Fox (n): carnivore of genus vulpes; crafty person; scavenger; (vb) to confuse; -ed (adj): to be drunk.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Right (adj.): Good, proper or just.

THERE is a belief that if you give people new rights they become somehow better people.

So if everyone has the 'right' to a mortgage they will always make the payments; the 'right' to drive a car means they will be good drivers; and the 'right' to own a pet means they are trained and treated well.

Except we all know that some people take out a mortgage when they can't afford it, and when too many people do that there's a crunch in the world economy, people pass their driving test and forget all they were taught, and there are animals whose owners are something less than animal themselves.

So giving fathers the right to see mothers jailed if they block access to their children after a split might just cause more problems than it could possibly solve. There are bad parents of course, but they're not taught to be better by taking away their driving licence, setting them a curfew or jailing them for up to six weeks.

What happens in a case of someone who married and divorced someone who later refuses to pay their share? Some parents might withhold access until their ex-partner meets their commitments, but according to the courts - and the new proposals - this would be bad parenting.

Anyone who did so could be fined, have their driving licence seized and face jail.

There are parents of both genders who have tales of  exes who have denied access unreasonably and are rubbish mums. I have fathers of my acquaintance frustrated that joint custody isn't the starting point for a family court, that their exes can move hours away and their precious time with children is eaten into by long car journeys, that former wives trash them in earshot of the offspring.

The problem is not one of gender, because bad parents come in every shape and size, but it is simply to do with an inability to accept that rights are about more than being recognised as the owner of something.

Of course there should be shared parenting. Of course mums and dads should get fair access. But the reason 20 per cent of children lose touch with an absent parent within three years is often because that parent has chosen to absent themselves.

The CSA was set up in 1993 and has consistently failed to be any good. There are as many stories of draconian insistence on high payments as there are of parents who fail to pay at all. It's utterly toothless, takes years to do nothing much, and has £3.8billion of maintenance arrears which it's not bothering to collect. Five per cent of it is from wealthy mothers who won't pay - 95 per cent is from dads.

The agency has recently got some new powers to seize money from bank accounts and has set up a task force which has grabbed £12m, but it's a drop in the ocean and making people pay doesn't make them better parents.

The truth is that it's not the state's job to tell other people how to raise their children, and seeing as we're not about to force sterilisation or 'child licences' upon anyone there are always going to be imperfect parents some of whom will try their best and others who'll do their worst.

If the Government really wants to help the best it can do is make mediation an unavoidable part of any divorce or custody dispute, to force people to get around the table and hammer out a deal.

When I divorced, even without children, there were things to argue about and my husband refused point-blank to do it through mediation because he thought he'd 'lose'. Instead we did it through lawyers, which cost us thousands and took forever, and he ended up losing even more.

I have female friends dealing with feckless exes and male friends who agreed everything their ex-wives asked for, and ended up with unfair division of assets. All of us, had we no option but to sit down with an independent mediator, would have got a better deal.

But then mediation is not as headline-grabbing as "lock up your ex-wife", which is what the Government prefers, so while it's making £10m available for mediation services it's not making it mandatory. As a result nothing much is going to improve.

And from an early age our children should be taught that the culture of 'rights' is flawed, that half the ones we talk about now are nothing to do with making things more even and everything to do with making our lives more frustrating and futile.

Rights are things you fight for - the right to sit on the same bus as white folk, to vote, to work, to be heard. When you get what you want, all of humanity is slightly improved.

Responsibilities are things you have a duty to do. To care for another, to pick up your litter, vote and work even when you don't feel inspired about it. You do them because you ought to, not because you really want to. But still when they are fulfilled the world is a better place because of it.

Rights are quite often wrong unless you also take responsibility for holding onto them.

"Responsibility? I took it once, left it in a pub."