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Historical Child Abuse Allegations

Volume 586: debated on Wednesday 22 October 2014

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mel Stride.)

I am pleased to be able to bring the matter of Kincora, and in particular its relevance to the child sex abuse inquiry, to the House.

There have been many shocking and sordid episodes throughout the history of the troubles, but the allegation of sexual abuse and exploitation of vulnerable young people by those in positions of power, and the failure to ensure such allegations were properly investigated at the time, is surely a low point even by those standards. Whether the allegations are directed towards the state or the republican movement, it would seem that some placed the protection of their institutions and cause ahead of protecting those who were being abused. In doing so, they compounded the abuse and the hurt.

The voices that were silenced at the time are now being heard again. I believe there is a fresh opportunity to listen and to respond, and to make amends for those failures. In my own constituency, despite the 30 years since the successful prosecution of three members of staff at Kincora boys’ home for child sex abuse, the allegations persist that children were abused as part of a wider paedophile ring that was UK-wide and that the intelligence services not only knowingly allowed that abuse to continue—both to protect informers and to gather information on abusers to be used for blackmail—but ensured that the subsequent investigations would never uncover the full picture. The allegations of political cover-up have been brought to the fore again recently with the launch by the Home Office of an inquiry into institutional abuse in care homes around the UK, and specifically into allegations that figures in Westminster and Whitehall failed in their duty of care towards children, and that MI5 was also involved in cover-up—a point to which I will return later.

With Kincora, the allegations descend into murky and disturbing territory. It is not simply that paedophiles operated there or even that authorities were neglectful towards those placed in their custody, but rather it is alleged that a conscious decision was made to allow that abuse to continue for more than 10 years after it was first uncovered by the police and the Army, either to protect intelligence assets or to acquire material to be used in the blackmail of those involved.

Just yesterday, both the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland made statements on the inquiry, which is to be chaired by Fiona Woolf, announcing that Kincora would not now be included in the terms of reference despite calls from MPs, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, Amnesty International and, most importantly, the victims of that abuse who have pleaded for it to be included. I first raised Kincora with the Home Secretary in July this year following the announcement of the inquiry and I have done so on a number of occasions since. I have had no formal response to any of my correspondence. Given a summer of silence, I find the timing of the announcements quite curious, but I want to proceed to outline the case for a full investigation of Kincora as I originally intended, as the point has clearly been missed by the Home Office to date. I will also return to the recent announcements in my conclusion.

What distinguishes Kincora from other cases of historic child abuse in Northern Ireland, but links it, crucially, to others such as Rotherham, are the allegations that persist that Government and their agencies, such as MI5, had full knowledge of the allegations at the time and acted to prevent appropriate investigation from taking place. There is further suspicion that MI5 and the security agencies were complicit in the abuse in order to collect information that could be used to blackmail those in positions of power.

Furthermore, it is thought that the abuse that took place in Northern Ireland did not involve victims and perpetrators only from Northern Ireland—there have been suggestions that children were moved between different locations in Northern Ireland where abuse took place. One witness has stated that he was aware of boys being brought from different children’s homes to be abused in Kincora—

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mel Stride.)

One witness has stated that he was aware of boys being brought from different children’s homes to be abused in Kincora, including from Bawnmore Road children’s home, which lies on the outskirts of south Belfast. A recent BBC “Spotlight” programme elaborated on these allegations, with a former resident of Kincora and victim of abuse stating that they also were taken to local hotels where they were offered to guests as entertainment. This illustrates the almost unfathomable depravity of what happened to boys who were entrusted to the care system and whose safety and welfare were used as leverage in manipulation and political games.

During the trial in 1980 of the three Kincora housemasters, who were subsequently jailed in 1981 on 23 counts of abusing 11 boys, the man who was widely believed to be the ringleader, and was indeed the most senior member of staff, William McGrath, who was also a member of a shadowy loyalist paramilitary group called Tara and an alleged MI5 agent, pleaded guilty to the extensive charges against him, thus negating the need for him to give evidence. This led to suspicion at the time, but evidence of a cover-up goes far beyond those circumstantial points.

Two former Army officers have spoken publicly about the links between the British security forces and the goings-on in Kincora. Brian Gemmell worked as an intelligence officer in Northern Ireland in the 1970s and has recently relinquished his anonymity in order to speak out and call for a full investigation. Gemmell has said that he first learned details of what was happening inside the home while gathering information about loyalists, and was told he was running two agents with close links to Kincora. Gemmell alleges that after presenting a report on the allegations of abuse in Kincora to a senior MI5 officer in 1975, he was ordered to stop looking into the claims.

Colin Wallace has been speaking publicly of the collusion in Kincora since the 1970s and was professionally and publicly discredited as a result. However, he has continued to press for an extensive investigative process in which security personnel can speak freely and honestly and sensitive military documents can be released. I will return to that point in a moment.

There were numerous inquiries into Kincora in the 1980s dealing with the failures of the Department of Health and its agencies in relation to preventing abuse and acting upon allegations from both children and staff. Interestingly, MI5 refused the police permission to speak to any of its officers, thus preventing effective investigations from taking place into the allegations of a cover-up. To be clear, I am not seeking an investigation into the failures of the Department; I want an investigation into the allegations of a cover-up and MI5 involvement.

Despite the rumours, allegations and previous inquiries over a 40-year period, the truth has not yet been fully explored by the inquiries and investigations. Kincora is currently one of a number of children’s homes subject to investigation by the historical institutional abuse inquiry, which is chaired by Sir Anthony Hart but which is limited in its terms of reference and statutory powers to summon witnesses. Sir Anthony recently spoke out to confirm that he did not have the power to compel MI5 and military intelligence witnesses to give evidence or Whitehall Departments to release files. He stated in his recent letter to me:

“Our powers under Section 9 of the Inquiry into Historical Institutional Abuse Act (Nl) 2013...are limited to ‘transferred matters’. In other words we have no power to compel witnesses from the Ministry of Defence or the Home Office to attend or produce documents”.

The hon. Lady will be aware that today Sir Anthony responded to the Secretary of State’s statement and indicated that he might now be satisfied with the extent of his powers and the finances of his inquiry. Like me, however, is she still concerned that this is a national matter that should be investigated here at Westminster?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his helpful intervention. Regardless of the Secretary of State’s statement yesterday, Sir Anthony is still entirely reliant on the voluntary co-operation of Whitehall Departments and MI5, which is simply not good enough given their record on this matter. Even the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, in yesterday’s statement, did not promise full co-operation, but the “fullest possible co-operation”—a caveat that will chill those who recall previous doomed attempts to investigate this scandal.

A number of former military intelligence officers have recently come forward to indicate publicly that they possess information that would be of interest to an inquiry with regard to Kincora and also to indicate their willingness to give evidence, including on the alleged blocking of police and Army investigations by secret services at the time. At least one of them has indicated that he was unable to disclose some information to an earlier inquiry because it would have been deemed a breach of his obligations under the Official Secrets Act.

This specific aspect goes far beyond mere “co-operation” with the devolved inquiry; it is utterly naive to believe that former members of the security and intelligence services would volunteer to give evidence if they could face prosecution, so it is imperative that the UK Government authorise disclosure of all relevant information held in order to examine and fully address the persistent allegations surrounding Kincora. That will require a temporary and limited suspension of the Official Secrets Act.

Two years ago, I pointed out to the Home Secretary, as I did again last week, that it is imperative that the national inquiry panel should deal with this issue, and that it will take the Home Secretary to make it clear that the security services and all their former agents have full cover in presenting every piece of information they have.

I totally concur. The hon. Gentleman is entirely right that the task requires not simply words of co-operation, but practical assistance and prioritisation at the UK level. I shall explain why.

The child abuse that has recently come to light in Rotherham, Rochdale and Oxford, to name but a few, is a national scandal; so, too, is Kincora. The fact that Kincora was located in Northern Ireland and that the allegations concerned a period during the troubles should not be a hindrance to the investigation of these crimes or to any subsequent cover-up by Government agencies. They are linked to Kincora by the allegation of MI5 involvement in cover-up.

Let me read a quote from an article written by Colin Wallace as recently as today. I recommend that people read his article in full. It can be found in “Spinwatch” and it is titled “Kincora—A need for transparency”. It says:

“The common denominator in both the Cyril Smith case and in the Kincora scandal is MI5. It would appear that in both England and Northern Ireland MI5 prevented the police and/or the Army from taking action against those who were systematically sexually abusing children. Surely this obvious link between MI5’s apparent role in covering up abuse in both England and Northern Ireland should be investigated by a single inquiry and not two separate inquiries. Also, any meaningful inquiry must have the power to demand the full disclosure of all relevant official documents and records and to subpoena witnesses to give evidence under oath. In the past, successive Government Ministers have promised that they would initiate thorough inquiries into Kincora, but on each occasion those inquiries were undermined by having their terms of reference watered down.”

I am following the hon. Lady’s very worrying speech, which she is making with great power. The problem is that the investigation panel set up under the Home Secretary does not have statutory powers of subpoena and relies on the good will of witnesses coming forward to disclose all documents. The Government have offered their full co-operation. Does she think it will still prove a problem if the UK-wide investigation includes Kincora as well and that the security services will refuse to co-operate? If so, what does she suggest the Government should do to alter the terms of the inquiry?

I believe the investigation should have statutory powers and should be able to compel witnesses. Those who were affected by the abuse, who believe that their abuse was covered up, require something slightly more than promises of co-operation, particularly when it was the state and people in these institutions who failed them originally.

The gravity of the allegations mean that nothing less than the fullest independent investigation and disclosure of all evidence will satisfy the right to justice for victims and survivors, or be sufficient to address the most serious disrepute into which all those allegedly involved—including the state itself—have been brought by this litany of abuse.

The Home Office inquiry undoubtedly has the possibility of being a better vehicle for full exposure of the truth of what went on behind the door of an unassuming house less than a mile from my constituency office and less than a five-minute walk from my own home. Kincora does not exist in a bubble. Some of those later convicted of child sex offences in Britain, for example, also worked in the Northern Ireland care system. Although they were never convicted for offences in Northern Ireland, I have been presented with information by people who claim that they, too, were abused by those individuals. Their activities need to be scrutinised. Predators had no respect for regional borders or geography when it came to the exploitation of vulnerable young people, so why should any investigation of their activities respect those boundaries? The same applies to MI5 and its activities in protecting the powerful and covering up sordid abuse of this kind.

Yesterday the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland issued a statement in which she said:

“The protection of children is a devolved matter”.

Let me make it clear that I am not seeking an investigation of the failure of social services or other health agencies to protect the boys at Kincora. That has already been done. I am calling for a full investigation of the allegations of blackmail and cover-up of this abuse by Government agencies such as MI5. I do not believe that it is unreasonable to expect the Home Office to be able—indeed, to feel obliged—to hold such agencies to account. I therefore call on the Home Secretary and the Home Office to review yesterday’s decision, or to initiate an independent inquiry with the full statutory powers that will be required, and I call for Kincora to be included in that inquiry.

The locus should be here in Westminster. Westminster should have the power to compel the giving of evidence and the appearance of witnesses, to suspend those parts of the Official Secrets Act that currently prevent people from giving evidence, and to ensure that all who wish to give evidence can do so and that all the material that is required for this matter to be investigated properly, once and for all, is made available. That now appears to be the only way in which the victims and survivors of the Kincora scandal will get the justice they deserve. I believe that we owe it to those victims to expose any wrongdoing that took place at Kincora, in order to deliver justice to them, and also to ensure that nothing of the same kind happens again. To fail to use this opportunity to finally uncover the truth about Kincora would be an indictment of us all.

Gary Hoy is one man who was abused in Kincora, and he has taken a brave stand in waiving his anonymity and talking about the abuse that he suffered. He said today:

“I knew all along it wouldn’t go there as there have been too many high-profile people involved. We have been very badly let down. It was important for us to get justice. They don’t want to know.”

I believe that there are many Members of Parliament who do want to know. I think that it is hugely important that we do not let the victims down yet again. Let me be brutally honest: I believe that it is a case of now or never. If the Home Office has the will to uncover the truth, it has the power to do so. If it does not do so now, with Kincora on the public agenda and with cross-party support for a full and frank inquiry, I doubt that we shall ever have the opportunity to revisit this matter.

There are many unanswered questions about Kincora. Failing to address this issue as part of a national inquiry, with powers of compulsion and with the suspension of the provisions of the Official Secrets Act relating to witnesses, will simply add another question to the list, namely, “What have the Government got to hide?”

I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) about a very important and serious Northern Ireland matter. I commend her on the powerful case that she has made.

The coalition Government is totally committed to tackling child sexual abuse and its serious and often long-lasting effects. As the Home Secretary said in her statement to this House on 7 July when she announced the establishment of a panel inquiry, we will do all that we can to facilitate a full investigation of child sexual abuse and the prosecution of its perpetrators. Let me take this opportunity again to urge anyone with information about those matters to go to the police.

The independent panel inquiry into child sexual abuse will consider whether public bodies—and other, non-state, institutions—have taken seriously their duty of care to protect children from sexual abuse. In her statement to the House this week, the Home Secretary announced the final panel members. They will join Ben Emmerson QC—who will serve as counsel—and Professor Alexis Jay, whose names were announced last week. The expert panel will examine the diverse range of matters that will fall within its purview. The panel itself represents a diverse range of experience, including experience of child sexual abuse, social care, academia, law enforcement, health, media, and the voluntary sector. The panel, under the chairmanship of Fiona Woolf, will carry out a robust and thorough inquiry and will challenge individuals and institutions without fear or favour, in order to consider this important issue, to learn the relevant lessons, and to prevent it from happening again.

The Minister will know of my concern about the Ministry of Defence being able to hide details and incidents relating to child sexual abuse by covering it with the system of courts martial. May I urge him to make sure the Home Office pushes very hard for the MOD not to use that process to hide things, and to make sure that any case that involves the MOD is put into the civil courts and dealt with properly?

My hon. Friend raised that issue at Home Office questions last week and I undertook to write to her, which I will do very shortly, and my officials are in touch with MOD officials to make sure the best possible response is given to her on that matter.

The terms of reference for the Home Office inquiry—if I can call the Fiona Woolf inquiry that—have been drafted to ensure that this strong and balanced panel of independent experts can have full access to all the material it seeks, unless there is a statutory impediment to it doing so. The panel will consider matters from 1970 to the present day, although this can be extended if evidence is provided that supports this, and I believe that the Child Migrants Trust, for example, may submit evidence to that effect, including about Northern Ireland matters. It is for the panel to decide how and where to focus its efforts in order to complete its work and to make recommendations within a reasonable time scale. The terms of reference have been finalised and a copy has been placed in the House Library. The panel has committed to provide an update to Parliament before May next year.

As set out in its terms of reference, and as referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast East, the independent panel inquiry will extend to England and Wales only, and there are very good and powerful reasons for that. I know how concerned hon. Members are about the horrible offences that took place at Kincora and about the perception that justice for the victims of those terrible crimes has not been properly served. I entirely understand those concerns. I am also aware of the concern expressed in the debate in the Northern Ireland Assembly, and know that that deep concern is shared by all the people of Northern Ireland.

The coalition Government is determined that everything possible is done to uncover the truth about what happened and that appropriate action is taken. If there is any difference of view, it is only on the way in which this should be done.

The Minister referred to the debate in the Assembly. There was a great degree of cross-community consensus that this should be done as part of a national inquiry. Normally the Government’s response to Northern Ireland issues is, “Well, if you can get a consensus among the parties in the Assembly, we will do that.” Why is that not the response in this case?

Let me move on with my remarks, which I hope will respond to that important question.

The issues relating to Kincora are being examined by the historical institutional abuse inquiry under Sir Anthony Hart’s chairmanship. Currently, the view of Ministers across government is that this is the most appropriate place where all allegations related to Kincora should be examined.

Because the protection of children is a devolved matter—I accept the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast East that she feels certain matters have been dealt with fully—it would clearly be less appropriate for the inquiry panel chaired by Fiona Woolf to make recommendations for Northern Ireland concerning the running of the current child protection system there. Indeed, legislation was enacted in Northern Ireland specifically to enable Sir Anthony’s examination to take place.

The Minister said it is currently “the view of Ministers across government” and then went on to refer to things being devolved matters. I hope he is not trying to imply that Ministers in Northern Ireland are agreed that the Home Office inquiry is not the appropriate place for Kincoral because that is not what those Ministers are saying.

I am giving the official Government response which, of course, covers all Ministers in all Departments. That is the doctrine of collective responsibility.

I understand that Sir Anthony’s inquiry intends to examine allegations made to it by ex-residents of Kincora and has already heard evidence from a number of witnesses on this matter. Sir Anthony has said that if his inquiry finds evidence that anyone other than the three men convicted was aware of, or involved in, the sexual abuse of Kincora residents then, irrespective of their prominence, it will investigate their knowledge of, and any role they may have played in, such matters. I commend his approach.

Furthermore, the Hart inquiry has wide powers of compulsion, under section 9 of the Inquiry into Historical Institutional Abuse Act (Northern Ireland) 2013, to require persons and bodies to produce evidence, although, respecting the fact that it is a body established by the devolved authorities, those powers do not extend to the UK Government, which is one of the issues my hon. Friend was concerned about in her opening remarks. It is important to put it on the record, however, that this is a statutory inquiry and can therefore compel persons to give evidence. The independent inquiry panel into child sexual abuse, established by the Home Secretary, will have no such powers of compulsion unless a decision is subsequently made to turn it into a statutory inquiry.

I appreciate the Minister’s point about the powers of compulsion, but it is for the Home Office to set the terms of the national inquiry, so the powers of compulsion could be given and put on a statutory footing. Secondly, Sir Anthony Hart’s powers of compulsion, as stated clearly in his letter and reiterated in his comments today, only extend to those matters which are transferred, not to issues such as the security and intelligence service, the Ministry of Defence, MI5 and others.

I fully accept that, and as I shall say later, if evidence is produced or there is a request from Fiona Woolf’s panel for this to be turned into a statutory inquiry, the Home Office will consider that at that point.

I accept that, because the Hart inquiry’s powers of compulsion do not extend to the UK Government, concern has been expressed as to whether it will be able to deal effectively with the allegations of misconduct and cover-up regarding the horrific events that occurred at Kincora. My hon. Friend referred to allegations of blackmail and cover-up. I make it perfectly plain from the Dispatch Box that I expect those matters to be dealt with by Sir Anthony Hart’s inquiry, and it would be incomplete if it did not do so. I will also encourage him to make it very clear if he feels that his efforts to uncover the truth are in any way being thwarted. Thirdly, I make it plain that there was no intention on the Government’s part to engage in any cover-up. Our only interest is to get to the truth of this matter.

Surely the allegations of involvement by MI5 make this not a provincial Northern Ireland issue but a national one requiring a national inquiry. That is what we are saying: MI5’s alleged involvement gives this issue a national perspective, so there should be a national inquiry.

As I have said, if Sir Anthony Hart feels he is being thwarted or he requires further information for his inquiry, he should say so, publicly, if he wishes. Similarly, if Fiona Woolf believes that her inquiry should be converted into a statutory inquiry, she can say so. We do not have a closed mind on these matters.

I would like to set out how the concern that the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast East referred to is being addressed. As the Northern Ireland Secretary said in her statement yesterday, all Government Departments and agencies that receive a request for information or documents from the Hart inquiry will co-operate to the utmost of their ability in determining what material that they hold might be relevant to it regarding matters for which they have responsibility, in accordance with the terms of reference of the inquiry. The Northern Ireland Office has already started this process by disclosing to the inquiry a list of files held by it which relate to the Kincora boys’ home. In parallel, the Ministry of Defence has begun work to establish whether it holds any documents that are relevant to the inquiry, and other UK Departments and agencies will do likewise.

It will be important for the Northern Ireland inquiry to determine whether either the Security Service or the MOD has documents that are relevant to it. The Northern Ireland Secretary has been clear that a detailed plan of action for achieving this is being worked on as a matter of urgency.

I thank the Minister for giving way; he is being extremely generous. On the question of what information and papers may be held, will that also extend to looking at notices of destruction for some files for that period, to find out whether there was a pattern of destroying some of the information that is critical in this case?

It is for Sir Anthony Hart to take forward his inquiry; it is not for me to determine exactly what he should look for. However, clearly, if he believes that there has been a pattern of destruction, that, in my view, would be relevant to the inquiry he is holding.

I hope that what I, the Northern Ireland Secretary and the Home Secretary have said will to some extent allay the concerns expressed in this debate. I am strengthened in that view by what Sir Anthony Hart himself has said on this matter. I shall quote him at some length, because his comments are relevant and it is important to put them on the record. He said:

“My HIA Inquiry panel colleagues and I welcome the written statement made by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to the House of Commons in which she has given assurances that all Departments of HM Government and its agencies will co-operate to the utmost of their ability with the HIA Inquiry into Kincora. We are satisfied that the assurance of full co-operation by all Government Departments and agencies, and the satisfactory resolution by HM Government of the other issues the Inquiry has raised with it, will provide our HIA Inquiry with the ability and financial resources to carry out an effective and thorough investigation into all the Kincora allegations. However, should it become apparent during our work that it is necessary to have powers under the Inquiries Act 2005 then we will ask OFMDFM (Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minster) and HM Government to confer such powers on our Inquiry.”

So Sir Anthony Hart appears to be robust in his determination, as we are in ours, to uncover the truth of this horrible matter.

Taking all these strands together, I hope that this reassures those on both sides of the House that we have set out the best possible approach to bring justice to all the victims of these dreadful crimes. However, the coalition Government has made a commitment to monitor carefully the extent to which the inquiry is able to make progress in respect of material relevant to Kincora. We will look at the situation again if the inquiry tells us that it is unable to determine the facts. In the event that this were to occur, there remains the possibility of seeking agreement to bring the Kincora allegations within the terms of reference of the inquiry panel, along with the option of converting it into a statutory inquiry. We have not closed our minds on these matters, but we want to see how they unfold.

I repeat that we have no interest in any cover-up, and that we are interested in getting to the truth, just as the hon. Lady and her colleagues from Northern Ireland are. I again commend them for the efforts that they have made in the House today and outside it to take this important matter forward. I think I speak for all of us here today when I say that we share a passionate belief that children have a fundamental right to protection, and that, where there have been failings by institutions, we will leave no stone unturned in rooting them out.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.