Government to introduce ’emotional cruelty’ legislation

Adults who commit acts of emotional cruelty against children in their care will face the same threat of jail as those guilty of physical neglect, under new laws being considered by ministers.

The Government will introduce the change to child neglect laws in the Queen’s Speech in June, the Daily Telegraph said.

The move follows a campaign to change the law in England and Wales, led by charity Action for Children and MPs from all three main parties in Westminster.

Action for Children’s chief executive Sir Tony Hawkhead said: “This is a monumental step forward for thousands of children who we know suffer from emotional abuse and countless others whose desperate situations have yet to come to light.

“I’ve met children who have been scapegoated in their families, constantly humiliated and made to feel unloved. The impact is devastating and can lead to life-long mental health problems and, in some cases, suicide.

“We are one of the last countries in the western world to recognise all forms of child abuse as a crime. Years of campaigning have been rewarded, the Government has listened and this law will change lives.”

Among the MPs who have attempted to change the law were Labour’s Paul Goggins, who died earlier this year.

Former president of the family division of the High Court Baroness Butler-Sloss and Tory MP and part-time judge Robert Buckland have also been involved in the parliamentary campaign, along with Liberal Democrat Mark Williams, who introduced a backbench bill to change the law.

Neglect is the most common reason for a child protection referral across the UK and emotional abuse is more common in these cases than physical abuse, according to the Department for Education.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph Mr Buckland highlighted how overdue a change to the law was, with the Children and Young Persons Act dating back to 1933 and elements still based on the 1868 Poor Law (Amendment) Act.

Mr Buckland said: “Not too many years after the Brothers Grimm popularised the story of Cinderella, the offence of child neglect was introduced.

“Our criminal law has never reflected the full range of emotional suffering experienced by children who are abused by their parents or carers. The sad truth is that, until now, the Wicked Stepmother would have got away scot-free.”

The South Swindon MP added: “We need a clear, concise and workable definition of child maltreatment – an alternative code that reflects the range of harm of done to children and which provides appropriate legal mechanisms to tackle some of the worst cases.

“Emotional neglect must be outlawed, the term ‘wilful’ should be replaced and the criminal law should be brought into line with its civil counterpart.”

The new offence would make it a crime to do anything that deliberately harmed a child’s “physical intellectual, emotional, social or behavioural development”.

Parents found guilty under the law change could face up to 10 years in prison, the maximum term in child neglect cases.

The newspaper said other new offences could include forcing a child to witness domestic violence, making a child a scapegoat or forcing degrading punishments upon them.

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: “The Government believes protecting children from harm is fundamental and that child cruelty is an abhorrent crime which should be punished.

“Every child should be able to grow up in a safe environment – we are considering ways the law can support this.”