Seven years' jail proposed for ignoring child abuse

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The Independent Online

Relatives and neighbours who fail to report their suspicions of child abuse face up to seven years' imprisonment under a criminal offence proposed by the Government's advisers on law reform.

Relatives and neighbours who fail to report their suspicions of child abuse face up to seven years' imprisonment under a criminal offence proposed by the Government's advisers on law reform.

The call for tough new laws follows a number of high- profile cases in which children have died because carers have failed to act in time. A report into the murder in February 2000 of eight-year-old Victoria Climbié identified 12 missed opportunities to help her.

The proposed offence would make it a crime to fail to take "reasonable steps" to stop a child being seriously injured or killed after suspicions had been raised. The offence would only apply where it could be proved that an adult with responsibility for a child was aware or should have been aware that there was a "real risk" that the child might be harmed.

In a series of recommendations published today, the Law Commission of England and Wales says that social workers and teachers should be excluded from the ambit of the new offence. David Hughes, team manager of the criminal law team at the Law Commission, said that the commissioners debated the extent of the liability of the law but decided that it should be restricted to those who had responsibility for a child and were "connected with the child".

A parent who failed to report their concerns about their child's injuries would obviously be subject to the new law but it could also cover relatives and neighbours who accepted responsibility for children while the parents were on holiday. The Law Commission also called for a new crime of aggravated child cruelty, attracting a prison sentence of 14 years. Under the current law the maximum sentence is 10 years.

The commissioners also want the Government to close the legal loophole that makes it almost impossible to convict parents who refuse to answer questions on the circumstances in which a child died in their care. Under this proposal, anyone who had responsibility for a child at the time of death or serious injury would be under a statutory duty to assist the court and the police.

Last week the Government announced the biggest re- organisation of children's services in England for 30 years as part of its response to Lord Laming's inquiry into the murder of Victoria Climbié.

The paper, Every Child Matters, set the aim of ensuring "that every child has the chance to fulfil their potential by reducing levels of educational failure, ill health, substance misuse, teenage pregnancy, abuse and neglect, crime and anti-social behaviour among children and young people".

The Government is considering the Law Commission's recommendations.

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