Are divorced fathers really getting a raw deal?

Children have rights too, and they may not want to shuttle constantly between two homes
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The Independent Online

In 1822, a five-year-old English girl died of fever in a convent near Ravenna. Her father, Lord Byron, had denied access to the child's mother, Claire Clairmont, whom he abused as "a damned bitch". The distraught mother could do nothing, for she had no legal right even to see her daughter - a situation that remained unchanged until 1839.

In 1822, a five-year-old English girl died of fever in a convent near Ravenna. Her father, Lord Byron, had denied access to the child's mother, Claire Clairmont, whom he abused as "a damned bitch". The distraught mother could do nothing, for she had no legal right even to see her daughter - a situation that remained unchanged until 1839.

In that year, after a woman named Caroline Norton shocked legislators with her account of her husband's perfectly legal abduction of their three children, the law was changed to allow the courts to give custody of children up to the age of seven to their mothers. In 1857, the law was amended again, allowing mothers custody of children up to the age of 14.

Things changed slowly in those days. In the 21st century, all it takes is a few headline-grabbing stunts by a pressure group with the infantile name of Fathers 4 Justice, in the run-up to a general election, and suddenly we are hearing about electronic tagging, fines and even curfews for parents - let's be honest, in most cases this means mothers - who prevent former partners from seeing their children.

I'm not sure that penalising parents of either sex in this way helps children, whose welfare should surely be the first consideration. And I can't help wondering whether there is any group too selfish or too extreme to be ignored as the Government hands out pre-election goodies. Apparently not, although I must say that if I had been consulted, the two men who clambered onto a balcony at Buckingham Palace last year, dressed as Batman and Robin, would have been left there indefinitely.

The Government's proposals on disputes involving access, outlined yesterday, verge on the bizarre. Ministers denied that Fathers 4 Justice had forced the changes, claiming it is widely recognised that the present system is not working. But some of the measures unveiled by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, along with the Education Secretary, Ruth Kelly, are in effect gender-specific - most of the 4,000 parents who defy court orders each year are women - and look like a response to a growing belief that the law as it stands is unfair to fathers.

Even if that were the case - and comparisons between Fathers 4 Justice and the suffragettes are, in my view, ahistorical and insulting - there could hardly be a worse moment to address such a complex and controversial subject. The Government has thus far retained some dignity, refusing a demand from campaigners that the law should be changed to give equal access in every case, but the Conservatives - even more desperate for votes than Labour - have said they support it. It is, I suppose, a genuinely conservative proposal, going back to the notion of children as property which underpinned family law in this country for centuries.

In the first half of the 19thcentury, children really did belong to their fathers. Mothers lived in terror of exclusion from their children's lives if their marriages broke down, a theme that inspired some of the country's most celebrated novelists, Charlotte Brontë in Shirley and Mrs Henry Wood in East Lynne. (The stage version of East Lynne, in which the disgraced and disfigured Lady Isabel Vane is present at her son's deathbed without being able to reveal her true identity, is the origin of the famous cry, "Dead! and never called me mother".) These days, when a relationship or marriage breaks up, it is unusual for a father to be denied access to his children; about 200,000 couples split up each year and nine out of ten come to arrangements on access without a court order.

Campaigners for fathers' rights claim the law is weighted in favour of mothers, who are more likely to be recognised as primary carers. But the legal assumption of co-parenting supported by Teresa May, shadow secretary for the family, takes no account of children's preferences. Children have rights too, and they may not want to shuttle constantly between two homes, observing an arbitrary timetable devised by adults or imposed by courts.

More to the point, I'm not even convinced fathers are getting a raw deal - or not in such numbers as to require punitive new rules. It is not so long since the problem was perceived to be fathers refusing to take their responsibilities sufficiently seriously, leading to the setting up of the Child Support Agency. In 1997, its live caseload was 1.8 million cases and most of the parents who weren't doing their bit were men; unpopular as the agency has always been - and I accept its inefficiency is legendary - this suggests a rather more complicated picture of parenting after divorce.

Here are some more statistics: according to a Home Office study in 1999, one in four women has been physically assaulted by her partner, while two women are murdered by current or former partners every week. Is the Government absolutely confident that the mothers its proposals would punish are denying access out of sheer bloody-mindedness, as Fathers 4 Justice would have us believe, rather than fear? I can't help feeling the debate is being driven by stunts and propaganda, at a time when the question uppermost in politicians' minds is how to get votes.

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