Harriet Harman

Parliament has been dissolved until after the General Election and I am no longer an MP

May Southwark News Press Column

Child sex offenders to lose parental rights over their own children

Despite being firmly in a pre-election period it’s still possible for MPs to be making changes.

One of the major pieces of legislation currently going through Parliament that presents opportunities for that is the Government’s wide-ranging Criminal Justice Bill. With that in mind I put forward a proposal to change the law to protect children of convicted child sex offenders by taking away their father’s parental rights – and I’m pleased to say the Government has accepted it.

It will be hugely significant and will lay down that fatherhood is a privilege not a right, and you will forfeit it if you are a danger to children.

It’s long been recognised that children need protecting from sex offenders. So 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 man, there has been no protection for his own children. It’s been left to the mother to go to court to try and protect her children.

A spotlight was put on this by BBC reporting of a recent family court case in Cardiff. When the father of “Bethan’s” daughter was sent to prison for child sexual abuse, Bethan 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 did not extend to his own. Bethan spent £30,000 going through the family court fighting to protect her child from him. 

BBC reporting in this was crucial. You can’t put public policy right unless you can see it going wrong. The limited, careful opening of the family courts and the diligent reporting by the BBC’s Sanchia Berg meant this awful anomaly was exposed.

I heard Bethan’s story on Radio 4’s Today Programme and seeing that there was an opportunity for change, I tabled the new clause and got the support of former Tory cabinet minister Maria Miller and Caroline Nokes, a Tory select committee chair.

The Lord Chancellor has now agreed it so that in future when a man commits the most serious of sex offences, rape of a child, he will be automatically deprived of his parental rights. He will be able to get them back only if he is able to persuade the Family Court 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 unlikely.

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

The new law will start at the most extreme end of abuse. And can, in due course, be extended to other offences. The Criminal Justice Bill is expected to pass into law in the coming weeks.

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published this page in Current News 2024-05-28 17:13:31 +0100

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