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Volume 407: debated on Thursday 19 June 2003

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[Relevant documents: The Fourth Report from the Home Affairs Committee, Session 2001–02, on The Conduct of Investigations into Past Cases of Abuse in Children's Home, HC836, and the Government's reply thereto (Cm. 5799); and the Home Office Annual Report for 2003 (Cm. 5908).]

Motion made, and Question proposed,

That further resources, not exceeding £17,181,299,000, be authorised for use for the year ending on 31st March 2004, and that a further sum, not exceeding £7,391,463,000, be granted to Her Majesty out of the Consolidated Fund for the year ending on 31st March 2004 for expenditure by the Home Office.— [Ms Bridget Prentice.]

2.14 pm

This debate was due to be opened by the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) who, as the House knows, was Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee up to his Government appointment last week. He has gone on to higher things—or lower, as the case may be. I have agreed to carry out the Chairman's duties on a temporary basis until a permanent replacement is duly appointed by the Committee.

Let me say at the outset that this report in no way minimises child abuse. Acts of abuse, physical and sexual, are indeed dreadful crimes, often leading to lasting damage and trauma to individuals. The police are certainly right to treat it with the utmost seriousness, and we would all be disappointed if that were not the case. However, it is also important that justice should be done and that the innocent should not be convicted. The Committee received a large number of representations from people accused of child abuse who maintain their innocence, from their relatives, and from journalists, lawyers and colleagues. My hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas), who I see is here today, also made vigorous representations to us on this issue. I understand that she is chair of the all-party group on abuse investigations.

Members of the judiciary have also expressed concern. In our report we quote Judge Jonathan Crabtree, who, in 1999, having dismissed all charges against a defendant, expressed serious concerns over the difficulties of defending such allegations. This quote from the judge appears in our report:

"Anyone who is in charge of children is vulnerable to allegations of assault from some dissatisfied or angry child, and if no complaint is made for months or years, how can any teacher, social worker, nurse defend themselves?…How is he or she going to be able to…prove his or her innocence when so much time has passed?"
In recent years, the police have investigated large numbers of allegations of abuse said to have occurred many years ago in children's homes around the country. Part of the difficulty is that such allegations go back so many years. The number of alleged suspects has been very large, and many lives have been damaged by the allegations, even in cases in which no charges were brought.

The allegation of child abuse is easily made, but it is very difficult to recover from, even if the person concerned is vindicated as a result of police inquiries or before a court. In some instances, accused teachers or care workers—however vindicated—may never work again.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues for the work that they have done. To highlight what he is saying, the Committee has pointed out that in the Northumbria police area, where Operation Rose was carried out, 60 people were arrested but only five have been successfully prosecuted, with three cases outstanding. That adds up to a very large number of people whose lives have been ruined and whose career prospects have been destroyed.

The right hon. Gentleman makes a valid point.

In the last five years, 34 of the 43 police forces in England and Wales have been involved in investigations into allegations of abuse in children's homes and other institutions. I want to emphasise, on behalf of the Committee, that we do not criticise the police for doing this. Indeed, all hon. Members would agree that they would be criticised if they did not carry out their duties when allegations were made. In Merseyside alone, the police investigated 510 former care workers suspected of child abuse. Of those, 67 individuals were charged, leading to 36 convictions and nine acquittals. The remaining 22 cases were discontinued or dismissed in court. These investigations have had a very high failure rate. The Crown Prosecution Service rejects no less than 79 per cent. of cases referred by the police, against an average of 13 per cent. for all types of charge. I would have thought that those statistics should set alarm bells ringing.

Child abuse cases differ from other criminal investigations in several ways, and we learned a lot as a result of our inquiry. First, they relate to events that may or may not have occurred 10, 20 or, indeed, 30 years ago. That gives rise to obvious questions of identification. For instance, there have been cases in which it has been shown that the accused was not working in a care home when his accuser was there. Often, such a conclusive defence is possible only because the relevant records have been preserved. What would have happened if they had not?

It is indeed a feature, which appears in the report, that in many cases the documents have been destroyed, notwithstanding the rule that documents and records need to be preserved in the case of child care for the rest of the child's life.

Yes. I am sure that the Minister will deal with that point, because it is indeed relevant and people's reputations, as well as whether they end up in prison, could depend on records being preserved.

Does my hon. Friend accept that sometimes the poor state of such records, as well as the fact that some may have been destroyed or are partial, can undermine the evidence given by children making allegations of abuse? Evidence that might have supported their stories, which so often rely on their individual recollections, may be missing. That, too, is a tragedy.

Again, that is a valid point, and surely it shows the need for records to be preserved. I do not think that there is any dispute about that.

I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for letting me intervene at this stage. On the question of records, may I give him a practical example of how things can go badly wrong?

In my county of Leicestershire a few years ago, the city of Leicester was separated to become a unitary authority. It established its own social services department. As a consequence, employees of the previous Leicestershire county council social services department had their employment records split between the city and the county. In a number of cases, that has led to the losing or misplacing of records relevant to, for example, Operation Magnolia, which took place in my county. Will the hon. Gentleman bear that in mind when he considers the question of the safe keeping of records?

Yes, I will. I say to the hon. and learned Gentleman, as I said to he hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), that it is important for those records to be kept. I repeat myself, but I hope that the Minister, as I am sure she will, takes on board what has been said from both sides of the House about the need for evidence and for records to be kept, both of which are important. The hon. and learned Gentleman has given us an illustration of what can happen as a result of a local authority reorganisation.

Secondly, there are cases with no physical evidence, no forensic material and no written records. Sometimes, even the building in question has been demolished. Thirdly, the prosecution case almost always relies on the word of the alleged victim or victims. Fourthly, the willingness of the court to accept what we describe as similar fact evidence—that is, corroboration by the quantity, rather than the quality, of similar accusations—has led the police to engage in what is called trawling.

The police and the Home Office become rather disturbed or upset by the word "trawling", but that is the word that we have used. There is trawling using a wide net of former care home residents, which relates to finding out from a large circle of people, who were involved or not involved as the case may be, whether there is any evidence to support the allegations. There have been accusations that the police, at least in the early days of that practice, were rather careless in their corroboration of allegations.

Does my hon. Friend acknowledge that we heard evidence in the Home Affairs Committee of original complainants dropping their case while others brought into the investigation by the police carried on with theirs, which went to court?

Yes, indeed. My hon. Friend makes a good point.

David Rose, the special investigations reporter for The Observer, if not currently, then certainly in the past, is concerned about what he believes to be a number of miscarriages of justice. He has taken a prominent role, and some may have seen a television programme in which he featured. David Rose told us in oral evidence:
"The problem with trawling as it is now carried out is that it is an absolutely unregulated process and it is a process which…is almost tailor-made to generate false allegations."
Some may disagree with how Mr. Rose puts his point, but he certainly holds pretty strong opinions on the subject.

Does my hon. Friend remember receiving evidence of a clear indication that the basic police rules—the codes and guidance—are completely ignored during such trawling exercises? Does he recall a former children's home resident saying that he felt that he was bullied into making a complaint and that he was given the names of specific people from his former homes who had serious allegations against them? It was even suggested which forms of abuse had taken place. Does not that show how dangerous trawling is and how important it is to have video recording? Does my hon. Friend share my disappointment that that has not been taken up?

We make our recommendation on the recording of questioning. I well recall the evidence given to us, which my hon. Friend mentions. It could be argued that the police are simply carrying out their duty in investigating those serious allegations. The police have a duty and responsibility in all these matters, although I am concerned that the Home Office response more or less dismisses the trawling situation.

I will give way in a moment. That situation is dismissed, and the police are rather sensitive to our using the word "trawling". I hope that the Minister takes on board the points that have been made, not least by my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Prosser). I shall take the interventions fairly, so I give way first to the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier).

I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is being generous in giving way. Surely the point on so-called trawling is that children are desperately vulnerable. By definition, there is no corroborative evidence, except what can be found from trawling. Although the police should never carry out the activity suggested by the hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Prosser), if trawling were to discontinue, so would most genuine cases. The answer, surely, is to remove compensation payments, which genuinely throw up false claims.

I shall say whether we believe that trawling should continue, but I give way first to my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Singh), who is a member of the Committee.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. Does he think that the central problem of trawling is that when a case gets to court and there is a conviction, it leads to guilt based on the volume of allegations rather than the quality of the evidence?

I shall refer to trawling, but I must give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson), who takes a great interest in children's matters.

Does my hon. Friend not accept that someone who was abused as a child and has suppressed the memory of that abuse for a long time, perhaps because of threats they experienced during that abuse, would regard becoming the recipient of what could more fairly be called dip sampling as validation of their experience? They would have a real opportunity to unburden themselves of the abuse.

Let me say immediately that if a child has been abused, no matter how many years have passed since the event, those responsible must be brought to justice. I hope that nothing said by me or recommended by the Committee, and nothing in any speeches or interventions made today, will give the impression that we do not want that to happen. If my hon. Friend has balanced the argument in that regard, nothing but good can come of it.

As I have said, we have reservations about trawling, but we do not think it should be prohibited, whatever name is given to it. My hon. Friend clearly wishes to give it a different name. We have emphasised that the police have a statutory duty to investigate allegations of child abuse regardless of whether they relate to contemporary or to past events.

The waters are often muddied by the prospect of compensation. That is another aspect that the Committee was not happy about. It has been suggested that the desire for financial compensation has been a motivating factor in many accusations, and even that on occasion the police have mentioned the prospect of compensation to potential witnesses. We do not suggest that that is typical, but it is certainly a complicating factor.

The Committee took evidence from a firm of lawyers which, at the time, was dealing with 20 group actions and 800 individual claims. Clearly child abuse allegations were big business to that firm, at least. I do not suggest that the firm was acting in a way that was not proper, but those facts must give rise to some concern about the way in which such cases are handled.

The hon. Gentleman has said that the firm was not behaving illegally, but does he agree that it was trawling for people whose cases it could take up in order to make a packet financially?

That may well be so. The evidence we were given shows that a former police officer was working for the firm at the time of our inquiry. We expressed some reservations about that.

I assume that, given the changes in legal aid funding, the solicitors were handling the cases on a "no win, no fee" basis. A result favouring their clients would therefore have been of direct advantage to them.


Paragraphs 109 to 115 deal with compensation, and explain the difference between claims pursued through the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority and those pursued through the civil courts. As might be expected, the firm of solicitors to whom I referred used the civil courts, in which there is no limit to the amount that can be paid in compensation. That does not apply under the criminal injuries compensation scheme.

The Committee concluded that it was likely that a significant number of miscarriages of justice had occurred. My hon. Friend the Minister will probably say that that is not the case, for that is the substance of the Government's response to our report. The report calls for clear prescriptive guidelines to cover future police investigations, and for proper recording of police interviews, which has already been mentioned. It also recommends that after 10 years prosecutions should proceed only with the court's permission, and states:
"The use of similar allegations, as evidence to corroborate a charge"
should be admitted only
"if it bears a striking similarity to the evidence related to the charged offence".
It recommends the drawing up of guidelines governing the relationship between the police and personal injuries solicitors.

The Government's reply was published in April. I am sure that it will not surprise my hon. Friend the Minister to learn that, in the main, it was not as encouraging as we hoped it would be. It reflected, to an extent, the views expressed to the Committee by the Association of Chief Police Officers. Nevertheless, I am sure that we will all listen carefully to what the Minister says later.

Prohibiting the citing of other cases as corroborating evidence unless they were very similar to the case being dealt with would return us to a time when prosecutions were almost impossible. In those days a string of children would make allegations against an abuser. It would be his word against theirs, and because cases were often tried separately it was possible to clear him of every alleged offence, although the overall weight of evidence against him might be huge.

That is a point of view, but it should be seen alongside the need to be certain that those who are charged—and certainly those who are convicted—are guilty. None of us would like to be falsely charged and then imprisoned. What is important, ultimately, is for justice to be done.

It is important to have clear evidence, but is it not also important to understand the nature of child sex abuse? Rather than relying on striking similarity, should we not view the evidence in the context of what we know child abusers do? They may begin with minimal abuse, which then becomes much more extensive. That might not constitute striking similarity, but it would fit the known pattern of behaviour among child abusers.

My hon. Friend's point has much in common with that made by the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier).

Let me repeat what I said at the outset. Child abuse is undoubtedly a dreadful crime. We would not want our own children to be subjected to any form of abuse, and if we do not want that to happen to our own children, we do not want it to happen to any children. If convicted, those responsible—particularly those who are given the responsibility of looking after children by society and abuse their position—must of course go to prison. But however strongly we feel about that—and we in the House of Commons must obviously feel strongly about it—it is important that those who have not been responsible for child abuse should not find themselves in prison as a result of false allegations.

We have looked into the matter, and we have recognised the complicating factors. Ultimately, however, we believe that there have been miscarriages of justice. We think that the introduction of certain changes would make it more difficult for innocent people to be sent to prison. I hope that my hon. Friend and other Ministers will consider our recommendations carefully. We made them in good faith, and, as I have said, on the clear understanding that those who abuse children should be duly punished; but we think that the changes we recommend would improve the overall position.

2.38 pm

I congratulate the Home Affairs Committee on its report, and the hon. Member for Walsall, North (David Winnick) on his balanced account of it. I also—in anticipation, as it were—thank the hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas), with whom I serve as an officer on the all-party group on abuse investigations, for the painstaking and determined way in which she has pursued these issues and contributed to the Committee's evidence. She has, I think, helped to influence thinking on a difficult and sensitive matter.

I welcome the new Minister to what is a demanding position, although I am less sympathetic to the Home Office's response to the report by the Select Committee on Home Affairs. As a number or us may have done, I came into the issue as a result of a case of a single constituent, who is in prison to this day, although his close family and friends continue to protest his innocence. I am aware of another case involving a constituent that has not hit the headlines. After much intrusive procedure—that person had a young family—he was eventually left in peace bit with one charge left on the file as a settlement.

The motivation, which has been properly set out by the acting Chairman of the Select Committee, should be simply to see a fair process in the judicial system. We should all make it clear to the Minister that we are not seeking to rehearse individual cases in this forum today. I thought that the Chairman's summary of the difficulties that are set out in the report was exemplary. I need only sketch them briefly.

This all took place a long time ago. The evidence is likely to be all by word of mouth, with virtually no forensic evidence, unlike in, say, a modern case, where computer data, for example, may be brought in evidence. There are ample opportunities for, to use an old-fashioned phrase—it is a nasty practice that began under the Romans, so I use their word for it—dilation, informing, sneaking on people in order to damage them, whether or not there is justification for that, and for the settling of scores. There is also the element of compensation, which rightly concerned the Select Committee. There is the fact many of the witnesses or potential witnesses have had a chequered subsequent history such that their individual evidence may not be compelling and it has to be, as it were, bulked out in order to make a case. That is not to gainsay rightful probing, as my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) said. We must strike the right balance.

Perhaps the more general point I need to make is that no one in the House has a brief for the support of paedophiles or for sweeping such issues under the carpet, however long ago they may or may not have occurred.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that other factors relating to these issues concern the attitude of victims towards the abuse that they have suffered, and the shame, embarrassment, humiliation and difficulties that they have in expressing that often in a courtroom?

I have no problem with that; it is why the matter has to be dealt with very carefully and sensitively.

I have no problem with a chief constable seeking not merely to meet targets to get people inside if they have done despicable things but making uncomfortable the undetected, silent offender who may not sleep well at night if he knows that he may be pursued on the matter, but all the evidence we have seen from other contexts is that paedophilia or suspicions thereof can engender uncontrolled emotions. Rage at the exploitation of children is understandable, but it may not always serve the interests of justice. In particular, the weighting of evidence may be miscalculated. Frankly, the burden of proof may be in some danger of reversal. The essential issue is whether, given that there have been cases which have resulted in a reversal or quashing of the verdict or a miscarriage of justice, there are other cases in consideration, some of which were brought before the Select Committee and others of which are known to the all-party group on abuse investigations.

I was struck by the hon. Gentleman's point about the reversal of the burden of proof, because it related to something I read in the Government's response, in which they use the extraordinary sentence:

"Rarely is there clear substantiation that these allegations have indeed been deceptions."
It may require a wet towel and careful study to try to make sense of that but it appears to mean that the burden of proof has been reversed.

The right hon. Gentleman is perceptive in that comment. There is still a lot of this about. There will, frankly, be more to come. The duty we need to set before the Home Office is to ensure that past cases are reviewed expeditiously and thoroughly and that the system takes more care in relation to future cases. I was not encouraged by the tone of the Government's response. I cite in evidence paragraph 10, for example, which states:

"The Government therefore respects the views of the Committee"—
it should do—
"but does not share its belief in the existence of large numbers of miscarriages of justice."
That statement may be formally unexceptionable but it implies that a few miscarriages of justice are all right, provided that most people were rightly convicted. I happen to take the view that one miscarriage of justice is unacceptable.

Does my hon. Friend share perhaps some disquiet that paragraph 10 of the Government's response disagrees with the suggestion that a range of agencies are

"unaware of these deceptions and/or unwittingly assist them; or are complicit in their fabrication"?
In paragraph 36 of the report, a clear example is given of exactly that.

My hon. Friend is right to point that out. My view is that we cannot ask or expect the police to back out of their duties to investigate historic allegations of abuse, or indeed current ones. Therefore, it is all the more important that such investigations should be carried out scrupulously and fairly. I also believe that the use of various tools as recommended by the Select Committee needs active consideration. I mention particularly video recording of witness evidence. I notice, for example, that at a recent meeting in the House in the context of persons with learning difficulties, vulnerable persons who may be victims even in such cases, the Director of Public Prosecutions suggested that there may be some virtue in video recording. I think that he is on the right lines.

As the Government say in paragraph 35 of their response, and with this I found myself more in sympathy, a clear, accurate and, if I may add, comprehensive and unexpurgated record of approaches to witnesses should be established, whether or not that is in video form. I think that that would then be available to the defence on disclosure.

There is an issue of balance on a matter that has not been much rehearsed so far: the issue of publicity and, in particular, celebrity evidence. I personally still incline to the view that we should withhold those names because the attraction of putting someone's name in the frame is just too great. Recently, the accuser of a former colleague of ours in the House has been sent to prison in that regard. Whether that results in a sufficient deterrent against that sort of practice I know not.

The law of "similar fact", which is another matter on which the Select Committee commented and hence the Home Office responded, is another area of concern. Paragraph 55 of the Government's response states:
"multiple accusations against an offender have a significance that derives from the unlikelihood that a person will be independently falsely accused of offences of a like nature."
The crucial word is "independently". If it is a matter of 20 people, even people who are in prison currently, all independently saying that they remember that there was a problem with that person, I might understand it. However, if it is in response to a systemic inquiry that makes certain assumptions, I have less sympathy with it.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that it is possible to make inquiries of former residents of children's homes where allegations have been made in a way that does not name the suspected person and gives no indication of the particular concerns? That would be a valid process.

That is exactly the sort of proper practice with which I would have no difficulty. This is not a matter of sides. We are trying to tease out a common, good practice approach.

I leave the House with three specific points.

Before my hon. Friend completes his speech, may I ask him to acknowledge that, until the various changes, many of which he has covered, took place, 15 years ago it was almost impossible to get convictions of child abusers? After a case in my constituency, the barrister said that she felt ashamed and disgusted that she had taken the case as it was so obvious that her client was guilty. The process in those days worked in such a fashion that he got off.

We have to seek a balance, but we cannot achieve it by swinging in the opposite direction and putting innocent people in prison.

I have three concerns, and in setting them out I am trying to read the mind of the Home Office. First, in terms of the Home Office's own interests, it is wrong—although perhaps understandable—for it to try to defend the integrity of the judicial system by implying that everything is all tight, and that it is therefore better not to rock the boat by asking such questions. Secondly, I am concerned as to whether there is an underlying and subtler point in relation to informers. Many people in prison are police informers or are otherwise compromised, as it were. Are we talking about a way of ensuring that they continue to supply information to police officers, perhaps in respect of other investigations that have nothing to do with sex abuse? [Interruption.] The Minister appears to be surprised by that suggestion; if she can make inquiries and in turn surprise me, I should be delighted. However, I am worried about this issue, and given that informers are registered, perhaps we should look into it further.

My third and final concern is that the Home Office response will be seen as the green light to a series of fresh allegations. Frankly, it would not be difficult to extend this measure to cover not only abuse in child care homes but, for example, the several choirmasters who were recently implicated in various activities. And there is the wholly separate issue of cot deaths and sudden infant deaths, and whether people, once they get into this frame of mind, will start to look in an uncritical way and make accusations that cannot really be substantiated.

It would be terrible if, through not building the right safeguards into our procedures and attitudes, we in this House had to revert to these issues after a series of judicial disasters, with all the wreckage that that might bring to the lives of individuals—whether or not anything had been done to them, whether or not they had committed offences themselves. We must be careful and ensure that the system delivers a fair outcome.

2.52 pm

I want to begin by thanking the members of the Home Affairs Committee for having the courage to take on this very difficult inquiry. I must also point out that, like the other members of the all-party group on abuse investigations, I am not a paedophile-lover or an advocate of paedophiles. Properly convicted sex offenders are the most repugnant form of humanity. Our interest in historical abuse investigations has always centred not on the outcome of police investigations—on whether a person is guilty or innocent—but on the integrity of the processes used by the police and the Crown Prosecution Service. To date, there is no way of independently checking the procedures used by either of those authorities.

I am bitterly and hugely disappointed with the Government's response to the Home Affairs Committee's report, which constituted virtually a total rejection of all of the recommendations, excluding those that concur with existing Government policy. I want to reply to the Government's response and to ask the Minister to think again.

I want to bring to Members' attention a statement presented to the Home Affairs Committee by Mark Merett. It reads as follows:
"I feel I must make this statement after spending three years at a children's home in South Wales, which a is now at the centre of child abuse allegations. During my time at the school there was never any talk or rumour of child abuse, if anything of that nature had been going on everyone would have known about it. At night I shared a bedroom with three other boys who knew everything that was going on; if a burglary had been committed, everyone knew about it by breakfast time the next morning…
I was interviewed by South Wales Police on three occasions and during these interviews I was amazed that the police openly named suspects who were known to me and they confirmed that these suspects had been named by other former residents. Even though I made the police aware of my medical condition (I am epileptic), they continued to pressurise me into making a complaint, which I did not do. I found the whole experience very distressing and I felt that I was being bullied by the police into making a complaint.
I was horrified when I was asked during the interview, 'Did Mr B touch you up?, did he touch your penis? other people have complained that he did.'
At this moment I was appalled and explained that nothing of that nature…went on at the school. The police pointed out that they had been in touch with other former residents who had made complaints. After hours of questioning, I still maintained that nothing ever happened to me, which is the truth."
That is just one of many statements that we are aware of, and which say the same thing. In many ways, that statement is the source of our concerns, and with that in mind I must again congratulate the Home Affairs Committee on its even-handed approach to this inquiry. Seventy-six people submitted memorandums to the Committee—they included barristers, solicitors, the falsely accused, journalists, representatives of social services departments, police authority representatives and even Members of Parliament—and responded constructively to the inquiry's terms of reference.

I should remind Members that the cases that we are considering—historical sex abuse cases—arise from complainants' allegations of abuse in respect of incidents that took place up to 30 years ago. The complainants, who are now all adults, were cared for in care homes. The primary concern of members of the all-party group, endorsed by members of the Home Affairs Committee, is the way in which evidence from those individuals is obtained and recorded. Eight police authority inquiries have taken place throughout the UK in the past five years, involving—according to my own estimates—more than 20,000 complainants and probably in excess of 10,000 care workers and social workers, all of whom have been identified as suspects.

I turn to the body of the report and my concerns about the adequacy of the Government's response. In paragraph 10 of the latter, the Government state:
"The Committee's conclusions would appear…to have arisen from a combination of assumptions."
One of those assumptions is that
"Significant numbers of complainants are either serving prisoners or ex-offenders".
The response continues:
"The Government sees no evidence to support these assumptions".
However, if they had so wished the Government could have used the resources at their disposal to substantiate those claims. Through the Association of Chief Police Officers, they could have asked the authorities engaged in these inquiries the following questions. How many of the complainants involved in these cases are known to the police? How many of them have been convicted? How many of them were interviewed in the highly inappropriate setting of a prison?

I commend my hon. Friend for her zealous work on this difficult issue, but does the fact that someone has a criminal record, has been in prison or done reprehensible things throughout their life therefore invalidate their having been abused as a child?

No, it certainly does not. However, had the Minister asked the police authorities to answer the questions to which I have just referred, she would have received answers that support those now at my disposal. The all-party group wrote to the solicitors representing men who claim that they are innocent of the crimes of which they are accused, and obtained the following information. In respect of the 32 prosecutions in question, there were 282 complainants. Some 92 per cent. of these people were known to the police, 84 per cent. had convictions, and at least 34 per cent. were interviewed in prison.

I state categorically that the vast majority of complainants in these cases are fundamentally dishonest and dishonourable men, some of whom have killed, stolen, and perjured themselves in court. That does not mean that they have not been sexually abused, but their reputations and integrity must be a source of concern, and investigators must consider their evidence and motivations.

Would my hon. Friend accept that the process of being abused, and the fact that children have spent time in children's homes, enormously increases the likelihood that they will be involved in offending behaviour—precisely because it creates such difficulties for how their lives will proceed? It may be valid to examine the issue in detail, but my hon. Friend's overall condemnation of their character is rather too strong.

What I am addressing is a point made by the Government in their response to the Home Affairs Committee. Recommendations were based on the assumption that a large number of the complainants in these cases had criminal convictions, which might throw doubt on the testimony that they gave in court. Had the Government sought to find the evidence, they would have found, as we have, that the vast number of complainants in these specific cases do indeed have criminal records. As I have already said, that does not mean that they are not also at the same time victims of sexual abuse. However, the way in which we approach and manage such people must be carefully considered, because they are predisposed to being dishonest and have committed grave crimes. We must not forget that the vast majority of those who assert that they are innocent of the crimes of which they have been accused, have been convicted precisely by the evidence given by such people—sometimes just their oral testimony, with nothing else to corroborate it—with no physical evidence at all.

I am grateful, as this is a really important point. Without going over all the ground again, would my hon. Friend accept that many people who have been through the care system and lived through abuse are now leading perfectly honest, decent and hard-working lives—they are, indeed, thoroughly decent members of our community?

I cannot argue with that: I do not have the statistics to demonstrate how many people coming out of care homes went on to live wholly honest and trustworthy lives. Unfortunately, only a very small number of such people are involved in these cases: 92 per cent. of those involved are known to the police, leaving only 8 per cent. not known to the police. I ask my hon. Friend to deduce from that what he will.

Everything must be done to assess the way in which the victim is contacted and interviewed to ensure that the interview in process is not compromised either by the complainant or the police. I ask the Minister to ask the police authorities to confirm how many interviews with complainants were conducted in prison, and how often the police visited the same individuals? I know the answers to those questions, but does the Minister?

In response to the Home Affairs Committee request for all interviews and interactions to be at least tape-recorded or video-recorded, I was disappointed to find that the Government said that "only some" should be, which is not good enough. The men, 92 per cent. of whom are known to the police, must be interviewed on tape, because their oral testimony—and perhaps only that testimony—could lead to a man being convicted for the rest of his life. Let us not forget the vast majority of the accused in these cases are retired men who have given their working lives to caring for vulnerable children whom their families have, for a variety of reasons, rejected.

Many of the people writing to the all-party group assert that it is the dialogue between the police and the witness that leads to miscarriages of justice: that it is the police who lead and guide complainants to making complaints. I do not know whether there is any truth in those accusations, because there is no tape or video-recording of the crucial interviews that took place between the police and the complainants. There is no faithful report of what went on or what was said between them. What I do know is that successful prosecutions lead to big compensation pay-outs for individuals who appear in court or join class actions. The Minister could ask for details of those compensation pay-outs, but we have already heard that a Manchester company is dealing with 800 applications for compensation, which almost equates to the number of complainants who have risen in response to the trawling techniques employed by police authorities in the north-west.

I was also disappointed to note what was said in paragraph 13 of the Government reply:
"The Government recognises that this is an area where solid facts can be difficult to identify, however we feel that the weight given by the Committee to the views of those who believe in the existence of miscarriages of justice, including those who claim to be the victims themselves of such cases, is disproportionate. The consideration for the views of abuse survivors, such as those represented in the submission to the Committee from Fire In Ice, and whom we can reasonably assume lack motive to fabricate their claims, point towards a wholly different view of these issues. The Government feels that the consideration of this issue must be balanced and must rely as far as possible on established facts."
That is a crucial paragraph. I say immediately that I wholly endorse the Government's view that consideration of the issue must be balanced and rely on established facts. So far as I am aware, nobody who gave evidence to the Committee, which was critical of police trawling, ever suggested for a moment that sexual abuse in care homes was not a real and serious problem. Nor did the committee itself make such a suggestion at any point in its report. On the contrary, the report begins by stressing that
"child abuse is one of the most dreadful crimes and the suffering of victims, even years after the offence has taken place, is difficult to imagine".
Of course the views of genuine victims should be considered, but in drawing attention to the submission made by the organisation, Fire in Ice, the Government are, I submit, treading on very dangerous ground indeed.

May I draw the attention of the House to the fact that Fire in Ice made a written submission to the Committee, in which it described itself as
"a Merseyside based self-help project run by and for men who have experienced child abuse, especially those who suffered in childcare institutions"?
The project co-ordinator of Fire in Ice, Matthew Byrne, also gave oral evidence to the Committee. I am certainly not suggesting for one moment that those who run Fire in Ice—and Matthew Byrne, in particular—are anything other than sincere in describing their organisation in those terms. They clearly believe that they are representing those who have genuinely been abused while in care. No doubt in some cases they are quite correct in this belief, but if the Government really believe what they profess—that debate about these matters
"must rely as far as possible on established facts"—
I must point out that the evidence submitted by the members of Fire in Ice does not pass the test that the Government have, quite rightly, set for themselves.

The claims made by, or on behalf of, a series of members referred to in Fire in Ice's written submission are not "established facts". They are allegations. They are, furthermore, allegations of sexual abuse against care workers made by individuals who are identified only by numbers and who are referred to as "Survivor 1", "Survivor 2" and so forth. Even the men against whom the allegations are made are not identified by name. For that reason, the claims made in the written evidence submitted by Fire in Ice are difficult or impossible to verify.

The Government have said in their reply that they can "reasonably assume" that the members of Fire in Ice "lack motive" to fabricate allegations, but I find it very odd indeed that, in the very same breath as calling for reliance on "established facts", the Government should base one of their own arguments on something that, by their own account, is nothing more than an assumption. The Government claim that the assumption is reasonable, but we seem to encounter here, in the Government's own reply, the very habit of mind that is so dangerous in these investigations. Assuming that horrific allegations of sexual abuse must be true when there is no evidence at all to support them is not, in fact, a reasonable position at all. Nor is it a balanced view. To me, it is a highly dangerous view.

If the Government had taken the trouble to investigate a little further what sort of organisation Fire in Ice actually is, and what sort of literature it recommends to its members, the need for caution would have—or at least should have—rapidly become apparent. The research involved is not difficult and the initial stages could have been completed in a matter of minutes. Fire in Ice does not make a secret of its underlying philosophy, or the guiding lights by which it steers. Indeed, it advertises them on websites. Its website includes a section on useful literature, in which it recommends several books. One of those books is "The Courage to Heal" by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis. This book was originally written for women and is well known. It is sometimes described as the handbook, or even the bible, of the recovered memory movement. Many responsible psychiatrists arid therapists regard it as one of the most dangerous self-help books ever written. Its authors encourage the readers to search their memories for dark and shameful episodes of sexual abuse, which, they are told, may have been completely hidden by repression. Bass and Davis write:
"If you think you were abused, and your life shows the symptoms, then you were."
With the help of "The Courage to Heal", which has now sold millions of copies in north America alone, many hundreds of thousands of women have recovered what they describe as memories of being raped or sexually abused repeatedly for long periods during their childhood.

Reputable psychologists and psychiatrists in Britain, America and elsewhere have, again and again, reached the conclusion that in most, if not all, cases, those recovered memories are false. Others have opposed this view. This is not the time and place to engage in that particular debate, but it is the time and the place to draw attention to the fact that such a debate has been raging now for some 20 years and that the existence of false memories has been proved beyond all doubt. It is the time and place to suggest to the Government that some caution is required before they leap to the conclusion that an organisation that clearly believes in the phenomenon of recovered memory should be treated as a trusted and reliable source.

I have been generous so far and I am afraid that I cannot give way now. I would simply add here the observation that Fire in Ice recommends not only "The Courage to Heal", but its male equivalent, "Victims No Longer" by Mike Lew. So far as Fire in Ice is concerned, the issue of recovered memory is one warning bell whose insistent tolling the Government should have heard but did not.

There is a second warning bell in the evidence actually submitted to the Committee by Fire in Ice, which the Government has either not heard or not attended to. In its written submission, Fire in Ice described a man they called "Survivor 8" in the following terms:
"Survivor 8 is a 28-year-old man who was abused by his football coach in the 1980s. Operation Care found his name by trawling…While he was in prison he was asked to give evidence against his abuser, he agreed but when the other inmates found out that the accused man was a famous local player/coach they bullied him until he withdrew the allegation."
I hope that I do not need to labour the point that the allegation that is made in that evidence is of the gravest possible kind. It is an allegation which has never been tested and which remains utterly unsubstantiated. It is an allegation made by an anonymous accuser, but it is made against a former care worker who, in this case at least, appears to be all too identifiable. So far as I am aware, the only famous footballer and coach investigated by Operation Care was David Jones, formerly the manager of Southampton and now, of course, the manager of Wolverhampton Wanderers.

Hon. Members will perhaps recall that the trial of David Jones, surrounded as it was by intense media interest, collapsed almost before it had begun in December 2000. It is perhaps worth repeating the words that were spoken by Judge David Clarke to Mr. Jones at the time of his acquittal:
"David Jones, not guilty verdicts have been entered in respect of all charges against you. I would just like to say this means you leave this court as you entered it—an innocent man."
One might have expected that the Government, in their reply to the Home Affairs Committee, would have shown respect and immense sensitivity to a man in the position of David Jones. Instead they have implicitly and—it would appear—unthinkingly endorsed the veracity of a wholly unsubstantiated allegation of sexual abuse that appears to refer to him. More importantly still, without the benefit of any investigation or any evidence, the Government have endorsed the credibility of the organisation that brings forward that allegation. In doing so, I submit that the Government have made a very serious error of judgment.

In case those two warning bells are not loud enough to indicate to hon. Members how dangerous a course the Government are now steering, I want to sound a third warning bell about the organisation in which the Government have chosen to repose their trust. Before I do so, I will say once again that I do not seek for one moment to question the sincerity of those who run Fire in Ice. I do not doubt that those who lead that organisation generally believe in the truthfulness of the allegations that they bring forward. The problem is simply that some of those involved with the organisation have made allegations that cannot be true.

I rely on a little research of the kind that could easily have been conducted by the Home Office before the Government finalised their reply. The starting point of the research is the recognition that Fire in Ice is not a charity. It is, in fact, a limited company. As such, it has a number of directors whose names, addresses and dates of birth are, of necessity, lodged with Companies House. One of the directors of Fire in Ice is a man whose name is given as David Harold Walsh, and whose date of birth is given as 11 August 1967. I have available for the Minister a statement given to the police in 1994 by David Harold Walsh.

In November 1994, the police were investigating possible abuse at a home called Greystone Heath in Cheshire where David Walsh had been in residence some twelve years previously. One of their suspects was Dennis Grain, who was in fact an abuser and would eventually plead guilty to a number of counts of sexual abuse. When the police, who were engaged in a trawling operation and were seeking more allegations of abuse, came to see David Walsh, they were equipped with a photograph album. That album contained photographs of a number of former members of staff. From it, Walsh picked out a photograph of Dennis Grain. He went on to make an allegation of indecent assault against Grain, saying that this "big man"—Grain weighed, I believe, some 15 stone—had pinned him to the wall one day and started to play with his penis. That had happened, Walsh said, on two further occasions.

A week later, David Walsh made another statement to the police. He said that he had been thinking about what had happened and wished to say that, although his first statement was true, there were some details he had left out because they were embarrassing. He now wished to add those details. He went on to make an allegation of attempted buggery and also alleged that Grain had attempted to force him to engage in oral sex.

A month later, however, the Cheshire police visited Walsh again. By this time it would appear that they had consulted their records. What those clearly showed was that David Walsh had first entered Greystone Heath on 11 February 1982. Dennis Grain, however, had left on 31 May 1980, almost two years before Walsh had arrived. Far from being abused by Grain, Walsh had never even met him.

David Walsh now made a third statement, saying that he had been upset and confused when he had made his first statement. He later went on to make a fourth statement in which he maintained that the abuse he had described had indeed happened, even though he had been mistaken about Grain. The person he had described in his first statement as "a big man", whose "heavy body" he had referred to in his second statement and who was "well built" according to his third statement, was now described, in his fourth and final statement, as having been of "medium to slim build".

Let me say immediately that I do not know whether David Walsh was, when he first made his allegation against Dennis Grain, deliberately and consciously inventing an allegation that he knew to be false. What I do know, and what the Cheshire police eventually discovered, was that David Walsh made allegations that were in fact false. He may now believe sincerely that he was sexually abused at Greystone Heath by some person unknown. Once again, I stress that it is not the sincerity of the members—or, in this case, one of the directors—of Fire in Ice that I am seeking to question. It is their accuracy and reliability.

I respectfully suggest that if the Government, before compiling and publishing their reply to the Home Affairs Committee report, had conducted a little elementary research, they would not have ended up in the very difficult position they are now in.

I pay tribute to the excellent work that my hon. Friend has done. She has become a veritable expert in this difficult subject. The evidence that she has given this afternoon has driven a coach and horses through nearly all the rebuttals and refusals that the Government have provided to the Committee. Does she agree that when one compares the weight of evidence that the Home Affairs Committee received, and the additional evidence that she has brought to us this afternoon, with the lukewarm, thin and unsubstantiated rebuttals of the Government, the Home Office appears complacent in saying that everything is okay on this issue?

Yes, I am afraid that I have come to that conclusion.

I am conscious that other hon. Members want to speak, so I shall bring my remarks to a close. However, I am desperately concerned that the work and views of the Home Affairs Committee have been rejected more or less completely by the Home Office. At the very least, I should have expected all the evidence, from both complainants and those accused, to have been tape-recorded. We must assume that all the people making the accusations have been abused. Many of them are interviewed in prison. In many cases they are interviewed repeatedly—up to 18 times—in order to get a statement that passes muster with the Crown Prosecution Service. That is totally unacceptable.

I cannot imagine anything worse, or more guaranteed to produce severe and adverse responses to episodes, than repeated interviewing. People who are believed to have been sexually abused must be treated like rape victims. Those who are in prison must not be treated like prisoners. We must afford them the respect that we have worked hard to gain for rape victims. The people involved must be taken out of the prison context and brought to rape suites, where their testimony can be recorded. They must be adequately supported as they come to terms with the trauma that may become evident after they have made their declarations.

No, I must continue.

At the very least, I would have hoped that the Home Office would recognise that many of the people involved are vulnerable, and that for all sorts of reasons they may well respond to what the police want them to say. More importantly, however, the Home Office should recognise that those people may genuinely have suffered the most appalling abuse. As such, they should be afforded the protection that is afforded to others.

The Home Office has failed to do that. It has failed to protect the accused, and it is guilty of failing to protect victims. Prisoners who are locked in prison are the most vulnerable of victims. I object to the Home Office's response. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will consider the matter. More than any other cases, cases of sexual abuse must be conducted and reviewed under a regime of tape recording. That is vital for everyone involved.

The allegations that I have made today require substantial proof that they are true. I want to be able to tell the House that I know what went on because tape-recorded evidence exists to prove it. That is what people who are accused of these acts want, and I am sure that that is what most victims want.

3.23 pm

Because of the lack of time, I will not engage in a trawl. However, I will engage in a brief bit of dip sampling.

Before I do so, I want to congratulate the hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) on her speech. I am sorry that she did not have more time to tell us a little more about her concerns, as I know that she has pursued the matter with great passion and dedication. She has done so with no expectation or hope of political reward. It is unusual for a modern Member of Parliament to take up an issue that will do her precisely no good at all, although the hon. Lady's work has enhanced her reputation in the House, and outside it.

I should also like to congratulate the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), who, as the former Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, persuaded that Committee to take up the inquiry last year. He is a doughty fighter on behalf of people who have suffered miscarriages of justice. I am delighted that the hon. Member for Walsall, North (David Winnick) was able to present, in a thoroughly dispassionate and reasonable way, the conclusions of the Committee of which he is the acting Chairman.

The modern parlance used by the Prime Minister is "during the transitional period".

I promised to be brief and to sample dip, so I shall make only a few comments. First, like my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell), I want to begin by looking at paragraph 10 of the Government's response to the report. I do not blame the Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing, and Community Safety, who is new to her post and was not responsible for the political oversight of the report, but paragraph 10 states:
"The Committee's conclusions would appear partly to have arisen from a combination of assumptions",
and then it goes on to list them. The paragraph begins by stating that the Government
"respects the views of the Committee, but does not share its belief in the existence of large numbers of miscarriages of justice."
That is a regrettable way to introduce a report. It tells us that the Government are wavering between being somewhat lofty and complacent, and being simply dismissive of the Committee's work.

I do not want to be entirely controversial all of the time. For example, I agree with the Government's response to recommendation 13, which appears in paragraph 62. The Government state that they see no reason to interfere with the ability of the CPS to prosecute ancient cases if the evidence exists. I see no need to get special permission from the Director of Public Prosecutions or the Attorney-General to pursue ancient cases, if the evidence is there.

However, I take issue with paragraph 66, which responds to recommendation 15 in connection with the anonymity of people charged with allegations of the sexual abuse of children. There are perfectly respectable arguments both ways when it comes to the anonymising or otherwise of defendants in such cases, but there is no justice to be found in the Government's answer that they
"will continue to listen to the arguments of those who feel strongly on the matter."
That means nothing. A Government who have got their head around the matter properly ought to make their meaning rather clearer.

On a directly related matter, I had a good friend who was a teacher. He suffered allegations similar to those being discussed today. It took two years for the matter to go to the Crown Court, where the jury threw the case out in less than 30 minutes. However, my friend's life was ruined for two years. He suffered a great deal of harassment by the local press, and he was so traumatised that he was unable to return to the classroom afterwards. We lost a very good teacher as a result. Does my hon. and learned Friend believe that a case can be made for anonymity in some of these cases, so that we do not lose good public servants?

Yes, I think that there is a case for anonymity, but the Government's response does not deal with the matter adequately. Indeed, I am taking part in this debate, and I am following the hon. Member for Crosby in dealing with the issue, because I, too, had a constituency case similar to that described by my hon. Friend. In that case, a man and his female partner—they live together as husband and wife, although I do not think that they are married—were both accused of vile and disgusting acts by people who were once, years before, in their charge. They were the victims, if I may say so, of a trawl.

Despite what the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) says, the couple in the case that I have described were not victims of the same type as people involved in the children's homes cases, but they were victims none the less. Perhaps I shall have occasion to speak up for people who suffered genuine sexual abuse in children's homes, but that is not what I am talking about today. Today, I am talking about the other side of the coin—wholly innocent people who are the victims of police trawling. Such people are subjected to appalling social and employment consequences, as happened in the case cited by my hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois).

The two people in my constituency were never brought to court, because the police withdrew the case about 18 months to two years after the couple were originally suspended from work, brought in for interview and bunged into a police cell. Their lives are now effectively ruined. I shall not dwell on their case, because I dealt with it in the Westminster Hall Adjournment debate initiated by the hon. Member for Crosby.

I accept all that the hon. and learned Gentleman says about miscarriages of justice: no one wants them to happen. None the less, are there not dangers in trying to protect the rights of people who are accused of child abuse in that one might make it more difficult for victims to come forward and tell what they know about that most heinous of crimes?

I am not sure that we are in an either/or set of circumstances. We need to protect the rights of those who are abused and those accused of abusing. Even those who are guilty of abusing children, even if they have been convicted of heinous crimes, have rights. There is no argument between us on that. Miscarriages of justice occur not only in cases to do with the sexual abuse of children in homes. When an innocent man is convicted, the miscarriage is just as great as it is when a guilty man is acquitted, but the consequences for the individual may be hugely different.

I want to touch on one or two recommendations made by the Committee and responded to by the Government. I can broadly agree with what the Government say in response to recommendations 1 and 2 on page 7 of the report. However, we must ensure that the police exercise greater care and forethought before they set upon a collection of individuals whom they believe—I do not think that the police go into these matters dishonestly—may have committed the most appalling crimes against children, either recently or, more dangerously, some little while ago.

The problem that the police have faced, certainly in my county of Leicestershire, is that they are terribly under-resourced. On the constituency matter to which I referred a moment ago, one police superintendent, with only a sergeant and a detective constable to help him, had to trawl—I use the word deliberately—through documents that had been distributed between Leicester city social services and Leicestershire county council social services following the fairly recent split in the local government set-up. He had no assistance from either social services department in locating documents. One can imagine the difficulty that that small team of police officers had. Leicestershire constabulary was under pressure to achieve a result, not least because Leicestershire had suffered the terrible trauma of the Beck case, which will be well known to all who have followed social services policy over the past 15 years.

I am not for one moment suggesting that the superintendent, whom I have met and for whom I have huge respect, deliberately set out to manufacture or to cut corners in order to provide evidence that would get his group of accused people to trial and conviction. That simply is not how he was thinking. He was, however, under huge pressure to achieve something, and as a consequence of the absence of manpower and resources—and assistance from civilian authorities that ought to have helped him better—a wholly unsatisfactory inquiry was put in train, which damaged a huge number of people's lives. Those lives are still being damaged.

Does the hon. and learned Gentleman accept that there are reasons other than those of the police for finding out whether there may have been more victims of an alleged abuser? In my experience of being involved in investigations of the type referred to, my social services department felt that it had a duty to former residents to check whether they had suffered abuse, not just in the interests of criminal prosecution but because those people would be entitled to compensation, help and support.

As was the case with the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson), I do not disagree for one moment with what the hon. Lady has said. There is no dispute between us. What the police must be careful about, however, is that when they interview alleged victims, they are aware that they are talking to damaged people. The mere fact that those people have been in children's homes leads me to believe that they must feel rejected. They have been abandoned by their parents. They may not even know their father. They have been abandoned from all the normal family circumstances and environments that many of us take for granted. They have, as it were, been dumped in public sector oubliettes. I am exaggerating, and I do so in order to truncate the range of words I want to use.

Imagine what it would be like to be a child of 11, 12, 13 or 14 in a children's home. There is not much going for that child, in spite of the fact that those who run the homes do their best to provide the nearest thing to normal family life. Such children are ripe, it may be said, to the temptations and difficulties of the criminal world. Often, I am afraid to say, children from residential homes go into crime. Many of those who appear in front of me as adults when I sit as a Crown court recorder have been brought up in children's homes. I want to make it clear that I am not criticising those who run children's homes, but that is a fact of life.

When those people go to prison or to young offenders' institutions, they are desperate for approval, love and some form of attention. The next source of attention may well be a policeman coming in to ask for a statement about the terrible things that happened to them in the children's home 10 years ago. There is a danger that auto-suggestive people will give statements that they think are required of them, rather than the unvarnished truth. That is another fact of life, and it leads me to exercise some caution about the trawling system. The Select Committee was entirely right to draw that to our attention, and to that of the Government. I do not care whether the Committee found it convenient or otherwise to use the word "trawling"; it happens accurately to describe the exercise that the police so often, for reasons good or bad, undertake.

During last year's Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall, I urged the then Minister to look carefully and vigorously into videoing interviews. "Resources, resources, resources" is always the cry, although the Minister, at least on that occasion, did not say that the time was not right. The Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 has been in place for nearly 20 years, and it is pretty well standard practice for interviews of defendants to be taped. It cannot be beyond the wit of man or Government to push that forward with rather greater vigour.

I shall pause now so that others may speak. I urge the Government to listen carefully to the Committee and to what is said in this debate. I urge them not to brush the matter under the carpet as though it were some inconvenient and unfashionable item while they get on with destroying the constitution.

3.38 pm

In the couple of remaining minutes I should like to put on record my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), without whose work the report might not have been possible, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (David Winnick), who so admirably stepped into the breach.

This is one of the most difficult reports that I have been involved in because of the judgment that we had to make between the interests of children and the interests of the accused. No one on the Committee was left in any doubt that miscarriages of justice took place precisely because of the way in which investigations were carried out. It seemed that following an allegation the police were not seeking to substantiate it or disprove it, but were looking for another allegation to confirm that something had happened. That is where the miscarriages of justice occurred. The Government should carefully consider our recommendations, which would stop the trawling and would safeguard the rights of victims, those making the allegations and the accused.

Finally, will the Government look again at anonymity, because lives, families, jobs, careers and reputations are being destroyed on the basis of false allegations? No one deserves that.

3.40 pm

This has been a most useful debate. I well recollect the debate that we had last year in Westminster Hall, in which the hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) participated and which raised many of the same issues. It is greatly to her credit that she has pursued this extremely unpopular topic with such determination. I found it illuminating to read the report of the Select Committee on Home Affairs and see the extent to which it took into account the points that she has been raising over and over again—and indeed attracting a lot of opprobrium for doing so—and came up with conclusions that were often similar to those that she had earlier been reporting as subjects of anxiety.

Clearly, there is an enormous problem in relation to such cases, first, because there is immense public interest in pursuing and punishing those who perpetrate child abuse, especially in view of the fact that the children have been in the care, often, of care homes and local authorities. It is an important public policy issue. It is also the case, however, that such cases highlight the problem one experiences when trying to ensure justice for victims. The case may be decades old and the evidence, whether documentary or recollections, may have completely disappeared.

In recent years, I have noticed the view increasingly being taken by those in authority—whether the police, the Crown Prosecution Service or to some extent the Government have been driving the process—that the evidential difficulties that may exist should not be a deterrent to bringing proceedings in the first place, when an investigation is carried out. That then places a great burden on those who are carrying out such inquiries to be alive to the problems that are likely to occur and can lead to the miscarriages of justice and anxieties expressed by the hon. Lady and the Select Committee. I shall return to that theme in my closing remarks, because it has long-term problems for us.

The Government's response to the report is disappointing. The disappointment springs not from the answers to particular recommendations, but from the general tone. The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) intervened earlier and raised a pertinent point, which is that in their reply the Government allege in paragraph 10—they are putting words into the Committee's mouth—that
"'False allegations' are assumed to have occurred in a whole range of circumstances, from acquittals and cases that do not proceed to occasions when their existence is claimed by either those who claim to have made them or their associates. Rarely is there clear substantiation that these allegations have indeed been deceptions."
That statement was an extraordinary way to put the issue. The point should be whether we are satisfied that there is clear substantiation that the allegations are true. The Government give the impression that they see the problem only in terms of its being a reversal of the burden of proof, and that as long as there is no substantiation that the allegations were deceptions, there is nothing for us to worry about. However, that is not the foundation of the principle of justice in this country.

In cases of past child abuse, is it ever possible to reach a decision that is beyond reasonable doubt?

I am sure that there could be circumstances in which that was possible. Our established rules and principles of admissibility of evidence and our conduct of trials ought, in my experience, to be sufficiently robust to ensure that justice can be done, provided that it is accompanied by high standards in the investigative processes carried out by the police, to ensure that they do not unwittingly, or when carried away by their understandable desire to see justice done, succeed in tainting the evidence by their investigative methods.

Trawling is the classic case where such a problem may emerge.

As regards the intervention of the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson), I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there can be justified convictions in such historical cases. However, as he knows, we recommended that, where the alleged offence was committed more than 10 years before the allegation was made, proceedings should continue only with the court's permission. We thought that a necessary and useful safeguard.

The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting question. My response on that specific recommendation is that, oddly enough, I slightly support the Government's position. If someone makes an allegation that is more than 10 years after the event, I would expect that the person acting for the defendant, faced with the difficulties of obtaining evidence, would automatically make an abuse of process application to the court. I should be staggered if that were not so. I should certainly do that if I were representing such a person. If there was evidence that abuse of process would arise because of those difficulties, I should expect the court to put it out.

In fact, the hon. Gentleman and the Committee are suggesting that that procedure should be institutionalised. The procedure is not necessarily wrong, but on that issue, I question whether it would be necessary at all, as it would be a bizarre advocate who did not initiate it in any event.

May I reinforce my hon. Friend's point? Too often, the House gives the court powers that it has already. He has just given us an example of that.

I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend.

I do not like the tone of the Government's response on trawling. The business of "dip sampling" is just a euphemism. There is a legitimate reason for trawling. If a serious allegation is made by someone who appears to suggest that they were constantly abused in a care home and that they can remember other people who were also victims, nothing could be more legitimate than for the police to interview the other people who might have been victims and to make general inquiries, as they would in any investigation, of other children who had been in the care home about their experiences.

However, when the investigation is carried out in the way described in paragraph 36 of the report, when South Wales police interviewed a young epileptic about his experiences in a home, the matter is a scandalous disgrace. Evidence obtained in such circumstances would be valueless for an objective prosecution and would be dangerous if misused, and not exposed, during any trial that took place.

I have to tell the Minister that I think that trawling is the proper expression, and I am concerned that proper systems should be in place to ensure that the inquiry is properly conducted. If anything needs to be done in this area, that is it—I shall come to one or two others, but that is the first priority. I am pleased to note that, although the Government minimise all those problems, they seem to accept that the system could be improved. There has been a classic Government response to the paper. They say, "Yes, we could improve things, but there is really nothing to worry about." I happen to disagree; there is a lot to worry about and a lot needs improvement.

I wish to say briefly that I agree with the Government that 79 per cent. of cases were rejected by the Crown Prosecution Service. I have to tell the Minister and the hon. Member for Walsall, North (David Winnick) that that shows that the CPS is carrying out proper scrutiny, but that is not to say that no miscarriage of justice will occur. However, I am reassured by the fact that the number of rejected cases is so much higher than ordinarily, because that is a reflection of the problematic nature of bringing such prosecutions.

I seek the hon. Gentleman's advice. The CPS has turned down a lot of applications to go to trial. Presumably, in such cases, someone may well have been accused, but the CPS is simply considering whether the case would stand up in court.

The hon. Gentleman makes a very telling intervention that goes to the nub of the problem, and in fairness, given the time available, I cannot get away from that.

People often say, "We want the truth to come out in court. We must make a desperate inquiry to find the truth." However, we sometimes have to accept that we will never find the truth. One of this country's principles of criminal justice is not that we will find the truth at the end of the process, but that we will convict people when the courts can be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that they have committed an offence, so it is explicit and implicit that people will escape prosecution or be acquitted even though they have committed an offence, because the high standard that we set ourselves cannot be met. I approve of that principle, and any right-thinking person applying his or her mind to the dangers of miscarriages of justice must also approve of it. Again, I will return to that.

I cannot give way—I must get finished.

I want to cover two other specific matters before I return to the general. On extending anonymity to the accused, I accept that such cases cannot be separated from ordinary rape cases, but we return to the nub issue that, in the past, Parliament has considered it right to grant anonymity to the accused in certain sex offences. I am bound to say that that issue requires us to give it very careful consideration, because wrecking the lives of people who are accused and subsequently acquitted—which we are perpetrating in such cases—ought to give Parliament grave cause for concern. If things can be done in a way that does not prevent the proper administration of justice, there are powerful reasons to consider granting anonymity, not just in such cases, but in other similar ones.

The other thing is the working relationship between personal injury solicitors and the police. I entirely endorse the point that, with no win, no fee agreements—we warned about this when they were introduced—and given the changes in the way in which funding is taking place for cases of negligence against, for example, local authorities where someone has been abused in care, there must be a risk of solicitors having an interest in the conclusion of the criminal proceedings that, unfortunately, influences their professional judgments. When, on top of that, police officers are full of zeal to see "justice" being done, there is a risk at that stage that people stop seeing the wood for the trees and start taking decisions that are contrary to the interests of justice.

In conclusion—I am mindful that the Minister and the hon. Member for Walsall, North will want to respond—I return to a much more general point that worries me enormously. The report includes a reference to similar fact evidence and to what constitutes good evidence in securing a person's conviction. Indeed, that is highly pertinent, because the Criminal Justice Bill, to which the report refers, once again shifts the goalposts to facilitate the conviction of accused people. That is a deliberate policy adopted by the Government in the belief that courts are acquitting too many people who are guilty of offences. The problem is that while it is undoubtedly the case that these shifts in similar fact evidence, and the admissibility of previous convictions under the Criminal Justice Bill, will almost certainly see more guilty people being convicted, it is also absolutely certain that there will be more miscarriages of justice and innocent people will be wrongly convicted. Human justice is fallible, and such shifts cannot be carried out without the attendant consequences.

Picking up on my reply to the intervention of the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson), Parliament faces a great problem: the public understandably want criminals convicted, which is very important, and people who commit horrible offences such as child abuse come in for great public opprobrium, which is understandable. There is a great momentum to want to see punishment meted out and justice done. We must always have it in mind, however, that miscarriages of justice happen, have happened, and, I am afraid, will continue to happen. We should be careful about bending traditional rules that have served us well in this country to achieve a result when the side effects may be as, if not more, reprehensible in terms of bringing the system of justice into disrepute. With that thought—

I apologise, but I cannot take the hon. Gentleman's intervention, as I want to hear the Minister. I look forward to her response on this extremely difficult subject.

3.57 pm

First, I want to place on record my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin). As various Members have said, it was a brave decision to pursue this inquiry in the Home Affairs Committee, and today's debate has been ably presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (David Winnick), acting as transitional Chairman of that Committee.

I want to deal with as many of the specific matters raised by hon. Members as possible. The overwhelming flavour of all the contributions, however, has been to show how difficult it is to get the balance right in this area. It involves a whole range of conflicting and competing interests of victims, witnesses and prosecutors, as well as some of the public policy issues raised by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) at the end of his contribution. This is one area in which the jigsaw of different interests has thrown up some difficult issues of judgment. My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Singh) said that this was one of the most difficult matters with which he had had to deal because it was all about judgment.

It is entirely right that this difficult area of criminal investigation should be subject to intensive scrutiny by the public, the media and the Committee. We do not want to shy away from it. These cases represent some of the most challenging investigations for police forces, as they involve terrible crimes against vulnerable children, and the Committee's report was balanced in terms of the interests of various parties. We should not forget, however, that some of these children have suffered enormous distress and damage to their lives as a result of these events.

The added element of uncertainty and complexity created by the passage of an often considerable period of time makes the job of investigation harder. That is why it is even more important that the whole chain of evidence gathering has integrity and is as robust and rigorous as possible. In a reciprocal way, the longer ago that such events took place, the more rigorous the investigation process must be. I entirely acknowledge that the situation adds to difficulties faced by defendants or people under investigation, and we heard several passionate and committed contributions about the position of defendants. We must be clear about safeguards all round to ensure that justice is denied neither to complainants nor those who are investigated. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North that justice must be done.

The hon. Lady says that justice must be done, so even if the Home Office is right that there is no evidence that many miscarriages of justice have occurred, will she accept that at least some miscarriages of justice have occurred? Does she acknowledge that a number of innocent men are in jail for serious crimes that they did not commit?

Any single miscarriage of justice is an absolute tragedy for the people involved, and I take the point made by the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier). We are not saying that we can sweep aside miscarriages of justice just because they are few in number. Every single miscarriage of justice in this country is a tragedy for the person involved, his or her family and, indeed, the justice system, because miscarriages of justice reflect badly on it. Individual cases have been referred to the Criminal Cases Review Commission and individual decisions will be made on such cases after consideration of new evidence and of how the cases were dealt with in ourt.

I shall, but I want to get on to deal with specific matters that hon. Members raised.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and I congratulate her on her new position. I commend the excellent and balanced Government response to a good report by the Select Committee. Will she attend to the needs of victims who will not have their cases heard in court for a variety of reasons? Will she do further work with victims' organisations to address their expressed need for an apology, a recording system and the development of compensation schemes and victim support?

My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) has an excellent personal record of commitment to the issue and extensive personal experience, as does my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Ms Munn). They will know that one of the main thrusts behind our changes to the criminal justice system is the need to ensure that victims and witnesses are at the heart of the system and that it serves the needs of such people better in the future. I am happy to consider all the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre.

I turn to the use of dip sampling or trawling—various terms were used—in investigations. The fishing analogies seem to be increasing because we have heard about fishing expeditions and now trawling. I wait with interest to hear what kind of term will be used next, although I shall not make a huge issue of terminology. I am pleased that the Select Committee acknowledges that there is a need to conduct wide-ranging investigations. It does not want dip sampling to be prohibited but wants robust safeguards to be built in the process.

Hon. Members will know that the "Senior Investigating Officers Handbook for the Investigation of Historic Institutional Child Abuse" was published in November 2001. It is a lengthy document that provides excellent examples of good practice and the way in which investigations should be managed. Section 5 outlines how initial contact with possible victims should be established. It suggests the use of a letter drop that does not name individuals and tries to establish open contact that would not be prejudicial to later proceedings. The handbook contains good work.

I am happy to say today that further discussions should be held with the Association of Chief Police Officers to determine whether we can strengthen safeguards for such investigations to ensure absolutely that witnesses are not led and that allegations are not encouraged inappropriately.

Will the Minister reassure us on a further point? The Government's response to the report refers to the fact that recent Court of Appeal judgments have resulted in convictions being set aside, but paragraph 21 says:

"Clearly, the circumstances of these cases do not imply that other convictions are unsafe"—
I appreciate that. If those cases that have been set aside arise out of trawling or dip sampling, will the Government acknowledge that that is cause for concern because there will be similarities between those cases and the practices that continue?

I assured the hon. Gentleman that we would look into that in more detail to see what can be strengthened. I do not want to speculate on what those cases might or might not tell us about any part of the chain of investigation.

Paragraph 33 of the Government's response to the Committee's recommendations is on audio and visual recording of witness statements. It says:

"if it were explained to a witness that the recording may prevent cross-examination to the effect that, for example, the officer led the witness, they may themselves see the advantage in this approach."
Will my hon. Friend look into that and consider further the Committee's recommendations on recording interviews at the initial stages? In itself, that could safeguard the evidence and protect witnesses.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I was about to deal with that because it was raised by virtually every hon. Member. I am happy to undertake to reconsider the issue because such cases are sensitive and often have different characteristics. We have a well established system of recording interviews on video. That is part of our general criminal law approach. As my hon. Friend said, there may be good reasons why a recording would be in the interests of the person giving evidence. It might, perhaps, prevent them from being subject to further allegations about the veracity of their statement. There is always the issue of resources, however.

The hon. and learned Member for Harborough made an important point on access to records. He will know that there was a minimal system of record keeping prior to the Children Act 1989. Fewer requirements were placed on people who ran care establishments to provide individual reports and records. The child abuse investigations inter-agency guidance has a section on the need to have access to records. Appendix E sets out a robust framework for record keeping as a result of the 1989 Act. It provides that records must be kept for 75 years after the birth of a child or for 15 years if a child dies before the age of 18. There are also strict legal requirements in the various sets of regulations passed after the 1989 Act to ensure that records are kept in future. In relation to past events, the records will sometimes be less than perfect and inadequate, but future record keeping has to be robust.

Compensation is important. The guidance has a section on that. It provides that agencies have to establish a policy on how they are going to
"deal with questions of potential financial compensation for victims, to clarify that members of the investigative team should not instigate any discussion of the issue and should avoid discussing it if it is raised by any victims or witnesses in the course of the investigation."
In addition, interviewing officers, who are on the front line, should be given good practical guidance on how to maintain that separation. It is important to emphasise that in the process. Another section in the guidance stresses the need to ensure that officers are not open to criticism for offering the prospect of compensation as a means of securing co-operation in an investigation. We are alive to the dangers, real or imputed, of how compensation could be used or construed. Again, the guidance is pretty robust on that.

The senior investigating officers handbook, together with the guidance, give us a robust framework. I would not want to belittle the report's recommendations in any way. We agree with the Committee on a number of significant things, and we want to consider strengthening parts of the guidance and putting in place safeguards for everyone in the system. We are certainly not, as was suggested, complacent, lofty or dismissive of the report.

A general point was made about the use in the criminal justice system of "similar fact" evidence. It would be a retrograde step to go back to having to use striking similar evidence. It is right that these matters are put before the court and the jury has the opportunity to weigh the evidence and reach a conclusion on that basis. It is therefore important that that information should be made available, and is not eliminated before the allegations can be ventilated in court. The Crown Prosecution Service has a crucial role to play in that process by sifting information. It already has two tests—whether or not a prosecution is likely to succeed, and whether or not it is in the public interest. Those well-established tests serve our criminal justice system extremely well indeed, and help us to ensure that justice is done.

There are a range of other recommendations in the report, some of which we are happy to accept, although there are others with which we disagree. However, I should like to reassure every hon. Member who has participated in our debate, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas), who has done an immense amount of work and demonstrated commitment, tenacity and determination, that I take these matters extremely seriously. Having only assumed my post in the past few days, I will take the opportunity to look further and in depth at the recommendations to see whether we can make further progress. We must remember that we have a responsibility to ensure that justice is done for the defendants and, crucially, for the victims, who have suffered the effects of abuse, perhaps for decades, and may have had a blighted existence. That is the extremely serious matter that we are considering today.

4.11 pm

With the leave of the House, I should like to say a few words.

I regret that, because of limited time, it was not possible for my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Mrs. Dean) or the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) to speak. They were both understandably anxious to do so, having played an active role in Committee, and their contributions would have been useful. I regret that my hon. Friends the Members for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) and for Sheffield, Heeley (Ms Munn) were not able to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker. Had they done so, perhaps they would have expressed a different point of view. It is unfortunate that, given the lack of time, our debate is not quite as balanced as it might have been. However, it has been a good debate on a controversial subject, which it is only right and proper to discuss on the Floor of the House. That has been done in the absence of political controversy—it is rather surprising that I should say that, is it not?

The hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) made a valid point about the recording of interviews, which we emphasise in our report and which was acknowledged, I am pleased to say, by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve). In one or two instances, he more or less agreed with the Government's written response, but he also showed a generous attitude to the Select Committee report.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on her new appointment. I hope that I will not be misunderstood if I point out that her response was rather different from the Home Office's disappointing written response to our report and recommendations. I listened with great care when she said that there will be further discussions with police officers. I am pleased about that, and with her comments about compensation. I know that she made no promises of any kind, but she showed willingness to look at our recommendations. I would be grateful if she did so because, in her new position, she would not necessarily be confined to the Home Office response, which caused disappointment among members of the Select Committee.

My hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) made a passionate speech. Indeed, as I told her, I cannot recall another occasion on which I heard such a passionate speech. She feels strongly about the subject—no one who listened to her today could doubt that. She has taken up a cause that would have been considered unpopular in the past, if not now, and she has done that with the utmost integrity. Not everyone would agree with her campaign, but she has campaigned consistently, regardless of popularity. I am pleased that there are hon. Members in all parties who are willing to accept such a role. My hon. Friend deserves full credit for her actions, even from those of us who cannot agree with all her views on the important subject.

I am pleased that the debate has taken place. Our report took some time to compile and we believe that the Government should seriously consider most of our recommendations. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will do precisely that.

Question deferred, pursuant to Standing Order No. 54(4) and (5) and Order [29 October 2002], until 6 pm.