What happened to government plans to jail social workers for wilful neglect?

14 months ago David Cameron said the government would consult on extending the crime of wilful neglect to social workers. What's the latest?

prison bars
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A lot has happened since March 2015: A surprise election result, a pending EU referendum, and sweeping social work reforms.

With all of that to take in, social workers could be forgiven for forgetting about the government’s controversial plans to extend the crime of wilful neglect, currently applicable to care and children’s home workers, to other professions working with children – including social workers.

Today, the Queen opened parliament for the 65th time. Each year her speech sets out the government’s legislative agenda. In her 64th speech just under a year ago, she said the government would consult on the wilful neglect proposals, originally outlined by David Cameron in March 2015. Here are some of the key questions on the proposals…

  • Where’s the consultation? And is it still happening?

In short, yes. The Home Office told Community Care that a 12 week consultation is still expected to be completed before September this year.

The original promise to consult on this, as part of a wider consultation on the mandatory reporting of child abuse, was made 14 months ago, so you could be forgiven for wondering what has happened. The government said in August 2015 that the consultation would happen “later in the year”.

It’s original timeline it set itself has passed, but the Home Office expects to have consulted on it by September 2016, which was the deadline it set itself to decide on the issue during the passage of the Serious Crime bill through parliament.

  • What is the offence?

Details were set out last year: “The consultation will seek views on sanctions for failure to take action on child abuse or neglect where it is a professional responsibility to do so, including the option of extending the crime of ‘wilful neglect’ to cover children’s social care and education.

“‘Wilful neglect’ would impose criminal sanctions for those who are found guilty of deliberate, wilful or reckless neglect or mistreatment of children. It would cover inaction, concealment and/or deliberate cover ups and would ensure that those responsible for the very worst failures in care can be held accountable.”

In short, if a social worker wilfully fails to protect a child from child abuse, they could be jailed for up to five years, if the plans were to go through.

  • Why is the government doing it?

The plans were a reaction to high profile child sexual exploitation cases, such as those in Rotherham and the Serious Case Review in Oxfordshire.

David Cameron said at the time: “We have all been appalled at the abuse suffered by so many young girls in Rotherham and elsewhere across the country. Children were ignored, sometimes even blamed, and issues were swept under the carpet – often because of a warped and misguided sense of political correctness. That culture of denial which let them down so badly must be eradicated.”

Karen Bradley, minister for preventing abuse and exploitation, said the move is part of the government’s strategy to tackle child sexual exploitation, along with the child sexual exploitation response unit, which was announced at the same time as the wilful neglect consultation,  being set up later this year.

“Victims and survivors of abuse are more than ever feeling confident to report their experiences and we will continue to deliver measures to tackle child sexual exploitation,” Bradley said.

  • How likely is it a social worker will be prosecuted?

Isabelle Trowler, the chief social worker for children, said after the announcement last March that it would be “very difficult” to secure a conviction from the proposals.

“I can’t remember ever thinking poor practice was a result of wilful neglect/reckless practice,” she told social workers on Twitter about why she felt it would be unlikely that a social worker would be prosecuted under the plans.

An impact assessment carried out by the government during a consultation on the wilful neglect offence for care workers said there could be approximately 240 cases a year among that group under the offence.

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