Parents who deliberately starve their children of love and affection could be guilty of a criminal offence under new plans to be put before MPs.
The Baby P case involved both emotional and physical abuse, says Mark Williams Photo: PA
A proposed change to the child neglect laws would make “emotional abuse” of a child a crime for the first time, alongside physical or sexual harm.
Mark Williams, the Liberal Democrat MP, is leading the calls for Britain’s “Dickensian” child neglect laws to be updated, ending an anomaly which means that it is crime to inflict psychological abuse on adults but not children.
Although social workers, who operate under a different legal framework, can already step in to begin care proceedings if a child is being emotionally mistreated, the police cannot.
This is because in criminal law only physical deprivation, such as denying children food or clothes, counts as neglect.
Mr William is bringing forward a bill in the Commons, with the backing of the charity Action for Children, to amend the Children and Young Persons Act to bring the two definitions into line.
“It cannot be right that today, our criminal definition of child neglect remains rooted in the Dickensian age, in the laws passed during the reign of Queen Victoria,” he said.
“An old law doesn’t necessarily mean a bad one if it remains effective, but in this case the legislation is woefully out of date and in need of reform.”
It would mean that for the first time parents could be guilty of a crime by subjecting children to sustained humiliation, refusing to speak to them, isolating them or constantly making them a scapegoat.
But Mr Williams, a former teacher, insisted that the intention was not to criminalise discipline or target parents who are incapable, for their own reasons, of expressing love.
He cited the example of a young boy whose stepfamily treated him in a similar way to that inflicted on Cinderella in the fairy story.
“In one case, an individual child was openly told by his stepfather that he was hated; he was forced to go to bed before his siblings at 6.30pm, and regularly wet his bed because his room was not lit, to the extent that maggots were found in the mattress.
“He was given different food to the rest of the family, he had to get his own breakfast before everyone else.
“He was not invited to his mother and stepfather’s wedding, even though his siblings were.”
Mr Williams’s move follows a report by Baroness Butler-Sloss, the former president of the High Court Family Division, which also highlighted anomalies in the way the law of neglect is currently applied.
A study by Action for Children found wide variations between different areas in the prosecution rate for neglect because of a lack of clarity.
In some cases it can come down simply to the “personality” and opinion of the individual police officer to decide whether or not to intervene, it found.
“As one officer put it, neglect can only be acted upon when it has led to physical harm ‘like an accident or a child burning itself’,” said Mr Williams.
“As another officer put it, ‘People are frightened to use that label because of a lack of understanding of what it is’.”
He added: “Severe emotional harm is one of the most serious forms of abuse in its own right, but we have also seen cases that lead to physical abuse and in the most extreme cases, lead to the death of a child.
“The cases of Victoria Climbie, Peter Connelly and many others show that prior to physical abuse children often experience prolonged serious neglect.
“The alternative offence aims to enable action to be taken by those agencies responsible for safeguarding children at an earlier stage.”
SOURCE: The Telegraph