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Child Protection

Volume 567: debated on Thursday 12 September 2013

I beg to move,

That this House has considered child protection in the UK.

I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for giving Members the opportunity to debate this important subject. As a precautionary measure, I declare my related interests as in the register.

As I have said on many occasions, opportunities to debate and air issues of child protection or of children generally are frustratingly rare, as I found in opposition and as Minister with responsibility for these matters, so today’s debate is welcome. It is particularly important because child protection and child abuse, in its different forms, have probably never had a higher profile, and have never triggered such a response and awareness among the public at large, which is probably the one compensation of the whole sordid Jimmy Savile affair. That is why, a year on from Savile, I and other hon. Members requested a debate on child protection.

The extraordinary turn of events started to unravel almost a year ago when the media heralded a modest but game-changing ITV documentary—produced by Mark Williams-Thomas, to whom I pay tribute for what he has set in motion as a result—which first tentatively suggested that Jimmy Savile had abused teenage girls as young as 13. It seemed incredible that the semi-beatified, spangly shell-suited former Bevin boy, “Top of the Pops” doyen, children’s TV icon and multi-charity philanthropist had so successfully hidden his alter ego as a serious sexual predator, and a pretty prolific and grubby one at that. The rest, of course, is history. The initial Guardian headline about some 10 female victims having come forward was one of its more glaring underestimates. The number of victims was then upgraded to some 300, some of them possibly as young as nine years old, and the figure is now in excess of 600. The ramifications for the BBC, for the rest of the establishment and for the public profile of child abuse, however, have been huge. It is worth briefly reviewing what has come to light over the past year.

There has been Operation Yewtree, which concentrated on the Savile case—600 people have come forward as having been abused by Jimmy Savile over a 60-year period. There are records of people who said that they were turned away when they reported abuse suffered at his hands. Six former police officers admitted that they were aware of Savile’s behaviour, with extensive evidence of cover-ups and withholding of information leading to abuse continuing over such a long period, including against children, teenage fans and kids in hospitals and care homes. We have seen the recent conviction of Stuart Hall for assaults spanning some 18 years on at least 13 girls, and a panoply of assorted comedians, publicists, entertainers, soap stars and childhood icons at various stages of arrest, investigation or facing court. Senior heads have rolled at the BBC, and its inquiry is said to have cost the licence fee payer in excess of £10 million already.

Operation Pallial has investigated the original claims of historical abuse at children’s homes in north Wales going back to the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. There has been a review by Mrs Justice Macur of the terms of the Waterhouse inquiry into the abuse of children in care in Gwynedd and Clwyd council areas. Operation Fernbank was established to focus on claims of sexual abuse and the grooming of children involving parties for men at the former Elm guest house in south-west London in the ’70s and ’80s. Operation Fernbridge has been launched as a result of allegations arising from Operation Fernbank. The Independent revealed on 9 June that seven officers are pursuing more than 300 lines of inquiry.

There are a number of inquiries involving children being abused in schools. Operation Flamborough is investigating alleged assaults on girls with learning difficulties at a Hampshire boarding school. At Carlekemp in North Berwick, a feeder primary school to Fort Augustus Abbey Catholic school has been linked to abuse allegations, as has Fort Augustus Abbey itself. There have been abuse allegations in relation to Kesgrave Hall school, near Ipswich. At Chetham’s music school in Manchester, a former director of music and his wife were found guilty of indecently assaulting Frances Andrade, who, tragically, was driven to take her own life after being subjected to harsh cross-examination during the trial, having been labelled a fantasist and attention seeker and advised not to seek counselling during the trial. There have been allegations of sexual abuse in many other music schools, including the Yehudi Menuhin school in Surrey, and schools in Edinburgh and Somerset. But it does not stop there.

In the diocese of Chichester, in my part of the country, retired priests have been charged with sexual offences. The diocese has had four inquiries into child abuse in the past four years, including a formal visitation from the Archbishop of Canterbury and a report written by the noble Baroness Elizabeth Butler-Sloss. The General Synod voted on 7 July this year to issue an unreserved historic apology from the Church of England to victims of clerical sex abuse. We have seen countless examples of child sexual exploitation cases: Operation Retriever; the extraordinary case in Rochdale where 47 girls were identified as victims of child sexual exploitation; the case in Rotherham; Operation Bullfinch in Oxford—there is still more to run on that one; and Operation Chalice, in which seven men were jailed following a police investigation into child sexual exploitation involving young white girls in Telford.

Of course, there were the recent tragic killings of April Jones at the hands of 46-year-old Mark Bridger, and of Tia Sharp at the hands of her grandmother’s boyfriend, Stuart Hazell, which were linked to downloading abuse images of children. The case of Daniel Pelka, who was killed and tortured in an incredibly cruel way, came to court in the last few months: a defenceless four-year-old child was systematically tortured, yet this was on the radar of local authority services. Next week, the Coventry safeguarding children board will undertake a serious case review, during which I think we will hear some familiar stories—a case of déjà vu for those of us who have been around the block so many times with this sort of cruelty. Of course, there was also the serious case review of the Birmingham nursery case.

I make no apology for what is a grim reading list, involving cases that have been instigated, reopened, proceeded with through the courts or investigated in just the last year, since the Jimmy Savile case hit and maintained the headlines for so many months.

Will the hon. Gentleman also include for the record a dreadful case that touches all of us in the House: that of baby Peter, which drew our attention to the need for a systematic, cross-services approach to child protection?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and we could have taken up this entire debate with the history of some of these cases. And these are only the high-profile cases that we know about and read about. They are only a small sample of what has actually been going on; many more have not reached the headlines or even the courts.

Away from the high-profile stories that make the media headlines, the wider figures show that our various child protection agencies have never been busier. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children reports that referrals to ChildLine about sexual abuse were nearly twice as high in June and July of this year as in the same period last year, pre-Savile. There have been 2.4 million visits to the ChildLine website in the last year—an increase of some 28% on the previous year. The NSPCC estimates that more than 50,000 children in the UK are known to be at risk of abuse. It calculates that last year, a total of 2,900 rapes or attempted rapes of children under the age of 13 were recorded; that is eight per day. Indeed, 32%—almost a third—of all sexual crimes in this country are against children under the age of 16.

I know that the hon. Gentleman feels very deeply about this issue. Do these figures not show that we have to be more aware of the fact that paedophiles will target professions in which they can get access to children, and that the Government therefore need to do more? Instead of relaxing regulations relating to children and Ofsted child protection inspections, the Government need to be much more cognisant of the issue, target areas where such things are likely to happen, and make people aware that paedophiles will be in these professions. Action must be taken to stop them.

I agree with the hon. Lady, who knows a great deal about this issue, having been a practitioner in the field; indeed, she and I have worked together through the all-party group on child protection. We need to be wiser to the professions in which paedophiles and potential paedophiles will inveigle themselves. At the same time, however, training and awareness in some of these professions—an issue I shall return to—have improved enormously, although not enough, yet, and the inspection regime has improved. In too many cases, we were inspecting the wrong thing. I hope that joint agency inspections, which we were promised but which have been put on hold, will still happen, so that we have that cross-disciplinary eye: police looking at children’s services, children’s services looking at education, education looking at health services.

Too often, there was a silo approach to inspection, which took up a great deal of the time of professionals who would rather spend it looking after the families, and not enough dissemination of information. The best way to bring that about is better multi-agency training, which we have not been good at. That is beginning to happen, however. For example, we have multi-agency safeguarding hubs, through which different agencies are co-located—sitting next to each other in the same room, looking at the same intelligence, discussing cases and coming up with a much better informed and sharper action plan. All those things are improvements, but the point the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) makes is a valid one.

I know that many Members want to contribute to the debate, but there is a bit more I want to say. With the list I have given goes a looming public apprehension about whether we really have cracked child protection, buffeted by almost weekly revelations of the latest scandal involving abuse at the hands of a bishop, a music teacher, a taxi driver or a soap star. To some extent, it matters not whether the perpetrator is dead or alive, or how long ago his alleged misdemeanours took place. The higher profile given by the media to cases linked to celebrities has, however, been deeply unhelpful, as it detracts from the reality that the main perpetrators are common criminals in ordinary jobs.

Of course, the fact that so many cases are now coming to court, however belatedly, is a sign of some success, in that offenders are now being pursued better by police. Victims are being heeded more loudly and sympathetically, prosecutions are sticking and the perpetrators are being made to pay.

However, are our children safer now than they were 50 years ago, when Savile and others started to ply their trade? Have we just replaced celebrity abuse of star-struck teenagers while the establishment turned a blind eye with systematic abuse to order by organised gangs, be they Pakistani-British—high-profile cases of which we have seen—or of whatever culture? Are internet groomers and the recent Oxford and Rochdale abusers just a modern-day version of Savile, armed with mobile phone technology but without shell suits and the lure of the “green room”? In that sense, given the reach of technology as a key tool of the abusers, do they not pose a much more widespread threat now than ever before?

I think that those of us in the know here today can say that children are safer now than back in the 1960s, but that is a tough sell to the public at large. But if that is the case, when did things actually get better? When did child protection come of age and society at large recognise its significance? When did we equip our agencies sufficiently to question the “It’s just Jimmy” mentality and start turning over some rather grubby stones? Was the landmark Children Act 1989 the turning point? Was it the shocking revelations concerning the north Wales care homes, which have of course come full circle, as we now know that the whole story was not properly revealed? It is to answer these questions that I and others have been calling for some time for an overarching inquiry into the whole sordid history of child abuse in this country, going back to the 1960s and traversing the Children Act, into what I call the legitimate legislation tsunami post-Victoria Climbié. Such an inquiry must involve a commission, led by respected figures from the law, lawmakers, social services and children’s charities. It must set out to provide the holistic assurance that has been so sapped by the plethora of at one time weekly inquiries and reviews set up by the Home Office, the BBC, the Department of Health and numerous others, and it must go everywhere.

Such an inquiry must address four main issues. What exactly happened, and why, over all those years? When did things start getting better, and how? Have all practical steps been taken to give victims the confidence to come forward, and for the police to pursue vigorously any remaining offenders? Perhaps most important of all, have all our major institutions that have significant dealings with children and young people instituted child protection policies and practices that are fit for purpose in 2013 to deal with modern-day technology and savvy perpetrators?

The hon. Gentleman is being very generous in giving way. May I just put in a caveat? There was a time when a kind of press feeding frenzy went on. Something went very wrong with some of the investigations, a lot of innocent people who had worked with children were falsely accused—for whatever reason—and many good professionals’ lives were destroyed. Please can we make sure that, whatever we do now, we do not start that sort of thing again?

The hon. Gentleman is right, which is why I referred to what happened with celebrities, which was a sort of feeding frenzy and succeeded in masking the multitude of real crimes—not that the former were not real crimes—that were going on among ordinary people. That is why we need an overarching inquiry to look holistically at what went wrong, what appeared to go wrong, what was a symptom of media frenzy, and who the victims were and are. Most important, we need to give some satisfaction and confidence to the public at large that somebody is looking at this issue properly, and that there is evidence that their children are safer now—despite everything that has come out—than 10, 20 or 30 years ago. I do not think that an unreasonable ask. The former Prime Minister of Australia established a similar royal commission into historic child abuse in November 2012, to look into institutional responses to allegations of sexual abuse in Australia, particularly linked with the Catholic Church. IT has been done it there, and there is a good case for doing it here.

The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful case for a public inquiry, which I support. He is right to say that we need to restore confidence not just among the public at large but among victims. It seems that there is confusion in government about which Department is providing the drive and lead to ensure that these issues are tackled. When he was the Minister responsible for child protection, it was inconceivable that he would not lead on these issues in the House. This is the second time is less than a year that we have had a debate on child protection, and the other Department with responsibility has not been represented. Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern about that?

Order. Before the hon. Gentleman replies to the intervention, may I gently remind him that the recommendation is that the mover of the motion speaks for 10 to 15 minutes? He has been on his feet for 18 minutes or more. He has been generous in taking interventions, but that time is supposed to include interventions. It means that there will be a time limit on the rest of the speeches. Therefore, I hope that he will be less generous and draw his remarks to a conclusion. This is not coming out of your time, Mr Loughton.

I am gently reminded, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am happy to give up some time—I think I have a right to reply at the end of the debate—so that as many Members as possible can get in. Perhaps if I do not take any more interventions and speak very quickly, it will help. In response to the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), I will gently come on to that point in the few minutes remaining to me, but I think that the answer is that I could not possibly comment.

I fear that in the UK the public have become increasingly confused and sceptical about what progress has been made over recent years to ensure that our children are safe. That is not surprising given the tsunami of media reports that I have already listed and the tangled tidal wave of reviews announced by Ministers, the BBC, the NHS, the Church and everyone else. Therefore, the public are confused and parents are understandably worried. They need high-profile, high-octane, high-impact leadership from central Government, working with all the relevant agencies, to convince a sceptical public that we are on top of the situation.

I know that much is going on. Indeed, I instigated quite a lot of what is going on. I know what a champion the Minister from the Home Office is on the issue and welcome his leadership of the National Group on Sexual Violence against Children and Vulnerable People instituted in April. However, to take on the point made by the hon. Member for Wigan, I am concerned about the move to the Home Office, because child abuse is not just about detection and prosecution. It is first and foremost about education, awareness, early intervention and prevention, and I think that that is best co-ordinated in the Department for Education, which retains the lead for children’s social care and for Ofsted inspection, I think. It is particularly concerning, therefore, that, at a time when child abuse has never been more in our consciousness, the assurances and leadership from the DFE have been rather muted over the past year.

I do not understand why, because we have much to be proud of. The Munro reforms provided a fundamental overhaul of child protection and the way in which that is done in this country. They are widely respected and starting to be instituted. Hopefully, the appointment of the chief social worker is raising the profession’s morale and the launch of the Frontline scheme is raising its confidence. The full publication of serious case reviews has cast light on the problems that are going on. There has been a proliferation of multi-agency safeguarding hubs, progress on child sexual exploitation and the action plan. The Children’s Society toolkit was launched just this week and it has also launched its “Say something if you see something” campaign. The Lord Chancellor’s Department has made important announcements about the way in which we treat the 23,000 child witnesses in deeply traumatic cases in our courts. There are sermons in mosques about the exploitation of children. In July 2012, children started to be placed far away in residential homes. There will be a report on that later this year. There is also the national action plan to tackle child abuse linked to faith or belief.

A lot has happened in the past few years to make our children safer. I think the Government need to shout out much more loudly about it. I hope that the Prime Minister, who has rejected calls for an overarching inquiry, will think again in the light of the tsunami of cases in the past year.

Therefore, in conclusion, child abuse takes many different forms: the harm, neglect and ultimately killing of a vulnerable child by family members; child sexual exploitation and systematic abuse by gangs; internet abuse; opportunistic grooming over the web; cyber-bullying and trolling, on which a campaign was launched in Parliament just this morning. All these things are part of the same problem and we need to show the public how we are protecting our children better. As such, it is a child protection and education and prevention issue, which should be, as it always was, led by the DFE, notwithstanding the talents and dedication of the Minister in his role in the Home Office. Without doing that, we risk giving rise to a new generation of Jimmy Saviles, perhaps without the shell suits and bling but armed with much more powerful—

Mr Loughton, you said “In conclusion”. I would like you to conclude your remarks. Even allowing for my 30-second intervention, you are way over the 15 minutes. Please conclude your remarks.

My final sentence is that this is the challenge that faces us all in the post-Savile world: child protection has potentially never been so important to so many, and all of us have a duty to be vigilant.

Order. A large number of Members wish to speak in the debate. I ask Members to take no more than 10 minutes, including interventions. The clock will not be on, but it will be a sharp time limit if that is not complied with.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), who as children’s Minister responded positively to the parliamentary inquiry into children who go missing from care, which was conducted by the all-party group for runaway and missing children and adults and supported by the Children’s Society. I am pleased to support his call for an overarching inquiry.

Over the past 20 years, we have had numerous high-profile inquiries and serious case reviews after children have been harmed, abused and killed. Almost without exception, those inquiries and reviews have come to the same conclusions—poor inter-agency working, sharing of information and communication were significant factors in failures to prevent the child’s injury or death. There is a public frustration that time and again recommendations point to the same failings in the system.

It seems that a lot of reviews and inquiries look at the failures of the organisations around the child rather than putting the child’s voice and experience at the centre of the review. I recently looked at a systems review of CSE practice by Stockport’s children’s safeguarding board through the eyes of a victim. I was struck that on a number of occasions her case was closed because she withdrew her co-operation. She would not communicate. Surely a better way would have been to find someone capable of talking to her and winning her trust, which could then have prevented the harm that subsequently happened to her.

Listening to the children who gave evidence to our inquiry, it was clear that children felt that they had not been, and were not being, listened to. One of the key challenges facing agencies charged with safeguarding children is being able to communicate properly with children, so that they feel able to talk about what is happening to them. I agree with the Children’s Commissioner, Maggie Atkinson, that staff who work with children and young people, from whichever discipline or profession, should experience a common set of training that crosses all boundaries. Unless we can communicate with children, we will not know what is going on in their lives and therefore we will not be able to prevent them from coming to harm.

Sadly, all too often, that essential communication with children does not happen and we find out all too late about the horrors of the experience that those children have been subjected to, which they then have to relive as witnesses in our courts. There is widespread concern about the treatment of child witnesses in the court system. The failures to provide sufficient support to child witnesses are based on an inadequate understanding of how to communicate with children.

No one should be in any doubt about how much children worry about going to court. Many children express those fears to the NSPCC’s ChildLine. I will read out just one example. One girl said:

“I have to go to court this week to give evidence and I really don’t want to. I didn’t want to report the abuse but I was told I had to. It just feels like everything’s my fault and I wish I had never told anyone.”

I welcome the new guidelines issued by Keir Starmer, the Director of Public Prosecutions, on cases involving child sexual abuse, which he said would ensure that the focus was on allegations made by victims, rather than their weaknesses and vulnerabilities. However, I fear that we are a long way from that in the way witnesses are cross-examined in our courts now.

The Government are making progress in piloting section 28 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999, which will allow pre-recorded cross-examination of young and vulnerable witnesses. That is very welcome.

I recently tabled a series of parliamentary questions which revealed that in the first three months of 2013 registered intermediaries were requested for children in only 16% of cases. This indicates to me that the police, the prosecution, the defence and the courts do not really understand how difficult it is for children to communicate in the current adversarial system and do not understand the need for registered intermediaries to facilitate communication between them and the court.

Interestingly enough, in spite of all the publicity surrounding witnesses who have been called liars and fantasists and subjected to aggressive cross-questioning by multiple lawyers, I understand that there have been barely any complaints to the Bar Council, which indicates the acceptance and normalisation of aggressive, adversarial cross-examinations.

I have been reading with interest the work done by academic experts such as Professor John Spencer of Cambridge university and Joyce Plotnikoff about the need to reform the rules and conventional practice in the cross-examination of children. I would like the Minister to consider establishing a commission of inquiry made up of expert judges and leading academics into reforming the rules on cross-examination of children after the spate of recent high-profile sex trials in which lawyers branded vulnerable victims liars again and again.

Of course the right of the defendant to a fair trail and to examine fairly the witnesses against him or her must be sacrosanct, but the process has to be about obtaining the best quality of evidence in a way that is robust, reliable and safe for the witness. As Lord Justice Auld said in his review of the criminal courts:

“A criminal trial is not a game under which a guilty defendant should be provided with a sporting chance.”

Currently, the court appears to be set up as a theatre, in which lawyers perform for the benefit of the jury. Sometimes it does not seem like a real cross-examination of evidence, but to be about smearing and breaking down the witness to get defendants off the hook. One senior English barrister told Dr Emily Henderson, a visiting fellow at Clare Hall, Cambridge and a criminal barrister herself who is doing a six-month study of the impact of changes to cross-examination, that:

“You are always really playing to the audience. Of course, it is one-on-one in that there is only one person answering questions, but you are constantly aiming everything at the people who are ultimately going to be making the decision. So you are playing to the gallery.”

Another barrister told Dr Henderson:

“I have three speeches: my opening, my closing and my cross-examination.”

Barristers in sex abuse cases must be stopped from manipulating child witnesses like puppets.

As many leading academics, including Spencer and Plotnikoff, have said, 30-plus years of empirical research in this and similar adversarial jurisdictions has shown again and again that conventional cross-examination is more likely to confuse and mislead children than to draw out accurate and reliable evidence. Indeed, research by the NSPCC showed that more than 90% of children under 10 do not understand the questions they are asked in court. The commission that I am proposing could also consider what further measures might be undertaken to improve the safety and reliability of processes for the taking and investigation of children’s evidence by the criminal courts. In addition, it could examine extending the role of registered intermediaries to allow them to cross-examine vulnerable witnesses under the direction of counsel. This idea was first raised more than 20 years ago in the 1989 Pigot committee report, which recommended that advocates’ questions should be relayed through a specialist child examiner, such as a paediatrician, child psychiatrist, social worker or other person who enjoys the child’s confidence.

In most other continental jurisdictions, including France, Germany, Austria, Norway and Italy, young child witnesses are questioned by a neutral specialist. The interviewer investigates issues that the defence wants raised and consults the defence in the process.

I was heartened that in 2010 and 2011 the Court of Appeal released several judgments designed to clean up poor cross-examination techniques. The court was very clear that cross-examiners must use language appropriate to the developmental stage of the witness. However, despite these encouraging comments from the Court of Appeal, how we treat children in court is still a massive problem. In the last couple of weeks, we had the judge who described a 13-year-old victim of abuse as predatory. This was in addition to one of the barristers in the Oxford case accusing one of the girls of being a serial liar and fantasist who had fabricated the allegations, and a witness in the Stafford trial had to endure being called a liar day after day.

There was a lot of condemnation of that at the time, with the Prime Minister and others saying that those remarks should not have been made, but does my hon. Friend agree that we should be worried not that such remarks are being made but that people in these positions believe these things in the first place about children?

I agree. Attitudes to children in our society are quite awful sometimes. That manifests itself in various ways.

Children’s charities and victim support groups said that the Staffordshire trial shamed British justice. These cases demonstrate the urgent need for reform. I hope that the Minister will agree with me that a commission to look into further reforms of the practice of cross-examination is the only way to ensure that in the future we get the best possible evidence, without which the courts cannot do justice to the victim or the defendant.

It is a pleasure to take part in this debate. I congratulate the Backbench Business Committee on assigning time to it, and I am pleased to follow two such powerful speeches. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) and the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) on securing the debate.

Over the summer we saw more tragic evidence, if it were needed, of how important it is that the child protection system works swiftly and effectively. Last November the Education Committee published a report “Children first: the child protection system in England.” We agreed that we should focus our attention on three separate but linked themes that were emerging strongly from all that we had heard and read—neglect, older children, and the thresholds for interventions. What drew them together was the recognition that in each case the child should be the priority.

I will start with neglect. No one should underestimate the scale of this problem. A major study by the NSPCC last year found that severe neglect was experienced by 3.7% of children under 11 and 9.8% of 11 to 17-year-olds at some time in their childhood; and 43% of child protection plans are in place as a result of neglect. During our inquiry we learnt that it can be difficult to pin down what is meant by the term “neglect”. It can mean different things for different age groups and in different situations, which can make it difficult for professionals and the public to recognise.

We were particularly concerned by the variation in rates of neglect between local authorities. We recommended that the Government commission research to see whether similar situations and behaviours were classified as neglect in different local authorities in different ways. We concluded from the evidence that the needs of children and the importance of acting quickly to secure early intervention for children experiencing neglect are all too often not given sufficient priority. I hope that the Government will be prepared to intervene if the responsiveness of local authorities to neglect does not improve.

We also learned from witnesses that older children are often reluctant to disclose information about abuse or neglect. Potential causes of this include mistrust of the authorities, embarrassment and fear of what is going to happen, including the fear of not being believed. That leads on to another of the three main areas that the Education Committee examined—namely, the support given to older children. Ofsted figures reveal that 24% of the serious case reviews conducted between April 2007 and March 2011 involved children aged 14 or older. That means that children in that group are second only to babies under one in terms of risk of serious harm.

On the point about older children, does my hon. Friend share my concern that we do not yet seem to be responding adequately and quickly enough to the growing issue of grooming by gangs? We see it in many of our towns and cities across the country, yet we do not seem to have an adequate response.

My hon. Friend is right. However, it is being taken seriously. My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham talked about the use of modern technology and how those who are predatory towards children can use it to co-ordinate and be more effective. As in every area of crime, it is essential that those on the side of law and order, particularly those involved in the protection of children, should keep up and be ahead of the curve in relation to the abusers.

ChildLine told us that provision for 16 to 18-year-olds, in particular, represents a massive gap in the system. We concluded that the position was so serious that the Government should undertake a complete review of the support offered to older children by the child protection system, with proposals to reshape services to meet their needs. In their response to our report, Ministers said:

“We expect local leaders to consider whether their child and family social work services are appropriately configured to meet the needs of all vulnerable children and families.”

I appreciate the key role played by local authorities in delivering children’s services and the need to respect a certain amount of local discretion as to how they discharge this responsibility, but I hope the Government will act if evidence continues to show that older children are still being overlooked by our child protection system.

One element of the support on offer to older children has shown a marked improvement in recent months. I was delighted by the package of support for young people leaving care that was unveiled by the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson), earlier this year. I am pleased to see him in his seat. This includes new rules to ensure that more 16 and 17-year-olds remain in care unless signed off by a director of children’s services. For too long, young care leavers for whom the state is, in effect, the parent have been cast off at 16 or 17 with no support network in place. The new arrangements mark a real step forward, but there is still much more to be done.

The third aspect of my Committee’s work involved the thresholds for intervention and whether they are set at the right level and applied consistently. We found variation between local authorities in how these thresholds are applied. We recommended that the Government commission research to understand the impact of varying thresholds in different areas, and whether they are too high or rising in some places. Undoubtedly part of the solution is having a common understanding of thresholds as between different agencies and ensuring that information is shared. We found particular concerns about the health sector, as one always does in relation to information sharing.

We commended, as did my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, the example set by authorities that have brought different agencies together into multi-agency hubs to ensure better co-ordination and information sharing between all the professionals involved in child protection. During the inquiry we went to York, where there was the principle that there should be a response to every need. Rather than having a threshold, the aim was to co-ordinate and to ensure that where a need was expressed people could, at the very least, signpost someone to where they could get help and support.

The American social reformer Frederick Douglass said:

“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

He was exactly right. As a political class, we must take the hard lessons of recent years to heart as Britain is confronted by a very 21st-century picture of abuse. As well as the themes that I have mentioned, my Committee heard about threats to the welfare of children from new forms of abuse resulting from technology, as well as older forms of abuse newly present in this country such as the evils of human trafficking and female genital mutilation. The challenge of protecting children is constantly changing, and our response needs to be sure-footed and robust.

There are clear signs that Ministers have turned their attention to where the child protection system is failing children, but in our inquiry we were concerned about where the responsibility lies. I hope to hear from Ministers whether there has been a change in responsibility as between the Department for Education and the Home Office. Who exactly is in charge? If there has been a change, how could it have occurred without the Education Committee being informed about it? Do we have clarity as to who is responsible, and without that clarity can our children really be safe?

Speaking for myself, not for the Committee, I think that my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham made a strong case for a public inquiry. Such is the level of public disquiet, such are the complexities and challenges of these issues, and such is the need not only to reassure the public but to allow for a public examination of the issues, that nothing short of a public inquiry is required, and it would carry cross-party support. My Committee will undertake follow-up work in connection with our inquiry to assess where we are and what else needs to be done.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart). I agree with the points that he and, indeed, previous speakers made—this is a vital debate.

I want to focus on the lessons and the aftermath of the awful crimes uncovered in Oxford in the Bullfinch investigation. We were all shocked and horrified by those crimes, and it is right that those who are guilty are punished and feel the full force of the law. It has to be said, though, that the convictions were just the beginning of the action that needs to be taken.

I welcome the steps that are being taken by the National Group on Sexual Violence against Children and Vulnerable People. No one should underestimate the challenge of pulling together all the Government Departments, agencies, local authorities and outside organisations, including in the private sector, whose commitment, resources and action are needed to provide real focus and drive to this vital work. I hope that this debate can support the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice in having the clout and reach that he will need to force the pace of progress and deliver real change on the ground. I also support the further steps called for in the “Childhood Lost” petition to the Prime Minister by the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood), which calls for more sensitive court procedures, the publication of serious case reviews, and consistent support across the country for victims of child sexual exploitation.

The Oxford victims, who, as children, should have been protected and cared for, suffered so much and were very brave in giving their evidence. We owe it to them and to all who are at risk to make a mighty effort to prevent such abuse in future.

I have three key points to make. First, the victims and their families are owed a clear explanation of what went wrong; why they were failed; and, where there was fault, who was responsible and what action will be taken about that. It is terrible to think that this went on so long, for years and years, before the hideous reality was uncovered, thanks eventually to police and social services action. It is right that the Thames Valley chief constable and the county council chief executive have apologised for the time it took and are committed to uncover any shortcomings within their organisations.

We have to look to the serious case review as the first step, but, as the independent chair of the Oxfordshire safeguarding board has made clear to me, the prime purpose of serious case reviews is to learn lessons to improve work to safeguard and promote children’s welfare. She wrote to me:

“SCRs are not inquiries into how a child died or was seriously harmed, or into who is culpable…Nor are SCRs part of any disciplinary inquiry or process relating to individual practitioners”.

Such action is the responsibility of the relevant organisation, be it the county council, the police, the health service, or whoever. The abuse in these cases went on for a very long time, and some of the staff involved, and those responsible for them, will have retired or otherwise moved on. In its briefing for this debate, Oxfordshire county council says:

“Staff previously employed by the County Council will be interviewed by the Serious Case Review author and will be a matter for the Serious Case Review.”

It seems to me that there may well be a gap in accountability between the ambit of the serious case review and the internal enquiries undertaken by the county council and the police.

I will of course look very carefully at the serious case review and the outcome of the internal reviews. It is crucial that this is all fully transparent and covers every angle. I am sure that the public will want to know what independent involvement and oversight there is of these reviews. We might well, though, need a public inquiry to get to the bottom of how children in care were left so vulnerable and what can be done to take good care of those at risk in future. The police and crime commissioner for Thames valley has already called for a more general public inquiry into how we safeguard children nationally, reflecting remarks, which I support, that have already been made in this debate. I would like to hear the Minister’s response to that.

My second key point is that it is vital that we put in place effective measures to protect children. Children and parents must be educated in the risks and tell-tale signs and have someone to go to for support and advice. We all have a responsibility to report suspicious activity to the police. I welcome the “Say Something If You See Something” toolkit produced by the NWG Network and the Children’s Society to help businesses, as well as the wider community, to play their part.

One good thing to come out of Operation Bullfinch in Oxfordshire is the joint team, the Kingfisher unit, bringing together police, social services, drug and alcohol specialists and the health service in combating child sexual abuse. Another is the work being undertaken with schools to alert children to the dangers of grooming. Steps are also being taken to develop a multi-agency safeguarding hub. I urge colleagues from other areas to find out what is being done in their constituencies. Such initiatives are urgently needed everywhere because, sadly, as is becoming more evident as more cases come to light, grooming and abuse are a significant risk everywhere. Do not let the councils, police, schools and other agencies wait until they have a horror on the scale of Operation Bullfinch to deal with.

My third key point is the question of whether, in social care practice and law, the balance is right between the rights of the child and the duties of parents or those with responsibility for care to safeguard that child. I asked the Library for a briefing on this, because one of the issues of public concern material to the Operation Bullfinch cases is how on earth children can go missing time after time from what supposedly is a place of care, even when staff suspect those children are victims of grooming. The Library dug out for me the statutory guidance under the Children Act 1989. Volume 5, which is on care homes, states:

“Staff in children’s homes that are not approved as secure children’s homes should not try to restrain the child or young person simply to stop them from leaving the home.”

Similarly, “Is it legal? A parents’ guide to the law” by the Family and Parenting Institute states:

“A parent cannot stop a child leaving home by locking them in or physically restraining them.”

I told one of our colleagues this and he was shocked that he could not legally ground his teenage daughter.

We have to be careful because, sadly, as other awful cases have shown, abuse sometimes takes place in the family home itself, and no one wants to be in the position of locking the fire escape. Equally, however, it is no good our criticising care workers for their inability to prevent the victims of grooming from going out if we do not give them the power to do so. This needs to be looked at very carefully, to see whether the balance can be shifted more strongly towards allowing those charged with safeguarding to fulfil their responsibilities.

I am listening carefully to what my right hon. Friend is saying, because this situation is familiar to me from my time working in social services. At that time, secure places were available, which meant that once a child was identified as being at risk, they could be put in secure premises where they were offered support. I am concerned that that provision is not as widely available any more and that that is one of the reasons we find ourselves with the dilemma being described by my right hon. Friend.

That is precisely the sort of thing I had in mind when I said that we need to look carefully at whether the balance can be shifted towards enabling those with caring responsibilities to fulfil them.

We also need urgently to spread the best practice of those care homes—there are some—that have achieved a lower rate of absconding. The sad reality in many of these grooming cases is that the victims initially want to go out because of the treats and affection, and then later, when they are drugged, abused and threatened, they are too scared not to go out and need protection.

The sad lesson of Operation Bullfinch and similar cases is that while most children can enjoy a childhood free from such horrors, there is a bigger risk of grooming and abuse out there than was previously realised. We know about it now, though, and there is a massive responsibility on us all, both to uncover what has gone wrong and to do our utmost to make sure that every child is safe.

I refer the House to my chairmanship of the Justice for Families campaign and of Care Leavers Voice, which is a group of care leavers who are concerned that the voice of care leavers is excluded from the system.

On 14 August Jana Tokolyova, who is the press officer of the Slovak Republic’s equivalent of the Crown Prosecution Service, the General Prokuratura, reported that their equivalent of the Director of Public Prosecutions had agreed with the deputy director of their national police to appoint a special agent to investigate a criminal complaint by Silivie Maher that relates to care proceedings in the UK.

This is an interesting process, because it is an extra-jurisdictional process. I believe it relates to the Rome statute and, as such, could lead to the end result of members of the Government facing questions about why they have tolerated the amount of malpractice that goes on in care proceedings in England and Wales.

On 5 December 2012 Leicester city council fired a very experienced social worker because she wanted to send a baby home to their mum and dad. Her assessment was that the parents were competent, but Sir Martin Narey and Education Ministers want a rapid movement to adoption—hence, the baby remained in care. This pressure by local authority managers on a social worker to lie to the court is, of course, a criminal offence. However, I think the Slovak Republic is more willing than the police in England to investigate criminality in our courts. Happily, however, on 5 September 2013 the case was set down for a full hearing by an employment tribunal next year.

I have for some time been worried about what I was told by a social worker some years ago, which is that at times the legal aid-funded solicitors for parents conspire with local authority staff in order to ensure that the parents lose. One example where that appears to have happened is that of Jaqcue and John Courtnage, whose two sons were taken into care because one had a lump on his head. The doctors were not sure whether it was because of a fracture or a fissure. The child was neurologically sound, which implies a fissure, but the parents did not see the evidence that it could have been a fissure until after the court had decided in 2010 that it was a fracture, and the question was never considered in any court judgment.

A court order on 30 October 2008 had said that all evidence should be provided to the parents. That did not happen. The hospital provided Derbyshire county council with the information in December 2008, but this did not get to the parents until after the finding of fact hearing of 2010, when they made a subject access request.

The question is whether the council colluded with the parents’ solicitors. Chris Sedgewick of Miles and Cash has been asked about the issue by his client and me. Although he denies the allegation, he has refused to give a detailed response, which confirms to me that Miles and Cash colluded with Derbyshire county council to keep this evidence from the parents.

Additionally, there was a single metaphyseal fracture, but Thomas, Rosenfield, Leventhal and Markowitz found as long ago as 1990 that

“femur fractures often are accidental and that the femur can be fractured when the running child trips and falls.”

Their article can be found on pages 471 to 476 of volume 88, No. 3 of the journal Paediatrics, published on 1 September 1991. Again, here we have an essentially criminal allegation that escapes investigation and prosecution in England, but which could be prosecuted by the Slovak Republic.

Article 3 of the European convention on human rights was almost certainly engaged with regard to the removal by the police of the newborn baby that appeared in the video that Staffordshire county council failed to injunct last Friday. Interestingly, Mrs Courtnage assisted the father in resisting imprisonment at an earlier stage. Was the action of removing the newborn baby inevitable, and therefore permissible under article 3, or even necessary, under article 8? The risk is future emotional abuse. The authority accepts that the parents are no immediate risk to their child. Why, then, take this action? The Government are moving towards removing such babies and immediately placing them with adoptive families. This does not appear to me to fit with traditional English family law or the European convention on human rights.

I have mentioned Toni McLeod before. She featured in the Sunday Express because Durham wanted to take her unborn baby into care because she went on an English Defence League demonstration. She went to Ireland. Sadly, the Health Service Executive in Ireland is now trying to force back to England all the family court refugees. More recently she returned to England and was refused permission to appeal. The case reference is [2013] EWCA Civ 1007. In paragraph 10, the court said

“Happily, on one basis, this case is not about a mother who is incompetent or unable to provide ordinary, good enough or even good physical and practical care for her children. Unhappily, and frustratingly for all involved, I dare say, particularly the mother and the children, the concern about the mother's ability to parent is more subtle and harder to pinpoint, but it arises from her personality and the potential for the children to be upset by unpredictable actions or words that she may from time to time exhibit.”

There are still parents leaving the UK to escape the system. I know of two pregnant mothers who have done so: one has gone to France and the other to live with a Belgian social worker, who is appalled at what is being done in England and is therefore willing to look after a mother and child at home.

I welcome the work of Sir James Munby. He is a good appointment to the challenging task of president and his initial practice directions have been good. However, the Government remain complacent and Parliament should really look at the individual cases. The care system continues not to be accountable. The independent reviewing officer will never be independent while they are on the payroll of the local authority.

The case of Jimmy Savile have been raised by various people. What is not widely known, although it is in the public domain, is that a journalist, Leah McGrath Goodman, aimed to go to Jersey to investigate what had happened in 2011 before it became public. However, she was banned by the UK Border Agency. With some effort from me, the ban was removed and she received a visa earlier this year. She has now been to Jersey, but the issues are already in the public domain. The CCTV that might explain the basis on which somebody was prevented from investigating a serious case of child abuse that came out at a later stage has still not been provided. The Government need to provide some answers on that issue.

I wrote to all the embassies this year asking whether somebody would like to come to a meeting in the House of Commons to discuss problems with child protection. Fifty-nine people came, representing 30 countries. Although not all those countries have complained formally, we should recognise that there are serious concerns about how the system operates.

Child protection is a complex process that covers a wide range of circumstances. There are some very good practitioners and lawyers who work in the area. As I said, Sir James Munby is a very good judge. However, there is also bad practice. If we tolerate the bad practice, we undermine the more competent people. It is therefore important to look at the wider issues.

In a sense, there is a constitutional problem. When hon. Members receive complaints from their constituents and write to the Minister, the Minister says, “We don’t comment on individual cases.” Unless we are able to look at the details of individual cases and see whether there are collective problems, we cannot be certain what is going on. I know that the system does a very good job at times, but it also does a very bad job at times. We are not looking at the process systematically.

Ministers say, “We want more children to be adopted.” That message goes to council leaders who talk to their cabinet member for children’s services. The cabinet member talks to the senior managers and they talk to the more junior managers. The social worker who wants to send a child home then gets fired. I have also heard of a council that, because the expert witness recommended that a child be reunited with their parents, would not pay for the expert witness’s report. That pressure on people to go in a particular direction is driven unintentionally by the Government. I am not saying that the Government intend to achieve that, but that is what is happening on the ground.

I am working hard to follow my hon. Friend’s argument. There will undoubtedly be injustice in the system, as there is in any system. However, the case that he talked about in which a social worker in Leicester was fired for wanting to send a child home seems incredible. Will he say more about it?

I have the defence that Leicester city council made to the employment tribunal. I can give the hon. Gentleman a copy of it. The defence was, “We told her not to send the child home, but she wanted to do that, so we fired her.” That went to appeal and the councillors in the authority endorsed the process.

This is a question of the balance in the civil procedure rules for expert witnesses. Social workers are expert witnesses and they provide assessments. If their assessments are driven by management priorities, they are not following their duty to the court. In fact, they are driven by management priorities a lot of the time. Another error that the Government are making is to reduce the use of independent social workers. Although the repeat player prejudice can be a problem, an independent social worker is not necessarily managerially driven to come to certain conclusions, whereas employees of the council often are. Civil servants make the error of assuming that an assessment is the same, whatever the managerial pressure on the person who made it. The Lashin v. Russia case considered the question of expert evidence and concluded clearly that such evidence has to be produced by somebody who has no interest in the outcome or the conclusion of the case, otherwise they are untrustworthy.

I am coming up to my 10 minutes, so I will draw my remarks to a close. The fundamental issue is the quality of expert evidence. Much of the expert evidence is driven by the management priorities of the local authority. That is why there are many very bad cases. The Education Committee could look at individual cases, as could the Justice Committee. I have made my point, so I shall sit down.

I thank the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) and my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) for consistently pushing hard to ensure that the House does not forget these important issues and that we make progress on them.

I echo the concern of the hon. Members for East Worthing and Shoreham and for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart) that the Department for Education is not responding to this debate. However, I am pleased to see that the Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson), has arrived on the Front Bench and is listening to the debate.

Since the tragic death of Victoria Climbié nearly a decade ago, it has been widely accepted that child protection is everybody’s responsibility and that, necessarily, all central and local government departments have a role in keeping children safe. Child protection policy is fragmented across different Departments including the Department for Education, the Department of Health, the Ministry of Justice, the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Home Office and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. It is important that there is a strong lead Department so that a drive comes from somewhere in Government to ensure that the voices, needs and views of children are never forgotten.

I agree with the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, who said that child protection is primarily about education, awareness, early intervention and prevention, and that it should therefore sit with the Minister with responsibility for child protection in the Department that is responsible for children. Will the Minister confirm that the Department for Education is still responsible for such children or whether it has abandoned its child protection responsibilities altogether? The confusion is deeply concerning. Is the Home Office now the lead Department or not?

Under the heading, “Who is responsible for child protection?” the Education Committee report stated:

“It is everyone’s responsibility…In Government terms, child protection in England is the overall responsibility of the Department for Education, which issues both statutory and non-statutory guidance”.

Would the hon. Lady, like me, welcome an intervention from a Minister to confirm that that is still the case or whether the situation has changed?

I would welcome that.

It is my view that we must start with the child if we are to tackle child protection. I have a huge amount of respect for the work that the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice has done on children in the immigration detention system over several years. He will know from that experience that some children are at higher risk of harm, including migrant and trafficked children, children with disabilities, child offenders and children in care, to name just a few of the groups that I have worked with over the years. It is important that there is a focus on those children from a Department whose primary focus is the protection and welfare of children. Many of the Departments that come into contact with those children have responsibilities that conflict with children’s welfare and safety. It is therefore essential that the Department for Education takes the lead on child protection. I would be grateful for that assurance from the Ministers who are present.

I endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport said so compellingly about the importance of communicating with children, listening to them and believing them. I spoke recently to a group of brave, articulate and inspiring teenage girls in Bradford who had been through the court process. The stories that they told me about what had happened to them and how they had been treated by some, although not all, front-line professionals will stay with me for the rest of my life. It had scarred them deeply.

I endorse what my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) said about support for parents. One young girl told me, in heartbreaking terms, about how she still cannot talk to her mum, who is a single mum, about what happened to her because her mum cannot believe that it happened to her child without her knowledge. We need to do much more to support parents if we are to support children.

I also endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport said about the courts. I recently met a group of young boys and girls in Nottingham who had been through the court process. One of them had repeatedly been called a liar on the witness stand. When I asked her what she had said to the barrister who was calling her a liar, she said, “You weren’t there. You can shut up.” I endorse those words. I am proud that she had the courage to say that to him. I could not have put it better myself.

The court process had put those children through hell. They had seen the collapse of their cases. They had been called to court several times not knowing what to expect and had then found that the case would not be heard. They had also been told that they would be able to use separate entrances and exits, only to find that they were next to the entrances and exits the people who had abused them were using, and that they were coming face to face with them and their families on the way in and out of court. We should, and must, do better.

I want to mention briefly the explosion of victim blaming we saw over the summer. A 13-year-old girl was labelled

“predatory in all her actions…sexually experienced”

by the lawyer Robert Colover after she was sexually abused by a 41-year-old man, and the judge took into account that she looked older than her age. A former newspaper owner said that under-age girls were throwing themselves at adult men, and newspaper columnists dismissed a 31-year-old teacher’s sexual abuse of a child in his care because she was just a few months away from turning 16. We have to start challenging these attitudes in public.

There are many things we can do. First, we need to support the social work profession better. In a recent survey of 3,000 social workers, a stark picture was painted of intolerable work loads, unqualified staff assessing children, social workers unable to spend time with the children they were tasked with protecting, and thresholds being revised upwards so that, as one social worker said, “Amber is the new green: children who need and ask for our help are being taken away.” We have to take this issue seriously.

I was disappointed that the Government did not take on board our call for sex and relationship education to be made available in every school. We need to equip young people with the knowledge, skills and resilience to withstand pressure, and to understand what constitutes acceptable behaviour, including online. We have to get better at preventing, rather than tackling, child abuse. Only 6% of funding in this area is spent on prevention. That is not a smart use of money—it is also an absolute waste of children’s lives and we need to sort it out.

The role of hotels and bed-and-breakfast establishments in the abuse of children has recently come to public attention. Many Members will know this from their own constituency experience. When police and local councils strongly suspect that abuse is happening, they do not always have the tools they need to tackle it. There have been a number of reports of on-street grooming across the country, including in Oxfordshire and Rochdale, in which young people’s accounts of sexual abuse contain repeated references to hotels and B&Bs. In one case, the police came across reports from other guests at a hotel on the website TripAdvisor of young girls being abused by older men. That abuse had not been reported to the police by the hotel or anyone else.

Hotels and B&Bs were also the location for child sexual exploitation in up to one third of sites visited by the deputy Children’s Commissioner, in her inquiry into sexual exploitation which reported last November. I checked with the Library and it seems that hotels have no specific legal responsibility to register guests under the age of 16—only guests over the age of 16. All they have to do is ask for their name and nationality, so it is hard to track who is using them and when. They do not require a licence to operate unless they sell alcohol, and are under no specific obligation to report child abuse, although they do have general health and safety obligations. That is not good enough.

Tackling this issue is essential, but not straightforward. It would make no sense to tie up the hotel industry in a complex system of regulation that may not protect children. We know that those who do not recognise their responsibilities will often find ways to avoid them. However, we cannot continue with a situation where some businesses are turning a blind eye to child abuse without any redress whatever. I would like the Minister to make a commitment today for the Department for Education to establish a cross-departmental working group alongside those who work in the industry—hotels, child protection experts, the police, local councils and others—to explore how the legal regulatory framework can sensibly be strengthened to protect children. We know that we have to do more to protect children, and this is one area where we can and should do more.

We are at greatest risk of dying a violent death when we are less than one year old: in 36% of cases of serious child abuse and death, the victim is less than one year old. Child protection, therefore, stems so much from poor relationships that are set up in the very earliest days of a baby’s life. My serious concern is that while we do so much as a society to try to defend children and young people against the evils perpetrated against them, we are just firefighting. We are seeing an increase in the number of appalling abuses, and Members in all parts of the House have talked about them, but we are not doing something about stopping the causes of the appalling experiences that adults have that make them go on to abuse children. I put it to the Chamber that nobody invents becoming a paedophile, a child abuser or a sociopath—people are not born paedophiles. They become paedophiles as a result of horrifying experiences they have when they are extremely young. This is called the cycle of deprivation. It is absolutely the case that early experiences will go on to determine what sort of person we become.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton). He and I have worked on children’s issues for a very long time. I recall him holding a children’s summit in Parliament in 2003, at which I talked on the subject of early years intervention on the day the Victoria Climbié report was published. I would like to read out the comments of Peter Beresford, the professor of social policy at Brunel university, which form the introduction to the 2003 parliamentary inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbié:

“The inquiry must mark the end of child protection policy built on a hopeless process of child care tragedy, scandal, inquiry, findings, brief media interest and ad hoc political response. There is now a rare chance to take stock and rebuild.”

From that day to this, while neuroscience shows us that all of our later responses to life are set out by our earliest experiences, we in the political world have failed utterly to recognise what we do to a baby in the first two years of life. In that crucial perinatal period—from the moment we are conceived until we are two years old—80% of our brain development takes place. Our infant brain at two years old is 80% of the weight it will be as an adult. If we imagine the correlation with our limbs, we would be walking around at the age of two with great big long arms and legs like a teenager, but with the body of a two-year-old. The brain development of human beings is astonishing—1 million neural connections are made every second in the first year of life.

We cannot separate a baby’s brain development from its earliest experiences, which are a function of the relationship between the baby and the primary care giver, and that relationship is a function of the primary care giver’s own earliest experiences. What we do time and again is to deal with the consequences of what the red top papers call the evil sadistic paedophiles, the abusers, the criminals and the psychopaths. We fail to see that 25 years previously, when the evil, cruel, sadistic paedophile was a baby, they were probably being evilly, cruelly and sadistically treated. That is the cycle of deprivation, and the sooner the Government acknowledge and accept that, the sooner we can take more steps to try to reverse an epidemic that is becoming worse.

We are seeing an increase in levels of basic post-natal depression, where parents who cannot cope and do not get the support they need, do not give their baby the loving attention the baby needs. While such babies do okay, when they grow up they will not be able to cope with life. They might become a bully or a victim at school, or they might just muddle on through, but when life throws something at them—they lose their job, their boyfriend leaves them, or they do not have any friends—they struggle to cope, because they do not have the emotional resilience that comes from healthy development. I am sure everyone in the Chamber has seen the neuro-images of the brain of a child aged three who is securely attached. It looks, to use very technical terms, like a lovely cauliflower. If we then look at the brain of a three-year-old child who has been neglected or abused, it looks, to use another technical term, like a shrivelled prune. The developmental consequences of failure to attach can actually be seen.

What is incredibly important about a baby’s brain development is that when it is born, it does not have a prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is the bit that looks like the cauliflower or the shrivelled prune, but it is not there when babies are born. There is a huge growth spurt between six months and 18 months, which is stimulated by the loving care giver saying, “Aren’t you gorgeous; you’re so beautiful; I really love you”—I do not mean you, Mr Deputy Speaker, but please do not take this as a personal rejection; I am merely trying to give you an illustration. That stimulation—saying “peek-a-boo,” singing songs, talking to and mimicking the baby, looking into its eyes—sparks the growth of the baby’s prefrontal cortex. The baby learns that the world is a good place and that things are fine generally. The baby thus learns to be extraordinarily resilient.

Are we not lucky that so many of us in this Chamber have had the benefit of good-enough parenting? It is not about being perfect, but about being good enough. What we do not recognise as a society—and this certainly applies to the Government—is that there is a raft, even an epidemic, of people who, temporarily or permanently, have utterly impaired abilities to form relationships. That is usually the result either of their earliest experiences or of the temporary post-natal depression of their mothers. Between one in seven and one in 10 women suffer from post-natal depression. That means approximately 100,000 babies being born every year whose need for attention to their earliest needs is not altogether met.

The consequences for the mums are terrible. I have known countless parents coming to me to say how utterly guilty and distraught—in some cases, suicidal—they felt about the fact that they did not really love their baby and did not really feel happy to be a parent. We all know that it is supposed to be the most wonderful thing that ever happens to a person, but we do not necessarily all feel that at the time. Feelings of guilt can be absolutely there.

At the moment, we do not do enough to look after that problem. We have a midwife who ensures the safe delivery of the baby and if it is premature, millions might be spent on neonatal intensive care; if necessary, we will fly baby in a helicopter all around the country to make sure that we keep it alive. If, however, a mother has a full-term, perfectly healthy baby but she is severely mentally ill—as a result of hormonal imbalances or for any other reason, such as a disastrous past—a complete postcode lottery applies as to whether that mother will get any support or end up killing herself and the baby, as we see all too tragically and all too often.

I shall wrap up my speech. I would like to end with the thought that if we are serious about child protection, we need to have a real revolution in support for the perinatal period.

It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom). She is extremely knowledgeable about these matters, as are other hon. Members, perhaps much more than I am. I am brought here as a result of a terrible and harrowing case, which has recently shocked the whole nation—the death in Coventry of Daniel Pelka. His parents, now both serving life sentences, having been convicted of murder, were living in my constituency.

Let me make it clear to all my hon. Friends, two of whom I know are qualified social workers—[Interruption.] Three; I am grateful for the correction. I was impressed by that fact, and I know that these colleagues have been at the sharp end, where things seem to go wrong. What I shall convey today are just my impressions—they are not informed by a depth of study—but I shudder to think what the frontal cortex of Daniel Pelka must have looked like after he was killed by a hammer blow to the head at the age of four and a half. I know that the hon. Member for South Northamptonshire is involved with early intervention—a crucial area—and I think she and my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) held a press conference about it this morning. We cannot leave matters at that, however, or think that things do not happen thereafter. In this particular case of Daniel Pelka, the young boy was going to school in Coventry.

My first impression, then, is that somebody needs to get a real grip on the serious case review. I looked closely at the baby P case, when the then Secretary of State with responsibility for children and education was presented with what he thought was a very poor serious case review from Haringey council. I feared that the same would apply in Coventry, so I pleaded with the council for some element of public accountability. This is a public issue, and I have been astonished by the wide geographical spread of the letters of support I have received since Daniel’s case became public. I have been sent letters from right across the kingdom on a scale that compares with almost any other topic during my long period in this House. This was a public case; I made the case, and then one saw the resistance building up among officials and politicians about having the issue opened in that way.

I was reassured because the new leader of the council, a long-standing friend of mine, issued a very good statement following this case, making her position clear. She said:

“I promise we will not absolve ourselves of responsibility. We’ll not shirk any difficult decisions we will have to make as a result of the review, and we will deliver any changes needed. We will be honest and transparent in the way we do this.”

I am sure she means that and that she will do that. The problem is, though, how good will the report be? Can it really be brutally honest and transparent about what happened in this case? At the crucial period—aged between three and a half and four and a half years old—a young boy was going to school while his parents were inflicting cruel physical abuse on him. It is difficult to come to terms with the sheer evil involved in starving this poor child and then literally hammering him to death. There was not even a motive for it, unlike in some cases where psychological factors might be at play or previous unfortunate personal experiences might be responsible. The motive in this case seems to be sheer evil; that is what appears to have driven these parents.

In circumstances such as this, it is natural for those responsible to recoil and not to want an outside independent view on their performance in the case. The council did not accept the case for that; it went for a standard SCR. I do not know how Amy Weir will perform as the chair of the Coventry local safeguarding children board. Let us wait for the review; I do not want to prejudge it. I am pleased to tell hon. Members that we will have it. It has not taken long; it has not been one of those protracted reviews that lose all topicality by the time they are published. Unfortunately, public interest issues tend to go in waves. That said, we should get the result on Tuesday next week. I might then have further occasion to comment on it here.

We do not expect answers today, but I would like the Minister to say whether he is entirely satisfied with the present system of serious case reviews. Is there not a need for a more independent element to be built into the process right from the beginning? The importance of independence inevitably arises when one sees the nervous, cautionary reaction—aimed at self-preservation—of those involved in such cases. I know that a teacher of Daniel who reported aspects of this case subsequently had a nervous breakdown. The issues and effects are not purely one-sided.

My second thought for the Minister is that although co-ordination between the different departments is obviously necessary—all the departments have to be educated—if we adopt the principle that everybody is responsible, what happens in reality is that nobody takes responsibility. This is where things became unstuck in Coventry. Nobody seems to have felt, “Gosh, this is my case. I have got to look after this. I am responsible.”

We heard the Chairman of the Education Select Committee say that the lead organisation was the Department for Education, which I understand still includes responsibility for children, but that was not clear in Coventry. The first thing several councillors said was that they needed to find out who was responsible—social services or education? In the end, it seems to have been education. I understand that the report has already been sent to London education departments. I hope that it was not for vetting, but as a courtesy—we shall see. It seems odd that those most involved do not see the report, but that the Department for Education sees it in its finished state before it is made public or before it is even shown on a confidential basis to MPs and others in the area.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) said that Members of Parliament should take an interest. We should and we do, but although we can take initiatives, it is no good expecting us to be effective. I raised the issue of Daniel Pelka with the department, and was assured that it was in hand. The next thing we knew, the boy was dead. MPs do not have a locus. We can highlight, push and prod, but we must recognise the limitations of our own abilities and responsibilities. So the second thought that I want to leave with the Minister is whether we can ensure that the lead responsibility is much more clearly established where it matters, which is within local authorities. We must of course co-ordinate the police, social services departments and education departments, and all other interested departments, but unless the lead department is clearly identified, we shall not secure the positive reaction and the intensity of interest that such cases clearly demand.

I am sorry, but I will not, because I think I have only three minutes left. On another occasion, I shall be delighted to do so.

May I leave the Minister with one last thought? Since I have become involved, through the Daniel Pelka case, in an issue on which I must confess that I had not been active in the House before, I have been lobbied—I do not know whether we are still allowed to use that word, but I have certainly been contacted and briefed very heavily—about mandatory reporting by various good organisations, including the National Association for People Abused in Childhood, which I believe is well respected. I do not know whether the Department has considered the issue, but, because time is short, I will send the Minister a fuller brief on it, along with some background notes which I hope his officials will look at and at least reply to.

I realise that this is replete with all sorts of dangers, particularly on the legislative front—unintended consequences and all that—but those organisations deserve at least an answer. They have been campaigning long and hard, and I should be grateful if the Department would examine the issue and think about whether anything can be done. I presume that some sort of amendment to the Childcare Act 2006 would be required, although I am not sure what it would involve.

Can we have an answer? Can those organisations have an answer? I have raised this matter on their behalf, and I hope that the Government will consider it seriously. Let us see what they really think about it.

I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for granting a debate on this important issue. In my speech, I shall concentrate on the issue of sexual abuse of children in religious institutions. I have met survivors of abuse and their advocates on a number of occasions. They endured terrible suffering, and they seek justice. They have called for an independent commission of inquiry into the sexual abuse of children by clergy in religious institutions, not just in schools.

A public inquiry or similar process would undoubtedly bring the systematic abuse of children into the open, and would outline the lessons of their experiences. An inquiry would highlight the betrayal and abuse of trust by religious institutions—institutions that are meant to look after the spiritual and moral welfare of children. Time and again, children and vulnerable adults were betrayed by those whom they trusted. Even today, victims struggle to be heard. Known abusers are defended by senior clergy. Some parents prefer to believe the priest rather than their own child. There are cover-ups, witnesses are fearful of coming forward, and members of some faiths are reluctant to go to the authorities because they do not belong to the same faith.

I have looked into the issue in my capacity as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on child protection, and have concluded that, while it is essential for us to find some way of ensuring that victims are heard and believed, a public inquiry may not be the best way of ensuring that we do what we need to do to protect children today. I support other Members’ call for an overall inquiry, and indeed I have written to Ministers about the issue, but now we can do better. The Government can show that they are listening and understanding by addressing current failings.

Reasons for sexual abuse are found not in the teachings of any faith or religion, but in individuals who take advantage of the power, position, trust and authority vested in them by an institution. There is evidence that faith leaders are taking some steps to ensure that cases are not covered up, and that they are establishing robust safeguarding policies that includes support for victims. There have been changes in the way in which the Catholic Church and the Church of England deal with sex abuse cases, especially following the Nolan report and the more recent Butler-Sloss review. The Bradford Council for Mosques and the Bradford safeguarding children board have worked together to produce a paper entitled “Children do matter”. The Methodist Church has a safeguarding policy, and has issued a joint statement with the Church of England on guiding principles. The Methodists are undertaking a systematic review of sexual abuse cases dating back to 1950, in order to establish exactly what happened and what the response was. That is an excellent move, which I would like other faiths to emulate. Lessons can be learnt, and our children can be better protected.

However, there is also evidence of continuing denial. Recent reports have suggested that a year ago, Cardinal Keith O’Brien blocked a similar review of abuse in the Catholic Church in Scotland. We need to look at the behaviour of faith institutions, and to ask whether the proposals for change are sufficient and the pace of change fast and widespread enough. We need to understand that part of the abuse by people who represent faiths stems from the fact that we expect more of them when they are looking after our children. This is not just the abuse of trust that we see elsewhere; it is a fundamental betrayal of the beliefs held by members of those faiths.

Organisations, including religious organisations, can and must do all that they can to protect children, deter paedophiles, and ensure that perpetrators are stopped and face justice. They must change a culture that minimises both the prevalence of abuse of children and its effects. I was disturbed to discover from the internet that an organisation called Catholic Voices, which seeks to portray the Catholic Church positively in the media, is minimising the issue of abuse by Catholic priests. Its argument is that it is much more prevalent in society in general than it is in the Church. Does it not understand that organisations which are in regular contact with children must ensure that those who work with children in their name are their responsibility? Those are astonishing statements from a religious organisation that should be doing all it can to prevent abuse. Contrition and action are what is needed, not denial and deflection.

It is not just the Catholic Church that needs to do more. The Church of England has only just apologised for the scandal of the abuse that took place in Chichester, and there are worrying reports from other faiths. A new book by a Muslim woman describes abuse that she suffered at the hands of her imam, and there has been a Channel 4 documentary about alleged cover-ups by rabbis in some Jewish communities. However, this is not just the responsibility of religious organisations. We must ask whether the law and the guidance are sufficient to protect children in religious institutions today. Are we being complacent, and therefore complicit, when we say, as the children’s Minister said in a letter to me,

“we encourage organisations to continue to improve their practices to ensure that today’s children are kept as safe as possible”?

The duties of all schools to safeguard and promote the welfare of children are made clear in the Education Act 2002, which—along with additional guidance—places a statutory duty on all schools to safeguard and promote the welfare of children, and states that all schools should have a child protection policy and child protection procedures in place. The re-launched guidance entitled “Working together to safeguard children” states that safeguarding is everyone’s responsibility, which is welcome. Safeguarding is clearly the responsibility of everyone, particularly those who work with children. However, the list in paragraph 8 of the introduction makes no specific mention of anyone who holds religious office. The only mention of faith organisations appears at the end of chapter 2, which deals with organisational responsibilities. Faith institutions must be in the mainstream throughout documents on safeguarding.

Two other documents, “Safeguarding children and safer recruitment in education” and “Dealing with Allegations of Abuse against Teachers and other Staff”, specify a duty to report abuse that is proven, but the institution concerned can make a judgment on whether there is not a case. Clearly judgments must be made, but we also need to have better oversight of the systems in schools and a mechanism to check that cases are being reported appropriately.

Given the tragedies that have occurred in the Catholic environment, I hope the hon. Lady has not overlooked the fact that the hierarchy of England and Wales, through the Archbishop of Westminster in particular, has set up a safeguard arrangement, which is being followed through effectively.

What I am saying is that it is the role of organisations to do precisely that, but I am coming on to question whether faith organisations are taking that seriously. When an organisation within the Catholic Church puts on a website the other side of the coin on abuse and talks about minimising it, surely we can expect our faith organisations to say, “Not in my Church, not by my priests,” and to do everything they can to ensure that, rather than saying, “Well, it’s not as bad as it is elsewhere.” That is not an acceptable attitude and speaks of denial and deflection. That is what I am saying.

I know that the Department says that it does not specify in relation to faith schools because they can be of different types, but I worry that this is not clearly understood by those who run faith organisations. The make-up of local safeguarding children boards as set out in section 13 of the Children Act makes no mention of religious organisations and “Working Together” is silent on the issue. The Tackling Child Sexual Exploitation action plan contains no specific action to work with religious institutions to address the issue. We treat religious institutions differently when we do not name them.

I believe there is more we need to do. The children’s Minister in correspondence with me has said he believes that mandatory reporting—the issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West (Mr Robinson) —is already in place. He states that any organisation must refer cases to the Disclosure and Barring Service and failure to do so is a criminal offence, but this relates only to issues about staff. Is it really clear, particularly for religious organisations and voluntary organisations, that they must report suspected instances of abuse to the relevant agencies?

Some countries have mandatory reporting, and I know that that is not the answer to all the problems, but I understand that those campaigning for mandatory reporting are outraged, as we all should be, that a perceived gap in legislation means that a more senior member of a religious organisation believes that it is all right to move the person on, or ignores concerns, or makes up their mind to deal with the matter in house. This is not acceptable.

Child abuse is the scandal that we must tackle. I fear that the Department for Education is complacent and must urgently review law and guidance to ensure that it is an explicit requirement on religious organisations. Specific reference to all religious and faith institutions and their duty to safeguard children and vulnerable adults must be made in all appropriate legislation and guidance to leave no room for ambiguity. We cannot be reluctant to deal with the problem for fear of accusations of discrimination and prejudice. We owe it to children to take action.

It is a pleasure to take part in this debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) on setting the scene and the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) on her contribution. They told us what this is all about.

I can well remember my boys as children watching Jimmy Savile in “Jim’ll Fix It” and wanting to have their dreams come true by meeting him. I am glad they never had their dreams come true. I cringe every time I think about that loathsome person. His name is a reminder of the fact that we have lessons to learn, and a year on the question, through this debate, is whether we have learned those lessons. As MPs we all have constituents coming to us with issues of children who have been abused, or who have a partner who has abused them. Sometimes the allegations are true; sometimes perhaps they are not, but we have to advise on the correct way to handle those situations and the right people to see, and we do that.

We read the horror stories in the NSPCC report, which stated that more than half a million children and young people are estimated to have been a victim of maltreatment by a parent or guardian last year and, indeed, every year. All of a sudden the magnitude of the problem becomes very real. There is still a part of me that thinks that that figure cannot be right. How could it be? How could half a million children and young people be maltreated every year? We are a civilised country. We have a high moral code. Can that happen? The problem is that the figure is all too accurate for known cases, and I am shocked at how many children do not get a real childhood. The hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) underlined the importance of the early years of childhood and the bond between mother and child. Too often in those half a million cases the bond between mother and child or father and child has not been real. Had it been, perhaps we would not have had such cases.

When we think of our own childhood, we remember the scrapes we got into with our brothers and other children and the tellings-off that we got, but underpinning everything that happened to us was a mum and a dad who loved us and were prepared to try to guide us. The thought that so many children in Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom as a whole do not have that understanding saddens me greatly, and it makes me more determined as a Member of Parliament to ensure that adequate protections are in place for our children.

As I read the report I became more shocked to understand that for every child who is known to the authorities as being abused and on the register, there are another estimated eight children who have suffered maltreatment. Fifty-six children were killed last year, which is still more than one a week. Other Members have outlined those cases. More than one in five children experience serious physical abuse, sexual abuse or severe physical or emotional neglect. Things must change and we must move on.

Since the recent Savile case and the other child exploitation cases that have been mentioned, the National Association for People Abused in Childhood has had a 60% rise in referrals, cases and phone calls. The NSPCC reports that calls to the helpline have increased from 44,500 in 2011-12 to 51,000 in 2012-13, and more recently it has reported an 84% rise in sexual abuse referrals during June and July 2013 compared with the same period in the previous year. People are more aware and they are coming forward. So what are we going to do to help? I know that there are stringent rules for working with children. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) referred to the need for Churches to respond positively, and I agree wholeheartedly.

I want to describe what we are doing in Northern Ireland, because it is important that a marker is put down. Churches have introduced a code of conduct and are specifically addressing the issues. I give the example of my own Church, where we took a stand on the need to do those things. In my Church anyone who works with children in any shape or form must attend a yearly child protection seminar and be police-checked every few years, but is that enough? Is there enough understanding? When I listen to some of the women who have worked with children voluntarily for years, they say they are saddened that they can no longer pick up a crying child and put them on their knee to comfort them. They must get down to the child’s level, pat their arm and speak soothingly. The bus driver must be very aware of these issues and cannot be alone with a child. If he is hugged, he must step away quickly, ensuring that someone else has noted his physical reaction. These rules may seem extreme to some people, but they are what the Churches and other bodies that work with children feel they must do to ensure protection from those who in the past have abused their positions or abused children.

The more reports I read concerning abuse, the more wary I see we must become. One of the NSPCC’s recommendations is something which I know many Churches and youth clubs are having their leaders trained in—that is, detection and quick action. The NSPCC report says:

“We need to look at the behaviour of institutions, public services and professionals where failure to report concerns has prevented action from being taken either to protect or intervene at an earlier stage. We need to encourage them to discuss and report their concerns about child abuse to ensure no more children slip through the net.”

How true that is and what an onus it places on each of us in this place and on every person who works with a child. We have to be aware of such things and there must be measures in place to help with raising this awareness. There must also be support for victims, which is sometimes forgotten, but it is underlined by reported cases. We see that in our constituency work as MPs. People should be trained not only to spot the signs of abuse, but to help to deal with it.

I recently arranged a seminar in my constituency. I brought people from Barnardo’s down to the local town hall and invited all youth leaders, Churches, teachers and community workers in my area. They were given an insight into what signs to look for and what to do once they had suspicions. More than one teacher told me that they had learned something new. It gave them an awareness of what happens and also taught them what to do next.

Perhaps the Minister could suggest what additional funding will be made available to the regions of the United Kingdom so that people who work with children can be given the opportunity to receive training on how to deal with child abuse issues, because they do not always know what to do, when to do it and how to do it, and we need to be aware of that.

Child protection seminars tell us who to report to if we have suspicions that a child is being abused, but we are not trained in how to deal with the situation afterwards. That must be offered to people who give up their time to teach children or who give them a safe place to play or hang out with their friends. Will the Minister give us an assurance that additional help will be made available so that people can receive that training, which could make all the difference to the life of a child?

Time has beaten me, Mr Deputy Speaker, and there is so much more to say. Although steps have been taken to address child protection, I believe that a lot more can and should be done. People should be aware of the signs, know when to flag something up and, more importantly, know who to flag it up to. We need the involvement of the community groups, the youth clubs, the homework clubs, and the Church organisations such as the Boys Brigade and the Campaigners, which are run by unpaid volunteers who have a love for their children. We cannot afford to have voluntary sector organisations become so frightened about what they can and cannot do and so unsure about how to raise suspicions that they pack it all in. A little bit of knowledge can made a difference to the life of a child. Rather than merely saying that each organisation should have a child protection officer in place, we should be making available the training to ensure that all those who work with children know the signs and the next steps to take.

I see my constituents who lovingly give up their time to work with children, and that little bit of attention can make all the difference to a shy child. It can help with their education and make them feel loved. We should ensure that the voluntary sector has all the help and support it needs to help and support children. This House shines better when we agree on issues. Today we all agree on this, and we will agree on a strategy. I urge everyone to put their shoulders to the plough and see that we get the work done for the safety and protection of child and adult alike.

I start by echoing everything my colleagues on both sides of the House have said and hope that the Government will listen to our recommendations, because there is so much agreement on the themes that have been discussed and the changes that need to be made.

I am hugely proud to be the MP for Rotherham. The town has an esteemed industrial history, a strong sense of community and many reasons to proclaim its civic pride. We have a multitude of success stories in manufacturing and small business, as well as three leading further education colleges. However, for some time a shadow has been cast across the town in the form of persistent allegations of failures by key institutions to protect our children. The allegations have been coupled with prosecutions for child sexual exploitation in the town.

The term “child sexual exploitation” is used to cover a broad range of illegal activity, from seemingly consensual relationships or informal exchanges of sex for attention, gifts or cigarettes through to very serious organised crime. Young people can be subject to physical and sexual violence and can be put at risk of unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Their families can suffer threats, violence and significant psychological distress, disruption and even fragmentation.

Peer-on-peer child sexual exploitation happens too and can take various forms. For example, young people are sometimes used to “recruit” others by inviting them to parties where they will then be introduced to adults or forced to perform sexual acts on adults. Technology can also play a significant role, with young people being cajoled into using mobile technology as a way of distributing images of abuse.

It is vital to understand that both perpetrators and victims can come from a variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Child sexual exploitation is not a crime restricted to British Pakistani males or white British girls, despite the media coverage of high-profile cases. Indeed, recent findings have highlighted the fact that girls of Asian origin are frequently the subjects of this heinous crime themselves.

There is also a perception that child sexual exploitation only affects children in care. Looked-after children do account for a disproportionate number of the victims of sexual exploitation and can be particularly vulnerable. An estimated 20% to 25% of victims are looked-after children, with only 1% of the child population being in care. However, the majority of children who are exploited are still living at home when it happens.

Another false perception is that it only affects young women. In truth, boys and young men are also targeted. The full extent is not known as boys, in particular, are highly reluctant to come forward. Nevertheless, one in 10 of the young people receiving support from Barnardo’s for this crime are boys, and in some services the proportion is significantly higher.

It is also important to acknowledge that women can be perpetrators of this crime. For example, in a case currently being tried in Sheffield the alleged gang leader is a woman. Although such examples are rare, it is more common that female involvement is in facilitating the abuse. The inquiry led by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner found that when women and girls were identified as perpetrators, their role was primarily, although not exclusively, to procure victims. The sad and hidden truth behind such activity is that there is often a cycle of abuse at work, with many of those women and girls having been sexually exploited themselves.

There are no reliable figures for the total number of children experiencing sexual exploitation. The collection of data is a huge issue and there is no standardised system for data collection, something on which the Home Affairs Committee has made several recommendations. However, child sexual exploitation is being unearthed wherever it is being investigated. Further work by the Government is required to determine the full extent of the problem. In addition, the importance of all agencies sharing information in the interests of child safeguarding must be addressed. Currently, children are vulnerable because information is not always shared between them. We must move away from the excuse of confidentiality when it comes to protecting children. A child’s safety must be the priority.

Much has been written in the press about how Rotherham is not doing enough to protect its young people from this horrendous crime. I can assure the House that since being elected I have worked closely with South Yorkshire police and Rotherham metropolitan borough council to find out whether our young people are getting the protection they deserve. It is totally inaccurate to say that Rotherham is doing nothing to prevent this crime and prosecute abusers. Although more can always be done, and by the council’s own admission it has not handled historical cases well, I now believe that there is a commitment and drive by the services in Rotherham to protect every child, and I welcome the fact that the council has commissioned an independent inquiry.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way despite the short time available. I just want to reflect on the fact that sometimes it is the areas that have experienced these horrific crimes that are getting to grips with the problem and becoming leaders in dealing with it. Perhaps a lesson for the House and for Ministers is that we need to look closely at those areas where such awful cases have not come to light and ensure that they are doing the same things that my hon. Friend talks about in relation to her constituency.

I appreciate my hon. Friend making that case. As I have mentioned, wherever we look we find such crimes, but a lot of people are not looking, and that is my worry.

It is important that services are open to external scrutiny and are accountable to the people they serve. From my research, it seems clear that the only way to tackle child sexual exploitation is by services working collaboratively. The key focus must be on preventing, protecting and pursuing: preventing young people from becoming a victim; protecting those who show signs of being at risk of becoming a victim; and pursuing those who commit such horrific crimes. Realistically, local authorities, the police, the voluntary sector and health and education services all need to share their experience, data and resources if they are effectively to tackle and prevent this crime.

Rotherham works collaboratively. Its child sexual exploitation service includes specialist child abuse police officers, social workers, specialist health workers, parents, youth workers and voluntary sector representatives. Its aim is to reduce sexual exploitation through deterrence and prosecution, and it significantly enhances the effectiveness of all agencies through joint information sharing, planning of assessments and investigations. I am pleased that Rotherham has adopted that working method but extremely concerned that it is not a requirement across the country. The current situation means that whether a local area has a good support team is genuinely a postcode lottery. That is not good enough, because it means that children are being put at risk unnecessarily. I urge the Government to make multi-agency safeguarding hubs a requirement in every area.

I have spoken about data collection, collaborative working and statutory requirements, but what this debate is really about is children and young people being abused. The effect of sexual exploitation on a child or young person can be long term and highly damaging. It can lead to difficulties in making and sustaining relationships with others, feelings of worthlessness and shame, loss of confidence and low self-esteem. It is essential that we always remember the victims of these crimes and do all that we can to support them. These are young people whose childhood has been stolen from them, and their future, if handled incorrectly, could be damaged too.

We need to ensure that the process of addressing the crime does not become another form of abuse. I was horrified to find out that a Rotherham victim had been on the stand for seven weeks during the court process. That is unimaginable to me, and it should never be allowed to happen. The victims should automatically be given counselling and as much support as they require. Indeed, I would extend that to ensure that the whole family received support, as the damage caused by this crime can spread widely.

On a personal level, I am interested in determining whether existing legislation is appropriate for tackling the crime, and I will be working with Barnardo’s on this topic in the coming months. I am also supporting the campaign led by Paula Barrow and assisted by the @Mandatenow coalition calling for a “Daniel’s law”, which would make it mandatory for professionals working with children to report signs of possible abuse. As my colleagues have mentioned, four-year-old Daniel Pelka was starved and beaten over a period of months before his death. Staff, teaching assistants and others at his school observed his desperate attempts to forage for food, his severe weight loss and the numerous bruises and injuries he suffered. There is currently no legal requirement for anyone working with children in the UK to report suspected or known abuse either to the appropriate local authority officer or to the police. Without such a law in place to support staff and protect children, effective safeguarding will never be achieved. However, this is not only the responsibility of professionals. Local communities play an essential part in identifying not only those at risk but those who have the potential to commit these crimes. We all have a duty of care to be diligent and to report suspicious behaviour to the police. Unless we do so, this vile crime will continue unchecked.

I am grateful for this opportunity to speak today and to my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) and the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) for bringing the debate to the Chamber.

I am aware that much of today’s debate has focused on the protection of children from sexual abuse, but I would like to highlight some of the generic failures in our child protection system, as it is those failures that often lead to the poor detection of such abuse. The question of how to protect our children from significant harm has troubled successive Governments since the abhorrent murder of Maria Colwell. Sadly, the fact that her murder was followed by that of Victoria Climbié, Peter Connelly and more recently Daniel Pelka indicates that, despite the best intentions, the system can never be infallible; nor can it account for the horrors of human action.

Children have a wealth of professionals involved in their lives, and child protection is very much in the public psyche, yet opportunities for intervention and successful safeguarding are often missed because social workers, police, teachers and health professionals are operating in highly bureaucratic, constantly restructured and underfunded services to such a degree that they inherently retreat into their own cultures and service demands, instead of fostering good, robust multi-agency practices.

The constant scapegoating and poor image of the social work profession has also permeated the minds of the public and the wider agencies to such a degree that social work knowledge and expertise are often undermined. Each decision a social worker takes as a lead professional has to be ratified and agreed by a number of other professionals, some of whom have not even met the child concerned. It is easy to see how children go unnoticed in such an adult-led agenda. All too often, the result is that social workers have to placate courts and other professionals, and meet management targets, to such a degree that children are not seen as frequently as they should be, and as a result are hurt, injured or, in extreme cases, murdered. The lack of communication between agencies was cited as a contributory factor in the deaths of Maria Colwell, Victoria Climbié, Peter Connelly and Daniel Pelka. Maria was murdered in 1973, and Daniel in 2013. The tragedy is that, despite 40 years having passed, the reasons cited for their untimely deaths are still the same.

Lord Laming’s inquiries into the deaths of Victoria and Peter resulted in the Labour Government introducing the Children Act 2004, the “Working together to safeguard children” document and the “Every Child Matters” White Paper. In early 2010, Professor Eileen Munro was asked to review child protection procedures. The recommendations in all those reports are largely sound, and are ones that most professionals would subscribe to. The difficulty each time has been that the implementation has not matched the vision, and the progress on the recommendations has been incredibly slow.

The inquiry by the all-party parliamentary group on social work published this year states that

“the social work picture is one of deteriorating, not improving, children’s services departments, excessive bureaucracy working against, not in support of practitioners, IT systems that are not fit for purpose, dangerously high caseloads for too many social workers, low morale and concerns about a disconnect between the reform agenda and those on the frontline”.

Since 2010, the system has been further weakened by Government cuts to a number of organisations that would have been able to alert services to potential abuse and offer another layer of monitoring for the high-level cases in which children are at extreme risk. The Munro review recommended more preventive services, yet those services are disappearing under the same Government who asked for the review.

In a time of unprecedented local authority cuts, the reality is that of shifting thresholds. For some children who are deemed at risk, cheaper options are being touted—options that would maintain them in the home in a risky environment, as opposed to the high-cost option of placing them in foster care, where they would be safe.

What worries me further is the uncertainty over probation services. Multi-agency public protection arrangements are forums that manage high-level offenders, including child-sex offenders and those who pose a risk to our children. The Government’s plans for probation are unclear. Concern has been expressed to me that, among other changes, multi-agency public protection arrangements might be outsourced to different areas of the country. That would mean a child-sex offender, perhaps in my constituency, being monitored from Leeds. That would be unacceptable and would place children at high risk of harm.

Child protection is about early intervention. The first three years of any child’s life are the most vital to cognitive and motor development, yet Sure Starts that specialise in that area are being closed across the country. Studies completed by Professor Harriet Ward of Loughborough university highlighted the incongruence between the rights of the child and those of their parents and carers, and the lengthy court processes that can delay pertinent decisions regarding a child’s welfare in those early years.

The principle in the Children Act 1989—maintaining a child at home or in the family unit—is well meaning, but has often in practice resulted in chronic and long-term neglect being overlooked. I have witnessed first hand the devastating effects of children being maintained at home for too long, being in limbo in foster care and awaiting adoption. Sadly, at times, the window for adoption, if that is deemed the best outcome for a child, has closed while their case has been locked in care proceedings for too long. I therefore welcome the news of proposed changes to the public law outline, which will ensure swifter conclusion of care proceedings, although I am concerned that the Government do not grasp what is happening on the ground.

Most local authorities and courts, in anticipation of the change, have been working towards swifter conclusions within the impending proposed 26-week time limit, but I suggest that the majority of authorities will struggle to do that. The average time given by the courts for a parenting assessment is 12 weeks, and assessments for wider family members can take just as long. I wonder whether that rushed decision making has worsened the situation of the children in those authorities that have achieved those time scales. I would be interested to see the repeat cases that come back into the court arena.

A 26-week time scale might be achievable in isolation, but when most social workers are operating with difficult IT systems in bureaucratic, target-led, underfunded environments with case loads beyond safe levels and reduced legal support, all these changes are doing is increasing pressure and leaving social workers with less time to do what they are trained to do—work effectively with children and their families.

Simple, clear systems and less paperwork, backed up by sound legislation that accounts for the fluidity and reality of working in an environment that is not static and recognises that not all children fit one box, as well as a halt to the onslaught of cuts, would go some way to easing the pressures in our child protection system and minimise the risk of further tragic harm being done to our children.

I would like to leave this thought with the Chamber: how many times as Members of Parliament do we truly see the results of the child protection legislation we pass? This is a closed and specialised area. I have seen it at its best and at its worst. Now I am in this place, I hope to contribute to making our child protection system the best it can be, so that we can minimise the chances of further harm being done to our children.

It is a pleasure to speak in a debate with the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) and my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey), both of whom have done a great deal to ensure that the matter is on the agenda. I congratulate them on securing this important debate.

I have had a long-standing interest in child protection, through my time as an Islington councillor—I chaired the neighbourhood services committee, which dealt with some of the worst outcomes of the child abuse scandals in Islington council—and my three years as Home Office Minister responsible for the protection of vulnerable adults and children. This is an ongoing issue.

Following my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn), I rise to speak particularly about issues of witchcraft and possession, and how they affect child abuse in this country. I pay tribute to AFRUCA—Africans Unite Against Child Abuse—and particularly to Debbie Ariyo, who set up that charity and does a great deal to ensure that families affected by the issue, and professionals, get support. AFRUCA raises awareness, and provides information, education, and advocacy for victims and families, as well as other services for families. I know the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham is aware of its work and has supported it.

The 2001 census suggested there were 587,000 Africans living in the UK. That was surely an underestimate, and the number has definitely increased in size, due partly to birth rate. However, among Africans of all nations, who contribute so much to our country and particularly my constituency, we have also seen a belief in witches come with that migration. Whether it is “ndoki” in Congolese, “jinn” in Tanzania, or the “aje” or “awozi” of Nigeria, the concept of witchcraft has taken root in some churches in my constituency and elsewhere.

I do not have time to go into all the details of this horrific crime, but once a child has been identified as a witch, they may be subject to psychological and emotional abuse, physical abuse to “beat” the devil out physically, and in some cases families send their children back home to be dealt with—teachers sometimes discover that through bruises on the body. There is often neglect and isolation from others, sexual abuse as a result of that neglect, and lack of protection. Often, violent exorcism is carried out by a faith leader. Some of the bogus pastors identified by AFRUCA charge families money to exorcise, and sometimes use violence to do that. There can be real shame, which often leads to domestic abuse. For example, a father might be told that his child is possessed and that the mother is responsible or is also possessed. The shame on the family is such that domestic violence can result in the home.

There are many aspects to the issue that I do not have time to cover in total. Some research has discussed ritual abuse, but estimates for the extent of that are sketchy and it is not what I intend to focus on today.

The suspicion of witchcraft is not exclusive to African communities, but it has come to my notice partly through my African constituents. Traditional beliefs and some Christian beliefs often include belief in a spirit possession, and factors that can increase suspicion, such as poverty due to a lack of jobs and success, lead to increased accusations of children being involved in witchcraft. The main issues identified by AFRUCA involve the far-reaching devastation caused by accusations of witchcraft, some of which I have touched on. They include the vulnerability of communities to rogue pastors—I mentioned charging for exorcism—and the belief that the issue can be dealt with within the community is powerful and difficult for the Government, or anyone, to penetrate. I will ask the Minister some questions on that in my concluding remarks. There is also a lack of protection for vulnerable families.

AFRUCA has been trying to work out the extent of the problem, and estimates there are about a dozen serious cases a year. From January 2011 to February 2012, 11 cases were identified, including one of a child with cri du chat syndrome who was accused of possession and physically abused. I know that in Nigeria there is a book that explains to pastors and others how to identify children who are possessed, including children over six months who are crying too much. The book would be illegal in the UK, but it exists and, given travel backwards and forwards, it clearly influences some people.

I am pleased that the Education Committee report of late 2012 touches on witchcraft, but it is only one small section of the report. I do not criticise the Committee for that, but it is perhaps a reflection of how the issue is still not widely understood or reflected in society. Too often, perhaps, it is seen as an issue affecting one or two small communities, when its effect is wider than that. I also welcome the fact that the Government have a national plan to tackle abuse linked to faith or belief, although I hope that the Minister would acknowledge there is still a long way to go and that we cannot solve this from Whitehall. However many edicts come from Whitehall or changes are made to the law, they will not solve the problem in those communities where the shame of admitting the problem is very great.

The Government’s plans do not penetrate into the Churches in my constituency where such abuse might be occurring, and it is also difficult for me to do so as the Member of Parliament. I have talked a lot to religious leaders and intend to do so more, especially with some of the smaller, individual Churches set up by individuals, without a hierarchy. I have also talked to the religious leaders of hierarchical Churches in my constituency, including the Church of England, because they are often the first to meet and talk to victims after their own pastor has suggested a price for exorcism or diagnosed possession. The Church of England’s own diocesan exorcist is based in Hackney and she will carry out an official exorcism if other priests in the area have not had success through conversation and prayer with the people who have come to them for help. I stress to the Minister that it is at this very local level that these issues come out and, in all the work that he and his colleague with responsibility in this area do, they will not have direct links to this activity—how could they?

It is really important that in any action we find ways to get down to the most local level so that problems can be identified and immediate and swift support made available, whether that is a small amount of finance, access to expertise or knowing when to refer, so that it is not put in a box marked too difficult to deal with or—worse still—“Culturally sensitive, so we can’t go there.” Nothing can trump the need to tackle child abuse, and nothing is culturally sensitive when it comes to the protection of our children.

The Government need to work out how to reach those small Churches, and we all have a role to play in that as elected Members. The previous Home Office Minister with responsibility for child protection issues did not believe that faith leaders should be vetted or, if necessary, barred. I would like the Minister to clarify today whether that is still the view of the Home Office, or whether faith leaders should be vetted like others who work regularly with children.

In July I visited Nigeria—I chair the all-party group on Nigeria—and met the federal human trafficking agency. Nigeria is the largest source country of trafficked people and many of these children, but it is often difficult to prove a case because of the witchcraft issue. People are frightened of reporting things. The issues of witchcraft extend beyond our borders, but because children and women are trafficked into this country we need to make sure that we have robust strategies for dealing with that, as well as for working with the Nigerian Government. I shall say no more about trafficking because today’s debate is about the more specific issue of child abuse, but I have some questions for the Minister. He may not be able to answer all of them today, but I hope that he will write to me and other hon. Members with the answers.

How many individuals on the boards of our various child protection bodies—I do not need to spell out which they are—have direct experience and understanding of ritual abuse, witchcraft and such matters? In my experience as a Minister, those individuals were very inexperienced in those issues. What is the Government’s position on the vetting and barring of ministers? Will the Minister update the House on the workings of Operation Paladin and whether he has any plans to extend it? Who on the national body that he chairs on the sexual abuse of children has a real understanding of witchcraft? If this is to make any difference to many of my constituents, we need some understanding built into the system. What work are the Government doing with Churches, both mainstream and smaller—and especially those run by individuals—to promote best practice and collaboration, and to offer help if a church comes to a council or another body for support? That is key to getting to the nub of the issue. When people want help they should get it, and if they are doing the wrong thing they need to be challenged by law and prosecuted if necessary.

I congratulate the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) and my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) on securing this important debate, in which we have heard excellent and well-informed contributions from both sides of the House. It has been one of the best debates in which I have had the privilege to take part in the House of Commons.

The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice is leading on the issue of child protection for the Government today, and I am pleased that the children’s Minister—the Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson)—has sat through the debate as well. In the previous Government, the Department for Children, Schools and Families took the role of co-ordinating a cross-Government approach to children and tackling child abuse, and it took that very seriously. It was interesting to hear the Chair of the Education Committee question which Department is now in the lead on the issue. I hope the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice will reassure us about that in his response.

I am concerned that if the Home Office is the lead Department, it is falling a little short in providing the necessary co-ordination between Departments at national level and between different organisations at local level. For example, the Department for Education has only just appointed a chief social worker, has disbanded its expert working group on sexual exploitation, and no longer has a lead person on violence against women and girls. The Department for Communities and Local Government is failing to provide the support or resources needed for effective operation of local safeguarding boards. The Department of Health is failing to intervene to stop the confusion about where child protection responsibilities lie in the reformed NHS structures.

I am unaware of the point that the hon. Lady makes about the Department for Communities and Local Government failing to provide properly for local safeguarding boards. Will she expand a little on that?

I will say something about the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, which has produced a report in which it says that local safeguarding boards are not fully able to perform the duties they have been given. Part of the problem with that is around funding. Perhaps the Minister will respond to that point.

I pay tribute to the excellent contributions made by hon. Members this afternoon. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham spoke with enormous knowledge and expertise as a former children’s Minister, and gave a long, grim list of what has happened over the past 12 months. He called for an overarching inquiry into child protection to pull together the recommendations in the plethora of reports and inquiries that have taken or are taking place. He also referred to a model in Australia that is well worth looking at.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport—such a doughty advocate for children—raised the importance of communicating properly and effectively with children, especially in relation to issues affecting child witnesses. She gave very good examples of how that can be done.

The Chair of the Education Committee, the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart), spoke about some of his Committee’s findings, including on the issue of neglect and the challenges it presents to local authorities, the issues facing older children and young people, and the thresholds for intervention—all important issues.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) spoke incredibly powerfully about Operation Bullfinch and the horrific crimes in Oxford against children and young people, and the need for progress to be delivered for real change in child protection. He called on all Members of the House to find out what is going on in our constituencies.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) spoke about his long-standing interest in care proceedings. My hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) spoke with great knowledge and made a passionate case for a clear lead in Government for child protection, as well as raising the important issue of the use of hotels and bed and breakfasts in cases of sexual exploitation.

The hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) spoke about the need for early years intervention, and gave a memorable, graphic description of a child’s brain—a lovely cauliflower if the child was nurtured, and a shrivelled prune if the child was being abused. My hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West (Mr Robinson) spoke about the appalling case of Daniel Pelka and made a plea for clear lines of responsibility to be identified.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn), who has great experience of child protection issues, spoke about abuse within churches and religious faiths and the need for such organisations to face up to what they need to do to put their houses in order.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) talked about the need to provide awareness training, and my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) spoke knowledgably about issues in her constituency and the need to share good practice. My hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) talked about the role of social workers with a great deal of experience and knowledge, and raised important questions about probation and how public protection from sex offenders could be compromised by some of the Government’s probation proposals. Finally, my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), who has vast experience at local authority and ministerial level, raised the important issue of witchcraft and what our response to it should be.

I want to go through a few of the other issues that are pertinent to this debate, and to start with the question of an overarching inquiry, which the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham raised at the beginning of the debate. There are the investigations into Jimmy Savile’s conduct and why no action was taken by various institutions. There has been an inquiry into the Waterhouse abuse scandal; the deputy Children’s Commissioner is conducting an inquiry into the culture of grooming; the NSPCC, Barnardo’s and the Children’s Society have all produced important reports. There have been a number of serious case reviews, and the Munro and Kennedy reviews. The House has benefited from the excellent reports compiled by Members. The Home Affairs Committee has produced a report on localised grooming, and the Education Committee has completed an inquiry into child protection. In addition, there have been excellent reports from a number of all-party parliamentary groups.

All these reports have given rise to many recommendations, and each makes recommendations to different bodies and at different levels. We all want to see these recommendations translated into action. Like many other Members, I think it would be ideal if one report was complied—similar to a serious case review—that brings together the various inquiries mentioned in the debate and makes clear recommendations, to be implemented at a local and national level, with clear lines of accountability.

The operation of the Disclosure and Barring Service, whose job it is to prevent people who pose a danger to children from getting work with children, has been dramatically changed by the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012. The changes mean that the DBS seems to be barring fewer people. More than 17,000 people were placed on the barred list in 2009, but so far this year, the figure is 1,400. Perhaps most importantly, the Act dramatically reduced the number of agencies that the DBS can share information with. Indeed, in many cases sharing intelligence with a school or youth club is forbidden, even after a Criminal Records Bureau check is requested. Would the Minister like to comment on those figures?

The role of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre is vital. It has the expertise to profile offenders and to understand the processes of abuse. We need to monitor carefully how it gets on as part of the National Crime Agency. At present, the police are aware of 60,000 cases of peer-to-peer shares of child abuse images a year, but as figures obtained by my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) show, there were only 1,570 convictions last year. Of course, that may also reflect staffing shortages in regional police forces, who support CEOP’s work but unfortunately are losing thousands of front-line officers.

I raised in a previous debate the issue of confusion in the NHS as to where responsibility for child protection actually lies. I was told that a Minister would write to me, but I have not had that response. It is disappointing to learn that the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health is reporting widespread confusion, lack of proper training and a lack of understanding of child protection responsibilities within the NHS.

It is important that we maintain pressure on the Government to bring in sex and relationship education, because we know that it is an important way to enable children to understand what a proper and loving relationship is. Finally, can the Minister explain what additional resources are being made available to keep children safe when they use the internet?

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) and the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) not just on starting the debate in such a knowledgeable way, but on their long-standing contributions on this hugely critical issue. I apologise in advance: I will try to deal with as many issues as possible that have come up, but in 10 minutes I suspect that I will not get to the bottom of what is a very large pile.

It goes without saying that child protection is an absolute priority for this Government and we are committed to ensuring that children receive the protection they need. Child sexual exploitation is an abhorrent form of child abuse, no matter how, when or where it occurs. It is good that these important issues are centre stage because where child abuse takes place the effects on the victim can be lifelong and devastating. It is vital, therefore, that victims feel empowered to come forward to report abuse and that when they do, they receive the support they need to recover from the trauma of this hateful crime.

Many Members on both sides of the House have rightly highlighted the responsibility we all have to ensure that we learn the lessons from the terrible cases that have happened in the past few years and that are still emerging. People need to have confidence that we are getting to the truth. Again it goes without saying that anyone who has any information about child abuse or anyone who has suffered abuse, whether now or in the past, should report it to the police.

My hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart) and the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) raised the issue of the various responsibilities in central Government. The Department for Education is the lead Department for child safeguarding as a whole. That remains so and my hon. Friend the children’s Minister is here for this debate. Given the recent surge in cases of child sexual abuse, the Prime Minister has asked me to lead the national group tackling sexual violence against children and vulnerable people across Government. Therefore, although the cross-Government co-ordination function on child sexual exploitation has transferred to the Home Office, the DFE is, as I say, the lead Department for child safeguarding as a whole.

I will come on to the national group’s work in a moment but I want to deal with the issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham about whether we need an overarching public inquiry. I am happy to keep an open mind on that, but my main priority is that in any of the agencies that are tackling child sexual exploitation no one’s energy and attention should be diverted from the urgent work and changes that need to be taking place now. We need to be learning lessons from the inquiries and investigations that have concluded and that are still going on. The deputy Children’s Commissioner has done valuable work and an extension of her report will come out in the next couple of months.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, as many hon. Members have pointed out, we have been through this so many times—my first experience of speaking in this place was in 2003 on the day that the Victoria Climbié report came out—but nothing changes?

I hope that I will be able to explain to my hon. Friend and the House that a lot is changing and in particular a lot has changed as a result of the setting up of the national group, which is made up not just of various Government Departments but the delivery agencies, the inspectorates, the police and the voluntary and community sectors, which are particularly valuable. It has a core focus on reducing the vulnerability of victims, reducing the risks from abuse of authority and power and improving our systems in dealing with these crimes, as well as strengthening local accountability. Helped by members of the group such as the NSPCC, Barnardo’s and Rape Crisis, the group is taking the lessons learnt from recent inquiries and police investigations. It has identified nine areas for action, four of which I have said should receive particularly urgent attention. Since the group was established last April, we have already made progress in these priority areas.

In July this year I launched the progress report and action plan for the national group, together with our early findings on multi-agency safeguarding approaches. I echo the words of my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham and others that the multi-agency safeguarding hubs are doing good work to help local areas put in place effective arrangements. I agree with those who said that what happens in local areas will make a difference to children. The MASH that I visited in Staffordshire is certainly doing excellent work in ensuring that there are no cracks through which children can fall.

I apologise to the hon. Gentleman. If I keep giving way, I will not get through any of the responses that I want to make to points that have been made.

It is reasonable to ask what the national group has achieved. We have issued new guidance for consultation on protecting children who go missing or run away from home or care. On the policing side, the College of Policing and the Director of Public Prosecutions have launched a public consultation on revised guidance for sexual violence victims. It was launched in June and runs until September. Although we are still consulting, the new guidance is already in effect, which is critical if we are to move the focus of investigations away from testing the credibility of victims to testing the credibility of the allegation and ensuring that the police listen to victims.

In the criminal justice system, we have improved the experience of victims by launching the new criminal justice strategy, which includes significant measures to improve the court process for victims of sexual abuse and exploitation. As the hon. Member for Stockport acknowledged, later this year we shall be piloting measures for recorded pre-trial cross-examination of vulnerable and intimidated witnesses. I agree with her that it is important that victims do not have terrible experiences in court.

On the online front, leading companies have pledged £1 million to the Internet Watch Foundation, which will strengthen the work that it is doing in tandem with the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre to identify child abuse images.

On wider child protection reform, on 21 March this year we published statutory guidance entitled “Working together to safeguard children”, and we have strengthened the role of local safeguarding children boards in holding the local agencies to account, providing funding to the association of independent LSCB chairs to drive forward that improvement and share good practice across the network. We are also continuing to drive improvements in the quality of serious case reviews so that the system learns from past mistakes.

I was asked whether there would be a review of what went wrong in Oxford and Operation Bullfinch. The LSCB in Oxford has commissioned a serious case review to learn the lessons and will ask precisely what went wrong and make sure that it does not happen again.

I was asked about hotels and bed and breakfasts. Earlier this week, I attended the launch by the National Working Group Network charity and the Children’s Society of a new toolkit for local practitioners, which I think will be useful.

The hon. Member for Coventry North West (Mr Robinson) raised the Daniel Pelka case. We have strengthened arrangements for serious case reviews and we will see what the case review has to say next week. On the issue of child protection at a local level, everyone who works with children obviously has responsibility. The hon. Gentleman asked whether, if everyone has responsibility, no one has responsibility. That is why the local safeguarding children boards have the key and central role and why we have sought to strengthen them.

Various hon. Members have called for mandatory reporting of concerns. There is already a clear framework in place for all who work with children to report concerns. The statutory guidance is clear that immediate referral should be made to a children’s social worker if there is concern about a child. So I hope I can reassure my hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) that already in a few months many changes have been made.

Points have been made about culture in the context of Christian Churches and of groups of often predominantly Pakistani heritage men grooming and abusing white British girls. It is worth saying that political or religious sensitivities must not get in the way of preventing and uncovering child abuse. The same laws apply to all of us in this country whatever our background, religion or ethnic origin. There are no excuses for anyone committing this disgusting crime. The vetting and barring arrangements apply to those who are working in a faith context as much as anyone else; I can assure hon. Members of that.

I thank the many Members who have contributed to a serious and very good debate.

Order. Can I sit the Minister down? It is now 3.30 pm and we should have started the next debate. I am sorry that there are not two more minutes for winding up.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered child protection in the UK.