Religious parents ‘could be criminalised’ under new law

A sweeping parenting law, which may be included in the Queen’s Speech tomorrow, could criminalise parents with strict religious beliefs, a columnist has warned.

The so-called “Cinderella law” would carry a maximum prison sentence of ten years for anyone who deliberately harms a child’s “physical, intellectual, emotional, social or behavioural development”.

Writing in The Times, Libby Purves commented, “we have a record of insouciant, well-meant legal drafting; and once something is enshrined in law it can cause problems either by reckless enforcement or by palpable unenforceability”.

Criminalised

She poses various scenarios which could lead to ordinary parents being criminalised under the proposed legislation.

She asks, “is it not potentially damaging to ‘intellectual development’ to bring up a child in a strict religious belief that daily contradicts the evolutionary science they learn at school?”

“Insisting on music practice or refusing computer games or the wearing of trainers could be cited as evidence of an unhealthy dismissal of a child’s preferences”, she added.

Neglect

Purves highlights comments from Alan Wood, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, who posed: “Where do you draw the line between neglect that happens because of a lack of parental skill and that which is a criminal offence?”

Purves explained that Wood is unsure about whether criminalisation would be effective with the “disastrous parents” his members meet.

She said: “There is already a culture in social work that implies a too-narrow view of correct family life: ask anyone who has been gruellingly interviewed as a potential adopter, questioned about why they have no TV (‘could isolate children from schoolyard conversations’) or table manners (‘middle-class values’).”

Child protection

Currently there are around 22,000 children on child protection registers for neglect, and a social worker can already intervene if the child is being subjected to emotional neglect.

The Children and Young Persons Act 1933 covers anyone who “wilfully assaults, ill-treats, neglects, abandons, or exposes [a child] or causes or procures him to be assaulted, ill-treated, neglected, abandoned, or exposed, in a manner likely to cause unnecessary suffering or injury to health including injury to or loss of sight, or hearing, or limb, or organ of the body, and any mental derangement”.

The proposed new parenting law has received support from Conservative MP Robert Buckland and was born out of a campaign led by the charity Action for Children.

Buckland said that “the criminal law should be brought into line with its civil counterpart.”

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