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but in this case the legislation is woefully out of date and in need of reform.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that are out of date and unhelpful.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
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
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
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.