'Home alone' arrest made every day
A parent is arrested every day on suspicion of leaving one or more of their children at home alone, new figures reveal.
At least 105 mothers and fathers faced criminal investigations for leaving their offspring unsupervised in the final three months of last year, research by the Press Association has revealed.
Cases involved children aged from just a few weeks to 14 years old.
The law does not specify an age at which parents can leave children alone, but those who do can be arrested and prosecuted for cruelty and neglect if it places them at risk.
Figures provided by police forces in England and Wales following Freedom of Information (FoI) requests showed that 30 of those arrested were released without further action, 24 accepted a police caution and 19 were charged.
In other cases, investigations were ongoing or details of how suspects were dealt with were not available.
The issue of whether, at what age and for how long parents should leave children alone for has repeatedly sparked controversy.
High-profile cases range from parents arrested after leaving children for a few minutes to a mother who was given a suspended sentence after she left her children at home while she flew to Australia for several weeks.
Liberal Democrat MP John Hemming, who has called on the Government to provide clarity over the issue, said it was difficult to comment on whether police actions covered by the FoI responses were reasonable without knowing the circumstances of individual cases but described the findings as "important research".
"Parents often get confused by what is happening," he said.
"The government claims that the judgment as to whether it is right to leave a child home alone is made by the parents. However, in fact the judgment is made by the police and local council workers.
"Potentially, someone who leaves a baby in a car seat in a petrol station could face prosecution. Similarly, whereas an eight-year old can be sent to go swimming or to the park on their own, they are not allowed to stay at home (alone). There does need to be more clarity on this.
"This is where the state interfaces into ordinary life and people's lives can be massively disrupted merely for doing what they thought was right for their children."
Research suggests most parents want clarity.
In November, a poll for the The Times found that two thirds of parents want the Government to set a legally binding minimum age limit for children to be left at home alone.
Justine Roberts, founder of Mumsnet, said the question of when a child is old enough to be left at home alone comes up "time and again" on the parenting website.
She said: "Every time it's raised, the consensus is that it really comes down to the individual child.
"Some parents would happily leave their responsible eight-year-old on the sofa for 10 minutes while they pop to the corner shop, others would baulk at leaving a more absent-minded 12-year-old home alone under any circumstances."
Chris Cloke, head of child protection awareness at the NSPCC, said: "Although there's no legal minimum age for leaving children at home alone, no-one should leave a child unattended if they think they'll be at risk.
"And it's never acceptable to leave babies and very young children on their own for any length of time.
"Children mature at different rates so it's vital we have a common sense approach that ensures flexibility for parents, as they are best-placed to know what is right for their child.
"Ideally, parents should check that their children are happy and confident to be left at home alone and know what to do in an emergency. "
All 43 police forces in England and Wales were asked how many parents were arrested in October, November and December 2014 after leaving their children at home alone.
Figures included arrests for cruelty and neglect or abandoning a child. In a number of cases both parents were arrested. Five forces did not provide full information, meaning the true number arrested is likely to be higher.
A spokesman for the Association of Chief Police Officers said: "There is no current legislation that gives a clear definition of when leaving a child on their own at home would constitute child neglect. However, the law is clear that you should never leave a child at home if they would be left at risk.
"The Crown Prosecution Service's decision to charge will be based on a range of criteria including age, the period of time and the potential dangers of the environment they were left in.
"We would always encourage parents to think strongly about whether or not their child is of an appropriate age and responsible enough to look after themselves before they are left alone."
A Department for Education spokeswoman said: "It is vital that children are kept safe, and the law is clear that parents can be prosecuted if they leave a child unsupervised in a manner likely to cause unnecessary suffering or injury to health.
"If any child was left alone to the extent that he or she might be neglected or harmed, then the council can and will intervene."