Under plans put out in a joint consultation the Department for Education and the Home Office are considering whether to make it a new legal duty for certain groups, professionals and organisations to report and take appropriate action when they know or suspect that a child is suffering, or is at risk of suffering, abuse or neglect.
The scope of either new duty could extend to organisations or practitioners working in education, childcare, social care, healthcare and law enforcement.
In the early years sector this could include early years teachers, nursery staff and childminders.
It could also extend to support staff and administrators, including school secretaries and caretakers.
The consultation is part of wide-ranging reforms that the Government is carrying out of the child protection system in the wake of high-profile abuse cases such as Saville, Rotherham and Rochdale.
The consultation Reporting and acting on child abuse and neglect outlines options for reform of the child protection system in England.
It seeks views on the possible introduction of one of two additional statutory measures:
- a mandatory reporting duty, which would require certain practitioners or organisations to report child abuse or neglect if they knew or had reasonable cause to suspect it was taking place;
- a duty to act, which would require certain practitioners or organisations to take appropriate action in relation to child abuse or neglect if they knew or had reasonable cause to suspect it was taking place.
Currently practitioners and organisations should follow statutory guidance, but as the consultation explains, statutory guidance does not impose legal requirements itself.
A joint foreword by the Home Office minister Sarah Newton and education minister Edward Timpson says, ‘High profile cases have led to calls for specific reforms to our child protection system. In particular, the introduction of a new mandatory reporting scheme or other measures focused on taking action on child abuse and neglect have been suggested.
‘The issues involved are complex and the evidence for such schemes is mixed. We need to consider carefully all the available evidence and views of a range of experts, children, families, survivors and practitioners so that any changes we make to the system do deliver the best outcomes for children.’
Mandatory reporting already exists in the United States, Australia and Canada. The document points out that the current referral rate in England of 54.8 per 1,000 children in 2014-15 is higher than the rate in the USA - 47.1 per 1,000 children in 2012-13 - and Australia, 37.8 per 1,000 children in 2013-14.
The consultation also sets out the possible benefits and risks of introducing these measures.
It says, ‘Any additional legislation needs to bring benefits and not create perverse incentives or unintended consequences. We want people to actively identify child abuse and neglect and not turn a blind eye. Practitioners need to concentrate in cases here the issues are genuinely concerning and be empowered to use their professional judgement and discretion.’
It also considers the scope, accountability and sanctions of the two potential measures.
It proposes that if a practitioner had ‘reasonable cause to suspect’ a child was being abused or neglected, they would be expected to take appropriate action under a duty to act or to make a report under mandatory reporting to local authority children’s social care. This would apply the same level of trigger as is currently used for initiating a local authority child protection investigation undersection 47 of the Children Act 1989.
Sanctions could apply at individual and organisational level. Individuals breaching the new measures could face fines and imprisonment, while for organisations sanctions could include unlimited fines, remedial orders and publicity orders.
- The consultation closes on 13 October.