Legislation on child sexual abuse
Statutory guidance across the UK highlights the responsibility of those in the education, community and care sectors to safeguard children from all forms of abuse and neglect.
The key legislation relating to child sexual abuse in England and Wales is the Sexual Offences Act 2003.
In Northern Ireland it is the Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2008.
In Scotland it is the Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2009 and the Protection of Children and Prevention of Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2005.
Age of consent
The age of consent (the legal age when people can have sex) in the UK is 16 years old. The law is there to protect children from abuse or exploitation, rather than to prosecute under-16s who participate in mutually consenting sexual activity.
The law says anyone under the age of 13 can never legally give consent.
Protecting children from sexual abuse
In all countries of the UK it is illegal to:
- have sexual activity with a child
- cause or incite a child to engage in sexual activity
- engage in sexual activity in the presence of a child
- cause a child to watch a sexual act
- arrange or facilitate a child sex offence
- meet a child following sexual grooming
- have sexual communication with a child
- have sexual activity with a child family member
- incite a child family member to engage in sexual activity
- take, make or have indecent photographs of children
- sexually exploit (including paying for or arranging sexual services of a child).
> Find out more about child sexual exploitation
Sexual communication with a child
In England and Wales, part 67 of the Serious Crime Act 2015 makes it a criminal offence to engage in sexual communication with a child. This includes communication that relates to sexual activity and communication for the purpose of obtaining sexual gratification (for example, grooming for sexual abuse). It closes a previous loophole which means communication couldn’t be classified as ‘grooming’ until an arrangement to meet had been made.
In Northern Ireland, it is illegal to have sexual communication with a child under section 90 of the Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 2015.
In Scotland, sections 24 and 34 of the Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2009 make it illegal to have sexual communication with a child.
Positions of trust
It is illegal for a person in a position of trust (for example teachers or care workers) to engage in sexual activity with anyone under the age of 18 who is in the care of their organisation – even if they are over 16. This includes:
- sexual activity with a child
- causing or inciting a child to engage in sexual activity
- sexual activity in the presence of a child
- causing a child to watch a sexual act.
Prosecuting and monitoring sex offenders
Each nation has a legislative framework to protect children from adults who may pose a risk of sexual harm and to deal with adults who have sexually offended against children.
The Sex Offenders Act 1997 covers the whole of the UK. It sets out a series of monitoring and reporting requirements for sex offenders
The Home Office provides guidance on the Sexual Offences Act 2003 (Home Office, 2004). Part 1 explains the different sexual offences and their maximum penalties. Part 2 provides guidance for police and practitioners on the notification requirements for registered sex offenders, Sexual Harm Prevention Orders (SHPOs) and Sexual Risk Orders (SROs) (Home Office, 2018).
Police Scotland provides guidance on the Sex offender notification requirements (Police Scotland, 2018a).
In Northern Ireland, the Department of Justice provides guidance for the police (PDF) on the notification requirements which apply to sex offenders (Department of Justice, 2018).
Children who are convicted of sex offences
Sometimes children may carry out sexual abuse towards someone else. Each nation has guidance about how professionals should respond to this.
> Find out more about the guidance on harmful sexual behaviour
Child sex offender disclosure schemes
Under the Child sex offender disclosure scheme (sometimes known as “Sarah’s Law”), anyone in England and Wales can formally ask the police if someone with access to a child has a record for child sexual offences. Police will reveal details confidentially to the person most able to protect the child (usually parents, carers or guardians) if they think it’s in the child’s interests. The child sex offended disclosure scheme guidance is available from the Home Office (Home Office, 2010).
In Northern Ireland the Child protection disclosure arrangements allow members of the public to ask the police for information about a person’s history of sexual and violent criminal offences. The police will only disclose this information if it’s deemed that the person presents a risk to the child. And they will only disclose the information to the person who has responsibility for the child and/or is best placed to safeguard the child (such as a parent or carer) (Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), 2018).
In Scotland, the Sex offender community disclosure scheme allows parents, carers and guardians of children under 18 years old to ask the police if someone who has contact with their child has a record for sexual offences against children, or other offences that could put that child at risk (Police Scotland, 2018b).
Risk assessment and information sharing
In England and Wales, Part 13 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 sets out arrangements for assessing risks posed by sexual or violent offenders, which led to the establishment of Multi agency public protection arrangements (MAPPA). The MAPPA guidance sets out the responsibilities of the police, probation trusts and prison service to ensure the successful management of violent and sexual offenders (Ministry of Justice, 2017).
In Northern Ireland, the Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland) Order 2008 places a legal requirement on agencies to cooperate and share information to better assess and manage risk posed by sexual or violent offenders. This order led to the establishment of Public protection arrangements (PPANI) (PPANI, 2016) – a non-statutory body designed to help agencies undertake their statutory duties and coordinate their functions to enhance public protection from sexual and violent offenders when they are released from prison into the community.
> Find out more about the PPANI Manual of practice (PDF)
In Scotland, the Management of Offenders etc. (Scotland) Act 2005 sets out arrangements for assessing risks posed by sexual or violent offenders. This led to the establishment of Multi agency public protection arrangements (MAPPA), which sets out the responsibilities of the police, probation trusts and prison service to ensure the successful management of violent and sexual offenders (Scottish Government, 2018).
Preventing unsuitable adults from working with children
In England and Wales, the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006 provides the framework for the vetting and barring of people seeking to work with children and vulnerable adults.
In Northern Ireland, the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups (Northern Ireland) Order 2007 makes provision for checking persons seeking to work with children or vulnerable adults and for barring those considered to be unsuitable for such posts.
In Scotland the Protection of Children (Scotland) Act 2003 sets out measures to prevent unsuitable adults from working with children, while the Protection of Vulnerable Groups (Scotland) Act 2007 introduced the offence of employing a barred person in regulated activity.
Other policy and guidance
In England and Wales, the Ending violence against women and girls (VAWG) Strategy 2016-2020 focuses on early intervention and prevention.
The strategy includes an action plan that highlights key areas:
- preventing violence and abuse
- preventing online abuse and exploitation
- provision of services
- partnership working
- pursuing perpetrators (Home Office, 2016).
In Northern Ireland, the government has set out its approach to preventing sexual abuse in Stopping domestic and sexual violence and abuse in Northern Ireland: a seven year strategy (PDF) (Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) and Department of Justice, 2016).
The strategy has five strands.
- Driving change through co-operation and leadership.
- Prevention and early intervention.
- Delivering change through responsive services.
- Support for victims of domestic and/or sexual violence and abuse.
- Protection and justice.
In Scotland, the Abusive Behaviour and Sexual Harm (Scotland) Act 2016 aims to improve the justice system’s response to abusive behaviour and sexual harm. Under the Act, judges must give special information to guide juries in certain sexual offence trials, to challenge any preconceptions jurors may have about how sexual assaults take place.
Sexual offences committed elsewhere in the UK can now be prosecuted in Scottish courts. It also makes it an offence to make or threaten to make an intimate photograph or film of another person public in order to cause them distress.