NSPCC CEO keynote speech from 'How safe are our children?' conference

Peter Wanless, NSPCC CEO argues that we have reached a 'watershed moment' in child protection

As I look back over the year, since we last gathered for How Safe, I am struck by the huge array of things that have happened, come to light, been tackled and most importantly have changed.

I am proud that the NSPCC can be such a driving force for good; a trusted authority on child protection, not only through its thought leadership and campaigns but by delivering innovative and essential services to some of the most vulnerable children and families in the UK. But acting alone, we are tiny in comparison to the need of children. The opportunity to fight for every childhood is something everyone can play a part in and something many beyond the NSPCC dedicate their lives to. Only by working together can we achieve lasting change on the scale and at the pace required.

Everyone can play a part in keeping children safe; our 'Flaw in the Law' campaign mobilised over 50,000 people to make sure it's always illegal for adults to send sexual messages to children in England and Wales. We lobbied for this based on a law that already existed in Scotland. And we were then able to persuade politicians in Northern Ireland to make the change too.

We've worked with the University of Stirling to design a post-qualifying course for experienced child protection practitioners that focuses on practicing skills; in Wales we are part of the National Strategic FGM Leadership Group convened by the Welsh Government and, as part of that group, helped develop a national training programme; and in Northern Ireland the NSPCC is collaborating with primary schools to embed preventative action to child sexual abuse in the school curriculum.

And, across the whole of the UK our ground-breaking Schools Services uses specially trained local volunteers to equip a generation of 9-11 year olds with an understanding of abuse and how to speak out for help. We are a truly UK-wide organisation, working to improve outcomes for children across the four nations.

Many of those achievements would have been impossible without the support and dedication of those of you in this room. Thank you.

In the previous 12 months, while horrified by the stories of abuse that have come to light, I've been heartened by the willingness shown to address these issues, to find support for those that have suffered abuse, and to make changes. In some cases very difficult changes to ensure that it is easier to protect children.

But I believe now is a watershed moment and we have to capitalise on it. Confidence to speak up and speak out about abuse must be matched by actions to support those at risk or already suffering the consequences.

It did not escape my attention that we recently had a General Election. I am sure it did not escape yours. But in that hard fought campaign, what did seem to escape the attention of most of our politicians was the question of child protection.

We have heard fantastic rhetoric over the last year from politicians of all parties, but when it came to the moment to stand on a platform at a hustings or in the much vaunted televised debates and say, "vote for me because I will tackle this issue and this really matters" – the subject of child abuse was largely absent.

The question we have to ask is whether this is partly our fault. Up and down the country people express greater passion and indignation about the regularity of their bin collection timetables than on whether children are safe.

This is a very real problem. The NSPCC has thousands of supporters but there are millions of voters. We need to ensure that it is not just in moments of crisis that child protection shoots up the agenda. That it's not just during horrific moments after the event that the bells sound loudly.

The worst possible world would be constant cases like Savile, Harris, Janner, Baby P, Daniel Pelka or Rotherham. Picking up the pieces again and again and again. Focusing on failure and remedial action plans. Prevention is key. We need to focus on awareness and understanding of where children might be at risk and see that many more people – like the Manchester barman - have the confidence to speak up when they are unsure about what they see.

I am not naïve enough to think that child protection will dominate the minds of our political classes.

However, they must not be naïve enough think that turning to it every time it captures a headline will be sufficient to sort out the very serious issues that pervade the fabric of our society.

Every week the NSPCC sees our media and our politicians confront the consequences of child protection failures and we think we've been talking about that for years.

When politicians react to Rotherham or the Oxford grooming gangs, the models of grooming may be different but the exercise of inappropriate power over vulnerable young people is nothing new. The NSPCC's prevalence study estimated – to general derision - that 1 in 20 children experienced sexual abuse.

When we hear horrific stories about children being groomed online and heading for the Turkish and Syrian borders to join ISIS, I remind them that the NSPCC has been pointing to the risks of child online grooming for many years. Yes, we have focused on sexual grooming rather than for the purposes of Jihad BUT the mechanisms are the same.

When debate focuses on educational standards in schools, I remind people that children who are neglected and abused at home cannot be expected to have high educational achievements.

When politicians talk about the need to tighten our belts financially in local authorities up and down the country, I remind people of the costs of a system where children are in and out of care. Not only the costs at the time but the costs that come later down the track.

Today's Report speaks to many of these issues. It highlights a sharp increase in the number of recorded sexual offences against children across the UK. In England alone up by 39%. This is in part because of cases like Savile – people feel more confident about speaking up about what happened to them. This is welcome – but we must ensure that when children and adults speak up about the abuse they suffered, the support they need to rebuild their lives is available. Too often this remains sorely lacking. This is not just about services but it is about a culture – well beyond children's services - that looks out for young people at risk.

The Report shows that grooming remains a real challenge and we need to help professionals – such as the social workers, teachers, or police officers in this room – to identify and protect victims and ensure some of the most vulnerable young people in the country get the help they desperately need, earlier than many currently realise they need it

Having 40 local service centers across the UK and of course Childline, means we can keep in touch with what issues are most pressing locally, while keeping a perspective on the national picture. For instance, we know that 45% of children in care have a diagnosable mental health disorder. This is four times higher than children in the general population.

And, we know that the fall-out from child sexual abuse costs the taxpayer an estimated £3bn a year in costs to the health service, social care and the criminal justice system. We are concerned that there is currently insufficient support for children who suffer abuse or neglect to rebuild their lives. This is an area you can expect to see the NSPCC campaigning on, in the forthcoming months.

With all these concerns, what we fundamentally need is a constant focus. There needs to be a concentrated and sustained effort by our politicians. And clearer connections in the minds of many more people beyond this room as to why keeping children safe really matters.

It may be clichéd to say it. But our children are the generations to come. They are the voices that we must strive to listen to. To ensure that when they are at risk of suffering they are helped. They are the generations that will use our hospitals, our welfare system and comprise our work force. They are the people who will form our society and whose ability to form strong lasting relationships in their communities and with one another will see the kind of country we wish to become.

I would throw down a gauntlet and say that this parliament should seek to ensure that in 2020 when we return to the ballot box we should all have demanded that there isn't a group of children, or indeed adults, living in the shadows. But instead a system in place whereby everyone who is suffering abuse or has suffered abuse can get the help they need to recover. And more than that, that we are on track to prevent it happening in the first place.

By the time of the next General Election, I want all our children to have resilience and understanding of abuse that will help them recognise and act before it happens and our institutions to have the safety of children as a core component of their corporate culture.

Our third annual state of the nation report does not paint a positive picture.

I know that there are very many people, including those here today, that work tirelessly to protect children. But, I often fear that they are working within a system that doesn't value prevention over emergency remediation. We recently sought to change that by running a joint campaign with other children's charities in the run up to the election. 'A stitch in time' aimed to persuade politicians to focus more on early support to help children, young people and their families. It's a culture embedded in the NSPCC's work. For instance, pregnancy and the first months of a child's life are crucial and lay the foundations for their future. That's why we run 'Baby Steps', a perinatal educational programme that helps prepare people to become parents.

A new government does not mean we need to hit the reset button, but it does provide us with the opportunity to promote innovative solutions, drive forward change with renewed vigour, and compel politicians to do everything they can to keep children safe; to prevent abuse before it happens.

The Goddard inquiry into child sexual abuse will run over the next few years, at long last giving survivors of abuse the chance to have their voices heard. But we need to keep children safe today.

I am delighted that the Minister of State for Children and Families and the Minister for Preventing Abuse and Exploitation are with us today. We want to have a dialogue with you about how everyone inside and outside this room can work together to prevent abuse and neglect. We must move from crisis and fire fighting to the harder job of prevention.

I look forward to hearing from both ministers about their plans for the next 5 years. But it's up to all of us in this room to keep speaking loudly on behalf of vulnerable children. On behalf of those who often go unheard. On behalf of those who were sadly almost neglected at the general election.

So, with that welcome to How Safe 2015, which I know will be an inspirational few days. Thank you for attending but more importantly, thank you for the work that you do every single day.

Contact our press office

Contact our national and regional press offices for enquiries about our work or to request interviews.

Contact our press office

How safe are our children? 2015

Our report compiles and analyses the most robust and up-to-date child protection data that exists across the 4 nations in the UK for 2015.
Find out more

Donate now

Abuse changes childhoods. But so can we. Your donation will help make sure we're there, whenever a child needs us.

Make a donation

Services for children, families and professionals

We work face to face with children, young people and families who need our help across the UK.
View our services