This week I’ve been dealing with a vital piece of legislation which will update our somewhat old-fashioned laws on child cruelty and domestic abuse. The Serious Crime Bill is designed to clarify the law so that everyone involved – courts, prosecutors and indeed victims – know exactly where they stand.
During my working life in the legal system as a barrister and as a judge, I’ve seen cases where the current laws don’t seem to have been strong enough to protect children properly. These reforms should help make the net stronger so that we can catch the small number of parents and carers who inflict significant harm on their children which up to now has gone unnoticed or unpunished. This is especially relevant when the cruelty is not physical, but emotional.
This is not about little Johnny being unhappy with his toys or upset at being made to eat his greens. Nor will it be an offence if mum puts a child on the “naughty step” and ignores them for a short time as a punishment. The law would be used, for instance, if a parent was found to be repeatedly locking their child in a room for hours on end. It’s designed to root out sustained humiliation, isolation or bullying. It will be for police, working with other agencies like social services, to investigate whether an offence has been committed. But overall we are making it clearer that emotional cruelty is an abhorrent crime which should be punished.
Looking at the wider scope of the Serious Crime Bill, I will also be overseeing a host of other aspects of the Bill including domestic abuse, which I dealt with in Parliament just yesterday. Domestic abuse is a serious crime; people need to recognise that. Statistics from the Crime Survey for England and Wales suggest that 1.9 million people were victims of domestic violence and abuse last year. It shatters the lives of its victims and in some cases leads to tragic and untimely deaths.
As things stand, some aspects are captured by the law on stalking and harassment. But that law does not apply to coercive or controlling behaviour where perpetrators conceal their abuse within a relationship and prey on the affection of their victim. So we will have a new offence which will criminalise these patterns of behaviour. Just like stalking, it may appear innocent, but the cumulative impact on the victim’s everyday life can be significant. It will attract a maximum penalty of 5 years imprisonment.
I am proud to be helping to bring about these changes which should mean greater protection for some of the most vulnerable people in our society.