The run-up to a General Election invariably means an increase in political grandstanding and soundbites. So it was no surprise to hear UK prime minister David Cameron announce that professionals, such as teachers and social workers, could face up to five years in prison if they turn a blind eye to child abuse. According to Cameron: ‘Professionals who fail to protect children will be held properly accountable and council bosses who preside over such catastrophic failure will not see rewards for that failure.’
His announcement follows the publication of a damning report into child sexual exploitation in Oxford, the latest in a series of reports into scandals which found ‘systematic institutional failings and cultures of denial and blame’. If Cameron’s plans go ahead, the offence of ‘wilful neglect’, which was first introduced in the recent Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015, will be extended. As it stands, the offence of wilful neglect only applies to professionals who work in adult social care and health workers providing care for adults and children. The extension means the offence would also cover those involved in children’s social care and education, and elected council members. In effect, it could mean that public-service workers would lose criminal immunity and potentially face up to five years in jail if they failed to report and/or act on clear evidence that a child was being abused.
According to Cameron, the new proposals are ‘about making sure that the professionals we charge with protecting our children – the council staff, police officers and social workers – do the jobs they are paid to do’. This is a laudable ambition, but many have warned that his proposed changes are unlikely to improve the situation and could even make it worse.
Ray Jones, professor of social work at Kingston University, argues that Cameron’s measures will undermine the welfare and safety of children as well as draw people needlessly into the child-protection arena. As Jones points out, in order to protect themselves, anyone with a concern about a child would have to define it as child abuse, otherwise they are potentially leaving themselves open to charges of wilful neglect. As a result, thresholds would tumble and children’s services would be overloaded and put at increased risk of collapsing under the weight of ever larger workloads.
Likewise, Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leavers, argued that teachers would be scared into over-reporting, which would lead to a flood of referrals to already overworked social-services departments. The planned legislation ‘will ultimately make it more difficult to identify and deal with cases which urgently need attention’. In a similar vein, the British Association of Social Workers points out that threatening social workers with jail will affect the recruitment and retention of frontline workers and create a legal minefield, given the complexities involved in much child-protection work. Community Care magazine has used Cameron’s plans to relaunch its Stand Up for Social Work campaign. (When this campaign was initially launched, I argued for some caution, as a healthy suspicion of social workers is actually a good thing for both the individual and society.)