Police officer in landmark challenge for single fathers

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The Independent Online

A divorced police officer begins a sex discrimination challenge against his force today, accusing senior officers of adopting practices that favour single working mothers over single fathers.

A divorced police officer begins a sex discrimination challenge against his force today, accusing senior officers of adopting practices that favour single working mothers over single fathers.

PC Robert Steel, 44, from Didcot, Oxfordshire, claims that by transferring him to a police station away from his home Thames Valley Police has made it almost impossible for him to look after his children.

The case, which is to be heard by the Employment Appeals Tribunal in London, could help thousands of single working fathers win the same rights as mothers.

PC Steel, a former dog handler, has been the primary carer of his children since he separated from his wife in 1998. In July 2001 he was told that he would have to leave the dog section unit, located near his home, and be designated as an ordinary beat officer.

He asked to continue to work near his home but was told that he was being transferred to Oxford city centre, about 10 miles away. PC Steel, who has been a police officer for 22 years, protested against the transfer, saying that he would not be able to properly care for his children.

In a statement submitted to the employment tribunal he said: "I informed [Thames Valley police welfare department] of my situation as a single parent and that the enforced changes would disrupt my existing day-care arrangements for my young children. I explained that those changes would place me in an impossible position, even if I could locate other child-care arrangements." He added: "I said that it was paramount importance to me that I retain my childminder, as she was the only other constant and stable care in my children's lives since their parents' divorce."

He claims he was told that police "policy" prevented him from being given a more family-friendly posting. "I was annoyed and upset that senior officers could show such disregard for people's circumstances ... I do not believe a female officer in my circumstances would have been treated in this way," he said.

The situation was aggravated when PC Steel was informed of his new shift patterns. "I found to my horror that these shifts were even worse in relation to child care ... that meant I would have to pay the childminder even more to look after my children." PC Steel estimates that his child-care costs have doubled.

He told his superiors that his children were very important to him and that the new arrangements would make it impossible for him to continue to take his children - Alec, 12, and Islay, 10 - to football, karate and swimming. When he later tried to swap postings with another officer he claims his request was blocked.

In September 2001 PC Steel's doctor advised him to take sick leave after he complained of suffering from stress and increased asthma attacks.

PC Steel, who lost his initial sex discrimination application last year, is now being represented by the solicitors Russell Jones and Walker and the barrister John Horan.