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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Child protection statistics in the UK

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

Explanation: There were 92,953 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.

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

Explanation: There were 56,231 children in the UK on child protection registers or the subject of child protection plans on 31 March 2014 (or 31 July 2014 in Scotland). This is based on figures from each UK nation.

See our summary of child protection register statistics in the UK (PDF).

Over 29,000 children and young people talked to ChildLine about abuse last year

Explanation: In 2014/15 ChildLine carried out 29,126 counselling sessions with children and young people about some form of abuse.

To find out more see our most recent ChildLine annual report "Always there when I need you": ChildLine review: what's affected children in April 2014 - March 2015.

Police recorded almost 9,500 offences of cruelty and neglect against children last year

Explanation: Police recorded 9,516 cruelty and neglect offences against children under 16 in the UK in 2013/14. 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’”. It does not include sexual offences against children.

illustration of umbrella

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

Explanation: For every child placed on a child protection plan or the child protection register, we estimate there are another 8 children who are suffering from abuse and neglect and not getting the support they need.

Our calculation is based on the proportion of children who experienced maltreatment at the hands of their parents/carers in the previous year identified through research compared with the number of children who are on a child protection plan or the child protection register.

To find out more see our annual report How safe are our children? 2013.

Our helpline responded to over 61,000 contacts last year from people with concerns about a child's welfare

Explanation: The NSPCC’s helpline responded to 61,709 contacts in 2014/15, 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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How safe are our children? conference 2016

How safe are our children? is the NSPCC’s annual flagship conference for everyone working 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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A free weekly email listing all of the new child protection publications added to our library collection.

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Helping you keep children safe

Read our guide for professionals and organisations 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 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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Sharing knowledge to keep children safe

Read our guide to NSPCC Knowledge and Information Services 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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Domestic abuse in the spotlight

Our service evaluations have shown that by focusing on family relationships, we can improve the outcomes for children who’ve been exposed to domestic abuse.
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