Once again we are being told that the law in England is failing to protect children suffering neglect and emotional abuse. We are told that the law needs updating.
We have heard this kind of stuff before – from the NSPCC’s Philip Noyes at the Education Select Committee who argued, I thought implausibly, that the law’s definition of neglect is a big problem.
Now we are hearing it from Dame Clare Tickell at Action forChildren. And the Labour Party have joined in with calls for more law, with Shadow Children’s Minister, Catherine McKinnell MP jumping on the bandwagon.
Oh dear! Oh dear!! Oh dear!!!
They are, of course, all talking about the criminal law, because nobody could believe that the civil law – The Children Act 1989 – is particularly weak in this area. To be precise they are talking about Section 1 (2) a of the Children and Young Person’s Act 1933 which makes it a criminal offence to fail “… to provide adequate food, clothing, medical aid or lodging for (a child)”.
Perhaps it’s because the 1933 act sounds a bit archaic, but I struggle to see why it needs changing. However, Dame Clare Tickell says:
“Neglect is the most common form of child abuse affecting children in the UK, yet we have an outdated law which does not reflect what we now understand children need and what neglect actually is.“The law leaves children unprotected and parents without support and unclear about their responsibilities until it’s too late. We must ensure that these vulnerable children are protected from the serious harm which neglect, in all its forms, causes to their health and wellbeing.“We know that intervening early to tackle emerging issues within families prevents neglect before it spirals out of control. Under the current law, parents are punished only after serious damage to children has been done. This is why the law is failing children and why it must urgently be updated.“In April next year the law on neglect will be 80 years old – Action for Children does not want to see that anniversary come and go without government commitment that it will be changed so that more children are protected.”
That all sounds well and good, until you think about it; then it begins to unravel. Firstly the same section of the same act of parliament also makes it a criminal offence to physically assault a child. But nobody seems to be saying that’s out of date. Then Dame Clare says that “(t)he law leaves children unprotected and parents without support and unclear about their responsibilities until it’s too late”. But it does no such thing. Local authorities have responsibilities under the Children Act 1989 to provide services to children in need and to act to protect children where there is a likelihood of significant harm. That they may not always do it very well has nothing to do with the 1933 Act – it has to do with poor policies and lack of resources.
She goes on to say that there is a need for early intervention, something nobody would deny. But how on earth will changing the criminal law make a difference, unless we are going to make it a criminal offence to not be a very good parent? But perhaps that's what she has in mind because she also says: “Under the current law, parents are punished only after serious damage to children has been done.” Hopefully she is not calling for anybody to be punished before a crime is committed!!
Basically I think this initiative is just wooden thinking and bad policy. People aren’t good parents because they fear punishment if they are not. And criminalising people who are overwhelmed or inept at parenting is not the way to go forward. Engaging with people, gaining their trust and providing them with support and services which they can draw on to transform their lives is the way to create better parents – not the threat of jail if you fail to come up to scratch.
Let's not get sucked into the idea that changing the criminal law is likely to improve anything. It will be a big distraction, just like the Children Act 2004 was. And this 'reform' also risks criminalising people who are weak and needy while not doing anything to help neglected children.