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The current criminal offence of child neglect is set out in section 1 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933. This provides that any person aged 16 or over who has responsibility for a child under that age commits an offence if he wilfully assaults, ill-treats, neglects, abandons or exposes that child (or causes or procures him to be so treated) in a manner likely to cause him unnecessary suffering or injury to health.

In April 2012 the charity Action for Children launched a campaign calling for reform of the 1933 Act. It argues that the law needs to “catch up” with society’s understanding of parenting, child protection and neglect as a form of child abuse, which has evolved in the 80 years since the 1933 Act was introduced; the Act seeks only to protect children’s very basic physical needs and fails to reflect their emotional and developmental needs or the current recognition of children as individuals with rights. In February 2013 the charity published a report which proposed a new offence (to replace the section 1 offence) of child maltreatment.

In 2012 the Government indicated that it had no plans to change the criminal law in this area. It said that the courts and children’s services are already interpreting the language of the 1933 Act “in a contemporary way”, and that the Ministry of Justice has not been made aware of any difficulties experienced by prosecutors in using the section 1 offence.

In October 2013 Damian Green stated that he had asked officials to undertake a targeted consultation with the relevant experts to explore the adequacy of the existing offence of child cruelty and report to him before the end of the year. In March 2014 it was reported in the media that the Government was looking to introduce a change to the law before the next election. In June 2014, the Queen’s Speech included an announcement that the Government will be introducing a Serious Crime Bill, which will “clarify” the 1933 Act to “help protect the most vulnerable children, by ensuring the offence of child cruelty includes the most serious cases of emotional neglect and psychological harm”.

This note is concerned with the law in England and Wales.

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