History of child protection in the UK

Last updated: 05 Jul 2019


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.


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.


The death of 7-year-old Maria Colwell led to the establishment of our modern child protection system.


Further changes were prompted partly by the inquiries into several other child deaths, including 4-year-old Jasmine Beckford.


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 established the legislative framework for the current child protection systems in Northern Ireland and Scotland.


The death of 8-year-old Victoria Climbie led to Lord Laming’s report (2003) which led to sweeping changes to the way children's services were structured in England and Wales.


The Children's Commissioner for Wales Act 2001 created the first children’s commissioner post in the UK.


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.


The Children Act 2004, informed by Lord Laming’s report, established a Children’s Commissioner in England (the last of the UK nations to appoint one); created Local Safeguarding Children's Boards (LSCBs) in England and Wales; and placed a duty on local authorities in England to appoint a director of children’s services and an elected lead member for children’s services, who is ultimately accountable for the delivery of services.


Scotland the Minister for Children published a review of the Children’s Hearing System, entitled Getting it right for every child (Creegan, C., Henderson, G., and King, C., 2006), highlighting a dramatic increase in identified children with multiple needs.


The death of 1-year-old Peter Connelly led to further reviews of social service care in England by Lord Laming, with the House of Commons debating the case.


Lord Laming’s The protection of children in England: a progress report (2009), ordered following the Peter Connelly case, makes 58 recommendations for child protection reforms.


The new Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, commissioned Professor Eileen Munro to conduct an independent review of child protection in England.


Minister for Children and Families Tim Loughton announced that Local Safeguarding Boards in England should publish the overview report and executive summary of all case reviews initiated on or after 10 June 2010.


Professor Munro’s report A child-centred system (2011) set out recommendations to “help to reform the child protection system from being over-bureaucratised and concerned with compliance to one that keeps a focus on children, checking whether they are being effectively helped, and adapting when problems are identified”.

The Safeguarding Board Act (Northern Ireland) 2011 set out the law for the creation of a new regional Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland and the establishment of five Safeguarding Panels.


Operation Yewtree was set up to investigate sexual abuse allegations against Jimmy Saville and others.


The Independent review into child sexual exploitation in Rochdale examined the council’s response to issues around child sexual exploitation.


A new version of Working Together to Safeguard Children was published in England, informed by the Munro review.


The Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014 provided Wales with its own legislative framework for social services for children and adults.

Under Section 145 it gives powers to Welsh Ministers to issue codes of practice providing guidance, objectives and requirements on local authorities’ provision of social services.


The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse in England and Wales (IICSA) officially launched to consider the growing evidence of institutional failures to protect children from child sexual abuse.

The Children’s Services Co-operation Act (Northern Ireland) 2015 requires public authorities to contribute to the wellbeing of children and young people in regards to physical and mental health, learning and achievement and living conditions.


The Football Association (FA) launched an internal review into child abuse following allegations of child abuse. The Scottish FA announced an independent inquiry.


The Digital Economy Act 2017 extended protection from online pornography by allowing sites which display pornography to children to be blocked in the UK.


An updated version of Working together to safeguard children (Department for Education, 2018) was published for England, replacing LSCBs with safeguarding partner arrangements.

References and resources

References and resources

Creegan, C., Henderson, G. and King, C. (2006) Getting it right for every child: children and young people's experiences of advocacy support and participation in children's hearings system (PDF). Edinburgh: Scottish Executive.

Department for Education (DfE) (2018) Working together to safeguard children: a guide to inter-agency working to safeguard and promote the welfare of children (PDF). [London]: Department for Education (DfE).

Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse in England and Wales (IICSA) (2018). Independent inquiry into child sexual abuse. [Accessed 22/08/2018]

Laming, L. (2003) The Victoria Climbie inquiry: report of an inquiry by Lord Laming (PDF). Norwich: The Stationery Office (TSO). 

Laming, L. (2009) The protection of children in England: a progress report (PDF). London: The Stationery Office (TSO).

Munro, E. (2011) A child-centred system (PDF). [London]: Department for Education (DfE). 


Digital Economy Act 2017 

Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014 

Safeguarding Board Act (Northern Ireland) 2011 

The Looked After Children (Scotland) Regulations 2009

Children Act 2004 

Children's Commissioner for Wales Act 2001 

Children (Scotland) Act 1995

The Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 

Children Act 1989 

Further reading

Child protection plan register statistics
Our series of factsheets pulls together the most up-to-date statistics on children who are the subject to child protection plan or on a child protection register for each of the UK nations.

For further reading about the child protection system in the UK, search the NSPCC Library catalogue using the keywords “child protection”, “child protection services”, “child law”, “social policy”, “United Kingdom”.

If you need more specific information, please contact our Information Service.