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, Northern Ireland, Scotland 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.


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

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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 our work with looked after children, the challenges in care and what the law says.
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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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Family issues children experience

Parental mental health

Helping children living with parents with mental health problems.
Read more about parental mental health

Parental substance misuse

Supporting children living with parents who misuse alcohol and drugs.
Read more about parental substance misuse

Domestic abuse

Witnessing domestic abuse is child abuse, and teenagers can suffer domestic abuse in their relationships. 
Read more about domestic abuse

Child protection statistics in the UK

There are currently 64,000 children in care in the UK in 2017

Explanation: There were 94,307 children in care in the UK at 31 March 2016 (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:

See also Indicator 17 in How safe are our children? 2018.

There were over 58,000 children identified as needing protection from abuse in the UK in 2017

Explanation: There were 58,533 children in the UK on child protection registers or the subject of child protection plans on 31 March 2017 (or 31 July 2017 in Scotland). This is based on figures from each UK nation.

For the source of these figures please see our summary of child protection register and plan statistics in the UK (PDF).

See also Indicator 13 in How safe are our children? 2018.

View the trend graph for Children subject to child protection plans or on registers (rate per 10,000 children) in the UK (PNG).

Police recorded over 14,000 offences of cruelty and neglect against children in 2015/16

Explanation: Police recorded 14,100 cruelty and neglect offences against children under 16 in the UK in 2015/16. This measure shows the number of offences recorded by the police where a parent or carer "wilfully assaults, ill-treats, neglects, abandons or exposes a child under 16 in a manner likely to cause them 'unnecessary suffering or injury to health'.

See also Indicator 5 in How safe are our children? 2017.

View the trend graphs for:

Our helpline responded to over 66,000 contacts last year from people with concerns about a child's welfare

Explanation: The NSPCC’s helpline responded to 66,218 contacts in 2016/17, from people who were concerned about a child’s welfare.

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.

Support for professionals


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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.

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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

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Helping you keep children safe

Read our guide for professionals on what we do and the ways we can work with you to protect children and prevent abuse and neglect.

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Impact and evidence

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

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Sharing knowledge to keep children safe

Read our guide to the NSPCC Knowledge and Information Service to find out how we can help you with child protection queries, support your research, and help you learn and develop.

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