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Child Sexual Abuse

Volume 596: debated on Tuesday 2 June 2015

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

Child sex abuse is the public health issue of our time, and it is about prevention, not just cure. It is vital that our view is driven by the science and not by the media. It is also vital that our efforts are focused through a national institution, and that is what we will debate tonight. This is about sparing generations of children—the next generation and many after—and not about prurient interest in celebrities, the BBC, racial stereotypes, or even politicians. The Government now have another opportunity to get a serious strategic grip on how we can combat and build out child sex abuse.

Creating a national “what works” institution to pull together the best practice and the strongest evidence on prevention of sexual abuse is the most important contribution that this Parliament and Government can make together. I first proposed the creation of a national institute to study and prevent child sexual abuse 26 years ago to the then Prime Minister Mrs Margaret Thatcher, and have done so repeatedly ever since. Now, after years of Governments of all parties being reactive and inactive, I am delighted to welcome real signs of progress. May I put on record my thanks to the officials and Ministers involved? One Minister, Lynne Featherstone, has now left us, but I am glad to see the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison), in her place, and of course the Minister who will reply to the debate. Their contribution to this very serious issue has been second to none, and it would not have happened without them and colleagues in all parts of the House working together on it.

The breakthrough came in March when the Home Office, working with the Department for Education, the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Ministry of Justice and the Department of Health, published this report, “Tackling Child Sexual Exploitation”, which I strongly welcome. I commend the Government for looking to long-term solutions to this deep-rooted issue, not just quick fixes belatedly responding to specific crimes and expensive inquiries. In the report, they pledge to

“establish a new Centre of Expertise to identify and share high quality evidence on what works to tackle child sexual abuse.”

They should do so swiftly and with the support of absolutely everyone in this House. Why?

I am afraid that I have only 15 minutes to make my contribution.

I repeat: why? Let us imagine we had acted a quarter of a century ago—think of the body of work that a national institute could have produced by now on what works, what does not work, and what policies can be applied at lots of different levels in a multi-agency situation. We could have had an absolute treasure chest of things that would help us tackle child sexual abuse. Had we acted then, countless numbers of victims could have been saved from abuse and the development of thousands of potential perpetrators could have been prevented. The creation of a national institute is a chance for us to make a start now—to banish the feelings that we all have of powerlessness and anger and instead substitute a clear, practical solution.

I apologise for not giving way because I have so little time to get these things on the record.

There is an enormous amount of excellent work to build on—we are not starting with a blank sheet of paper—by the Lucy Faithfull Foundation, Barnardo’s, the Wave Trust, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Circles UK, the National Association for People Abused in Childhood, the Quakers, our Children’s Commissioner, the National Working Group Network and the International Centre at Bedford University, to name but a few. I say to the Minister that they should all be valued and made close partners in this venture. Competition in this field would not and should not be tolerated at all. Working together will be the key to unlocking some of the answers.

I have the good fortune to write extensively, and on a cross-party basis, on early intervention and I set up Nottingham as the first early intervention city. As a result, the Prime Minister asked me to write two independent reports on early intervention for Her Majesty’s Government. The reports made many recommendations, the key one being the creation of a “what works” centre for early intervention: an independent charity, rooted in evidence-based policy that would share knowledge, promote best practice and link up early intervention services across the whole country. With the Government’s help, I was able to create the Early Intervention Foundation, which has been running for almost two years and has become the national authority on all early intervention evidence and practice.

I say that in order to make a very simple point: nothing less will be acceptable for a national institute for the study and prevention of the sexual abuse of children. It must be a centre for excellence and the national authority for what has already been proven to work.

One of the most important weapons against child sexual abuse will be evidence-sharing. Many local authorities, charities and agencies do great work, but all of us are stronger if we learn from each other and share wisdom and successes. In order to have that and credibility, it is essential that the institute is broadly constituted and broadly governed, and is not the property of one successful bidder, however eminent they may be.

We can no longer pretend that child sexual abuse has not happened in all corners of the UK. As the Home Office report says:

“Any local authority or police force that denies that it has a problem, or thinks that it is only happening elsewhere, is wrong.”

Organisations confronting child sexual abuse cannot win without a strong, independent source of evidence and best practice that they can turn to, be encouraged by and confide in.

Louise Casey’s superb report earlier this year on child sexual exploitation showed that, even today, many localities continue to deny or totally misunderstand the scale of the problem. A national institute, in the words of the Home Office report,

“will support areas that are struggling to get it right.”

It is so important that we all help each other to understand some of the ways forward in this field. Poor practice in multi-agency working, information sharing and risk assessment have led to the major failures that were highlighted in recent reports on Rotherham and Greater Manchester and that are evident elsewhere. It is vital that a national institute becomes a hub for evidence and best practice, so that all agencies can invest together wisely in prevention and in the most effective therapies to help victims.

A new national institute should never deal with an individual case or initiate inquiries or inquiries on scandals or celebrities. Its reputation must be for hard evidence—it must be unimpeachable and apolitical—so that it will be as trusted, I hope, as the Early Intervention Foundation. Above all, it must research the root causes of child sexual abuse. Why do people perpetrate these unimaginable crimes? How do we prevent abusive behaviour from developing in the first place? Those questions must be addressed, because understanding the causes will allow us to take action to prevent these horrible episodes in future. Simply recognising and breaking the inter- generational nature of much of this offending will save thousands of broken lives.

Of course, firefighting will always be necessary. There is a plethora of public inquiries and criminal proceedings that must be pursued with vigour and rigour. Those inquiries are vital for the victims of these awful crimes, but clearly the Government now understand that they must also think about the future, setting out a long-term plan—crucially, on an all-party basis—so that I do not have to haunt similar debates in another 26 years’ time.

One enormous side effect of a national institute would be the local and national economic benefits. Early intervention has been proven to save taxpayers billions of pounds. Tackling the root causes of sexual abuse would mean much less money was spent on large inquiries and criminal trials and, above all, on lifetimes of massively expensive care for damaged individuals and families.

The most important saving that a national institute would bring would be felt by our children themselves. Saving future generations from horrific and avoidable experiences must be the key driver of our actions. We must intervene pre-emptively to eradicate the sexual abuse of children over a generation and longer, not only to protect children now, but to prevent future abuse. A national institute should not have to go around with a begging bowl, or cap in hand; it should be secure in its future so that it can undertake this tremendously important work. I know that the Minister feels strongly about that.

With a national institute, we can start to do something about this issue by helping people and ensuring that they have the social and emotional capability to make choices—the choice not to become an abuser—and the strength to resist grooming when it is taking place. Although there is no magic wand to prevent child sexual abuse from happening, there is a growing body of national and international programmes and practices that can be tested, evidenced and replicated so that they are costed, ranked and accessible to all the agencies that need to access them. They can build on good parenting and the social and emotional bedrock for babies, children and young people that is at the heart of early intervention.

Child abuse is about inhumanity, cruelty, domination and dysfunction; our alternative is about empathy, love, nurture and humanity. When people have social and emotional capability, it is difficult to go wrong. If they do not have that, they might deliver adverse childhood experiences that, at their most dysfunctional and extreme, can include the sexual abuse of children.

I congratulate the Minister on getting the initiative to this point. I must share with him, however, that when I got the concept of the Early Intervention Foundation to this point, even with full prime ministerial approval, it took a further two years of battling in Whitehall to get it established. My hard questions to him are therefore: what time scale does he have in mind? How will he ensure that the governance of a national institute is independent? As I alluded to earlier, what financial provision will he put in place to ensure the longevity and sustainability that will be necessary to match the intergenerational nature of the task?

By the time of the next election, the national institute for the study and prevention of the sexual abuse of children could be celebrating its fourth birthday. It could have a full menu of best practices and programmes. It could have a website, accessible to all agencies. It could be advising perhaps 30 champion localities throughout the country. It could have a clear, independent, charitable governance structure. It could be at the heart of an international network and be a respected, credible organisation. But most of all, it could have enabled tens of thousands more children to have been raised without the life-wasting curse of sexual abuse.

Some may regard it as an onerous responsibility that the Minister is taking on; I suggest to him that it is one of the most exciting and rewarding challenges that any of us could hope for, and I personally will help him in every way he sees fit.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) on securing this very important debate. Having known him for many years, it comes as no surprise to me that he sought to bring to the Floor of the House the serious issue of child sexual abuse at the earliest opportunity in this Parliament.

I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that tackling all forms of abuse and exploitation of children is a priority for this Government, as it was for the last Government, and it remains essential that how we tackle abuse—as a Government, as professionals and as a society—is underpinned by robust evidence of what works and what will deliver the best outcomes for children and young people. However, the fact remains that we need to know much more about the approaches that are most effective; we need to know not only what services work best for young people who have suffered abuse but how to prevent abuse from happening in the first place.

I will give way very quickly, because I want to ensure that the hon. Member for Nottingham North receives a full answer.

One thing that concerns me is the issue of gathering evidence, for instance building the evidential base in the case of Kincora and what happened in Northern Ireland. That evidence should be used to improve the expertise that is necessary to deliver for children and to give them the protection that they need.

I will reiterate this point later, but there is no doubt that there is evidence not only in the United Kingdom, within which Northern Ireland plays a key role, but internationally. We need to ensure that we use the best evidence we can gather to inform practice on the ground. We should seek it wherever it exists and not suggest that we have all the solutions here at home. I am sure that anything that could contribute to that process would be welcome.

Social workers, police, doctors, nurses, youth workers, schools and judges all have a crucial role to play in tackling child sexual abuse, and indeed other forms of abuse and neglect, and yet we have not done enough to help to equip those professionals with the evidence of what works. That is why I am pleased to use this debate to reinforce the Government’s commitment to establishing a new centre of expertise on tackling child sexual abuse. Its primary purpose will be to improve our understanding of what works to prevent sexual abuse and sexual exploitation, of how best to help people who have suffered from this horrendous crime, and of how to work with the perpetrators to prevent them from reoffending in the future.

Why is that so important? Well, we cannot escape the reality that many victims have been failed by the system. They have been failed by a lack of sensitivity, by a lack of understanding, by a lack of willingness of professionals to listen to and believe them, and by a system that has been too quick to jump to conclusions and to blame.

“Tackling Child Sexual Exploitation”, the report that was issued in March, set out how we are responding to the failures identified by Professor Alexis Jay and Louise Casey, to whom I again pay tribute for their insightful and hard-hitting contributions. The inquiry led by Lowell Goddard is investigating the shocking claims of child sexual abuse by those in positions of power. We are also seeing police forces up and down the country showing real and renewed determination to tackle child sexual exploitation wherever it occurs, but they need the tools to do that.

Local areas say that they are frequently told what “failure” looks like but no one has articulated what “good” looks like. So we need to learn not only from areas where things have gone wrong but from areas where things have gone well. We need to garner that knowledge from parts of the country where all professionals are striving to do their best for children and young people; where agencies work closely, and share data and intelligence; where action is taken swiftly; and where services are provided to help victims and to bring perpetrators to justice. Practitioners working in this way are doing so because of their commitment, their experience and their professional judgement, but too often they are hampered by process and by lack of evidence. As the hon. Member for Nottingham North reminded us, he first proposed, as far back as 1990, a national institute to tackle child sexual abuse and, as he put it, the root causes of child sexual abuse. He was right to propose it then, and he is right to raise it again now, and I can assure him that we are fully committed to achieving this shared vision.

That is not to say that our collective understanding has been at a complete standstill since the 1990s, but there is still much we do not know and there are gaps across the full range of work with children and young people, families and perpetrators. That is why establishing a new centre of expertise is a real opportunity to build a shared understanding of how best to address and tackle child sexual abuse, not just to help us to make decisions in government, but to support and improve practice by social workers, the police, the NHS, youth workers, schools, early years settings and many others, all of which the centre will need to work with.

What will the centre do? It will look at the full spectrum of child sexual abuse. As an active advocate of the importance of early intervention, the hon. Gentleman will recognise the need for the centre to look at how to reduce the vulnerability of young people to abuse and exploitation. We need to know what early interventions can help—for example, what role schools can play and what families and carers can do—and what we can do to promote resilience. We also need to understand how to identify risk and prevent situations from escalating. We need to know how agencies work best together, how to assess risk swiftly and effectively, and how to safeguard vulnerable groups such as children in residential care.

We have already established a £7 million fund to support victims of child sexual abuse. I have seen from my own experiences growing up with foster brothers and sisters the impact that abuse and neglect can have. To improve our response to such trauma, we need to know what therapeutic and other support is most effective, and what young people themselves feel they need and for how long. Just as vitally, we need to understand more about the behaviours of offenders. How can we prevent them from offending and reoffending? What leads to the successful disruption of perpetrators? What factors help to achieve a successful prosecution?

I am concerned about how we can join up across the jurisdictions of the United Kingdom, particularly given the announcement by the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning in Edinburgh recently about the public inquiry into historical child sex abuse in Scotland. How will that be reflected across these islands and jurisdictions, and how will it inform this debate?

We have heard now from two important regions of the UK. We have a shared purpose in ensuring that the knowledge we impart to all professionals, wherever they are practising in our country, is based on the best possible evidence. As part of that process, I would welcome any contributions from other parties and parts of the UK that want to learn from the work we are doing to ensure that we are not all trying to reinvent the same wheel.

Does the Minister agree that the institute might look at disclosure and barring service checks—how they work, who should be involved, to whom they should be extended—because in the past so often the failure has been from contact with people who have never been DBS checked?

I am not going to make that commitment on the Floor of the House now. I am not sure it is the purpose and remit of the centre, but it is an area the Government keep under review and I note the hon. Lady’s interest in the DBS system. I am sure it is something we will return to later in this Parliament.

The future funding of the centre will be determined at the spending review. The hon. Member for Nottingham North has argued passionately that investing in the evidence base will save money in the long term. Irrespective of the spending review—always dangerous words to put in the same sentence—my fellow Ministers across Government are determined that the centre will be not a short-term initiative but a long-term driver of practice improvement.

We are working across Government to explore what form the centre should take. We want to learn from the success of other organisations that have driven evidence-based practice, including “what works” centres, such as the Education Endowment Foundation, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence and the Allen-inspired Early Intervention Foundation. We want to understand what has worked in terms of governance, funding and working with local areas, so that we can make the most of this endeavour and do it in such a way that everybody feels they are part of it and have invested in it as a long-term solution.

The centre will identify gaps in evidence, commission research pilots and evaluate local practice. It will, of course, need to learn from international practice, as I mentioned a few moments ago, as well as from what works across England and the rest of the United Kingdom. In all this, however, the centre will not succeed if it operates in isolation. It will need to draw on the expertise of academics, the voluntary sector, practitioners and local leaders. The centre will prove its worth only if it translates evidence into practice. Moreover, it needs to be fleet of foot and to be able to respond quickly to new and emerging risks to children, particularly as social media and technology evolve.

Across Government, we are already supporting projects that will help to build our knowledge in these areas. The £100 million Department for Education innovation programme, for example, is funding four areas to develop and test effective ways of supporting children and young people, including a secure children’s home in County Durham, which will test a model of support for young people who have been sexually exploited. Across South Yorkshire, we are testing the use of specialist foster carers to provide safe placements for young people at risk of child sexual exploitation. The outcomes of these projects will provide a good starting point for the centre of expertise.

Establishing a centre of expertise for tackling child sexual abuse is an ambitious and long-term plan. We know that addressing the gaps in our knowledge will not be achieved overnight. There is so much more we need to know before we can feel confident that every practitioner has the necessary tools at their disposal.

We need to prevent future abuse and to help those who have suffered so terribly, and it is for that reason that I am enormously grateful for the powerful voice that the hon. Gentleman raised on this issue this evening. I am grateful for the contributions from other Members, too. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his offer of advice, and I have no doubt that it will be followed up by a chance meeting at the back of the Speaker’s Chair in due course. As he has so eloquently argued, it is essential that we make the investment needed in this research now, so that in 25 years’ time we do not need to have the same debate again.

Most importantly, the centre is needed to help to protect vulnerable children and young people. We all know, both in the House and outside it, that the human cost of failing to do so makes this a moral imperative. I therefore hope that the House will unite behind this endeavour. It is going to be a long and committed piece of work that will put us in a much stronger position come the next election. By then, many more people should be working with children and feel that they are able not only to tackle child sexual abuse, but to prevent it from happening in the first place. That is the least we should do for the many vulnerable children who have not had that ready and available for them in their own lives. It is something that we need to tackle, and we are determined to do so.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.