Response to the Prime Minister

Dear Mr Cameron,

Thank you for your letter of 15th July 2011.

Can I also thank everyone who kindly facilitated my protest in Dean, including Thames Valley Police, the Reverend Mark Abrey at the church in Chadlington, Julian at Farmertastic and the neighbours who so graciously accepted my presence and at times threatened to sabotage my efforts through their kind offers of hospitality.

I am grateful that you saw fit to take time out of your schedule to respond to this very serious and important social issue.

However, whilst I applaud much of the underlying sentiment contained in your letter, it falls depressingly short in dealing with the issues I raised in my letter, not least the breaches of your party’s pre-election promises made to Fathers 4 Justice.

To begin with, you assume I would agree with the statement, ‘fathers should continue to have a meaningful relationship with, and responsibility for, their child where this is safe’, but I cannot.

Your statement implies that all fathers are an inherent risk to their children. I regard this demonisation of fathers (and in turn, boys) as stoking a climate of ‘father fear’ – an insidious gender apartheid where fathers are increasingly segregated from their children using the same prejudices you have espoused.

As the case of Baby P demonstrated, children are at risk from mothers and boyfriends also. Yet in that tragic case it was the father who had been denied access to his son by social workers applying this sort of bigotry. Courts do exactly the same. The presumption that the father is a risk to their children after separation is just one of the many prejudices fathers are forced to overcome when struggling to see their children.

I want to protect our children from all harm, whether that risk is posed by mothers or fathers or new partners.

I welcome your acknowledgement that ‘some’ fathers are prevented from seeing and raising their children and that this is wrong. I also agree that the minority of fathers who walk away from their responsibilities should be condemned as I would have hope you would also condemn those mothers who deny their children a right to see their fathers.

That is why in 2004, Fathers 4 Justice produced our first Blueprint for Family Law in the 21st Century proposing a Bill of Rights for the Family, where rights and responsibilities are intertwined. As the early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft said, ‘there can be no responsibilities without rights’, and I echo that sentiment.

And that is why the overhauling of the child maintenance system you refer to, is doomed to failure. Any system that discriminates against one parent on the basis of gender cannot work. It sends a message to fathers that you can abandon your children tomorrow, provided you pay. It reduces the role of fathers to that of cashpoints. Until child support means financial and emotional support and rights and responsibilities are intertwined, the system will never work.

I am encouraged that the government recognises that contact isn’t working, though as you know, this has been long accepted and much debated over the last decade without any progression or enforcement of court orders whatsoever. For years the words ‘wait’ has always meant ‘never’ and as we know, justice delayed, is justice denied.

You can hardly blame parents with broken court orders to see their children, protesting in desperation when these orders are not enforced by the courts.

I am sure you will also agree with me when I say that restoration of public confidence in the family justice system is essential. But I believe this can only be achieved with an independent public enquiry by families, for families, under the supervision of an independent public figure such as Sir Bob Geldof.

Relationship breakdown is not a criminal matter and secret courts presided over by an unelected, unaccountable and untouchable judiciary have no place in relation to family matters, let alone in the modern, progressive democracy I believe in.

However, it is your aversion to grasping the thorn of the issue – the contaminated moral environment of these courts – that causes me the greatest concern. It is a fact that you cannot have greater public confidence without greater openness.

The continuing cover up in the family courts has been allowed to prevail under an omnipresent cloak of secrecy and a chilling ‘Omerta’ or code of silence used by the Family Division. These include legal gagging orders issued under Section 97 of the Children Act which are routinely used to bully parents, suffocate dissent and stifle public debate.

These are the same secret courts that claim to be acting in the ‘child’s bests interests’ despite never having kept a single record on the outcomes for any of the children who have passed through its doors. The ‘child’s best interests’ principle the courts and the government hide behind is a wicked deceit; there is not a shred of evidence to support this claim.

Mr Cameron, there can be no room for obsequiousness about this matter because at some point the failings of our secret family courts will become public, a national scandal will ensue and those responsible held to account for their actions.

And when that scandal unfolds, it will include case after case of child abuse submitted as evidence to your government and then ignored; the systemic use of violence on children visited on them by court tipstaff, the abuse of children by child welfare professionals, the devastating court cases that have bankrupted families and destroyed entire childhoods and the systemic removal of children from loving parents and grandparents for no good reason.

One of the reasons Fathers 4 Justice exists is because of the failure of the authorities to protect children and their parents from serious risk of emotional and economic harm in these courts.

Not only is this a national disgrace, but it is also the single most important social justice issue facing our country today. Further, your government is about to heap further distress and misery on families caught in the destructive tractor beam of the family courts.

The proposed cuts in legal aid will result in a massive uplift in the number of false allegations against fathers, used by mothers to secure legal aid funding and further embed discrimination against fathers and in turn increase the number of children separated from their fathers and paternal grandparents.

Litigants in person (mostly fathers) already face overcoming ever-increasing hurdles imposed on them by the judiciary, with the discretionary screening of McKenzie Friends being just one example of how LIP’s are being disadvantaged.

I truly wish I could find your letter reassuring for my children’s sake, but working at the coal face of reality under these implacably hostile conditions, I can find no reassurance whatsoever.

As it stands I live under a government which rejects my role as a father. In less than ten years my children may also experience the horror of losing their children and being plunged into the abyss of despair as they are reduced to the status of second-class parents and cashpoints.

No child of mine – or yours – deserves to be discriminated against when they grow up on the basis of their gender. All our children deserve to be treated equally, fairly and with respect when they become parents, as our parents were.

I simply cannot believe that your father would have accepted that it was either ethically or morally acceptable that he had no rights in law to see his own son or his grandchildren. He was fortunate to have lived in an age where fathers were respected as pillars of the community. But few families today are sheltered from the spectre of family breakdown.

An estimated one in three children will find themselves at the mercy of our secret courts in the coming years and that cannot be right.

Today, I ask for the right to be a father and for that right to be established for my three boys and for all parents and grandparents to have the right to see their children and grandchildren, established in law, which the state currently denies them.

As father and politician, you understand the problems and the issues. You understand the devastating consequences and costs of a fatherless Britain. We have negotiated in good faith. All I ask is that you honour your commitments. If we find ourselves victims of a broken promise then we are duty bound as parents to act.

I am pleased that we both agree that we want children to have the opportunity to grow up confident that both their parents want them to be happy, secure – and to provide them with opportunities to make the best of their future.

If as you say, families are the cornerstone of our society, the rocks on which our lives are built, then they deserve leaders who have the courage to defend families from the tyranny and brutality of secret courts, to treat both parents as equals in the eyes of the law and support a child’s right to retain the love and care of both their parents and grandparents.

If we are to leave a meaningful legacy as fathers, we cannot evade our responsibility to the children of today, or the parents of tomorrow, any longer.

Yours sincerely,

Matt O’Connor

Father and Founder of Fathers 4 Justice

Pic: Hunger4Justice Protest outside David Cameron’s Oxfordshire Home, 10th July, 2011