My response to the Home Office consultation on Reporting and Acting on Child Abuse and Neglect

To: Home Office consultation on Reporting and Acting on Child Abuse and Neglect.
12th October 2016
Dear Consultation team,
Thank you for the opportunity to respond to the consultation document Reporting and acting on child abuse and neglect.
Although the proposed statutory duties would not apply to the public I welcome the statement in the document that ‘safeguarding children – the action we take to promote the welfare of children and protect them from harm – is everyone’s responsibility’.
We need to be acknowledging this ever more loudly. Particularly so where child sexual exploitation is concerned, given that the public and professionals have not always accepted such responsibility (and have even blamed victims) due to misunderstandings about what constitutes consent and vulnerability. Your examples of Jimmy Saville and the cases in Rotherham, Rochdale and Oxfordshire exemplify those issues. I think it is important we involve the public, practitioners and parents in the protection of children. Ultimately the best protection for children is a concerned and watchful community around them.
I can therefore see the attraction of a strong legislative response. That said, legislation is only effective when it achieves changes in culture. I see no evidence that a mandatory reporting duty backed by sanctions would achieve the kind of change that is necessary to improve child protection. I therefore favour introducing a broader duty to act.
In my view, the essential problem with a mandatory reporting duty is its lack of flexibility. One concern rightly raised in the consultation paper – namely that a mandatory reporting duty might lead to an increase in unsubstantiated referrals and unconstructive intrusions into family life – underlines the issue. But the problem is broader than this. It is not simply that, in order to protect themselves, professionals might make reports in situations where previously they had not felt it necessary, but also that they might fail to consider other actions when these are more appropriate. Reporting will become a reflex, default step. The engendered lack of reflection may lead to other potential interventions being ignored, regardless of the child’s best interests. This is something which the more flexible duty to act proposal avoids.
For similar reasons, I can only support the scope of the suggested changes being extended to include vulnerable adults if the duty to act proposal prevails over the alternative mandatory reporting duty. It is perhaps even clearer in this context. Given that abuse of another’s vulnerability encompasses such a wide range of issues, professionals must be encouraged to use their initiative in responding to the situation in the most appropriate way, reflecting on the specific safeguarding issues at hand.
I have seen no evidence that there is an enormous problem with practitioners failing to report abuse and neglect. Sometimes they do not recognise that abuse is taking place – I have repeatedly seen evidence of this where sexually exploitative relationships with children are concerned. I cannot see that mandatory reporting would help in these cases, because the problem is clearly the lack of initial recognition, not the lack of appropriate response. The way to ensure professionals and practitioners discharge their responsibilities is through training and better sharing of information and constant efforts to improve practice. The duty to act model fits more into this investigative and collaborative approach, whereas the mandatory reporting proposal wholly relies on the individual professional’s capacity to correctly diagnose the situation. In present conditions, that is not a sound premise on which to build new child protection measures.
I also believe that a duty which encompasses a broader range of actions than simply reporting is more likely to lead to positive outcomes for the child at an earlier stage. The duty to act is more in keeping with the idea that we each have a responsibility to engage in child protection according to our capacity and ability to do so – that capacity will generally be wider for professionals than simply their ability to pass on a concern and the duty on them should reflect that.
Although neither of the proposed duties will apply to the public, I also think ‘a duty of care’ is more likely to be understood by and to be acceptable to wider groups such as school crossing patrols, park staff, and refuse collectors (among others), because it is a more positive approach and a more recognisable term. This needs to be a consideration because ultimately the aim of the exercise should be to encourage all reporting of child neglect and abuse. Having a duty that can be more easily publicised among (albeit not applied to) these wider groups would be beneficial in terms of promoting culture-change, as the groups to which I have referred often also live in the communities in which they work.
Finally, it is my view that introducing general criminal penalties is counterproductive, reinforcing as it does a culture of blame which principally serves to undermine good working relationships between agencies involved in child protection. I can, of course, see the need for serious sanctions in some circumstances. In this context, however, I believe criminal (rather than simply regulatory) sanctions should apply to a professional only when he/she acted (or failed to act) in such a way as he/she knew (or should reasonably have known) would endanger the child. I also think this should extend to the organisation.
Best wishes

Ann Coffey MP
Ann.coffey.mp@parliament.uk

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