Call for minister of child welfare

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A national commission of inquiry into child abuse called yesterday for a fundamental shift of emphasis and resources towards the prevention of child abuse, and for independent commissioners to promote children's rights and welfare.

There should also be a new minister for children, at minister of state level, with a brief to co-ordinate child protection policy across Whitehall, the inquiry said.

Chaired by Lord Williams of Mostyn QC, a Labour peer, the commission was set up by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and has spent two years taking evidence.

A third plank of its report, published yesterday, is a call for a change of cultural attitude - "a new perception of children not as possessions but as individuals with rights and developing responsibilities of their own". A public education exercise was urgently needed for schools, parents and would-be parents.

The report comes amid angry responses to the Government's decision to leave plans for a national register of sex offenders out of today's Queen's Speech - having earlier promoted the move in its law and order programme. This and related employment and DNA testing proposals could be put before Parliament in a Private Members' Bill.

The commission calls for information to be recorded and co-ordinated about all those found guilty of, cautioned or subjected to formal disciplinary action for any kind of assault against children or other serious misdemeanour that has placed children at risk.

It points out, however, that despite instances of abuse of children by strangers or members of paedophile rings, most abuse is committed by people children have most reason to trust: members of or individuals known to their own family, or people entrusted with their care. The current cost to statutory and voluntary agencies is pounds 1bn a year. "Most of this money is spent on providing limited support and services after abuse has occurred rather than on initiatives to stop abuse happening," the report says. "This cannot be an effective use of resources."

A common element in almost all instances of abuse or neglect is that much of what is happening has been known to, or at least strongly suspected by someone other than the abuser, the commission emphasised.

The problem, estimates suggest, is widespread, with at least one in 10 children at some point in their childhood at risk of significant harm and likely to be suffering from physical, emotional, sexual or other forms of abuse or neglect.

The report was welcomed by social services organisations. The chairman of the Association of Directors of Social Services children and families committee, Brian Waller, said: "We all hope that this report will focus public attention not only on the extent of child abuse in its various forms but also on the wide range of recommendations which need to be acted on if children's lives are to be made safer."

David Colvin, an assistant director of the British Association of Social Workers, said: "The report focuses on prevention. Who could disagree with that? Current policies are child-centred, but largely related to abuse after it has happened." Mr Colvin said that one in every 1,000 children in the country was on an "at risk" register because of fears of sexual abuse.

n Victims of child sexual abuse must launch civil claims against their abusers within six years of their 18th birthdays, according to a ruling yesterday by the European Court of Human Rights. The court turned down applications by four female victims of serious abuse that British courts had wrongly ruled that their damages claims were out of time, even though one of the effects of the abuse was to prevent them from appreciating for many years that it was the cause of later mental problems.

Seven steps to help the helpless

Key recommendations of the Commission:

n Government departments should co-operate to develop a "business plan for children" designed to shift investment to a preventive approach.

n The report repeats previous calls for the establishment of a General Social Services Council.

n There should be more judges specially trained for children's proceedings.

n In child prostitution cases the criminal process should focus on clients and pimps who exploit children.

n Those working with adults should be trained to recognise the risks to children implicit in their client's situation.

n A public-education campaign to raise awareness of abuse and of what action people should take when they are concerned about a child.

n Children's Commissioners should provide the media with the kind of "authoritative" information that is currently lacking.