Skip to main content

Poppi Worthington

Volume 605: debated on Thursday 11 February 2016

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

Before I call the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock), I should inform the House that as the coroner has now decided that the inquest into the death of Poppi Worthington should be resumed, the subject of this debate may, to some extent, be sub judice. Having carefully considered the matter and the public interest in it, Mr Speaker has decided to exercise the discretion allowed to the Chair to waive the usual restrictions on references to matters sub judice. However, I urge the hon. Gentleman and other Members present to be very careful in what they say and to take due account both of the resumed inquest and of the continuing possibility of a prosecution. I am quite sure that the hon. Gentleman will bear that in mind in dealing with such a very sensitive subject, as will the rest of the House.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I will heed your very appropriate warning on these matters. Indeed, the precise nature of what can and cannot, and should and should not, be disclosed is an important issue in this debate, as I will go on to discuss. I want to thank colleagues who have been right behind the push to try to salvage some justice after the death of Poppi Worthington and to press for the changes that this investigation clearly must lead to, both in the way the police operate in these matters and in social services. I am grateful to the Minister for her time today in the meeting, and it is good to be able to follow on so directly with this public debate.

Poppi Worthington died in December 2012, when she was 13 months old. We are now in February 2016, so more than three years later I am still having to come to this House for answers. Indeed, it has been only weeks since it has been possible to discuss this matter in public, because of the extensive, deeply surprising and in many ways concerning injunction that was placed upon reporting this matter. That was only partially lifted by Mr Justice Jackson’s ruling last month.

I will briefly go through some of the key facts, before moving on to the questions I hope the Minister will answer. On 11 December 2012, Poppi Worthington was put to bed by her mother a perfectly healthy child. Eight hours later, she was brought downstairs by her father lifeless and with troubling injuries, including significant bleeding from her anus. She was just 13 months old when she died. It then took until June 2013 for the full post mortem to declare the cause of death as “unascertained”.

In August 2013—eight months after Poppi’s death—Paul Worthington, her father, was brought in for questioning. That was the first time he had been questioned by police. He had twice before been questioned in relation to different child sexual abuse allegations. Critical evidence, such as Poppi’s clothes and last nappy, had been lost or never gathered by police. The media have reported that Mr Worthington’s laptop was not requested by police at the time, and by the time they eventually asked for it, the device had apparently been sold and sold again and so was unavailable to the police’s store of evidence.

In March 2014, a fact-finding report was delivered in private in a family court. Court records dated 18 December 2014 make it clear that lawyers acting for Cumbria County Council originally applied for a 15-year ban on the disclosure even of Poppi’s name. In the judge’s words, their case for secrecy included the claim that

“disclosure of alleged shortcomings by agencies might be unfair to the agencies”.

The coroner’s inquest in Barrow town hall took just seven minutes to declare her death as “unexplained”. That is less than a quarter of the time we have for this debate.

It took legal action from a variety of media organisations to force a second inquest, after the first was declared insufficient and therefore unlawful. I pay tribute to several people in the media who have pushed for this tirelessly, particularly Clare Fallon of “BBC North West Tonight” and the North West Evening Mail, whose Justice for Poppi campaign is still gathering signatures on the Downing Street website for the full and independent investigation that I believe is necessary, given the scale and breadth of the failings.

It then took until July 2015 for the High Court to order the second inquest. In November, Mr Justice Jackson in the family court released part of his original fact-finding judgment from the March before. This revealed that Cumbria police conducted “no real investigation” into Poppi’s death for nine months, despite a senior pathologist at the time raising concerns that Poppi might have suffered a serious sexual assault. It then took until this January—just last month—for Mr Justice Jackson to give his final, very clear verdict: based on medical evidence, he believed that Poppi had suffered a penetrative sexual assault before her death. It was only after this judgment that the second coroner’s inquest could get off the ground. It had been requested in January 2015 and confirmed in July.

We heard earlier this week that the second inquest would commence in March and that we would find out the timetable soon. Worryingly, the senior coroner has indicated that it might not even be concluded this year. Meanwhile, the Independent Police Complaints Commission has put together a report into failings by Cumbria police that names several officers. The report was finished last March—nearly a full 12 months ago—and leaked to the BBC, but the IPCC is currently still refusing to publish it. Similarly, a serious case review by Cumbria Local Safeguarding Children Board is being withheld, despite the Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities and Family Justice, the hon. Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage) making it clear that the publication of neither of these reports could prejudice the coroner’s second inquest.

In addition, the Crown Prosecution Service is reviewing the evidence to see if a criminal prosecution is possible. The fact that it is in doubt is surely largely the result of the astounding failures by the police in their handling of this case. The clear question to the police, which must now be taken up, is why they did not act immediately after a pathologist raised the prospect of a serious sexual assault. Why did they not keep hold of vital evidence from the scene?

Those questions demand serious action from the force itself and from the Government. That brings me to the following serious issues: the nature of and justification for the refusal by the IPCC to publish its completed report; and the appointment and continued tenure of acting Chief Constable Michelle Skeer.

We are told that lessons have been learnt by the force, but we cannot judge because we are not permitted even to see the IPCC report into what went wrong. We do not know exactly why these failures occurred. We do not know if those responsible have been held properly accountable. Most importantly of all, we do not know if new systems have been put in place to stop this happening again.

I have written to the IPCC to ask for the release of its report. It refused on the grounds that it could prejudice the second inquest, the disciplinary processes that have yet to be fully undergone or a future criminal investigation. My case to the Minister today is that none of those three potential justifications holds any water.

Let me deal first with the idea that the report could prejudice the second inquest. The inquest, by definition of course, looks at the cause of death. It looks at the period of time up to death occurring. The IPCC report is concerned exclusively with the police investigation into that death, so there is zero overlap between those two periods of time. One cannot logically prejudice the other. While I understand that the Minister cannot command the IPCC, as it is currently constituted, to do anything—it is an independent body for justifiable reasons—I urge her to comment on her view of the logic of that case.

Neither is it legally possible to prejudice disciplinary proceedings, which are yet to get under way. That is my clear legal understanding based on evidence I have seen provided to the BBC. I would like the Minister to confirm that. The key failure we face is whether there is the prospect of mounting any criminal investigation at all.

When I was first able to question the Minister a couple of weeks ago after Mr Speaker granted me an urgent question on this matter, I called for a separate force to be brought in, given the manifest failures of the original investigation. I wanted a separate force to be brought in to take over this investigation. The Minister and I have been able to discuss this outside the Chamber and I understand that she does not yet have the necessary information to make a judgment on that, but part of the necessary information will be the IPCC report that is currently being withheld. Every day that goes by, the evidence trail gets colder, and every day without justice for Poppi is a day in which her killer, if she was unlawfully killed, is able to walk free.

Will the Minister confirm that she wants to see the report as quickly as possible, preferably through full and open publication? If that is not possible, is she prepared to ask for a private copy like that provided to the police and crime commissioner, who has confirmed that, although he is not allowed to refer to it publicly, he is able to use it to make judgments?

It has become apparent that the police and crime commissioner, Mr Richard Rhodes, had not received the report when he endorsed the temporary promotion of Michelle Skeer from deputy chief constable to acting chief constable after Chief Constable Jerry Graham was forced to stand down temporarily on the grounds of ill health. Regulations state that the PCC should be given an unpublished report only if it relates to the chief constable, but he was not made aware of the contents of this report, even though he was required to endorse the temporary promotion of a woman—this is clear, because the report has been leaked to and reported on by the BBC, and it has been shown to me—whom it directly names and criticises for her actions in this case. She is now overseeing the force’s path of improvement from the case, despite the fact that she was directly implicated in it.

Is the Minister as troubled as I am by this situation, and will she agree to re-examine the regulations and procedures, to ensure that this kind of thing cannot happen again? If a report relates to someone who may be promoted to the position of chief constable, the police and crime commissioner should automatically be given sight of that important evidence.

I have come to the conclusion that it is unsustainable for Michelle Skeer to continue in the post of acting chief constable, because that is to the detriment of restoring confidence in the police force and the process of change that it now needs to carry out. She was named in the report from which the police force needs to recover, and the manner of her appointment was flawed. The Minister will probably say that that judgment is not for her, but for the PCC to make. However, if the PCC reaches that view, will the Minister at least pledge to give him her Department’s assistance in finding an alternative acting chief constable while the permanent chief constable returns to health?

These are incredibly difficult and distressing matters. No professional intentionally allows such horrific cases to go without justice. Police officers go to work to prevent and to solve crimes, and social workers go to work to protect children, but that has not happened in this case. Although this is a difficult and complex issue, the Government face a binary choice: either they must be prepared to step in and do all they can to increase transparency and to remove the logjam and the cloud of secrecy hanging over the case, or they will end up being part of a system that perpetuates that secrecy.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) on securing the debate, and thank him for the points that he, along with others, has raised about this deeply sad and troubling matter today and previously. He is an excellent constituency Member, and I know how hard he works for his constituents. The fact that he is continuing to campaign on this deeply troubling matter is a credit to him, and a credit to the constituents who elected him. I also thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for the advice that you gave at the beginning of the debate. I shall bear your words in mind.

The circumstances surrounding the death of Poppi Worthington are extremely distressing and disturbing. I am sure that other Members who have read the press reports and court findings have found them as profoundly upsetting and moving as I have, and I am sure that we share a determination to try and discover what happened in Poppi’s case, Any failings in the police response, or the response of any other agency involved, must be identified, and action must be taken to ensure that they are never repeated.

However, as I made clear in my comments to the House during a debate on this matter on 20 January, I cannot comment on this case in detail. Indeed, it has become even more crucial for me to maintain that position since the announcement on Tuesday by senior coroner David Llewelyn Roberts that the inquest into Poppi’s death will reopen on 18 March. I know that Members will share my primary concern that, in discussing this case, we should not inadvertently prejudice a much-needed judicial process. The House will understand that, to that end—whatever my personal views may be on the terrible nature of Poppi’s death—I am constrained by the ongoing proceedings, and am therefore unable to make any detailed comment today. I urge others, in the Chamber and outside, to consider and take heed of that approach.

Members will be aware of the allegations of police failings in the original criminal investigation of Poppi’s death in 2012, which have been investigated by the Independent Police Complaints Commission. The IPCC looked into whether that specific investigation had been conducted thoroughly and appropriately, and whether investigative opportunities to obtain key evidence had been identified and acted on appropriately. It is, of course, the role of Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary to assess the overall functioning of the force.

The IPCC’s subsequent investigation report was given to Cumbria constabulary on 1 April last year, so that it could consider the report and determine what action to take. I should point out that HMIC will have regard to the force’s response to the IPCC report in the course of its inspections. All forces are inspected annually on their overall effectiveness, and, in addition, HMIC has a rolling national child protection inspection programme which looks specifically at each force’s child protection arrangements.

I fully understand the level of public interest in Poppi’s death, and I fully understand why there have been calls by, among others, the hon. Gentleman for the IPCC report to be published immediately. I know that the IPCC has written to the hon. Gentleman to explain its position, offering to meet him to discuss the matter further. I have met IPCC officials to discuss the matter, and I understand its position. I appreciate that we must balance the interest of the public in these matters with the wider public interest in ensuring that the integrity of ongoing and any future proceedings is not jeopardised. The IPCC has made it clear to me that it will not release the report while disciplinary proceedings are ongoing. It has also told me that the second inquest may be a jury inquest, and that it does not wish to release the report until there is certainty about whether that is the case, because otherwise there might be prejudice in regard to the inquest.

The Minister and I know that that is the justification, but does she at least understand my bafflement, given the entirely different timeframes that are being discussed, as I set out?

The hon. Gentleman and I discussed that point earlier. I sympathise with his position, but that is the IPCC’s position and its guidance. I should make the point that I want to see justice done and to uncover the failings. As long as the people who are able to find that out and make those decisions have all the information available to them, that is my priority. I do not want anything to jeopardise that and I do not want anything that means that justice is not done. As long as the people who make those decisions and who can get to the bottom of the situation know what happened, that is the priority.

I thank the Minister once again for giving way—this will be the last time I intervene. I hear what she says on that point, but if she were to see the report in private would that be useful to her in making a judgment on whether another force ought to be brought in? Surely it would be useful for her to see that information in private.

I met the IPCC this week. It does not give reports out and has to wait for the appropriate moment. There is not a process by which a Minister can see those reports. It would not be appropriate for Ministers to see reports before it is appropriate for them to be released to the public.

In response to the hon. Gentleman’s point, I should explain that there is no obligation for the IPCC to provide an investigation report to the police and crime commissioner as part of any due diligence exercise on a potential promotion candidate within a force. The IPCC’s obligation to provide that report to the police and crime commissioner applies only when it relates to the alleged misconduct of a chief officer for whom the PCC has a statutory responsibility. However, the hon. Gentleman makes a good point about the PCC having full sight of all information when an appointment is made. I have asked officials to look at whether anything can be done, because it could involve somebody going to a different force—they do not have to be within the same force—and it is important that PCCs who are considering a candidate for a chief officer role have all the information pertinent to the appointment when they make the decision. The hon. Gentleman asked about advice that can be given by the Home Office to the PCCs who are looking for new recruits. I assure him that any PCC who approaches the Home Office for advice on recruiting a new chief officer will receive that advice.

I stand with those who urgently want to understand what has happened in this case, but I also want to see justice served and the truth to be established. We must be careful in our haste to see justice done that we do not inadvertently prevent it from being done. In addition to the inquest into Poppi’s death and the ongoing disciplinary proceedings at Cumbria constabulary, the Crown Prosecution Service is reviewing the file on Poppi’s case to decide whether to launch a criminal prosecution. To avoid prejudice in any of those cases, the IPCC intends to publish its report after the conclusion of all the proceedings I have mentioned. That may disappoint some, but we must recognise the rationale for that decision.

The IPCC has investigated allegations of police failings in relation to Poppi’s death, but the criminal investigation remains a matter for Cumbria constabulary. I know there have been calls for that investigation to be reopened and for a fresh one to commence. It is of course open to the police to review the investigation, but that is an operational decision for the force that will need to be considered in the light of what, if anything, a review could realistically achieve. It is for the chief constable of Cumbria to consider whether the investigation should be reopened and whether another force should take on the investigation in order to maintain public confidence. Whatever my personal convictions, it would not be appropriate for the Home Office to intervene in this situation.

I once again thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this important issue and extend the offer of continued dialogue and meetings. We all want to get to the bottom of what happened and to see justice done. I acknowledge that many questions have still to be answered in this terrible case. Like other Members, I want to see the outcome of those proceedings. I look to the outcome with interest, but I want them dealt with as speedily as possible.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.