Children’s social workers could face up to five years in prison for failing to protect children from sexual exploitation, the prime minister will announce today.
Speaking at a Downing Street summit later today, David Cameron will outline plans for the government to consult on extending the criminal offence of wilful neglect to children’s social care, education and elected council members.
Currently, a criminal charge for wilful neglect – as introduced in the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 – would only apply to professionals who work in adult social care and health workers providing care for adults and children.
The criminal charge for wilful neglect carries a maximum jail term of five years.
The announcement will come on the same day that a serious case review is published into child sexual exploitation (CSE) in Oxfordshire. It follows major CSE investigations, which revealed social work failings in Rotherham, Rochdale and Derby.
Cameron will say the proposals send an “unequivocal message” that professionals who fail to protect children will be held accountable.
“It is about making sure that the professionals we charge with protecting our children – the council staff, police officer and social workers – do the job they are paid to do.”
“Offenders must no longer be able to use the system to hide their despicable activities and survivors of child sexual abuse must be given the long-term therapeutic treatment they need to re-build their lives,” he will say.
Other proposals include a new child sexual abuse taskforce of professional troubleshooting experts in social work, law enforcement and health. The taskforce would support local areas at every level in an attempt to eradicate the “culture of denial”, which meant victims were disbelieved and even blamed in places like Rotherham.
Social workers will be given access to a new national whistleblowing helpline to report bad practice, which will seek to prevent child sexual exploitation (CSE) being hidden and ignored – as seen in the damning reports into CSE in Rotherham and Rochdale.
Cameron also wants to clamp down on “huge pay-offs” for senior staff and council staff who failed to protect children. He will propose that exit payments can be “clawed back” where those people are quickly re-employed in the same part of the public sector.
Child sexual abuse will be prioritised as a national threat, like serious and organised crime, he will say. This means police will have a duty to collaborate across force boundaries. Funding of £7m will be given to organisations in 2015-16 to support victims of sexual abuse.
Maris Stratulis, England manager at the British Association of Social Workers, said the organisation totally supports public accountability and transparency. However, she said further discussion is needed about what the legal threshold of individual and corporate responsibility is.
“It is totally unacceptable for institutions to attempt to cover up abuse of children to protect their reputation,” she said, “But we have to acknowledge these days being a senior member of staff in the public sector carries a lot of responsibility and risk.”
Similarly, David Simmonds of the Local Government Association agreed those responsible for failing vulnerable children should be held to account. But he added: “We need to move on from the muddle situation councils currently face so the detail of today’s proposals is important to get right.”
However, threat to jail frontline workers is not the answer to child sexual exploitation, The College of Social Work has said.
Brigid Featherstone, chair of the college’s children and families faculty, said the move will reinforce a climate of persecution. “The proposals also fail to address the incredibly important safeguarding issues that recent serious case reviews have raised,” said Featherstone.
“We must address the severe lack of investment in child protection services, which has put organisations and systems under incredible strain and reduced their capacity for in depth work with children and their families,” she argued.
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