Today in Parliament there may be a chance to change arcane legislation on child neglect, writes Graham Banbrough of Action for Children.
In the UK it is a quirk of our democracy that arcane legislation often remains on the statute book long after it has slipped from relevance. Whilst some of this may be trivial, such as the ruling that it’s treasonous to misuse a stamp bearing the image of the monarch or that it’s illegal to die in the Houses of Parliament, other cases are far more serious. An example of this is the law that covers child neglect.
In 1868 legislation was passed criminalising neglect after members of a cult known as the Peculiar People denied medical care to their children. They believed that God’s will alone should decide one’s fate and therefore man should not intervene. Much of the legislation passed then remains in use today, forming the bulk of the 1933 Children and Young Person’s Act which currently outlaws child neglect.
Today in parliament there may be a chance to change this, as the Public Bill Committee of the Crime and Courts Bill is set to debate an amendment which would finally replace this out dated legislation.
Why does this matter?
Just because a law is old does not mean that it is automatically bad, but the current legal framework that governs child neglect is worryingly out-dated. The legislation contains definitions which are old and awkward, stating for example that neglect must be ‘wilful’ to be considered an offence (which is difficult to interpret as it is unclear whether this applies solely to someone’s actions or their failure to act) and that a person must be found to inflict ‘unnecessary suffering’ on a child before their actions become illegal.
Crucially however the law focuses only on the physical effects of abuse, namely that it is an offence to ill treat a child leading to “loss of sight, or hearing, or limb, or organ of the body”. Emotional neglect, something unheard of in 1868 but which we now understand can be as destructive to a child’s well being as physical abuse, is excluded from the law.
The impact of this is that the UK has different civil and criminal definitions of child neglect (the civil law is more reflective of the modern day having been passed in 1989), presenting difficulties to front line professionals when the police are using one definition and social care professionals another.
To address this, Action for Children, along with legal and child care experts, have drafted an alternative to the existing criminal law. This replaces the obstructive terms such as ‘wilful’, outlaws emotional abuse and creates a much more workable definition of neglect. It would also criminalise those that commit domestic violence in front of a child, which we know can be deeply damaging to the children involved.
Changing the law is not about criminalising vulnerable parents, indeed, safeguards would be built into any new legal framework to specifically protect against this. But a change to the law would provide an appropriate framework for frontline professionals to adequately tackle neglect. Recently issued guidance from the Government makes it an offence to emotionally abuse a partner aged over sixteen. It is now time to provide the same safeguards for children.
The MPs who discuss this amendment today have a chance to redefine how we protect some of the most vulnerable people in our country. This is an opportunity that is long overdue.