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Child Abuse

Volume 755: debated on Thursday 17 July 2014

Statement

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in answer to an Urgent Notice Question in the House of Commons by my right honourable friend Mrs Theresa May, the Home Secretary. The Statement is as follows.

“The sexual abuse of children is an abhorrent crime which this Government are absolutely committed to stamping out. In my Statement to the House last week, I addressed two important public concerns: first, that in the 1980s the Home Office failed to act on allegations of child sex abuse and, secondly, that public bodies and other important institutions have failed to take seriously their duty of care towards children. As I informed the House on 7 July, the whole Government take these allegations very seriously. That is why I announced two inquiries last week.

The first is a review led by Peter Wanless, the chief executive of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, with the support of Richard Whittam QC, of the original investigations which Mark Sedwill, the Permanent Secretary at the Home Office, commissioned last year into suggestions that the Home Office failed to act on allegations of child sex abuse in the early 1980s. Peter Wanless and Richard Whittam will also look at how the police and prosecutors handled any related information that was handed to them and examine another recent review into allegations that the Home Office provided funding to an organisation called the Paedophile Information Exchange. Mr Wanless and Mr Whittam are both in post and work on that review has begun. Its terms of reference were placed in the Library of the House last week and I expect the review to conclude within eight to 10 weeks.

More widely, I also announced last week an independent panel inquiry to consider whether public bodies and other non-state institutions have taken seriously their duty of care to protect children from sexual abuse. The Home Office has appointed the head of secretariat for the panel inquiry, which will begin its work as soon as possible after the appointment of the chairman.

As the House will know, I asked Baroness Butler-Sloss to act as chairman of the panel, and she agreed to do so. However, having listened to the concerns raised by victim and survivor groups, and by Members of this House, Lady Butler-Sloss subsequently came to the conclusion that she should not chair the inquiry. I was deeply saddened by Lady Butler-Sloss’s decision to withdraw but understand and respect her reasons. She is a woman of the highest integrity and compassion and continues to have an enormous contribution to make to public life.

Work is ongoing to find the right chairman, and other members of the panel, to do just that. An announcement will be made as soon as possible so that this important work can move forward. I am sure that honourable Members will agree that it is also very important that the terms of reference for this inquiry are considered carefully. That is why it is right that we should wait until we have appointed a new chairman and a full panel, and discussed them with them.

I want this inquiry to leave no stone unturned in getting to the truth of what happened and making sure we learn the necessary lessons to protect children and vulnerable people in the future.

Members will be aware of the outcome of the National Crime Agency’s operation, reported in the media yesterday. That operation signifies this Government’s relentless commitment to pursue those who engage in online child sexual exploitation. The operation is unprecedented in its degree of co-ordination, with the NCA leading and co-ordinating law enforcement efforts which involve 45 police forces across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. It has been ongoing for the past six months. People from all walks of life have been identified, including those in positions of trust.

In the mean time, I can assure the House that work to tackle this reprehensible crime continues. That is why, in April last year, the Government established the national group to tackle sexual violence against children and vulnerable people, which is led by my honourable friend the Minister for Crime Prevention. This cross-government group was established to learn the lessons from some of the recent cases which have emerged, and the resulting reviews and inquiries. As a result of its work, we now have better guidance for the police and prosecutors, new powers for the police to get information from hotels that are used for child sexual exploitation, and better identification of children at risk of exploitation through the use of local multiagency safeguarding hubs.

The Government are also committed to tackling the threat to children online. That is why the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill, which is currently before Parliament, will ensure that our law enforcement agencies continue to have access to another vital tool—communications data. Without access to communications data—the who, where, when and how of a communication but not its content—public authorities’ investigative capabilities in relation to online child abuse would be significantly damaged and vital evidence would be inaccessible.

The CEOP command of the National Crime Agency works with police forces to investigate child sexual abuse and has access to specialist officers who could be called upon to assist in complex cases. CEOP is already providing support to forces in the robust investigation of child sexual abuse, as the arrests reported yesterday make clear.

Child abuse is an abhorrent crime which can scar people for life and the Government are determined to stamp it out. We are working across government to ensure that victims of historical child abuse who come forward in response to our overarching inquiry get the support and help they need. We have ring-fenced nearly £40 million for specialist local support services and national helplines, including more than 80 independent sexual violence advisers.

So our message is clear: the Government will do everything they can to allow the full investigation of child abuse—whenever and wherever it occurred—to support the victims of it and to bring the perpetrators of this disgusting crime to justice”.

That concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for repeating the Answer to the Urgent Question, although he may be aware that his Answer was somewhat different from the one that was circulated. However, I am glad he referred to this issue, because yesterday’s report that the National Crime Agency has arrested 660 people for online child abuse and sexual assaults is both encouraging and depressing. It is encouraging because it shows that the police give this a very high priority, but it is deeply depressing that there are now reports that thousands more people suspected of accessing child abuse images are known to the police but are not being arrested.

The paramount concern, which I am sure is shared across the House, is to protect children and prevent their becoming victims of abuse. How many of those identified would be barred from working with children? With a 75% drop since 2010 in the number of offenders and people barred from working with children, will the Minister accept that a review of the current child protection system, including the entire vetting and barring system, should be included as part of the overarching inquiry into child abuse and a report presented to your Lordships’ House as a matter of urgency?

My Lords, there is indeed no hiding place. We do not know the actual total but we know that it is a large number. We are certainly determined that all those who have been involved in this will be dealt with by the law, as they should be.

The noble Baroness asked about the DBS. As noble Lords will know, the Protection of Freedoms Act encouraged that people who were not working with children should no longer automatically face being disbarred. That was the decision Parliament made in that respect. I agree it is an area that will be examined to see whether there has been any adverse effect, but I do not see that as being the primary cause of this problem. The barring service, in which I have a great deal of confidence, still ensures anybody working with and in contact with children is barred from employment if there are grounds to suspect that they are involved in this sort of activity. That will continue and that is, I am sure, the policy that this House would wish to see continue.

My Lords, given the unfortunate circumstance that the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, is no longer to chair the inquiry, is the Minister aware that there are seven extremely distinguished, female members of the Court of Appeal, Lady Justices? Is he aware that the appointment of any one of those seven would be extremely welcome to most Members of this House, and that a number of them, like the noble and learned Baroness, have special experience in dealing with issues concerning family law?

I have expressed the views of the Home Secretary and the disappointment that the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, will not be taking this inquiry. The House has shown its feelings on that matter. I do not doubt that we will find a competent person to take the chairmanship and that, in turn, we will find people to join that person in forming the panel that will lead the inquiry.

Does the Minister agree that the inquiry that was to be conducted by my noble and learned colleague Lady Butler-Sloss needs to have precise terms of reference? Does he agree that hours spent on refining the terms of reference are important because they could avoid months of challenge?

I understand what the noble Lord is saying. The terms of reference will be decided in conjunction with the chairman. Only the chairman can determine where the inquiry should go. We need to have no closed minds on this issue but we have made clear that, while it is not a statutory inquiry, it can become one if the chairman and the panel believe that that is necessary for them to continue with their work. There is no reason why the inquiry cannot make interim reports on matters considered to be essential for the Government to take action on immediately. None the less, I think I made clear in the Statement that I repeated here on Monday 7 July that the whole point is that the inquiry should be deliberative and thorough so that we make sure that the Government can deal properly with an issue that is of concern to the House and to the country as a whole.

My Lords, I echo what people have said about the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss. It is a great shame that she is not doing the inquiry. I have great admiration for her, which goes back a very long time, and she would have done it beautifully. However, I have some problems with the inquiry itself. The Government speak of an overarching inquiry, which I understand. The expectation seems to have arisen that this inquiry will name names—that people will be named in the inquiry and that somehow there will be an exposure of people who are supposed to have committed these dreadful crimes. The inquiry is not a court of law and cannot deal with a defendant as a defendant. It is not a police force, so it will not have the resources of the police and the Home Office to investigate these matters. How do the Government see the inquiry dealing with the issues when names are named, which, as I understand it, the Government want them to be?

It is for the police to deal with the apprehension of offenders and to act on information that they have available. It is not the purpose of the inquiry to deal with individual cases. It will be important to make sure that the inquiry separates the police operations from its own investigations and does not, in the process of making its findings known, jeopardise police officers or the proper administration of justice.

My Lords, I welcome all the Government are doing to bring the perpetrators of child abuse to justice, but will they do more to prevent it happening in the first place? Hundreds of thousands of people go online and access child pornography on the internet. Some people seem to take the view that, if that is all they do, it does not matter too much. But, of course, every such image of a child on the internet is a child who has been abused, and the people accessing those images are complicit in that crime. There is some overlap between those who access child pornography on the internet and those who go out to contact children and abuse them physically. There is a great deal of controversy over how big that overlap is. Will the Government do more research to look into the overlap between accessing child pornography on the internet and physically abusing children? Will they do more to support those charities that do wonderful work with people who accept their inappropriate urges and want not to offend physically? Organisations such as the Lucy Faithfull Foundation struggle for resources to do this very important work to prevent children being abused in the first place.

I could not agree more with the premise of my noble friend’s questions; it is important to support charities. I also agree that viewing images of children online is not a harmless pursuit. It is damaging to those who have been involved in sexual abuse to provide those images, but it also leads individuals on to sexual abuse. That is why we are right to take this view. We have open minds about how the Government should deal with this over time, but I agree with my noble friend that the numbers coming forward suggest that this problem has been made worse by people’s ability to view these images online.

My Lords, it is quite clear that the Government intend not only to look at historical abuse during this inquiry but to ensure that what is happening here and now is firmly within the sights. I hope that the Minister can reassure me on that point. The police officer who dealt with the issues yesterday said clearly that we cannot arrest our way out of this situation. It is absolutely crucial that we get the right programmes in place, as the noble Baroness opposite said, with the present and well defined research that is going on, rather than looking back and getting it wrong.

The noble Baroness is quite right. What is the use of the study of history if it does not help us deal with the here and now and the future?