History of child protection in the UK

Last updated: 22 Sep 2021
Timeline

Timeline

Legislation to prosecute people accused of child cruelty has been in force since the 1880s. Over time a range of factors, including some high profile child abuse deaths and subsequent inquiries, have contributed to the development of the child protection system we have in the UK today.

Now, statutory child protection guidance across the UK is regularly reviewed and updated in consultation with stakeholders.

On this page, you'll find a timeline of the key events that have taken place since 1945, leading to the development of today’s child protection system. We have provided links to legislation and publications where possible.

> Find out more about the development of the child protection system in the UK by searching the NSPCC library catalogue

1945 – The first child abuse inquiry

The first formal child death inquiry took place in England in 1945 into the death of Dennis O'Neill, who was killed at the age of 12 by his foster father.

> Read more about the inquiry report on our library catalogue

1946 – Curtis committee and Clyde committee

The Care of Children Committee, led by Dame Myra Curtis, investigated and made recommendations about how care was provided for children who weren’t able to live with their own parents or relatives in England and Wales.

James L. Clyde led the Committee on Homeless Children in Scotland, which had a similar remit.

The recommendations of both committees contributed to the development of the 1948 Children Act.

1948 – Children Act

The Children Act 1948 (no longer available online) set out new support measures for children across the UK. Under the Act, local authorities had a duty to provide care for any child whose parents were unable to care for them, if this was in the child’s best interests.

1973 – Reforms made to the child protection system

At the age of 7, Maria Colwell was killed by her step-father after being returned home from foster care. The public inquiry that followed her death found that Maria had been failed by the child protection system.

The need to improve the system contributed to the development of stronger measures to enable professionals working with children to recognise and respond to child abuse and neglect, including the Children Act 1975.

> See our reading list on the reforms made to the child protection system following the death of Maria Colwell

1975 – Children Act

The Children Act 1975 built on the 1945 Act and highlighted the importance of children’s welfare. It also established the role of an independent social worker who would ensure the best interests of the child during court proceedings.

1984 – The transformation of child protection services

Further changes to child protection legislation were prompted partly by the inquiries into more child deaths, including 4-year-old Jasmine Beckford who was killed by her step-father after being returned home from care.

> See our reading list about other high profile child abuse deaths in 1984

1989 – Children Act for England and Wales

The Children Act 1989 established the legislative framework for the current child protection system in England and Wales. It sets out the paramountcy principle – that the welfare of the child should be the court’s main consideration.

1990 – United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child

The UK signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), which sets out the rights of every child in the world to survive, grow, participate and fulfil their potential.

1995 – Children Order and Act for Northern Ireland and Scotland

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.

1997 – Criminal records checks

Part V of the Police Act 1997 established a centralised system of criminal records checks across the UK.

1999 – Devolution

Since 1999 the process of devolution has seen power and responsibility transferred from the Houses of Parliament in Westminster to national governments in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

2000 – Major changes in child protection policies

The death of 8-year-old Victoria Climbié, following abuse and neglect by her great-aunt and great-aunt’s boyfriend, led to Lord Laming’s report (Laming, L., 2003).1 This report contributed to sweeping changes to the way children's services were structured in England and Wales.

> Read Lord Laming’s report via our library catalogue

Three-year-old Kennedy McFarlane was killed by her mother’s boyfriend when he hit her, leading her to crash into the leg of a bed. Her death led to the Scottish education minister, Jack McConnell, announcing a review of child protection in Scotland (Scottish Executive, 2002).2

> Read the Scottish Executive's report of the Child Protection Audit and Review via our library catalogue

2001 – First Children’s Commissioner

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

2002 – Reforms to child protection legislation

Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, both aged 10, were killed by Ian Huntley, their school caretaker. He had previously been investigated by police for crimes including burglary, indecent assault and rape.

Following his conviction, an inquiry led by Michael Bichard recommended the development of a system where people are appropriately vetted before working with children. This led to the strengthening of legislation across the UK to protect children from adults who pose a risk to them, including the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006 in England, Northern Ireland and Wales, and the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups (Northern Ireland) Order and Protection of Vulnerable Groups (Scotland) Act

> See our reading list about the reforms to child protection legislation following the deaths of Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells

2003 – National guidance and Children’s Commissioner in Northern Ireland, Children and Young People’s Commissioner for Scotland

The statutory guidance Cooperating to safeguard children and young people was published in Northern Ireland, to set out requirements for safeguarding children in the statutory, private, independent, community, voluntary and faith sectors (Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, 2002).3

Northern Ireland created the post of Commissioner for Children and Young People (NICCY).

The Commissioner for Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2003 established the role of Children and Young People’s Commissioner in Scotland.

2004 – Children Act, UNCRC

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.

The Welsh Government formally adopted the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) (Welsh Government, 2019).4

2006 – Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act and GIRFEC

The Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006 was passed in England, Northern Ireland and Wales following the recommendations of the inquiry into the events surrounding the deaths of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman in 2002.

Scotland’s Minister for Children published a review of the Children’s Hearing System, entitled Getting it right for every child (GIRFEC) (PDF), highlighting a dramatic increase in identified children with multiple needs (Creegan, C., Henderson, G., and King, C., 2006).5

Working together to safeguard children (PDF), the statutory guidance for child protection in England, was first published (Department for Education (DfE), 2010).6

> Read Getting it right for every child (2006) via our library catalogue

2007 – Protection of Vulnerable Groups in Northern Ireland and Scotland

The Protection of Vulnerable Groups (Scotland) Act 2007 and Protection of Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups (Northern Ireland) Order 2007 were passed.

2008 –The case of Peter Connelly (Baby P)

The death of 1-year-old Peter Connelly (Baby P) following abuse and neglect by his mother, her boyfriend and her boyfriend’s brother, 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 (PDF) made 58 recommendations for child protection reforms (Laming, L., 2009).7

> See our reading list to read more about the lessons learnt following the death of Peter Connelly

2010 – Working together guidance first published

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.

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

2011 – Munro review in England, Safeguarding Boards and UNOCINI in Northern Ireland, and children's rights in Wales

Professor Munro’s report A child-centred system (PDF) sets 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” (Munro, E., and Department for Education, 2011).8 This led to a review of the statutory child protection guidance in England.

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.

The Understanding the needs of children in Northern Ireland (UNOCINI) (PDF) guidance was published to enable practitioners working with children to better meet the needs of children and their families (Department of Health, 2011).9

To ensure children’s rights are included in all policy making in Wales, the Welsh Government made the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child part of its domestic law through the Rights of Children and Young Persons (Wales) Measure.

2012 – Operation Yewtree, Protection of Freedoms Act and Historical Institutional Abuse (HIA) Inquiry

Operation Yewtree was set up by the Metropolitan Police Service to investigate sexual abuse allegations against Jimmy Savile and others.

> Read the Giving victims a voice report via our library catalogue

The Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 in England and Wales set out the requirements for vetting and barring checks for adults who are working or volunteering with children, whilst being supervised by someone else.

The Northern Ireland Executive agreed the terms of reference for its Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry (the HIA Inquiry) and appointed Sir Anthony Hart as chair.

2013 – Review of sexual exploitation in Rochdale and updates to Working together guidance in England 

The independent review into child sexual exploitation (CSE) in Rochdale examined the council’s response to issues around child sexual exploitation (CSE), after 47 girls were identified as victims of CSE (Klonowski, A., 2013).10

A new version of Working together to safeguard children (PDF) was published in England, informed by the Munro review (DfE, 2013).11

2014 – National legislation and guidance in Scotland and Wales and Jay report

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

Section 130 of the Act requires “relevant partners” of a local authority to inform the local authority if they have reasonable cause to suspect a child is at risk of experiencing abuse, neglect or other types of harm.

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 Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014 aimed to strengthen the rights of children and young people in Scotland. It provided extra support for children in care and care leavers, and created systems to identify and respond to child welfare concerns at an early stage.

The National guidance for child protection in Scotland was published to provide a statutory framework for agencies and practitioners working together to safeguard children (Scottish Government, 2014).12

Professor Alexis Jay led an independent inquiry into child sexual abuse in Rotherham. The report estimated that 1,400 children in Rotherham had been sexually abused between 1997 and 2013. Most of the victims were White British children, and most of the perpetrators were from minority ethnic communities.

> Read the independent inquiry into child sexual exploitation in Rotherham on our library catalogue

2015 – Abuse inquiries in England, Wales and Scotland, legislation in Northern Ireland and FGM reporting in England and Wales

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 (IICSA, 2018).13

The Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry began investigating the abuse of children in care in Scotland.

The Children’s Services Co-operation Act (Northern Ireland) 2015 required 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.

Section 74 of the Serious Crime Act 2015 placed a mandatory reporting duty on regulated health and social care professionals and teachers in England and Wales to make a report to the police if:

  • they are informed by a child that they have undergone female genital mutilation (FGM)
  • they observe physical signs that an act of FGM may have been carried out on a child.

2016 – Football Association inquiries

The Football Association (FA) launched an internal review into child abuse following allegations of child abuse (FA, 2017).14

> Read the English Football Association's internal review via our library catalogue

The Scottish FA produced an interim report of the independent review of sexual abuse in Scottish football (PDF) which addresses a large number of issues and made 96 recommendations for change (Scottish Football Association, 2018).15

> Read the findings from the interim report of the independent review of sexual abuse in Scottish football via our library catalogue

2017 – UK wide protection from online pornography, social care acts in England and Wales and guidance and an inquiry report in Northern Ireland

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

The Children and Social Work Act 2017 made several reforms to the child protection system in England. It established the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel to review and report on serious child protection cases, and replaced the model of local safeguarding children’s boards (LSCBs) with local safeguarding partners.

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

The Department of Health in Northern Ireland published an update to the statutory guidance Cooperating to safeguard children and young people (Department of Health, 2017).16

The Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry (HIA) in Northern Ireland published its final report (HIA, 2017).17 Recommendations included a public apology, a redress board, a compensation scheme and a statutory commissioner for survivors of institutional childhood abuse (COSICA).

2018 – Updated guidance in England and Domestic Abuse Act in Scotland

An updated version of Working together to safeguard children (Department for Education, 2018) was published for England, replacing Local safeguarding children boards (LSCBs) with safeguarding partner arrangements.18

The Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018 made it a statutory aggravation for domestic abuse to involve or affect a child (this includes a child hearing, seeing or being present during an abusive incident).

2019 – New guidance in Wales and UN rights in Scotland

The Wales Safeguarding Procedures were published to provide guidance on safeguarding children and adults who are at risk of abuse and neglect (Wales Safeguarding Procedures Project Board, 2019).19

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) recognised breast flattening (the practice of using hard or heated objects to suppress or reverse the growth of breasts) as a form of child abuse in England and Wales (CPS, 2019).20

The Scottish Government announced its intention to incorporate the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) into Scottish law (Scottish Government, 2019).21

2020 – Safeguarding during coronavirus and corporal punishment made illegal in Jersey, Scotland and Wales

The conditions created by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic meant that everyone working with children and families had to adapt the way they keep children safe. Governments in all four UK nations published a range of safeguarding and child protection guidance during the pandemic.

In the States of Jersey, the Children and Education (Amendment) (Jersey) Law 2020 came into force in April 2020. This abolishes the defence of reasonable corporal punishment of a child.

The Scottish Government abolished the defence of reasonable chastisement from November 2020 under the Children (Equal Protection from Assault) (Scotland) Act 2019.

The Welsh Government introduced the Children (Abolition of Defence of Reasonable Punishment) (Wales) Act), which will abolish the defence of reasonable punishment from 2022.

> Find out more about equal protection from assault

The Disclosure Scotland Act 2020 received royal assent in July 2020. This aimed to improve the system for checking the criminal history of people who work with children in Scotland.

2021 – new guidance in Scotland

The Scottish Government published revised and updated non-statutory National guidance for child protection in Scotland, which replaced the 2014 version and has a strengthened focus on Getting it right for every child (GIRFEC) and children’s rights (Scottish Government, 2021).22

References

Laming, L (2003) The Victoria Climbie inquiry: report of an inquiry by Lord Laming (PDF). Norwich: The Stationery Office (TSO).
Scottish Executive (2002) t's everyone's job to make sure I'm alright: report of the Child Protection Audit and Review. Edinburgh: Scottish Government.
Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (2002) Co-operating to safeguard children (PDF). Belfast: Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety.
Welsh Government (2019) Children's rights in Wales. [Accessed: 05/07/2021].
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 Government.
Department for Education (DfE) (2010) 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).
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).
Department of Health (2011) UNOCINI guidance: understanding the needs of children in Northern Ireland (PDF). [Belfast]: Department of Health.
Klonowski, A (2013) Report of the Independent Reviewing Officer in relation to child sexual exploitation issues in Rochdale Metropolitan Borough Council during the period 2006 to 2013. [Rochdale]: Rochdale Metropolitan Borough Council (no longer available).
Department for Education (2013) 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).
Scottish Government (2021) National guidance for child protection in Scotland. [Accessed 07/09/2021].
Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse in England and Wales (IICSA) (2018) Independent inquiry into child sexual abuse. [Accessed 22/08/2018].
Football Association (FA) (2017) Keeping football safe and enjoyable (PDF). London: Football Association.
Scottish Football Association (2018) The interim report of the Independent Review of Sexual Abuse in Scottish football (PDF). London: Scottish Football Association.
Department of Health (2017) Co-operating to safeguard children and young people in Northern Ireland. [Belfast]: Northern Ireland Executive government.
Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry (HIA) (2017) Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry – report chapters. [Accessed 23/08/2019].
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).
Wales Safeguarding Procedures Project Board (2020) Wales Safeguarding Procedures. [Accessed 01/06/2021].
Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) (2019) So-called honour based abuse and forced marriage. [Accessed 13/08/2019].
Scottish Government (2019) Strengthening children’s rights. [Accessed 26/11/2019].
Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel (2021) The myth of invisible men: safeguarding children under 1 from non-accidental injury caused by male carers (PDF). London: Department for Education

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Related resources

Related resources

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.

> View all our factsheets

The NSPCC Library

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”.

> Search our library catalogue

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