Page last updated at 16:27 GMT, Wednesday, 16 July 2008 17:27 UK

Entering the 'babyfather' debate

By Alexis Akwagyiram
BBC News

David Cameron
Mr Cameron says he wants a 'responsibility revolution'

David Cameron has urged absent black fathers not to neglect their responsibilities, in an interview addressing the issues of family and social breakdown.

But are his comments a fair reflection of the situation in the UK's Afro-Caribbean community?

It was a bold move. After all, race is a delicate subject and most people do not want to be told how to bring up their children.

But, in an interview with a national newspaper, Conservative leader David Cameron tackled the issue of racial trends in family breakdown.

He told the Guardian that he backed an assertion by US presidential candidate Barack Obama that too many black fathers were neglecting their duties to their children.

Mr Cameron called for a "responsibility revolution" to change patterns of behaviour, adding that Mr Obama was "absolutely right" when he warned that some African American men were behaving like teenagers and abandoning their parental responsibilities.

"I've had a number of meetings with black church leaders who make the same point. They are concerned about family breakdown and social breakdown, and want to see what I call a responsibility revolution take place," said Mr Cameron.

Taking responsibility

He stressed the importance of tackling the discrimination and economic disadvantage experienced by black people.

However, he added that "at the same time we will never solve the long-term problems unless people also take responsibility for their own lives".

Recent research on family structures may explain why Mr Cameron felt the need to address the issue.

Two years ago the Parliamentary Home Affairs Committee was told that 57% of black Caribbean children grew up in lone-parent households, compared with 25% of white children.

And it appears to be a problem that has existed for, at least, this decade.

In 2001, research commissioned by the committee revealed that 59% of black Caribbean parents lived in lone-parent households, compared with 44% of black African and 22% of white children.

The term "babyfather" seems to suggest that the problem of absent fathers is one that members of Afro-Caribbean communities are familiar with.

Babyfather cast members
BBC drama Babyfather followed the exploits of a group of black men

The word is Caribbean slang for a man who does not live with his children - who often have different mothers.

The issue has previously been identified by political figures as a source of society's ills.

Last year, Justice Secretary Jack Straw said the "continuing problem" of gang violence was due to the absence of fathers in black communities.

Similarly, in 2004, Trevor Phillips, the then chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, implied some absent fathers were partially to blame for the under-achievement of black boys at school.

But not everyone agrees with this assessment.

'Historical factors'

Lester Holloway is the editor of the New Nation, a newspaper aimed at the UK's Afro-Caribbean community.

He said the Tory leader and Mr Obama were "both wrong to lecture black people about 'taking responsibility'".

"Every race and nationality has its losers - parents who set a bad example and children who go off the rails. We have to question why one 'community' should be held accountable for everyone who shares a similar skin colour," said the newspaper editor.

"Cameron fails to credit the many caring people who devote their evenings, weekends and often their lives to helping black youths, not to mention the huge passion many black parents feel towards bringing their children up to be the best they can be."

He also said Mr Cameron had failed to properly address "historical factors".

"The youths carrying knives are the children of the 70s' and 80s' generations who were expelled from school and faced greater barriers in the jobs market than exist today," he said, adding that the generation before had faced "explicit racism" that left "emotional scars" and "ghettoised" black communities.

But others within the ethnic minority press disagree with his view.

Keysha Davis, features editor at Pride magazine, which is aimed at Afro-Caribbean women, identified the "negative impact" of the family unit breakdown as probably "the biggest threat" to "socio-economic advancement" of Afro-Caribbeans and the primary reason why many young, black men become disenfranchised from society".

We believe that a positive rather than accusatory approach to this issue is more effective
Neil Solo

"We're happy that David Cameron has brought this subject to the forefront. There could be potential backlash from some members of the community who may take offence to what is being said, or feel that he is unqualified to comment on the subject," said Ms Davis.

"Although government has a significant role to play, we at Pride believe that it's only through tackling and working through our issues head on, and by re-evaluating our view of society, community and ultimately family, that we'll ever find resolve."

But what, if anything, is being done to address the problem?

Ms Davis said that, while she welcomes the debate, successive governments had failed ethnic minority communities by failing to provide youth facilities in deprived areas.

Over the last three years, children's charity Barnardo's has used its Babyfather Initiative to address some of the issues surrounding the breakdown of family units within Afro-Caribbean communities.

Neil Solo is the manager of the initiative which, he said, "equips black minority ethnic (BME) fathers with both the practical and emotional skills they need to play a stable and central role in their children's lives" through support groups to provide advice and discussion.

Warning against a culture of blame emerging around the issue of family divisions, he said: "We welcome debate around the role of young BME fathers, who in our experience can be hard to reach as they can lack the confidence to take an active role in the upbringing of their children.

"However, we believe that a positive rather than accusatory approach to this issue is more effective."

Bar chart: Dependent children by family type and ethnic group, 2001

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