The true scale of child abuse in the UK was revealed yesterday when Christine Gilbert, the chief executive of the children's services watchdog, told MPs that three children a week died as a result of abuse – more than triple the previous estimate.
Figures showed that 210 cases of children dying from abuse or neglect had been reported by local authorities in the 16 months between April 2007 (when Ofsted took over responsibility for inspecting all children's services) and August 2008.
She told a hearing of the Commons Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families that Ofsted had investigated 282 cases of child deaths brought to its attention during that period – and found most were a result of abuse. The remainder, 72, had died of other causes such as road accidents.
She said 21 of the 210 were babies, but only two of them had been known to social services before their deaths.
The figures have come to light in the aftermath of the death of Baby P, the 17-month-old from Haringey who died after suffering more than 50 injuries. His mother, her boyfriend and her lodger await sentence over his death.
Barry Sheerman, the Labour chairman of the committee, told Ms Gilbert: "You have brought to us the most horrific figures I've ever seen brought into the public domain. You have presented a higher percentage of child deaths than the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children gave or any of the authorities gave. The figures are quite astonishing and unacceptable."
Graham Stuart, the Conservative MP for Beverley and Holderness, who raised the figures while Ms Gilbert was giving evidence to the select committee, added: "We're talking about three children in this country being killed every week." He then raised the issue during Prime Minister's Questions, saying the "death toll of the innocent" showed there was "something profoundly wrong with our society".
In his response, Gordon Brown acknowledged: "We have to do everything in our power to prevent the needless loss of young life."
Earlier figures had suggested that about one child a week died as a result of child abuse, but the NSPCC admitted its figures could be an underestimate as they relied solely on official recordings of cases of homicide.
After a two-hour grilling by MPs on Ofsted's role in the Baby P case, Mr Sheerman announced he was less confident of the watchdog's ability to inspect social care. "This session made me less confident rather than more confident that there isn't going to be another Haringey waiting," he said.
Ms Gilbert told MPs Ofsted had been "misled" by Haringey over a previous report – with officials giving misleading figures for the amount of casework allocated to its social workers.
Mr Sheerman called for an Ofsted inspector to be "embedded" in every authority. Earlier, Ms Gilbert announced that Ofsted was planning to set up a confidential "whistleblower" hotline so any staff who had "serious concerns" about child safety could get in touch with the inspectorate.