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Victorian child neglect laws in 'urgent' need of overhaul, warns Baroness Butler-Sloss
The current laws on child neglect are not fit for the 21st Century and in “urgent” need of reform, Britain's most senior authority on family law warns today.
By John Bingham
Baroness Butler-Sloss, the former President of the Family Division of the High Court, is leading a drive to overhaul the current laws, which date back to Victorian times, completely replacing the notion of neglect with a new crime of “child maltreatment”.
For the first time, inflicting emotional and psychological harm on children would be treated as seriously as causing physical injuries or abandoning them.
It follows a string of cases in which the authorities have failed to step in early enough despite warning signs of neglect and abuse, including the Baby P case and the Edlington torture scandal.
Baroness Butler-Sloss, now a cross-bench peer, has helped draft an amendment to the Government’s Crime and Courts Bill, which is currently being considered by a committee of MPs, to overhaul the neglect laws, with the support of the charity Acton for Children.
The current law on “wilful neglect” is governed by the Children and Young Persons Act 1933.
But it was first laid down in legislation as early as 1868, when the poor law was amended to take account of a cult called the “Peculiar People” who believed that it was interfering with God’s will to give sick children medical assistance.
To secure a neglect conviction the prosecution currently must prove that an adult responsible for a child deliberately assaulted, abandoned or exposed them to suffering or injury to their health.
The new offence would make clear that it is also a crime to do anything which deliberately harmed a child’s “physical intellectual, emotional, social or behavioural development”.
“The current law explicitly fails to recognise the full range of harm done to neglected children, and creates problems of practice and interpretation for legal professionals,” said the Baroness.
“This cannot be our best effort as law makers at protecting neglected children, and so I am determined to see through a reform of the law in this area.
“I invite my fellow parliamentarians to support this as a matter of great importance and urgency.”
The amendment, which will be considered by MPs today, was published as Action for Children released new research showing that nine out of 10 teachers, police officers and social workers regularly come into contact with children they suspect are suffering from neglect – yet as many as 40 per cent feel powerless to intervene.
The report found that 14 per cent of professionals have reported a rise in suspected child neglect over the past year.
Dame Clare Tickell, chief executive of Action for Children, said: “For the most serious cases we need a law that is fit for purpose and that will give vulnerable children have all the protection they need.
“The solutions to child neglect in the UK are manifold, but this is one straightforward and crucial step in the journey.”
Meanwhile a report by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Probation concluded that schools and social services are routinely ignoring warning signs involving sexual behaviour of children who later go on to abuse other youngsters.
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