Rhea Stevens says we should update legislation that ignores the emotional harm that can be done to children
On Friday MPs will have their first opportunity in 80 years to debate the law on child neglect in Parliament. A campaign to update the criminal law on child neglect is being spearheaded by Ceredigion Liberal Democrat MP Mark Williams who has proposed a Private Members Bill, co-sponsored by MPs from across the parties, including Wales’ Jessica Morden (Lab Newport East), Roger Williams (Lib Dem Brecon and Radnor), Geraint Davies (Lab Swansea East), and Jonathan Edwards (Plaid Carmarthen East). The proposed Child Maltreatment Bill would replace the now arcane criminal definition and to bring it into line with the definition of neglect in civil law.
It’s a dangerous anomaly that the UK has different civil and criminal definitions of child neglect. Welsh Government guidance, last updated in 2004, emphasises the serious impairment neglect can have on children’s physical and psychological needs and development. It acknowledges that children who are emotionally neglected are more likely to develop mental health problems, and have poor social and relationship skills. Moreover, they are vastly over-represented in the criminal justice system.
However, at Westminster the criminal law on child neglect has not been updated since the Children and Young Persons Act in 1933, derived from the Poor Law Amendment Act 1868. The latter was the first statutory response to child neglect and was passed in response to specific concerns about the Peculiar People sect. They denied medical care to their children because they believed that God’s will alone should decide a person’s fate and people should not intervene. The old and awkward wording crafted to respond to these specific concerns were carried into the Children and Young Persons Act 1933. Crucially, the criminal law only allows for consideration of the physical impact of neglect on a child.
In practice this can mean that in a small but important number of cases the most vulnerable children do not get the support they require. This is simply because front line professionals, including police and social workers, are working to different definitions of neglect. Our first priority should always be to help parents to care for and develop better relationships with their children. Sadly, however, there are some neglected children for whom neglect is so severe, and where adults intend to cause harm, that they require protection through the criminal law.
Changing the law is not about criminalising vulnerable parents. Safeguards would be built into any new legal framework to specifically protect against this. However, a change to the law would provide a practical legal framework for frontline professionals to work together to adequately tackle the most serious child neglect.
This Friday brings a long-overdue opportunity. All MPs should demonstrate their commitment to provide the most neglected children with protection in law by supporting Mark Williams’ Bill.