A decade ago, public confidence in local authorities’ care for
looked-after children was undermined by allegations of widespread
ill-treatment in residential homes that dated back to the 1970s.
Responding to the distressing evidence of systematic physical and
sexual abuse, the government invited Sir William Utting, the former
chief inspector of social services, to review safeguards for all
children who live away from home.
His 1997 report, People Like Us, (1) made 159 recommendations and
led to the Quality Protects programme for improving services for
children who are looked after or in need. The government response,
(2) published a year later, promised action on the issues in the
report. But how far has a promising policy response translated into
action on the ground? What progress has been made in seven years
and what gaps, if any, still remain?
Our follow-up study for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which was
overseen by Sir William Utting, found many encouraging signs of
progress, but also evidence that while policies and protocols are
in place to better safeguard children, their implementation is
still open to question. We started in June 2002 by identifying
action taken in the previous five years and tracked developments up
to May 2004. We consulted a range of organisations and individuals
and have published two reports. Progress on Safeguards for Children
Living Away from Home (3) traces what has happened on the
recommendations in People Like Us, while Safeguards for Vulnerable
Children (4) provides more detail on abusers, disabled children and
children in prison.
For the most part, the government has taken the action promised and
changed the law and developed policies to strengthen safeguards for
children. The spirit of the report has been responded to as well as
the detailed recommendations and there is now greater recognition
of the need to provide good quality services that meet all the
needs of children and seeks to improve their life chances – and
help them in the transition to independence and adulthood.
The state of safeguards today
People Like Us says “safeguards are stronger than they were 10
years ago and of a higher order altogether than they were 10 years
before that”. We found that there has been further progress in the
past seven years but there is still a long way to go. The
strengthening of the duty of all agencies to safeguard and promote
welfare and the requirement to share information in the new
Children Bill are therefore very welcome.
And while the main groups of children living away from home –
looked-after children and children in boarding schools – do seem
better protected we found that children are less well safeguarded
in some settings such as the prison service, some health settings
and private foster care.
People Like Us said “prison is no place for children” yet, seven
years on, more children are being imprisoned despite a reduction in
youth crime. Attempts to halt the growth of the number of young
people in prison have been undermined by increases in remands to
prison as a result of breaching antisocial behaviour orders. There
have been warnings that the juvenile secure estate has reached full
capacity and risks serious breakdown. The welfare of children and
young people cannot be safeguarded in these circumstances and we
consider this the most worrying area of all.
Attempts have been made to improve the conditions of children and
young people in prison – through the introduction of Prison Service
Order 4950 – Regimes for Prisoners under 18. However, the real
issue is the extent to which the order is being implemented.
There are several concerns in relation to health settings. A
significant number of children with disabilities and psychiatric
conditions are in hospital for long periods without local
authorities being notified so their welfare is not safeguarded.
Children in hospices have the same need for protection and to be
consulted as other vulnerable children but current standards focus
too much on clinical aspects and not enough on welfare matters. We
were not sure if the systems were in place in child and adolescent
mental health units to prevent access by unsuitable people. And
there are worries about arrangements to check health staff with
unsupervised access to children, particularly paediatricians in
post for many years and GPs.
People Like Us stated that private fostering was an area where
children were not being safeguarded properly and that an unknown
number were likely to be seriously at risk. This is still the case.
Action is now being taken on private foster care in the Children
Bill but places too much responsibility on local authorities. More
responsibility should rest with parents and private foster carers –
we believe that private foster carers should be registered as
recommended in People Like Us.
Other vulnerable groups include disabled children and those with
emotional and behavioural difficulties, those in the armed
services, and refugee and asylum-seeking children. On disabled
children, People Like Us said “there is still a reluctance to
accept that disabled children are abused” and that awareness of
this needed to be raised. We have found that the vulnerability of
disabled children is now recognised in policy documents and
guidance, although this varies in different settings and there is a
shortfall of practical help and guidance on what can be done to
protect them. Disabled children remain very vulnerable particularly
in health settings (because of the failure to notify local
authorities) and in residential schools with 52-week
More information is now available about disabled children but it
needs to be collected at regular intervals and the problems of
definition which bedevil attempts to share information between
agencies need to be resolved. The criminal justice system’s
inability to prosecute those who have abused disabled children
remains a major failing.
People who work with children
We found that efforts have been made to improve the checks on staff
and others working with children through the Protection of Children
Act 1999 list and establishment of the Criminal Records Bureau. But
there are problems with ensuring that the right people are referred
to the Protection of Children Act list and consideration should be
given to broaden its scope beyond the work setting – for example to
people on social services lists.
Too much reliance is being placed on police checks while not enough
care is being taken with other enquiries and checks recommended in
Choosing with Care.(6) Over-reliance on convictions is particularly
worrying since only a minority of those who abuse children have
convictions and not enough use is made of soft information, or
criminal intelligence as the Bichard inquiry report calls it.(7)
The Ian Huntley case clearly illustrates the range of weaknesses in
this area in all of the services involved – police, social services
The sexual abuse of children
People Like Us said: “Persistent sexual abusers are a scourge of
childhood.” They still are and one of the greatest failings is that
there has been no progress at all in bringing them to justice. For
example, while recorded offences of gross indecency with a child
more than doubled between 1985 and 2001, convictions fell from 42
per cent to 19 per cent. This is despite the fact that there is now
more awareness of child sexual abuse and that children do seem to
be coming forward earlier when they have been abused.
Experts estimate that fewer than one in 50 sexual offences result
in a conviction. Meanwhile, the growth in child abuse images on the
internet is a major problem and adds an alarming dimension to our
knowledge about the scale of sexual abuse of children.
There have been attempts to tackle sexual abuse. For example, the
changes to the law to bring in new sexual offences, increases in
treatment in prison and of supervision in the community through
multi-agency public protection arrangements.
But there is still a major shortfall in both treatment and
supervision so the opportunity to reduce reoffending is lost. This
applies to all sex offenders – adult males, women and children and
young people. It is particularly important to identify early, treat
and supervise those young people who abuse others while there is
greatest hope that they can be prevented from entering on a career
Bringing together what we know about the scale of sexual abuse of
children, the low rate of convictions, the shortage of treatment
programmes and the cost of providing effective supervision in the
community leads to an uncomfortable conclusion. That is – if a
significant proportion of currently unconvicted abusers were to be
convicted the criminal justice system and prisons would be
We argue that there should be a major rethink of policy and a
national expansion of preventive schemes to provide information and
advice for adults, especially those who are abusing children or
fear they may and for those who suspect others may be abusing or
being abused. The Stop it Now! Campaign provides a good model for
this. Progress has to be made in tackling the problem of the scale
of sexual abuse of children. We believe that a comprehensive
strategy for the protection of children from sexual abuse needs to
be developed, with more information for the public, a more
preventive approach, a better understanding of why so few
convictions are obtained and better use being made of the soft
information or criminal intelligence.
People Like Us covered a wide range of issues but we found one
common theme emerged time and again – that, although policy and
legislation have been developed, there remains a large gap between
policy and practice. This was tragically demonstrated by the
Victoria Climbie case in relation to child protection and in the
Ian Huntley case in relation to checks on the suitability of people
to work with children.
Children in foster care are still not receiving visits from social
workers at the intervals specified in regulations, particularly
those placed outside their local area. Regulations are only a
safeguard if they are complied with. The Children (Leaving Care)
Act 2000 is a major step forward but here, as elsewhere, progress
has been slow and there are difficulties to be overcome before the
aspirations of the act become a reality.
The Social Exclusion Unit’s report Young Runaways5 proposed an
action plan to tackle the problem; however, work done by the
Children’s Society (8) showed that only a third of local
authorities had policies in place for young runaways and only seven
out of a sample of 150 had implemented the 2002 government
recommendations to draw up a plan.
While it has become the norm for policy developments to include
consultation with children, it seems that there has been less
progress in what concerns them most – involvement in decisions that
affect them individually.
Policy on children abused through prostitution has progressed, with
welcome changes to the law. But at the local level there still
seems to be a worrying level of denial about the scale and nature
of the problem. Local safeguarding children boards will need to
ensure there are mechanisms in place to address this problem in
Arrangements for child witnesses in court are being improved but
introduction has been slow and under-resourced, leading to uneven
implementation in different parts of the country.
Our conclusion is that, while a serious attempt has been made to
improve safeguards as recommended in People Like Us, there remain
areas of major concern, while new threats have emerged. While there
is still a need for further development of policy and legislation,
the real challenge is to implement effectively and consistently
those that are already in place. It is the implementation of
policies that protect children, not the policies themselves.
Marian Stuart is an independent consultant. As a former
senior civil servant at the Department of Health, her posts
included deputy chief inspector of social services. She was a
member of Sir William Utting’s review team for Safeguards for
Children Living Away from Home and has worked on a range of issues
relating to services for children.
This article reports on a study into the action taken on
proposals in People Like Us to improve safeguards for children
living away from home and on the current status of safeguards. It
looks into what policies have been developed and whether they are
being implemented effectively. It identifies groups of children
that remain very vulnerable and argues that a major rethink is
needed on how to tackle the sexual abuse of children.
(1) Sir William Utting, People Like Us: The Report of the Review
of Safeguards for Children Living Away from Home, The Stationery
(2) The Government’s Response to the Children’s Safeguards
Review, Cm 4105, The Stationery Office, 1998.
(3) M Stuart, C Baines, Progress on Safeguards for Children
Living Away from home. A Review of Action Since the People Like Us
report, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2004.
(4) M Stuart, C Baines, Safeguards for Vulnerable Children.
Three Studies on Abusers, Disabled Children and Children in Prison,
Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2004.
(5) Social Exclusion Unit, Young Runaways, Social Exclusion
(6) Department of Health, Choosing with Care – the Report of the
Committee of Inquiry into the Selection, Development and Management
of Staff in Children’s Homes, The Stationery Office, 1992.
(7) House of Commons, The Bichard Inquiry Report, The Stationery
(8) The Children’s Society, Thrown Away, The Children’s Society,
Marian Stuart can be contacted about the issues in this article