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.

Anoosh Chakelian
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“We need an anti-Conservative force”: Nick Clegg wants to work with Labour after the election

On the campaign trail in Sheffield Hallam, the former Deputy Prime Minister talks about how to challenge Brexit and the “Boudicca” Theresa May.

It’s pouring with rain and Nick Clegg has forgotten his coat. “It was so nice this morning,” he groans, looking doubtfully down at his outfit – a navy v-neck, pale shirt, rumpled blue blazer and dark trousers with some dried dirt splattered on the ankles. Yesterday evening, he and his team of activists had decamped to a pub after the rain became too heavy for doorknocking.

We are taking shelter in the Lib Dem campaign office in Sheffield (this interview took place before the Manchester attack). Teetering towers of envelopes and flyers, rubber bands and canvass papers enclose a handful of volunteers sipping tea and eating mini flapjacks. Giant diamond-shaped orange placards – “Liberal Democrats Winning Here” – are stacked against every spare bit of wall.

Clegg has represented Sheffield Hallam, a largely affluent and residential constituency on the west edge of the south Yorkshire city, for 12 years. It has stayed with him throughout his “Cleggmania” popularity as Lib Dem leader in opposition and his difficult days as Deputy Prime Minister in coalition with the Tories. Now he hopes to win it over as a vocal anti-Brexit champion.

After a relentless campaign by the local Labour party in a bid to “decapitate” the Lib Dems in 2015, Clegg’s majority fell from 15,284 to 2,353. He is hoping Labour is unable to further chip away at his support this time round.

“I’m confident but I’m not complacent,” he tells me, nursing a cup of tea as we wait to go canvassing. He believes voters who punished him last time – for going into government with the Conservatives, and breaking his tuition fees pledge – are changing heart.

“I was a target with a great big cross on me,” he says, tracing across himself with his finger. “I personally always think it was this odd cartoon caricature both made of me but also of how people view me... People stop listening to what you have to say – I distinctly was aware at one point when I literally could’ve said ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ and it would’ve made no difference. Whereas now, people are very keen to listen again.

“Those who were critical in the past now take a more nuanced view, perhaps, than they did of what I’ve tried to do in politics, and feel I have a role to play in the big debate on Brexit.”

“I was a target with a great big cross on me”

Even when he’s not raging against Brexit, Clegg exudes Proud European. He uses a Norwegian weather app – “they’ve invented something better than the BBC one!” – on his phone (which appears to have failed him today), and keeps stifling yawns because he was up until 2am reading a Hungarian novel called Portraits of a Marriage. “I really recommend it. It’s by Sándor Márai,” he tells me, eagerly spelling out his name. “Of course, I’m reading it in translation.”

Although Sheffield Hallam voted Remain as a constituency (calculated at about 65 per cent), Clegg is still having trouble with his anti-Brexit message among voters. “It’s a very British attitude,” he smiles. “Lots of people who voted Remain sort of say, ‘oh, come on’. The phrase I keep hearing is: ‘We’d better make the best of it.’”

We encounter this attitude when out doorknocking in Lodge Moor, Fullwood, on the rural edge of the constituency. The streets we visit are inhabited by elderly couples and families in detached bungalows with low, steep rooves and immaculate driveways, and rows of whitewashed semi-detached houses.

One father opens the door, as his young son drags an overzealous yellow labrador away from the threshold. He is an occupational therapist and his wife is a teacher. They also have a child with special needs. Although “Brexit’s a bit of a stress”, he says his family’s priorities are education and the NHS. “I haven’t made my mind up who to vote for,” he tells Clegg. “I do know that I won’t be voting Conservative, but I want to vote for an independent.”

“I’m very keen on staying in Europe but I can’t see a way around it,” says a retired man with fine white hair in a scarlet jumper who lives on the road opposite. Clegg counters: “It may all be too late, it may all be hopeless, but I wouldn’t underestimate how public opinion may shift.” The man will vote Lib Dem, but sees battling Brexit as futile.

“Labour’s days as a party of national government have ended”

“The frustrating thing for us, as Lib Dems” – Clegg tells me – “is I would lay a fairly big wager that it will be precisely those people who will then say in a year or two’s time that this Brexit’s an absolute nonsense,” though he does admit it’s “politically tough” for his party to make Brexit central to its campaign.

“It would be much better if you were leader,” the retired man’s wife chips in, pulling on a blue cardigan as she joins them at the doorway. “Tim [Farron] – he’s a nice man, but he’s not quite the same.”

Clegg as an individual gets a lot of love at almost every doorstep. “You should come to Knit and Natter,” beams one woman involved in the local church. “You don’t have to knit – as long as you can natter!”

When I ask whether he feels nostalgic for Cleggmania, Clegg says he does not “hanker after past glories”. He does, however, miss being in government – and compares Theresa May’s current persona with the woman he knew and worked with in cabinet.

“She has been converted from what I found to be a rather conventional, not wildly exceptional politician by the sort of hysterical sycophancy of the Daily Mail and others into this colossal political figure, this sort of Boudicca,” he splutters. “I’m sure she would say this about herself – she has very little peripheral vision. She’s not an innovative politician. She’s not a big picture politician.”

Although Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has ruled out coalition deals with May’s Conservatives and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour, Clegg urges his party to work with Labour following the election. “The Labour party is still operating under this illusion that it can win an election – it can’t!” he cries. “It’s irrelevant who’s leader. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Jeremy Corbyn or David Miliband – there is no way that the Labour party can beat the Conservatives under this electoral system . . . It’s impossible.”

“I am self-evidently a pluralist – why else would I go into coalition?”

He believes that because the “pendulum of politics” is stuck on the right that “we can’t continue with business-as-usual after 8 June”.

“If we all just carry on talking to ourselves in our own rabbit hutches, all that will happen is we will carry on with this dreary, soulless, almost perpetual one-party domination by the Conservatives,” he warns. “The dam needs to break within the Labour party, and the moment they understand that they can never win again – that their days as a party of national government have ended – can you start thinking about how to mount a proper challenge to Conservative hegemony.”

Clegg clearly wants an active role in future cooperation. “I am self-evidently a pluralist – why else would I go into coalition?” he asks. “I’ll always be happy to play my part in doing what I think is right, which is that we need a proper anti-Conservative force or forces in British politics.”

Labour’s campaign in Sheffield Hallam is not spooking local Lib Dems as much as in 2015, when it was polling ahead of them in the build-up to the election. Concerns about Corbyn’s leadership and Labour’s vote in favour of Article 50 appear to have dented its once surging support here.

“I’m voting Lib Dem,” declares a middle-aged man in big aviator-framed glasses and a silver chain, opening the door and looking distinctly unimpressed. “But not because it’s you.”

“Ah,” grins Clegg.

“I’m voting Lib Dem because I don’t want Labour in. I don’t want anybody in at the moment; I don’t like anybody’s politics,” he rumbles. “But it made me cringe when I heard Corbyn speak. Because he’s got the giant-sized ripe-flavoured carrots out, and people don’t realise they’ve got to pay for them.”

Clegg will be relying on such voters to keep his seat. But even if he doesn’t win, don’t expect him to disappear from political life until the Brexit negotiations have well and truly concluded. “It would be a dereliction of duty to the country to fall in line with the conspiracy of silence on the terms of Brexit both Labour and the Conservatives are trying to smother this election campaign with,” he says. “It’s the question of the day.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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