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Fatherhood is a privilege, not a right

(Alamy)

4 min read

Despite being firmly in a pre-election period, there’s still time for MPs to be making change.

One of the major pieces of legislation going through Parliament which gives back benchers opportunities is the wide-ranging Criminal Justice Bill. With that in mind, I put forward a new clause to change the law to protect children of fathers convicted of child sex offences – and I’m very pleased that the government has accepted it.

It will be highly significant, changing the law to give primacy to the protection of the child, rather than the parental rights of the sex-offending father. It means we will be laying down that fatherhood is a privilege not a right, and you will forfeit it if you are a danger to children.

The patriarchal hangover whereby a father’s rights over his child were sacrosanct will at long last give way to the primacy of protecting the child

It’s long been recognised that children need protecting from sex offenders. In the 1990s we introduced the Sex Offenders Register and banned them from working with children. But the glaring anomaly is that, while those measures protect other people’s children from a sex-offending father, there’s no protection for his own children. For decades, the threat to his own children has been unaddressed and the only protection for the child is if the mother has been able to take a case to the family courts to take away his rights as a father. 

A spotlight was put on this by a case in the family court in Cardiff. When her daughter’s father was sent to prison for child sexual abuse, “Bethan” [not her real name] was horrified to discover that – despite being in prison – he still had rights over their child. When he was sentenced, he was given an order banning him from any future contact with children, but that ban could not extend to his own offspring. Bethan spent £30,000 going through the family court fighting to protect her child from him.  

This anomaly was based on the traditional reverence for the father’s rights as head of the family – and it remained out of sight, behind the closed doors of the family courts where, to protect privacy, there used to be a total exclusion of reporters or the public. But you can’t put public policy right unless you can see it going wrong. 

I heard Bethan’s story on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme and saw the need for change. 
I tabled a new clause so that when a man is put on the Sex Offenders Register, his own children are protected too.

Maria Miller and Caroline Nokes immediately supported my proposal. Justice Secretary Alex Chalk and justice minister Laura Farris quickly agreed that the law will change so that when a man commits the most serious of sex offences – rape or penetration of a child under 13 – he will be automatically deprived of his parental rights. The father will be able to get those rights back only if he goes to the family court and is able to persuade them that it is in the child’s best interests for his parental rights to be restored. In the case of a child rapist, that is highly unlikely.

The patriarchal hangover whereby a father’s rights over his child were sacrosanct will, at long last, give way to the primacy of protecting the child.

It will start at the most extreme end of abuse. And, on the basis of that experience can, in due course, be extended to other offences which warrant the offender going on the Sex Offenders Register.

The Criminal Justice Bill is expected to return for report stage in the coming weeks. Even if the general election is called, this will surely be in the ‘wash up’ period and agreed by all sides as necessary to protect children. 

 

Harriet Harman, Labour MP for Camberwell and Peckham and Mother of the House 

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