John Hemming, Yasmin Qureshi – House of Commons – Child Sexual Abuse – November 2012

This was a debate in the House of Commons in November 2012 on Sexual Abuse of Children. The full debate is here.

John Hemming

Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley

4:39 pm, 13th November 2012

I echo what has been said about listening to victims; whoever they are criticising, they must be listened to.

It is unfortunate that the statue of a naked 13-year-old boy on the front of Broadcasting House was carved by someone who abused children. However, this is not about the BBC; it is the children who matter the most. The BBC does not matter, dead celebrities do not matter, mistaken identities do not matter in the same way; what really matters is that children should be expected to be safe in the control of the state. These children are the most vulnerable because they do not have the protection of their parents and depend entirely on the state.

Only 20% to 30% of the children subject to child sexual exploitation on the narrow definition of the term are in care. Obviously, that means that 70% to 80% of those children are living in the family home. The cost of supporting a family can be as little as £3,000 per annum, whereas secure care can cost as much as £200,000 or even £500,000 per year. I accept that we need a child protection system and that not all parents are “good enough”, but I make no apology for concentrating on the failings of the state. Penny Mellor, who has campaigned against state-tolerated abuse for many years, was imprisoned because of her campaign, and was present for the north Wales inquiry, has said:

“The state as a parent is abominable, proven in Rochdale and proven in North Wales. If we are going to remove children into the care of the state then it is about time we ensured that the state is a better parent than the one we removed them from. The who is not relevant, sexual abuse perpetrated by anyone is devastating.”

It is important to recognise that the state system is still harming children. Rochdale, Rotherham and Oxford are not the whole story. One problem is the lack of accountability. Individual practitioners are basically allowed to get on with things as they wish. There are good practitioners but also bad practitioners, and their bad practice is not picked up by the system. A good example of this is from New Zealand, where social workers encouraged a 14-year-old girl to have group sex with a number of St John Ambulance workers and “divorce” her parents, who wished to discourage this. St John Ambulance has still not finally dealt with this issue and some of the workers are scheduled to receive a Queen’s Award. Another example is from Birmingham, where a child was first sexually harassed in a foster placement and then got pregnant at the age of 15, while in the control of the state. Practitioners in Birmingham have argued in the past that children should be permitted to prostitute themselves while not being allowed to make toast for each other, for health and safety reasons.

As at 31 March 2011, 160 girls in care had had their first child before the age of 16 and 120 had had their first child at the age of 16. So what happens? We know that the girls at Duncroft school were punished for complaining about Jimmy Savile. If a child in the power of the local authority wishes to complain about their treatment, they have to complain to an employee of the local authority or someone funded by the local authority. Where is the independence in that? The lack of independence in the complaints system is why many cases of abuse are not picked up until the children subject to the abuse become adults—not necessarily at age 18 but when they get the required confidence aged

25, 30 or later. Very rarely, a Gillick-competent child in his or her mid-teens may make contact with one of the very rare solicitors who are willing to take on the local authority, but usually nothing happens at least until the children are adults.

One of the worst examples of a cover up comes from Jersey. Children in Jersey had the chief of police, Graham Power, and the health Minister, Stuart Syvret, to protect their interests. However, in 2008, as soon as action was taken to investigate historical abuse, the health Minister was sacked and the chief of police suspended. What hope did those children have? It is now roughly the fourth anniversary of the sacking of Jersey’s chief of police, Graham Power, and he has put out a statement to coincide with it. I will not read it all because time is limited, but this is part of what he says:

“I would however simply for the record, remind readers what has been established from a number of credible and independent sources and disclosures. Namely, that my suspension was based on falsified documents, fabricated evidence, misleading information provided to States Members and the public by Jersey Ministers, and the testimony of a number of senior individuals who have since been publicly discredited.

The events relating to Jimmy Saville and other revelations have heightened the general awareness of the issue of Historic Child Abuse, and the substantial difficulties which stand in the way of those who attempt to bring abusers to justice.”

This cover-up has been continued by the UK Border Agency, which assisted Jersey in avoiding scrutiny by banning a US journalist, Leah McGrath Goodman, from Jersey. She is now applying again for a visa, and I hope that the Minister will expedite it.

Teresa Cooper, who says that she was held down by six members of staff and injected with drugs while at Kendall House at the age of 14 and that she was also sexually assaulted in a drugged state, is continuing at the age of 45 to battle to get the evidence to find out why the Government did not act to stop that. We have a duty to provide her and other survivors with the records they ask for.

There have also been numerous police operations, including Operation Rose in Northumbria, Operation Care in Liverpool, Operation Aldgate and Operation Gullane in Yorkshire, Operation Goldfinch and Operation Flight in south Wales, and Operation Camassia in Birmingham. Frequently, such operations do not get to the bottom of the issues. A few, such as that in Kincora, managed to make the link between the abuse and people external to the institution. We need to empower the survivors by providing them with the information to argue their cases. Perhaps we can then also consider the question of who turned a blind eye.

It is often easier to see that there is a cover-up than to get to the truth. For example, if people listen to last Friday’s interview with Stuart Syvret on BBC Radio Jersey—it will be available on iPlayer for a few days—they will hear how the BBC is acting as a tool of the establishment by trying to prevent him from arguing his case. Mike Stein, in his excellent article in Child and Family Social Work in February 2006, explains how widespread this problem was, with a possible one in seven of children in care being subject to abuse. Australia has implemented an all-embracing inquiry, which is a good idea, although the details are complex. I believe, however, that the priority should be to empower the survivors.

We also need to act urgently to find out what is happening to children in the care system today. In the year to 31 March 2011—I do not have the later figures—according to the SSDA903 return, 430 children aged one to four, 350 children aged five to nine and 630 children aged 10 to 15 left care for “other reasons”. These are the children who have left care and we do not know what has happened to them. Have they been trafficked, have they been abducted or have they run away to live on the streets because they were unhappy in the control of the state?

The statistical system used in the USA is called AFCARS—the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System— and records when children run away, but our Government do not bother. Clearly, they do not care sufficiently to ask local authorities to tell them. When I asked the erstwhile Minister, Tim Loughton, to record such instances and change the statistical basis, his response was that to find out nationally how many children are trafficked from care, abducted or run away would lead to

“an unnecessary increase in reporting requirements.”—[Hansard, 13 December 2011; Vol. 537, c. 642W.]

We need to go further. We clearly cannot trust all local authorities to tell the whole truth about everything. We already have a system for auditing what happens to the money. We really ought to have a system for checking whether we are told the truth about what happens to the children, or do the Government only care about the money and not about the children?

The secrecy, lack of transparency and consequent failures in accountability clearly failed children in the past, but they are also failing children today. We need to protect the rights of children and adults to complain and bring in greater scrutiny of family court proceedings. It is the secrecy that arises from the family courts that allows the system to avoid scrutiny and local authorities to simply say, “We are acting in the best interests of the child,” when clearly they are not.

Finally, Parliament needs to be more willing to look at individual issues before they hit the top of the news agenda. There needs to be a threshold at which collective action occurs.

There is disagreement between two particular positions that have been debated today. I have a little time, so it is worth going into this in detail. There is an argument that all we need is a bit more information sharing, but the evidence from Rochdale is that that does not work and that people are not acting. We need to ensure that people are motivated. That is the problem with the independent reviewing officer—they are not independent. The independent reviewing officer is employed by the local authority. I want to address the Lancashire county council case.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak

I am interested in what the hon. Gentleman is saying and do not want to take issue with it, but I would caution against suggesting that the evidence from Rochdale shows that information sharing does not work. The evidence from Rochdale so far shows that people failed to fulfil their responsibilities and that, had they done so and connected the threads of information and believed the victims, there would have been a much earlier and different outcome.

Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley

That is the point. If an employee of the local authority is presented with a challenge—namely that the care system is not working and is not looking after children—they are more inclined to ignore it. If someone is not employed by the local authority, is independent of it and can take the system through the courts if needs be, without the children having to be Gillick-competent, people will act. The problem has not been a lack of information, but a lack of action.

Parliament has to stand on the side of the powerless. Whitehall mandarins, judges, BBC managers, council bureaucrats and professionals all have their own interests and a desire to hide mistakes. Parliament needs to balance the scales on the side of the weak—those without wealth who are crying out and not being heard.

Photo of Yasmin Qureshi Yasmin Qureshi Labour, Bolton South East 4:50 pm, 13th November 2012

I congratulate Nicola Blackwood on securing this debate. I entirely agreed with what she and John Hemming said about practical steps that can be taken to ensure that children are safe.

I will start by talking a little about my experience of child abuse cases. I know that the topic of the debate is sexual exploitation, but sexual exploitation is effectively child abuse. I first came across a case of child abuse as a young prosecutor, when I dealt with the case of a six-month-old baby who had been raped, incredible as it may sound. The baby was incredibly injured. It was done by her father and it was done in the home.

That is a topic that we do not often want to talk about, perhaps because we are uncomfortable about it or do not want to acknowledge it. Although cases of sexual exploitation, such as the Rochdale case, the Jimmy Savile case and cases in care homes, make sensational headlines and are heard about, the statistics of sexual abuse show that they are much smaller in number than cases of child abuse within the home or the family. Often, the perpetrators are fathers, stepfathers, older brothers, uncles, members of the extended family or friends of the family. In those situations, the abuse often carries on for years. Such cases tend to come to light only when the victim comes across somebody whom they can trust and to whom they can speak. It may be a friendly teacher at school, a family friend or a family member. The whole thing then comes out.

Again, I speak from experience. During the 14 years that I worked as an in-house lawyer at the Crown Prosecution Service, I was designated as the lawyer who would deal with cases of sexual abuse involving not only young victims, but adult victims. I experienced cases of abuse within the home by the family.

We also do not talk about the abuse of young boys. My hon. Friend Simon Danczuk referred to the abuse of young boys by a particular individual. Young boys, too, are sexually abused and the extent of that abuse is, once again, underestimated and unknown.

Photo of Debbie Abrahams Debbie Abrahams Labour, Oldham East and Saddleworth

My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech and a powerful point. On the safeguarding of children, does she share my concern that agencies are still not sharing enough data to prevent the type of abuse that she is talking about from taking place?

Photo of Yasmin Qureshi Yasmin Qureshi Labour, Bolton South East

I agree with my hon. Friend. There needs to be more sharing of information.

Since I started my life as a prosecutor many years ago—now I am at the private Bar—the way in which we deal with victims of child abuse has changed. I am pleased to say that there have been massive improvements in how we deal with children, especially through changes to court procedures. Children can now give evidence by video link so that they do not have to face the perpetrators. Such changes have made it easier for victims to come forward and for cases to be prosecuted. There have been substantial improvements in the system, but—and this is a big but—there is still a lack of knowledge about the sheer amount of abuse against children and young people. Abuse within the home needs to be explored in much more detail. We can have as many inquiries as we like into a particular care home or into what happened at the BBC, but there has been no concentration on the greater problem of abuse within the home.

I was hoping not to have to go into the issue of sexual exploitation being somehow linked with religion or culture, but in light of the speech by Kris Hopkins[Interruption]— that issue needs to be addressed. In the Home Affairs Committee, the deputy Children’s Commissioner was asked directly whether the issue was linked to race or religion, but she responded that it was not and said that it was about methodology and just one way that sexual abuse takes place. The assistant chief commissioner of Greater Manchester police said that race and religion had nothing to do with the cases in Rochdale and elsewhere. The judge in the Derby case also said that race, ethnicity and culture had nothing to do with the abuse. That is really important.

Photo of Yasmin Qureshi Yasmin Qureshi Labour, Bolton South East

May I just finish my remarks, and I will come back to the hon. Gentleman?

If we start bringing such things into this debate, we lose the bigger picture. In the case of Jimmy Savile, the whole BBC is under examination. That is fine, but all the headlines in the newspapers are now dogged by the BBC and what it knew, and we have forgotten the 200 or 300 victims of Sir Jimmy Savile. In the case of the care home in Wales, again, we have forgotten about the victims and everybody is talking about procedures and who knew what. Those things are important, and as John Hemming and my hon. Friend Debbie Abrahams said, we need to look at prevention and at how we can make our children safer.