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Child Abuse (Northumberland)

Volume 570: debated on Wednesday 6 November 2013

When I first came to Parliament, a long time ago, one of the pieces of advice that I got was, “If you have an abuse case, tread very carefully.” Anyone who has read about Operation Rose knows what I am talking about, and I will try to develop that in my arguments.

To start, we should concentrate our minds on Operation Rose. I will come to Terry Priestner and his statement later. I was a young councillor when Operation Rose was going on. I do not think that it came to any real conclusion, but it cost £5 million and it deliberated for three years. Perhaps that was one of its failures—it did not get down to the business quick enough and trailed a bit. There was also a lot of anguish on the other side—the carers and teachers accused—but of course in such an operation the innocent sometimes have to suffer, which is unfortunate.

The police started a trawl, which involved them going to interview at least 1,800 children in Northumberland homes, trying to get some information. The teachers and carers accused the police of trying to put words into the children’s mouths, although of course they were middle-aged people by then. That is what the police were accused of, but in reality I do not think that that was the case.

Mr Priestner came to me six months ago. I listened carefully and I went to the police, but the police could not do anything for him. I went to Northumberland social services and met the director, but they knew nothing about Mr Priestner. He was, however, in homes at that time. He knew about Operation Rose, and when he wanted to contribute, he was told, “Those things happen—abuse happens. It happened in them days and that’s the way it is.” As we know now with the Jimmy Savile case, all that has arisen again—everyone thought Jimmy Savile was a man of the people, but we know now that he was not. Therefore, a lot of people—in their 50s and 60s now, but who were in the homes at the time—are now saying, “It happened to me, but nothing happened.”

As I said, the police were accused of encouraging false allegations, and people were talking about lies against innocent teachers and care workers. Trawling for evidence was the wrong approach, according to some. Dozens of professionals from the north-east were backed by MPs, who had, according to media reports at the time, lodged complaints about the “blunderbuss”—I gather that is a gun, although I did not know that before I looked it up—

“effect of the five-year Operation Rose that saw more than 200 people investigated but in the end only six convicted”,

and, of those convictions:

“A total of 277 residents and former residents made allegations against 223 care workers for alleged offences including rape, buggery, indecent assault and physical assault.

Of 32 people who were charged with a total of 142 offences, five were found guilty, one pleaded guilty, 12 were found not guilty, nine had cases withdrawn, four died before their cases were heard and one remained on file.”

At the time, Assistant Chief Constable John Scott defended the police, but acknowledged that the trawling system could trap innocent people—of course it could, and we know that it did. He said:

“We would conduct the inquiry in the same way, were we to do it again.”

So his recommendation was, basically, that trawling was the best idea, even though it could, and did, fetch in innocent people.

At the time, the carers and the teachers formed a group to defend themselves. The matter even came before the Home Affairs Committee, which was chaired by Chris Mullin, and he suggested that a new type miscarriage of justice had arisen from the “over-enthusiastic pursuit” of the alleged abuse of children in institutions. He said:

“The decision to conduct this inquiry was taken in response to a large number of well argued representations.”

There was therefore enough evidence to have an inquiry, but for us to know whether the inquiry was run correctly at the time, I suppose will need another inquiry. If some people think that the first inquiry was wrong, we need an inquiry to find out whether it was. It did take a long time to get through Operation Rose, and that has been said many times, but I do not know though whether another inquiry would be the right approach.

I have, however, secured the debate on behalf of my constituent, because he wants to bring it up—perhaps the Jimmy Savile and new abuses business that is going on has concentrated his mind. He argues that the abuse he suffered at the hands of Northumberland social services, because they put him in those care homes, is still on his mind. Whether that is right or wrong, only people can tell—the people he accuses might be dead, but we do not know.

I will go through Terry Priestner’s statement, because it is best if I read from what he says, rather than read what I would say. He was in Northumberland care homes from 1969 until 1976 and suffered physical and sexual abuse and neglect. First, he was in Fordley children’s home, in 1970; the abuse was physical and the abuser Mrs Evans. Next was Earsdon children’s home, in 1971; the abuse was neglect, according to case records of an allegation by his mother, Mrs Priestner, and the abusers were the house parents, whose names he cannot remember. At Hillbrow children’s home in 1974, abuse was sexual and the abuser was Mrs Allenby. At the same home, there was also physical abuse, and the abuser was Mr Green. I understand that Mr Green was an ex-Royal Marine.

Such allegations, Terry Priestner states, were

“the main allegations…but are not the only events which took place. I did mention everything at the time”—

Operation Rose—but he was told:

“That’s just what happened in those days.”

That cropped up once or twice with Mr Priestner. He was told several times, by several people, “Them things happened in them days”—as with our friend Jimmy Savile, “He was a lovely man; it just happened, didn’t it?” That is the same sort of argument.

After Terry Priestner had spoken to me, according to his statement he

“was contacted by Northumbria Police again, and once again told them what happened along with names, places…and was told by them, we cannot find anyone of the names you have given us, which I find…ridiculous”,

because they were there. The police again said that such things happened in those days—that phrase keeps cropping up—and dismissed them. He also went to see Northumberland council, which also turned a blind eye.

Mrs Allenby, whom Mr Priestner accuses of sexual misconduct, went to court and was told that she would not face trial for nine counts of indecent assault dating back 27 years and which she denied. The prosecution at Newcastle Crown court told Judge Maurice Carr that it would not be in the public interest for the trial to proceed because vital documents were missing. That is what was stated at the time. Although there was no evidence—as far as I am concerned, it had been tampered with because it was there one minute and gone the next—there was still a case.

That is not the only incident of a prosecution being withdrawn because documents had gone missing or the police had committed errors when collecting them.

I appreciate that, but when there are nine accounts of sexual abuse and vital evidence suddenly disappears, something has gone wrong. It would be silly to ask for an inquiry into an inquiry—I do not think that has happened before—but I sometimes wonder whether we should do that.

My hon. Friend is brave to raise this matter. Child abuse cases are always difficult, but does he agree that all accusations and allegations of child abuse from sufferers should always be fully investigated and that no stone should be left unturned until a satisfactory conclusion, is reached for both sides?

That is right, and I do not know whether Operation Rose did that, but the attitude at the time was that such things happen in homes. Most people took that attitude, including the police. To mention Jimmy Savile again, it was also the attitude in the BBC. We must get a grip on that and get through the barrier for people like Terry Priestner. He wanted to raise the matter for publicity because other inmates with him in the homes were also abused. He knows them, but he does not know where they are, and he wants them to come forward. He is pleading for them to come forward with him, so that abusers such as Jimmy Savile and other celebrities, as well as people who worked for Northumberland council, do not get away with what they have done. Mr Priestner was in its care and he should have been looked after.

It is a minefield when there are also innocent carers. The report referred to innocent people whose lives were ruined, and it is awful if innocent people are accused. Many cases were dismissed, and only six or seven people went to jail. After everything, not many were convicted.

Terry Priestner made his point well. He never left my door. I thought he might go away, then the matter would have been out of my hands—we MPs do not like such matters—but he came back to me again and again, and as his MP, I had no option but to raise an Adjournment debate. I hope that I will receive a canny reply from the Minister.

It is good to see you back in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Blyth Valley (Mr Campbell) on securing this important debate and on bringing the matter to the attention of hon. Members. As he set out in his forceful contribution, we are all too well aware that there continue to be shocking and appalling revelations of child abuse—particularly involving our most vulnerable children, who are unable to live with their families. My Department takes the issue extremely seriously. I had an adopted brother who was brought up in a children’s home in the late 1970s, so I am all too alive to the issues raised by some of those who were in residential care during that period.

I was saddened to hear that Mr Priestner does not feel that he has received the justice to which he thinks he is entitled following abuse that he has testified to and which was set out today. He experienced that abuse as a child living in children’s homes in Northumberland between 1969 and 1976. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will understand that I cannot go into a commentary on individual cases, and that the police investigation is an operational matter for Northumbria police.

However, I understand that the protecting vulnerable persons unit within Northumbria police’s crime department has investigated the allegations. I also understand that, following substantial inquiries, it has not been able to take any further action in relation to Mr Priestner’s allegations. I appreciate and understand that Mr Priestner must feel extremely frustrated about that. If he remains unhappy about how the police have handled his case, he can, of course, raise his concerns with the Independent Police Complaints Commission, who will independently review how the investigation of his case was carried out.

Ensuring that vulnerable children are protected is one of the state’s most important responsibilities, whatever the care setting. As hon. Members have said, any case of child abuse is completely unacceptable. When allegations are made, we should always follow the evidence, wherever it leads, and ensure that no stone is left unturned.

Where does that leave victims who decide to tackle the problem of the abuse they suffered if they go to court and the evidence no longer exists? It is no good having an investigation when the papers may have gone. It might be helpful in one way, but it does not help the individual who suffered abuse over a sustained period.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) said, unfortunately there are cases in which the veracity of the evidence presented to the court could have been greater than it was; some victims therefore feel let down by the efforts that the police made in good faith to bring the case to court with the highest possible level of evidence. We deal with that by ensuring that we have the best possible people and systems in place to carry out the investigation and to set out the case so that we do not miss the opportunity for convictions. In the past, there have been too many cases of failure to obtain convictions.

The fact that abuse occurred in the past makes it no less tragic. I am sorry that Mr Priestner has been living with that. The hon. Gentleman knows that, as a result of the terrible abuse that many children experienced in children’s homes, two major reviews into historical abuse were carried out in England and Wales. Sir William Utting’s report “People Like Us” was published in 1998. It was a comprehensive review of safeguarding for all children living away from home in England and Wales. Sir Ronald Waterhouse’s report “Lost in Care”, into historical abuse in children’s homes and foster care in north Wales, was published in 2000.

If Mr Priestner gets his publicity and, let us say, a dozen other people come forward with the same allegations—people who were in the home with him and know the abusers—will we be able to investigate them again? Brick walls seem to be going up, and Mr Priestner is on his own. If all the people come together, will there be another inquiry?

In the first instance, it is for the chief constable of Northumbria to consider whether there is sufficient new evidence to reopen the inquiry. We have seen a similar train of events in north Wales, with Keith Bristow looking at the investigation that took place there in the 1970s. There is a process to look at any new evidence and for it to be considered by the chief constable, but the decision is for her to make.

Following the reviews that have taken place since the investigations, considerable reforms in how children homes are run have been implemented, including significantly improving safeguards to protect children in children’s homes. All such homes, fostering services and other settings where children live away from home are now regulated and inspected by Ofsted to meet national minimum standards set by the Government. The standards include specific measures, so children are safeguarded effectively.

Everyone working in or for children’s homes and all foster carers now have to undergo an enhanced disclosure and barring service check. They are carefully vetted and monitored to prevent unsuitable people from working with children. All children’s homes and fostering services must now have child protection procedures in line with Government guidance. They have to be submitted for consideration to the local safeguarding children board and to the local authority designated office for child protection.

At the heart of those procedures are that any complaints of abuse by children must be taken seriously and investigated in a timely way. Quite rightly, listening to children’s voices has to be at the heart of the process. The hon. Gentleman mentioned how the culture and climate seemed to be different in those days. One of the reasons for that was that children were not listened to. Local authorities now have a statutory duty to support children in care to complain if they are concerned about any aspect of the services they receive.

That duty extends to ensuring that children have access to independent advocacy. Each child’s personal independent reviewing officer has a legal responsibility to ensure that children know about the benefits of advocacy and are helped to access that when they need it, rather than when it becomes available. As part of the Government’s commitment to put the voice of the child at the centre of care planning, we are funding, over two years, the national youth advocacy service and Voice to provide an advocacy advice service for children in care and care leavers across the country, including children in residential care.

In 2002, the previous Government appointed a children’s rights director for England, who was given the statutory duty to carry out regular consultations with children in care about specific aspects of their care experience. The consultation includes questions on feeling safe, bullying and any other interaction they are having with professionals that they feel is inappropriate. The results are published in an annual care monitor report.

This year, we have revised the statutory guidance, “Working Together to Safeguard Children”. It sets out specific advice about safeguarding children in care. It includes guidance on how social workers and the police should act on allegations of abuse made by children. It is abundantly clear in that document what they must do and what their responsibilities are.

Underpinning the effective safeguarding of children are the safeguarding children boards. Every local board has a strategic responsibility for drawing together all the relevant agencies to work together to improve safeguarding outcomes for children and young people in their area, and to hold those agencies to account in respect of that work. Children in care, including those in care homes, are a priority group for LSCBs.

From the continuing unravelling of historical abuse cases, we know that there can be no scope for complacency. That is why my Department and I are absolutely determined to ensure that children in care are safeguarded effectively and that they can achieve their potential.

One of the things Mr Priestner has said to me is, “Wait a minute. All these people have been coming forward from way back in the ’60s making allegations against this Savile man, and they are being dealt with. Now I am making an allegation against people who abused me in a children’s home, and yet I am hitting a brick wall. What’s the difference?”

As I have explained, the decision on whether to reopen the case is a matter for the chief constable of Northumbria police. If there is new evidence, or others want to come forward who previously did not or they did not have the opportunity, that is clearly a matter for her, and that will be looked at in the proper way.

If there is continuing concern about how Mr Priestner’s complaints were dealt with, he may, as I said earlier, refer the matter to the IPCC to look at in more detail. Recent cases have shown that new evidence and deep-rooted concerns about the conduct of an investigation can lead to the reopening of some investigations—for instance, in north Wales—so that we get to the bottom of exactly what went on and ensure that all those responsible are brought to account.

Shocking revelations about the exploitation of children by predatory adults in their community have demonstrated the particular vulnerability of children living in children’s homes. That is why this year we have been driving forward a significant programme of work to improve further the current regulatory framework for children’s homes. Those improvements will place greater accountability on children’s homes providers and local authorities to ensure that children are safeguarded effectively and provided with stable and good-quality care. That will be particularly important where children are placed in homes that are a considerable distance from their home. No child should be out of sight, out of mind.

In December, we changed the rules so that Ofsted can now share the names and addresses of children’s homes with local police forces, making it easier for the police to identify where vulnerable children are living in their area and to put in place strategies for protecting them. Many may wonder why that was not possible previously. When I discovered the situation, I wanted to get to the bottom of it. We have now changed the rules, and the information is now being shared as normal practice.

We have just carried out an extensive consultation on proposals for improving the effectiveness of safeguarding arrangements for children’s homes. The proposals in the consultation are intended to improve significantly co-ordination and close working between all the agencies responsible for children—particularly local authorities, children’s homes and the police. The consultation ended on 17 September.

We are also proposing to introduce new responsibilities for local authorities, so that a decision to place a child in care far away from home can be made only by a director of children’s services, and only after they are satisfied that the placement is in the child’s best interests and will meet their specific needs. We also want to put in place a requirement on local authorities placing children out of area to seek and exchange information with the area authority in which the child is to be placed, to assure themselves about the suitability of the care to be provided in the other area.

We are planning to introduce new rules for children’s homes, requiring them to have policies describing how they will prevent children from going missing, and to make monthly monitoring visits to children’s homes more independent of a home’s day-to-day management. The independent person visiting children’s homes will have a specific responsibility for assessing the effectiveness of each home’s safeguarding arrangements. The new rules also include a new requirement for children’s home managers to carry out an annual risk assessment of the area where their home is located. Where concerns are identified, homes must put in place clear strategies to protect children.

We are doing those things because I want to ensure that, in the future, only homes that can deliver high-quality care for our most vulnerable children will be acceptable, and that all homes will have a remit to strive for excellence in respect of the children in their care. My aim is to develop a revised framework for homes that is no longer based on meeting national minimum standards, but which requires them to set high aspirations for the children in their care. There is no greater responsibility for the state, as corporate parents, than to protect children.

No child who is placed in the care of their local authority and who is placed in a children’s home should ever have to experience poor-quality care. I am truly saddened that Mr Priestner experienced care in a number of homes that has clearly affected him deeply and that he feels he has not received the justice he needs. I am afraid that I am not able to set up an inquiry, as Mr Priestner has requested, but if he is unhappy with how the police handled his case, he may raise concerns with the IPCC. We are taking forward a comprehensive piece of work, which we hope will make a difference.

Sitting suspended.