As Tory MP Michael Gove is criticised for leaving his son in a bed and breakfast for six hours whilst he went off partying, Michael Alexander investigates when – if at all – is it acceptable to leave a child home alone?
Abandoned by his family, Home Alone, eight-year-old Kevin McCallister, played by actor Macauley Culkin, defends his home from two hapless psychos who want to pull his nails out – and murder him.
From blow torching a man’s head to making another walk through broken glass bare foot, the atrocities featured in the plot of the 1990 comedy film Home Alone and its festive sequel from 1992 – the originally named Home Alone II – have become the stuff of movie legend.
But debate around the issue of children being left at home alone took on a serious twist at the weekend after it emerged former justice secretary Michael Gove and his wife Sarah Vine had reportedly left their son alone in a bed and breakfast for six hours in order to go to a party.
The Tory MP and Brexit campaigner, who denied stabbing former ally Boris Johnson in the back when he stood against him for the Conservative leadership, recently attended an event to mark the end of the Cheltenham Literary Festival.
They allowed their 11-year-old son to stay behind after B&B staff agreed to keep an eye on him.
However, according to a Sunday newspaper, having reportedly signalled they would be back around 9.30pm, they ended up partying until 1.30am, missing a series of calls from a night porter who had found the boy walking around and asking when they would be back.
Celebrities tweeted about the event in early October, with reports of Mr Gove “busting moves” on the dance floor as he gyrated to the so-called “rape song” – Blurred Lines by Robin Thicke.
A friend of the Goves told the BBC: “(Their son) wanted to watch TV rather than go to a dinner with his parents. He’s a mature and confident secondary school pupil so they were happy to leave him at the hotel under the supervision of staff.
“The dinner was at a sister hotel so staff could have easily passed messages if there were any issues. He was totally fine and there were no problems.”
So when, if at all, is it ok to leave a child home alone?
Well, the law in the UK does not stop a parent from leaving their child at home alone, but it states that children must not be neglected or abandoned “in a manner likely to cause [them] unnecessary suffering or injury to health”.
That said, more than 500 people were arrested in England and Wales in 2014-15 for leaving children unattended.
The majority of arrests related to children aged 10 or younger, but the ages of children involved ranged from six weeks to 15 years.
No one from Scotland’s children’s charity Children 1st was available yesterday. But an NSPCC spokesman said: “It can be a difficult decision to decide when children are old enough to be left alone and there are a whole host of things to think about.
“Parents need to consider whether a child would know what to do if something went wrong, and talk to their child and see if they are comfortable and confident about being left by themselves.”
The charity’s advice is that children under 12 should not be left at home alone for a long period of time because they are “rarely mature enough to cope in an emergency” and that children under the age of 16 are not left alone overnight.
Speaking on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show, Fife author Ian Rankin stood up for Michael Gove.
He said: “It is not much of a story. If I left my 11-year-old in a room, a) he wouldn’t have left it as he would have been on his computer or watching DVDs, and b) he would have had a mobile phone and phoned his parents asking what time are you coming home.”
Justine Roberts, Mumsnet (www.mumsnet.com) CEO told The Courier: “Knowing when it’s OK to leave your child alone is an issue that crops up regularly on Mumsnet, and the conclusion is usually that (very young children aside) it’s really down to the individual child – and parents are in a better place to make that decision than anyone else.”
When The Courier spoke to members of the public outside Morrisons supermarket in Dundee’s Finlathen yesterday, however, most were more critical.
Mum-of-two Chelsea Crook, 24, and her husband Sam, 26, a bus mechanic, of Stockport, Greater Manchester, were shopping with their children Abigail, 2, and Hannah, 9 weeks.
Chelsea said: “I definitely wouldn’t leave a child home alone at primary school age. And even when they are at secondary school it doesn’t mean they are mature. If I was in a hotel, I wouldn’t feel safe leaving my child with someone I didn’t know.”
Maureen Swan, 58, from Birkhill, was shopping with her four-year-old grandson Jonathan.
She said: “I think 14 at the earliest – I thought 16 would have been the law – but definitely not in primary school. I’ve got an eight-year-old granddaughter who seems sensible, but I wouldn’t leave her at home alone!”
Foster carer Fiona Goetz, 58, who lives near Forfar, has been a foster carer for 4.5 years, looking after 10 children during that time.
She said: “How do you define leave? I certainly wouldn’t leave any of my foster children at home alone ever. And if you were going out, you’d make sure they were left with someone you knew and trusted.
“You’d also make sure they had your contact details to get in touch if they needed, and you’d phone in to check every so often to make sure everything was ok.”