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Absent fathers;Leading Article;Opinion

SO THE children of prisoners at Winchester jail are to hear bedtime stories read by their incarcerated parents, thanks to a pioneering scheme involving tape recorders. Excellent idea - though the choice of story might prove an interesting dilemma. Will the pre-schoolers' classic Burglar Bill be on anyone's reading list? And will Mr Toad be off the menu for the offspring of angerous drivers?

But there is a certain irony about the scheme, which is financially supported by British Telecom, the company responsible for one of the cutest and most often-screened advertisements of the moment: the one featuring the besuited executive mum, skipping round an unidentified Italian square, using her mobile to tell a bedtime story to her pyjama-clad son at home in England. The moral?

Nice BT has come up with a new tariff which means poserphone calls round Europe cost a bit less than an arm and a leg.

Not much of a moral, really. Britain has a worryingly high number of children whose major contact with a parent is through a mobile or similar, or who might as well get their bedtime tales on tape, because our working hours - the longest in Europe - mean dad (or sometimes mum) is never there. And surely the last thing we should be doing is encouraging the idea that this is acceptable, curable with a few cheaper rate phone calls.

The prisoners - and their children - have no choice about spending more time together, and if the Winchester scheme helps them and encourages better parenting, then that's excellent. But what about the offspring of corporate prisoners? Surely as a society we should be thinking a little more about the kids for whom Daddy is more often a disembodied voice on the phone than a warm goodnight hug.

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