Divorced fathers will not have any automatic access to their children under new proposals by the Ministry of Justice. The move ignores David Cameron's desire to keep fathers engaged with their children, risks more Fathers for Justice-style protests, and leaves a confused message coming from the Government.
The Family Justice Review, published yesterday, is designed to make the justice system more efficient and there is much to commend in the report. For example, it calls for the time spent on child protection cases to be slashed from an average of more than 60 weeks to a six-month cap (with some wriggle-room for exceptional cases).
But these proposals for divorced fathers risk making fathers potential pariahs just as the importance of their role is finally becoming recognised, and at a time when many fathers in the UK are taking their role more seriously: one in seven dads is now the primary carer in the home.
Half a million children pass through the care system every year. The report's author, David Norgrove, an economist, realises some people will be "disappointed" by the report's conclusions and acknowledges the "acute distress experienced by parents who are unable to see their children after separation". But, he said, the conclusions reflect the welfare of the child and not the rights of parents.
Norgrave was private secretary to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, an executive board member at Marks and Spencer, and the first chairman of the Pensions Regulator.
He said: "Our conclusion was reached reluctantly but clearly. The law cannot state a presumption of any kind without incurring unacceptable risk of damage to children."
In other words, fathers in general represent an 'unacceptable' risk to their children. A preposterous suggestion.
While it is nonsensical to force a feckless or disruptive father on to a family that is better off without him, it is equally myopic to leave good fathers without any access to their children, ignoring their positive influence.
The news is particularly worrying as recent research from drug charity Addaction suggests that absent fathers make drug taking and criminality more likely in their children.
In the 18 months that Norgrave's report has taken to write and compile, the country has been hit by inner city rioting and mayhem, which some have blamed on absent fathers.
Prime Minister David Cameron said in June: "It is high time runaway dads were stigmatised, and the full force of shame was heaped upon them. They should be looked at like drink drivers, people who are beyond the pale."
These proposals will make runaway dads of those who don't want to be runaway dads. The overall message from the Government is at best confused, and while nobody wants protracted child protection cases, there must be better ways to decide what is best for children.