Child protection must be a national priority in 2022
As MPs and Peers return to Parliament, we are urging the government to make 2022 the year child protection becomes a national priority.
Almost two years into the pandemic we cannot lose sight of the impact it is continuing to have on children. Political leadership is needed now to protect the most vulnerable in our society.
We must ensure children are back on the radar of leaders with the authority and ability to better support vital services and professionals who could act to protect them from abuse and neglect.
Despite contacts to our helpline from adults with concerns about the welfare of a child surging by a quarter, including those of sufficient seriousness to warrant further action by statutory services, overall case numbers reported by children’s services fell in 2020/21. And it was incredibly concerning to see cases of deaths or serious harm to a child, where abuse or neglect was known, rise by a fifth.
At the close of 2021, there was an outpouring of grief and anger in response to the tragic deaths of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson who were both killed following months of horrific abuse by the very adults who should have cared for and kept them safe.
The convictions of those responsible for their deaths led to an awakening of public consciousness and the announcement of a review into what went wrong.
There will be important lessons to learn - nationally and locally - from that review but the government could take three actions now to make good on their commitments to comprehensively prevent child abuse and neglect.
Children are glaringly absent from plans to create a new, joined up health and social care system
First, the children’s social care system has been overstretched and underfunded for years. In the last decade council spending on crucial early intervention services has almost halved, with the poorest parts of the country being worst hit.
The chair of the Independent Care Review, Josh MacAlister described the child protection system as a “Jenga tower held together by Sellotape”.
But in an endless catch-22, in too many places spending on preventative services is being hollowed out as stretched budgets are targeted into coping with rising numbers of children and families at crisis point.
Not only do we need government to invest specifically in children’s social care, but we need solutions targeted at the preventative services that can end this cycle and ensure children and families get early support.
Second, we know risks have increased for children online and for those vulnerable to abuse at home. There were record numbers of online grooming and child abuse image offences in the first year of the pandemic.
This government has shown global leadership in committing to legislate to protect children from abuse online. They must now convert this ambition into a strengthened Online Safety Bill that has child protection at its core, so companies are required to adopt safety by design into their services used by young people.
They can start by implementing key recommendations made by the Bill’s scrutiny committee last month and commit to user advocacy arrangements that champions children’s wellbeing against narrower commercial considerations that too often dominate the tech giants’ thinking.
Finally, in partnership with other children’s charities, the NSPCC is asking the government to amend the Health and Care Bill on behalf of a wider children’s sector group so that it puts children at the heart of new safeguarding partnerships. Currently, children are glaringly absent from plans to create a new, joined up health and social care system.
There is no magic wand that will guarantee every child’s safety and wellbeing overnight. But by taking these three actions government can signal they are serious about child protection every day of the year and not just in the wake of reported tragedy.
Sir Peter Wanless is the chief executive of the NSPCC.
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