New Clause 3 - Child maltreatment

Part of Crime and Courts Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee am 2:15 pm ar 12 Chwefror 2013.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Minister of State (Ministry of Justice and Home Office) , The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice 2:15, 12 Chwefror 2013

If the hon. Gentleman can hold his hand for a bit, I am about to come to the CPS view. As he would expect, I and my colleagues, and certainly the Attorney-General’s office, are in constant contact with the CPS. This matter is one of many we discuss. We need to be persuaded of two things: one, that the existing offence no longer works and, secondly, how a new offence would work in practice.

The offence of child cruelty under section 1 of the 1933 Act already covers a wide range of behaviour. The offence is committed where any person over the age of 16 with the responsibility for a child

“wilfully assaults, ill-treats, neglects, abandons, or exposes him, or causes or procures him to be assaulted, ill-treated, neglected, abandoned, or exposed, in a manner likely to cause him unnecessary  suffering or injury to health (including injury to or loss of sight, or hearing, or limb, or organ of the body, and any mental derangement)”.

I accept that some of the language in the 1933 Act may now be considered old-fashioned. However, it is difficult to point to maltreatment, which should be subject to the criminal law, that is not caught by the existing offence. Terms such as “ill-treatment” and “neglect” can be—and are—interpreted quite broadly by the law enforcement agencies and the courts. Crucially, given the important point made by Opposition Members about emotional abuse, which is not specifically mentioned and is one of the developments in child psychology that has emerged in the intervening 80 years, the courts have applied the provisions to cover serious forms of emotional abuse.

Moving on to the CPS, its current guidance provides:

“To assess seriousness, the precise nature of the offence must be established before considering factors such as the defendant’s intent, the length of time over which the cruelty took place, and the degree of physical and psychological harm suffered by the victim.”

So the CPS guidelines explicitly refer to psychological harm. The CPS told us that it is not aware of any evidence that the current law is a barrier to prosecutions. In addition to the CPS guidance, the sentencing guidelines make it clear that for the purposes of the offence,

“‘neglect’ can mean physical and/or emotional neglect”,

so the sentencing guidelines deal with the point that is at the heart of the new clause, which is that the old-fashioned language in the 1933 Act is not fit for purpose in the modern age. As I said, that is what the CPS is telling us.

However, we are clear that we must not underestimate the importance and seriousness of the issue of child neglect. We must be confident that we have a legislative framework capable of providing support and early intervention to those parents who need it, and, as a backstop, workable criminal offences capable of addressing serious child neglect.

The right hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East and I will shortly be meeting, along with my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon, Baroness Butler-Sloss and representatives of Action for Children. Obviously, we will be discussing these issues in much more detail. Before and after that meeting takes place, my officials will continue to work with Action for Children to consider any evidence it has that the current law is not working. Obviously, that examination will continue, and until we have got to the bottom of this, I should be grateful if the right hon. Gentleman would agree, on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate, to withdraw the new clause.