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14 OCT 2013

Campaign for reform of child neglect law gathers momentum

A campaign to reform the law on child neglect is strengthening in the run up to the second reading of the Child Maltreatment Private Members' Bill on 22 November 2013.

The charity Action for Children has been gathering support from MPs in the form of a joint letter to the Minister of State Damian Green, requesting that the second stage of the reading be used to fully explore the issues raised by the campaign. Over 30 MPs have signed the letter so far. It also has the support of Baroness Butler-Sloss, who has been a leading voice in the campaign for reform in this area.

Action for Children argues that the current criminal law is not fit for purpose because it does not cover emotional neglect and harm, its terminology is outdated and confusing, and because the different civil and criminal definitions of neglect hinder successful multi-agency working.

The offence of neglect, as it exists, only extends to intentional neglect and dates back to the 1880s. In 1981 the House of Lords restricted the offence to a child's ‘physical needs rather than its spiritual, educational, moral or emotional needs.'

The position in law is therefore far removed from the current understanding of the long term effect of neglect on children and indeed with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which confers on children the right to a ‘full and harmonious development of [their] personality' and to ‘grow up in a family environment, in an atmosphere of happiness, love and understanding.'

Earlier this year, in her Foreword to The criminal law and child neglect:an independent analysis and proposal for reform (Action for Children, 2013) Baroness Butler-Sloss said:

'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. 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.'

More information about the campaign and details of the joint letter to the Minister of State are available on the Action for Children website.

This issue was discussed in detail in an article by Christine Piper in the Family Law journal earlier this year: see 'Neglect neglected in the Crime and Courts Act' [2013] Fam Law 722.

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