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Child Abuse Allegations (Police Resources)

Volume 601: debated on Friday 30 October 2015

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

I am grateful for the opportunity to bring before the House the important issue of the resourcing of police investigations into historical child sexual abuse.

The extent of child sexual abuse that has taken place over many decades in the UK has shocked our country to the core. The facts that have emerged following the death of Jimmy Savile have been on a horrific scale. They speak of a culture in which children’s voices were not heard or believed, and in which children’s dreadful experiences were not recognised: most significantly, a culture in which fundamental wrongs were occurring on a routine basis in some parts of our society, and in which those who sought to raise the issue were ignored or silenced. It is entirely appropriate that an independent national inquiry has been established under Justice Goddard to investigate the extent to which state and non-state institutions failed in their duty to protect children, to understand exactly what went on, and to enable very deep reflection on how a part of our society was able to depart so radically from anything that we could consider right and proper, and good and true.

We talk about historical abuse in order to distinguish it from abuse that is occurring now, but for survivors there is nothing historical about it. They live every single day with the consequences of the torture inflicted on them by their abusers. They also live with the consequences of psychological abuse, having been told that they do not matter, that they would not be believed and that the consequences of speaking out would be worse than living privately with the pain they carry.

My hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna) and I have met the Shirley Oaks Survivors Association. Shirley Oaks was a children’s home run by Lambeth Council. It was the largest children’s home in Europe. It is known that organised child abuse occurred at Shirley Oaks over many years, and there have been three successful prosecutions of abusers who operated there.

The Shirley Oaks Survivors Association has been established over the past 18 months, and it is striking that more than 200 people have come forward in that time to seek support and to bear witness to their experiences in local authority care. I pay tribute to the Shirley Oaks Survivors Association for its courage in speaking out, the support it is providing to a large number of survivors, and the painstaking investigatory work it is doing to uncover what happened at Shirley Oaks. I have listened first hand to some of the testimonies of former Shirley Oaks residents. It is both heartbreaking and sickening that vulnerable children—who were in the care of the state because they had already been let down in a multitude of other ways—were subjected to such devastating and damaging experiences.

The fact that the full and shocking scale of the trauma experienced by many residents of Shirley Oaks and of other children’s homes remained untold for so long is in itself a scandal, but it is clear that the wider acknowledgement of the prevalence of child sexual abuse is giving new confidence to survivors to come forward. It takes courage to disclose and speak out, and that process involves additional trauma. Reliving events that took place a long time ago can open the scars and make them raw wounds once again.

When a survivor has the courage to come forward to disclose painful past events and to make an allegation of abuse, it is vital that people have the resources and expertise, as well as the necessary time, to investigate with skill and care. That means giving time to police officers to travel to meet survivors in a place of their choosing. Many people who were abused at Shirley Oaks and at other children’s homes no longer live in the local area. People need the skills to engage sensitively and compassionately with survivors, to give them confidence that they will be listened to and taken seriously and that they will be believed. People also need the skills and the time to investigate historical events, to trawl through records and to investigate suspects rigorously and appropriately.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this very important debate, particularly on behalf of the London borough of Lambeth, which we both represent. The police have admitted to me formally that investigations carried out in the past were “of their time”. Does my hon. Friend agree that that indicates that they did not meet the standards we would expect of police investigations today, and that that is why it is all the more important that the investigations carried out now are properly funded?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point about the need for police investigations to be resourced properly. The survivor needs proper support and, in cases where the public sector has played a role, local authority resources should be made available so that they can go through archive records to find all the available evidence and, as my hon. Friend suggests, to investigate with modern eyes the wrongs that were perpetrated in the past.

My hon. Friend and I recently met senior police officers who are responsible for Operation Trinity—the investigation into historical abuse in Lambeth—and the wider police investigations on historical abuse. We were particularly concerned to hear about the resources available to the police. Operation Trinity has only a handful of officers working on it in a dedicated way, and there are 200 survivors of Shirley Oaks alone. As a consequence of the Goddard inquiry, tens of thousands of new allegations of abuse are expected across the country. That inquiry is already under way, and the first truth pilot—the inquiry work stream that enables survivors to give their evidence—started last week.

Senior Met officers told me that they are recruiting additional police officers to Operation Trinity. At the time we met, however, the resourcing plan had not been signed off, and it was not clear to me which parts of the Metropolitan police they would be drawn from or what additional specialist training they would receive.

This is at a time when the police are facing unprecedented cuts. Across the country as a whole, 17,000 police officers have been cut since 2010, and it is estimated that between 22,000 and 30,000 more will be cut following the comprehensive spending review. In London, we are set to lose all our police community support officers and between 5,000 and 8,000 police officers. These are not small cuts that can be accommodated through efficiency savings; they will have a fundamental impact on policing. I am very concerned that, at a time when the police are facing such significant cuts and a process is under way that will prompt many more survivors to come forward, opening up their pain and trauma as they do so, there is not currently a credible plan for resourcing the police investigations.

A further concern is that, although much of the resource for investigations into abuse that took place in the past has focused on London, it is clearly a national issue. Links have been drawn between abuse in children’s homes in Lambeth and locations in Wales and elsewhere. Understanding these connections also presents resourcing challenges. The police do not currently have fit-for-purpose IT infrastructure to enable them fully to evaluate all the information that is gathered and to join up investigations in different parts of the country.

The abuse of children that took place in the past is a national scandal—a national issue—and it demands a national response. It is not sufficient for the police and councils, both of which are experiencing among the greatest cuts of any part of the public sector, to have to find the resources from their mainstream funding to investigate allegations and support survivors. That is simply not a good enough response. The recent consultation on police funding arrangements made no suggestion that the need to investigate historical incidents should be a factor in considering the basis on which funding is allocated, and nor should it be. The need to investigate historical abuse is unique and extraordinary, and it should be treated as such. I am therefore asking the Home Secretary to recognise historical abuse as an extraordinary national issue that demands proper resources on a national scale so that we can understand what happened in full and provide the compassion, understanding and, ultimately, justice for survivors of this shameful period in our history.

The resource to investigate historical abuse should be a separate line in the comprehensive spending review, over and above the resources for individual police forces and, indeed, local authorities. It should include provision for specialist training, in relation to both survivors and investigating past events. It should provide for the co-ordination of investigations and fit-for-purpose IT facilities so that links can be drawn among the abuses that occurred in different areas of the country. I hope that the Home Secretary and the Minister will agree with me that we owe it to the survivors of child abuse to ensure that the investigation into the dreadful crimes committed against them is properly resourced.

I thank the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) for securing this debate and for raising this important matter. I appreciate the way in which she highlighted the work of the Shirley Oaks Survivors Association, which is clearly doing very good work in her constituency. The hon. Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna) has also taken a close interest in that issue. I pay tribute to them for what they are doing, as well as for highlighting the work of Operation Trinity.

I want to echo some of the basic themes of the hon. Lady’s speech. It is important to acknowledge, first and foremost, that no case of child sexual abuse is historical for the victims and survivors of this abhorrent crime. They must live with the consequences of the abuse they have suffered each and every day of their lives. It is absolutely right that the victims and survivors of abuse, wherever or whenever it took place, should feel able to come forward to report abuse to the police and get the support they need. Let me be clear: tackling child sexual abuse is a priority for the Government. We have stated consistently that when an allegation of child sexual abuse is made, whether it has occurred recently or in the past, it should be thoroughly investigated by the police so that the facts can be established.

As Chief Constable Simon Bailey, the national policing lead for child protection and abuse investigations, has said, we are at a watershed moment in facing up to the scale of child sexual abuse. Victims and survivors of abuse are, more than ever, feeling confident to report their experiences. This is encouraging, but also an immense challenge for the police and other agencies.

I completely agree with the Minister about the way in which we describe these things. We may refer to it as historical abuse, but the victims and survivors live with it for ever. Obviously many survivors are watching this debate. He is the Minister for Immigration. In his Department, there is also a Minister for policing, crime and criminal justice and victims and a Minister for preventing abuse and exploitation. If survivors wish to correspond with or contact the Department, which Minister would it be most appropriate for them to deal with? Who has the pen on this issue in the Department?

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley), is leading the work on exploitation. She is clearly a key person, but she is working alongside the Minister for Policing, Crime and Criminal Justice because there are policing aspects in which he takes a keen interest. Obviously, the Home Secretary is personally engaged in this issue, has committed her time to it and has given it the priority that it has. She is overseeing all this work and providing leadership within the Department. No doubt we will come on to the Goddard inquiry and the need for engagement with that. Victims and others must feel that they can come forward to the inquiry and share their experiences directly. It is important to underline that.

The central issue that the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood raised related to police resources. There is no question but that the police still have the resources to do their important work. As a recent report by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary reinforced, forces are successfully meeting the challenge of balancing their books while protecting the frontline, delivering reductions in crime and maintaining public satisfaction with the police.

The Government are determined that forces should do everything they can to bring perpetrators of child sexual abuse to justice. Child sexual abuse now has the status of a national threat in the strategic policing requirement. That means that forces are empowered to maximise specialist skills and expertise to prevent offending and investigate allegations. Police forces, police and crime commissioners and, in London, the Mayor’s office for policing and crime must have in place the capabilities they need to protect children from sexual abuse. However, it is not for Ministers or the Home Office to direct forces on how to deploy their officers and staff to meet that requirement.

As the hon. Lady will be aware, the allocation of resources on day-to-day investigations into cases of abuse, including abuse that took place in the past, is an operational matter for the relevant chief officers and police and crime commissioners, who are much better placed to make local assessments of need and risk. It is then for the PCC or the Mayor’s office for policing and crime, in consultation with the chief officer, to take decisions about deployment. It is absolutely right that those decisions are made by those closest to the situation, rather than by central Government.

Of course, police forces should include in their policing and budget plans reasonable contingencies for unexpected events within their areas. If, as happens from time to time, the police face significant or exceptional events, we stand ready to offer support where we can. There is an established process by which police and crime commissioners can apply for special grant funding to help with those costs.

The Government’s commitment to tackling child sexual abuse extends beyond the work of individual forces. More widely, we have made available £1.7 million to fund Operation Hydrant, which is the national policing response that oversees and co-ordinates the handling of multiple non-recent child sexual abuse investigations. Those investigations specifically concern persons of public prominence or offences that have taken place in institutional settings. Operation Hydrant is overseen by the national policing lead, Simon Bailey, and plays a crucial role in co-ordinating information on police forces’ investigations that fall within the scope of its terms of reference.

That is not all. As I said at the beginning of my speech, it is vital that victims and survivors report the abuse that they have suffered, so that it can be investigated and the truth can be established. The Government are determined that no stone shall be left unturned in pursuit of that aim.

Would the Minister not accept that the existence of Operation Hydrant, which co-ordinates the response across all police forces, is recognition of the national scale of the challenge, and that it therefore makes sense to resource the response at national level with a separate line in the comprehensive spending review?

I was going to go on to highlight the additional £10 million that has been given to the National Crime Agency for the creation of more specialist teams to tackle this type of abuse. The need for such a response is also why the Home Secretary has established an independent statutory inquiry into child sexual abuse. The inquiry will challenge institutions and individuals without fear or favour, and will get to the truth in determining whether state and non-state institutions in England and Wales, including the police, have taken seriously their duty of care to protect children from sexual abuse. Justice Goddard is leading the inquiry’s important work and grasping this once-in-a-generation opportunity to expose what has gone wrong in the past and learn lessons for the future. The inquiry will, where necessary, refer any specific allegations to the police for consideration for criminal investigation.

The hon. Lady highlighted the important work on training and the response that can be expected of police officers, as did the hon. Member for Streatham. The College of Policing and the national policing lead have set the requirement for all forces to train all new and existing police staff, including call handlers, police community support officers, police officers, detectives and specialist investigators, to respond to child sexual abuse. The College of Policing has developed, and will keep under review, a comprehensive training programme to raise the standard of the police response to this crime, including by addressing police behaviours and attitudes, support for victims and the importance of partnership working and information sharing. In addition, the setting up of a new national centre of expertise will help with the understanding of national data and evidence, which will draw out factors causing and affecting child sexual exploitation and the front-line practice and integrated working models that work best.

We are taking immediate action to ensure that the mistakes of the past are never repeated. All chief constables have committed to a national policing child sexual exploitation action plan, which is aimed at raising standards in tackling this type of crime so that the police provide a consistently strong approach to protecting vulnerable young people.

Forces are being supported by Government to ensure that they deliver on that national plan. The national policing lead, Simon Bailey, has put in place regional co-ordinators and analysts, paid for by £1.5 million of Government funding in 2015-16, to ensure that forces are tackling child sexual exploitation properly. Through those co-ordinators and analysts we will build a picture of the threat of child sexual exploitation in each region and map out the detail of the police response to the threat. That will ensure that forces are improving their response to this type of crime in line with the national policing action plan.

I should also highlight Professor Jay’s report on the abuse in Rotherham, which, like other reports, made it clear that some forces have previously failed in their duty to safeguard children and, perhaps most shockingly, failed in how they treated victims of the most terrible abuse. The Government have been consistently clear that that culture of denial within forces must end. That is why, as I described, the College of Policing and the national policing lead have set the requirement for all forces to train all new and existing policing staff to respond to child sexual abuse. The College of Policing will keep that under review, which is important in terms of support to victims, as well as the importance of partnership working, information sharing, and police behaviour.

In response to increasing demand for the police to investigate online child sexual exploitation, the Prime Minister announced that an additional £10 million would be given to the National Crime Agency for the creation of more specialist teams to tackle such threats. We must not forget those at the heart of all this work, whose plight has instigated our determination to drive this action forward: the victims and survivors. We are providing an additional £7 million for services supporting survivors of sexual violence this and last financial year, and £2.15 million of that has already been provided as an uplift in funding for 84 existing rape support centres.

Given the trauma that survivors are dealing with and have lived through, does the Minister agree how extraordinary it is that they are carrying out a lot of the work that we would usually expect the police to do? The Shirley Oaks Survivors Association has a huge unit to investigate and collate evidence about what happened there so that people can get redress, and ultimately justice.

I congratulate that association on its work. This is about giving people confidence to come forward and about the manner in which that evidence can be collated, but—as I have indicated—we need to do more work. I think there is growing confidence that people can come forward to the police, and I am sure that other organisations, foundations and charities have a role to play, working alongside the police. It is important that people feel able to come forward with a sense that their complaints will be investigated thoroughly and properly, as I have described this afternoon.

The broad range of activity that I have outlined shows that the Government take all allegations of child sexual abuse extremely seriously, no matter where or when it occurs. Again, I thank the hon. Lady for the way that she brought this matter to the House. Clearly, work is taking place in her borough and constituency to raise awareness, give confidence, and underline the fact that people can come forward and have their allegations properly investigated. We will continue the urgent work of overhauling the way that our police, social services and other agencies work together to protect vulnerable children. I thank the hon. Lady for highlighting this matter, and I assure her of the priority that is given to this issue by the Government. We will continue to keep the House updated.

Question put and agreed to,

House adjourned.