In a predictable move, government ministers have shut down the idea of implementing legislation that would make it compulsory for child welfare professionals to report suspected child abuse, after reviewing a consultation on the issue.

The consultation was published today, though unusually, no formal announcement was made.

The Department For Education, which currently oversees all child protection matters, says in its summary that the government, “has considered the issues objectively and from the point of view of what would likely be best for children – informed by, but not bound by the result of the consultation.” 

An article in Care Appointments (linked to above), tells us that the consultation received “over 760 responses from social workers, police officers, local government, children’s charities, educators and health professionals, victim support groups, and other members of the public,” and that “the majority of responses disagreed with the concept of introducing new statutory requirements.”

The NSPCC, which made a submission, has been anti mandatory reporting since 2016, but as a government arm (it literally manages almost every aspect of child welfare policy for the government), that’s to be expected. And whilst our social work sector remains ultra defensive about implementing this duty –  see chief social worker for children and families, Isabelle Trowler’s statement on the government’s response, the decision not to implement compulsory reporting has nothing to do with the evidence submitted to the consultation, and everything to do with the impact it would have on some survivors’ abilities to sue councils for child sexual abuse, which is part of a wider move by the government to stem claims, which are crippling the social care sector.

A legal duty to report suspected child abuse would mean that if a professional failed to report a suspicion, a visible line between state and survivor could be drawn, allowing the victim to sue, and claim substantial damages.

The Department For Education, and The Home Office, which also oversaw the consultation, are well aware of this.

The decision though, flies in the face of a growing trend towards mandatory reporting.

In 2016, we wrote a piece for Lexis Nexis, in which we outlined the growing number of countries implementing the duty, and the body of research which highlights clearly the positive impact of such a duty.  In America, around 48 states enjoy this legal duty, with some extending their lists to include even more professionals bound to report suspected abuse – a new Bill in Ohio is being considered this month which wants to include police officers, and California, which has also implemented the duty to report, continues to encourage reporting, off the back of its success in reducing child abuse.

Always ahead of England these days when it comes to enacting excellent child welfare legislation, Ireland made the duty to report abuse compulsory, in December of last year. 

Calls to make reporting abuse a legal responsibility have come from several corners of the UK. Survivors abused by priests have backed the duty, which would be particularly effective in safeguarding children in this context, as religious organisations have been notoriously poor at protecting children from paedophiles within their ranks. The duty would also prevent the Church and other religious groups from claiming that confidentiality remains a god given privilege for abusers within a religious setting.

A BBC documentary about girls who were sexually abused in Rochdale also led to some social workers exploring the idea of a duty to report, and an ITV expose last month about abuse within boarding schools called on the government to make reporting a legal requirement within schools.

And the research in favour of a duty to report is overwhelming. Research produced in 2016 by researchers based in the State of Western Australia, which currently has a duty to report too, looked at the impact of the legislation over a seven year period. The study concluded that after a short adjustment period, not only did the duty to report not create an added strain on the state’s child welfare sector and police force, but it actively helped to detect and prevent genuine cases of child abuse.

The government summary on the consultation tells us that the system already has everything it needs in place to protect children from abuse and that it’s doing just fine.

Who do they think they’re kidding.

legal duty to report child abuse