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

There are currently over 93,000 children in care in the UK

There were 93,033 children in care in the UK at 31 March 2014 (31 July in Scotland). 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. The figures for looked-after children in Scotland also include children in the criminal justice system.

Looked after children by UK nation:

England: 68,840
Department for Education (2014) Table A1 in Children looked after in England, including adoption: national tables (XLSX). London: Department for Education.

Northern Ireland: 2,858
Iain Waugh (2014) Section three of Children's social care statistics Northern Ireland 2013/14 (PDF). Belfast: Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety.

Scotland: 15,580
Scottish Government (2015) Children's Social Work Statistics Scotland, 2013-14. Edinburgh: Scottish Government.

Wales: 5,675
Welsh Government (2015) Children in need at 31 March by looked after status, category of need and disability, including unborn children. Cardiff: StatsWales.

People

There are currently over 50,000 children identified as needing protection from abuse in the UK

There were 50,732 children in the UK on child protection registers or the subject of child protection plans on 31 March 2013 (or 31 July 2013 in Scotland). This is based on figures from each UK nation.

Over 62,000 children and young people talked to ChildLine about abuse last year

In 2012/13, ChildLine was contacted nearly 32,890 times by children and young people who had experienced some form of abuse. Abuse was also mentioned in a further 29,408 counselling sessions as an additional concern. This means that abuse was mentioned in a total of 62,296 counselling sessions.

Police recorded almost 8,000 offences of cruelty and neglect against children last year

There were 7,964 cruelty and neglect offences recorded by the police in the UK in 2012/13. This total does not include sexual offences against children.

See Indicator 5 (PDF) for information on the number of recorded cruelty and neglect offences.

illustration of umbrella

We estimate that for every child identified as needing protection from abuse, another 8 are suffering abuse

For every child placed on a child protection plan or the child protection register, we estimate there are another eight children who are suffering from abuse and neglect and not getting the support they need. Calculation based on the proportion of children who experienced maltreatment at the hands of their parents/carers in the previous year (Radford et al, 2011) compared with the number of children who are on a child protection plan or the child protection register.

The NSPCC's helpline responded to over 50,000 contacts last year from people with concerns about a child's welfare

The NSPCC’s helpline responded to 50,989 contacts in 2012/13, from people who were concerned about a child’s welfare.


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.

0808 800 5000

Submit an enquiry

Follow @NSPCCpro

Follow us on Twitter and keep up-to-date with all the latest news in child protection.

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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.

Our impact and evidence

Training and consultancy

We train and support individuals and organisations, teaching them the skills and procedures that help keep children safe.
Find out more about training and consultancy

References

  1. Radford, L. et al (2011) Child abuse and neglect in the UK today. London: NSPCC.