England’s Children’s Commissioner is calling for the law to be changed so teachers, social workers and doctors have to report any suspicions of child abuse.
Maggie Atkinson says this would encourage professionals to focus more on children’s needs and share their concerns with others.
The government says there is no evidence children would be made safer.
Calls for such a change in the law have grown following several cases.
There is already statutory guidance obliging professionals who come in to contact with children to report child abuse, but failure to do so is not a crime in England, Scotland and Wales.
In Northern Ireland, it is an offence to fail to disclose an arrestable offence – including those against children – to police.
Ms Atkinson said the law needed tightening up, but other changes were needed too, because so much depended on how well a professional assessed what was going on – and what they did.
“We strongly believe pilots should be carried out to provide this evidence and children’s views must also be considered before a firm decision is made because we think there must be sound justification for not proceeding with a requirement on professionals to report abuse,” she said.
“Any changes to the law would need to be accompanied by better training so that staff are far more proficient at identifying and supporting child victims of abuse.”
A similar call was made recently by the ex-director of public prosecutions for England and Wales, Keir Starmer.
He said teachers and other professionals who did not report suspicions of child abuse should be prosecuted and face short jail sentences if convicted.
A number of recent cases of child abuse that have come to court have featured failures to report abuse, including that of teacher Nigel Leat, who was jailed indefinitely last year for abusing children at a school in Weston-super-Mare.
Guidance ‘crystal clear’ The Department for Education said mandatory reporting was “not the answer”.
A spokesman said: “Guidance is already crystal clear that professionals should refer immediately to social care when they are concerned about a child.
“Other countries have tried mandatory reporting and there is no evidence to show that it is a better system for protecting children. In fact there is evidence to show it can make children less safe.”
Bodies representing doctors and teachers gave mixed reactions to the calls.
The British Medical Association said it was against mandatory reporting.
A spokeswoman said in the vast majority of cases, doctors already reported their suspicions and in some rare cases, such action might not be in the best interests of the child.
Dr Tony Calland, chairman of the group’s Medical Ethics Committee, said:
“A decision not to report immediately is not a decision to do nothing. It may involve looking at other ways of supporting a child or managing risks.
“If mandatory reporting is introduced, doctors may encounter a situation where acting under the legal requirement isn’t acting in the best interest of the child and that’s our main concern. However, in cases where a professional has deliberately decided not to report for reasons that aren’t in the child’s interest, action should be taken.”
Kevin Courtney, the deputy general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: “It is of course vitally important that if teachers have concerns about pupils, these are passed on to the designated person within the school so that there can be proper liaison with other bodies.
“The real issue is not laws to require mandatory reporting but ensuring that there are clear procedures known by all staff in every school, with more done to reinforce child protection messages to the whole school community.”
Chris Keates, the general secretary of the NASUWT, said it was a “very complex issue” which would need very careful consideration if firm proposals were put forward.