Mark Williams writes: If enacted, a serious crime bill will help stop emotional abuse of children
Originally published by UK Liberal Democrats
Writing in today's Guardian, Liberal Democrat MP for Ceredigion Mark Williams discusses how plans unveiled in the Queen's Speech would help prevent emotional abuse of children.
Mark has long campaigned for a change in the law.
After months of wrangling and patient but determined campaigning, the proposals set out in my child maltreatment bill were last week announced in the Queen's speech, as part of a serious crime bill, which the government will be taking forward. They've seen sense in the fact that you can't have a Victorian law governing the way we define criminal child neglect in 21st century Britain. You also can't claim emotional abuse is criminal for over-16s in cases of domestic abuse, as is currently the case according to Ministry of Justice guidance, but not for children. As far as I am concerned, the case is self-evident, and it's been brought about thanks to Liberal Democrats being in government.
The criminal law on child neglect has not changed in 80 years. It is in fact based on the Poor Law Amendment Act 1868 and its replacement in 1933, which referred to the same requirement for neglect to be "wilful", and for the child to be subjected to "unnecessary suffering". In my view, there is no "acceptable" level of suffering for children, and yet our laws currently assume that there is. That needs to change.
Some have argued that the wording of the 1933 Act already allows for severe emotional or psychological neglect to be prosecuted under criminal law, as the term to "ill-treat" a child could possibly be interpreted as inclusive of such forms of neglect. However, any question of this interpretation is impossible given Lord Diplock's ruling in the Sheppard case in 1981, which said categorically that: "To 'neglect' a child is to omit to act, to fail to provide adequately for its needs; and, in the context of section 1 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933, its physical needs rather than its spiritual, educational, moral or emotional needs." It cannot be the case that criminal sanctions do not exist to tackle psychological and emotional child neglect, particularly as expert opinion suggests that psychological neglect is the most destructive form of abuse.
I have encountered a number of harrowing tales of abuse since choosing to become involved in Action for Children's campaign; tales of abominable treatment. These cannot be allowed to continue. We should be giving agencies all the support possible in law to ensure they can act when things get so extreme that no remedial efforts have succeeded. For that reason, I chose last year to support Action for Children's campaign by proposing a private member's bill on the subject.
Politicians have a responsibility to stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves. To me it is inherently liberal to ensure that every child is given the same opportunity to fulfil his or her potential. A criminal law which neglects to take into account a child's emotional and psychological wellbeing simply is not achieving that aim. As such my bill proposed a wholesale redefinition of child maltreatment, including emotional harm, to bring it into line with the definition of neglect in civil law and, indeed, the definition of domestic violence that is applied to adults.
Although my bill was not ultimately successful, it succeeded in raising the profile of the issue. As a result, a targeted consultation was undertaken on the matter, and this week the Queen announced that the government would now be bringing forward a serious crime bill to tackle child neglect, in line with the recommendations in my bill. This is a huge victory; not for us here in Westminster but for children at risk of neglect. The fight is by no means over but this is a big step in the right direction which, if enacted, will help to ensure that social services, the police and other agencies really can work together to safeguard children.