I am pleased to have secured this important debate. I thank the Minister for her interest and engagement. We have already had discussions, and I am sure that she will do what she can to ensure that lessons are learned by the various agencies involved. My remarks today will focus on the personal experience that two of my constituents have had of the current system of managing a paedophile in their local area.
David Cullen was a high-risk, highly dangerous paedophile, and well known to all the local agencies, yet he managed on numerous occasions to offend and reoffend, imparting desolation and destruction on families as a result. I find him a sickening individual, and I want everybody to be in no doubt at all that he caused so much heartache and distress.
Due to the horrendous experience of my constituents, I shall protect their anonymity and refer to them as Suzie Smith and her son. Hon. Members can judge for themselves whether the system worked for them. What I would ideally like from the Minister today is a pledge that a review or inquiry will take place into what has gone wrong, if anything, in this case. I hope that, in due course, recommendations can be made to ensure better handling and monitoring of paedophiles in future.
I am not here today to attack the police, social services in Abingdon or the Crown Prosecution Service. The work that they undertake is complex and fraught with difficulties, and I have great admiration for what they do, but that should not stop questions being asked when things go wrong. My task is to ask those questions and to see whether we can come up with answers and solutions. That is the only way in which things can be improved. I am therefore delighted by the reaction of the CPS, which I shall come to later.
However, I have been slightly less delighted by the reaction of Thames Valley police. I usually have nothing but praise for their work, and I am one of their greatest advocates, but I was taken aback by their reaction to my involvement in the case. I shall not go into detail, because I do not think that it would be helpful on this occasion, so all I will say is that I am here to represent my constituents without fear or favour and to ensure that their legitimate concerns are heard. I have listened to the view of Thames Valley police and read their briefings, none of which substantially differ in detail from the view put to me by the victim’s mother.
I am in no doubt that the police did not fully disclose information about David Cullen to Suzie and her son. I am also aware of at least one other family to whom information was not fully disclosed, as it should have been. If the police have other information, I would be more than happy to look at it, but the bottom line is that they have to be accountable, as do we all—I believe that they accept that. I know that the police plan to undertake a review of the case, which I welcome. However, independent scrutiny across all the agencies involved is necessary.
The story begins in June 2005, when Suzie returned to Britain from Spain with her four sons after leaving her husband because of domestic violence. She initially lived in a refuge, but was then housed in an Oxfordshire village north of Reading. In January 2006, she answered an advert in a local shop window asking for help for a widowed man who was responsible for two disabled children. As she had had several years’ experience running a business providing carers, she applied and met David Cullen. As is the case with paedophiles, Cullen had a believable—some would say heart-rending—story. He appeared to be a lonely man who was struggling to do his best. Suzie and Cullen became friends. At that stage, the only mention that he made of his past was that the local social services made his life difficult.
The authorities knew that David Cullen was one of the most dangerous men in Britain, as far as children were concerned. Even at that early stage, questions surfaced that require answers. There are legal restrictions on the case, so I shall not say all the things that I would like to say, but why did a court put this man in a position where he had ready access to young children, and little boys in particular? He used his status as a widowed carer to access kind and caring families with children. Thames Valley police and social services have confirmed to me that they suspect that he was using those in his care to access other children.
The friendship developed. Suzie was accompanied by her son when, for example, she took meals to Cullen’s house. On one occasion when that happened, her son was seen by a social worker who was in the house talking to Cullen. Apparently the social worker internally raised the alarm that Cullen, a convicted paedophile, was having unsupervised access to a young child. No contact was made with Suzie, and no attempt was made to track her down, as far as we know. Why would social services not have tried to warn Suzie that she was allowing her son to enter the home of a convicted paedophile with a known strong desire for prepubescent boys? If they tried, what form did the attempts take, and how determined were they?
In April 2006, Cullen told Suzie that he was having renewed problems with social services. She was sympathetic, because her former professional career gave her first-hand experience of social services. Then things became more serious, and Cullen told her that he needed to discuss something with her. He told her that several years earlier he had gone to a nightclub with a young man he believed to be 19 years old. When the club closed, they went back to the young man’s house and were becoming physically intimate on the sofa when the teenager’s mother burst in and caught them in a sexual act. Cullen said that the mother told him her son was under age. He said that he went to court, was prosecuted and, in his words, “put away”. He also confessed that he had convictions for other offences including fraud and theft.
Suzie broke off contact but Cullen craftily used disabled children to weaken her resolve. During that time, he was involved with the sea scouts in Henley. He was seen by a retired police officer who recognised him and alerted the police. As a result, an officer rang Suzie. He asked if Cullen had spoken to her, and she said yes. The officer never checked what Cullen had told her, but seemed satisfied with her answer. Social services then got in touch to ask the same question. Again, they did not ask her exactly what Cullen had disclosed in his chat, and they seemed satisfied that her children were not at risk.
It appears that both the police and the social services asked guarded questions about Cullen, whom they knew was a convicted paedophile. According to my constituent, they never gave her a clear and explicit warning about him until June 2006, three months after her son had been raped. That warning came only because the police were concerned about the safety of another boy and wanted Suzie’s help.
Finally, Suzie was told the true nature of Cullen’s convictions. When she told social services the version Cullen had given her, they said, “We knew that he had been lying to parents.” I find that disturbing. If they knew that he was lying to parents, as a paedophile normally would be expected to do, why did they not take action? When the police were asked why Suzie was not explicitly told about Cullen, they explained that he had human rights and that they had trusted him to come completely clean about his past. It appears that, to some extent, both the police and social services relied on nods and winks rather than a full-blown formal warning about the full extent of Cullen’s past. Suzie had been completely taken in by Cullen but the authorities did not appear to feel it appropriate to issue a detailed warning about his past.
We need to know and understand why that happened. There may well be a reasonable explanation, but we need to hear it. What was stopping the police and social services from giving such a warning? What human rights were involved? Why was a duplicitous paedophile expected to tell Suzie the truth? Which legislation got in the way of full disclosure to Suzie so that she could protect her son? Did the police and social services correctly interpret it?
When Suzie’s son heard about another boy in danger, he told Suzie that Cullen had been touching and hurting him and that he was afraid that he was doing it to another boy. There are further questions for social services about the other boy as well. He was already on the at-risk register but was apparently put in harm’s way despite his own family’s neglect and their relationship with Cullen.
I do not wish to apportion blame. Again, social services may well have a perfectly reasonable explanation. When Suzie’s son came forward, the police and social services were immediately called in, but it was six months after the rape that her son told them about it. According to Suzie, the police at first did not take this seriously and things were muddied by Cullen’s claiming that Suzie was blackmailing him about this. It was only when her son sent a letter to the CPS that a decision was made to charge Cullen. But it was not until January 2007 that he was arrested and charged. Incredibly, he was released on bail and within two days he had raped again. Why did it take such a fight to get her son’s case to be taken seriously when the police and CPS knew about Cullen’s background? Why, after being charged with a boy’s rape, was Cullen allowed out of remand within a few days to rape again? Apparently, Cullen was not even under surveillance.
Then the CPS decided that Suzie’s son’s rape case would lie on file as part of a deal with Cullen’s legal team. Shockingly, the CPS did not even consult the victim or his mother. I am pleased that the CPS has apologised for this, but on top of everything else, its action was a devastating blow to the family. It made them feel they were not believed by the police or the CPS. The CPS wanted her son’s case to lie on the file and never be heard in court as part of a plea bargain, but she fought, with my help, for it to be put to Cullen at his hearing, where Cullen pleaded guilty to raping Suzie’s son. Suzie feels that if I had not become involved and, as she put it, knocked a few heads together, she would not have got justice for her son.
In addition to the questions that I have asked, Suzie wants an inquiry into why a dangerous paedophile such as Cullen was allowed to live in the midst of a small village community with none of the families with children warned. What special precautions did the authorities take to ensure the safety of those families? If precautions were taken, why did those precautions have no effect? Why was Cullen allowed to have unsupervised access to young children when the police—an individual officer was, apparently, overseeing his case—and social services both knew he was a serious danger? Why was he allowed to drive round in a blacked-out multi-purpose vehicle, when his previous offences included incidents in cars? But most of all, Suzie wants to know why she was not explicitly warned of the danger that he posed to her children. Her son was abused on 25 occasions.
I do not expect the Minister to have all the answers, although we have spoken about this matter before today. However, I hope that she will focus on this family’s terrible ordeal. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that mistakes have occurred and that lessons can be learned. But only those in government can act to make sure others are not left vulnerable to dangerous paedophiles such as David Cullen.
It is a pleasure, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Lady Winterton.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) on securing this debate on a vital issue for us all. I feel strongly about this matter as a parent and as a constituency Member of Parliament, and it is important that the issue has been raised. As he is aware, I cannot go into detail about this specific case, but I can say that there are clearly issues that he is concerned about.
I understand that there has been a decision by the local safeguarding children board to commission a serious case review arising out of those concerns. That has only just been decided, and I can give the hon. Gentleman no detail now. However, I pledge to make sure that the relevant Minister is informed, so that the hon. Gentleman is kept in touch with the outcome of that case so that he can keep his constituent fully informed. It is important that this process takes its course and that we find out from it whether there are wider lessons to be learned.
It is important to stress that this is an unfortunate case. Any child who is a victim of a paedophile is a real victim. Nothing can make it right for the young boy the hon. Gentleman has mentioned or for the other victims of this man. We have robust systems in place overall, and they work overall. There is no general crisis in the system of paedophile supervision, but we are not complacent. It is important to learn lessons from any incident where there has been a problem and a particular issue, such as the one that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned, but I do not believe that we have an absolute breakdown in the system.
The system is challenging to operate, because we work across the board with the multi-agency public protection arrangements groups. Locally, in the hon. Gentleman’s area, the strategic management board of MAPPA will work with the proposed review to learn about whether there any lessons to be learned in respect of future practice for the relevant agencies throughout the country. Any lessons that can be learned from this case that give a wider view on things will be taken into consideration. The hon. Gentleman has asked for a pledge that there will be a review or inquiry. I reassure him, his constituent and other victims of that man that that will take place.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the important work that the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and all the other agencies do in undertaking a difficult task. I am concerned about the hon. Gentleman’s comments about Thames Valley police. I have been in contact with the assistant chief constable for that force, who has confirmed that he is happy to continue to engage with the hon. Gentleman on this matter, as he has done in the past. I trust that that relationship will become one of honesty and openness, because it is important that we, as Members of Parliament, have such a relationship with our local police forces, with which we work closely on many issues. Of course, the hon. Gentleman is right to want to scrutinise all his local agencies, and we have no problem with that.
The Government are absolutely committed to protecting our children from harm. We have a rigorous system, which is among the best in the world. I am the European Minister at the Home Office, and I regularly represent our interests in Europe. It is clear from discussion in Europe that we are well ahead of the game. We have higher protection and monitoring standards than almost any other European country, and other countries around the world can learn lessons from what we are doing. We do not rest on our laurels. We recognise that we have systems in place that, on the whole, work pretty well.
The hon. Gentleman raised some specific points about disclosure. It is important to highlight some of the general issues in respect of disclosure. I shall mention some disclosure pilots that are taking place around the country. Generally, disclosure should be sufficient to enable the disclosed information about a person to protect anyone that it needs to. That is possibly the issue that the hon. Gentleman has raised in this case. I cannot talk about the individual case that he has mentioned, but that is the important general point.
Disclosure is based on the 2007 guidance on national multi-agency public protection arrangements, which means that disclosure must be considered where it will protect the public. The agencies that are part of MAPPA can make disclosures about offences, when necessary. That means that all the agencies that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned in his speech have guidance that allows them to make those disclosures. The Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 makes that a statutory duty, and it is important that the process is applied proportionally.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned concerns about human rights. The legislation is clear—it allows disclosure to protect the public. As a Home Office Minister and an MP, I say that it is important that the human rights of victims are adhered to. I know that the local police would not have said that the human rights of this gentleman were an issue in respect of not disclosing information. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like to take that matter up directly with the assistant chief constable.
Disclosure, when it works well, is important. That is why the Government have introduced four pilots around the country. The pilots started in September, and we will be evaluating their progress in about a year. They are taking place not in the hon. Gentleman’s area, but on a force-wide basis in Warwickshire, Cleveland, Hampshire—a police force not far from the hon. Gentleman’s own—and Cambridgeshire. That will allow those responsible for children, who are developing a relationship or having contact with an adult, whom they wish to protect to make inquiries of their own to request information about that individual to make their own judgments about how to protect their own children or children in their care. This is a proportionate step to take in tackling some of the concerns that the hon. Gentleman has raised in relation to this case. It is right that we proceed gradually and steadily on a four-area basis. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will follow closely, as a number of us will, how the pilots work and whether they can be extended to other areas, possibly including his own.
The Government’s overall approach to paedophiles and ensuring that children are protected has many parts. The police must have the necessary legal tools to manage the behaviour of child sex offenders. Multi-agency public protection arrangements have been in place since 2000, and their purpose is to ensure that all local agencies work together actively to manage the riskiest individuals and to share information whenever necessary. There is a lot of talk about not sharing information, but in this matter, whatever our views of other matters, I am sure that the House agrees that sharing information about dangerous individuals is vital to protect children.
There has been investment in expert agencies and individuals necessary to protect children and to bring offenders to justice, including a new Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, which has been in operation for two years since 2006, and there are specialist prosecutors in every area. Support for victims, including dedicated child abuse investigation units in all police forces, and special measures to help children give evidence in court proceedings are also important.
I have had dealings with my local protection team in Hackney—it is important for all of us to be involved locally—and I am impressed by the level of work generally in ensuring that victims are at the heart of what happens. There may be issues about the case that the hon. Gentleman has raised, but on the whole we generally get it right. The new rights for parents and carers are an important addition to the range of tools.
The sex offender register is important, and the comparison with Europe is stark. We monitor people when they have been put on the register, and they are kept track of because they must register their address if it changes, which gives the police and other agencies the opportunity to keep a close eye on what they are doing to try to prevent reoffending. We can also manage sex offenders who want to travel abroad, because we can impose foreign travel orders to prevent them from travelling, and we have the useful tool of sexual offences prevention orders, which place restraints on the behaviour of offenders who pose a risk of serious sexual harm. For example, an individual could be prohibited from visiting internet chat rooms, from circulating in certain areas or from being within a certain distance of a playground or someone’s address. There are important interim measures prior to prosecution, because we should not have to wait until someone has committed a crime and been put on the sex offenders register before we take action. It is important to have those interim steps in place to protect individuals. That, plus good disclosure, can do an awful lot on the preventive side, and we all agree that prevention is vital.
I know that the Minister cannot talk about the specific case, but I am a little concerned that Thames Valley police’s warning to Suzie was that she should speak to Cullen. In the light of what she said, that warning does not seem to have been sufficient under their powers of disclosure. Did they make a mistake?
We have a review under way, and it would be reasonable to ask the police, as part of that review, to consider specifically whether any disclosures that were made in the case to which the hon. Gentleman has raised, were insufficient in line with the law and the guidance. The question is reasonable, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will engage as well as he can with the review. The request is not unreasonable.
Local safeguarding children boards have undertaken to oversee the review locally. They involve local organisations that work together—the local authority, the police and social services—and have a legal duty to work to safeguard and promote the welfare of children in that area. They help to ensure that local agencies work together to prevent abuse and neglect, and if there are any issues about that working together in Reading—I am not saying that there are—the review should uncover that. The multi-agency public protection arrangements were established by the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000. The agencies have a legal duty to work in partnership with each other so that there is a balance between sensible working and what is legally required
The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre has been in existence for two years. It is a law-enforcement agency that brings together police officers, child protection experts and IT specialists from across the public, private and voluntary sectors. I do not want to digress too much from the circumstances of the case that the hon. Gentleman has raised, but we all recognise that online grooming by paedophiles is serious and increasing. I hope that in time the national identity card scheme will help to prevent that, as the scheme in Belgium helps parents to protect their children from dealing with adults online. The centre brings together everyone with an interest in and knowledge of the area. It has a national remit, which includes gathering and co-ordinating intelligence on high-risk child sex offenders and helping to track them in both the UK and, crucially, overseas. We have seen recent headlines about people travelling from one country to another to carry out awful crimes.
We have introduced dedicated child abuse investigation units into all police forces, and rolled out specialist sexual offence officers and rape prosecutors in every area, which is a sensible step. We have also introduced special measures to help children give evidence in court proceedings. Nevertheless, there are cases when, rather than putting a child through court, the CPS is legally able to make a judgment on a better way of achieving the end that we seek—prosecution—without having to put a vulnerable child through the difficult process of a court action. It is right that the CPS can take such decisions locally, based on the detailed knowledge that it has gathered. Speaking as a mother—heaven forbid that it would ever happen to any of my children—the judgment is difficult. One wants the prosecution, but if it can be done in any way that does not expose the child to further harm, that should be considered. We should not rule out the opportunity for the CPS to make that decision, if there are concerns about particular cases.
In June 2007, we published the review of the protection of children from sex offenders following a comprehensive review of the arrangements for managing sex offenders and assessment of what more can be done to help to protect children from sex offenders. The review set out a range of actions to improve the management of sex offenders in the community. As a result, we have placed a duty on all MAPPA-responsible authorities to consider, in every case, whether information on a child sex offender’s convictions should be disclosed to a member of the public to prevent a risk of serious harm to a child. I hope that our pilots will give some comfort to the hon. Gentleman, if not in the particular case that he raised, that we have a well-planned way of ensuring that disclosure is further improved for parents and those caring for children when they are not aware of contact with paedophiles in the early stages.
Overall, we are proud of our achievements. We do things differently from other European countries and other countries around the world. We do not rest on our laurels, and every case in which agencies are involved rightly requires that we examine what has happened and that we review, check and ensure that everything was done that could be done. I hope that the review in the hon. Gentleman’s area will give him some comfort that the matter is being taken seriously, and that if there are lessons to be learned, they will not only be learned about local practice, but will be rolled out so that any issues that should be taken up nationally will be.
I am not into buck-passing, because I speak as a Minister and I take responsibility for that, but it may be appropriate for other Ministers to have contact with the hon. Gentleman on some of the issues around the case. I pledge today to ensure that if he has any concerns or queries about the case and contacts me in the first instance, I will ensure that he receives a proper response from the relevant Minister on the particular points that he wants to raise. I hope that that, with the review, will give him some comfort and assurance that the Government take the matter seriously. We will do our best to ensure that we learn any lessons from the case.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Two o’clock.