New laws to tackle child neglect and employers’ abuse of minimum wage, confirms Queen’s speech

But anticipated bill to reform regulation of social workers and social care staff is left out of final Queen's speech before 2015 general election

Changes to the adoption system were announced in the Queen's speech. Photo: Rex Features

The government will legislate to make emotional neglect of children a criminal offence, it confirmed in the final Queen’s speech before next year’s general election.

Legislation will also be introduced to ‘crack down’ on abuses of zero hour contracts and impose higher penalties on employers who fail to pay their staff the minimum wage, a move one charity said was “desperately needed in the social care sector”. Legislation to prevent modern slavery and human trafficking will also be introduced, the speech confirmed.

An anticipated bill to reform the regulation of social workers and care workers was not included in the speech suggesting any such legislation would have to be introduced after the next election.

Child neglect legislation

A Serious Crime Bill will extend definition of child cruelty to include emotional neglect as part of a serious crime bill to be laid before parliament. The move follows a three-year campaign by children’s charities – led by Action for Children – for the government to outlaw emotional neglect under a so-called ‘Cinderella Law’.

The campaigners argue that making emotional neglect a criminal offence will improve protection for children but the issue has split the social care sector. The British Association of Social Workers has previously lent its backing to a change in the law but the Association of Directors of Children’s Services and The College of Social Work have argued that legislative changes are not the answer.

Sir Tony Hawkhead, chief executive of Action for Children, said the Queen’s Speech announcement was a “monumental and overdue step” that would help protect children from severe emotional abuse.

“Children who are made to feel worthless, powerless and unloved by their families will now have the law on their side. We are one of the last countries in the western world to recognise this form of child cruelty – the time for change is long overdue. Emotional abuse can create permanent scars, leading to mental health problems and, in extreme cases, to suicide. This legislation will change lives,” he said.

Alan Wood, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, said: “Any change to the law must build on existing work to prevent, identify and respond to neglect to ensure that in a time of increasing demand and a greater prevalence, the needs of children are effectively met. Parents who fail to provide the basic level of emotional and physical support for their children do so for a variety of reasons including incapacity, inability, and wickedness but a lack of legislative clarity is not one of those reasons. There is no evidence to suggest a change in the law will prevent further instances of neglect from occurring.”

Minimum Wage and zero hours contracts

A Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill will tackle national minimum wage abuses and crack down on the abuse of zero hour contracts, the government confirmed.

Simon Botter, director of policy at charity Independent Age, said the reforms were “desperately needed in the social care sector”.

“The recent report by Baroness Kingsmill said there was ‘evidence of widespread exploitation of workers’ and estimated that between 160,000 and 220,000 care workers are paid less than the national minimum wage. It cannot be right that those caring for the sick, elderly and disabled are so underpaid and undervalued,” he said.

Human trafficking

The Queen’s speech also revealed that the government will introduce a bill to “strengthen the powers to prevent modern slavery and human trafficking” and improve support for victims of those crimes.

Matthew Reed, Chief Executive of The Children’s Society, said: “The Modern Slavery Bill is a huge step forward in helping to tackle this horrific abuse. But too often victims of this brutal crime are treated as criminals. To make a real difference to the lives of trafficked children, the government must change the law so that children who are trafficked are always treated as victims.”

“It needs to extend guardianship for trafficked children to all children found on their own in the UK – including those fleeing war and torture. This will help these children get the protection they need, make them more visible and keep them safe from abuse and re-trafficking. This is too important an opportunity to miss,” he added.

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