New Clause 3 - Child maltreatment

Part of Crime and Courts Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee am 2:00 pm ar 12 Chwefror 2013.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Paul Goggins Paul Goggins Llafur, Wythenshawe and Sale East 2:00, 12 Chwefror 2013

I will indeed press the Minister on that. I am very hopeful, not least from conversations I have had with him, that he wants to engage on this issue. I am not putting words in his mouth about accepting the new clause, but I think that he understands the importance of the issue and, from indications he has given so far, that he is prepared to engage on it. I therefore look forward to what he will say shortly. My hon. Friend is right that on an issue such as child neglect, none of us should sit on our hands if there is an opportunity to improve the law and, therefore, the protection of children.

I hope I do not disappoint my hon. Friend when I say that I have not quite got to the end of my remarks, but I shall try not to detain the Committee too long. Another issue on which I would be interested to hear the Minister’s comments is that there seems to be a growing disparity between the civil and criminal definitions of child neglect. That is leading to serious difficulties, and the issue was covered in the report by the expert panel that Action for Children brought together. Social workers and family courts are interpreting child neglect in a broader way and including, for example, children’s psychological needs and emotional harm done to children, whereas the police look more to the criminal law and may sometimes be slightly cautious and anxious about intervening. Indeed, the expert panel says of the consultations it carried out:

“The main concern raised by social workers was that the current offence limits the extent to which Police are able to respond in cases of non-physical neglect. They reported that police generally only intervene when there is tangible physical evidence”.

If we have a creeping gap between what the police interpret as neglect and what the courts and social services interpret as neglect—nobody is criticising them for that, because they are working to different codes—it is incumbent on the Government and Parliament to try to achieve some clarity and consistency.

There is also a need to update the law to reflect the 1981 Sheppard ruling. Those who are versed in the law will understand the significance of that. My understanding is that the ruling exposed the limitations of the word “wilful”, which is the word used in the 1933 Act. The ruling dealt with the lack of clarity as to whether “wilful” applies to the action or lack of action taken by a parent or carer, or, rather, to their failure to foresee the consequences of that action or inaction. It made it clear that the word had to apply to both the understanding of the potential consequences and the decision to go ahead and take the risk by acting in a particular way. It is therefore important to update the law to reflect the Sheppard ruling and also to enable the Crown Prosecution  Service and the courts to have greater clarity in relation to those cases in which a parent or carer may lack the mental capacity to understand the consequences of their action. Clearly, if parents or carers understand and they go ahead and something serious happens, they deserve the full force of the law being brought down on them, but obviously in cases in which parents lack the intellectual or emotional capacity to understand the consequences of their action or inaction, they need help. The new definition that new clause 3 presents would help the courts, the CPS and the agencies that want to intervene to do so on stronger grounds.

I assure the Committee that it is not in the mind of the drafters of new clause 3 to criminalise every parent or have every parent hauled in front of the court if there is any suspicion of child neglect. The latest estimates that I have seen suggest that 1.5 million children may be being neglected to one extent or another. We need an approach that, yes, has the law and the force of law at one end, but has interventions from other agencies right the way through, so that people who have a particular lack of capacity or understanding can have that skill developed, perhaps by an intervention from an organisation such as Action for Children or a social services agency. It is important that we get the appropriate help to parents, and I think that clarity in the law would assist agencies in doing that.

In conclusion, if we look at new clause 3, there are just three words to emphasise. The first is “recklessly”. I have explained that we want the word “reckless” to replace the word “wilful” in a way that reflected the Sheppard ruling. Secondly, the new clause defines what we mean by “maltreatment”. It is a wider definition—not just physical harm, but emotional abuse. New clause 3 makes that absolutely clear. It is also crystal clear, towards the end of the new clause, that “harm” means the impairment of physical or mental health, or physical, intellectual, emotional, social or behavioural development. That makes it absolutely clear that we are taking a wider view.

I hope that is a helpful introduction to new clause 3. I very much look forward to what colleagues will say, and obviously to the Minister’s response.