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Young Dads: overlooked, undercounted, but out there

Encouraging active fatherhood has been a subject close to my heart since my own father left my mother and our family when I was 12 and I grew up without a father in my life. I have extensive experience of raising awareness of, and highlighting, general policies in relation to fathers, such as paternity leave, including establishing the Fatherhood All-Party Parliamentary Group in 2010, and authoring a paper on fatherhood for Labour Leader Ed Miliband’s policy review. However, I am now taking a close interest in addressing issues specific to young fathers.

Over the past few years, there has rightly been a lot of focus on young mothers, with particular public policy concentration on teenage pregnancy. Although this remains an important issue in our society, at least it is accepted that young mums have problems that are specific to them and that need help and support. That rarely happens with the young dads who have fathered those children. Too often we treat young fathers as problems to be solved and not people to be supported or helped. There is so little provision for young fathers that we do not even know how many there are in Britain, because there are no accurate figures. Representing a constituency like Tottenham I know that they exist and that they are frequently crying out for guidance and support.

But what is a ‘young dad’? Though there is no formal definition, recent examinations of young fathers in England1 focused on those aged 16 to 24. Some estimates suggest that just 6% of men aged 16 to 24, and 2% of men aged 16 to 19, are fathers. My own experience is that, though the circumstances of no two ‘young dads’ are the same, those needing the greatest support tend to be at the younger end of this age range, with some even younger still.

I have often seen the anger that can stem from young dads’ feelings of inadequacy in my MP surgeries and at public events I have held as chair of the all-party group. Often, young dads want to be there for their child, but they do not have the personal resources or the social support to live up their own expectations. A home or a job will be difficult to come by and localised, targeted services for young men in a similar position will almost certainly not exist. It is a rare but lucky young dad who comes into contact with a group such as the St Michael’s Fellowship in Brixton – a wonderful organisation that works with young dads in some of the most testing circumstances in Britain – or Shane Ryan’s excellent Working With Men. I want to see all young fathers have the support offered by these groups – as a matter of right, not of luck or charity.

Policy makers need to think about and understand families. Frequently there may not be a relationship between mum and dad and, more often than not, young dads need a lot of support to remain engaged, or they might walk away and never return. This essay aims to contribute to, and move forward, the shape of the debate, and make some clear policy recommendations on what this might look like.