Emotional cruelty to children should be made illegal, according to almost 70 per cent of police officers in England and Wales.
There are substantial laws against the physical abuse of children, but under the current system experts say they are less protected than adults from emotional harm. The law on domestic violence for adults was changed in March to include patterns of emotional abuse, such as intimidation and isolation.
Proposals to close a legislative gap, which means emotional neglect is excluded from the criminal definition of child neglect, will be debated in parliament on Friday. More than 80 MPs from all parties have signed a letter to the Ministry of Justice demanding the law be reviewed. The charity Action for Children and the Lib Dem MP Mark Williams have drafted an alternative law, which could remedy this.
Mr Williams said: "The law, as it is, fails to protect some of the most vulnerable children throughout England and Wales. If the Government is really serious about safeguarding children, the law has to be changed."
A poll of more than 200 police officers in England and Wales by YouGov found that only 5 per cent thought the law should remain the same, while seven in 10 supported change; a quarter were unsure.
Emotional neglect includes abuse such as forcing a child to witness domestic violence, scapegoating a child, humiliation and the enforcement of degrading punishments. Child welfare experts say such treatment can have a "devastating" impact on children's lives, leading to mental health problems.
The Children and Young Persons Act is more than 80 years old, with sections dating back to 1868. It now needs updating, say the experts.
Action for Children's chief executive, Dame Clare Tickell, said: "For the vast majority of families where neglect is a concern, support can turn things around and create a safe home in which children can thrive. For cases at the most severe end of the spectrum, however, the law must be in tune with modern considerations of neglect. This is absolutely necessary for a consistent approach from all agencies concerned. Action for Children has [been in talks] with the Government about this issue and we're hopeful they will take this urgent and important issue forward."
According to government analysis, neglect is the most common reason for a child protection referral, and emotional abuse is 20 per cent more common in these referrals than physical abuse. Experts say changing the law would mean the definition of neglect used by police and judges was the same as currently used by the Government and social workers.
Research shows emotionally deprived children are more likely than their peers to develop mental health problems, be vastly over-represented in the criminal justice system, and have poor social/relationship skills.
The Justice Minister, Damian Green, said last night: "Emotional abuse can be prosecuted under existing criminal law. We want to be absolutely sure that the law in this important area is fit for purpose. "