New child abuse laws a 'fudge', inquiry chair says

A discard child's teddy bear is seen left on a chair.
One person described the amendment as a “kick in the teeth” for victims. [Getty Images]

The chair of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse says she is “deeply disappointed” by the government’s approach to stop institutional cover ups of the crime.

Survivors of abuse have described the government’s plans to stop institutional cover-ups of the crime as “a sham” and “worse than useless”.

The government has published an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill, its long awaited response to the recommendations of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse (IICSA).

Prof Alexis Jay, chair of IICSA, said the amendment was a "fudge" and "not a very good one”.

Her inquiry held seven years of hearings and heard from tens of thousands of victims and survivors of child sex abuse, over many decades.

It cost nearly £200m and its key recommendation was so called mandatory reporting – meaning that failing to report abuse could become a new criminal offence.

Alex Renton, a journalist and broadcaster who was himself a victim of child sex abuse, said there was “huge disappointment and anger” among abuse survivors that the government was failing to implement the inquiry’s key recommendation.

In October 2022 the IICSA said reporting allegations of child sex abuse should be mandatory and that failure to report could lead to a new criminal offence.

The Home Office said its amendment creates a legal requirement to report abuse, and that existing legislation means sanctions will apply if that does not happen.

Alan Collins, a leading child abuse lawyer, said in his view the amendment did not create such a legal requirement . He described the amendment as ‘window dressing’.

For decades institutions have covered up child abuse.

After the Jimmy Savile scandal the Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse examined in detail how that happened.

The government has been consulting and considering its response. In February Home Secretary James Cleverly said that people working with children could lose their jobs if they failed to report abuse.

On Thursday the government published an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill which set out the new law.

It says there will be a duty to report but does not specify sanctions for failing to do so. It proposes a new offence for those who try to block or deter reporting.

Mr Renton said the amendment included several ‘get outs’ for those responsible for children.

He expressed concern that the law would not have stopped him being abused as a young boy.

Aged eight he had told his mother how a teacher would fondle him and other boys and then given them sweets. She reported this to the headmaster, who decided it was not in the children’s interests to tell the authorities.

That teacher went on to abuse other children, he said.

Physical abuse not covered

The new amendment waives the duty to report if a person believes “it is not in the best interests of each relevant child to make a notification”.

Mr Renton said that clause could allow abuse to continue.

The Home Office said its new amendment did not specify sanctions because it would work with pre-existing legislation: specifically, failure to report could mean someone working with children was referred to the Disclosure and Barring Service.

Alan Collins said this does not amount to a new legal obligation to report and it would not “change culture” – which he said was “so badly needed”.

He said “this is not really mandatory reporting” .

The amendment only covers sexual abuse, not the physical abuse suffered by victims like BBC presenter Nicky Campbell. He said he could not comment on government policy, but said it remained to be seen whether this law would make children safer.

Mr Renton welcomed the new offence for deterring or blocking reporting, but said in his experience of many thousands of cases, it was rare that someone tried to block the reporting of child abuse.

It was far more frequent that the person who suspected or was told of abuse did not report it.

He described the amendment as a “kick in the teeth” for victims who have been campaigning for decades.

Prof Jay said it was very much a "missed opportunity".