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Poppi Worthington

Volume 604: debated on Wednesday 20 January 2016

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department to make a statement on the failures set out by Mr Justice Jackson yesterday following the death of 13-month-old Poppi Worthington from Barrow in my constituency in December 2012?

The death of Poppi Worthington is deeply distressing and disturbing. Like other Members, I am sure, I have found reading the press reports incredibly difficult and moving. The House will understand, however, that I cannot comment on the case in detail. The judge made a ruling yesterday in the family court, but any further debate could be prejudicial to a second inquest into Poppi’s death, which is due to take place later this year. There are allegations of police failings in the original investigation into her death in 2012, which have been investigated by the Independent Police Complaints Commission. The IPCC report has been completed but cannot be released yet, so as not to prejudice the second inquest.

Child sexual abuse is an horrendous crime, and there is nothing more important than keeping children safe. That is why we have given child sexual abuse the status of a national threat in the strategic policing requirement, which sets a clear expectation on police forces to collaborate across force boundaries, to safeguard children and to share intelligence and best practice. As we have made clear, we will not hesitate to take tough action when councils or the police are failing in their statutory duty to protect children. Since 2014, Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary has been inspecting forces in England and Wales on their response to child protection, including child sexual abuse. Forces that fall short of expectations are being re-inspected to make sure that they have dealt quickly with any failures.

The Home Office is committed to strengthening the law enforcement response and we are working with police forces and the National Crime Agency to ensure that more resources and improved technology are available to investigate abuse properly. It is critical that the police have the appropriate expertise and tools to identify, pursue, investigate and prosecute offenders. We have introduced new sexual risk orders and sexual harm prevention orders, which the police can now use to manage an individual who presents a risk of sexual harm to a child. We have introduced powers for the police to close an establishment that might be used for sexual activity with a child.

It is vital that police identify child sexual abuse and respond appropriately. The importance of this cannot be overestimated. In March last year, as part of the “Tackling Child Sexual Exploitation” report that the Prime Minister launched, the College of Policing and the national policing lead for child protection and abuse investigations set a requirement on all forces to train all new and existing police staff to respond to child sexual abuse and exploitation. That includes call handlers, police community support officers, detectives and specialist investigators. The College of Policing has developed and will keep under review a comprehensive training programme to raise the standard of the police response to child sexual abuse.

This Government are committed to tackling child sexual abuse, but I know that is little consolation to the family of Poppi Worthington. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Minister for her reply. On 11 December 2012 Poppi Worthington was taken to bed by her mother a perfectly healthy child. As Judge Jackson set out yesterday, she was brought downstairs eight hours later by her father, Paul Worthington, in a lifeless state, with troubling injuries, most obviously significant bleeding from her anus. Mr Justice Jackson was clear in his judgment yesterday that Paul Worthington raped that child and she died soon afterwards, yet it was a full eight months later that the parents were first questioned by the police, despite a pathologist raising concerns at the time that her death was caused by a “penetrative sexual assault”. By this time crucial evidence had been lost by the police, such as the nappy she had been wearing at the time and her bedding.

In October 2014 the then coroner took just six minutes to record Poppi’s death as “unexplained”. The Crown Prosecution Service has said that there is currently no prospect of a case being made against the father. Despite the clear pointers available, Cumbria social services chose to allow Poppi’s siblings to return to the family. Although the failures happened after the child’s death, not before, the combined failure of several agencies is every bit as serious as those that contributed to the deaths of Victoria Climbié and baby Peter in Haringey.

Will the Government make it clear that they value Poppi’s life as greatly by ordering now a similarly thorough independent investigation into how the failings happened? Will they, as the second inquest is continuing, order a separate force to come in and take over the investigation into Poppi Worthington’s death to try to salvage some prospect of justice for her life? Will they renew their focus on improving social services in Cumbria, which have been troubled, as we know, for many months? What will the Government do to ensure the safety of the Worthington children and all the children in Barrow, given that Paul Worthington is still walking free?

The hon. Gentleman sets out the case clearly and passionately. He is working for his constituents, as he always does. He will know that in 2015 an Ofsted investigation found Cumbria social services to be inadequate. The Department for Education is in the process of an intervention into Cumbria social services to ensure that child social services work properly in Cumbria and that all children in Cumbria have the support and protection they rightly need.

We need to learn lessons from this case, but we need to wait for the second inquest. The Attorney General has granted the second inquest, and until it is completed we will not have the full facts. The hon. Gentleman will know that new evidence will have to come to light for the case to be reopened. That may or may not be the case, depending on the IPCC inquiry and the second inquest, but this is an operational matter in which I, as the Minister, would not be able to intervene.

This sounds like a depressingly familiar catalogue of failure and cover-up. At the time of this tragic death, a report would routinely have been given to the children’s Minister, and the Home Office pathologist, Dr Alison Armour, presumably also reported her suspicions to the Home Office. What action was jointly taken by Ministers in the Home Office and the Department for Education, particularly given the ongoing danger to siblings involved? What has happened to the serious case review that, since 2010, has been routinely published to reveal where failures have been made and to enable lessons to be learned, which is so crucial in this case?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He did an incredible amount of work as children’s Minister to deal with the failures in the system that we have seen here and he raises some very important points, many of which I, too, have raised with officials today. If he will forgive me, I will write to him on the specific points. May I also—I failed to do this earlier—offer to meet the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock), because I think that there are many things that it is important we discuss face to face?

It is clear that there were multiple failings in this tragic case. I appreciate that the Minister has said that she does not want to jeopardise any further investigation, but it is terribly troubling that His Honour Judge Jackson remarked that “the police investigation was clearly deficient and that the police failed to launch a real investigation until nine months after Poppi’s death” and that the case is “more than usually troubling”. Will the Minister support the call from my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) for a separate police investigation by a separate police force? Will she also support the publication of the IPCC’s draft report on this case?

The hon. Gentleman asks about the failings in the police, and that is what the IPCC report will contain. We will know more when we see that report, but it cannot be published, even in draft, before the second inquest. I am sure that he understands that it is very important that that inquest can take place in a fair and open manner so that we get to the facts of the case and understand what happened. He will know more than anybody that Judge Jackson was looking at the balance of probabilities, whereas a criminal case would need to be beyond reasonable doubt—different levels of proof and of evidence are required. The hon. Gentleman understands that. I want to get to the bottom of this. I want to have the full inquest and understand exactly what happened, at which point we can determine the appropriate action to be taken.

I commend the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) for his measured and reasonable putting of this important question. The whole nation will have been touched by the terrible tragedy that befell this little baby girl. Is it not troubling, however, that public agencies used public money to try to stifle debate and hide transparency and openness, using the family courts? Is it not time we reviewed the interface between the family courts and public agencies, because openness and transparency are the best disinfectant for and solution to such issues, ensuring that something this terrible and awful never happens again?

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. If he will allow me to do so, I will discuss the point with the Lord Chancellor, as this will be a matter for the Ministry of Justice, and return to him with further thoughts when I have had that discussion.

I welcome the Minister’s commitment to pursue these matters until all lessons can be learned, but does she agree that the crucial relationship is that between the police and social services? The crucial process is that information is passed on immediately. If that is done, these terrible acts can be discovered even more efficiently.

The right hon. Gentleman makes an incredibly important point. If agencies are not working together and talking to each other, we will not find and protect those children who so desperately need our protection. I have been impressed and pleased with the work in multiagency safeguarding hubs, and in the many that I have visited it is truly refreshing to see police, social services, probation services and other agencies that have a role in protecting the most vulnerable people in society—particularly children—sitting together, co-located, working together, sharing information, and taking action immediately. We need more of that, and I know that Chief Constable Simon Bailey, who leads on child sexual abuse for the National Police Chiefs’ Council, is keen to ensure more multi-agency working so that we get that protection.

I support what the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) has said, and as a father of three young daughters my blood runs cold at this case. The Minister has rightly pointed out the growing need for integration of services outside Whitehall. There are many departmental responsibilities in government, including her Department, the Law Officers, the Lord Chancellor’s Department and—crucially—the Department for Communities and Local Government, which deals with funding for county councils to ensure robust, fit-for-purpose social service departments. Will she ensure that there is also full integration at Whitehall level?

Astonishingly, my hon. Friend managed to forget the Department for Education. The Education Secretary chairs the child protection implementation taskforce, of which I and other Ministers are members. That cross-department team considers how we implement what we have learned from other examples of child abuse, and what we have learned from this case will give us more information and help us to develop better ways to protect children.

This is clearly a disturbing case, and I understand the Minister’s reticence in not wanting to do anything that could prejudice justice. She will also have had only limited time in which to pursue it. May I urge her to keep pursuing this case, and not to be deterred by the process that is taking place? Will she clarify the situation regarding the police investigation? Surely we do not need to wait for the inquest for a police investigation to continue. As I understand it, the IPCC is verifying whether the police did the right job previously, and we need a police investigation now into this individual case. Could that be done by an alternative police force?

I know that the right hon. Lady has campaigned on these matters for many years, and I assure her that I personally will take this case and ensure that we get to the bottom of it. We must learn all the lessons from it, and understand what happened and what went wrong. We owe that to Poppi Worthington and to all other children in that situation. Specifically on the police investigation, she will be aware that we need new evidence before a new investigation can be held, so perhaps I may write to her and provide more information about the case as I receive it.

As a councillor I experienced the horrors of the cases of Jasmine Beckford, Victoria Climbié and baby P. I understand that the Minister cannot give a firm commitment today, but it is clear that those who are in charge of these investigations are not learning the lessons of the past. If the evidence points that way, will the Minister commit to ordering a proper judicial inquiry, so that further reviews can be undertaken and people can understand the lessons that have been learned and implement any changes, as proposed by the Communities and Local Government Committee last year?

We need to know exactly what happened, and understand the IPCC report and the findings of the second inquest. We also have the victim’s right to review, and once we have completed the legal processes the family wish to use that. I want to wait until all the facts are on the table and we know what happened before making any commitment.

As a fellow Cumbrian MP I am deeply shocked and concerned about this case, and I support my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) in his call for an independent investigation. I appreciate what the Minister is saying about the second inquest. The IPCC report appears to have been leaked to the press, which is of great concern. Poppi’s death was in December 2012 and it has taken a long time to get to where we are. The case has only gone through the family courts. No one has been charged, and I am concerned about that and would welcome the Minister’s comments.

I am not aware that the IPCC report has been leaked, but I will look into that. Perhaps when I meet the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness we could discuss that issue once we have more information about what has happened. If the report has been leaked that is shocking and should not have happened.

I commend the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) for bringing this issue to the House, and the Minister for her response. None of us can fail to be moved by the picture of the 14-month-old innocent Poppi Worthington. Although there has been some conflicting opinion, given the amount of press coverage and the opinion of Mr Justice Jackson and Dr Alison Armour, surely the case must be reopened. We should be able to stand proud of our British justice system, but in this case justice has not been done for Poppi Worthington or any other child that might be in danger. If the IPCC should find that the Cumbrian police did not act as they should have, will that be a reason for reopening the case?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that when we know what happened, where the failings were, and what—if anything—could have been done differently, I and my fellow Ministers will ensure that proper steps are taken and that we do all we can to get to the bottom of this issue and get the justice that Poppi Worthington rightly deserves.