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.
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.
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.
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.
1988 – Working together guidance first published
The first edition of Working Together consolidated guidance and recommendations on procedures for the care and protection of abused children and children at risk in England and Wales. Working together: a guide to arrangements for inter-agency co-operation for the protection of children from abuse (DHSS and Welsh Office, 1988)1 also introduced serious case reviews (SCRs), referred to at the time as case reviews, for the first time.
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.
1991 – Working together guidance updated in response to the Children Act
In 1991, Working together under the Children Act 1989: a guide to arrangements for inter-agency co-operation for the protection of children from abuse was published (Home Office and Department of Health, 1991).2 It included the requirements of the Children Act 1989 as well as compiling previous guidance on child protection and best practice.
1995 – Children Order and Act for 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 and major revision of Working together guidance
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.
1999 also saw the publication of a revised version of the 1989 Working together guidance for England (Department of Health, 1999).3 Working together to safeguard children: a guide to inter-agency working to safeguard and promote the welfare of children (PDF) included guidance on working together to support children and families, lessons from research and experience, and definitions of abuse.
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, 2003).4 This report contributed to sweeping changes to the way children's services were structured in England and Wales.
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).5
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.
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).6
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).7
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, and King, 2006).8
Working together to safeguard children (PDF), the statutory guidance for child protection in England, was first published (Department for Education (DfE), 2010).9
2007 – Protection of Vulnerable Groups in Northern Ireland and Scotland
2008 –The case of Peter Connelly (Baby P)
The death of one-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, 2009).10
2010 – Publishing serious case reviews
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, and DfE, 2011).11 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).12
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.
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, 2013).13
A new version of Working together to safeguard children (PDF) was published in England, informed by the Munro review (DfE, 2013).14
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).15
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.
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).16
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 following allegations of child abuse (FA, 2017).17
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).18
2017 – UK wide protection from online pornography, social care act in England 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 Department of Health in Northern Ireland published an update to the statutory guidance Cooperating to safeguard children and young people (Department of Health, 2017).19
The Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry (HIA) in Northern Ireland published its final report (HIA, 2017).20 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 (DfE, 2018) was published for England, replacing Local safeguarding children boards (LSCBs) with safeguarding partner arrangements.21
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).22
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).23
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).24
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.
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, sexual abuse in schools in England and Wales
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)25.
Ofsted published a rapid review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges in England (Ofsted, 2021)26. The review was requested by the government after children and young people shared anonymous accounts of their experiences of sexual assault and harassment at school and university on a website called 'Everyone’s Invited'. The report focussed on incidents of peer-on-peer sexual harassment, sexual violence, and online sexual abuse. It summarised findings and recommendations for school and college leaders, multi-agency partners, and the government.
In December Estyn published its report looking at the incidence of peer-on-peer sexual harassment in secondary school pupils in Wales (Estyn, 2021)27. The report set out nine recommendations to the Welsh Government, local authorities and secondary schools.
2022 – independent review of children’s social care in England, Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) recommendations for England and Wales and the national review into the murders of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson
The independent review of children’s social care published its final report on the children’s social care system in England (MacAlister, 2022)28. The UK Government set out the initial measures it would take to improve children’s social care following the publication of the report, which included setting up a National Implementation Board to advise on reforms (DfE, 2022)29.
The Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel (the Panel) published a safeguarding practice review30 into the murders of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson (Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel, 2022b). The review examines the circumstances leading up to their deaths and sets out recommendations and findings for national government and local safeguarding partners for improving practice.
The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) published its final report into child sexual abuse and exploitation in institutions in England and Wales (IICSA, 2022)31. The report sets out findings and common themes arising from the work of the Inquiry and made 20 recommendations for reform for the UK and Welsh governments and other institutions
2023 – government sets out plans to reform children’s social care in England and responds to IICSA’s recommendations
In February 2023, the DfE launched a consultation on its long-term plan for the reform of children’s social care in England - Stable homes, built on love (PDF).32
In 2023, the Welsh Government33 and the Home Office34set out how they would be responding to IICSA’s recommendations.
ReferencesDHSS and Welsh Office (1988) Working together: a guide to arrangements for inter-agency co-operation for the protection of children from abuse. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office (HMSO)
Home Office and Department of Health (DH) (1991) Working together under the Children Act 1989: a guide to arrangements for inter-agency co-operation for the protection of children from abuse. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office (HMSO).
Department of Health and Home Office (1999) Working together to safeguard children (PDF). London: The Stationery Office (TSO)
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 05/10/2023].
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].
Scottish Government (2021) National guidance for child protection in Scotland. [Accessed 05/10/2023].
Ofsted (2021) Review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges. [Accessed 03/11/2022].
Estyn (2021) "We don't tell our teachers": experiences of peer-on-peer sexual harassment among secondary school pupils in Wales (PDF). Cardiff: Estyn.
MacAlister, J. (2022) The independent review of children's social care: final report. [Accessed 16/08/2023].
Department for Education (2022) Children's Social Care National Implementation Board [Accessed 03/11/2022]
Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel (2022) National review into the murders of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson. [Accessed 03/02/2023]
Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) (2022) The report of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. [Accessed 20/10/2022].
Department of Education (2023) Stable homes, built on love: implementation strategy and consultation: children’s social care reform (PDF). [Accessed 03/02/2023].
Welsh Government (2023) Welsh Government response to the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse. [Accessed 23/05/2023].
Home Office (2023) Response to the final report of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. [Accessed 23/05/2023].