Tuesday 1 October 2013

Parliament Discussion, Child Protection, Sept 2013

Found a lengthy Parliamentary discussion tucked away on Hansard

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Backbench Business

Child Protection

12.53 pm
Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): I beg to move,
That this House has considered child protection in the UK.
I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for giving Members the opportunity to debate this important subject. As a precautionary measure, I declare my related interests as in the register.
As I have said on many occasions, opportunities to debate and air issues of child protection or of children generally are frustratingly rare, as I found in opposition and as Minister with responsibility for these matters, so today’s debate is welcome. It is particularly important because child protection and child abuse, in its different forms, have probably never had a higher profile, and have never triggered such a response and awareness among the public at large, which is probably the one compensation of the whole sordid Jimmy Savile affair. That is why, a year on from Savile, I and other hon. Members requested a debate on child protection.
The extraordinary turn of events started to unravel almost a year ago when the media heralded a modest but game-changing ITV documentary—produced by Mark Williams-Thomas, to whom I pay tribute for what he has set in motion as a result—which first tentatively suggested that Jimmy Savile had abused teenage girls as young as 13. It seemed incredible that the semi-beatified, spangly shell-suited former Bevin boy, “Top of the Pops” doyen, children’s TV icon and multi-charity philanthropist had so successfully hidden his alter ego as a serious sexual predator, and a pretty prolific and grubby one at that. The rest, of course, is history. The initial Guardian headline about some 10 female victims having come forward was one of its more glaring underestimates. The number of victims was then upgraded to some 300, some of them possibly as young as nine years old, and the figure is now in excess of 600. The ramifications for the BBC, for the rest of the establishment and for the public profile of child abuse, however, have been huge. It is worth briefly reviewing what has come to light over the past year.
There has been Operation Yewtree, which concentrated on the Savile case—600 people have come forward as having been abused by Jimmy Savile over a 60-year period. There are records of people who said that they were turned away when they reported abuse suffered at his hands. Six former police officers admitted that they were aware of Savile’s behaviour, with extensive evidence of cover-ups and withholding of information leading to abuse continuing over such a long period, including against children, teenage fans and kids in hospitals and care homes. We have seen the recent conviction of Stuart Hall for assaults spanning some 18 years on at least 13 girls, and a panoply of assorted comedians, publicists, entertainers, soap stars and childhood icons at various stages of arrest, investigation or facing court. Senior heads have rolled at the BBC, and its inquiry is said to have cost the licence fee payer in excess of £10 million already.
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Operation Pallial has investigated the original claims of historical abuse at children’s homes in north Wales going back to the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. There has been a review by Mrs Justice Macur of the terms of the Waterhouse inquiry into the abuse of children in care in Gwynedd and Clwyd council areas. Operation Fernbank was established to focus on claims of sexual abuse and the grooming of children involving parties for men at the former Elm guest house in south-west London in the ’70s and ’80s. Operation Fernbridge has been launched as a result of allegations arising from Operation Fernbank. The Independentrevealed on 9 June that seven officers are pursuing more than 300 lines of inquiry.

There are a number of inquiries involving children being abused in schools. Operation Flamborough is investigating alleged assaults on girls with learning difficulties at a Hampshire boarding school. At Carlekemp in North Berwick, a feeder primary school to Fort Augustus Abbey Catholic school has been linked to abuse allegations, as has Fort Augustus Abbey itself. There have been abuse allegations in relation to Kesgrave Hall school, near Ipswich. At Chetham’s music school in Manchester, a former director of music and his wife were found guilty of indecently assaulting Frances Andrade, who, tragically, was driven to take her own life after being subjected to harsh cross-examination during the trial, having been labelled a fantasist and attention seeker and advised not to seek counselling during the trial. There have been allegations of sexual abuse in many other music schools, including the Yehudi Menuhin school in Surrey, and schools in Edinburgh and Somerset. But it does not stop there.
In the diocese of Chichester, in my part of the country, retired priests have been charged with sexual offences. The diocese has had four inquiries into child abuse in the past four years, including a formal visitation from the Archbishop of Canterbury and a report written by the noble Baroness Elizabeth Butler-Sloss. The General Synod voted on 7 July this year to issue an unreserved historic apology from the Church of England to victims of clerical sex abuse. We have seen countless examples of child sexual exploitation cases: Operation Retriever; the extraordinary case in Rochdale where 47 girls were identified as victims of child sexual exploitation; the case in Rotherham; Operation Bullfinch in Oxford—there is still more to run on that one; and Operation Chalice in which seven men were jailed following a police investigation into child sexual exploitation involving young white girls in Telford.
Of course, there were the recent tragic killings of April Jones at the hands of 46-year-old Mark Bridger, and of Tia Sharp at the hands of her grandmother’s boyfriend, Stuart Hazell, which were linked to downloading abuse images of children. The case of Daniel Pelka, who was killed and tortured in an incredibly cruel way, came to court in the last few months: a defenceless four-year-old child was systematically tortured, yet this was on the radar of local authority services. Next week, the Coventry safeguarding children board will undertake a serious case review, during which I think we will hear some familiar stories—a case of déjà vu for those of us who have been around the block so many times with this sort of cruelty. Of course, there was also the serious case review of the Birmingham nursery case.
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I make no apology for what is a grim reading list, involving cases that have been instigated, reopened, proceeded with through the courts or investigated in just the last year, since the Jimmy Savile case hit and maintained the headlines for so many months.
Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Will the hon. Gentleman also include for the record a dreadful case that touches all of us in the House: that of baby Peter, which drew our attention to the need for a systematic, cross-services approach to child protection?
Tim Loughton: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and we could have taken up this entire debate with the history of some of these cases. And these are only the high-profile cases that we know about and read about. They are only a small sample of what has actually been going on; many more have not reached the headlines or even the courts.
Away from the high-profile stories that make the media headlines, the wider figures show that our various child protection agencies have never been busier. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children reports that referrals to ChildLine about sexual abuse were nearly twice as high in June and July of this year as in the same period last year, pre-Savile. There have been 2.4 million visits to the ChildLine website in the last year—an increase of some 28% on the previous year. The NSPCC estimates that more than 50,000 children in the UK are known to be at risk of abuse. It calculates that last year, a total of 2,900 rapes or attempted rapes of children under the age of 13 were recorded; that is eight per day. Indeed, 32%—almost a third—of all sexual crimes in this country are against children under the age of 16.
Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op): I know that the hon. Gentleman feels very deeply about this issue. Do these figures not show that we have to be more aware of the fact that paedophiles will target professions in which they can get access to children, and that the Government therefore need to do more? Instead of relaxing regulations relating to children and Ofsted child protection inspections, the Government need to be much more cognisant of the issue, target areas where such things are likely to happen, and make people aware that paedophiles will be in these professions. Action must be taken to stop them.
Tim Loughton: I agree with the hon. Lady, who knows a great deal about this issue, having been a practitioner in the field; indeed, she and I have worked together through the all-party group on child protection. We need to be wiser to the professions in which paedophiles and potential paedophiles will inveigle themselves. At the same time, however, training and awareness in some of these professions—an issue I shall return to—have improved enormously, although not enough, yet, and the inspection regime has improved. In too many cases, we were inspecting the wrong thing. I hope that joint agency inspections, which we were promised but which have been put on hold, will still happen, so that we have that cross-disciplinary eye: police looking at children’s services, children’s services looking at education, education looking at health services.
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Too often, there was a silo approach to inspection, which took up a great deal of the time of professionals who would rather spend it looking after the families, and not enough dissemination of information. The best way to bring that about is better multi-agency training, which we have not been good at. That is beginning to happen, however. For example, we have multi-agency safeguarding hubs, through which different agencies are co-located—sitting next to each other in the same room, looking at the same intelligence, discussing cases and coming up with a much better informed and sharper action plan. All those things are improvements, but the point the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) makes is a valid one.
I know that many Members want to contribute to the debate, but there is a bit more I want to say. With the list I have given goes a looming public apprehension about whether we really have cracked child protection, buffeted by almost weekly revelations of the latest scandal involving abuse at the hands of a bishop, a music teacher, a taxi driver or a soap star. To some extent, it matters not whether the perpetrator is dead or alive, or how long ago his alleged misdemeanours took place. The higher profile given by the media to cases linked to celebrities has, however, been deeply unhelpful, as it detracts from the reality that the main perpetrators are common criminals in ordinary jobs.
Of course, the fact that so many cases are now coming to court, however belatedly, is a sign of some success, in that offenders are now being pursued better by police. Victims are being heeded more loudly and sympathetically, prosecutions are sticking and the perpetrators are being made to pay.
However, are our children safer now than they were 50 years ago, when Savile and others started to ply their trade? Have we just replaced celebrity abuse of star-struck teenagers while the establishment turned a blind eye with systematic abuse to order by organised gangs, be they Pakistani-British—high-profile cases of which we have seen—or of whatever culture? Are internet groomers and the recent Oxford and Rochdale abusers just a modern-day version of Savile, armed with mobile phone technology but without shell suits and the lure of the “green room”? In that sense, given the reach of technology as a key tool of the abusers, do they not pose a much more widespread threat now than ever before?
I think that those of us in the know here today can say that children are safer now than back in the 1960s, but that is a tough sell to the public at large. But if that is the case, when did things actually get better? When did child protection come of age and society at large recognise its significance? When did we equip our agencies sufficiently to question the “It’s just Jimmy” mentality and start turning over some rather grubby stones? Was the landmark Children Act 1989 the turning point? Was it the shocking revelations concerning the north Wales care homes, which have of course come full circle, as we now know that the whole story was not properly revealed? It is to answer these questions that I and others have been calling for some time for an overarching inquiry into the whole sordid history of child abuse in this country, going back to the 1960s and traversing the Children Act, into what I call the legitimate legislation tsunami post-Victoria Climbié. Such an inquiry must 
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involve a commission, led by respected figures from the law, lawmakers, social services and children’s charities. It must set out to provide the holistic assurance that has been so sapped by the plethora of at one time weekly inquiries and reviews set up by the Home Office, the BBC, the Department of Health and numerous others, and it must go everywhere.
Such an inquiry must address four main issues. What exactly happened, and why, over all those years? When did things start getting better, and how? Have all practical steps been taken to give victims the confidence to come forward, and for the police to pursue vigorously any remaining offenders? Perhaps most important of all, have all our major institutions that have significant dealings with children and young people instituted child protection policies and practices that are fit for purpose in 2013 to deal with modern-day technology and savvy perpetrators?
Mr Sheerman: The hon. Gentleman is being very generous in giving way. May I just put in a caveat? There was a time when a kind of press feeding frenzy went on. Something went very wrong with some of the investigations, a lot of innocent people who had worked with children were falsely accused—for whatever reason—and many good professionals’ lives were destroyed. Please can we make sure that, whatever we do now, we do not start that sort of thing again?
Tim Loughton: The hon. Gentleman is right, which is why I referred to what happened with celebrities, which was a sort of feeding frenzy and succeeded in masking the multitude of real crimes—not that the former were not real crimes—that were going on amongst ordinary people. That is why we need an overarching inquiry to look holistically at what went wrong, what appeared to go wrong, what was a symptom of media frenzy, and who the victims were and are. Most important, we need to give some satisfaction and confidence to the public at large that somebody is looking at this issue properly, and that there is evidence that their children are safer now—despite everything that has come out—than 10, 20 or 30 years ago. I do not think that an unreasonable ask. The former Prime Minister of Australia established a similar royal commission into historic child abuse in November 2012, to look into institutional responses to allegations of sexual abuse in Australia, particularly linked with the Catholic Church. IT has been done it there, and there is a good case for doing it here.
Lisa Nandy (Wigan) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful case for a public inquiry, which I support. He is right to say that we need to restore confidence not just among the public at large but among victims. It seems that there is confusion in government about which Department is providing the drive and lead to ensure that these issues are tackled. When he was the Minister responsible for child protection, it was inconceivable that he would not lead on these issues in the House. This is the second time is less than a year that we have had a debate on child protection, and the other Department with responsibility has not been represented. Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern about that?
Tim Loughton rose—
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Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order. Before the hon. Gentleman replies to the intervention, may I gently remind him that the recommendation is that the mover of the motion speaks for 10 to 15 minutes? He has been on his feet for 18 minutes or more. He has been generous in taking interventions, but that time is supposed to include interventions. It means that there will be a time limit on the rest of the speeches. Therefore, I hope that he will be less generous and draw his remarks to a conclusion. This is not coming out of your time, Mr Loughton.
Tim Loughton: I am gently reminded, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am happy to give up some time—I think I have a right to reply at the end of the debate—so that as many Members as possible can get in. Perhaps if I do not take any more interventions and speak very quickly, it will help. In response to the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), I will gently come on to that point in the few minutes remaining to me, but I think that the answer is that I could not possibly comment.
I fear that in the UK the public have become increasingly confused and sceptical about what progress has been made over recent years to ensure that our children are safe. That is not surprising given the tsunami of media reports that I have already listed and the tangled tidal wave of reviews announced by Ministers, the BBC, the NHS, the Church and everyone else. Therefore, the public are confused and parents are understandably worried. They need high-profile, high-octane, high-impact leadership from central Government, working with all the relevant agencies, to convince a sceptical public that we are on top of the situation.
I know that much is going on. Indeed, I instigated quite a lot of what is going on. I know what a champion the Minister from the Home Office is on the issue and welcome his leadership of the National Group on Sexual Violence against Children and Vulnerable People instituted in April. However, to take on the point made by the hon. Member for Wigan, I am concerned about the move to the Home Office, because child abuse is not just about detection and prosecution. It is first and foremost about education, awareness, early intervention and prevention, and I think that that is best co-ordinated in the Department for Education, which retains the lead for children’s social care and for Ofsted inspection, I think. It is particularly concerning, therefore, that, at a time when child abuse has never been more in our consciousness, the assurances and leadership from the DFE have been rather muted over the past year.
I do not understand why, because we have much to be proud of. The Munro reforms provided a fundamental overhaul of child protection and the way in which that is done in this country. They are widely respected and starting to be instituted. Hopefully, the appointment of the chief social worker is raising the profession’s morale and the launch of the Frontline scheme is raising its confidence. The full publication of serious case reviews has cast light on the problems that are going on. There has been a proliferation of multi-agency safeguarding hubs, progress on child sexual exploitation and the action plan. The Children’s Society toolkit was launched just this week and it has also launched its “Say something if you see something” campaign. The Lord Chancellor’s Department has made important announcements about the way in which we treat the 23,000 child witnesses in 
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deeply traumatic cases in our courts. There are sermons in mosques about the exploitation of children. In July 2012, children started to be placed far away in residential homes. There will be a report on that later this year. There is also the national action plan to tackle child abuse linked to faith or belief.
A lot has happened in the past few years to make our children safer. I think the Government need to shout out much more loudly about it. I hope that the Prime Minister, who has rejected calls for an overarching inquiry, will think again in the light of the tsunami of cases in the past year.
Therefore, in conclusion, child abuse takes many different forms: the harm, neglect and ultimately killing of a vulnerable child by family members; child sexual exploitation and systematic abuse by gangs; internet abuse; opportunistic grooming over the web; cyber-bullying and trolling, on which a campaign was launched in Parliament just this morning. All these things are part of the same problem and we need to show the public how we are protecting our children better. As such, it is a child protection and education and prevention issue, which should be, as it always was, led by the DFE, notwithstanding the talents and dedication of the Minister in his role in the Home Office. Without doing that, we risk giving rise to a new generation of Jimmy Saviles, perhaps without the shell suits and bling but armed with much more powerful—
Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Mr Loughton, you said “In conclusion”. I would like you to conclude your remarks. Even allowing for my 30-second intervention, you are way over the 15 minutes. Please conclude your remarks.
Tim Loughton: My final sentence is that this is the challenge that faces us all in the post-Savile world: child protection has potentially never been so important to so many, and all of us have a duty to be vigilant.
Several hon. Members rose—
Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order. A large number of Members wish to speak in the debate. I ask Members to take no more than 10 minutes, including interventions. The clock will not be on, but it will be a sharp time limit if that is not complied with.
1.16 pm
Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), who as children’s Minister responded positively to the parliamentary inquiry into children who go missing from care, which was conducted by the all-party group for runaway and missing children and adults and supported by the Children’s Society. I am pleased to support his call for an overarching inquiry.
Over the past 20 years, we have had numerous high-profile inquiries and serious case reviews after children have been harmed, abused and killed. Almost without exception, those inquiries and reviews have come to the same conclusions—poor inter-agency working, sharing of information and communication were significant factors in failures to prevent the child’s injury or death. There is a public frustration that time and again recommendations point to the same failings in the system.
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It seems that a lot of reviews and inquiries look at the failures of the organisations around the child rather than putting the child’s voice and experience at the centre of the review. I recently looked at a systems review of CSE practice by Stockport’s children’s safeguarding board through the eyes of a victim. I was struck that on a number of occasions her case was closed because she withdrew her co-operation. She would not communicate. Surely a better way would have been to find someone capable of talking to her and winning her trust, which could then have prevented the harm that subsequently happened to her.
Listening to the children who gave evidence to our inquiry, it was clear that children felt that they had not been, and were not being, listened to. One of the key challenges facing agencies charged with safeguarding children is being able to communicate properly with children, so that they feel able to talk about what is happening to them. I agree with the Children’s Commissioner, Maggie Atkinson, that staff who work with children and young people, from whichever discipline or profession, should experience a common set of training that crosses all boundaries. Unless we can communicate with children, we will not know what is going on in their lives and therefore we will not be able to prevent them from coming to harm.
Sadly, all too often, that essential communication with children does not happen and we find out all too late about the horrors of the experience that those children have been subjected to, which they then have to relive as witnesses in our courts. There is widespread concern about the treatment of child witnesses in the court system. The failures to provide sufficient support to child witnesses are based on an inadequate understanding of how to communicate with children.
No one should be in any doubt about how much children worry about going to court. Many children express those fears to the NSPCC’s ChildLine. I will read out just one example. One girl said:
“I have to go to court this week to give evidence and I really don’t want to. I didn’t want to report the abuse but I was told I had to. It just feels like everything’s my fault and I wish I had never told anyone.”
I welcome the new guidelines issued by Keir Starmer, the Director of Public Prosecutions, on cases involving child sexual abuse, which he said would ensure that the focus was on allegations made by victims, rather than their weaknesses and vulnerabilities. However, I fear that we are a long way from that in the way witnesses are cross-examined in our courts now.
The Government are making progress in piloting section 28 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999, which will allow pre-recorded cross-examination of young and vulnerable witnesses. That is very welcome.
I recently tabled a series of parliamentary questions which revealed that in the first three months of 2013 registered intermediaries were requested for children in only 16% of cases. This indicates to me that the police, the prosecution, the defence and the courts do not really understand how difficult it is for children to communicate in the current adversarial system and do not understand the need for registered intermediaries to facilitate communication between them and the court.
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Interestingly enough, in spite of all the publicity surrounding witnesses who have been called liars and fantasists and subjected to aggressive cross-questioning by multiple lawyers, I understand that there have been barely any complaints to the Bar Council, which indicates the acceptance and normalisation of aggressive, adversarial cross-examinations.
I have been reading with interest the work done by academic experts such as Professor John Spencer of Cambridge university and Joyce Plotnikoff about the need to reform the rules and conventional practice in the cross-examination of children. I would like the Minister to consider establishing a commission of inquiry made up of expert judges and leading academics into reforming the rules on cross-examination of children after the spate of recent high-profile sex trials in which lawyers branded vulnerable victims liars again and again.
Of course the right of the defendant to a fair trail and to examine fairly the witnesses against him or her must be sacrosanct, but the process has to be about obtaining the best quality of evidence in a way that is robust, reliable and safe for the witness. As Lord Justice Auld said in his review of the criminal courts:
“A criminal trial is not a game under which a guilty defendant should be provided with a sporting chance.”
Currently, the court appears to be set up as a theatre, in which lawyers perform for the benefit of the jury. Sometimes it does not seem like a real cross-examination of evidence, but to be about smearing and breaking down the witness to get defendants off the hook. One senior English barrister told Dr Emily Henderson, a visiting fellow at Clare Hall, Cambridge and a criminal barrister herself who is doing a six-month study of the impact of changes to cross-examination, that:
“You are always really playing to the audience. Of course, it is one-on-one in that there is only one person answering questions, but you are constantly aiming everything at the people who are ultimately going to be making the decision. So you are playing to the gallery.”
Another barrister told Dr Henderson:
“I have three speeches: my opening, my closing and my cross-examination.”
Barristers in sex abuse cases must be stopped from manipulating child witnesses like puppets.
As many leading academics, including Spencer and Plotnikoff, have said, 30-plus years of empirical research in this and similar adversarial jurisdictions has shown again and again that conventional cross-examination is more likely to confuse and mislead children than to draw out accurate and reliable evidence. Indeed, research by the NSPCC showed that more than 90% of children under 10 do not understand the questions they are asked in court. The commission that I am proposing could also consider what further measures might be undertaken to improve the safety and reliability of processes for the taking and investigation of children’s evidence by the criminal courts. In addition, it could examine extending the role of registered intermediaries to allow them to cross-examine vulnerable witnesses under the direction of counsel. This idea was first raised more than 20 years ago in the 1989 Pigot committee report, which recommended that advocates’ questions should be relayed through a specialist child examiner, such as a paediatrician, child psychiatrist, social worker or other person who enjoys the child’s confidence.
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In most other continental jurisdictions, including France, Germany, Austria, Norway and Italy, young child witnesses are questioned by a neutral specialist. The interviewer investigates issues that the defence wants raised and consults the defence in the process.
I was heartened that in 2010 and 2011 the Court of Appeal released several judgments designed to clean up poor cross-examination techniques. The court was very clear that cross-examiners must use language appropriate to the developmental stage of the witness. However, despite these encouraging comments from the Court of Appeal, how we treat children in court is still a massive problem. In the last couple of weeks, we had the judge who described a 13-year-old victim of abuse as predatory. This was in addition to one of the barristers in the Oxford case accusing one of the girls of being a serial liar and fantasist who had fabricated the allegations, and a witness in the Stafford trial had to endure being called a liar day after day.
Meg Munn: There was a lot of condemnation of that at the time, with the Prime Minister and others saying that those remarks should not have been made, but does my hon. Friend agree that we should be worried not that such remarks are being made but that people in these positions believe these things in the first place about children?
Ann Coffey: I agree. Attitudes to children in our society are quite awful sometimes. That manifests itself in various ways.
Children’s charities and victim support groups said that the Staffordshire trial shamed British justice. These cases demonstrate the urgent need for reform. I hope that the Minister will agree with me that a commission to look into further reforms of the practice of cross-examination is the only way to ensure that in the future we get the best possible evidence, without which the courts cannot do justice to the victim or the defendant.
1.26 pm
Mr Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): It is a pleasure to take part in this debate. I congratulate the Backbench Business Committee on assigning time to it, and I am pleased to follow two such powerful speeches. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) and the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) on securing the debate.
Over the summer we saw more tragic evidence, if it were needed, of how important it is that the child protection system works swiftly and effectively. Last November the Education Committee published a report “Children first: the child protection system in England.” We agreed that we should focus our attention on three separate but linked themes that were emerging strongly from all that we had heard and read—neglect, older children, and the thresholds for interventions. What drew them together was the recognition that in each case the child should be the priority.
I will start with neglect. No one should underestimate the scale of this problem. A major study by the NSPCC last year found that severe neglect was experienced by 3.7% of children under 11 and 9.8% of 11 to 17-year-olds 
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at some time in their childhood; and 43% of child protection plans are in place as a result of neglect. During our inquiry we learnt that it can be difficult to pin down what is meant by the term “neglect”. It can mean different things for different age groups and in different situations, which can make it difficult for professionals and the public to recognise.
We were particularly concerned by the variation in rates of neglect between local authorities. We recommended that the Government commission research to see whether similar situations and behaviours were classified as neglect in different local authorities in different ways. We concluded from the evidence that the needs of children and the importance of acting quickly to secure early intervention for children experiencing neglect are all too often not given sufficient priority. I hope that the Government will be prepared to intervene if the responsiveness of local authorities to neglect does not improve.
We also learned from witnesses that older children are often reluctant to disclose information about abuse or neglect. Potential causes of this include mistrust of the authorities, embarrassment and fear of what is going to happen, including the fear of not being believed. That leads on to another of the three main areas that the Education Committee examined—namely, the support given to older children. Ofsted figures reveal that 24% of the serious case reviews conducted between April 2007 and March 2011 involved children aged 14 or older. That means that children in that group are second only to babies under one in terms of risk of serious harm.
Andrew Griffiths (Burton) (Con): On the point about older children, does my hon. Friend share my concern that we do not yet seem to be responding adequately and quickly enough to the growing issue of grooming by gangs? We see it in many of our towns and cities across the country, yet we do not seem to have an adequate response.
Mr Stuart: My hon. Friend is right. However, it is being taken seriously. My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham talked about the use of modern technology and how those who are predatory towards children can use it to co-ordinate and be more effective. As in every area of crime, it is essential that those on the side of law and order, particularly those involved in the protection of children, should keep up and be ahead of the curve in relation to the abusers.
Childline told us that provision for 16 to 18-year-olds, in particular, represents a massive gap in the system. We concluded that the position was so serious that the Government should undertake a complete review of the support offered to older children by the child protection system, with proposals to reshape services to meet their needs. In their response to our report, Ministers said:
“We expect local leaders to consider whether their child and family social work services are appropriately configured to meet the needs of all vulnerable children and families.”
I appreciate the key role played by local authorities in delivering children’s services and the need to respect a certain amount of local discretion as to how they discharge this responsibility, but I hope the Government will act if evidence continues to show that older children are still being overlooked by our child protection system.
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One element of the support on offer to older children has shown a marked improvement in recent months. I was delighted by the package of support for young people leaving care that was unveiled by the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson), earlier this year. I am pleased to see him in his seat. This includes new rules to ensure that more 16 and 17-year-olds remain in care unless signed off by a director of children’s services. For too long, young care leavers for whom the state is, in effect, the parent have been cast off at 16 or 17 with no support network in place. The new arrangements mark a real step forward, but there is still much more to be done.
The third aspect of my Committee’s work involved the thresholds for intervention and whether they are set at the right level and applied consistently. We found variation between local authorities in how these thresholds are applied. We recommended that the Government commission research to understand the impact of varying thresholds in different areas, and whether they are too high or rising in some places. Undoubtedly part of the solution is having a common understanding of thresholds as between different agencies and ensuring that information is shared. We found particular concerns about the health sector, as one always does in relation to information sharing.
We commended, as did my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, the example set by authorities that have brought different agencies together into multi-agency hubs to ensure better co-ordination and information sharing between all the professionals involved in child protection. During the inquiry we went to York, where there was the principle that there should be a response to every need. Rather than having a threshold, the aim was to co-ordinate and to ensure that where a need was expressed people could, at the very least, signpost someone to where they could get help and support.
The American social reformer Frederick Douglass said:
“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”
He was exactly right. As a political class, we must take the hard lessons of recent years to heart as Britain is confronted by a very 21st-century picture of abuse. As well as the themes that I have mentioned, my Committee heard about threats to the welfare of children from new forms of abuse resulting from technology, as well as older forms of abuse newly present in this country such as the evils of human trafficking and female genital mutilation. The challenge of protecting children is constantly changing, and our response needs to be sure-footed and robust.
There are clear signs that Ministers have turned their attention to where the child protection system is failing children, but in our inquiry we were concerned about where the responsibility lies. I hope to hear from Ministers whether there has been a change in responsibility as between the Department for Education and the Home Office. Who exactly is in charge? If there has been a change, how could it have occurred without the Education 
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Committee being informed about it? Do we have clarity as to who is responsible, and without that clarity can our children really be safe?
Speaking for myself, not for the Committee, I think that my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham made a strong case for a public inquiry. Such is the level of public disquiet, such are the complexities and challenges of these issues, and such is the need not only to reassure the public but to allow for a public examination of the issues, that nothing short of a public inquiry is required, and it would carry cross-party support. My Committee will undertake follow-up work in connection with our inquiry to assess where we are and what else needs to be done.
1.34 pm
Mr Andrew Smith (Oxford East) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart). I agree with the points that he and, indeed, previous speakers made—this is a vital debate.
I want to focus on the lessons and the aftermath of the awful crimes uncovered in Oxford in the Bullfinch investigation. We were all shocked and horrified by those crimes, and it is right that those who are guilty are punished and feel the full force of the law. It has to be said, though, that the convictions were the just the beginning of the action that needs to be taken.
I welcome the steps that are being taken by the National Group on Sexual Violence against Children and Vulnerable People. No one should underestimate the challenge of pulling together all the Government Departments, agencies, local authorities and outside organisations, including in the private sector, whose commitment, resources and action are needed to provide real focus and drive to this vital work. I hope that this debate can support the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice in having the clout and reach that he will need to force the pace of progress and deliver real change on the ground. I also support the further steps called for in the “Childhood Lost” petition to the Prime Minister by the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood), which calls for more sensitive court procedures, the publication of serious case reviews, and consistent support across the country for victims of child sexual exploitation.
The Oxford victims, who, as children, should have been protected and cared for, suffered so much and were very brave in giving their evidence. We owe it to them and to all who are at risk to make a mighty effort to prevent such abuse in future.
I have three key points to make. First, the victims and their families are owed a clear explanation of what went wrong; why they were failed; and, where there was fault, who was responsible and what action will be taken about that. It is terrible to think that this went on so long, for years and years, before the hideous reality was uncovered, thanks eventually to police and social services action. It is right that the Thames Valley chief constable and the county council chief executive have apologised for the time it took and are committed to uncover any shortcomings within their organisations.
We have to look to the serious case review as the first step, but, as the independent chair of the Oxfordshire safeguarding board has made clear to me, the prime 
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purpose of serious case reviews is to learn lessons to improve work to safeguard and promote children’s welfare. She wrote to me:
“SCRs are not inquiries into how a child died or was seriously harmed, or into who is culpable…Nor are SCRs part of any disciplinary inquiry or process relating to individual practitioners”.
Such action is the responsibility of the relevant organisation, be it the county council, the police, the health service, or whoever. The abuse in these cases went on for a very long time, and some of the staff involved, and those responsible for them, will have retired or otherwise moved on. In its briefing for this debate, Oxfordshire county council says:
“Staff previously employed by the County Council will be interviewed by the Serious Case Review author and will be a matter for the Serious Case Review.”
It seems to me that there may well be a gap in accountability between the ambit of the serious case review and the internal enquiries undertaken by the county council and the police.
I will of course look very carefully at the serious case review and the outcome of the internal reviews. It is crucial that this is all fully transparent and covers every angle. I am sure that the public will want to know what independent involvement and oversight there is of these reviews. We might well, though, need a public inquiry to get to the bottom of how children in care were left so vulnerable and what can be done to take good care of those at risk in future. The police and crime commissioner for Thames valley has already called for a more general public inquiry into how we safeguard children nationally, reflecting remarks, which I support, that have already been made in this debate. I would like to hear the Minister’s response to that.
My second key point is that it is vital that we put in place effective measures to protect children. Children and parents must be educated in the risks and tell-tale signs and have someone to go to for support and advice. We all have a responsibility to report suspicious activity to the police. I welcome the “Say Something If You See Something” toolkit produced by the NWG Network and the Children’s Society to help businesses, as well as the wider community, to play their part.
One good thing to come out of Operation Bullfinch in Oxfordshire is the joint team, the Kingfisher unit, bringing together police, social services, drug and alcohol specialists and the health service in combating child sexual abuse. Another is the work being undertaken with schools to alert children to the dangers of grooming. Steps are also being taken to develop a multi-agency safeguarding hub. I urge colleagues from other areas to find out what is being done in their constituencies. Such initiatives are urgently needed everywhere because, sadly, as is becoming more evident as more cases come to light, grooming and abuse are a significant risk everywhere. Do not let the councils, police, schools and other agencies wait until they have a horror on the scale of Operation Bullfinch to deal with.
My third key point is the question of whether, in social care practice and law, the balance is right between the rights of the child and the duties of parents or those with responsibility for care to safeguard that child. I asked the Library for a briefing on this, because one of the issues of public concern material to the Operation Bullfinch cases is how on earth children can go missing time after time from what supposedly is a place of care, 
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even when staff suspect those children are victims of grooming. The Library dug out for me the statutory guidance under Children Act 1989. Volume 5, which is on care homes, states:
“Staff in children’s homes that are not approved as secure children’s homes should not try to restrain the child or young person simply to stop them from leaving the home.”
Similarly, “It is legal? A parents’ guide to the law” by the Family and Parenting Institute states:
“A parent cannot stop a child leaving home by locking them in or physically restraining them.”
I told one of our colleagues this and he was shocked that he could not legally ground his teenage daughter.
We have to be careful because, sadly, as other awful cases have shown, abuse sometimes takes place in the family home itself, and no one wants to be in the position of locking the fire escape. Equally, however, it is no good our criticising care workers for their inability to prevent the victims of grooming from going out if we do not give them the power to do so. This needs to be looked at very carefully, to see whether the balance can be shifted more strongly towards allowing those charged with safeguarding to fulfil their responsibilities.
Meg Munn: I am listening carefully to what my right hon. Friend is saying, because this situation is familiar to me from my time working in social services. At that time, secure places were available, which meant that once a child was identified as being at risk, they could be put in secure premises where they were offered support. I am concerned that that provision is not as widely available any more and that that is one of the reasons we find ourselves with the dilemma being described by my right hon. Friend.
Mr Smith: That is precisely the sort of thing I had in mind when I said that we need to look carefully at whether the balance can be shifted towards enabling those with caring responsibilities to fulfil them.
We also need urgently to spread the best practice of those care homes—there are some—that have achieved a lower rate of absconding. The sad reality in many of these grooming cases is that the victims initially want to go out because of the treats and affection, and then later, when they are drugged, abused and threatened, they are too scared not to go out and need protection.
The sad lesson of Operation Bullfinch and similar cases is that while most children can enjoy a childhood free from such horrors, there is a bigger risk of grooming and abuse out there than was previously realised. We know about it now, though, and there is a massive responsibility on us all, both to uncover what has gone wrong and to do our utmost to make sure that every child is safe.
1.44 pm
John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): I refer the House to my chairmanship of the Justice for Families campaign and of Care Leavers Voice, which is a group of care leavers who are concerned that the voice of care leavers is excluded from the system.
On 14 August Jana Tokolyova, who is the press officer of the Slovak Republic’s equivalent of the Crown Prosecution Service, the General Prokuratura, reported that their equivalent of the Director of Public Prosecutions 
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had agreed with the deputy director of their national police to appoint a special agent to investigate a criminal complaint by Silivie Maher that relates to care proceedings in the UK.
This is an interesting process, because it is an extra-jurisdictional process. I believe it relates to the Rome statute and, as such, could lead to the end result of members of the Government facing questions about why they have tolerated the amount of malpractice that goes on in care proceedings in England and Wales.
On 5 December 2012 Leicester city council fired a very experienced social worker because she wanted to send a baby home to their mum and dad. Her assessment was that the parents were competent, but Sir Martin Narey and Education Ministers want a rapid movement to adoption—hence, the baby remained in care. This pressure by local authority managers on a social worker to lie to the court is, of course, a criminal offence. However, I think the Slovak Republic is more willing than the police in England to investigate criminality in our courts. Happily, however, on 5 September 2013 the case was set down for a full hearing by an employment tribunal next year.
I have for some time been worried about what I was told by a social worker some years ago, which is that at times the legal aid-funded solicitors for parents conspire with local authority staff in order to ensure that the parents lose. One example where that appears to have happened is that of Jaqcue and John Courtnage, whose two sons were taken into care because one had a lump on his head. The doctors were not sure whether it was because of a fracture or a fissure. The child was neurologically sound, which implies a fissure, but the parents did not see the evidence that it could have been a fissure until after the court had decided in 2010 that it was a fracture, and the question was never considered in any court judgment.
A court order on 30 October 2008 had said that all evidence should be provided to the parents. That did not happen. The hospital provided Derbyshire county council with the information in December 2008, but this did not get to the parents until after the finding of fact hearing of 2010, when they made a subject access request.
The question is whether the council colluded with the parents’ solicitors. Chris Sedgewick of Miles and Cash has been asked about the issue by his client and me. Although he denies the allegation, he has refused to give a detailed response, which confirms to me that Miles and Cash colluded with Derbyshire county council to keep this evidence from the parents.
Additionally, there was a single metaphyseal fracture, but Thomas, Rosenfield, Leventhal and Markowitz found as long ago as 1990 that
“femur fractures often are accidental and that the femur can be fractured when the running child trips and falls.”
Their article can be found on pages 471 to 476 of volume 88, No. 3 of the journal Paediatrics, published on 1 September 1991. Again, here we have an essentially criminal allegation that escapes investigation and prosecution in England, but which could be prosecuted by the Slovak Republic.
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Article 3 of the European convention on human rights was almost certainly engaged with regard to the removal by the police of the newborn baby that appeared in the video that Staffordshire county council failed to injunct last Friday. Interestingly, Mrs Courtnage assisted the father in resisting imprisonment at an earlier stage. Was the action of removing the newborn baby inevitable, and therefore permissible under article 3, or even necessary, under article 8? The risk is future emotional abuse. The authority accepts that the parents are no immediate risk to their child. Why, then, take this action? The Government are moving towards removing such babies and immediately placing them with adoptive families. This does not appear to me to fit with traditional English family law or the European convention on human rights.
I have mentioned Toni McLeod before. She featured in the Sunday Express because Durham wanted to take her unborn baby into care because she went on an English Defence League demonstration. She went to Ireland. Sadly, the Health Service Executive in Ireland is now trying to force back to England all the family court refugees. More recently she returned to England and was refused permission to appeal. The case reference is [2013] EWCA Civ 1007. In paragraph 10, the court said
“Happily, on one basis, this case is not about a mother who is incompetent or unable to provide ordinary, good enough or even good physical and practical care for her children. Unhappily, and frustratingly for all involved, I dare say, particularly the mother and the children, the concern about the mother's ability to parent is more subtle and harder to pinpoint, but it arises from her personality and the potential for the children to be upset by unpredictable actions or words that she may from time to time exhibit.”
There are still parents leaving the UK to escape the system. I know of two pregnant mothers who have done so: one has gone to France and the other to live with a Belgian social worker, who is appalled at what is being done in England and is therefore willing to look after a mother and child at home.
I welcome the work of Sir James Munby. He is a good appointment to the challenging task of president and his initial practice directions have been good. However, the Government remain complacent and Parliament should really look at the individual cases. The care system continues not to be accountable. The independent reviewing officer will never be independent while they are on the payroll of the local authority.
The case of Jimmy Savile have been raised by various people. What is not widely known, although it is in the public domain, is that a journalist, Leah McGrath Goodman, aimed to go to Jersey to investigate what had happened in 2011 before it became public. However, she was banned by the UK Border Agency. With some effort from me, the ban was removed and she received a visa earlier this year. She has now been to Jersey, but the issues are already in the public domain. The CCTV that might explain the basis on which somebody was prevented from investigating a serious case of child abuse that came out at a later stage has still not been provided. The Government need to provide some answers on that issue.
I wrote to all the embassies this year asking whether somebody would like to come to a meeting in the House of Commons to discuss problems with child protection. Fifty-nine people came, representing 30 countries. Although 
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not all those countries have complained formally, we should recognise that there are serious concerns about how the system operates.
Child protection is a complex process that covers a wide range of circumstances. There are some very good practitioners and lawyers who work in the area. As I said, Sir James Munby is a very good judge. However, there is also bad practice. If we tolerate the bad practice, we undermine the more competent people. It is therefore important to look at the wider issues.
In a sense, there is a constitutional problem. When hon. Members receive complaints from their constituents and write to the Minister, the Minister says, “We don’t comment on individual cases.” Unless we are able to look at the details of individual cases and see whether there are collective problems, we cannot be certain what is going on. I know that the system does a very good job at times, but it also does a very bad job at times. We are not looking at the process systematically.
Ministers say, “We want more children to be adopted.” That message goes to council leaders who talk to their cabinet member for children’s services. The cabinet member talks to the senior managers and they talk to the more junior managers. The social worker who wants to send a child home then gets fired. I have also heard of a council that, because the expert witness recommended that a child be reunited with their parents, would not pay for the expert witness’s report. That pressure on people to go in a particular direction is driven unintentionally by the Government. I am not saying that the Government intend to achieve that, but that is what is happening on the ground.
Mr Graham Stuart: I am working hard to follow my hon. Friend’s argument. There will undoubtedly be injustice in the system, as there is in any system. However, the case that he talked about in which a social worker in Leicester was fired for wanting to send a child home seems incredible. Will he say more about it?
John Hemming: I have the defence that Leicester city council made to the employment tribunal. I can give the hon. Gentleman a copy of it. The defence was, “We told her not to send the child home, but she wanted to do that, so we fired her.” That went to appeal and the councillors in the authority endorsed the process.
This is a question of the balance in the civil procedure rules for expert witnesses. Social workers are expert witnesses and they provide assessments. If their assessments are driven by management priorities, they are not following their duty to the court. In fact, they are driven by management priorities a lot of the time. Another error that the Government are making is to reduce the use of independent social workers. Although the repeat player prejudice can be a problem, an independent social worker is not necessarily managerially driven to come to certain conclusions, whereas employees of the council often are. Civil servants make the error of assuming that an assessment is the same, whatever the managerial pressure on the person who made it. The Lashin v. Russia case considered the question of expert evidence and concluded clearly that such evidence has to be produced by somebody who has no interest in the outcome or the conclusion of the case, otherwise they are untrustworthy.
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I am coming up to my 10 minutes, so I will draw my remarks to a close. The fundamental issue is the quality of expert evidence. Much of the expert evidence is driven by the management priorities of the local authority. That is why there are many very bad cases. The Education Committee could look at individual cases, as could the Justice Committee. I have made my point, so I shall sit down.
1.55 pm
Lisa Nandy (Wigan) (Lab): I thank the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) and my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) for consistently pushing hard to ensure that the House does not forget these important issues and that we make progress on them.
I echo the concern of the hon. Members for East Worthing and Shoreham and for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart) that the Department for Education is not responding to this debate. However, I am pleased to see that the Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson), has arrived on the Front Bench and is listening to the debate.
Since the tragic death of Victoria Climbié nearly a decade ago, it has been widely accepted that child protection is everybody’s responsibility and that, necessarily, all central and local government departments have a role in keeping children safe. Child protection policy is fragmented across different Departments including the Department for Education, the Department of Health, the Ministry of Justice, the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Home Office and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. It is important that there is a strong lead Department so that a drive comes from somewhere in Government to ensure that the voices, needs and views of children are never forgotten.
I agree with the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, who said that child protection is primarily about education, awareness, early intervention and prevention, and that it should therefore sit with the Minister with responsibility for child protection in the Department that is responsible for children. Will the Minister confirm that the Department for Education is still responsible for such children or whether it has abandoned its child protection responsibilities altogether? The confusion is deeply concerning. Is the Home Office now the lead Department or not?
Mr Graham Stuart: Under the heading, “Who is responsible for child protection?” the Education Committee report stated:
“It is everyone’s responsibility…In Government terms, child protection in England is the overall responsibility of the Department for Education, which issues both statutory and non-statutory guidance”.
Would the hon. Lady, like me, welcome an intervention from a Minister to confirm that that is still the case or whether the situation has changed?
Lisa Nandy: I would welcome that.

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