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Child Sexual Abuse: Safeguarding Failures

Volume 792: debated on Monday 10 September 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how they plan to respond to the report of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse regarding safeguarding failures at Downside and Ampleforth schools, published in August 2018.

My Lords, before answering the noble Baroness’s Question, I inform the House that various members of my wife’s family attended Ampleforth. I have never visited the school nor had any other connection with it.

The report of the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse regarding Downside and Ampleforth schools did not make specific recommendations to my department. However, a regulator of independent schools is carefully considering the inquiry’s findings. We have asked inspectors to pay close attention to the matters in the report at the next inspection of Downside. Ampleforth is currently under regulatory action and must improve or face further action, which could include closure.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the committee had evidence that one of the schools consulted its legal adviser as to whether it was legally obliged to report the abuse that it knew about. Having learned that it was not so obliged, it decided to cover it up. How much more evidence do the Government require of the need for mandatory reporting of child abuse in regulated activity? Of course, that does not include social workers, because social work is not a regulated activity. Will the Government now follow the evidence and respond with legislation?

My Lords, it is absolutely unacceptable for anyone to conceal abuse. The Government are committed to ensuring that legislation can adequately deal with this. We will scope this issue fully during the current Parliament. What individuals and organisations should do is already clear in statutory guidance. The guidance also makes it clear that there is a legal duty on employers to make a referral to the Disclosure and Barring Service in certain circumstances.

My Lords, have the Government considered how IICSA’s current inquiry with the 13-strand remit to examine the role of institutions, including educational institutions, has decided to single out and give priority to the case of the late Greville Janner, where there was no arrest, no proceedings and therefore no challenge on evidence, no conviction, all civil claims collapsed and where the deceased’s family has been denied the right to cross-examine and test the evidence? On what possible basis has IICSA been allowed to decide to identify Janner uniquely, effectively trying a dead man in his absence? Do I detect a hint of institutional anti-Semitism here? This is a question about process, and something is very wrong.

I can assure noble Lords that there is no religious prejudice of any kind. I am happy to take this matter up with the independent inquiry and write to the noble Lord.

My Lords, we know that many faith schools, and the great majority of non-faith schools, provide an excellent service. Will the Minister institute a full-scale investigation into the potential risks in some of our faith schools, not only of child sexual abuse but of homophobic attitudes and behaviour and, in some schools—often different ones—the promotion and encouragement of the cruel practice of female genital mutilation? These practices are utterly unacceptable in our country and reform should surely begin in our schools.

My Lords, where independent schools are charities they are regulated by the Charity Commission. We regulate all of them in terms of their right to run a school. The noble Baroness mentioned female genital mutilation; that is one of the few areas where there is a mandatory requirement to report any suspicions or evidence of it to the police. We take that very seriously and awareness of it is growing in schools.

My Lords, appalling things happened at these two schools, for which the most profound sense of shame must always be felt. Has my noble friend noted the appointment of Ampleforth’s first female head, Deirdre Rowe, an expert in child safeguarding, who has said that she will lead the school into a new era? More generally, does he agree that boarding schools today are among the most thoroughly regulated and stringently inspected schools in the world?

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend that the degree of oversight of boarding schools in this country is probably one of the most stringent anywhere in the world. I am delighted that Ampleforth has appointed a female head. As part of the Charity Commission’s oversight of that school, it has appointed an independent observer, Emma Moody, who has the rights and powers of a trustee and is there specifically to oversee safeguarding.

My Lords, the independent inquiry investigated history cases of appalling child sexual abuse. However, in April this year, the Charity Commission announced that it had stripped the charities that run Ampleforth School of their ability to have safeguarding oversight. A recent audit at Downside School by the Social Care Institute for Excellence found that there were still several important weaknesses in safeguarding. Yet the last two reports by the Independent Schools Inspectorate gave both schools a clean bill of health on safeguarding. Given that the inspectorate is monitored by Ofsted on behalf of the Department for Education, what efforts will Ministers make to ascertain how it managed to miss the continuing failings at those wretched establishments?

My Lords, the noble Lord is right that the ISI is overseen by the Department for Education and is also monitored by Ofsted. The Ampleforth matter is not over yet; there will be another inspection shortly. Everyone realises that that school is in the last chance saloon on the matter of safeguarding.

My Lords, the Minister has talked about the last chance saloon and said that schools know what they should be doing. However, they are still not reporting all cases. When will the Government introduce mandatory reporting for regulated activities?

My Lords, I know that there are calls for mandatory reporting and the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, who asked the Question, is a keen advocate of it. All noble Lords will be aware that we have consulted on this matter. We had 760 responses from social workers, police officers and other connected parties. Some 70% of them felt that mandatory reporting would have an adverse impact; 85% said that it would not, in itself, lead to the appropriate action being taken. However, over the last few years we have prioritised sexual abuse as a national threat, to empower police forces to maximise skills and expertise. This is one of only six such threats that require prioritisation.