I rise to support the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, on behalf of myself and my colleague, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Truro, who chairs the Children’s Society. The Serious Crime Bill rightly seeks to update the law on neglect of children. We welcome the Bill and the Government’s commitment to seeking to improve the response to victims of emotional neglect. The current law is outdated and inadequate. We also support the amendment tabled by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss.
The UK is one of the only countries in the world that fails to recognise emotional neglect as the crime it is. It is to the Government’s credit that they seek to address that through the Bill. However, I believe that the Bill should go further and increase the age a child can be defined as a victim of cruelty and neglect from under 16 to under 18, which the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, seeks to do through his amendment. By changing the law in this way we can, for the first time, offer protection to all children from cruelty and neglect.
I, too, am grateful to the Children’s Society for its briefing, and I shall offer a story that it gives of Jessica. Jessica was known to social services because of the neglect and abuse she experienced in her family. When she was 16 the relationship between her and her family deteriorated and she was forced to move out of her family home. In the next year and a half she experienced unsuccessful placements in a hostel and bed and breakfast accommodation. Experiences of neglect at home made it difficult for her to form meaningful relationships. During that time, starting with her first unsuccessful placement in a hostel, Jessica became a victim of sexual exploitation, started using drugs and developed mental health problems. Stories such Jessica’s mean that we need to ensure that this measure applies to all children under 18.
This definition is the one enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. It is in the Children Act 1989, which governs what safeguarding responses children should receive if there are concerns about their well-being. The PACE codes of conduct for the police were amended last year so that all under-18s are treated as children. From a safeguarding point of view, children should be viewed as being under 18. Sixteen and 17 year-olds can be very vulnerable. The statistics mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, showed that. Yet they do not always get access to the services that younger children can receive. Professionals often see 16 and 17 year-old children as more resilient than younger children. They are often seen as more able to avoid abuse, or more grown-up and therefore more able to cope. It does not help that the criminal law aiming to deal with the perpetrators of child neglect does not cover 16 and 17 year-olds. This sends all the wrong signals that they are not as vulnerable as younger children.
The Government’s other reforms increasingly recognise that 16 and 17 year-olds are children. For example, they are not normally treated as adults under the benefits system. The position has recently been reinforced through the rules of the new universal credit system—a basic condition of entitlement for which is that the claimant is at least 18. That was debated in this House when the Welfare Reform Act 2012 went through Parliament. I would like to hear from the Minister why children aged 16 or over cannot be considered at risk of neglect and why the new law on emotional neglect should not apply to them.