Can Mandatory Reporting change England’s culture of cover-ups?

Posted by Oliver Jeffcott on

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An ongoing government consultation is examining whether to compel professionals to report concerns of child abuse or face criminal sanctions. Similar measures, known as Mandatory Reporting, are already in place in numerous countries including USA, Australia and Canada. In my view, bringing in Mandatory Reporting will be an important step in changing the culture of covering up child abuse that has gone on for too long in this country.

In the book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell points out the poor safety record of Korean Air in the 1980s and 1990s, which included several fatal crashes. He put this down in part to the hierarchical culture in Korea, where “you are obliged to be deferential toward your elders and superiors.” This was dangerous as airplanes are designed to be piloted by a crew that works together as a team of equals, remaining unafraid to point out mistakes or disagree with a captain.

Once the Korean aviation authorities saw the dangers that their culture was causing they instigated change by encouraging airline crews to speak up about any perceived dangers and to voice concerns in plain language. Those efforts paid off and a 2008 industry assessment ranked Korean airlines as among the safest in the world.

Cultural attitudes may also have played a part in the cover-ups of child abuse in England, and we now need to create a climate in England where people are encouraged to speak out, and victims are treated with respect. This will go a long way towards taking child abuse out from the shadows and stopping the mistakes of the past being repeated.

Historically, high profile paedophiles have been allowed to continue unchecked because of the difficulty in believing that someone is an abuser. Allegations against Jimmy Savile were simply ignored, despite the bravery of those coming forward. Even now, some people question whether he was a paedophile, despite the overwhelming evidence. This may be partly down to the fear of confrontation and social embarrassment that pervades the English psyche.

Another reason high-profile paedophiles have got away with abusing children is due to their ‘untouchable’ status. Entertainers, politicians and other prominent people were well connected and were often afforded considerable protection from accusations. Cyril Smith and Lord Janner were both members of parliament when they were investigated by the police following allegations of abuse. In both cases, the CPS did not decide to prosecute although they have since acknowledged that there was sufficient evidence to do so. Whilst not an exclusively English phenomenon, affording trust and power on the basis of someone’s class or social status is particularly prevalent in this country.

It is a tragedy that many survivors of abuse had the bravery to come forward but were not listened to. One of Jimmy Savile’s victims said ‘When I got back to the ward I told the nurse what Jimmy had done. I was very shaken. She just called me a ‘silly girl’ and said ‘do you know how much he does for our hospital?’ After that I never told anyone else’. If Mandatory Reporting was already in force, many serial paedophiles would have been stopped earlier and many victims would have been spared.


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Oliver is an Associate Solicitor in our Personal Injury team based in our London office.

Oliver Jeffcott
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