Parents who fail to show love and affection towards their children could be sent to prison for up to 10 years under a “Cinderella Law” to be announced in the Queen’s Speech in June, according to a report.
The move will make “emotional cruelty” a criminal offence for the first time.
The decision was hailed as a “monumental step” forwards by a children’s charity, which said children could grow up with “ lifelong mental health problems” or end up taking their own lives.
Robert Buckland, a Conservative MP and part-time judge, who has campaigned on the issue, wrote in The Daily Telegraph that change had been “long overdue”.
“Not too many years after the Brothers Grimm popularised the story of Cinderella, the offence of child neglect was introduced,” he said, but added: “Our criminal law has never reflected the full range of emotional suffering experienced by children who are abused by their parents or carers.
“The sad truth is that, until now, the Wicked Stepmother would have got away scot-free.
“We need a clear, concise and workable definition of child maltreatment — an alternative code that reflects the range of harm of done to children and which provides appropriate legal mechanisms to tackle some of the worst cases.
“Emotional neglect must be outlawed, the term 'wilful’ should be replaced and the criminal law should be brought into line with its civil counterpart.”
A Ministry of Justice spokesman came close to confirming the report.
“The Government believes protecting children from harm is fundamental and that child cruelty is an abhorrent crime which should be punished,” he said.
“Every child should be able to grow up in a safe environment. We are considering ways the law can support this.”
Sir Tony Hawkhead, chief executive of Action for Children, said he had met children who had been “scapegoated in their families, constantly humiliated and made to feel unloved”.
“The impact is devastating and can lead to lifelong mental health problems and, in some cases, suicide,” he said.
“We are one of the last countries in the West to recognise all forms of child abuse as a crime.
“Years of campaigning have been rewarded. The Government has listened.”