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Children: Sexual Abuse

Volume 769: debated on Monday 14 March 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure that the police, social services and other agencies work together effectively to protect vulnerable children from sexual abuse.

My Lords, nothing is more important than keeping children safe from harm, including sexual abuse. How different agencies work together is key to improving outcomes for our most vulnerable children. We have commissioned Alan Wood to review the role and function of local safeguarding children boards in order to improve multiagency working. The Government have made a commitment, through the tackling sexual exploitation action plan, to improve multiagency responses to child sexual abuse.

My Lords, is it not essential that all agencies involved in protecting children investigate allegations of sexual abuse fully, fairly and openly? Will my noble friend agree that the more stringent procedures now required of bodies such as our school inspectorates and the Church of England authorities represent real progress? However, are we yet in a position to place total confidence in the church authorities? They failed to give an adequate account of the process which led them to accept last October the veracity of a single uncorroborated complaint of child sexual abuse made against one of our greatest, most venerated bishops, George Bell, Bishop of Chichester, who died in 1958. He was a man held in the highest regard in this House during his 20 years of service to it and the nation.

On the first point, we have encouraged—in fact, published and put on a statutory footing—legal requirements to work together to safeguard children in order to restore public confidence in these very serious areas. That is also why Justice Goddard is undertaking her inquiry. The last issue which the noble Lord raised is pertinent in the sense that Justice Goddard identified that claims of abuse within the Anglican Church were a line for her to investigate in her inquiry. The inquiry will cover that topic when it meets this week, on Wednesday, and of course that inquiry will be held in public.

My Lords, turning to the broader issue of child sexual abuse and child protection, is the Minister aware that a large number of different models of co-operation between the police, social services and other agencies are being trialled across the country? Indeed, my own county of Norfolk is attempting to put services closer together. I am grateful for the investigation into the local boards, but what are the Government doing to ensure that the practice is pulled together and that the best practice is promulgated right across the country? Does he not think that it is as important to do that for children now as it is to investigate historical abuse, with all the resources that we are putting into that?

One thing we are trialling to get just the type of feedback that the noble Baroness referred to is joint inspections of safeguarding boards by HMIC, the probation inspectorate, Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission. Alan Wood’s review will report back into the process. It is taking time, but it is such a vital area that we need to get it right. Learning the lessons of the past is part of what Justice Goddard’s inquiry is seeking to do, to make sure that we can establish a body of learning to prevent such abuse in the future.

My Lords, will the Minister seriously consider direct intervention by the Government in South Yorkshire Police’s performance in dealing with child sexual exploitation? This has been highlighted by the recent report from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, which said that South Yorkshire Police still needs to make major improvements. Following freedom of information requests to 10 forces across the country, a BBC report on Friday showed that, nationally, one in five cases reported is charged, but that in South Yorkshire the figure is one in 16.

They are very serious claims. The HMIC report at least pointed to some improvement. We have Professor John Drew looking independently into this and will carefully follow his responses. It is very important to have the confidence of the public in that particular area, which has been at the centre of so many cases, so we will be watching very carefully indeed.

The Question makes reference to the police. Is it for a chief constable of a force to decide as an operational matter on the level and extent of a police force’s involvement in working together with social services and other agencies to protect vulnerable children from sexual abuse, or is that level of involvement ultimately a decision for the police and crime commissioner to make as a strategic policy matter?

That is a very good question. I shall write to the noble Lord, because these are very important matters that we have to get right. We have put guidance on individuals’ responsibilities on a statutory footing, and that guidance has been published. Operations are matters for chief constables but setting the overall strategies and priorities for the budget are matters for the police and crime commissioner in consultation. I will set out in a letter to the noble Lord where the guidance fits with his question.

My Lords, I declare my interests in relation to safeguarding for the Church of England, in which connection I shall be at the Goddard inquiry on Wednesday morning. Will the Minister agree that prevention must stay at the top of the agenda for all agencies, both statutory and voluntary, in responding to the crime of child sexual abuse and, in so doing, recognise that potentially every single child is vulnerable and that grooming must be one area of concern?

That is absolutely right, and it is why we have identified in the National Policing Plan that child sexual abuse is a national threat and should be regarded as a priority. That is so for the Government and, in my view, it should be the same for local government and all organisations and groups within our society until we tackle this issue at cause.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, in the age of the internet, potentially all children are vulnerable to grooming and sexual abuse? Does this not stress the importance of sex education in schools?

It stresses the importance of sex education and we totally agree that PSHE has a vital role to play. Ofsted inspects PSHE. As to whether it should be a compulsory part of the curriculum, the Secretary of State has said that that matter is out for review. What is not out for review is the fact that schools will be held to account on the quality of that teaching. One of the most disturbing things is that the Ofsted report found that 40% of PSHE teaching was less than good. That is an area where some immediate improvement could improve the safety of our children.