Queen’s Speech — Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:47 pm on 9th June 2014.

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Photo of Baroness Walmsley Baroness Walmsley Liberal Democrat 4:47 pm, 9th June 2014

I welcome the gracious Speech and in particular the good Liberal Democrat policies in it. I especially welcome the extension of 15 hours’ free care to more two year-olds, a policy introduced by the Liberal Democrat former Minister, Sarah Teather. Despite all the free care currently available, the poorest fifth of our young children are still 19% below average by the time they reach the age of five. The best way of changing that is to provide more high-quality professional care and education, and make it available as early as possible. I do not underestimate the role of parents but the best quality early-years settings work with the parents, helping them to extend the good work when the child goes home. This is as it should be.

I also welcome the tax relief on childcare for working families, another Liberal Democrat policy. In Wrexham, near where I live, just over 4,000 working families will be eligible for up to £2,000 under this scheme. This will make a big difference to their family budget and enable more young parents to go to work to provide for their families and contribute to the economy. What is very important, however, is to ensure that good quality places are available wherever they are needed, especially in the poorer areas where they can make so much difference.

I welcome the proposed changes in the serious crime Bill to change the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 to make it explicit that cruelty which is likely to cause psychological harm to a child will be an offence. The current law on neglect is outdated and inadequate. The UK is one of the only countries in the world that fails to recognise emotional neglect as the crime it is. That is about to change.

However, the Bill is not perfect and many of us will be working to improve it even further. Currently the Bill provides that cruelty to a child must be “wilful” to be considered a criminal offence. It could be that replacing “wilful” with “intentional and reckless” would enable more effective identification and response to this offence. I am sure that we will talk about that as the Bill progresses. But while we work on the Serious Crime Bill, recognising emotional neglect as an offence, we must also take further steps towards prevention and ensure earlier, and more effective, interventions for neglected young people and prevention of neglect in general. Under this Government, there have been several very successful initiatives providing support for parents, helping them to develop positive parenting skills and better support and interventions for families with problems such as domestic violence, drug and alcohol addictions and other issues. But we must do more. In this case, prevention is not just better than cure but cheaper too.

I welcome the modern slavery Bill and congratulate my noble friend Lord McColl on his role in particular in raising the issues relating to children. The 23 local authority trials of providing independent advocates have been successful and now we have an enabling power to put that on a statutory footing. I trust that the Secretary of State will use it at a later date. We will be watching. I particularly welcome the measure that provides that trafficked children are not prosecuted for crimes that they were forced to commit by their traffickers. At last the law will recognise that children are not equipped to resist the pressure put on them by those who exert total power over them. I know that there are those who are calling for other specific measures, and I suspect that we will have some interesting debates.

However, although there is much to welcome, there is something missing. I would have liked to see the Government announce an intention to clarify the law on reporting of child abuse and abuse of vulnerable adults, whether physical or sexual in nature, which comes to the attention of those working in public institutions. I am talking about mandatory reporting, which would address the issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Patel, and the noble Baroness, Lady Browning, about vulnerable elder people.

We have recently seen reports in the media of suspicions of sweeping under the carpet and covering up historic child abuse. Here I point out that there is no such thing as “historic” child abuse. Child abuse persists throughout the life of the abused person and often leads to mental and emotional illness later on. Unfortunately, there is currently no law under which those who become aware of offences against children or vulnerable adults in public institutions and do not report it to the relevant authorities can be held to account. Recently, we had a report from the NSPCC that showed that there are now more than 500 people who have made allegations about the offences of the late Jimmy Savile. Many of these offences were carried out against children in schools and vulnerable adults in Broadmoor. I cannot believe that these offences went unnoticed at the time or unreported by the victims, but nothing was done to stop it. We have also had a horrendous case of child neglect where the child subsequently died, although he was seen scavenging for food in the school dustbin and injuries were noticed on his body. This is not all in the past; it is happening now, today, in schools and institutions. It is whispered about, but it is not shouted from the rooftops, as it should be.

A few brave victims and journalists have highlighted the problems that we face today. The people who perpetrate these atrocities are clever. They hide in full view, relying on their charismatic personalities, gaining support from parents through their apparent care for children, while at the same time abusing them. A recent case of a teacher in international schools is a perfect example. It is time to bring a full stop to it. Abuse of children is a crime and the law should say so.

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