MPs are seeking to amend the law to give young people greater protection against abuse and neglect.
MPs used the second reading of the Serious Crime Bill to call for the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 to be amended.
Currently, the criminal law for child cruelty only protects children from neglect or ill-treatment until their 16th birthday.
Official figures last year showed that 42,260 16- and 17-year-olds were deemed as “in need” by social services, and therefore at a greater risk of abuse and neglect.
During the debate on the bill, several MPs spoke out about the current law.
Labour MP Sarah Champion said it currently sends out a message that 16- and 17-year-olds are less at risk of abuse and or neglect than younger children.
“While most English law treats anyone under 18 as a child, the criminal law on child cruelty, which dates back 80 years, protects children from neglect or ill treatment only until their 16th birthday. This makes it much harder to protect 16- and 17-year-olds from cruelty,” Champion said.
Plaid Cymru MP Elfyn Llwyd said he hoped that the Commons stages of the bill will mean it is amended to offer 16- and 17-year-olds the same protection.
Matthew Reed, chief executive of The Children’s Society, called the current situation “unacceptable”.
“It is nonsensical and unacceptable that adults cannot be prosecuted for behaviour against children aged 16 or 17 that would be considered cruelty if the victim was 15,” he said. “If MPs are serious about stopping child cruelty – including child sexual exploitation – they must act to close this legal loophole.”
Home Office Minister Karen Bradley said she would “take note” of the points raised on the issue and reflect on them, a step which was welcomed by The Children’s Society.
Bradley said: “Some types of cruelty committed against 16- or 17-year-olds will, depending on the circumstances, already amount to other criminal offences, such as assault. Other laws already protect 16- and 17-year-olds from, for instance, sexual exploitation by those who hold a position of trust in their lives or from exploitation through prostitution or pornography. But those over 16 are generally deemed capable of living independently of their parents and can, of course, consent to sex.”