The law on child abuse is failing to protect children suffering neglect and emotional trauma and needs updating, according to a report published today.
The research, supported by the Labour Party, claims the law on child neglect is outdated and confusing to parents. The charity Action for Children, which commissioned the report, said neglect is the most prevalent form of child abuse in the UK.
Experts warned the 80-year-old child cruelty law fails to cover all forms of neglect, including emotional abuse, which can cause long-term mental scarring. They also claimed that nearly three-quarters of people said there was little understanding of that the term "good parenting" actually meant.
The report says authorities should intervene in cases of continual emotional neglect, as well as in instances of physical neglect, and calls for more guidance and support for parents, to help them understand the law and seek help if they break it.
A YouGov poll of 1,092 parents found that 731 (67%) felt the current law on parenting is confusing.
The report advocates supporting vulnerable parents rather than using immediate punitive measures.
It says: "It is time to challenge the assumption that the seriousness of child neglect makes imprisonment the necessary and preferred option, and to explore alternative sentencing options that are designed to challenge and support parents and help prevent further neglect."
Dame Clare Tickell, chief executive of Action for Children, said: "Neglect is the most common form of child abuse affecting children in the UK, yet we have an outdated law which does not reflect what we now understand children need and what neglect actually is.
"The law leaves children unprotected and parents without support and unclear about their responsibilities until it's too late. We must ensure that these vulnerable children are protected from the serious harm which neglect, in all its forms, causes to their health and well-being.
"We know that intervening early to tackle emerging issues within families prevents neglect before it spirals out of control. Under the current law, parents are punished only after serious damage to children has been done. This is why the law is failing children and why it must urgently be updated."
The Labour Party has announced its support for the Government to bring the wording of child neglect laws up to date.
Catherine McKinnell, shadow minister for children and families, said: "Neglect can have a profound and devastating impact on the lives and life chances of children subjected to it. An issue of this seriousness and sheer scale must be a political priority for all parties.
"The Government should take steps to ensure that criminal legislation is fit for the challenges faced today and reflects our improved understanding of the very serious harm neglect causes. This is the right time to review the existing criminal law on child neglect."