped away due to the actions of the other parent is utterly illogical.

Mr Mears would not agree with my point, though. He believes that a lot of the difficulty in the divorce and family courts has come about because judges no longer abide by the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1974, which demands that the conduct of a spouse who broke up a marriage should be "taken into account".

Fathers' rights activists routinely point to the statistics showing that women file for divorce far more often than men, to suggest that twice as many women as men deliberately give up on their marriages. Mr Mears seems to go along with that interpretation of the statistics. While head of the Law Society, he said: "It's a simple fact that if divorce is easily available, people are not encouraged to stick to their marriages." Perhaps he has the former Mrs Mears in mind here. She - the mother of five of his children - divorced him in 1990, citing his regular infidelity. Statistically then, according to the activists, the divorce was all her fault.

Yet, though I find the reasoning of Mr Mears to be almost laughably flawed, I do agree with him most fervently that there is a bias against fathers in the family courts. He's wrong again, though, to argue that a bias against fathers is a bias in favour of women. All it really is is an anomalous outcome whereby the assumption that a mother's place is in the home for once plays out to the (theoretical) economic advantage of females (or their children at least).

The truth is that men are not seen first as fathers. Yet women, even if they do not have children, are seen as potential mothers. Once we try to mix motherhood and career, the institutional message is that this is not going to be easily tolerated.

Two of the most depressing aspects of the analysis released this week to mark 30 years of the equal pay act were the continuing proliferation of women in part-time work (now paid 38.4 per cent less than men compared to 42 per cent less three decades ago), and their failure to reach boardroom level in any number - 0.6 per cent of company directors were female in 1974, compared to 14 per cent now.

The reason for the latter is lack of flexible hours in the upper echelons of most professions. For the former, it is bare-faced exploitation of women who are desperate to find a job that fits in with their childcare arrangements. Women who attempt to combine career and family by working part-time are punished.

Those men who argue for change are going to have to come up with something approaching a genuine understanding of what's going on. If men want to be taken seriously as fathers in the courts, then they're going to have to start taking themselves seriously as fathers outside the courts as well. In the family courts, the same old assumptions hold sway. The only difference is that for once they do not financially benefit men.

* Meanwhile, the Government intends to subsidise private nurseries to the tune of £10,000 per graduate, to help them to attract the quality staff needed to implement effective early-years education. This workforce - 98 per cent women - is not of good quality because it is terribly low-paid. It would have to be, since women, already poorly paid compared to men, need to cover the cost of childcare by a worthwhile margin to make work worthwhile. So a job in childcare isn't that attractive to women because at that pay you'd be better off at home looking after your own children ... and so on.

Let them slap on a patch...

I am excited to learn that Catherine Zeta Jones is to give up smoking for the sake of her children. I am excited because I never dreamed that this fragrant lady, embarrassed to be seen eating cake, would be a smoker in the first place. Yet, as it turns out, she and her husband, Michael Douglas, prefer to travel by private jet not because they are "Hollywood royalty", but because they can have loads of in-flight fags that way. I am her newest fan.

I note, however, that this is the only good smoking news around. The Government remains pathetically cowardly about banning smoking in enclosed public places, even though 70 per cent of the electorate want the restriction to come into force. Instead, it turns out, smoking children are to be given nicotine patches on the NHS, since it is estimated that about nine per cent of 11-16-year-olds are puffing away.

Meanwhile, various NHS patients and workers are indignant because the service is to ban smoking everywhere on its premises, even in car parks. Shut up, you fools, and slap on a free patch till you get home. Or until you clamber on to your jet.

How the hunter became the hunted

It is fair to say that the fox-hunting ban has not come off that well. For hunters, Boxing Day this year was not much different to boxing days of yore. The hunts were out in full force, the same as last year, even if they did have to mutter disingenuously about drag-hunting and shooting Reynard before the dogs rip him up.

True, I didn't see much in the way of anti-hunting demos, but perhaps those will return, in an effort to get the local constabulary (or perhaps even a special class-war police force) to prosecute the lawbreakers.

There has been another change though, and this one is more profound. A few years ago, before Tony made his rash promise on Question Time to ban hunting with dogs, fox hunters were rather sheepish about their barbaric hobby. I have friends who hunt, and while some years back they would not mention their nasty little secret, they now bore the rest of us about their civil liberties without shame. Before, they knew they were losing the propaganda war, and were seen as decadent examples of all that was wrong with the sad old British squirearchy.

Now the hunter has become the oppressed, the misunderstood, the martyr. In a small way, the ban on fox-hunting is a terrific example of how zero tolerance policies don't work.

By showing illiberality towards a bunch of carnivores who like following another bunch of carnivores until they catch and tear apart one unlucky old specimen among another bunch of carnivores, Parliament has radicalised hunters. It was so much nicer when one could just roll a weary eye to heaven and remark to one's posh acquaintances that if they would go hunting then, yes, they would expect to break their backs occasionally.

Now, it is viewed as heroic to back this cause (and I have to say, though it pains me, quite rightly). Kate Hoey, Labour MP for Vauxhall, announced that she was becoming chair of the Countryside Alliance on the very day that Jean Charles de Menezes was shot dead in her constituency. There's far more to be said about priorities than space will allow.