Earlier this week, the UK government announced it was considering making ‘emotional cruelty to children’ into a new criminal offence. The announcement follows a campaign by a charity called Action for Children, which was backed by Conservative MP Robert Buckland. Buckland, writing in the Telegraph, said that the antiquated child-neglect laws failed to ‘reflect the full range of emotional suffering experienced by children who are abused by their parents or carers’. The proposal has become known as the ‘Cinderella Law’, after Buckland said that, under current legislation, ‘the Wicked Stepmother would have got away scot-free’.
Under the proposed legislation, parents would not have to be as cruel as the fabled stepmother to face charges. Buckland said the law would criminalise ‘a range of behaviours, from ignoring a child’s presence, failing to stimulate a child, right through to acts of in fact terrorising a child’. The text of the proposed offence said it would even cover any act or failure to act which limited a child’s behavioural development.
Buckland has argued that current child-neglect law was antiquated, having not been updated since the Children and Young Person Act of 1933. This idea was widely parroted by proponents of the Cinderella Law. Of course, current child-neglect legislation is quite old. What they ignore, however, is that emotional neglect has been part of the civil definition of neglect since 2001. This means that when local authorities are attempting to take children into care, emotional neglect is often a consideration. Emotional abuse is now also included in the government’s official definition of domestic violence, after its amendment last year. Rather than ‘ignoring’ emotional abuse, as Buckland claims, the law – albeit not the criminal law – has become more focused on regulating emotional harm than it ever has been before.
There has also been widespread soul-searching in recent years about the powers granted to local authorities under civil law and the manner in which they are exercised. Only recently, John Hemming, a Liberal Democrat MP, came under fire for suggesting that parents should circumvent the rulings of the family courts – the tribunals in which care proceedings are enacted – on the basis that their procedures are unfair. As I’ve written before on spiked, family-court trials are deeply problematic and secretive affairs, and they are often accused of acting too quickly to remove children from their parents on the basis of spurious claims of emotional ‘neglect’.
So the question arises: why involve the criminal law in an area already overrun with controversial civil law? The analysis published by Action for Children gives two appallingly bad reasons, apparently provided to it by the social workers it interviewed while preparing their proposal. Firstly, the criminal offence would ‘warn parents about the seriousness of their actions’. Secondly, the creation of this new criminal offence would allow the police to more effectively gather evidence for use in civil proceedings and ‘speed up’ the process of removing children from troubled families. Remarkably, no other justification is provided throughout Action for Children’s analysis for why a new criminal offence for child neglect is needed.