Sexual abuse Legislation, policy and guidance

England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales each have their own guidance for how professionals must respond to child abuse and protect children from harm, which includes sexual abuse.

Each nation also has a legislative framework to protect children from adults who may pose a risk of sexual harm and to deal with adults who have sexually offended against children.

Below is a summary of the government policy and guidance for responding to child sexual abuse in each nation.

Official definitions

There is no standard definition of child sexual abuse. The government for each nation provides a definition in its child protection guidelines.

"Involves forcing or enticing a child or young person to take part in sexual activities, not necessarily involving a high level of violence, whether or not the child is aware of what is happening.

"The activities may involve physical contact, including assault by penetration (for example, rape or oral sex) or non-penetrative acts such as masturbation, kissing, rubbing and touching outside of clothing. They may also include non-contact activities, such as involving children in looking at, or in the production of, sexual images, watching sexual activities, encouraging children to behave in sexually inappropriate ways, or grooming a child in preparation for abuse (including via the internet).

"Sexual abuse is not solely perpetrated by adult males. Women can also commit acts of sexual abuse, as can other children."

(HM Government, 2015)

Download Working together to safeguard children: a guide to inter-agency working to safeguard and promote the welfare of children (PDF)

“Sexual abuse occurs when others use and exploit children sexually for their own gratification or gain or the gratification of others. Sexual abuse may involve physical contact, including assault by penetration (for example, rape, or oral sex) or non-penetrative acts such as masturbation, kissing, rubbing and touching outside clothing. It may include non-contact activities, such as involving children in the production of sexual images, forcing children to look at sexual images or watch sexual activities, encouraging children to behave in sexually inappropriate ways or grooming a child in preparation for abuse (including via e-technology). Sexual abuse is not solely perpetrated by adult males. Women can commit acts of sexual abuse, as can other children."

(Department of Heath Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS), 2016)

View Co-operating to safeguard children and young people in Northern Ireland

"Sexual abuse is any act that involves the child in any activity for the sexual gratification of another person, whether or not it is claimed that the child either consented or assented.

"Sexual abuse involves forcing or enticing a child to take part in sexual activities, whether or not the child is aware of what is happening. The activities may involve physical contact, including penetrative or non-penetrative acts. They may include non-contact activities, such as involving children in looking at, or in the production of, pornographic material or in watching sexual activities, using sexual language towards a child or encouraging children to behave in sexually inappropriate ways."

(Scottish Government, 2010)

Download National guidance for child protection in Scotland (PDF)

"Forcing or enticing a child or young person to take part in sexual activities, whether or not the child is aware of what is happening, including:

  • physical contact, including penetrative or non-penetrative acts;
  • non-contact activities, such as involving children in looking at, or in the production of, pornographic material or watching sexual activities;
  • or encouraging children to behave in sexually inappropriate ways."

(Welsh Assembly Government, 2006)

Download Safeguarding children: working together under the Children Act 2004 (PDF)

Legislation

Sexual offences legislation makes it clear what constitutes a sexual offence against a child and states what is an appropriate sentence.

Sex Offenders Act 1997

Created the sex offenders notification arrangements through a series of monitoring and reporting requirements.

View the Sex Offenders Act 1997

Sexual Offences Act 2003

Made changes to the sexual crimes laws in England and Wales, and to some extent Northern Ireland and Scotland. Established a series of changes to sex offender notification arrangements.

View the Sexual Offences Act 2003

Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006

Established vetting and barring arrangements for England and Wales and to some extent Northern Ireland. Established the Independent Safeguarding Authority to prevent unsuitable adults working with children and makes barring decisions.

View the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006

Criminal Justice Act 2003

Part 13 sets out arrangements for assessing risks posed by sexual or violent offenders. Led to the establishment of Multi Agency Public Protection Arrangements (MAPPA).

View the Criminal Justice Act 2003 Part 13

Sex Offenders Act 1997

Created the sex offenders notification arrangements through a series of monitoring and reporting requirements.

View the Sex Offenders Act 1997

Sexual Offences Act 2003

Made changes to the sexual crimes laws in England and Wales, and to some extent Northern Ireland and Scotland. Established a series of changes to sex offender notification arrangements.

View the Sexual Offences Act 2003

Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006

Established vetting and barring arrangements for England and Wales and to some extent Northern Ireland. Established the Independent Safeguarding Authority to prevent unsuitable adults working with children and makes barring decisions.

View the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006

The Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups (Northern Ireland) Order 2007

Replaced the Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults (Northern Ireland) Order 2003.

View The Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups (Northern Ireland) Order 2007

The Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2008

Updated sexual offences legislation in Northern Ireland bringing it largely into line with that in England and Wales, including lowering the age of consent from 17 to 16 years.

View The Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2008

Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland) Order 2008

Placed a legal requirement on agencies (including police, probation, health and social care, the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and the NSPCC) to cooperate and share information to better assess and manage risk posed by sexual or violent offenders. Led to the establishment of the Public Protection Arrangements (PPANI).

View the Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland) Order 2008 Part 3

Sex Offenders Act 1997

Created the sex offenders notification arrangements through a series of monitoring and reporting requirements.

View the Sex Offenders Act 1997

Sexual Offences Act 2003

Made changes to the sexual crimes laws in England and Wales, and to some extent Northern Ireland and Scotland. Established a series of changes to sex offender notification arrangements.

View the Sexual Offences Act 2003

Protection of Children (Scotland) Act 2003

Sets out measures to prevent unsuitable adults from working with children.

View the Protection of Children (Scotland) Act 2003

Protection of Children and Prevention of Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2005

Made it an offence to meet or arrange to meet a child following grooming and sets out other measures to protect children from sexual abuse.

View the Protection of Children and Prevention of Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2005

Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2009

Provides definitions of sexual offences and consent. Part 4 of the Act provides for offences relating to sexual behaviour towards children. Part 5 provides for offences concerning sexual abuse of trust. Came into force on 1 December 2010.

View the Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2009

Protection of Vulnerable Groups (Scotland) Act 2007

Introduced the offences of employing a barred person in regulated activity and imposed a legal duty on organisations to refer information if they believe an employee or volunteer has harmed, or may have harmed, a child.

View the Protection of Vulnerable Groups (Scotland) Act 2007

Management of Offenders etc. (Scotland) Act 2005

Sets out arrangements for assessing risks posed by sexual or violent offenders. Led to the establishment of Multi Agency Public Protection Arrangements (MAPPA).

View the Management of Offenders etc. (Scotland) Act 2005 Sections 10 and 11

Sex Offenders Act 1997

Created the sex offenders notification arrangements through a series of monitoring and reporting requirements.

View the Sex Offenders Act 1997

Sexual Offences Act 2003

Made changes to the sexual crimes laws in England and Wales, and to some extent Northern Ireland and Scotland. Established a series of changes to sex offender notification arrangements.

View the Sexual Offences Act 2003

Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006

Established vetting and barring arrangements for England and Wales and to some extent Northern Ireland. Established the Independent Safeguarding Authority to prevent unsuitable adults working with children and makes barring decisions.

View the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006

Criminal Justice Act 2003

Part 13 sets out arrangements for assessing risks posed by sexual or violent offenders. Led to the establishment of Multi Agency Public Protection Arrangements (MAPPA).

View the Criminal Justice Act 2003 Part 13

Policy

The Government for each nation has set out a strategy for tackling child sexual abuse.

Ending violence against women and girls (VAWG): strategy 2016-2020

(Home Office, 2016)

The government published a new VAWG strategy in March 2016. The strategy outlines a shift from crisis response to early intervention and prevention. 

The strategy includes an action plan for its delivery focusing on: preventing violence and abuse; preventing online abuse and exploitation; provision of services; partnership working and pursuing perpetrators.

Measures include:

    • A Service Transformation Fund to promote projects which stop violence before it happens and prevent abusive behaviour from becoming entrenched.
    • Work with local authorities on changing the attitudes and behaviours of perpetrators through rehabilitation and mental health interventions.
    • Harnessing new technologies in police work such as body worn cameras and GPS tracking to protect victims.
    • A new National Statement of Expectations (NSE) to make clear to local authorities what good commissioning and service provision look like. A new network of local and national experts will support local councils and a range of tools and guidance will be published to help them meet the needs of all victims.

Visit Ending violence against women and girls in the UK policy pages

Ending violence against women and girls (VAWG): strategy 2016-2020 (PDF)

 

Seminar series on child sexual abuse

(All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Child Protection and NSPCC, 2014)

Report summarising a series of seminars on child sexual abuse held by the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Child Protection and NSPCC. Sets out recommendations made to the Government to better protect and support children from sexual abuse. The seminars brought together experts, practitioners and politicians to discuss intra-familial abuse; peer to peer sexual abuse and young people's harmful sexual behaviour; and prevention of child sexual abuse within institutions. Young people contributed to the seminar series through an online chat and written submissions.

Download Child Protection All Party Parliamentary Group seminar series on child sexual abuse: recommendations for the prevention of child sexual abuse and better support for victims (PDF).

Sexual Violence against Children and Vulnerable People

(HM Government, 2013)

The Sexual Violence Against Children and Vulnerable People National Group (SVACV) is a panel of experts and policy makers brought together by the Home Office to co-ordinate and implement the learning from recent inquiries into historical child sexual abuse and current sexual violence prevention issues. They published a progress report and an action plan in July 2013.

Download Sexual Violence against Children and Vulnerable People National Group progress report and action plan

Download Multi-agency working and information sharing project: early findings

Seminar series on child sexual abuse

(All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Child Protection and NSPCC, 2014)

Report summarising a series of seminars on child sexual abuse held by the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Child Protection and NSPCC. Sets out recommendations made to the Government to better protect and support children from sexual abuse. The seminars brought together experts, practitioners and politicians to discuss intra-familial abuse; peer to peer sexual abuse and young people's harmful sexual behaviour; and prevention of child sexual abuse within institutions. Young people contributed to the seminar series through an online chat and written submissions.

Download Child Protection All Party Parliamentary Group seminar series on child sexual abuse: recommendations for the prevention of child sexual abuse and better support for victims (PDF).

Stopping domestic and sexual violence and abuse in Northern Ireland: a seven year strategy 

(Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) and Department of Justice, 2016)

The strategy has 5 strands:

  • Driving change through co-operation and leadership. Focuses on collaborative working and promoting a more cohesive approach to tackling domestic and sexual violence and abuse.
  • Prevention and early intervention. Focuses on primary prevention through increasing knowledge and understanding of violence and abuse, promoting healthy relationships, changing social attitudes towards violence and early intervention.
  • Delivering change through responsive services. Focuses on preventing further violence and abuse towards those at risk of re-victimisation. This will involve greater focus on training and expertise, as well as further development of specialist services.
  • Support. Help for victims of domestic and / or sexual violence and abuse will include: educational support services, housing support, outreach and advocacy services and improving access to more specialist psychological interventions.
  • Protection and justice. Focuses on continually improving the protection and justice available to victims of violence and abuse, and their families.

Download Stopping Domestic and Sexual Violence and Abuse in Northern Ireland: a Seven Year Strategy (PDF)

Seminar series on child sexual abuse

(All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Child Protection and NSPCC, 2014)

Report summarising a series of seminars on child sexual abuse held by the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Child Protection and NSPCC. Sets out recommendations made to the Government to better protect and support children from sexual abuse. The seminars brought together experts, practitioners and politicians to discuss intra-familial abuse; peer to peer sexual abuse and young people's harmful sexual behaviour; and prevention of child sexual abuse within institutions. Young people contributed to the seminar series through an online chat and written submissions.

Download Child Protection All Party Parliamentary Group seminar series on child sexual abuse: recommendations for the prevention of child sexual abuse and better support for victims (PDF).

Seminar series on child sexual abuse

(All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Child Protection and NSPCC, 2014)

Report summarising a series of seminars on child sexual abuse held by the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Child Protection and NSPCC. Sets out recommendations made to the Government to better protect and support children from sexual abuse. The seminars brought together experts, practitioners and politicians to discuss intra-familial abuse; peer to peer sexual abuse and young people's harmful sexual behaviour; and prevention of child sexual abuse within institutions. Young people contributed to the seminar series through an online chat and written submissions.

Download Child Protection All Party Parliamentary Group seminar series on child sexual abuse: recommendations for the prevention of child sexual abuse and better support for victims (PDF).

Ending violence against women and girls (VAWG): strategy 2016-2020

(Home Office, 2016)

The government published a new VAWG strategy in March 2016. The strategy outlines a shift from crisis response to early intervention and prevention. 

The strategy includes an action plan for its delivery focusing on: preventing violence and abuse; preventing online abuse and exploitation; provision of services; partnership working and pursuing perpetrators.

Measures include:

    • A Service Transformation Fund to promote projects which stop violence before it happens and prevent abusive behaviour from becoming entrenched.
    • Work with local authorities on changing the attitudes and behaviours of perpetrators through rehabilitation and mental health interventions.
    • Harnessing new technologies in police work such as body worn cameras and GPS tracking to protect victims.
    • A new National Statement of Expectations (NSE) to make clear to local authorities what good commissioning and service provision look like. A new network of local and national experts will support local councils and a range of tools and guidance will be published to help them meet the needs of all victims.

Visit Ending violence against women and girls in the UK policy pages

Ending violence against women and girls (VAWG): strategy 2016-2020 (PDF)

 

Sexual Violence against Children and Vulnerable People

(HM Government, 2013)

The Sexual Violence Against Children and Vulnerable People National Group (SVACV) is a panel of experts and policy makers brought together by the Home Office to co-ordinate and implement the learning from recent inquiries into historical child sexual abuse and current sexual violence prevention issues. They published a progress report and an action plan in July 2013.

Download Sexual Violence against Children and Vulnerable People National Group progress report and action plan

Download Multi-agency working and information sharing project: early findings

Guidance

Includes key messages for practice for professionals working to safeguard children at risk of sexual abuse. 

Working together to safeguard children

(HM Government, 2015)

Chapters 1-3 provide guidance on the legislative requirements and expectations on services to safeguard and promote the welfare of children, covering: assessing need and providing help; organisational responsibilities, including the requirement to appoint a qualified social worker to the role of designated officer for the management of allegations, unless the candidate has previous experience in the role; and, the statutory objectives and functions of Local Safeguarding Children Boards (LSCBs).

Chapter 4 sets out a learning and improvement framework for LSCBs to monitor the effectiveness of local services and includes: a section on what constitutes a notifiable incident; a definition of 'serious harm' for the purposes of Serious Case Reviews.

Chapter 5 provides guidance on child death reviews listing specific responsibilities of relevant bodies in relation to child deaths.

Download Working together to safeguard children: a guide to inter-agency working to safeguard and promote the welfare of children (PDF)

Read more about the changes made to the statutory guidance in 2015 on the Legislation, policy and guidance for England page.

Guidance on the Sexual Offences Act 2003

Home Office guidance. Part 1 provides an explanation of what each sexual offence covers, cases where it can be used and maximum penalty. Part 2 deals with provision for sex offenders and provides guidance for police and practitioners on the notification requirements for registered sex offenders and Sexual Harm Prevention Orders (SHPOs) and Sexual Risk Orders (SROs).

View Guidance on part 1 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003
(Home Office, 2004)

View Guidance on part 2 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003
(Home Office, 2015)

Guidelines on prosecuting cases of child sexual abuse

(Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), 2013)

Sets out the approach that prosecutors should take when dealing with cases involving child sexual abuse. Guidelines cover: how cases will be managed within the Crown Prosecution Service; supporting victims and witnesses; identifying children who may be at risk of sexual exploitation; adult victims of childhood sexual abuse; and assessing the credibility of child abuse allegations. Directs prosecutors to focus on the credibility of allegations rather than whether or not victims make good witnesses.

View Guidelines on prosecuting cases of child sexual abuse

Multi Agency Public Protection Arrangements (MAPPAs)

(Ministry of Justice, 2012)

MAPPAs are a set of statutory partnership working arrangements that require local criminal justice services and other agencies to work together in partnership in dealing with sexual and violent offenders. They were established by the Criminal Justice Act 2003 and apply to all 42 criminal justice areas in England and Wales.The current guidance for England and Wales was published in 2012. It identifies operational practices and agency responsibilities in relation to MAPPAs. Chapters cover case reviews and the handling of children or young people who are convicted of a serious sexual or violent offence.

Download MAPPA guidance 2012: version 4 

Child sex offender disclosure scheme

Allows anyone to formally ask the police if someone with access to a child has a record for child sexual offences. Police will reveal details confidentially to the person most able to protect the child (usually parents, carers or guardians) if they think it is in the child’s interests. Available across all 43 police forces in England and Wales. Also sometimes known as “Sarah’s Law”.

Find out more in our Child sex offender disclosure scheme factsheet (PDF)

Safeguarding sexually active children

(London Safeguarding Children Board, 2006)

Local guidance designed to help professionals to identify where children and young people’s sexual relationships may be abusive and the children and young people may need the provision of protection or additional services.

Download Safeguarding sexually active children

Co-operating to Safeguard Children and young people in Northern Ireland

Replaces the ‘Co-operating to Safeguard Children’ guidance issued in 2003. It provides the overarching policy framework for safeguarding children and young people in the statutory, private, independent, community, voluntary and faith sectors. Outlines how communities, organisations and individuals must work both individually and in partnership to ensure children and young people are safeguarded as effectively as possible.

View Co-operating to safeguard children and young people in Northern Ireland
(Department of Health, 2016)

Leaflets on the Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2008

(NI Direct, 2009)

A series of leaflets for the public and practitioners as well as guidance for practitioners and professionals.

View the leaflets on the Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2008

Guidance to agencies: public protection arrangements

(Northern Ireland Office, 2008)

Sets out how agencies must protect the public from serious sexual and violent offenders.

Download the Guidance to agencies: public protection arrangements (PDF)

Public Protection Arrangements in Northern Ireland (PPANI)

The Public Protection Arrangements (PPANI) are statutory requirements for police, probation and other agencies to cooperate and share information to better assess and manage risks posed by sexual and violent offenders when they are released into the community.

The operational functions of PPANI are carried out by Local Area Public Protection Panels (LAPPP) meetings.

PPANI were introduced in October 2008 following provisions made in Part 3 of the Criminal Justice (NI) Order 2008. They replaced the regional Multi Agency Sex Offender Risks Assessment and Management (MASRAM) and extend the scope of public protection to include sexual and violent offenders.

Visit the Public Protection Arrangements in Northern Ireland (PPANI) website

National guidance for child protection in Scotland

(Scottish Government, 2010)

Provides the current guidance and a national framework for anyone who could face child protection issues at work. Further guidance has been published for health professionals, and protecting disabled children.

Download National guidance for child protection in Scotland (PDF)

Underage sexual activity

(Scottish Government, 2010)

Aimed at practitioners in Scotland who work with or have a duty of care towards children and young people. Focuses on how agencies and practitioner should respond to under age sexual activity, outlining how to develop local protocols to ensure early identification and support for children and young people at risk of significant harm. Includes criteria to assist practitioners when assessing risks and children's needs and advice on the action to be taken.

Download the National guidance: underage sexual activity: meeting the needs of children and young people and identifying child protection concerns (PDF)

Guidance on the Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2009

(Scottish Government, 2010)

Part 4 covers offences relating to sexual behaviour towards children. Part 5 is on offences concerning sexual abuse of trust. This guidance was issued in October 2010 and the Act came into force on 1 December 2010.

Download the Guidance on the Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2009 (PDF)

Sex Offender Community Disclosure Scheme

The Sex Offender Community Disclosure Scheme allows parents, carers and guardians of children under 18 years old to ask the Police Scotland if someone who has contact with their child has a record for sexual offences against children, or other offences that could put that child at risk.

View Sex Offender Community Disclosure Scheme guidance

Multi Agency Public Protection Arrangements (MAPPA)

(Scottish Government, 2014)

MAPPAs are a set of statutory partnership working arrangements that require local criminal justice services and other agencies to work together in partnership in dealing with sexual and violent offenders. They were introduced in 2007 by Sections 10 and 11 of The Management of Offenders etc. (Scotland) Act 2005.

Download Multi Agency Public Protection Arrangements (MAPPA): national guidance (PDF)

Safeguarding children: working together under the Children Act 2004

(Welsh Government, 2004)

Sets out the Welsh Government's guidance on child protection and safeguarding for local authorities in Wales.

View Safeguarding children: working together under the Children Act 2004

All Wales child protection procedures

(All Wales Child Protection Procedures Review Group, 2008)

Provides a common set of child protection procedures for every safeguarding board in Wales.

View All Wales child protection procedures

Guidance on the Sexual Offences Act 2003

Home Office guidance. Part 1 provides an explanation of what each sexual offence covers, cases where it can be used and maximum penalty. Part 2 deals with provision for sex offenders and provides guidance for police and practitioners on the notification requirements for registered sex offenders and Sexual Harm Prevention Orders (SHPOs) and Sexual Risk Orders (SROs).

View Guidance on part 1 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003
(Home Office, 2004)

View Guidance on part 2 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003
(Home Office, 2015)

Guidelines on prosecuting cases of child sexual abuse

(Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), 2013)

Sets out the approach that prosecutors should take when dealing with cases involving child sexual abuse. Guidelines cover: how cases will be managed within the Crown Prosecution Service; supporting victims and witnesses; identifying children who may be at risk of sexual exploitation; adult victims of childhood sexual abuse; and assessing the credibility of child abuse allegations. Directs prosecutors to focus on the credibility of allegations rather than whether or not victims make good witnesses.

View Guidelines on prosecuting cases of child sexual abuse

Multi Agency Public Protection Arrangements (MAPPAs)

(Ministry of Justice, 2012)

MAPPAs are a set of statutory partnership working arrangements that require local criminal justice services and other agencies to work together in partnership in dealing with sexual and violent offenders. They were established by the Criminal Justice Act 2003 and apply to all 42 criminal justice areas in England and Wales.The current guidance for England and Wales was published in 2012. It identifies operational practices and agency responsibilities in relation to MAPPAs. Chapters cover case reviews and the handling of children or young people who are convicted of a serious sexual or violent offence.

Download MAPPA guidance 2012: version 4 

Child sex offender disclosure scheme

Allows anyone to formally ask the police if someone with access to a child has a record for child sexual offences. Police will reveal details confidentially to the person most able to protect the child (usually parents, carers or guardians) if they think it is in the child’s interests. Available across all 43 police forces in England and Wales. Also sometimes known as “Sarah’s Law”.

Find out more in our Child sex offender disclosure scheme factsheet (PDF)

All Wales review on child sexual abuse prevention

(Stop it now! Wales, 2012)

In 2012 Stop it Now! Wales published a review of current responses to child sexual abuse prevention and identified areas of good practice and areas in need of improvement.

Download All Wales review on child sexual abuse preventio (PDF)

Visit Stop it now! Wales

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