Particularly hard hit are mothers whose partners have been abusive towards them. Photo: Getty
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Mothers4Justice: why we need a single mothers’ pressure group

Thanks to the success of the fathers’ campaigns, public policy is now biased against responsible mothers.

When the childcare expert Penelope Leach wrote recently that separated parents who agreed on their young children having regular sleepovers with the non-resident parent were doing harm there was an immediate response from Families Need Fathers and Fathers4Justice.

From mothers there was virtually no reaction. There is a simple reason for this omission: single mothers are just too busy, looking after their children and trying to earn money to keep them, to set up a pressure group on the lines the separated fathers have done.

Yet there is an overwhelming need for such a group because, thanks to the success of the fathers’ pressure groups, public policy is now biased against responsible mothers. Particularly hard hit are mothers whose partners have been abusive towards them. Such mothers are often ordered by the Family Court to hand over their children on alternate weekends to fathers who they know are likely to harm the children emotionally if not physically, because such men are more concerned with their own power and control than their children’s welfare.

The Family Court of England and Wales and its associated quango – CAFCASS (Children and Family Court Advisory Service) have become mesmerised by the idea that it is a good thing for children to divide their time between both parents, whatever the non-resident parents’ behaviour. In so doing they are reflecting the view of the Ministry of Justice – a department that has been over-influenced by Families Need Fathers and Fathers4Justice.

The Court and CAFCASS are so intent on ensuring children divide their time between both parents that things a rational person would consider a risk to children’s welfare are ignored by them, or regarded as irrelevant and not child-related. A father may have been convicted of a sexual offence, but if it was some time ago and not against a child it could be dismissed as historic.

A father may use all manner of dodges to evade providing financial support for his children, but the court is unlikely to take his parental responsibility away from him. The likelihood that a man who has abused his partner by controlling behavior is likely to use access to their children to try to continue that control is rarely considered.

A man may have hidden a lengthy criminal past from his partner for years, but that deception and dishonesty is likely to be dismissed as not relevant when the matter of contact with children is considered. Indeed honesty is so undervalued in the Family Court system that lying by parents is often considered the norm by CAFCASS’s staff and by family lawyers.

Perjury is rife in the Family Court, but it is usually ignored or explained away as being merely the behaviour of a parent intent on seeing their child. Thus the dishonest parent gets away with dishonesty and the honest parent is not believed.

As a result at weekends children, up and down the land, protest that they do not want to spend the weekend with their fathers, but are told by worried mothers that there is a court order saying they must do so. When they see the misery such orders are placing on their children some mothers become so desperate they defy the court and fail to hand their children over, but most mothers are too scared of the legal system and social workers to do that. Instead they take beta-blockers and suffer from broken hearts.

It should not take Penelope Leach to question the harm caused to children who are ordered to divide their time between two homes – particularly where there is a history of abusive or criminal behaviour on the part of the father. That should be obvious to anybody who has raised children and seen how they value security and safety, and how they benefit from good role models and suffer from bad ones.

It is high time the Family Court, CAFCASS and the Ministry of Justice reviewed their approach on weekend stays and shared parenting. Thanks to their exaggerated adherence to father’s rights what is happening in the court at present is akin to institutional abuse of children.

If the former partners of abusive and feckless men had the time and energy they would set up their own pressure group – possibly Mothers4Justice – to counterbalance the over-influential fathers’ pressure groups. Sadly mothers simply do not have the time, so children continue to suffer from this unnecessary institutional abuse.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder