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A brief summary of the guidelines relating to the requirement for different types of professionals to report child abuse in the UK. We also look at how issues relating to confidentiality and information-sharing can be resolved.
What are the laws for professionals reporting child abuse in the UK?
Is there separate guidance for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?
What do I need to know about confidentiality and information-sharing?
Are there guidelines for specific groups of professionals?
Does the NSPCC offer training on child abuse reporting?
There are no specific mandatory laws in the UK that require professionals to report any suspicions they may have of child abuse to the authorities. In Northern Ireland, however, it is an offence not to report an arrestable crime to the police, which by definition, includes crimes against children.1
In England, government guidance Working together to safeguard children (DCSF, 2010) states that “Everybody who works or has contact with children, parents and other adults in contact with children should be able to recognise, and know how to act upon, evidence that a child’s health or development is or may be being impaired – especially when they are suffering, or likely to suffer, significant harm.”(Para 5.8).
Para 5.12 goes on to say that “All staff members who have or become aware of concerns about the safety or welfare of a child or children should know:
If there are any child welfare concerns “relevant information about the child and family should be discussed with a manager, or a named or designated health professional or a designated member of staff depending on the organisational setting."(Para 5.13).2
The guidance makes clear reference to the duty to act on any child welfare concerns in para 5.18: “If somebody believes or suspects that a child may be suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm then s/he should always refer his or her concerns to the local authority children’s social care services. In addition to social care, the police and the NSPCC have powers to intervene in these circumstances.”
The procedure to follow is outlined in flowcharts at the end of chapter 5 of the Working together guidance (pp 186-190), and also reproduced in What to do if you are worried a child is being abused (DCSF, 2006, p16).3 See also Safeguarding children: a shared responsibility, an NSPCC training pack that was commissioned by the DCSF to support this guidance, which will help those who work with children and families to understand what to do when they have a concern about a child’s welfare.
If you have any concerns that a child may be suffering abuse call the NSPCC Helpline on 0808 800 5000.
1. Wallace, Isla and Bunting, Lisa. (2007) An examination of local, national and international arrangements for the mandatory reporting of child abuse: the implications for Northern Ireland. Belfast: NSPCC Northern Ireland Policy and Research Unit.
2. HM Government (2010). Working together to safeguard children: a guide to inter-agency working to safeguard and promote the welfare of children (PDF). Nottingham: DCSF (Department for Children, Schools and Families).
3. HM Government (2006). What to do if you are worried a child is being abused (PDF). London: The Stationery Office.
Governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have issued their own guidance on child abuse reporting.
Guidance for professionals in Scotland is found in Protecting children: a shared responsibility.4 This states that if abuse is suspected, senior staff or designated child protection officers should be consulted. Alternatively, social work services, the police or the Children's Reporter should be contacted directly for advice. Emphasis is placed on sharing information about suspected abuse with all agencies involved with the child, before deciding what further action to take.
Guidance for Northern Ireland can be found in Cooperating to safeguard children .5 Chapter 5 contains relevant information on handling individual cases. Any referrals should be confirmed in writing within 24 hours.
Guidance for Wales can be found in Safeguarding Children: Working together under the Children Act 2004 .6
See our UK nation pages for the relevant framework, guidance, statistics and legislation specific to protecting children and young people in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
If you have any concerns that a child may be suffering abuse call the NSPCC Helpline on 0808 800 5000.
4. Scottish Office (1998). Protecting children: a shared responsibility: guidance on inter-agency co-operation. Edinburgh: The Stationery Office (TSO).
5. Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) (2003). Cooperating to safeguard children. Belfast: DHSSPS.
6. National Assembly for Wales (2007). Safeguarding children: working together under the Children Act 2004. Cardiff: National Assembly for Wales.
UK government guidance Working together to safeguard children (2010) specifically refers to information sharing in para 2.12: “The cross-government guidance Information Sharing: Guidance for practitioners and managers and associated training materials provides advice on when and how frontline practitioners can share information legally and professionally.”7 In any decision-making process, the child’s best interest must always be the overriding concern.
If a professional believes that a child may be at risk of, or is suffering, significant harm and that they need to refer them to the appropriate authorities, they need to consider whether they have a duty of confidentiality to the child. If this is so, they may share information if they have the consent of the child or if they believe, based on their professional judgement that the sharing of information is in the public interest.8
Any concerns should also be discussed with the family and if possible their agreement should be sought, unless this would put the child at increased risk of significant harm, or if it would undermine any possible criminal investigation.8
If the professional needs to share information and cannot get consent they must consider, on the facts of each case, whether it is in the public interest to share all or some of the information they have. The key factors to consider are necessity and proportionality: “...i.e. whether the proposed sharing is likely to make an effective contribution to preventing the risk and whether the public interest in sharing information overrides the interest in maintaining confidentiality.” (Para 3.40).8
The guidance identifies some circumstances in which the sharing of confidential information without consent would normally pass the public interest test. These are:
If a professional is unsure of what constitutes ‘reasonable cause to believe’ they should discuss their concerns either with their line manager or the member of staff who has the lead role for child protection. Concerns should always be acted upon and any decision on whether to share information or not should always be recorded.
Any information shared should always be accurate, up to date, shared appropriately and securely: only with the person or people who need to know and limited to information relevant to purpose.
In Wales, guidance about information sharing is contained in Chapter 14 of Safeguarding Children: Working together under the Children Act 2004 (National Assembly for Wales, 2007),9 which broadly overlaps with the guidance for professionals in England in that “the safety and welfare of a child or young person must be the first consideration when making decisions about sharing information about them” and that there must be “an overriding public interest in disclosing information.” (para 14.5). However, it also advises that “the best way of ensuring that information sharing is properly handled is to work within carefully worked out information-sharing protocols between the agencies and professionals involved, and taking legal advice in individual cases where necessary.” (para 14.6).
In Scotland, Protecting children: a shared responsibility (Scottish Executive, 1998)10 states that: “Personal information about children and families given to professional agencies is confidential and should be disclosed only for the purposes of protecting children…Ethical and statutory codes for each agency identify those circumstances in which information held by one professional group may be shared with others to protect a child. Agencies should not disclose information given in confidence for any other purpose without consulting the person who provided it." (Para 4.12).
In Northern Ireland, with input from the NSPCC, a draft “information sharing protocol”, has been the subject of consultation with various professional groups including social care staff in Health and Social Care Trusts, the police, Youth Justice Agency, the Department of Education and PSNI Community Safety (Youth Diversion and Domestic Violence). This consultation ended in October 2009, and responses to the latest draft are currently being considered for the production of a final document on information sharing.11
7. HM Government (2010). Working together to safeguard children: a guide to inter-agency working to safeguard and promote the welfare of children (PDF). Nottingham: DCSF (Department for Children, Schools and Families).
8. HM Government (2008). Information sharing: guidance for practitioners and managers (PDF). London: The Stationery Office.
9. National Assembly for Wales (2007). Safeguarding children: working together under the Children Act 2004. Cardiff: National Assembly for Wales.
10. Scottish Office (1998). Protecting children: a shared responsibility: guidance on inter-agency co-operation. Edinburgh: The Stationery Office (TSO).
11. Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) (2009). Targeted consultation on the agreed cross agency information sharing standards and criteria when working with families and children in Northern Ireland. [Known as the Information Sharing Agreement]. [Belfast]: DHSSPS.
Churches and religious organisations
General Medical Council (2007) 0-18 years: guidance for all doctors. London: General Medical Council.
National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) (2009) When to suspect child maltreatment. London: NICE.
Royal College of General Practitioners (2005) Keep me safe: the Royal College of General Practitioners strategy for child protection. London: Royal College of General Practitioners.
Royal College of General Practitioners and NSPCC (2007) Safeguarding children and young people in general practice: a toolkit. London: Royal College of General Practitioners.
Harris, J. et al. (2009) Child protection and the dental team: an introduction to safeguarding children in dental practice. Sheffield: Committee of Postgraduate Dental Deans and Directors (COPDEND).
Nursing and Midwifery
Royal College of Nursing (2007) Safeguarding children and young people: every nurse's responsibility. Guidance for nursing staff (PDF). London: Royal College of Nursing.
Nursing and Midwifery Council (2008) The code: standards of conduct, performance and ethics for nurses and midwives (PDF). London: Nursing and Midwifery Council.
Chartered Society of Physiotherapists: Rules of professional conduct for chartered physiotherapists. London: Chartered Society of Physiotherapists
Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain (2007) Guidance on child protection (PDF). London: Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain.
Department for Education and Skills (DfES) (2006) Safeguarding children and safer recruitment in education (PDF). London: Department for Education and Skills.
British Psychological Society (2007) Child protection portfolio (PDF). Leicester: British Psychological Society.
We provide a wide range of training courses in child protection for all those who work with children, young people and families.
Child abuse reporting is covered in various modules in the NSPCC EduCare child protection awareness programme.
Please note that this content is of a general nature, and may not represent a comprehensive review of the literature. Search the NSPCC Library Online for more publications using the keywords "child abuse reporting" or "reporting laws".