Committee (3rd Day)

Part of Serious Crime Bill [HL] – in the House of Lords at 3:30 pm on 15th July 2014.

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Photo of Baroness Butler-Sloss Baroness Butler-Sloss Crossbench 3:30 pm, 15th July 2014

My Lords, to a considerable extent I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, but want to go rather further. I thank the Government for, and indeed welcome, Clause 62 as far as it goes. I should like to give particular thanks to the previous Minister of Justice in the other place, Damian Green MP, who has always been open to listening to Action for Children, for which I am largely speaking; I am also speaking for the NSPCC. He has been extremely helpful in giving us an opportunity to put our points of view to him. It is largely due to his diligence that the clause is in the Bill, so I thank him very much.

Clause 62, as far as it goes, is good but does not go far enough. The purpose of my Amendment 40BZB—supported particularly by Action for Children, and warmly supported by the NSPCC—is to update and bring into the 21st century Section 1 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933. I have to tell noble Lords that 1933 was the year in which I was born, and it really is about time that we had 21st-century legislation. I am a relic of that period but the law should not be. I am supported in this amendment by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, whom I thank very much.

The purpose is to identify in criminal terms serious neglect and emotional abuse. “Neglect” is in the 1933 Act but does not include the effect of neglect on children and all sorts of emotional abuse that children suffer. Neglect is the most widespread and potentially most serious of all forms of abuse because it is, in itself, largely neglected. It is not seen. There are appalling stories where the police have identified a problem and discovered that they could not take any action by, for instance, threatening the family with some sort of criminal proceedings because the abuse and neglect that they see does not include the emotional abuse of things such as frozen awareness. Some noble Lords may know what I mean by that—for example, a child aged two sitting in a corner, not moving because of the way in which they have been treated. The police, who may come into a family, see and understand this but have to go away and tell the social workers, who may or may not take family proceedings in the magistrates’ court but are not obliged to do so. The police cannot warn the family that if they do not mend their ways they may become the subject of criminal proceedings.

The purpose of this updated legislation is not to put families in the criminal court but to try to push them, by a combination of threat and cajoling, into behaviour that will save the children who are in their care. My amendment, therefore, puts in modern wording such as,

“physically or emotionally ill-treats, physically or emotionally neglects”,

and removes altogether the words “unnecessary suffering”. I totally agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, that “unnecessary” should not be there, but “suffering” is not the word we use nowadays. In the Children Acts and other adoption and child-related legislation we talk about “serious harm”, “substantial harm” or some such phrase. One should get rid of “unnecessary suffering” and get this legislation to join the rest of legislation on children by using “serious harm”. As regards the criminal side of this matter, we then need to explain what “serious harm” means. Proposed new subsection (6) in my amendment sets that out.

It is with some hesitation that I do not entirely agree with the noble Baroness on proposed new subsection (6)(b). I have to say that having battled with the Minister in the other place over inserting “recklessly” instead of “wilfully”, and being told that there was a firm view against doing that, Action for Children, the NSPCC and I, together with some MPs from the Commons, believed that we should explain what “wilfully” means. That is why we have put in,

“that a person with responsibility for a child foresaw that an act or omission regarding that child would be likely to result in harm, but nonetheless unreasonably took that risk”.

That allows the word “wilful” to remain, since the Government seem to want it, but also explains it so that everyone—particularly the police, and indeed people who ill treat their children—understand exactly what it is about.

I very much hope that the Government will now listen to what is being said in this House, although they failed to do so in the other place. I very much urge that this should be looked at again.