Professor Huw Williams is calling for new laws to protect children

Exeter academic calls for change to 80-year-old child neglect law

The current law on child neglect is unfit for the 21st century, according to a new report by independent experts including Professor Huw Williams, of the University of Exeter.

The report calls for the current law to be overturned and proposes alternative legislation that would more effectively protect children in the most serious cases of neglect. The proposed new law will be voted on in parliament this week. 

The report, from a panel of experts, chaired by Laura Hoyano, Hackney Fellow & Tutor in Law at the University of Oxford, makes clear that the current law on child neglect is beset with problems.

Laura Hoyano said:“The Children and Young Persons Act 1933 will be 80 years old in April 2013, with sections of the Act dating back to 1868. The time has come for us to treat child neglect with the same seriousness we afford physical and sexual abuse, and to replace the antiquated, confusing and ultimately inadequate criminal law against the neglect of children.”

The current law only covers physical harm, following a House of Lords decision in 1981 which ruled out emotional and psychological harm from the offence. This is at odds with modern understanding of neglect, including the Government’s own definition of neglect which social workers and family courts are required to use.

In addition, the 1933 act uses antiquated terms that are confusing and limiting for agencies who deal with child protection cases – terms such as ‘unnecessary suffering’ and ‘mental derangement’ which reflect the attitudes of a bygone era.

Professor Huw Williams, of  the University of Exeter, is an Associate Professor of Clinical Neuropsychology and Co-Director of the Centre for Clinical Neuropsychology Research (CCNR). He commented: “There is a substantial body of evidence on how neglect can lead to serious damage to the welfare of children. Ultimately, and very sadly, this can sometimes result in the loss of life. Neglect can lead to emotional, social and psychological problems in affected children. There is even evidence of brains not developing as they should. Such children may end u on the margins of society. They could be at more risk of being excluded from school, and end up in the justice system. We want to empower front line workers – such as Police and Social Workers - to be able to take action to prevent such clear, ongoing cases, of serious neglect. Of course some parents may be vulnerable themselves, and so we need to make sure their needs are identified, and the right support is provided to engage them in their role as parents. This bill will allow a faster, clearer, route for justice for these children.”

The independent group of experts, which was convened by Action for Children, have today published a report The Criminal Law and Child Neglect which calls for an update to the current law, and proposes an alternative law. The alternative offence, as set out in the report, currently before parliament and comes as the Government considers its response to a parliamentary inquiry into neglect.[i]

The alternative law is written to:

  • Cover the full range of harm done to neglected children, specifically including non-physical harm – extending to all children the protections the government recently afforded to 16 and 17-year-old victims of domestic abuse.
  • Replace the misunderstood and antiquated terms with clear definitions that are already used within the civil law (Children Act 1989), facilitating shared practices across agencies.
  • Provide a clear answer as to when it is appropriate to criminalise neglect, and when instead we should seek to support and guide parents.

 The proposed amendment is being considered as part of the Crime and Courts Bill, and is due to be discussed in committee on 7 February.  Supporters are being invited to contact their MP to support this amendment – full details of the campaign are available here

[i] The Government is currently considering its response to the Education Select Committee report: ‘Children First: The child protection system in England. On neglect, the Committee found evidence that children are left too long in harmful situations it recommended that the Government investigate thoroughly whether the narrow scope of the definition contained in the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 is causing problems in bringing criminal cases of neglect.

Date: 7 February 2013

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