Child Maltreatment Bill 2013-14

If you have covered Constitutional Law in some detail, you will appreciate just how difficult it can be to get Private Members’ Bills pushed all the way through both houses of Parliament in order to become law. Only a very small percentage of these bills acquire Royal Assent and become statutes. Therefore, it is interesting when a Private Member’s Bill appears to be attracting more attention than usual, especially when it covers such an important aspect of family and criminal law. 

At present, there are many people who believe that the laws surrounding child neglect do not go anywhere near far enough to protect the youngest members of our society. Whilst they do cover ‘intentional neglect’, which basically means protection against physical neglect, there are absolutely no provisions in law to protect a child’s emotional, spiritual, educational and moral needs.

This is one of those areas of law that was created at the end of the 19th century (the 1880s, to be exact), and now the legislation has become completely outdated and fails to address important aspects of modern-day life. It hasn’t helped that the House of Lords had a hand in weakening this law even further, back in 1981, when it was this court that declared that the current legislation should only protect a child’s ‘physical needs’. 

Many MPs and the charity Action for Children have been campaigning for a number of years to get the laws on child neglect amended. By far their strongest argument in this regard is the fact that our current law fails to fully adhere to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. This international law states that every child shall have 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”. 

Baroness Butler-Sloss has proven to be a leading voice in this campaign and in her foreword to The Criminal Law and Child Neglect: an independent analysis and proposal for reform (Action for Children, 2013), she 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 professions. 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”. 

It will be interesting to see how many MPs will support this Private Member’s Bill. The second reading of the Bill will take place on 22 November 2013, and this will be the first decisive test as to whether this Bill is destined to become new law. 

With some faith in our Parliament on this occasion, we can hope that this vitally important area of family and criminal law is brought more in line with what we would expect in the 21st century.