(Urgent Question): To ask the Home Secretary to make a statement about child abuse.
The sexual abuse of children is an abhorrent crime which the Government are absolutely committed to stamping out.
In my statement to the House last week, I addressed two important public concerns: first, that in the 1980s, the Home Office failed to act on allegations of child sex abuse and, secondly, that public bodies and other important institutions have failed to take seriously their duty of care towards children. As I informed the House on 7 July, the whole Government take the allegations very seriously. That is why I announced two inquiries last week.
The first is a review led by Peter Wanless, the chief executive of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, with the support of Richard Whittam, QC, of the original investigations that Mark Sedwill, the permanent secretary at the Home Office, commissioned last year into suggestions that the Home Office failed to act on allegations of child sex abuse in the early 1980s. Peter Wanless and Richard Whittam will also look at how the police and prosecutors handled any related information that was handed to them, and examine another recent review into allegations that the Home Office provided funding to an organisation called the Paedophile Information Exchange. Mr Wanless and Mr Whittam are in post and work on the review has begun. Its terms of reference were placed in the Library of the House last week, and I expect the review to conclude within eight to 10 weeks.
Last week, I also announced a wider independent panel inquiry to consider whether public bodies and non-state institutions have taken seriously their duty of care to protect children from sexual abuse. The Home Office has appointed the head of the secretariat to the panel, which will begin its work as soon as possible after the appointment of the chairman.
As the House will know, I asked Baroness Butler-Sloss to act as chairman of the panel and she agreed to do so. However, having listened to the concerns that were raised by victim and survivor groups and by Members of this House, Lady Butler-Sloss subsequently came to the conclusion that she should not chair the inquiry. I was deeply saddened by her decision to withdraw, but I understand and respect her reasons. She is a woman of the highest integrity and compassion, and she continues to have an enormous contribution to make to public life.
Work is ongoing to find the right chairman and members of the panel, and an announcement will be made as soon as possible so that this important work can move forward. I am sure that hon. Members will agree that it is important that the terms of reference for the inquiry are considered carefully. That is why it is right that we should wait until we have appointed a new chairman and a panel, and discuss the terms with them.
I want this inquiry to leave no stone unturned in getting to the truth of what happened and ensuring that we learn the necessary lessons to protect children and vulnerable people in the future. As I said, child abuse is an abhorrent crime that can scar people for life, and the Government are determined to stamp it out. We are working across Government to ensure that victims of historic child abuse who come forward in response to our overarching inquiry get the support and help they need. Our message is clear: the Government will do everything they can to allow the full investigation of child abuse whenever and wherever it occurred, to support victims of it, and to bring the perpetrators of this disgusting crime to justice.
As Members will be aware from the announcement we heard yesterday about the outcome of the National Crime Agency’s operation, which was reported in the media, child abuse is a crime that continues today. I think that that operation shows our relentless commitment to pursue those engaged in online child sexual exploitation, and it was unprecedented in its degree of co-ordination, with the NCA leading and co-ordinating law enforcement efforts that involved 45 police forces across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. It has been ongoing for the past six months. People from all walks of life have been indentified, including those in positions of trust, and 660 arrests have been made and more than 400 children safeguarded or protected.
Crucial in investigations of online sexual abuse, and matters of this kind more generally, is the question of access to communications data. The Government are committed to tackling the threat to children online, which is why the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill, which was passed by this House on Tuesday and is currently before the other place, is important. It will ensure that law enforcement agencies continue to have access to another vital tool of communications data. Without access to communications data, the investigative capabilities of public authorities in relation to online child abuse would be significantly damaged, and vital evidence would be inaccessible. If companies do not retain that data and we cannot access it, it will become impossible in future to carry out such operations.
In other areas, the Government are also looking at what actions we can take in relation to this reprehensible crime. That is why in April last year, the Government established a national group to tackle sexual violence against children and vulnerable people, led by the Minister for Crime Prevention, my right hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker). The cross-Government group was established to learn the lessons from some of the recent cases that have emerged and the resulting reviews and inquiries, and as a result of its work we now have better guidance for police and prosecutors, new powers for the police to get information from hotels that are used for child sexual exploitation, and better identification of children at risk of exploitation through the use of local multi-agency safeguarding hubs.
The Home Office will do everything it can to allow the full investigation of child abuse and the prosecution of its perpetrators. The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre command of the National Crime Agency works with police forces to investigate child sexual abuse, and has access to specialist officers who could be called on to assist in complex cases. CEOP is already providing support to forces in the robust investigation of child sexual abuse.
For some time, this House has been considering issues arising from historic cases of child abuse. The news yesterday of more than 600 arrests by the NCA, and ongoing investigations into current incidents of child abuse, show that this is not just a problem of the past but is with us today. The Government will do everything they can to work to stamp out child abuse, but there is a wider question for us as a society about how and why these appalling crimes are still taking place today.
I welcome the Home Secretary’s statement and the update she has given the House. She is right to condemn this vile crime that hits vulnerable children and can wreck lives. I also welcome the announcement that the National Crime Agency has safeguarded 400 children and arrested 660 people for child abuse offences as part of a major operation involving many police forces. The House will want to commend the police for that work, and recognise the role of online intelligence and communications data that we discussed earlier this week.
However, The Times reports today that the same investigation has in fact identified more than 10,000 suspects who are not currently being arrested or pursued through the criminal justice system. It appears that those are in addition to today’s crime statistics, which also show a 20% increase in reported sex offences, a 65% increase in reported child abuse images, and a 27% increase in reported rape. While car crime may be falling, the reports of these serious, often hidden, crimes are going up, and people will be deeply shocked by the scale of online crime that is growing alongside the internet. At the same time, there has been a 9% drop in prosecutions for child sex offences and a 75% drop in the number of convicted criminals who are barred from working with children as a result of the Government’s policy changes. There are real concerns about chaos at the Disclosure and Barring Service, which is not providing consistent information about the number of people being barred.
Let me ask the Home Secretary the following questions. Can she confirm that the National Crime Agency has identified more than 10,000 suspects as part of its investigation? What is happening to those 10,000 suspects now? Is it true that the police have decided that they do not have the capacity to pursue them? How many of them does she think pose a direct risk to children? Will they be barred from working with children? Can she confirm that there has indeed been a 75% drop in the number of convicted sex offenders who are being barred from working with children? Does she believe that the police and the NCA have the capacity to deal with the scale of this growing crime? Will any of these issues be covered by the child abuse inquiry, which currently has no chair and no terms of reference?
The Home Secretary will know that I have raised concerns with her over the past few years that the child protection system is currently not strong enough to deal with the scale of the problem that we face. Will she now urgently review Government policy and resources, particularly around online abuse, as well as on the wider issues around child abuse, and rethink the barring system approach? Will she agree to come back to this House in September with an urgent action plan to deal with this very serious crime?
First, may I say that the right hon. Lady is absolutely right to commend the work of police forces, the National Crime Agency and CEOP command? This work is not easy for police officers to undertake. It is very difficult for those who have to look at the evidence of child abuse images. We should recognise the valuable and important work they do, and the work that goes on around them to ensure that perpetrators and others involved in this horrendous crime are brought to justice.
I have made it clear that the work of NCA investigations is ongoing. I am therefore not in a position to indicate anything in relation to how many suspects they might be looking at or the action I might take against those suspects. Those are operational matters and decisions for the NCA to take in consideration with the various police forces involved, but I can assure Members that this is an ongoing investigation.
The right hon. Lady referred to a number of matters, for example the increase in the number of sex offences being reported. That is indeed the case, but what I think we are seeing in the figures is a number of people coming forward with historic cases of sex offences. While that does have an impact on the figures, I think we would all welcome the fact that there are more people now who feel comfortable in being able to come forward with allegations of these sorts of offences. For too long, people have felt that they would not be believed, and have been hiding their own experiences and keeping them to themselves, rather than surfacing them. It is important that they are coming forward. In some of the historic cases that have gone to trial, some perpetrators have been brought to justice. They have been charged and prosecuted as a result of people coming forward.
We are, of course, making sure that resources are available. In my response to the right hon. Lady’s question, I indicated that CEOP resources, which are specialist and expertise resources, are being made available to other police forces. The child abuse inquiry is being set up to ensure that we can learn the lessons from the various reviews that have taken place into historic cases. As part of that, I expect it will want to look at what is happening today: whether the lessons from the past are already being dealt with, or whether there are still gaps in what we need to do. Obviously, one of the areas that has increased in recent times is online abuse.
At the Prime Minister’s summit in November last year, we made it absolutely clear that we are determined to stamp out online child sexual abuse. That is why we have worked with industry to ensure that search engines block images, videos and pathways to child abuse from blacklist search terms used by paedophiles. We are developing a child abuse image database, which will help officers to work more effectively together to close the net on paedophiles and ensure that internet companies can better identify, block and remove illegal images. We have also established the UK-US taskforce to counter online child exploitation. Through that, we are drawing on the brightest and best minds in the industry, law enforcement and academia to stop the internet being used to abuse children. We saw from the National Crime Agency’s operations yesterday the value of setting it up as a strong crime-fighting organisation that has already shown its ability to root out perpetrators of this sort of crime, to deal with them and ultimately to bring them to justice.
May I add my congratulations to the NCA for yesterday’s successful operation? It is worth noting that of the 660 arrested, very few were people already on the sex offenders register. This is very difficult work and a reminder that we are talking about current abuse going on, in addition to the historic child abuse that we must now investigate. May I suggest to my right hon. Friend that rather than coming forward with a new action plan, as has been suggested, she gives this House a progress report on the child sexual exploitation action plan, which I launched in November 2011, which was multi-agency and multi-departmental? It has been exceedingly successful and no doubt played a major part in bringing a lot of people to justice in yesterday’s operation.
May I commend my hon. Friend for the work he has done in this area over the years? He and I joined this House at the same time, and I know that he has consistently led on child protection issues and has put a lot of work into this area, both when he was children’s Minister and outside that time, and he continues to do so. I will certainly be happy to ask the Minister for Crime Prevention to report to the House on the child exploitation action plan that my hon. Friend developed as the children’s Minister and also on how the group that was set up subsequently is taking that work forward, looking at how it can build on it in a number of other ways, so that we are always looking to ensure that we have the best possible response.
May I join the Home Secretary in congratulating those involved in Operations Endeavour and Notarise for the work they have done, which shows the importance of the expertise of CEOP? She is right not to rush in and name a new chair for the inquiry. This needs to be done with care and full consultation, so that the chair can help to choose the panel and fashion the terms of reference. However, I am concerned that not enough is being done by the internet companies. Will she confirm that at the very least she is getting a list or a number of the websites that have been closed down as a result of the summit that took place last November? The public need to be reassured that these websites are being closed. If she gives us regular updates, that would be extremely helpful.
I recognise the right hon. Gentleman’s concern to ensure that as much information as possible is made available to the House on these matters. We have seen action by industry, but we continue to talk to industry about how these issues can be addressed. We will be represented on the UK-US taskforce by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Criminal Justice and Victims, whom I welcome to his new position in the Home Office. We are working very closely with industry. It is important to ensure that industry is able to undertake the tasks that we wish it to. It is doing that, but we want to work further with industry to ensure that we are getting the blocking and the filtering absolutely right, so that we can have the maximum impact.
Some of the more serious historic allegations relate to children who were in care at the time of the event. In Jersey, there are allegations that children did not survive to their adulthood to make complaints. In England, the Government still do not record what happens when children disappear from care, using the record “Leaving care for other reasons”. Will the Secretary of State talk to her colleagues in the Department for Education about whether we can record when children disappear from care and why they disappear, so that we can audit the process and ensure that children are safe in care today?
My hon. Friend has raised a very important point about how children in care have been, I think in too many cases, failed by the state over the years. This is not an area where the state can have any real confidence. We should, frankly, look back at what has happened to a number of children in care with deep concern. I will certainly take my hon. Friend’s point up with the Department for Education—and also with the Department for Communities and Local Government, because of local authorities’ responsibility.
The Home Secretary rightly spoke of the harrowing effect that working in this area can have on the police officers who have to do this work and see these images. Can she assure the House that the expansion of the work in this area will go hand in hand with an expansion of the care and long-term psychological support packages for those police officers?
Yes. This matter has already been raised. Obviously, the forces and CEOP are aware of the issue that the work can cause for the officers involved and they have programmes and operations in place to support those officers. We shall certainly ensure that those continue.
As the Home Secretary will know, I have followed the problems caused by child sex abuse from the point of view of one who has both acted for somebody falsely accused of it and, as a law officer, dealing with historic child sex abuse cases. The importance of the issues and the motives with which Members question my right hon. Friend about them cannot be understated or traduced. However, will she resist the temptation to provide the House with a running commentary about the police or other investigations, which may distract from the difficult work that the police have to do in dealing with these terrible cases? We want the perpetrators to be brought to justice and convicted rather than there being a constant flow of allegation and counter-allegation, either across the House or in the media.
Yes, I absolutely take my hon. and learned Friend’s point. It is important that the House should be updated on the work that the Government are doing in this area, but of course it is not possible for us to update the House in any ongoing way on investigations. These are operational matters for the police, not matters on which politicians take decisions; those are for the police and the National Crime Agency to take.
It is, however, right that we keep the House apprised of work such as that initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) when he was children’s Minister, and that now taken forward by the Minister for Crime Prevention and the current children’s Minister, so that the House can see the number of areas on which the Government are taking action.
Has the Home Secretary given any thought to the new legal powers that may be needed by this child abuse inquiry but may take some time to establish? My understanding is that records kept by the Whips are not subject to freedom of information, but are subject to data protection. If the inquiry panel has no power to hold those data or compel information to be shared, how will it bring justice for survivors?
The inquiry panel that I have set up is not a statutory inquiry panel under the Inquiries Act 2005. What we have made clear, though, is that if there comes a point at which the chairman of the panel believes that its work could better be carried forward as a statutory inquiry panel under the 2005 Act, we will be prepared to change it into such a panel.
I am not sure that the Home Secretary quite answered the question put by the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy). I think the hon. Lady was trying to get at whether information held in the Whips Office will be available to the investigation.
I repeat what I said in the House when I gave my statement on this matter on 7 July. The Government are making it clear that we will make papers available to the inquiry panel. I would expect others to make available such information as they hold. It is for various bodies—whoever is approached by the inquiry panel—to decide what information they wish to make available. However, as I have made clear, if the chairman of the panel gets to a point where they believe that a statutory inquiry is the best route, the Government are committed to ensuring that we turn the investigation into a statutory inquiry.
Does the Home Secretary recognise that there have been allegations about historic abuse in a wide range of institutions, including the former Beechwood children’s home in Nottingham? Will she assure my constituents and those of other Nottinghamshire MPs that if they approach the overarching inquiry, their cases will receive a fair and impartial hearing and they will have access to the proper help and support they need?
I think it important to recognise that the inquiry panel will not itself be able to investigate individual allegations that come forward. It will be looking at what happened in a number of settings such as residential care homes and trying to learn the lessons from that. Individual allegations against a perpetrator, will be handed on to the police for them to investigate, which is entirely proper. We are working across Government to look at people’s ability to raise cases, the manner in which they will be able to do so, and how those cases will be passed on as appropriate, along with the support given to victims. Together with a number of other MPs, my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Tessa Munt) raised this matter with me earlier this week, and made a number of suggestions about how to take it forward.
Bearing in mind the explosion in the number of people willing to report and disclose what happened to them, will the Home Secretary ensure that urgent support and extra training is made available for all police officers, so that victims are not necessarily taken across the country for interview, that interviews are not stopped and started again to allow video conditions, and that inadequate referrals for support are not given to victims and their families, who need help when their lives are completely turned upside down?
My hon. Friend makes some very important points. She raises issues that we are looking at in order to ensure that the best form of support is available. I would like to take this opportunity to commend my hon. Friend for the courage she has shown, which will have given great confidence and comfort to other victims.
All child sex abuse is horrific, but the Home Secretary will be aware that for many parents, online child sex abuse is particularly frightening because the technology is developing at warp speed, so many children have smartphones, and parents do not feel equipped to protect their children. It is good to work with the industry, but does the Home Secretary appreciate that parents want to know that progress is being made on tackling online child sex abuse—not at the rate that suits the industry, but at the rate that will bring reassurance to parents and families and protection to our children?
Of course we want to ensure that we make progress in a way that can give confidence to parents, who rightly worry about what is happening online. The fact that somebody living thousands of miles away could effectively be in a child’s bedroom through the internet, persuading that child to undertake certain horrific acts is obviously a matter of very real concern. It is right for us to work with the industry, however, which has been responsive on this matter and sees its importance to the public.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in praising Devon and Cornwall police officers for their role in Operation Notarise, work with colleagues to ensure that the victims are treated well as they pass through the criminal justice system, and remind the judges of the powers they have to protect such vulnerable witnesses?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that important point. I commend Devon and Cornwall police and all the other police forces around the country that were involved in undertaking the operation with the National Crime Agency. My hon. Friend will have noticed that the Attorney-General and the Solicitor-General, whom I welcome to their new roles, have heard her point. I will also make sure that my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary is made aware of her point about the judiciary.
The Home Secretary mentioned that the police officers were doing a very difficult job. What facilities are available for counselling police officers, and how many officers have needed counselling as a result of the work they are carrying out?
Extensive support is available for police officers doing that job because the problem is recognised. The expertise developed at the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre recognises the impact that such work can have on individual police officers. That support is available for police officers who undertake this difficult work.
The Home Secretary has rightly emphasised the importance of multi-agency work in safeguarding and protecting children. Some of those agencies operate under devolved legislation. Will she ensure that her Department and the United Kingdom Government as a whole co-operate fully with the devolved nations of the UK, so that children remain as protected as possible?
In 2010, the then Secretary of State for Education abolished ContactPoint. At the time, I was happy with the assurance that something more streamlined would be in place shortly, but four years have passed, and it has not yet been replaced. What discussions is the Home Office having with the Department for Education to eliminate this gap in the system?
The Department for Education plays a full role in the work that the Home Office does on this issue, including our work in relation to the national group. However, as the hon. Lady will observe, my hon. Friend the children’s Minister is present, and he will have heard her comment.
The Home Secretary will know that, thanks to their innovative and enthusiastic police and crime commissioner, Northamptonshire police are developing something of a lead in combating the online exploitation of children, but so much of that abuse is international. What expertise from other countries can we draw on, so that we can be at the forefront of tackling this abhorrent crime?
We recognise that, and we have set up a link with the United States in particular. Obviously, a number of internet service providers are based there. We are working closely with the Americans. The UK-US taskforce, whose meetings will be attended by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Criminal Justice and Victims, draws on the expertise of people in the industry in both the UK and the United States. We want to get the best brains on this to ensure that we can do the job that we all want to do.
In north Wales, 19 people are currently before the courts as a result of Operation Pallial. Will the Home Secretary confirm that if any evidence is unearthed by the inquiries that she set up last week in connection with Government Departments, any information that Departments have will be forwarded to the police so that they can follow it up and prosecutions can take place?
May I press the Home Secretary on the question of the breach of trust to which she referred earlier? She said that trust had been breached on a number of occasions. How can we prevent that from happening again? We must not lose sight of child abuse within families, and of how difficult it is to bring to public attention or prosecution.
My hon. Friend has made a very important point. I think that people will have been deeply concerned, indeed shocked, to learn that the list of arrests undertaken by the National Crime Agency and forces which was announced yesterday included a number of people who had been in positions of trust—such as teachers and doctors—and whom others would naturally have assumed they could trust with their children. This is a very important issue, which is why we have a system of vetting people who will be working with children. Of course, we must also ensure that all those who employ people to work in such positions of trust are aware of their responsibilities.
The Home Secretary may not be aware that yesterday I presented a petition to the House concerning the case of an online paedophile who had made and viewed more than a quarter of a million indecent images of children, a number of which were the more serious level 5 images. He was given a two-year suspended sentence and 300 hours of community service. When I wrote to the Attorney-General asking him to review the sentence, I was told that the Attorney-General does not have the power to review sentences of this nature. Why is that, and will the Home Secretary ensure that the Government change the law to give the Attorney-General that power?
The Home Secretary has told us that if the inquiry panel seeks formal inquiry powers, she will be able to grant that request, which is welcome. Former inquiries into child abuse have resulted in some frustration as a result of tight and inflexible remits; this has even been expressed by those conducting the inquiries. If the inquiry panel wishes to amend its remit during the course of its work, will she be in a position to grant that request?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I am very clear that the terms of reference should be discussed with the chairman of the panel and not simply be set out by the Government. If the chairman comes to the Government during the course of the inquiry and feels that it is necessary to amend those terms of reference in any way, we will of course look very seriously at that proposal. We have set up the inquiry panel on the model that was used in the Hillsborough inquiry and, having spoken to the former Bishop of Liverpool, Bishop James Jones, in relation to the operation of that inquiry, I understand that people were willing to come forward to that inquiry in a way that might not have been the case under other statutory requirements.
I have listened carefully to the Home Secretary and I understand that she is saying she cannot confirm the scale of the NCA investigation for operational reasons. However, if—as The Times suggests—the NCA has made a policy decision not to investigate 10,000 suspects because of capacity problems, should not the House be informed of that?
I have made it clear to the House that the NCA investigation is ongoing, both at the level of the NCA and of individual police forces. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman allow the police to make the operational decisions that they need to make. They will of course investigate individuals, but arrests, charges and prosecutions can be brought against people only when the evidence is available.
Many Members have referred to the importance of victims of historical child abuse feeling able to come forward. Indeed, the Secretary of State for Health, in his statement to the House on the Savile investigations, made an appeal for victims to come forward. However, when a constituent of mine made contact, the Department of Health apparently had no process in place to respond and could not give any support, as it had had no guidance as to the response it should make. That constituent now seems to have decided not to take their allegations forward. May I urge the Home Secretary to work with her colleagues to ensure that the Departments—and, indeed, individual Members of Parliament—are aware of these matters and have the necessary guidance and support to enable them to offer support to others, as needed?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that point again. We are talking across Government about what support needs to be available for those people who wish to come forward with allegations of child abuse, and the Department of Health is one of the key Departments we are talking to. Representatives of that Department sit on the national group that is chaired by the Minister for Crime Prevention, my right hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker). The hon. Lady made a further point, which was also raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Tessa Munt), about making information available to Members of the House. It has been suggested that some kind of hotline could be made available, or some other means by which people could put allegations into the system, so that they could be dealt with. We will obviously ensure that Members are made aware of any such arrangements, so that they can let their constituents know what is happening and help them to deal with the situation.
We have heard from the Home Secretary today and on previous occasions about the good work that the police and others are doing on this issue. It appears, however, that the number of people who have been barred from working with children has actually fallen by 75%. Can she explain this discrepancy or, at the very least, investigate the reasons for it?
The DBS operates in a slightly different way from how it operated previously when it was set up, in that there is automatic barring for people who will be working with children but in certain categories of employment, where people are not working directly with children, people who previously would have been automatically barred are not being so currently. What the DBS does do in its updating service is provide a better system from which ongoing information can be made available to employers. But I make a point I made earlier, which is that employers must recognise the responsibilities they have in considering the individuals they are employing.
In the 1970s, the most horrible, wicked and depraved abuse of children took place at Kincora boys home in Belfast, with young people scarred for life as a result. Those abuses allegedly involved those in political life, business and the civil service at the time and were overseen by shadowy groups. A child abuse inquiry is taking place in Northern Ireland. Will the Secretary of State say whether the abuse at Kincora boys home is included in that inquiry? If that is not possible, can it be included in the national inquiry?
I will look into the specific case that the hon. Gentleman has raised. I would, however, expect that where other work is ongoing, such as in the child abuse inquiry in Northern Ireland to which he has referred, the inquiry panel we are setting up would, of course, wish to liaise with the work that is being done there to make sure that nothing is falling through the net and that everything is being looked at.