[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the case of Brandon Rayat.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am very pleased to see the Minister here. I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the case of Brandon Singh Rayat of Leicester today.
Brandon tragically took his own life at the age of 15 on 9 August this year, just 132 days ago, after what has been described by his parents as systematic, appalling and torturous bullying. He was a pupil at Judgemeadow Community College in Evington in my constituency. We are joined today by Brandon’s mother, Mina; his father, Rajinder; and his younger brother, Jaydeep.
Mr and Mrs Rayat have informed me that, in the 16 months leading up to his death, Brandon was subjected to repeated physical and psychological abuse by his peers. Because it is so shocking, I will not repeat in great detail the abuse. However, children—children, Mr Hollobone—who used to be Brandon’s friends started calling him terrible names. They set up a fake Facebook page, through which they repeatedly sent threats to sexually assault both him and his mother. He was also physically assaulted while at school. No one in this House would disagree when I say that that kind of activity is completely reprehensible.
In May 2015, Brandon was diagnosed as suffering from an acute stress reaction as a result of the bullying. Last November, the abuse became so bad that Brandon stopped attending school altogether. His anxiety turned the mere act of going to school each day into a phobia. He became lonely and isolated, and despite being prescribed antidepressants, his condition did not improve.
Two months before he took his own life, Brandon started to give away all his possessions and money to his loved ones. Brandon’s family tell me that despite what had happened, their urgent calls for help went unanswered. In the 16 months leading up to his death, Brandon tried to take his own life on a number of occasions. His parents begged doctors to transfer him to a secure medical unit, but the request was denied by local health services. Brandon repeatedly told his parents that he wanted to take his own life and attempted suicide in both March and July of this year. Despite that, still nothing was done.
Brandon’s family spoke to the child and adolescent mental health services, his GP and psychiatric services at the Leicester Royal Infirmary, yet none of them took the action that was necessary to prevent his death. Will the Minister tell the House when she responds what would have been enough—what threshold needs to be crossed—for someone like Brandon, or indeed his family, to access the care that he and they so desperately needed?
I have visited Judgemeadow Community College many times during my 29 years as an MP, and until now, I have never received a complaint about something that has happened there. Mr and Mrs Rayat have told me that Judgemeadow Community College was informed of the bullying in November 2015. Mrs Rayat also had a meeting with the school to discuss the abuse and the pupils who were orchestrating this campaign of hate. Indeed, I understand that some of the text messages were shown to the people in authority. Unfortunately, that did nothing to prevent or stem the abuse that Brandon was receiving.
It would be extremely helpful if the Minister told the House what criteria or guidance exist for schools in circumstances of this kind. When did either she or the Secretary of State last write to various local authorities, or perhaps directly to schools, to give them information and guidance as to how they should react in particular circumstances? Not all schools experience activities of this kind, and therefore I would not expect every school and every teacher in the country to be expert in dealing with such matters.
Mrs Rayat has informed me that she also had no success when she approached Leicester City Council. She was told she needed to ask for a health and educational support plan. To get that, she went to the information, advice and support services. Her inquiry was then passed to the council’s education team, which said it would need to go to the school to get even more information. After literally running around in circles, Mina Rayat then waited for months without a substantive response. During that time, Brandon was awaiting an evaluation for suspected autism.
That looks to me like bureaucracy failing to act, which affected the reaction times. I am worried about future cases such as this. That is why Brandon’s parents wanted me to raise this case in Parliament today. His case should have been a priority. However, I fear there are other examples of the buck being passed between various authorities.
Judging from my meeting with the family at my surgery, it seems that more should have been done to help both Brandon and his family with the events leading up to his death. An inquest into Brandon’s death will begin in January, and it is not appropriate for me, Ministers or Parliament to apportion blame to any individual until that has been completed. That is the system we have in this country, and it is one that the family respects, which is why they are prepared for the inquest. However—I speak not as an educationalist but a layperson—it is clear that Brandon was subjected to a barrage of abuse over a long period. It is my understanding, from what his parents have said to me, that the very institutions that are supposed to act as a safety net in situations such as this did not do so.
I do not have all the facts. Those will emerge when the inquest takes place, as well as a possible inquiry, which the family believe is extremely important. However, it seems that the system has failed this young man and this family. Will the Minister outline how this system could be made more effective and easier for families to navigate? These are not people who have had much contact with the education system prior to this occurring, so they do not know how to go through it.
As Members will know, it was National Anti-Bullying Week last month. Mina Rayat launched a campaign to ensure that no other young person or parent goes through the sheer hell that Brandon and his family were subjected to. I would like to put on the record the shining and admirable example of Mina Rayat and her family. She wants to ensure that, although her son has passed away in these tragic circumstances, no other family will endure what they have had to endure. Despite being grief-stricken, there is nothing more she could have done. She tried to push a broken system to save her child. To lose a child is the worst pain any parent could imagine, but to use her grief as a force for good is heroic.
What is most worrying is that Brandon’s story is not a one-off. Thousands of children in the United Kingdom are suffering from bullying, both at school and online, and this is contributing to a mental health crisis. This year, 87% more children than last year told Childline that they struggled to access appropriate professional support for their mental health problems. Some 72% of children have reported being bullied online and a quarter of a million children are currently receiving help from NHS mental health services. One third of these cases are related to bullying. These are frightening statistics, but we must bear in mind that many cases are not reported and, in reality, the figures are likely to be much higher.
Some parents may say to their children, when they come home and complain, “You just have to shout back at someone who is attacking you and stand up for yourself, or report it to a teacher.” Parents themselves may not understand the serious nature of what is going on.
Yesterday the Health Committee released its interim report on suicide prevention. It stated that 4,820 people died by suicide in England in 2016. But again, in reality, this figure is likely to be much higher. Suicide remains the biggest killer of men under 49 and the leading cause of death in people aged 15 to 24. My father committed suicide when I was 14. He was just 49 and to this day, all these years later, I still remember the knock on the door, answering that door and being told the news.
The circumstances that give rise to someone taking their own life are a personal issue for some of us, but also a matter of deep public concern. It should be a concern of Parliament and Government. We are in the midst of two separate crises. We have a crisis in youth mental health and a pandemic of bullying in our schools and online. To address this, we need a revolutionary change in the way the authorities provide support to victims.
Can the Minister please tell us that, when the Government refresh—that is the word used in the document—their suicide prevention strategy in January 2017, included in that strategy will be a section on how to address bullying? Will she also ensure that guidance on cases like Brandon’s is at the heart of the strategy across councils and NHS services in the United Kingdom?
Another issue is the bullies. All bullies believe they can push their target to the very edge and suffer no consequences. They may delight in the misery they cause—who knows? Under the current law, sustained harassment and intimidation, including verbal abuse, threats, abusive phone calls and sending abusive emails or text messages are all crimes. However—we have heard this so many times—the internet companies must be held to account even more than at present. They never seem to respond quickly enough to cases of online bullying like Brandon’s. When someone seeks to make a complaint, it is usually found that they are based in another country in some other part of the world, and trying to get to someone to deal with the issue is complicated.
As is all too common, no charges or investigations have been launched against Brandon’s bullies. Perhaps a more serious risk of prosecution would have deterred them. Had Brandon been murdered, criminal charges would have been a certainty. Mina Rayat and her husband have put the implementation of a specific cyber-bullying law at the heart of their campaign to achieve justice for Brandon and others who have found themselves in this terrible situation. Will the Minister give the Government’s view on those proposals? Will she also tell us what further action the Government are taking to deal with internet companies?
I shall end by saying that 2016 has been an unimaginably tragic year for the Rayat family. Unfortunately, Mrs Rayat is not the only mother in my constituency to have approached me this year about the death of a son. I pay tribute to Cheryl Armatrading and Amy Morgan who both lost their sons to knife attacks in Leicester. Cheryl’s son, Antoin Akpom, was brutally murdered in September 2013. His family has yet to receive compensation for his death or an explanation of why his killer was transferred to Leicester by the authorities, which allowed the killer to meet Antoin in a car park and to stab him to death. Cheryl is being supported by the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs Villiers), who is working hard on her behalf and is her local MP. I am acting as the constituency MP for Antoin’s son, Aquil.
Amy Morgan lost her son, Tyler Thompson, to a knife attack in November 2015. Last month, I attended a ceremony marking the first anniversary of his death at the City of Leicester College, hosted by headteacher, Anne Gregory, in Downing Drive in my constituency. Since Tyler’s death, Amy has worked in collaboration with Leicestershire police on their “Lives not Knives” campaign. Some young men in my constituency and across the country are facing a crisis of violence and intimidation, leaving behind them grieving families and broken communities. This violence must stop.
What sort of country do we want to live in? Do we want a country where our children are safe from the kind of bullies and actions that Brandon had to face, or a country where the actions of bullies remain unchecked? We want a country where these issues are raised and bullies are stopped in their tracks before it is too late. When children are suffering bullying to the point where they take their own lives, we need to change our response radically. The system failed Brandon this year. Please, let us ensure that no other child is failed in this way.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) for securing this very important debate, for the way he presented this tragic story to the House and for always standing up for his constituents with great dedication and passion. He is a great credit to them.
I express my deepest sympathy to Brandon’s mother, father and brother and to all his family and friends. His untimely and utterly tragic death is the reason why we are having this debate. We must do all that we can both to stop bullying happening at all and, crucially, to recognise and support the victims.
The right hon. Gentleman rightly asked what we could have done to prevent this tragedy. When children are victims of bullying, it is vital that professionals listen to them and their families and take seriously what they say. The bullying of Brandon and its consequences were not missed—not by his parents, his school or other services. His family tried and tried to get help, and the school and child and adolescent mental health services were involved. All of that needs to be investigated very carefully.
However, as the right hon. Gentleman pointed out, Brandon’s tragic death will be the subject of a coroner’s inquiry in the new year. I cannot pre-empt the findings and say at this point what specific organisations such as the Judgemeadow school should have done; that will come out of that inquiry. But whatever comes out of the inquiry, we must ensure that the vital lessons are identified, learned and put into practice to help prevent such a devastating event from happening again and families from suffering in a similar way.
The right hon. Gentleman raised a number of important issues and questions that I would like to address. First, let me say that bullying, for whatever reason and in whatever circumstance, is absolutely unacceptable and has no place in our society. As we have seen, it has had a devastating effect on Brandon’s family, but it has also blighted the lives of many other young people. We cannot simply dismiss bullying as part of growing up. Even when it does not have consequences as appalling as those that we have heard about today, it can have a profound and, in many cases, very long-lasting effect on the lives of children and young people and affect their education and long-term mental health.
The Government have sent a clear message that bullying is not to be tolerated in our schools. Every school is different, and individual schools are best placed to decide how best to tackle bullying as part of a wider set of activities regarding behaviour and discipline. We have trusted our headteachers and school staff to identify the circumstances surrounding bullying in their schools, to prioritise those issues, to drive their own improvement and to share best practice among themselves.
Schools have a specific legal duty to have a behaviour policy, which must include measures to prevent all bullying among pupils, including cyber-bullying. Teachers have powers to tackle cyber-bullying by searching for and, if necessary, deleting inappropriate messages or files on electronic devices, including mobile phones. The role of schools is so important. They must absolutely be held to account for how well they tackle and respond to bullying. That is why Ofsted inspections now look specifically at what schools do, examining their records and procedures and what pupils and parents say about how the issue of bullying is dealt with.
We must ensure that schools are supported to tackle bullying and that they can learn from one another. I was fortunate enough to meet during Anti-Bullying Week a couple of weeks ago some really inspiring teachers who have made a real difference to children’s lives through the way they have addressed the issue. My Department has provided £4.4 million of funding to tackle bullying. That includes £1.6 million for four anti-bullying organisations to support schools in tackling the issue, programmes to look at how incidents can be reported to schools more easily, and training for 4,000 young people to become anti-bullying ambassadors in schools and lead campaigns to empower others. We also recently published dedicated cyber-bullying guidance and an online safety toolkit for schools. Those resources will help schools to understand, prevent and respond to cyber-bullying, and can be accessed on the UK Safer Internet Centre website.
Beyond school, social media bring new challenges for young people. Bullying now goes beyond the school gates, which is why we have given schools greater power to deal with incidents outside school. The Government are absolutely clear that what is illegal online is illegal offline. Whomever bullying is aimed at, it is totally unacceptable. I can fully appreciate the desire of Brandon’s family for a change in the law to make cyber-bullying a specific offence. At the moment, the law does not differentiate between criminal offences committed on social media and those committed anywhere else. That means that the actions are illegal wherever they are committed, whether online, in the street or at school. The law as it stands can be used to prosecute online abuse. It is imperative that the individuals committing criminal offences, whether they are making threats of violence or sending grossly offensive messages, are caught and punished appropriately.
Any death by suicide is an absolute tragedy. Suicide is a leading cause of death among young people, and particularly among young men. Our challenge is to recognise the factors that pose the greatest risk and identify those most at risk, so that we can intervene effectively.
We recognise that our services that provide young people with access to specialist mental health support are in need of transformation. Too often when seeking help, children and their families are passed from service to service and face a succession of barriers and thresholds. The right hon. Gentleman rightly asked what threshold Brandon needed to meet and what an effective service would look like. The challenge to us all is to ensure that services come together to provide effective support to those who need it. The question should be not “Do you qualify for my service?” but “What can we best do between us to provide the support that you need?” To support that transformation, we have made £1.4 billion available to ensure that clinical commissioning groups develop local plans detailing how they will improve all aspects of mental health provision.
Our refreshed suicide prevention strategy will, as the right hon. Gentleman asks, acknowledge bullying as a potential contributing factor to suicide in children and young people and will therefore reference the importance of schools and links with schools. It is vital that schools and mental health services work more effectively and more closely together. We have recently been running a series of pilots on that, and we plan to learn from them. We are also taking forward a range of projects across Government on online mental health safety, including funding research into the effects of the internet on mental health and suicide risk, developing digital resilience strategies for children and young people and working in schools to improve mental health awareness and promote mental wellbeing.
The right hon. Gentleman rightly paid tribute to Cheryl Armatrading and Amy Morgan, who tragically lost their sons to knife crime. The Government’s modern crime prevention strategy sets out a range of measures to strengthen our response to knife crime, including working with the police and industry to ensure that there are effective controls on the sale of knives, spreading best practice and delivering measures designed to deter young people from carrying knives. We will continue to work with the Home Office to ensure that every step is taken to protect children from violence. We know that intervening early can help to prevent young people from becoming involved in gang and youth violence in the first place. That is one of the priorities in our approach to ending gang violence and exploitation, and we are working with partners to take that forward.
I am really pleased that the right hon. Gentleman has raised this incredibly important issue today. Bullying is completely unacceptable in any circumstances, but especially when it leads to unspeakably tragic events such as those that we have heard about today. It is vital that everyone is aware of their responsibilities and acts accordingly when they see or hear about bullying, in whatever form it takes. When everyone plays their part in tackling bullying, we will have a society that is respectful and tolerant of all—a place where everyone feels safe and valued. I hope that we can continue to work together to ensure that we build such a society.
I pay tribute to Brandon’s parents and brother for coming here today. I am a mother of two sons and I can only imagine the horrific pain that they have gone through this year. The fact that they have come here to campaign to ensure that other parents do not have to experience the same suffering is incredibly admirable. To do them justice, it will be incumbent on all of us—the Government, councils, health services and schools—to look very carefully at the outcome of the reviews of Brandon’s case and ensure that we all, at every level of the system, make the changes necessary to put the lessons into practice.
Question put and agreed to.