Howard: Give absent fathers bigger role
By Paul Waugh, Evening Standard
9 August 2004
Fatherhood should be restored to its "traditional" role at the heart of family life in a bid to tackle rising crime, Tory leader Michael Howard has declared.
A Conservative government would give fathers a bigger say in their children's upbringing as part of a return to old-fashioned values of respect and responsibility, he said.
Mr Howard will pledge that his party would restore a "male influence" in families to curb soaring anti-social behaviour.
In a speech that will put law and order firmly at the centre of his general election campaign, Mr Howard will make a direct pitch to separated and divorced fathers by promising to reform family law to give them more rights.
The party would change the law to create a strong presumption in favour of both parents having equal roles in rearing their children.
The reform is a key demand of militant fathers' groups such as Fathers 4 Justice, whose activists have thrown paint bombs at Tony Blair and disrupted London's traffic with demonstrations. But Mr Howard is just as keen on the wider role all fathers have in bringing up their children, and is keen to promote more paternal involvement as a key to restoring a sense of respect for authority figures.
The shift to combating crime comes as Tory strategists believe that the issue is their strongest card at the next election along with asylum and immigration.
The reversion to such core Conservative policies will trigger accusations that the party has "lurched to the Right" once more in a bid to boost its poll ratings. There is also a danger critics will dub the new emphasis on the role of fathers and "traditional values" as a return to the disastrous Back to Basics approach of John Major.
But Howard aides point out that Mr Blair has himself recently attacked the Sixties for their impact on society, and opened up the debate about tying rights to responsibilities.
Some party insiders also claim that the Tories can at best hope to neutralise Labour on public services such as health and education, and that Mr Blair knows he is vulnerable on law and order.
In his speech, Mr Howard will say that absent fathers are a crucial reason for declining respect for authority.
"Children, especially boys, benefit hugely from a male influence in their lives," he will say. "Of course, this isn't always possible because a large number of men simply abandon their responsibilities as fathers.
"But there are many fathers in Britain today who do want to play their part, yet can't get access to their children."
Mr Howard will also call for a crackdown on bad behaviour in the classroom - another area where the Government is seen as vulnerable to parents' anger.
"Violence in the classroom is rising fast, up ninefold since 1997. And often it is teachers, not pupils, who find themselves on the wrong side of the law," he will say.
Mr Howard will make his speech in Middlesbrough tomorrow, where he will meet the town's crime-cutting mayor, former police chief Ray " Robocop" Mallon. The Tory leader will seek to shift the blame for rising crime from poverty and inequality to a breakdown in society's traditional values of respect and responsibility.