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North Wales Abuse Allegations

Volume 740: debated on Tuesday 6 November 2012


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will repeat a Statement made earlier today in another place by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. It is as follows:

“Mr Speaker, with permission I would like to make a Statement on historic allegations of child abuse in the North Wales Police force area. In 1991, North Wales Police conducted an investigation into allegations that, throughout the 1970s and 1980s, children in homes that were managed and supervised by Clwyd County Council were sexually and physically abused. The result of the police investigation was eight prosecutions and seven convictions of former care workers. Despite the investigation and convictions, it was widely believed that the abuse was in fact on a far greater scale. But a report produced by Clwyd Council’s own inquiry was never published because so much of its content was considered by lawyers to be defamatory.

In 1995, the then Secretary of States for Wales, my right honourable friend the Member for Wokingham, appointed a QC to examine all the relevant documents and recommend whether there should be a public inquiry. The recommendation was that there should be not a public inquiry but an examination of the work of private care homes and the social service departments in Gwynedd and Clwyd councils.

This work revealed not only shortcomings in the protection of vulnerable children, but that the shortcomings had persisted even after the police investigation and subsequent prosecutions. In 1996, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary, then the new Secretary of State for Wales, therefore invited Sir Ronald Waterhouse to lead an inquiry into the abuse of children in care in the Gwynedd and Clwyd council areas.

The Waterhouse inquiry sat for 203 days and heard evidence from more than 650 people. Statements made to the inquiry named more than 80 people as child abusers, many of whom were care workers or teachers. In 2000, the inquiry’s report, Lost in Care, made 72 recommendations for changes to the way in which children in care were protected by councils, social services and the police; and, following the report’s publication, 140 compensation claims were settled on behalf of victims. But the report found no evidence of a paedophile ring beyond the care system, which was the basis of the rumours that followed the original police investigation, and indeed one of the allegations that has been made in the past week.

Last Friday, a victim of sexual abuse at one of the homes named in the report, Mr Steve Messham, alleged that the inquiry did not look at abuse outside the care homes, and renewed allegations against the police and several individuals. The Government are treating these allegations with the utmost seriousness. Child abuse is a hateful, abhorrent and disgusting crime, and we must not allow these allegations to go unanswered. I therefore urge anybody who has information relating to these allegations to go to the police.

I can tell the House that Mark Polin, the chief constable of North Wales Police, has invited Keith Bristow, the director-general of the National Crime Agency, to assess the allegations recently received, to review the historic police investigations and to investigate any fresh allegations reported to the police into the alleged historic abuse in north Wales care homes. He will lead a team of officers from the Serious and Organised Crime Agency, and other investigative assets as necessary, and the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre will act as the single point of contact for fresh referrals relating to historic abuse in north Wales care homes. He will produce an initial report reviewing the historic investigations and any fresh allegations by April 2013. I have made it clear to Mark Polin and to Keith Bristow that the Home Office is ready to assist with the additional costs of this work.

In addition, as the Prime Minister said yesterday, the Government will ask a senior independent figure to lead an urgent investigation into whether the Waterhouse inquiry was properly constituted and did its job. Given the seriousness of the allegations, we will make sure that this work is completed urgently.

Given that there have also been serious allegations about other historic child sex offences, I should also inform the House of the work being conducted by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary. This will establish a full picture of all forces that have received allegations in relation to Jimmy Savile, examine whether the allegations were investigated properly, and identify wider lessons from the responses of the police forces involved. I have been assured by HMIC that its work will also take into account any lessons that emerge from these latest allegations.

Before I conclude, I would like to warn honourable Members that if they plan to use parliamentary privilege to name any suspects, they risk jeopardising any future trial and therefore the possibility of justice for the victims that I believe the whole House wants to see.

I believe that the whole House will also be united in sending this message to victims of child abuse. If you have suffered and you go to the police about what you have been through, those of us in positions of authority and responsibility will not shirk our duty to support you. We must do everything in our power to do everything we can to help you, and everything we can to get to the bottom of these terrible allegations. I commend this Statement to the House”.

That concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement today because for the past few weeks we have reacted with increasing horror as new details of historic allegations of sexual abuse of children and young people have emerged. Your Lordships’ House will emphatically agree with the noble Lord that these are deeply disturbing allegations. It is not only that the crime itself is so despicable and that many young people’s lives have been deeply affected and in some cases destroyed. It is not just that the very adults who have abused children and young people seem to have enjoyed the protection offered by positions of trust and fame. The most evil and despicable aspect is that these children and young people have been failed by the very institutions charged with protecting them, including the criminal justice system. The noble Lord is right. It is clear that Parliament must act to ensure that justice is done and that the perpetrators are held to account. The Government are right to act and I welcome their swift response and the announcement today.

But I remain to be convinced that this is the most appropriate way forward given what could be the scale of the problem. The whole House will welcome the Government’s Statement that all allegations must be treated with the utmost seriousness. As the noble Lord said, child abuse is a hateful, abhorrent and disgusting crime. We would concur that anyone who has information must go to the police.

As my right honourable friend Yvette Cooper, the shadow Home Secretary, has said, we need to have a full criminal investigation and we also need to examine what further changes are needed in the way in which we protect children and investigate abuse. But we also need to know whether there has been institutional failure to deal with historic allegations, whether by turning a blind eye, by covering up, or by simply failing to get to the bottom of what has happened.

For any child or young person to report physical or sexual abuse takes an enormous degree of courage. Any and every abused child or young person has the right to expect that the authorities will take them seriously, believe them and take action to protect them and deal with the abuser. That is why we must examine whether there is a further, deeper problem, whether in north Wales, in the cases involving Jimmy Savile and the BBC, or in those of grooming and sexual abuse in Rochdale and Rotherham. If children and young people who have been physically and sexually abused have reported their abuse and the authorities have failed to believe them, or even worse have believed them but then failed to act, that is truly shocking. Those who have failed to investigate or have sought to protect abusers or cover up abuse are equally guilty.

Given the scale of this issue, it has become evident that we cannot look at the allegations in north Wales in isolation. I hope that the noble Lord will understand when I express concern that the Government’s response will not address the wider concerns and seek assurances from the Minister.

I welcome the new criminal investigation into the allegations in north Wales. In particular, I very much welcome the involvement of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, which has considerable expertise. But can the Minister confirm that the inquiry can go wherever the evidence takes it and will not be confined to north Wales?

Also, the Minister may be aware from our debate on the Crime and Courts Bill with his predecessor and the Parliamentary Questions that I have asked on this issue that I remain concerned that the transition to the new National Crime Agency may leave the organisation underfunded. I have raised this now on several occasions. Will the Minister confirm that these investigations will not in any way be hampered by a lack of funding?

On the second point about historic reviews, it is right to look again at the Waterhouse inquiry, but can the Minister explain what is meant by,

“whether the Waterhouse inquiry was properly constituted and did its job”?

Are the Government now questioning the terms of reference or the operation of the inquiry? Can the Minister be more specific about that point?

Does the Minister understand the widespread concerns about there being so many inquiries? I am aware that these have grown rather than being planned in this way, but in addition to the police investigations there are three BBC inquiries into Savile, a Department of Health investigation into Savile’s Broadmoor appointment and several individual hospital inquiries. There is the CPS inquiry into why Savile was not prosecuted; there is the new north Wales inquiry; there is the HMIC inquiry into other forces that may have received information about Jimmy Savile; and there are others.

The Minister will be aware that we have already called for all the Savile inquiries to be held together. Is there not a strong case for a single, overarching, robust inquiry, not just about the abuse itself but also about whether individuals or groups used positions of influence—either their own or that of friends—to evade criminal prosecution? Of course we need to get to the bottom of what happened in each and every case but we also need to see if there are common themes and problems to prevent them happening again. There is a genuine concern that too many individual and specific inquiries is not the proper way to learn the right lessons for effectively and properly safeguarding children and young people. Time and again, evidence of serious institutional failures is presented; a single overarching inquiry into whether these allegations were ignored, or if there was a cover-up to protect abusers from public exposure and prosecution, is now essential.

The Waterhouse report led to, I believe, 72 recommendations and significant changes in child protection. The Children’s Commissioner was introduced, there is the Care Standards Act and the child protection Act, and we saw a strengthening of the law in introducing new measures and policies on safeguarding children and young people in schools and in social services. We saw the creation of the Child Exploitation Online Protection Centre, but yet again we are now presented with evidence that children and young people who came forward to report abuse were not taken seriously. We know that abuse was ignored for far too long against girls and young women in Rochdale and that concerns raised in Rotherham were not acted upon.

The Minister may be aware of previous debates we had with his predecessor about our concerns on the weakening of the vetting and barring system, our concerns about the changes to CEOP as it was merged into the new National Crime Agency, and our concerns about the funding of the new National Crime Agency. PCTs have warned that child safeguarding has been jeopardised by confusion and transitional arrangements in NHS reforms. Is the Minister confident that the fragmented inquiries announced today will give a clear picture of the action that is needed to really protect children from abuse in the future?

It demands enormous courage for a child or young person to speak out and report sexual or physical abuse; if they are not believed or if their reports are not acted on, it only compounds that abuse. I believe the Minister and your Lordships’ House are united in the objective of wanting the most effective and robust inquiry possible for lessons to be learned and for actions that will really make a difference, because only then can we truly provide justice to those who have suffered.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, for her response to the grave Statement that we have had to make to the House today and for her general welcome for the way in which the Government are responding promptly to the issue. I agree with her that perhaps the most serious issue is whether there has been institutional blindness, if one can put it like that. I absolutely agree that this must be the key to the agenda going forward in order to make sure that the interests of victims are properly recognised, that the police prosecute without fear or favour, and that justice is seen to be done.

The noble Baroness asked whether there would be restrictions on these investigations. Police investigations are police investigations and they go wherever the evidence takes them. She asked, too, about the funding. The Government understand that there will be resource pressures because these investigations will involve all of the authorities engaged in them in additional work. The Home Office will encourage those organisations to apply to it so that any extra additional costs can be considered as part of the funding provided to them by the Home Office.

The thrust of the noble Baroness’s questions was whether it would be better to wait and set up an overarching inquiry in order that the lessons may be learnt. I do not believe that that is the right approach. I believe that these allegations demand immediate investigations. The lessons that will be learnt by these investigations may well require a comprehensive review of child protection in this country—that is a reasonable conclusion to come to—but I do not believe that the House would thank us if we stood by and delayed the investigations involved. I hope that I have the support of the noble Baroness in that. If I have misunderstood the noble Baroness, I apologise. I think the Government are on the right track here and doing what the House would wish of them.

On the question of organisational change and whether it will impede or assist these investigations, as the noble Baroness said, this issue has been debated over time and in all ways. All I can say is that Keith Bristow will be heading up an organisation which has considerable resources available to it through the National Crime Agency. These bodies will be there to do their task, to assist him to achieve our objective of better child protection for all young people.

My Lords, perhaps I may assist the many noble Lords who I am sure will want to contribute today by reminding them that the Companion advises that, in order that as many people as possible are able to contribute, today is an opportunity for brief comments and questions only.

My Lords, one area which has not been mentioned in the Statement is support for the victims. Justice will be one form of reparation, but can the Minister say anything about any other form of support that will be given to individuals?

Quite separately, following the question about what is meant by inquiring,

“whether the Waterhouse inquiry was properly constituted and did its job”,

can the Minister assure the House that for every inquiry—I am not talking only about police inquiries—there will be consultation as to its terms so that the best, most proper terms are put in place? If the remit is not right then the outcome will tend not to be right. In this case, for instance, the involvement of the Children’s Commissioner in the terms of the inquiry seems quite obvious.

I thank my noble friend for her questions. Clearly, the victims are at the heart of this inquiry and providing them with the confidence to come forward is one of the most important things that we can do. I hope that we in this House will echo the wishes of the Home Secretary by giving that support.

The terms of reference of inquiries are very important to the outcomes they produce. I am particularly concerned that we make sure that the original inquiry in North Wales, the Waterhouse inquiry, was indeed set up in such a way. The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, asked about that but I did not reply to her. However, my noble friend has given me the opportunity to do so. We must make sure that that inquiry addressed the right issues. We now have an opportunity to revisit the inquiry and to make sure that it was not too restrictive in what it was seeking to do.

My Lords, am I right in thinking that Mr Justice Waterhouse was appointed to investigate allegations of abuse within the care system but he in fact investigated allegations of abuse outside the care system? We know that he sat for 203 days and found no evidence at all to support those allegations. Should that not have been an end to the matter? I do not know whether the noble Lord is aware of the principle that there should be an end to litigation; so also there should be a principle that there should be an end to investigations.

Were it so easy just to put an end to these things, that would be fine, but we are faced with a situation where it is quite clear that this matter was not at an end. Allegations are still being made that should cause a responsible Government to be prepared to revisit the matter. That is not to cast aspersions on the work that was done at the time, but everybody would expect us to look again to make sure that we know exactly what the scope of child abuse was in those very far-off days.

My Lords, I have a copy of Lost in Care, the late Sir Ronald Waterhouse’s report—all 937 pages of it. It is a very thorough piece of work, as one would have expected from a High Court judge. The terms of reference are spelled out in this report, as is an explanation of why he ordered that names should not be published, largely for the protection of the victims, as in rape cases. Does my noble friend really think that, after all these years, any new evidence will actually emerge as a result of these further inquiries? I have heard most of the media reports over recent days and, frankly, I have heard nothing new. There is also the further point that the report contains a subsidiary report by Sir Ronald Hadfield, the assessor of the police activity in this context. His report comes right at the very end of the Waterhouse report and is critical of some of the police operations.

I am very pleased that my noble friend has made that contribution to the debate. If I disagree with him, it is not because I do not respect his experience and the fact that he was active in politics in that part of the country at the time when this report was being produced. He has a copy and has no doubt studied it. However, if I thought that nothing more was going to come out of this further investigation, all I would say is, “Fine. That is very good”. If there is nothing more to be found, we can rest content that the matter is indeed closed. However, if we find that there is other material, we should know of it. We are right to seek to pursue this matter even though many of the individuals involved may long ago have disappeared.

My Lords, on 17 June 1996 I asked the then Secretary of State, Mr Hague, whether all the cases that have been referred to in the appendices to the Jillings report had led to prosecutions. I was told that that was not the case, and that there were names which were still outstanding. Can we be assured that, as a result of what the Government are planning, those outstanding names will be reconsidered with a view to prosecution if at all possible?

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it will be a considerable comfort to those children who were abused in the past to know that children are not abused in this way in the care system today? However, he will know that it is unfortunately still the case that children are being abused; the deputy Children’s Commissioner’s report finds that thousands of children are still being abused and sexually exploited today. Does he hope that this report might contribute to the swell of public feeling to say that we will do better for these children in care, ensure that their staff have the qualifications they need to give the excellent care and protection that these children need and change legislation to ensure that these occurrences will not take place so frequently?

The whole House will be awaiting the results of the inquiry from Sue Berelowitz which is likely to come out later this month. However the noble Earl is absolutely right: we have perhaps been complacent in the past. We can no longer be complacent on this issue. I hope that the Government are making it clear that they do not intend to be complacent and will pursue all these matters so that we have a better environment for child protection in this country.

My Lords, following on from what the noble Earl has just asked, will the reports that the Minister has just announced be free to make recommendations to public services and organisations? It seems likely that recommendations will be made to social services, the criminal justice system and the police. Health services, such as STD clinics where young girls go over and over again, are very often in a position to pick up warning signs, which they do not always pass on. This has recently come out in the report referred to by the Children’s Commissioner. Similarly, in the education service, schools can help to prepare children to understand the dangers and to protect themselves.

My noble friend is absolutely right. A multi-agency approach is the way in which this issue needs to be addressed across government. She quite rightly points to the fact that different aspects of government are able to assist in this process. It is certainly the Government’s objective to have a cross-departmental, cross-agency approach in order to make sure that the information that we have gained through these unfortunate events, and the public attention which has been drawn to the exposure of the Jimmy Savile case, can be properly addressed so that we can create a better place for young people in this country.

My Lords, I apologise to the Minister and the House. I had to absent myself from the Chamber for the first couple of minutes of the Minister’s Statement, but I did hear it in full in the other place. I have one question for the Minister. Clwyd County Council carried out an inquiry and produced its own report which was never made public, for legal reasons I believe. Can the Minister tell us whether the new inquiry will have access to examine this report?

I am sure that any new inquiry will have access to all relevant papers, including that original report.

I commend my noble friend on the report that he has brought forward. The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, touched on the potential dangers of having multiple inquiries going on at the same time. Will my noble friend reflect on the possibility of consulting the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool on the best way forward, the Lord Bishop having delivered a widely respected and thorough investigation into highly complex issues, illuminating a great tragedy and bringing out truth that previous investigations had failed to do?

As someone who holds the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool in the highest possible regard, I would always be happy to consult him. I am not suggesting for one moment that there are not lessons to be learnt from these different inquiries that will need to be pulled together at some stage, but the House and the broader public would not thank us for failing to deal with the immediate issues facing us in order to get to the bottom of this.

My Lords, I express and share the concerns of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, and indeed the noble and learned Lord, about the characterisation in the Statement about whether the inquiry led by the distinguished jurist and High Court judge was properly constituted and did its job. There is already a commingling in the media between that aspect and new evidence that is contained further on in the Home Secretary’s Statement. For the benefit of people involved here, we should seek further clarity.

I have tried to provide a proper balance between my regard for the way in which the original report was undertaken by Sir Ronald Waterhouse and what we are seeking to achieve today. We would be wrong to ignore the terms under which that inquiry was held. It has much to contribute to discovering what went on in the light of the allegations being made today. We would be mistaken if we chose to preserve that inquiry in aspic and say that it did not have lessons to teach us about how to investigate these matters today.

My Lords, I am sure that we all welcome the fact that there is to be a new police inquiry into these matters, but I would be grateful for the Minister’s explanation of the thinking behind this being led by Keith Bristow, who is heading up the new National Crime Agency. I have enormous faith in Keith Bristow himself. However, given that the Serious Organised Crime Agency and the yet-to-be-created National Crime Agency are going through a period of enormous flux and confusion while this happens, and the job of the chief executive of an agency that is being set up is usually pretty highly committed to setting up that agency, how will it be possible for him to lead the sort of inquiry that all noble Lords have said they want—very thorough, potentially extremely lengthy and potentially extremely involved? In practice, where will the resources come from? I am not talking about the money but the individual officers. Who is going to co-ordinate that? How is that going to be practically done when the person you are asking to lead the inquiry is supposed to have a more than full-time job setting up a new government agency?

I remind the noble Lord that the Statement made it quite clear that it was the chief constable of North Wales Police, Mark Polin, who actually requested Keith Bristow to head up this investigation, and to do so using the resources that are available to him through SOCA and other assets that are available for serious investigations. Indeed, we will face a new world with the National Crime Agency, but that still has to come before your Lordships’ House and I would not presume on that. This is a recognition that the inquiry itself may well cross police boundaries; it may well be a matter that is quite properly addressed by an agency set up to deal with serious organised crime.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a former child protection worker. Will the inquiry say why 80 people were named in the inquiry, but only eight prosecutions took place and seven convictions were made? It would be interesting to know what the Minister intends to do, not just in supporting and listening to those victims and survivors who are coming forward, but in terms of long-term support, which is critical. If I may echo what my noble friend Lady Smith said, this is a great opportunity to look generally at the level of abuse in different institutions. As the noble Earl also said, this is rampant and still the experience of hundreds and thousands of young people whom we are continuing to fail.

I thank the noble Baroness for her contribution, particularly as she speaks from direct experience as a child protection officer. I said earlier that the police will prosecute without fear or favour. The reason why these matters are being reopened is to make sure that the judgments that were made at that time were correct. Further information that the investigations uncover will, I suspect, lead to other prosecutions being brought; certainly, they should do if the investigations discover further evidence of child abuse. I hope that that will be one of the consequences.

A second consequence, to which the noble Baroness alluded, is support for victims. The Government are mindful of the fact that it is victims of crime who need support and we intend to implement policies to provide exactly that.