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Survivors of Child Abuse

Volume 594: debated on Tuesday 17 March 2015

It gives me no pleasure to open a debate on the lack of support for child abuse survivors. The issue is predominant in the media at the moment; there is almost a frenzy of activity going on, with media and public interest in the issue of prominent people and child abuse.

One of the great dilemmas for anyone provided with information by people out there is understanding the context of what was going on. The context is worth spelling out a little bit, because it affects understanding of how those who survived childhood exploitation and abuse were treated at the time. One of the dilemmas regarding the involvement of Members of Parliament, politicians and other prominent people is that there is a fine line to be drawn between MPs in the past who were secretly homosexual, those who were secretly homosexual and paying for sex with teenage boys, although it used to be illegal for men to have sex under 21, and those who were doing so with younger children. Of course, if MPs—or anyone else—are paying for sex with teenage boys, they probably do not ask, “Are you 18, 19, 14 or 15?” Part of the problem of exposing the past is precisely that. Who are the real perpetrators?

There is a separate side to this that is equally difficult. The vast majority of adults who come to me having been abused as children raised issues with the authorities as small children, but were treated as being the problem, as we saw rather graphically recently in Rotherham. Rotherham is no different from anywhere else—no different from Nottingham or Bassetlaw, which in turn is no different from the rest of the country.

For example, I have spoken to someone who, aged 11, was fostered out with nine other children and alleges multiple abuse, including rape, of these young children, some of whom were younger than him. He was forced into slavery—forced to work, in a workplace that I can identify in my constituency, from age 11 to 15, for nothing, the money going to his foster parents. The head teacher of his school wrote—I have seen the letters—saying that he did not want the child in the school, and claims in the attendance records that he was there when he was not. He was working for nothing in a foundry—a foundry!—aged 11, 12 and 13. He came forward for the first time to see me, his MP. Why me? I do not know, but he did. He has not been to anyone else. He is going to the police. He will go public, I am quite certain. The media will get a phenomenal story on what was going on. More victims will emerge, I know, because I have already done my own investigations. It was not a one-off; this was going on for years.

I have to tell my constituent that in a court case last week, it was ruled that children in foster care cannot make a civil claim against a local authority, because the local authority has no liability. I look at what local authorities across the country are doing, and I see documents about liability insurance and liability. They do not have a problem with kids in foster care, because the courts just ruled that there is no liability, but hang on a minute: what support is there for my constituents who were put into slavery aged 11 and abused? My constituent’s sisters and brothers were abused, too.

What support is there now for a constituent of mine who was raped repeatedly as a child in different care homes and foster homes? She made multiple allegations that take in different police forces and Crown prosecutors across the country. She spent three days in hospital under sedation, after giving her statement to the police and reliving the trauma, to try to get one of the prosecutions off the ground, and we are dealing with councils that are worried about insurance liability and are writing papers on that as their priority. That is what is fundamentally not understood.

I could give a list of MPs past and present suspected of involvement in child abuse. Most of the names would be accurate, although they would not all be, and that is why I am not going to do it. It would hinder the police. I spoke to the police minutes before coming in here about whether it would be helpful to do that. They are neutral, but my judgment is: let the police follow the evidence. One way or another, the names will get out. I want the people out in a court of law, being prosecuted and imprisoned. That is the appropriate thing. Critically, what I want from this debate is a system that supports these adults. The woman who was repeatedly raped and was sedated going into hospital after giving a statement—can you imagine what it is like, reliving the trauma in detail to give a statement so that a prosecution can be considered?

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate this afternoon. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Dorries. The hon. Gentleman is getting to the nub of the problem. It is not just about the huge courage the victims have to have to come forward; the system needs to support them afterwards. My constituent, Jo, was repeatedly raped at 15. She has suffered because there are inadequacies with the Crown Prosecution Service and the Parole Board, and her perpetrator is back out on the streets. He had five life sentences. Will the hon. Gentleman expand on his issues with how the system has been letting people down, such as my constituent, Jo?

It has been letting down the hon. Lady’s constituents and mine alike. Three girls were repeatedly raped from age 5 onwards. There is no case to answer, because their statements taken at the time, when they were young kids, do not add up. The Crown Prosecution Service said, “Oh, there is nothing we can do. We will not win in court.” What support is there for them? I will tell you what support there is: me. That is who they come to. I will give them support, but what I need from the state and national and local government is properly resourced mental health services that do not, as they did to my constituent, send people away—she needed to be sedated for three days, having made a statement about the multiple rape and other violence—and say, “Come back in a month’s time.” That happened in Nottinghamshire this year to one of the victims. Mental health services are totally disjointed when it comes to support.

I am dealing with children’s social services, but some of these adults are in their 50s or 60s. They will not be going to children’s social services, so where is the support from adult social services? There is no system in place that gives them that. I have constituents who have been hung out to dry by the police and given no support. They were not even referred to the support agencies, having come and said, “We were raped as children.” What on earth is going on when we have no support systems in place?

The hon. Gentleman is making a very powerful case on behalf of victims of child abuse. In Northern Ireland in the past year, 50 offenders have been arrested and questioned in relation to sexual abuse. Does he feel that the first thing that survivors of child abuse want to see is the culprits arrested, investigated and referred to the courts for sentencing? Do resources need to be made available for that to happen?

The survivors want justice, and the only way they will get that is by being believed and by perpetrators being prosecuted. The Crown Prosecution Service cannot cope with the volume. It has hardly any cases compared with the cases that will go to it. For the Crown Prosecution Service in the east midlands, we are talking about a manifold increase just from the cases I am bringing. How on earth do we expect such places as Rotherham to deal with the numbers? The expertise to take the cases forward is there, but the resource is not. What is being said is, “We will put it on the long drift for years and years.” That is what has happened with the police. They are not even getting to some of the people who should be questioned as potential perpetrators, because they do not have the resource to do that.

I am not criticising Government spending; what they spend on this, that and the other is a separate debate. It is important that we all get our heads around what is needed. We are not talking about the Government announcing another £100 million or £200 million here or there; we are talking about a far bigger resource than that. In my constituency, I am personally dealing with 25 victims—25 survivors of child abuse. That is so far. There are loads and loads more out there, just in my constituency.

The Crown Prosecution Service and the police cannot handle the prosecutions, the mental health services cannot handle the support services for the victims and social services cannot handle virtually anything to do with them. They do not have the resource. If we are to get on top of this huge legacy, we need to define what I put to the Minister as a Roll-Royce service. What does that mean? A standard needs to be put in place so that when someone comes forward, there is a benchmark that defines what they are entitled to. It is an entitlement. This man was forced into slavery and went to the police, and the police and the social workers returned him and his sisters to the abusers not once, not twice, not three times, but more. He did the right thing, and he is entitled to a Rolls-Royce service. That can come in different forms. What is his major demand? One-to-one literacy lessons, because he finds it a bit hard to get on, being unable to read and write because he was not in school because he was forced to work in a foundry by some predatory paedophile abuser who was the foster carer over him—and that is what they were. Literacy is the most important thing for him.

There is no system in place that says, “You will get this. You are entitled to this.” What is he meant to do—go to the civil courts, as so many thousands have already done? That is not a sensible approach, given that lawyers will not even share information, and are telling people in Nottinghamshire not to come to me, the media or anyone else. They say, “Stick with us, we’ll get you a little bit of money.” How much is a life worth in Nottinghamshire? Eight grand a settlement. It is not good enough, and it is not going to be good enough in future.

Whether under this Government or the next Government, whoever is in power in the next Parliament, whoever the Minister is, from whichever party, I need to see defined an immediately available Rolls-Royce service. Whatever resource is needed, we will have to find it. This is not about me getting up and having a go at the Government; it is about Parliament taking responsibility. This is about saying that a huge amount of the available resources needs to be given and broken down into different areas.

I have been contacted by constituents and many others from all over the country who have survived abuse. They want prosecutions to proceed. They want the police to be able to investigate. They want mental health and other NHS facilities and services to be available. They want support from adult social services. They need that, and they need it as they come forward.

There is one final thing that they need. The Government have made their decisions about the independent panel and Goddard. We can learn a lot from abroad. They do this stuff better in Scandinavia and New Zealand. We should be stealing all their best practice for how we deal with things. Whoever is the Minister, and whoever sits on the Select Committees and all the rest, should get out there, steal their good ideas, bring them back and implement them here. But survivors need their own forum. They have called for a national institute for people abused in childhood. They need that, because then they can provide some of the support and guidance, and they can contribute to the definition of a Rolls-Royce service.

I cannot be dealing with more people attempting suicide, having come to me because the support services are not there. I do not give a damn which heads are going to roll. If those support services are not there, I will get rid of the people at the top, because it is not good enough for my constituents, who are no different from people anywhere else.

I need from the Government a clear undertaking that the resources and expertise will be there. If someone has survived this trauma and lived with it all their life, they have a right to and an expectation of support when they bravely come forward. That is what we as a society and we as a Parliament are going to have to give them. That is why this debate is not only timely, but critical. We need action within months, not years.

I thank the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) for leading such an important and timely debate about the support available for those who have suffered child sexual abuse. The first thing that any victim wants is honesty. People in authority must take reports seriously and confront abuse wherever it occurs. As the hon. Gentleman said, victims have not only a right to be believed, but a right not to be treated as the problem. That is why we have been determined to tackle the issues of both historical and current child sex abuse.

For too long, people in positions of power have swept concerns about child abuse under the carpet, failing to act even in the face of clear evidence. That cannot be allowed to carry on; we have to act. The Home Secretary has said that what we have seen so far is likely to be the tip of the iceberg. The hon. Gentleman’s speech has reaffirmed the fact that there is still much for us to understand and learn. We must consider how we can ensure that victims of abuse are given the support that they rightly deserve. That is why the Home Office set up an inquiry under the leadership of Justice Lowell Goddard to investigate the shocking claims that we have heard and are still hearing about child sexual abuse by those in positions of power in the past. We are now finally seeing police forces throughout the country showing the will and determination to tackle child sexual exploitation wherever it occurs, be it in Oxfordshire, Rotherham, Derby, Rochdale, or elsewhere, as the hon. Gentleman said.

We have already announced that we will consult on a new criminal offence of wilful neglect for teachers, councillors and social workers who fail to act on evidence of child abuse, and the Prime Minister has upgraded child sexual exploitation to a national threat, creating a duty on police forces to co-operate across force boundaries.

Does the Minister agree that it would be helpful to establish a central database of children in care who have gone missing?

We have already improved the data, not only on children in care who are missing, but on absence. Rather than being only on those who have disappeared for more than 24 hours, the data—whether from the local authority or the police—now cover every single case of a child who has gone missing from care, irrespective of the type of placement. That is important because we know that those children are particularly vulnerable to exploitation, especially those in residential care, which is why we have undertaken such wide-ranging reforms to improve risk assessments for children’s homes, to improve the quality of care in those homes, and to ensure that the decision makers—particularly those who place children out of area—are much more robustly accountable for their decisions than they have been in the past.

The hon. Gentleman is correct to say that listening to survivors of child sexual abuse is not enough on its own. They need support, often well into adult life. The psychological effects of childhood abuse can be absolutely devastating—from depression and anxiety to eating disorders, self-harm, alcohol and drug addiction, and severely disrupted learning that can hamper them for life. On the latter, the hon. Gentleman gave the example of a constituent who came to him for help and wanted one-to-one literacy lessons. That is a good example of the wide-ranging consequences of something that has been left untouched and not properly considered as part of his constituent’s rehabilitation.

I will come on to the various strands of support that are either in existence but need to improve, or that the Government have announced to try to ensure that we better support people who find themselves in that situation. The truth is that long-term specialist intervention may be required to rebuild self-esteem and resilience, as well as to tackle serious psychological ill health.

The hon. Gentleman will not want me to quote a succession of numbers at him relating to the money that has been made available to support victims of child sexual abuse, but it is right to recognise that a fund has been established for 2014-15 and 2015-16. We are working with the support of organisations that are reporting an increase in referrals prompted by the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse.

I have also listened with interest to the hon. Gentleman’s call today for a national institute for survivors of child abuse. I undertake to take up the proposal with all other relevant Ministers, including the Home Secretary, because despite the fact that the independent inquiry is up and running, it is important that we still take time to consider what other support we might be able to offer to give us confidence that we are addressing the issues that many survivors are raising. We have already announced the establishment of a new centre of expertise, which will help to develop and deliver better approaches to tackling child sexual abuse, spreading the best practice that the hon. Gentleman spoke about from as far afield as New Zealand and Scandinavia. We can also learn from the many professionals who are out there but need the capacity to deliver services more widely. Part of that has to be how victim support is built into that body of expertise.

Survivors have rightly been instrumental in the setting up of the statutory independent inquiry into child sexual abuse. Both Justice Goddard and the Home Secretary are clear that they must also have a strong voice in the work of the inquiry. Justice Goddard will write to survivors and their representatives shortly to set out her intention to create a survivors and victims consultative panel, and to seek their views on how that will work and who should be on it. The panel will have a specific role and function within the inquiry. The inquiry’s terms of reference state that it must:

“Consider the experience of survivors of child sexual abuse; providing opportunities for them to bear witness to the Inquiry, having regard to the need to provide appropriate support in doing so”.

Rightly, it is for the inquiry to consider the most appropriate way to take things forward, but survivors have to be a key part of its remit.

What cannot be disputed is that now and at any point in history safeguarding children—the action that we take to promote the welfare of children and to protect them from harm—is everyone’s business. Everyone whose work brings them into contact with children and families, from the school receptionist, the police and health practitioners to the social workers, will have an important role to play in spotting and rooting out abuse and then supporting those young people, and sometimes adults, to come to terms to with what has happened to them and in how to deal with their future.

I thank the Minister for his positive remarks. Whoever is elected at the next election, does he agree that it would be highly sensible for the 650 individual MPs to be given proper training in how to handle people who might come to see them in the near future? That training need is clearly not being met at the moment and all of us could benefit from it. It could be hugely significant to individual lives.

I hesitate slightly because I come from a legal background in the family courts, but I can see the benefit to me of having had the opportunity to familiarise myself with many of the challenges and consequences for not only the victims of child sexual abuse, but the wider family. I have found that experience invaluable in trying to understand the wider needs for addressing the problems that society is now facing up to. I will not write the book of MPs’ training, but from my perspective as a constituency MP—like many colleagues—the background and experience that I have been able to draw from has been important in empathising with and understanding the significance of the many whom I have encountered in my surgeries and casework. It would be helpful for many other colleagues to have the opportunity to understand better the types of issues that they will undoubtedly come across in future.

Effective safeguarding of children can be achieved only by putting children at the centre of the system and by every individual and agency playing their full part. Failure to do that has been shown starkly in the reports from Rotherham and Oxfordshire, which have revealed a need for a co-ordinated response to protect children from child sexual exploitation and sexual abuse. That requires a system in which professionals work together to identify emerging problems and goes right through to supporting children who are in need or on a child protection plan.

No single professional can ever have a full picture of a child’s needs and circumstances. If children and families are to receive the right help at the right time, everyone who comes into contact with them has a role to play in identifying concerns, sharing information and taking prompt action. Where that happens, children are better protected. We will therefore shortly publish a revised version of the “What to do if you’re worried a child is being abused” advice, which has a stronger focus on ensuring that professionals are aware of the signs of abuse and neglect and what action they need to take in response. We will also publish revised guidance on information sharing to set out the key principles for how to do that effectively.

Once a child’s need has been identified, getting help quickly is important to stop needs escalating. However, the quality of the intervention will determine how children can be helped to overcome their abuse. Targeted help is required to meet individual needs—as highlighted by Alexis Jay’s report into the failings in Rotherham, a child who has experienced sexual abuse will almost inevitably require long-term specialist intervention. Help will range from basic support to rebuild self-esteem and resilience, to interventions that tackle serious psychological and mental ill health.

Effective and timely support for victims of child sexual abuse is a matter of national importance. That is why the Government are doing more than ever to help victims of rape and sexual violence through the female rape support fund, which has funded 86 rape support centres to provide independent, specialist support to victims of recent and historical rape and sexual violence. In December last year we announced an immediate uplift of £7 million in non-statutory sector support to victims and survivors through the existing female rape support centres and two funds available to organisations supporting victims in areas where there is high prevalence of child sexual abuse and exploitation. Importantly, we have set up the first fund dedicated to help male victims of rape and sexual abuse.

We are also working with professional health organisations such as NHS England on where efforts should be focused to train staff on trauma-informed approaches to care in mental health services. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Government report on the work of the children and young people’s mental health taskforce was published earlier today. It sets out a clear national ambition to support and inform the delivery of a local offer of services to all children and young people.

We also announced £80 million to help to cut waiting times in adult mental health services. The hon. Gentleman made the important point that it is not until they are adults that the child sexual abuse of many of the victims or survivors comes to the notice of the authorities. That is far too late, but it does not mean that we give up. We continue to strain every sinew to ensure that those survivors get the help that they need, whether through the health service, social care or other agencies.

We need to be better—this is what the taskforce is trying to ensure—at ensuring that all those who should have an interest do have an interest in working closely together to provide the package of support that we know when done effectively can have transformative results. Clearly, child sexual abuse is something that never leaves people who are victims of it. I have worked with many children and, in particular if abuse takes place in a family environment, it has been hard for them ever to come to terms with it.

As the hon. Gentleman said, not only as a Government, but as a society we need to recognise that child sexual abuse is something that we all must take seriously. We must all play our part to ensure that it is not simply swept under the carpet, as has happened in the past. It must be put centre stage, thus addressing a national issue that we must never hide. We should be clear about tackling it head on. If we do not do so, we are only storing up more problems for the future, and more strain and pressures on services that are working hard to support the victims of child sexual abuse. For whoever is in government after 8 May, it will no doubt be a high priority to demonstrate that everyone in society should set out our stall in support of those—in particular the most vulnerable—who have, through no fault of their own, been victims of child sexual abuse.

Another important element is to give professionals not only the tools and skills, but the confidence to know that they can spot child sexual abuse and go to their senior management and others in authority knowing that they will be supported. In Rotherham and other cases, that has not happened, which has meant that too many children were let down and too many adults are living with their horrific past. It is incumbent on all of us to turn that situation around. I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s contribution to the debate.