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21 June 2015

This Father’s Day, spare a thought for Britain’s youngest dads

Thanks to the government's changes to benefits, this may be the last Father's Day that many young fathers can spent with their children alone.

By Javed Khan

Today, as families across the UK come together to laud the crucial bond between dads and their children, one group of overlooked fathers will have little to celebrate. For many young single dads under 21 this may be the last Father’s Day weekend that they’ll be able to spend with their child alone. 

Young dads are undoubtedly the UK’s ‘Cinderella’ parents. Research shows that from the moment their partner becomes pregnant, they face enormous barriers to maintaining contact with their children. Young fathers often have little or no contact with midwives, health visitors and social workers before and after the birth. Some Children’s Centres, too, don’t routinely ask about dads when mums first seek support, and often only ever come into contact with the mother and child.

We don’t know how many young, single dads there are in the UK, because no data is kept about them by local authorities or services. What we do know about gather young dads is that, being young, they are less likely to be employed & financially stable and that many do not live with the mother of their children.

We also know that young dads care deeply about maintaining contact with their children, but often, they simply can’t due to practicalities such as not having anywhere for the child to stay. As a consequence, tragically, they can often lose contact in those precious early years.

This heart-breaking cycle has been well documented, for years, by organisations like Barnardo’s, the Young Dad’s Council, and Working with Men.

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Despite this, government housing policy has for decades been moving in precisely the opposite direction from enabling fragile relations to flower between young, single dads and their children.

The 1996 Shared Accommodation rate limited single people under 25 renting from private landlords to claiming benefits only for a room in a shared house, affecting all young people who are not lucky enough to secure Local Authority accommodation. Whilst primary carers – overwhelmingly mums – were exempt from the changes, the other parent – overwhelmingly dads – were not.

In 2010 that regulation was expanded to under 35 year olds, affecting an estimated10,000 parents.

Twenty one year old Aaron, who lived in a variety of accommodation – including hostels – in the first five years of his son’s life, told us the effect was devastating.

He said: “I was basically sharing a shower, kitchen, everything with strangers. I didn’t feel safe to leave my child alone for the time it took me to have a shower; let alone allow them to use the bathroom by themselves.”

During that time, Aaron was unable to host his child overnight. Now, settled in a housing association flat, he sees his children daily and has them to stay every weekend.

It’s extremely concerning that Aaron may turn out to be one of the lucky dads. Because, if intentions outlined in the Conservative’s election manifesto and the Queen’s Speech hold true, the government plans to remove housing benefit entirely from around 118,000 young people under the age of 21. Should that happen, young dads could be forced to look after their child in a crowded or unsuitable parental home.

The rhetoric of ‘ending the something for nothing culture’ and ‘incentivising young people to work for a living’ may on the surface hold water. Scratch minimally beneath, however, and a Pandora’s Box of issues opens.

Aaron, for example, could not have lived with his parents as that relationship had broken down – and they mutually decided he should leave.

He also does not fit neatly into the ‘young worker versus benefits shirker’ model. As a care worker, whose employment consists of shift, zero hours, and contract work, he often has to fall back on state assistance – despite working hard to support his family.

It is true that the government has signalled it may exempt certain vulnerable young people, care leavers for example, from the change to benefit rules. These exemptions, however, could never cover the spectrum of reasons that young people do not, and cannot, live securely in their parental home. Let alone having children to stay there.

They may wish to protect their child from witnessing the domestic violence they themselves experienced as a child, or shield them from substance or alcohol-misuse. They may not be welcome at their parents’ home, because of their sexual orientation or trans status or another reason.

Vulnerable young parents will face a Hobson’s choice of exposing their child to an unstable or unhappy home, or simply not hosting their child at all.

Which is why charities that work with these young people, including Barnardo’s, Working with Men, The Young Dads Council, Families Need Fathers, St. Michaels fellowship and Oakhill Secure Training Centre, are calling on the government to review these two decades of family-unfriendly benefits changes.

Together, we would like to see the government recast the system, so that every parent has the choice to live in accommodation that nurtures an independent and stable bond with their child – regardless of that parent’s age or income.

They can start by exempting all parents, regardless of whether their children live with them full time or not, from plans to cut housing benefits for young people.

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