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Robert Buckland MP and David Burrowes MP: Why we need to change the law on child neglect

Robert Buckland is the Member of Parliament for South Swindon. He is also the Chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission. Follow Robert on Twitter

David Burrowes is Conservative MP for Enfield Southgate. Follow David on Twitter.

In 1868, a cult based in South East England shocked the country when it was revealed that members of the group had deliberately withheld medical treatment from gravely ill children in their care. Known as the Peculiar People, they believed that to administer medicine was to demonstrate a lack of faith in God.  In response, legislation was passed to criminalise the offence of child neglect.

During the inter-war years, the Children and Young Persons Act of 1933 tidied up some of the finer points of the legislation, but today our criminal definition of child neglect remains rooted in the laws passed during the reign of Queen Victoria.  An old law doesn’t necessarily mean a bad one, but in this case the legislation is woefully out of date and in need of reform.

In Parliament today, however, an amendment will be debated that could finally change all of this.  It will come before the Bill Committee of the Crime and Courts Bill, and as former legal professionals who are well accustomed to the problems inherent in the current system,  we hope that the amendment will be successful.

The current law on child neglect should be reformed for a number of reasons.

Firstly, it does not cover the full range of harm that neglect can represent.  The Children and Young Person’s Act focuses only on the physical effects of abuse, stating for example that it is an offence to ill treat a child resulting in the “loss of sight, or hearing, or limb, or organ of the body”.  Emotional neglect by contrast, which modern science now shows can be equally as destructive to a child’s well being as physical abuse, is excluded from the law.  Indeed, in the 1980s a ruling by the Law Lords stated that emotional neglect was explicitly not covered under the current law.  The emotional neglect of a child therefore is not a criminal offence in England and Wales.

Secondly, the legislation contains definitions that are out of date and unhelpful.  The law currently states that cruelty must be ‘wilful’ to be considered an offence, whilst a person must also be found to inflict ‘unnecessary suffering’ on a child.  The way in which the definitions of these archaic terms has evolved  has made the situation confusing and unhelpful for the Police and investigating authorities.

Finally, the differences between the civil and criminal law regarding child neglect also present difficulties in real life settings, where the police are often using one definition and social care professionals  are using another. We need to link the two codes together to better protect children.

Today’s amendment, which we are both proud to support, has been drafted by leading legal and child protection experts under the guidance of charity Action for Children. It seeks to create a clear, concise and workable definition of neglect; in short, it is an alternative code that reflects the range of harm of done to children who are neglected and provides appropriate legal mechanisms to tackle some of the worst cases.

Emotional neglect will be outlawed, the term “wilful” will be replaced and the criminal law brought into line with its civil counterpart. For the first time, the new legal code would criminalise perpetrators of domestic violence who cause significant harm to a child that witnesses their abuse.

Reform of the law is long overdue.  As many as 1.5million children are believed to suffer from neglect in the UK, and of all forms of maltreatment it is neglect that leads to some of the most profound negative and long-term effects on development.

As MPs it is not often we get to legislate to reduce and simplify the legal framework.  Just as the Children and Families Bill launched this week will speed up adoption and care proceedings, this long overdue change to the law of child neglect would clarify how we help protect the most vulnerable children in the UK. We hope that the Government will support this.


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