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Sibling Sexual Abuse

Volume 711: debated on Tuesday 22 March 2022

I will call Wera Hobhouse to move the motion and then I will call the Minister to respond. There will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up, as is the convention for a 30-minute debate.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of tackling sibling sexual abuse.

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mrs Miller. This is a hugely difficult and harrowing subject. I begin by thanking all those who have worked on the sibling sexual abuse project: Rape Crisis England and Wales; the University of Birmingham; the University of the West of England, Bristol; West Mercia Rape and Sexual Abuse Support Centre, and Somerset and Avon Rape and Sexual Abuse Support. I also recognise the fantastic work of Fleur Strong, Dr Peter Yates and Tanith McCulloch, two of whom are here today.

The relationship between siblings is one of the most important we will ever form in our lives. There are many different forms of sibling relationship: biological, step, half, adoptive and social. In all those contexts, siblings share an enduring bond. When that relationship goes wrong and one sibling sexually abuses another, it can have devastating, lifelong consequences.

There is no universally accepted definition of sibling sexual abuse. That lack of consistency and clarity contributes to the challenges in identifying this form of abuse. A 2020 definition states:

“Sibling sexual abuse consists of sexual acts initiated by one sibling towards another without the other’s consent, by use of force or coercion, or where there is a power differential between the siblings.”

It occurs when both children are under 18; it can be between brother and sister, sister and brother, brother and brother, or sister and sister. We must distinguish sibling sexual abuse from other forms of child sexual abuse. We are not talking about adult abusers, nor should we conflate sibling sexual abuse with peer-on-peer abuse or child sexual exploitation, which occur outside the home.

It is also critical that we do not view sibling sexual abuse through an adult gender violence lens. The reasons that children sexually harm siblings are complex and different from those associated with adult violence. In many cases, the child who harms is a victim and has experienced neglect, witnessed domestic abuse or experienced some form of childhood trauma. We cannot judge children’s harmful sexualised behaviour without first understanding the context of the family situation they are living in, and we cannot assume that someone will become an adult sex offender because of their behaviour as a child.

I will refer to sibling sexual abuse, siblings who have harmed, and siblings who have been harmed, which are the terms recommended by experts. This is a type of abuse that affects thousands of children, adults and families. Its impact on the entire family is not only devastating but lifelong. As one survivor said:

“It is not just the abuse. It’s the family ramifications, too, that can last for years and tear survivors away from the family.”

Sibling sexual abuse has been described as a hand grenade going off in the family. One adult who was harmed as a child said:

“I have been fumbling around in the dark for so many years trying to understand myself, my reactions, relationship difficulties. Feeling the way I do about myself—totally inferior with nothing to offer anyone. Worthless, in other words.”

As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for the prevention of childhood trauma, I am well aware of the lifelong consequences facing these children. Childhood trauma is at the root of many mental illnesses and other lifelong impacts on achievement, employment and quality of relationships. If it is unrecognised, children will take their trauma into adulthood and, through their traumatised behaviour, pass it on to their children. Those who experience childhood trauma are twice as likely to develop depression and three times as likely to develop anxiety disorders. The child who has harmed often has to deal with the dichotomy of their actions as a child and who they are now as an adult.

In cases of sibling sexual abuse, multiple layers of educational, societal, economic and health impacts affect the whole family. Sibling sexual abuse is unlike other forms of child sexual abuse. The child who has been harmed and the child who has harmed are not only both children, but children of the same family. One affected parent said:

“We are the parents of a much-loved adult who was sexually abused by his older brother as a child. The abuser, also our much-loved child, committed suicide last year, following investigations by Social Services as to whether he constituted a risk to his own young son. No evidence was found. The revelation of the abuse has caused our family to fall apart.”

Parents are often faced with the “double dilemma” of trying to support both of the children involved, dealing with school, social services, children’s services and police investigations, as well as unaffected siblings, friends and extended family. Some parents never accept that abuse has or is still taking place. Many families instinctively close ranks, never sharing what has happened with anyone outside the family.

Research by Rape Crisis England and Wales suggests that parents would be more likely to come forward if they knew that their harming child would not be criminalised. Domestic abuse in the home is a significant factor in families where sibling sexual abuse takes place, suggesting that children are reflecting behaviour that they have witnessed. The situation is complex and requires a family response. One child has been harmed by another; that in itself is difficult to come to terms with, but both children need support.

We have known about the risk to children from sibling sexual abuse for years. In fact, it has been confirmed by Home Office-funded research. From 2020 to 2022, Rape Crisis England and Wales has worked in partnership with two universities and rape crisis centres on a groundbreaking project to support victims and survivors of recent and historical sibling sexual abuse. The project is the largest Government-funded project on sibling sexual abuse in the UK to date. It is funded by the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice, and it is the first England and Wales-wide project on the subject.

Research shows that sibling sexual abuse is the most common form of child sexual abuse in our homes. Estimates suggest that a child is three to five times more likely to be abused by their sibling under the age of 18 than by a parent or adult living in their home environment. The Minister will appreciate the difference between prevalence and reported incidence. However, the sibling sexual abuse project has, for the first time, put together a national picture of reported incidence in England and Wales. Using freedom of information data provided by 20 police forces, the project identified over 10,000 recorded incidents of intrafamilial sexual offences and assaults where the victim was under 18 between 2017 and 2020. Of those, nearly 2,500—24%—were recorded as a sibling relationship. Nearly a quarter of incidents of intrafamilial sexual offences reported to the police are sibling sexual abuse, yet there is systemic silence.

Local and national safeguarding policies and strategies do not name, measure or prioritise sibling sexual abuse. No targets are set; no data is gathered. The Home Office’s 2021 tackling child sexual abuse strategy, which it describes as its

“whole-system response to all forms of child sexual abuse,”

does not even acknowledge the existence of sibling sexual abuse. This is the thing that we really need to talk about today—the need for an acknowledgement of the existence of sibling sexual abuse in our strategies.

It is almost unbelievable that an entire strategy on child sexual abuse not only fails to recognise the primary type of child sexual abuse in our homes, but fails even to acknowledge its existence. Worse still, the Home Office’s systemic blind spot is cascading down and compromising other national and local safeguarding policies and strategies. Of the more than 80 child safeguarding boards that published annual reports in 2021, zero mentioned sibling sexual abuse. According to a survey of 700 frontline professionals conducted by the national project on sibling sexual abuse, sibling sexual abuse is significantly less recognised within general society than child abuse where the perpetrator is an adult.

There is ongoing stigma around sibling sexual abuse. That is not surprising: it goes against our very concept of childhood. It completely challenges societal and professional thinking on child sexual abuse. In some cases, sibling sexual abuse survivors have stated that they do not recognise themselves as survivors of child sexual abuse, because of the way that society, the Government and sexual violence organisations communicate what child sexual abuse is. Even worse, they do not seek help. Rape Crisis England and Wales has heard of professionals minimising the abuse because they do not know how to respond, exaggerating the abuse in order to gain access to children and young people’s statutory services, or catastrophising the abuse. All three reactions are detrimental to children, young people and their families.

How can we make things better? How can we help to safeguard thousands of young children and properly support survivors to seek help? I hope that the Minister will agree that the first step is to acknowledge sibling sexual abuse. She might respond by saying that the Government’s child sexual abuse approach already includes sibling sexual abuse, because it is a form of child sexual abuse. Unfortunately, that is not the case. That is not what survivors think, it is not what rape crisis centres think, and it is not what 700 professionals think.

The Home Office’s own documents focus only on adult abusers in the home, despite the Home Office’s own evidence stating that something is wrong. Things must change. The only thing that will make things better for thousands of families is acknowledgement that sibling sexual abuse exists. This is about language. It is about five simple words that must be included in every document aimed at tackling child sexual abuse: “brother”, “sister” and “sibling sexual abuse”. Will the Minister commit to updating the Home Office’s 2021 tackling child sexual abuse strategy to name and appropriately respond to sibling sexual abuse as the most common form of child sexual abuse in our homes? That is in line with research funded by the Home Office itself, so I hope that she will offer me her reassurances.

Criminal justice is not the answer to tackling sibling sexual abuse; we need health and education to work together and take a trauma-informed approach. We must reassure families that they are not dealing with this alone and properly equip professionals so that they can offer the support that is needed. That will mean proper, age-appropriate sex and relationship education in schools, something for which we Liberal Democrats have been asking for a long time. It is important for children to understand that sometimes harm can come from children, so that they come forward when it happens and they understand that it is wrong.

Will the Minister also speak to her colleagues in the Department for Education and the Department of Health and Social Care to ask them to update their safeguarding and commissioning approaches to children, in order to respond properly to intrafamilial abuse and, specifically, sibling sexual abuse? Until now, this issue simply has not been addressed properly. Children are being let down by the status quo. If the Home Office will not believe its own paid-for evidence, who and what will it believe?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Miller. I thank the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) for tackling this extremely difficult subject and for doing so in such a sensitive and constructive way. I, too, pay tribute to the victims and their families who have suffered from this horrific experience. It is an unimaginable trauma. We are absolutely committed to doing everything we can to deal with it and to tackle it.

I appreciate that the hon. Lady gave me some challenges and pre-empted some of what I was going to say, but let me set out what we are doing from the Home Office side. I hope that will assure her that we are taking this issue seriously, but I am always happy to work with her on the specific points she has raised.

In that spirit, let me start by saying that the hon. Lady rightly referenced the tackling child sexual abuse strategy, which we published just over a year ago. That strategy sets out our commitments to drive action across every part of Government and all agencies—education, health, social care, industry and civil society, some of which she mentioned. The strategy specifically recognises the issue of sibling sexual abuse. It is important that we recognise that it is an atrocious form of sex abuse and has its own individual characteristics, as she set out. It is right that we understand it, which is why we have funded the research that she referenced.

Is the Minister aware of the survey of New England colleges and universities that found that 15% of females and 10% of males have reported some type of sexual experience involving a sibling? It also established that one in seven under-age children who have watched porn are more likely to engage in sexual experimentation with their sibling. Does the Minister believe that we must work harder to protect children from the dangers of online porn in order to tackle sibling sexual abuse, and will she confirm that, through the Online Safety Bill, this kind of sexual activity will be stopped?

I strongly agree that we must do more to protect children when they are viewing pornographic content online. That is precisely what the Online Safety Bill will do. There are many advocates in this place—including, if I may say so, you, Mrs Miller—who have done extensive work to ensure that we toughen up enforcement powers so that young children, and women and girls, are not exposed to this disgusting content before that is appropriate.

We know that sibling sexual abuse and child sex abuse are horrific, and that these crimes destroy lives. That is why we are determined to leave no stone unturned in our effort to protect children and bring perpetrators to justice. The hon. Member for Bath is absolutely right to say that sibling sex abuse is likely to be one of the most common forms of intrafamilial sex abuse, but it remains under-reported right across the country. During a three-month snapshot survey in 2020, the Internet Watch Foundation logged 511 self-generated child sex abuse images and videos that involved siblings, with 65% of cases involving direct sexual contact between the siblings in just that one period. That is equivalent to approximately five to six images or videos per day.

We know that it can take a long time for children to feel comfortable and confident to tell anyone about the sexual abuse that they have been subjected to. It is particularly difficult, as the hon. Lady highlighted, where the sexual abuse takes place in that family environment. It is crucial to ensure that children and young people have a strong understanding of healthy relationships, boundaries and privacy, and that they are able to recognise and report abuse or concerns about their safety. That is why we completely agree with the hon. Lady and her colleagues that relationships, sex and health education across the curriculum is a statutory requirement across the country. We have been rolling that out across primary and secondary settings. It is crucial that frontline professionals working with children and young people have the skills and confidence to identify all forms of sexual abuse and are able to respond effectively.

The hon. Lady referred to the first ever national conference on sibling sexual abuse, which took place recently and was facilitated by Rape Crisis England and Wales, funded partly by the Home Office. The conference brought together frontline professionals and practitioners to learn from national and international best practice on responding to sibling sexual abuse. That is precisely why the conference was funded and set up by the Home Office—because we wish to know more and to learn from the findings. We are continuing to fund the centre of expertise on child sexual abuse, to drive a co-ordinated response to child sexual abuse across the country.

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

On resuming

I will pick up where I left off, by highlighting the work we are doing through the centre of expertise on child sexual abuse to drive a co-ordinated response across the country. That centre of expertise has produced invaluable research and resources to support frontline professionals working in education and children’s social care, including a knowledge and practice overview on sibling sexual abuse, which is designed to help professionals think through the issues and challenges raised by sibling sexual abuse.

That work is further supported by the child sexual abuse response pathway tool, which aims to ensure that professionals are clear about their roles and responsibilities and have access to high-quality, evidence-based resources to support them in their practice and decision making. Guides and templates recently published by the centre aim to empower professionals so they can confidently spot the signs and indicators of child sex abuse, talk to children in a safe and supported space, and provide wider support to parents and carers. The centre has also specifically provided training to supervising social workers and designated safeguarding leads in 11 pilot sites to improve the identification of, and response to, sexual abuse within schools.

I am sure the hon. Member for Bath will welcome the news that in January we launched the harmful sexual behaviour support service for education and safeguarding professionals. That work is helping to build confidence and support professionals in addressing all forms of sexual abuse, including sibling sex abuse. That service is delivered by the South West Grid for Learning in partnership with the Marie Collins Foundation, and I put on record my thanks to that group.

We all need to work on this together, and I am very pleased to hear about the work the Home Office is doing, but may I challenge the Minister again on what she has said about the Home Office’s 2021 report on tackling child sexual abuse? Sibling sexual abuse is only referenced in that report once, at the end, and is only referenced in relation to research, not as abuse that must be actioned as the most common form of child sexual abuse in the home. Can I ask again whether the Minister will commit to ensuring that, when the report is updated, sibling sexual abuse will be highlighted as the most common form of child sexual abuse and something that should be prioritised immediately?

Order. Before the Minister responds, let me clarify that, as a result of the delay caused by the votes, this session will finish at about eight or nine minutes past 6, so that I can put the Question before 10 past.

Thank you for your guidance, Mrs Miller. I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention and her remarks, and I am keen to work constructively with her in the spirit in which she has approached this subject. We both agree that this is a vitally important topic, so I am very happy to have a further meeting with her at which we can discuss these vital issues and try to identify where we need to do more. We start from the premise that there is more the Home Office and all our partners need to do on this issue.

The hon. Lady is right to highlight the prevalence of sibling sexual abuse. The reason I am responding as I am is that, although she is right to say that sibling sexual abuse has distinct features, there are also themes in common. It is important that we consider safeguarding of children, but we recognise that there are multiple presentations of these horrifying and disgusting crimes. I will work with the hon. Lady to arrange a meeting at which we can have a deep dive into this work. I thank her for everything she is doing, because I recognise that she is championing victims in a very important way.

I will briefly reference the Online Safety Bill, in responding to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). The Bill was published last week and will, for the first time, place a duty on tech companies to proactively do more to keep children safe online. That is why we continue to fund the Internet Watch Foundation to deliver public awareness and education campaigns around self-generated indecent imagery.

Let me turn to the issue of support for children and victims and survivors of sibling sexual abuse. The hon. Lady has recognised the many barriers that make it extremely difficult for children to talk about what is happening to them in that family situation. Some may not be aware that what is happening is abuse. Sometimes it starts very young, and if that is all the victim knows, it is incredibly hard for them to tell their story. We must be clear that children and young people will always be supported in telling their story. We have heard from victims and survivors who have come forward with horrific experiences—no one can listen to those stories without feeling affected and wanting to help—so it is crucial that specialist support is provided to help victims and survivors to process the devastating impacts of the abuse they have suffered and to move forward with their lives. That is why we are increasing investment in specialised victim and survivor support services throughout the country, including specialist support for victims of sibling sexual abuse.

I have already referred to it, but it is worth reminding the House that we have provided significant funding for Rape Crisis England and Wales to run a new and groundbreaking project to support victims and survivors of recent and historic sibling sexual abuse. This two-year project is the largest Government-funded project on sibling sexual abuse to date across England and Wales, and it is generating some extremely interesting findings that we will continue to review, from the Home Office side and with the hon. Lady. That funding has supported the delivery of a national toolkit developed to support victims and survivors of sibling sexual abuse, a national training framework to support non-recent victims of sibling sexual abuse, and academic research to strengthen our understanding of this form of abuse.

We will not shy away from this often stigmatised and sensitive issue. We are determined to work across Government with victims and survivors to ensure that they get the support they need to rebuild their lives. I again thank all Members of the House who have contributed to this important debate. I also thank the families, the victims and survivors, and their loved ones, who have come forward to attend this debate and also helped us in our work in Government to formulate the right policy response to them. I assure colleagues that we are firmly focused on protecting children from all forms of sexual exploitation and abuse, including sibling sexual abuse. The Government’s message is clear: we will confront these crimes wherever and whenever they occur, and we will use every lever available to us to keep children safe.

Question put and agreed to.