Children may be less safe under proposed changes to NHS structures which could destabilise safeguarding partnerships that “already need urgent improvement”, a charity has warned.
The NSPCC said it is worried that the Health and Care Bill will further weaken the child protection system under the proposed major restructure of health boards.
This will see Clinical Commissioning Groups scrapped, and the creation of Integrated Care Boards which will be legally responsible for safeguarding children across large geographical areas.
The charity fears the plans could destabilise multi-agency safeguarding partnerships “by disrupting working relationships and result in a loss of experienced staff”.
The warning comes in the wake of the deaths of young children including Arthur Labinjo-Hughes, Star Hobson and Amina-Faye Johnson.
Child cruelty offences rose by more than a fifth (22%) in the year to September 2021, compared to the previous 12 months, according to Office for National Statistics figures covering England and Wales.
During the first year of the pandemic, the NSPCC helpline contacted safeguarding agencies about an average of 25 young children every day where there were physical abuse and neglect concerns.
It contacted agencies about more than 9,400 young children in 2020/21 with worries about physical abuse and neglect – up almost 10% on the previous year.
Nearly half of all NSPCC referrals relating to physical abuse and neglect were made about children aged five and under, highlighting the risk they face before starting school.
A grandparent who contacted the NSPCC Helpline during the pandemic about their four, five and seven-year-old grandchildren said: “The youngest described an incident where he was assaulted by his mother’s boyfriend in front of her because he had done something to upset her. He was in so much pain and was very scared.
“All of the boys have told me they do not like to be left alone with their mother’s boyfriend because they are scared of what he will do to them as he regularly threatens them.”
“But at a time when Government could be showing national leadership when it comes to safeguarding, child protection guidance is glaringly absent from big changes to the system that will result from the Health and Care Bill.
“It’s crucial the importance of health services’ role in identifying and preventing child abuse before tragedies occur is recognised in legislation and backed up with investment for a fragmented and woefully underfunded child protection system.”
Baroness Claire Tyler, co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Children, said: “Given the gravity of the safeguarding responsibilities being transferred to Integrated Care Boards, I urge the Government to ensure children’s safety is a priority for this Bill.
“By supporting agencies to work together effectively and share information, further heart-breaking cases of child abuse and neglect could be avoided.”
A Government spokesperson said: “We have placed new, equal responsibilities on police, council and health services to work together to protect children; intervened where services fail to do this; invested billions to improve social care and raised the bar in training and professional development for social workers.
“Our Health and Care Bill will deliver a health and care system which is less bureaucratic, more accountable, and more integrated in the wake of the pandemic.
“The independent child safeguarding panel are carrying out a national review into the deaths of Arthur and Star to help improve the system. Their work, alongside recommendations expected from the independent review of children’s social care, will help to take necessary action to protect the most vulnerable children.”