Child protection in the UK

How the systems and laws of the UK and its 4 nations work to keep children safe from abuse and harm.

The UK’s 4 nations – England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales – have their own child protection system and laws to help protect children from abuse and neglect. Each nation has a framework of legislation, guidance and practice to identify children who are at risk of harm, and take action to protect those children and prevent further abuse occurring.

The child protection system across the UK

Each UK nation is responsible for its own policies and laws around education, health and social welfare. This covers most aspects of safeguarding and child protection.

Laws are passed to prevent behaviour that can harm children or require action to protect children. Guidance sets out what organisations should do to play their part to keep children safe.

Although the child protection systems are different in each nation, they are all based on similar principles.

England

How the child protection system works from reporting, investigations and care proceedings including facts, statistics and case reviews.

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Northern Ireland

How the child protection system works from reporting, investigations and care proceedings including facts, statistics and case reviews.

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Scotland

How the child protection system works from reporting, investigations and care proceedings including facts, statistics and case reviews.

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Wales

How the child protection system works from reporting, investigations and care proceedings including facts, statistics and case reviews.

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Children in care

Find out about definitions, risk factors and what we can do to help protect children in care.
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A child's legal rights

Find out what the law defines as a child, and what children's rights are in UK law.
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Case reviews

Find out how to find published reports and what learning comes from case reviews around safeguarding children.
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Child protection statistics in the UK

Almost 2,000 children in Northern Ireland were identified as needing protection from abuse last year

1,914 children were on child protection registers in Northern Ireland at 31 March 2014
These figures represent children identified and assessed as being at risk of significant harm.

See also our overview of child protection register statistics for Northern Ireland.

 

There are over 5,700 children in care in Wales.

5,770 children were “looked after” in Wales at 31 March 2013.
Children become looked-after when they are under the care of the local authority. Looked-after children are often referred to as children in care.
545 of these children were living at home with their parents.
3,925 of these children were looked after due to abuse or neglect.

Last year over 2,600 children in Scotland were identified as needing protection from abuse

2,681 children were on the child protection register in Scotland on 31 July 2013.

See also our overview of child protection register statistics for Scotland.

illustration of umbrella

Over 48,000 children in England were identified as needing protection from abuse last year

48,300 children were the subject of a child protection plan at 31 March 2014. These figures represent children identified and assessed as being at risk of significant harm.

See also our overview of child protection register statistics for England.

There are currently over 92,000 children in care in UK.

This figure relates to children who have looked-after child status. It includes children who live at home under the terms of their care plan. An estimated 60,447 children are in care because of abuse or neglect. It is not possible to get an exact number for the UK as Scotland and Northern Ireland do not publish reasons for being in care. The figures for looked-after children in Scotland also include children in the criminal justice system.


When child protection concerns are reported to the authorities, they will investigate and assess whether the child is at risk of “significant harm”. If so, they will be placed on a child protection register (or in England, made the subject of a child protection plan) or taken into care if they’re unable to live safely with their parents. 

These statistics under-represent the number of children in the UK who have suffered abuse, but they do give an indication of the number of children who are known to be at risk right now.

The history of the UK child protection system

Before devolution, child protection legislation across the UK was made and passed by Westminster. Nations had their own laws but the framework set out by the different acts was broadly similar.

Since 1999 the process of devolution has seen power and responsibility transferred from Westminster to national governments in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

Legislation to prosecute people accused of child cruelty has been in force since the 1880s but it has taken a series of high profile child abuse deaths and subsequent inquiries to establish the child protection system we have today:

1945 The first formal child death inquiry in England was the Curtis Committee Report into the death of Dennis O'Neill, who was killed at the age of 12 by his foster father.

1973 The death of 7-year-old Maria Colwell led to the establishment of our modern child protection system.

1984 Further changes were prompted partly by the inquiries into several other child deaths, including 4-year-old Jasmine Beckford. 

1989 The Children Act 1989 established the legislative framework for the current child protection system in England and Wales. The Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 and the Children (Scotland) Act 1995 set out the same for the other UK nations. 

2000 The death of 8-year-old Victoria Climbie led to Lord Laming’s report which led to sweeping changes to the way children's services were structured in England and Wales. 

2002 The deaths of 10 year olds Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman in Soham led to the strengthening of legislation across the UK to protect children from adults who pose a risk to them.

Further advice and support for professionals

CASPAR

Our Current Awareness Service for Practice, Policy And Research delivers free weekly email alerts to keep you up-to-date with all the latest safeguarding and child protection news.

CASPAR is currently being upgraded but you can still sign up by contacting our Information Service.

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How safe are our children? conference 2015

How safe are our children? is the NSPCC’s annual flagship conference for everyone working in child protection.
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Information Service

Our free service for people who work with children can help you find the latest policy, practice, research and news on child protection and related subjects.

For more information, call us or email help@nspcc.org.uk.

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Follow @NSPCCpro

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Library catalogue

We hold the UK's largest collection of child protection resources and the only UK database specialising in published material on child protection, child abuse and child neglect.

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New in the Library

A free weekly email listing all of the new child protection publications added to our library collection.

New in the Library is currently being upgraded but you can still sign up by contacting our Information Service.

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Impact and evidence hub

Find out how we evaluate and research the impact we’re making in protecting children, get tips and tools for researchers and access resources.

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Training and consultancy

We train and support individuals and organisations, teaching them the skills and procedures that help keep children safe.
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