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Mr Davey: It is because of people in fuel poverty that we should take such allegations as seriously as we are taking them, although I should say to my hon. Friend—no doubt I shall say this to other hon. Members—that these are early days. We do not want to speculate on the exact nature of the offence or on whether it has been detrimental to individual consumers or companies, so I would guard against jumping to conclusions. However, she will know that if detriment to consumers can be proven, there are powers in competition law for different types of redress.
Frank Dobson (Holborn and St Pancras) (Lab): Does the Secretary of State not agree that since the hedge funds and banks got involved in this market and it is no longer confined to the producers and distributors of gas, it has become nothing more than a speculative racket? Would he also acknowledge that the ultimate expression of a speculative racket is somebody trying to manipulate the market?
Mr Davey: The investigations will determine whether anyone has been involved in a racket. I will not prejudge those investigations, although the right hon. Gentleman seems to wish to do so. He is concerned about the role of people involved in hedging, but that can be quite important for a market, in that it can make it more liquid, which can reduce prices. I would counsel him against suggesting that we completely pull apart the liquidity of the gas market.
Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): These allegations could expose real abuse of hard-pressed families, but will the Secretary of State be wary of the Opposition’s call to break up Ofgem? As the NHS and the BBC might testify, reorganisation can sometimes make things worse, rather than better. The important thing is that the regulators take their time, reform the system if they have to, and put in place real lessons learned for the future protection of consumers.
Mr Davey: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is completely wrong to jump to conclusions until the regulators—in this case, the FSA and Ofgem—have had a chance to do their work. I really cannot see that a massive reorganisation would help at the moment. We need to ensure that the regulators have the powers that they need to do their job, and we will ensure that that happens.
Mr Pat McFadden (Wolverhampton South East) (Lab): I first raised the potential for benchmark price fixing with the FSA some weeks ago when it appeared before the parliamentary banking inquiry. Does the Secretary of State agree that it would be appalling if, despite being able to fix the LIBOR issue because the FSA has the necessary powers, we lacked the powers to prevent price fixing in areas such as the energy and food markets? I would like to ask him to do two things. First, will he ensure that any gaps in the regulatory powers are filled, if necessary through amendments to the energy Bill? Secondly, will he ensure the maximum level of international co-operation on benchmark prices, which are often set globally?
Mr Davey: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his contribution. He is right to say that, if we find that the regulator needs more powers, we will act. I have
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made that absolutely clear. He is also right to mention the issues arising from the Wheatley review and the LIBOR issue. We need to ensure that the price reference agencies, the benchmarks and the indices that are used extensively in a variety of financial and commodity markets are properly considered in the reviews. Martin Wheatley has made a number of recommendations, the European Commission has produced a consultation paper on these matters and the International Organisation of Securities Commissions is looking into them, so there is international work being done. The right hon. Gentleman is quite right to say that we must ensure that our domestic regulation and international regulation are able to tackle these issues.
Jonathan Evans (Cardiff North) (Con): Are the Government not in the curious position of rather wishing that the European regulation was already in force? Will the Secretary of State tell the House what the penalties would be under the remit regulation? I guess that they would be far greater than those left by the Labour Government.
Mr Davey: My hon. Friend is right; this is an excellent EU regulation, on which we have been leading the way and which we believe has a great role to play. The regulation might not be relevant to these allegations or to the particular abuse, if abuse is found. I do not want to prejudge the investigations by Ofgem and the FSA, but he is right to say that the coalition Government are taking action to stiffen regulation in this area.
Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): If the allegations are true, it will mean that the hard-pressed energy consumer has suffered artificially high prices. Fining the energy companies would not be enough. Will the Secretary of State guarantee that the consumer will benefit from reduced costs, and that if he does not have the powers to achieve that, he will get them?
Mr Davey: Again, we should not speculate. We do not know whether an offence has been committed, and we do not know what the implications of any such offence might be for individual consumers, for companies or for markets. We must not jump to conclusions but, as I said to my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans (Mrs Main), if it turns out that there has been detriment to consumers, there are powers to give them redress under existing law.
Andrew Selous (South West Bedfordshire) (Con): LIBOR, oil markets and now gas: it is a depressing litany. Does the Secretary of State agree that we are a Government who believe in social responsibility and that, if market manipulation is proven, ignorance will be no excuse and that senior management—not just traders—should be held to account?
Mr Davey: That will depend on what the investigations find out. There are powers to take on individuals and companies that have committed wrong-doing. Depending on what the offence is shown to be—if an offence is indeed uncovered—there are civil and criminal penalties.
Derek Twigg (Halton) (Lab): My constituents are becoming increasingly angry about the cost of living, about the rise in the cost of fuel and energy and, in particular, about the lack of Government action in
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getting a grip on the energy companies that have ripped them off. May I ask the Secretary of State one specific question? Before the whistleblower came to the attention of the Department, was any other information provided to suggest that this type of fraud was possible or going on?
Mr Davey: I am not aware of any such information. The first time I learned from the regulatory authorities about these allegations was on Friday afternoon, as I said in my statement. I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that this Government are taking a lot of action to help consumers with their electricity and gas bills, including through the warm home discount, which is helping 2 million of our most vulnerable citizens and taking £130 directly off the bills of 1 million of the lowest-income pensioners. We also have the green deal and the energy Bill, which will drive competition and ensure that we have competitive retail and wholesale energy markets.
Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): As Energy Action Scotland—a fuel poverty charity of which I am an honorary vice-president—has pointed out, our constituents are facing bills that have gone up on the basis of the wholesale market being a major contributor. They need to have confidence in the wholesale market. My right hon. Friend says that we cannot yet see the impact of these specific allegations, but does he acknowledge that it is important for the market that investors and consumers can put their trust in proper regulation?
Mr Davey: I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. It is absolutely critical that markets are fair, because British consumers deserve fair markets. In my previous ministerial role at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, I was charged with reviewing competition law. I was responsible for a lot of the reforms in the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill, because I believe that we need to ensure that our markets are working properly and in the public interest.
Sandra Osborne (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Lab): How can the Secretary of State still have confidence in Ofgem when it has signally failed to force the energy companies to pass on price cuts to consumers? Our constituents are suffering badly as a result of that.
Mr Davey: I refer the hon. Lady to Ofgem’s “Retail Market Review”, which was published recently after a great deal of study. It contains a set of proposals for how we might reform tariffs. I commend the review to all right hon. and hon. Members. We are reading it in detail before we come forward with our own proposals to help customers around the country with their tariffs.
Mr Robin Walker (Worcester) (Con): I accept that it is too early to speculate on the outcome of the investigations, but if the allegations are proven to be true, my constituents who struggle to pay their heating bills will be appalled and will expect to see large fines imposed. Will the Secretary of State clarify whether, in the case of each of the regulators involved, the fines would be returned to consumers or kept within the industry?
Mr Davey: My hon. Friend makes a good point. At the moment, certainly so far as Ofgem is concerned, the fines do not go to the consumer. This Government have consulted on changing that, however, and we are making
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provisions in the forthcoming energy Bill to ensure that any fines would go to consumers if malpractice had been proven. That might not apply to whatever offence is found as a result of these investigations, but we are changing the law so that when an energy company does not play fair by a customer, the customer will benefit from the fines imposed.
Stella Creasy (Walthamstow) (Lab/Co-op): The Secretary of State trumpets the work that the Government are doing to tackle abuses in the markets that affect consumers, yet just today we have found out that 5 million people are having to turn to legal loan sharks because of the Government’s failure to regulate the consumer credit market. Will he give me an assurance that there will be no delay in taking action in relation to that market, so that those who are now facing bills that push them further and further into debt can get some redress?
Mr Davey: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. She will know that consumer credit markets are regulated. I know she has been campaigning for a particular type of regulation and a particular type of credit, but it would be a caricature to say that consumer credit markets are not regulated at all. These markets are also regulated, and this Government have strengthened that regulation.
Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend ensure that, if gas market fraud has occurred, the investigation identifies exactly who gave the order and who gave the instruction, because that person, in whatever company, is the person most guilty—and they most of all should have the book thrown at them?
Mr Davey: I share my hon. Friend’s sentiments, but I stress that it is up to the independent regulators to investigate in the way that the law prescribes. I do not think my hon. Friend would expect me to do the investigations myself. We create the legal framework, and it is under that framework that Ofgem, the FSA and, if necessary, the OFT conduct their work.
Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): The Secretary of State said in his statement that he knew that the FSA had received allegations about the fixing of gas market prices on Friday afternoon, but rumours about it existed before that time. Will he say when Ofgem first became aware of those rumours and what action it took on them? Would he not expect Ofgem to have made his Department aware of those rumours prior to this issue coming to light after the whistleblower made his information available?
Mr Davey: Ofgem has a daily role to monitor energy markets and make sure that they operate properly. In that normal process, it encounters a number of allegations. These will not have been the first allegations that it has received. Ofgem does not announce every particular allegation; it has to go through a proper process. Now there appears to be some evidence backing these allegations, but the reason we have an independent regulator is to allow it to get on and do the investigation. I suggest that that is exactly what we should do.
David Mowat (Warrington South) (Con): First LIBOR and now—potentially—this. Are there other indices at which we should be looking proactively without waiting for whistleblowers to suggest market abuse?
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Mr Davey: My hon. Friend asks a pertinent question. It goes back to the question asked by the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden). The Wheatley review suggested that we had more work to do in this area—a view that is, I think, held around the world. As I said to the right hon. Gentleman, the International Organisation of Securities Commissions has a broad level taskforce looking at this issue, seeing whether we need to do more on the different indices, benchmarks and price reporting agencies. The EU also has a consultation out at the moment. My hon. Friend is right that we need to look at this in the round, learn the lessons of LIBOR and other indices that might have been manipulated and ensure that we apply those lessons to other markets, too.
Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): The Secretary of State is absolutely right to say that lessons should be applied to other markets, but can we not have more urgency in the investigation? We do not want a long-running international investigation; we want to see action taken now, and in other markets as well, to ensure that the consumer is not being ripped off as they apparently have been in this area and in the financial services sector, too.
Mr Davey: Action is being taken. I refer the hon. Gentleman to the consultation put out by the European Commission. It has also been suggested that ESMA—the European Securities and Markets Authority—should take interim measures. I have to tell him that not just domestic regulators but international regulators are taking a broader look, which is the correct thing to do.
Greg Mulholland (Leeds North West) (LD): I am delighted that the Secretary of State has said that the allegations of market manipulation are being taken very seriously, but considering the substantial evidence of abuse, collusion among large companies and price manipulation, why have Ministers so far turned a blind eye to Britain’s big pub companies? Is it that the whistles that have been blown for eight years are just pitched too high for Ministers and civil servants?
Mr Davey: My hon. Friend and I discussed the issue of pubs and competition when I was in my last job in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. I think he will realise that I am no longer in charge of competition issues relating to pubs.
Mr Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP): Given that Northern Ireland has the highest energy prices in the UK and that the allegations relate to manipulation in the UK gas market, will the investigations by the FSA and Ofgem extend to Northern Ireland?
Mr Davey: It is my understanding that the investigations go across the whole of the country. If I am wrong about that, I will write to the right hon. Gentleman, but that is my understanding.
Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Domestic energy consumers may have an electricity bill, may have a gas bill and may have both, but those who have electricity bills may not realise that an increasing proportion of our electricity is generated from gas-fired power stations. This country is increasingly reliant on gas, so this potential scandal extends far further than most of our constituents might realise.
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Mr Davey: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That shows the importance of taking these allegations seriously, because were they proven true they would have such a wide application for people’s energy bills—and, if proven true, they would relate to and impact on consumer markets.
Mr William Bain (Glasgow North East) (Lab): Does the Secretary of State recognise how wrong it will seem to the 800,000 people in fuel poverty in Scotland if they have been ripped off while speculators have benefited from lucrative derivatives contracts? Does that not make the case for a new energy regulator here at home and proper regulation of excessive speculation at G20 level?
Mr Davey: I agree with the hon. Gentleman that, if it turns out that abuses have been committed that have affected prices for his and my constituents’ energy bills, that is an extremely serious matter, and we want the full weight of the law and investigatory bodies to chase down those people responsible. I have to say, however, that I do not think that makes the case for a new regulatory body. We need to make sure that the existing regulatory bodies, which have very strong and wide-ranging powers which this Government have increased, can take the necessary measures and penalise people if they are proven to have committed an offence.
Glyn Davies (Montgomeryshire) (Con): The biggest challenge facing many of our households today is the cost of energy, including, of course, gas prices. Tolerance of these costs depends absolutely on trust that the market is not rigged. Because manipulative behaviour in the market is so difficult to detect, punishment for illegal activity must be sufficiently severe to create real fear in the minds of potential law-breakers or criminals. Will my right hon. Friend assure us that anyone found guilty of manipulating the market will face the severest penalties—including, possibly, long jail sentences?
Mr Davey: I share my hon. Friend’s concerns that our constituents deserve markets that are fair, deliver competitive outcomes and keep prices as low as possible. He is absolutely right on that. Again, I am being asked to prejudge the outcome of the investigations, but I can say to him that if certain offences are proved to have been committed, very serious penalties are attached to
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them. If a cartel offence, for example, has been committed, it is a very serious one and it has a criminal sentence attached to it.
Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): Does the Secretary of State understand that his laconic performance today and his rather puny response to all this will serve only to anger our constituents more? When they have already had to put up with confusion pricing, excessive prices and, now, alleged market rigging, why does the right hon. Gentleman not show some energy, get tough and introduce a new regulator that can actually take some action?
Mr Davey: I am afraid that I am tempted to say that we are making amends for the failures of the last Government in this area. The hon. Gentleman talks about confusing tariffs, but the last Government took no action on them, and Ofgem—the regulator which, if I understand his question correctly, the hon. Gentleman wants to abolish—has put forward proposals to simplify and reduce the confusing number of tariffs, about which his party did nothing when in government.
John Pugh (Southport) (LD): Energy markets, financial markets, grocery markets and the pub market have turned out to be flawed markets rather than free markets. What conclusion does the Secretary of State think we can safely draw? Is it time for a new Competition Act?
Mr Davey: I draw a conclusion that we need stiff competition powers. When I was the Minister with responsibility for competition, I looked at the competition framework, the institutions and the laws that we had inherited from the last Government, and I felt that they needed to be toughened and strengthened. I therefore hope that my hon. Friend will support the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill, which this Government have put before the House to make those reforms to competition powers.
Gavin Shuker (Luton South) (Lab/Co-op): Was the Secretary of State personally made aware of any concerns about manipulation in the gas market—in general, not just specific terms—prior to last Friday?
Mr Davey: I first became aware of the allegations on Friday afternoon.
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Points of Order
Chris Williamson (Derby North) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I fear that yesterday the fire Minister, the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), inadvertently misled the House in responding to a question from me about reductions in funds for the fire service. He said that I
“might like to have a look at the figures, which show that the cut for fire authorities last year and the year that we are now in was 0.5%”.—[Official Report, 12 November 2012; Vol. 553, c. 15.]
I double-checked my figures yesterday with the House of Commons Library, which confirmed that the reduction in funds for fire authorities over that period was at least 6.5%, and that if specific grants were taken into account, the figure was even higher. I wonder, Mr Speaker, whether you might like to invite the Minister to return to the House to correct the record.
Mr Speaker: I have no need to invite a Minister to do that, but I will say two things to the hon. Gentleman. First, he has made his own point in his own way, with great clarity, and I hope he feels satisfied about that. Secondly, all Ministers are responsible for the accuracy or otherwise of their statements to the House. In the event of an inaccurate or incorrect statement, a Minister is responsible for correcting the record. The hon. Gentleman’s point will, I trust, have been heard.
David Tredinnick (Bosworth) (Con): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In fact, I have two points of order, and have given you notice of one of them, which is about Parliament square. As you are aware, the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011 made it possible for the square to be cleared, but unfortunately the remaining demonstration seems to have expanded, and is clearly in breach of the “prohibited activity” of keeping, placing or
“using any sleeping equipment…for the purpose of sleeping overnight”.
I wonder whether you are satisfied with the situation, Mr Speaker, given that only a few months ago an Act passed by Parliament came into force so that it could be addressed.
Mr Speaker: The short answer to the hon. Gentleman’s point of order is that, in respect of the situation in
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Parliament square, I have rarely been satisfied—very rarely—and I am not satisfied about it now.
It is for the courts to enforce the law and the regime to which the hon. Gentleman has referred. I hope he will understand when I say that I do not wish to engage further with him on this matter at this time, but I shall be happy to look into it, and perhaps even to have a discussion with him outside the Chamber. However, I am sensitive to the inconvenience that he and other hon. and right hon. Members have experienced and continue to experience.
David Tredinnick rose—
Mr Speaker: I have a feeling that the hon. Gentleman’s appetite for his second point of order is undiminished.
David Tredinnick: It is, Mr Speaker; I am most grateful. It will not have escaped your notice that last Monday, 5 November, another demonstration came down Whitehall and then blocked the main gates of Parliament at the time of the 10 pm Division, making it impossible for Members to enter the House via the normal route. I wonder whether you are satisfied with the situation, Mr Speaker, given that at the beginning of all Sessions we used to pass Sessional Orders which instructed the police to keep the access of Parliament clear, and whether you feel that the provisions of the recently passed Act are sufficient in that respect.
Mr Speaker: I am not sure on the latter point. However, the hon. Gentleman is quite right in his recollection of the previous content of Sessional Orders. I understand that they ceased to include any such reference because it was judged that the reference was ineffective, in that there was no legal power of enforcement. We might have felt better, in and of ourselves, with such an order, but it did not actually work. Whether the fact that the alternative state of affairs is not working either is satisfactory is another matter.
I understand why the hon. Gentleman is dissatisfied, and, again, I shall be happy to have further conversations with him. I am sure that the House will applaud the disinterested and public-spirited way in which he seeks to uphold not only his own rights, but those of hon. and right hon. Members throughout the House.
If there is no further point of order, either from the hon. Gentleman or from any other Member, perhaps we can now deal with the ten-minute rule motion.
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Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
Dr William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the Secretary of State to set up a body to establish a public initiative for the prevention of suicide and self harm, to work with internet providers and others to reduce access to information on the internet and through other sources on methods of suicide and to develop a system of alerts and blocks for internet searches relating to suicide; and for connected purposes.
Such is the importance of this Bill in protecting the young and the vulnerable from the risks posed by websites that actively promote suicide and self-harm that I felt it necessary to present it to the House today. Every year almost 1 million people across the world die as a result of suicide, which equates to one suicide death every 40 seconds, and there is an attempt at suicide every three seconds. Each year, more lives are lost through suicide than are accounted for by all the deaths in armed conflicts across the globe. That is particularly true of Northern Ireland, where, in the 30 years of our troubles, more people died by suicide than as a result of the IRA conflict.
In Northern Ireland suicide rates remain stubbornly high, at around 15 to 16 deaths per 100,000 of our population. That has been the case since 2006, when recorded suicide rates were almost twice as high as those in the earlier part of the decade. In 2010, 313 suicides were recorded in Northern Ireland. That was the highest ever figure for the Province, and was almost six times the number of deaths due to road traffic accidents. There has also been a dramatic increase in the number of young people taking their own lives, and Northern Ireland now has the highest suicide rate among young people in any UK jurisdiction.
Yet, despite suicide prevention efforts throughout the statutory, community, voluntary and church sectors, the number and rate of suicides in the general population continue to rise. Statistics show that the suicide rate is twice as high in economically deprived areas with high levels of unemployment, and that young males are three times more likely than females to die by suicide. In the past 45 years suicide rates have increased by 60% worldwide, making suicide among the top 10 causes of death in every country and one of the three leading causes of death in the 15-to-35 year age group. In England, one person dies every two hours as a result of suicide. In 2010, 4,200 people in England, 288 in Wales and 781 in Scotland took their own lives.
Those are shocking statistics, but in spite of their startling nature, there remains a lack of public awareness of suicide as a major health problem. Most people never give suicide a second thought until it touches them personally, yet its psychological and social impact on the family and society is immeasurable. Family members, friends, colleagues and sometimes whole communities are left to deal with an utter sense of loss, confusion and overwhelming devastation.
In this age of fast moving technology, however, concerns have been expressed to me by organisations such as the Public Initiative for the Prevention of Suicide
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and Self-Harm in Belfast, PAPYRUS Prevention of Young Suicide in England, ChildLine and the Samaritans about the considerable risks posed to children, adolescents and vulnerable adults by suicide-related material which is easily accessible on the internet. While it must be acknowledged that the online environment and associated technologies have provided unique opportunities for learning, connection and communication, there is genuine concern about its potential for harm, especially in relation to children and young people. A recent medical journal focusing on suicide and the internet describes it as “extremely easy” to access information about suicide on the internet, and refers to several sites which describe the use of guns, overdosing, slashing one’s wrists and hanging as the best methods to end one’s life.
The internet and new media are undeniably prominent features of youth culture, but there are mounting concerns about the difficulty of ensuring safe access for children and developing appropriate limits and supports in respect of that access. Online technologies are growing and expanding rapidly, and each form poses both potential and real risk to children, young people and the most vulnerable. Knowing how to use the internet safely is the key to a positive online experience, and to ensuring that the benefits of the internet are realised and children are protected from harm. In writing to me earlier this year, the executive director of Samaritans Ireland noted:
“There are some aspects of the ways that individuals interact with one another online for example through social networking sites and online chat rooms that can place vulnerable people at risk by exposing them to detail about suicide methods or conversations that encourage suicide. Indeed in recent years there have been several widely reported cases of individuals taking their own lives having used websites that have provided explicit information on suicide methods or have been used to facilitate suicide pacts.”
While the risks created by the internet are yet to be properly researched and assessed, the Samaritans is to be commended on the leadership and innovation it has shown in working with major companies to develop practical initiatives to support people at risk of suicide from such online sources.
Members may be familiar with the initiative that was launched in November 2010 in partnership with Google that adds the Samaritans helpline number above normal Google search results when people use certain search terms related to suicide. The charity also operates in partnership with Facebook, allowing UK users to get help for a friend whom they believe is struggling to cope or feeling suicidal. Such innovation shows how the online environment can deliver help and assistance to those in distress. I believe that for the first time real thought is being given to how the internet can be used to deliver help where it is most needed, and also to how sites that actively promote suicide can be restricted.
I welcome the commitment given by the Department of Health in its publication “Preventing Suicide in England” that it will
“continue to work with the internet industry through the UK Council for Child Internet Safety to create a safer online environment for children and young people.”
I still believe that not enough is being done, however. That publication also recognises the growing concern about misuse of the internet to promote suicide and suicide methods, which may have contributed to as much as 2% of suicides in 2005-07, and calls on major organisations that provide content on the most popular
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parts of the internet to develop responsible practices that reduce the availability of harmful content and promote sources of support.
In Northern Ireland, the refreshed Protect Life strategy for 2012-14 published by the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety includes a new objective to develop
“internet guidelines to restrict the promotion of suicide and self-harm, and to encourage the circulation of positive mental health messages”
by working with service providers to agree how best to maximise protection offered to internet users. Yesterday’s publication of the “Still Vulnerable” report by the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People again underlined the concern about suicide among adolescents.
While I am encouraged by these advances and continually impressed and inspired by the work of charities and the voluntary and community sector, especially churches, that are committed to preventing suicide and self-harm, there is more work still to be done. Suicide remains a major issue for society. It demands our attention, but its prevention and control is, unfortunately, no easy task. Many people say there is nothing we can do, but we should not just wring our hands. Instead, we should do everything in our power to save the lives of young people who are confronted with the temptation of suicide.
I believe that this Bill presents a new and vital opportunity to confront this serious issue and help curtail the tragedy of suicide and suicidal behaviour. Only by working together can we hope to address that shared concern and achieve our common goal of saving lives and protecting our young people, the innocent and the most vulnerable. I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That Dr William McCrea, Mr Nigel Dodds, Ian Paisley, David Simpson, Lady Hermon, Ms Margaret Ritchie, Naomi Long, Mrs Madeleine Moon, Paul Goggins, Kate Hoey and Andrew Percy present the Bill.
Dr William McCrea accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 18 January, and to be printed (Bill 89).
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Child Sexual Exploitation
Nicola Blackwood (Oxford West and Abingdon) (Con): I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of child sexual exploitation.
I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for granting this important debate and to colleagues from across the House for their support, in particular my co-sponsors, my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Margot James) and the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey).
First, I want to say that the vast majority of children in this country have safe and happy childhoods. It would be wrong to imply that there is a paedophile lurking behind every tree or that children in general need to grow up in fear. This debate must be approached with proportionality and common sense. However, I am here today because in March this year I received a call from the Thames Valley police to warn me that there were about to be 14 arrests for child sexual exploitation in Oxford. Operation Bullfinch has so far led to nine prosecutions, which will go to the Old Bailey in January. In total, the group concerned will face 51 charges, including the prostitution of girls under the age of 16 and administering drugs for the purposes of rape, trafficking and grooming. There are more than 50 victims, who are aged between 11 and 16, and the exploitation has carried on over an eight-year period. All of this happened minutes from my cosy flat in north Oxford.
Recently, the issue of child sex abuse has shot up the news agenda. In addition to BBC failures over Savile, the Waterhouse allegations were followed by “Newsnight” and ITV journalists and others publicising unsubstantiated and party-politicised allegations that, frankly, would not have looked out of place in the McCarthy era.
Jonathan Evans (Cardiff North) (Con): My hon. Friend may know that I was a junior Minister in the Welsh Office when the Waterhouse inquiry was set up. Does she agree that many of those who commented on that inquiry would have been well advised to have read the Waterhouse report, as its contents serve to vindicate everything that came to light at the end of last week?
Nicola Blackwood: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I am by no means an expert on the details of the Waterhouse inquiry. I understand that the report is very lengthy, so I have great respect for anyone who has read it in its entirety. However, I do think those who commented with such certainty would have been wise to have made sure they knew the details before making sweeping statements.
No one takes allegations of child sexual abuse more seriously than I do, but those who attempted to start a vigilante crusade of trial by Twitter were, however pure their motives, certainly not acting in the interests of the victims. At best they clouded the debate and the real issues that affect victims, and at worst they risked undermining prosecutions so that victims might be denied the very justice they deserved. Frankly, I cannot
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think of any more irresponsible kind of politics or journalism than that. Today’s debate should not be about allegations or rumours; it should be about how we can get better support and justice for victims.
I am daily haunted by the knowledge of what happened to those girls minutes from my home. I cannot refer to any details for fear of prejudicing the case, but that is why I am here now. It is why I called for, and secured, a Home Affairs Committee inquiry into localised grooming, and since May we have been hearing about where the system has failed, such as in Rochdale, and about the reality of the ways in which victims experience child sexual exploitation. Repeatedly I have been told that victims initially do not see themselves as victims and, in a cruel irony, even when they do they struggle to gain credibility from the very agencies meant to protect them.
Mr Andrew Smith (Oxford East) (Lab): I commend the hon. Lady and colleagues for securing this enormously important debate, and of course I share her horror and concern at the events in Oxford. Do reports such as ChildLine’s excellent “Caught In A Trap” not scream out that these young people need to have confidence that there is somebody they can go and talk to? Do we not need a pervasive national campaign saying that it is okay to talk about it, coupled with suitably trained teachers, social workers and others to whom young people can go with confidence?
Nicola Blackwood: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his comment. As we are both Oxford Members, we have shared the difficulty of realising that a thing such as this could happen in Oxford. I agree with him on the importance of victims feeling that there is somewhere they can go and that they will be believed when they go there, but it is important that, first, victims realise that that is exactly what they are—victims. One problem is that many victims are slowly lured into exploitation by someone posing as a boyfriend and are then kept under control by threats. They are encouraged to commit petty offences, drink, take drugs and play truant. During that process, their relationship with their school, their family and their carers increasingly deteriorates and they become seen as disruptive and a bad influence, with the police and social services perhaps considering them to be petty criminals who are making “bad choices”. In that context, their relationship with their real family deteriorates ever more and their relationship with and dependence on exploiters, whom they see as their real family, becomes ever more entrenched, with threats, violence and intimidation commonplace.
Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): The hon. Lady rightly observes that, paradoxically, these victims sometimes do not see themselves as victims, and she has gone on to indicate the patterns in some of those cases. Is she not concerned, therefore, that the criminal injuries compensation scheme that this House passed last night actually says that children aged 13 to 15 will not be automatically treated as victims and that all sorts of other factors can be used by claims officers to discount their claims to victim compensation?
Nicola Blackwood: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. We should ask the Minister to respond to it, because clearly some of these people are victims of
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some of the most serious offences that can be imagined. It is not the automatic nature of the programme that we need to consider; rather, that these people are able to access the support when they need it.
The Government have not been idle on this issue. Tim Loughton, who led in creating the tackling child sexual exploitation strategy last November, and Ed Timpson, who now leads on it, deserve credit for the work they have done. However, we are coming from a very low base. The prevalence of child sexual exploitation and the very poor recognition of it by relevant agencies was highlighted in Barnardo’s “Puppet on a string” report as recently as January 2011. So although the Government deserve credit for the action they have taken—the strategy is an effective response—in many areas we still do not have effective plans in place.
Now, counter-intuitively, where areas are taking action the picture seems to look worse, rather than better, as more victims come forward and more perpetrators emerge. We are familiar with the pattern from other hidden crimes, such as domestic abuse; we should not be surprised that as public awareness increases, so reporting increases. We should not confuse that with increased risk. We should be aware that the high level of national media attention is artificially pushing up reporting levels, but if increased reporting does not lead to better prevention, detection and prosecution, the bravery of those victims who come forward will be for nothing. Simply identifying gaps in provision will not be enough to avoid that outcome; we also need to find practical solutions and make sure that they are actually driven through on the ground.
Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s comments. She rightly makes the point that a sign of success is that more of these cases are coming to court. The fact that the Rochdale perpetrators were given 77 years in total—a tough sentence—sends out a strong message that the police and other agencies are now taking these crimes seriously, that the perpetrators are more likely to be brought to book than they were before and that they will be punished properly for the revolting crimes they have committed.
Nicola Blackwood: I thank my hon. Friend for his point. Although we must indentify where there have been failings in the system and root out systems that are not working, it is important that we do not vilify places that take action and bring perpetrators to justice. If we do that, we will put off local authorities and police from taking these cases to court.
Government can only do so much. It is generally accepted that local services, led by the local safeguarding children boards and police, have to lead on responding to child sexual exploitation. But before they can do that, they are going to have to accept that this issue affects them and is worthy of being prioritised in the current economic climate. There are still local authorities that do not think this affects their area. I do not cast any stones. I cannot express the shock I had when the news about the Oxford case emerged, and I do not think I was alone. Organised sexual exploitation on this scale was, to me, something that happened somewhere else—in inner cities with gangs or in cities with grinding poverty. What is more, to me, it did not happen to local girls; it
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happened to trafficked girls from Cambodia, eastern Europe or west Africa—or just any other place. What I have learned during this process is that it is not so much that it is everywhere, as that it could happen anywhere. The deputy Children’s Commissioner, who is halfway through a two-year inquiry into group and gang-associated child sexual exploitation, said in evidence to the Select Committee:
“what I am uncovering is that the sexual exploitation of children is happening all over the country. As one police officer who was a lead in a very big investigation in a very lovely, leafy, rural part of the country said to me, there is not a town, village or hamlet in which children are not being sexually exploited.”
Peter Davies, the chief executive of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre confirmed her view, although I have to say that he thought that hamlets might be pushing it.
In that context, it is not enough to have plans, regulations and guidance pushed down from government—we had that in 2009 and it did not work. What we need to know is that effective multi-agency teams are on the ground, trained to recognise risk factors and able to pursue not only prevention and early intervention, but investigation and prosecution. This is what the Government have been trying to encourage since last year, but it turns out that it is quite hard to track local progress on the ground.
Gavin Shuker (Luton South) (Lab/Co-op): Does the hon. Lady agree that one way in which the Government might be able to fulfil their role in this process is by putting a reporting requirement on local safeguarding children boards so that this evidence is collated nationally, not just locally?
Nicola Blackwood: It is as though the hon. Gentleman has read my mind; I will be coming to that point later.
When CEOP undertook its “Out of Mind, Out of Sight” report 18 months ago, it received only 13 responses from local authorities—that is out of 154 councils in England. The report was clear: local safeguarding children boards were not fulfilling their statutory responsibilities; they needed to improve their ability to recognise the risks in this area so that they could intervene early; and multi-agency working, particularly through co-located units, was the key to ensuring that data and soft intelligence did not fall between the cracks and did not succumb to overly cautious data protection practices, especially in the NHS and in social services.
The most recent survey of local authority activity that I could find comes not from any official statistic, but from unpublished research by Barnardo’s. In an August 2012 review of its “Cut them free” campaign, it found that although 107 out of 154 local authorities had signed up to tackle child sexual exploitation, few of the 31 local authorities that responded in detail had detailed, well developed strategies. Most local authorities were still planning strategies, data collection, training and specialist service provision, although most were planning to have them in place by the end of 2013. I honestly do not think that that shows a lack of will; it is an indication that this is a very recent strategy and that they are starting from a very low base.
However, it is almost impossible for us to assess the scale of the problem or the consistency of service provision without having a robust policy of data collation
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and collection. I do not think we can assess the risks, map the need or properly hold our local authorities to account. I would add a caveat: victims are often moved between cities, so if we are going to have any kind of data collection, it needs to be consistent between local authorities, because we do not want victims to fall through the cracks when they go from one local authority to another.
We have already seen data sharing causing too many barriers. One key problem regularly raised with me is the failure of professionals to share data about victims that could have given a full picture of what was happening. I understand, up to a point, that discerning such insidious underlying abuse beneath a bad girl image might have been a leap too far, given superficial behaviour, but what I still find difficult is that a big source of confusion lay in the fact that obvious indicators in data about victims, such as repeated missing episodes, unexplained injuries, sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies, petty offences and truancy were not shared between agencies. That meant that no one even had a chance to put the picture together and discern a pattern of abuse, free from judgment about whether some 14-year-old was simply making bad choices.
Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): In agreeing with that point, may I ask the hon. Lady whether she thinks it was therefore a good idea not to proceed with ContactPoint, which was designed so that that data could be shared easily by professionals—[Interruption.]
Tim Loughton: That is absolutely wrong.
Nicola Blackwood: I hear two experts behind me, my hon. Friends the Members for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart) and for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), commenting on the detail of that point, so I will allow them to comment further in their speeches. I have spoken at length to CEOP and other agencies since then and they have not given me any indication that ContactPoint would have improved their response.
Mr Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that when a child is in the position she just described, although it is essential that the data are shared, we do not need a vast overwhelming database in which focus is lost and in which the victims can disappear? We need a better system than we have today, but not necessarily ContactPoint, which did not provide the focused, laser-like attention on victims that was and is required.
Nicola Blackwood: My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point—I can see this developing into a heated part of the debate—in that these enormous databases tend to lose focus on the specific point for which they were introduced. We had huge databases and the detail was being lost. A lot of information was being put into databases all over the county, but that information was not being shared or being taken out of the databases and carefully considered. Professionals need to share the information and understand the patterns, which was not happening. It was not the database that was important, but the communication between the professionals—and that did not happen.
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The problem has partly been the symptom of an over-sensitive data protection culture in the NHS. I respect the culture of patient confidentiality, but it is a qualified concept and in this case it has got in the way of prosecutions for some really appalling crimes. There is a fear that if professionals share the information, it will be used inappropriately. I have had discussions with a number of professionals in the field and the solution proposed unanimously by the police, social services and others is to have co-located units based on an extraordinary principle that might be unfamiliar to some on the Opposition Front Bench: if people are put in a room and allowed to talk to each other, the outcome might possibly be better than if information dotted around a county is inputted into unrelated databases.
Putting professionals from relevant agencies who are trained to recognise CSE indicators all in the same room means they can build up the necessary trust effectively to share intelligence and work together seamlessly. That is exactly what has been recommended by CEOP and it has been proven to work in pockets of excellence in the UK. I am delighted that the Kingfisher unit, modelled on exactly those principles, will open in Oxford soon. I do not think that that principle is particularly controversial. In my opinion, unless there is conclusive evidence to prove that there is no risk of child sexual exploitation in the local authority area, every area should have such a unit because it will stop children’s lives being destroyed.
The best identification and investigation will be irrelevant if the CPS is reluctant to take up cases of child sexual exploitation. CSE victims are often perceived as unreliable witnesses because they struggle to express their experiences in court and might be unco-operative and difficult to engage with during the pre-trial period. Obviously, criminal allegations must be fully tested, but it cannot be right that under-age victims, who have been through appalling experiences and nevertheless had the courage to come forward, must face cross-examinations of their abuses that blame them, must face being called prostitutes or sex workers by people who remain unchallenged, must often face aggressive and intrusive questioning by multiple defence barristers, and must relive their experiences, often years after they have rebuilt their lives, because trial dates are set so far in advance. I have also heard stories of victims who have had to return day after day before giving evidence because of how the case has progressed. Others have had to face their abuser in open court or risk bumping into them in other parts of the court. One police officer said to me that the court process was so distressing for these victims even now that she would think twice before putting her own daughter through it.
I am pleased that the CPS is reviewing its response to CSE cases, but the serious concerns that have been raised about victim experience need a broader response. Progress has been made in this area. Special measures can make the court experience much more manageable for vulnerable victims but they are not yet applied consistently. Expert witnesses could be used in a better way and have a greater role in explaining the character, nature and consequences of sexual exploitation, as they have in cases of domestic abuse. Independent sexual violence advisors could offer significant support for vulnerable witnesses through court processes. ISVAs
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can not only provide direct support to the witness but ensure good practice is followed. If they can keep witnesses in the case and stop it collapsing, they will immediately provide good value for money. I hope that the Minister will raise that point with the relevant Department, because those problems are among the biggest barriers to prosecution.
If we are talking about investigations or prosecutions, it is already too late. Somewhere an under-age girl or boy will have been sexually exploited and with all the help in the world, they might never really recover. We must have better education and prevention. This is a hidden crime and many parents, carers and young people are simply unaware of the risks. There have been awareness campaigns, not to mention media coverage associated with the Derby, Rochdale and Rotherham cases, but general public and professional awareness of risk factors is still worryingly low.
In the current climate, many local authorities feel they do not have the capacity to deal with the problem. I appreciate that, but it does not have to be as cost-intensive as many feel. In Oxfordshire in the 1990s, it became apparent that domestic abuse victims were going to as many as 10 agencies before they got the help they needed, so domestic abuse champions were set up by the county council. The scheme offers volunteers from key services such as schools, housing associations, the NHS and churches—and me—two days of free training and updating networking sessions. There are now hundreds of trained volunteers in all those agencies who know how to identify, offer initial support to and signpost a domestic abuse victim. It is like a massive virtual safety net for domestic abuse victims. It is cost-effective, yes, but it is equally effective in raising awareness and reporting across the sectors. I believe that that would be a really good model to investigate for CSE networks and I hope the Minister will consider speaking to the relevant Department about how such a proposal could be implemented nationally.
Let me tell those who are getting desperate that I am beginning to approach the runway. I want first, however, to touch on calls for a public inquiry. It is vital that as we debate this matter we do not lose sight of the children experiencing exploitation and abuse in our communities. That is what we should be talking about. I appreciate that we might end up with an overarching inquiry and I understand the arguments, but we must also consider the risks. The procedures and processes, not the children we should be protecting, could become the focus of such an inquiry. Naming and shaming could take up the headlines, rather than prosecutions, which might be held up by the inquiry, being pursued. Local authorities, police forces and other agencies who are starting to set up CSE strategies might instead decide to wait two years until the inquiry finishes and makes its recommendations. Two years is a long time to wait for an 11-year-old who is being exploited.
We clearly need strong and visible leadership from the Government. We need to demonstrate to the public that this is an issue we could not take more seriously and we need to move faster with reforms so that that 11-year-old gets help now and so that we get more prosecutions now, not in two years’ time.
Mr Graham Stuart: I wonder whether my hon. Friend agrees that police forces everywhere, not only in north Wales but across England, should not wait until any
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inquiries reach their findings before looking again at any evidence that they do not think was fully pursued in the past. If their cold case units or others see evidence that needs to be followed up, they should do that immediately. Just as DNA evidence has opened up old cases in the past, if there is evidence that can be followed, it should be followed, and that should be done now.
Nicola Blackwood: I absolutely agree, and I think we should all be challenging our local police forces on this issue as much as we can. Although this is not entirely analogous, it is worth noting that when the Hillsborough victims gave evidence to the Home Affairs Committee, they did not want another public inquiry into what had gone wrong; what they wanted was prosecutions. They wanted justice at last because they had been waiting far too long for it.
To make sure that we have a system that can deliver justice, we do need senior leadership to respond to the really significant amount of recent work done on this—the Education Committee’s work on child protection, the forthcoming Deputy Children’s Commissioner’s work on child sexual exploitation, the inquiry of the joint all-party parliamentary group on runaway and missing children and adults, which looks into children who go missing from care, the implementation of the child sexual exploitation strategy and all the other inquiries and serious case reviews that will come forward. We have a Minister who leads on this issue in Ed Timpson, but given that the high-profile cross-departmental and serious issues that are emerging, I think we need to see the current situation as an opportunity to go forward. I hope consideration will be given to whether that needs to be re-looked at within the Department, and in particular to whether it would be appropriate to set up an inter-ministerial group led by a senior Education Minister, but including the Home Office, Justice, and Communities and Local Government to make sure that these reforms are driven forward. I know that Barnardo’s would support that, and I am sure that the Minister would welcome the opportunity to raise that with the relevant Department.
Now I really will give way so that others may speak, and I look forward to speeches that will be far more informed than my own. Finally, I simply reiterate that most children in this country do grow up safe from harm and do not need to fear, but the stories that I have heard of the very vulnerable children in our country who think that what family means is violence, rape and exploitation haunt me. They are in my constituency; they are in your constituency; and we need to run faster and jump higher so that we can overcome the barriers that are preventing us right now from protecting them.
Several hon. Membersrose—
Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order. There will not, to begin with, be a time limit in this debate, but if Members make very long speeches it will be necessary for those who come towards the end of the debate to have their time cut, so may I ask you all to bear in mind how long you are speaking this afternoon? May I also remind you, when referring to another Member, to refer to them as an hon. Friend or an hon. Member or name their constituency, because it makes it easy to record? For the record, the Members just referred
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to were the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) and the Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson).
Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood) on her excellent speech today, and on the major part she is playing in the Home Affairs Committee’s ongoing inquiry into localised child grooming.
This debate is taking place following unprecedented publicity about child sexual exploitation and an abundance of high-profile and shocking cases. One of the most shocking facts is that we still do not know the extent of child sexual exploitation in this country. In Greater Manchester we have a very proactive police force. We currently have more than 50 police officers dedicated solely to working full time on child sexual grooming investigations; we have 72 more dedicated to rape allegations, including child rape, and 60 more on “inter-familial” abuse, which includes sexual offences against children.
Detectives are investigating three more major alleged incidents involving young girls after doubling the number of officers investigating claims of abuse. It brings the total number of recently completed or ongoing investigations into the abuse of teenage girls to six. Nine more men from Rochdale are due to appear in court in the coming weeks followed the conviction of nine others in May, and a trial is due to start at Manchester Crown court in January involving a similar investigation which involves girls from my constituency of Stockport.
I take the opportunity to congratulate Greater Manchester police on their dedication in bringing to justice the perpetrators of these horrendous crimes, but I point out to the Minister that these investigations take a lot of resources, and more resources will be needed in the future if we are serious about tackling child sexual exploitation.
So the debate is very timely and takes place against the background of a series of fast-moving events. More than a dozen inquiries of various types have been announced recently into allegations of child sex abuse, amid ongoing concerns that authorities have not taken the claims of victims seriously enough. Over the past 20 years we have seen more than 32 public inquiries into all aspects of public life; in relation to children they included the inquiries into the Soham murders, Victoria Climbié, and north Wales care homes. From all those inquiries we are awash with a sea of recommendations. Some have been implemented, such as improved safeguarding measures to protect children, including enhanced criminal record checks introduced by the last Labour Government. Other recommendations have not.
I was recently struck by the comments of Lord Levy, who chaired the Staffordshire pindown inquiry reporting in 1991, which looked into the practice of keeping children in pindown rooms for weeks and months. Lord Levy, reflecting on what had happened to his recommendations at a later date, said:
“The recommendations resulting from the Pindown Inquiry were variously acted upon, watered down, or ignored.”
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I was also interested to read Lord Laming’s 2009 report into progress since the Climbié inquiry in 2001, which made more than 100 recommendations. On inter-agency working, he said that
“it is evident that the challenges of working across organisational boundaries continue to pose barriers in practice”.
I think that meant that things were not getting much better.
Better inter-agency working has been among the recommendations of many inquiries, including the parliamentary inquiry into children missing from care, which was conducted by the all-party group for looked-after children and care leavers and the all-party group for runaway and missing children and adults, which I chair. We found that the police and the Department for Education were not even collecting the same data on children missing from care, so that repeated missing episodes—one of the key indicators that sexual abuse might be taking place—were not being acted upon and children were being placed at risk of sexual exploitation.
Local safeguarding children boards are key to preventing sexual exploitation. They should be ensuring that local agencies are working effectively together, sharing information from health, police, schools and youth services to identify children who may be at risk and developing interventions to keep children safe and to stop them becoming victims of sexual exploitation. But we are a long way from that in many parts of the country, so children are facing a postcode lottery in protection from sexual exploitation.
I am very pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) accepted our recommendations and I am very sorry to have seen him go. I look forward to the actions proposed by the DFE and the Home Office in response, so that in future data on missing children will be collected in such a way that it is a useful tool in identifying children at risk of sexual exploitation. I have to say that one of the concerns, however, is the new definition of missing. It is important that the new Association of Chief Police Officers guidance has enough safeguarding procedures so that the significance of repeated absences that are not recorded as missing is not overlooked and underplayed. We all know that repeated absences are an indicator that a child may be being sexually exploited on a regular basis.
I also think it is important that Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary makes the inspection of police forces’ performance in this area a priority. I know this is a difficult and complex area, and that procedures or statutory guidance are by themselves not enough, although it is not acceptable when they are ignored. There is a statutory obligation for police forces to return missing statistics to the Missing Persons Bureau and yet it was only last year that all police forces returned their statistics to the bureau. So the Minister can appreciate our concern to ensure that all police forces take that seriously.
To return to Lord Levy, he said:
“We really need to bolster the procedures for ensuring that the lessons and recommendations from often expensive inquiries are carried through and actually acted upon.”
I agree, and I think before any more new inquiries are announced we should certainly find a way of reviewing recommendations of past inquiries.
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I think that the Children’s Commissioner, in her newly strengthened role as a voice and advocate for children, should be given responsibility for ensuring that the recommendations of any future public inquiries relating to children are implemented and that she should report regularly to Parliament on progress towards their implementation. That might have the additional benefit of stopping the Government’s announcing of public inquiries simply to deal with the immediate pressure to solve a difficult problem. It is one thing for a Government to announce an inquiry when they know that they can kick any recommendations into the long grass; it is quite another when they might be held to account for those recommendations.
Since 2007 there have been 557 serious case reviews, although not all have been the result of child sexual exploitation. It is not clear to me what actually happens to the recommendations of those reviews, besides sitting with the local safeguarding children board. Recommendations relating to sexually exploited children in one area need to be learnt by local safeguarding children boards everywhere. After all, they serve as local inquiries. In the same way that the implementation of recommendations from public inquiries should be monitored, I believe that the recommendations from serous case reviews should be monitored, and perhaps that should be done by the Children’s Improvement Board. I also believe that a serious case review should always be undertaken if a child has been harmed by sexual exploitation, which is not currently the case.
Throughout all the inquiries and investigations into child sexual exploitation, we hear that children feel that they are not listened to. I believe that, above all else, we must strengthen their voice. That was the main message of the young people from one of the Children’s Society’s local projects when they gave evidence to our all-party group’s inquiry into children who go missing from care. It is a depressingly familiar story in most sexual abuse cases. The victims felt powerless, and one of our findings was that the professionals who were there to help them treated them as troublesome, a nuisance and a drain on resources, rather than as victims. That theme ran through the hugely important report from Barnardo’s, “Puppet on a string”, published in January 2011, which said that too often the tell-tale signs that a child was being abused were overlooked.
Children feel that their voice is not being heard, but often it is also those with responsibility for protecting them who do not want to listen. It is hard to listen, because that means having to act—and that might make life uncomfortable. We must strengthen the voice of children themselves. In our society, adults talk a lot about our rights, which in many cases do not exist, but we mean the right to a voice—our voice. I welcome the proposals to strengthen the role of the Children’s Commissioner, but she cannot be the voice of all children at all times and in all situations. Children used to be seen and not heard, and now they are sometimes heard. Somehow, we must move on so that they are always heard.
I strongly support compulsory sex and relationship education in schools, which is the Labour’s party’s policy. If children are to speak out, they must first feel confident that what is happening to them is wrong, and that is why sex and relationship education in schools is so important. They need to know—indeed, they are
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entitled to know—about issues such as sexual consent, what sexual coercion and exploitation is and how to shape healthy relationships and respect for each other, as well as to be alerted to signs that they are being sexually groomed. That will give them the confidence to reject inappropriate relationships, which is important in relation not only to grooming by older men for sexual exploitation, but to sexually coercive relationships by peers.
We know that harmful attitudes and behaviours are developed at a young age, and there is growing evidence about the impact of pornography on boys’ attitudes to girls. It is a problem that boys are accessing adult websites that give them a distorted attitude. It gives them a sense of entitlement, which means that they might touch a girl inappropriately and use bullying or coercive behaviour. That may explain the findings of a recent YouGov poll conducted by the Schools Safe 4 Girls campaign, in which a third of 16 to 18-year-old girls said they had been touch inappropriately at school.
Peer-on-peer exploitation is a very difficult issue, and the report by the Deputy Children’s Commissioner on gang and peer-on-peer sexual exploitation is due later this month. The perpetrators themselves are children, and that is an even more powerful reason for compulsory sex and relationship education in schools to balance what many boys see on adult websites. Boys need to be supported to form positive and respectful attitudes to girls and women. They need to understand that abuse can have a long-lasting impact, and not only physical, mental and emotional harm, but damage to a girl’s education and future.
Of course we need better inter-agency working and a better job to be done by local safeguarding children boards, but we also need to give children the knowledge to protect themselves. There is good practice around, and I am delighted about how sex and relationship education is being delivered in Stockport primary and secondary schools. Workshops, funded by Stockport council and Comic Relief, on sexual bullying and unhealthy relationships are being delivered in all local secondary schools by Stockport without Abuse, formerly the Stockport Women’s Aid group. The workshops are now being extended to year 6 pupils in primary schools in the borough and a new project will start at the end of this month that involves training young people to become “peer educators” to raise awareness of sexual harassment. The project involves Stockport council’s safeguarding unit, the Brinnington education achievement partnership and Stockport Without Abuse.
After my parliamentary debate on sexting last year, I was invited to see a film produced by two pupils at Harrytown high school. It was based on real-life situations and showed the consequences of uploading or texting indecent images. It is very important that we involve young people in that kind of work, as they will listen to other young people better than they will listen to adults. The more information children and young people receive in schools to prepare them for the world they face, the better, but that is not being done everywhere. We all know that knowledge is power, and power is what victims of sexual abuse throughout the ages have sadly lacked. Well-informed, confident children with a strong voice are less likely to become victims.
In conclusion, it is important that we learn the lessons of the past and understand the risks that children will
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be exposed to in the future. Only then we will be able to make significant headway in protecting children from sexual exploitation.
Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): I will start by apologising for the fact that I have to be in my constituency later today and so, alas, will be unable to stay for the wind-ups. I have written to Mr Speaker about that and apologised to the Front Benchers and to my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood), who moved the motion.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon and the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) on securing the debate and on the powerful and well-informed points they made. I know from bitter experience, over many years in opposition and then in government, that debates in this House on children’s issues or on safeguarding children are hard to come by. At last we are having a debate on child protection and child sexual exploitation. Perhaps that explains why the Press Gallery is deserted. This is not about celebrities, the structural overhaul of the BBC or senior politicians possibly being connected with paedophilia; it is about child sexual exploitation, a subject of huge concern to all our constituents and members of the public and something that the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children says affects at least 64 children every day of every year, one in four of them aged under 11. ChildLine has had almost 16,000 contacts on just that subject. It is hugely important. Frankly, the recent media circus with sensationalist celebrity scalp hunting has really undermined the importance and severity of the issue we are at last discussing today. I think that the media should take note of that.
It must say that it is puzzling and disappointing that the Minister responsible for child protection will not respond to the debate and, indeed, that no Minister from the responsible Department, the Department for Education, is on the Front Bench. One of the responses to the “Puppet on a string” report produced by Barnardo’s was that one Minister should have overriding responsibility across Government for tackling child sexual exploitation. I took on that responsibility in my previous ministerial role and I think that my successor has also done so. Perhaps the Minister who is here today could explain whether that arrangement has changed. It is disappointing and puzzling, as I have said.
The media circus of recent days has concentrated on the BBC and political links, so it has gone almost unnoticed that there have been further arrests in the Rochdale case, an arrest in the Savile case and arrests regarding a further paedophile ring operating in Leeds. As my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon said, the fact that more of these cases are hitting the news and coming to court is a sign of success in that they are being taken more seriously by the police and other agencies, who are pursuing them and making the charges stick. We need much more publicity about that.
This is an important issue now, but it was also important in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, when, as has become apparent in recent days, we failed to look at it properly. Even now, the NSPCC estimates that only one in 10 cases of child sexual abuse is reported. Back in the ’70s and
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’80s we would have been lucky if one in 100 was reported, let alone prosecuted and the perpetrators brought to book.
Let us take stock of recent history. An almost beatified celebrity in the form of Jimmy Savile has now been connected with some horrendous crimes involving young children. Other celebrities might be involved, and it might involve practices within the BBC. Yet when it was going on it was apparently an era of “nudge, nudge” and people saying, “Well, it’s just Jimmy—that sort of thing happens.” In fact, “nudge, nudge” and “That’s just Jimmy” was about serious sexual crimes against children, as we now recognise them to be. That is how it appears from the information that is emerging, although there is still much investigating to be done.
We then had the rumours about links with high-level politicians, which so far have not been based on any properly researched evidence. I have to say that certain allegations that were made without that evidence, both in this Chamber and in poorly researched “Newsnight” programmes, have not helped this case. However, as I said some weeks ago, why should we be surprised if there are people in political life connected with child abuse? It has affected the Church and it has affected children’s homes; it has involved people in positions of trust supposedly caring for vulnerable children. It is affecting the entertainment industry. Why should we be surprised if politicians are also involved? This is a cancer that has gone on for many years, under the radar, across a whole range of institutions that we did not previously consider.
The Waterhouse inquiry, as my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon said, was very thorough. It was supposed to take a year and took over three years, and it uncovered 12,000 documents and hundreds of witnesses. It is right that we should make sure that all the evidence from that inquiry has been properly looked at. However, since last week we have had an inquiry into an inquiry. That is why I take the view, as I did some weeks ago when the Savile allegations started to come to light, that we need an overarching inquiry that goes back to the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s to look at what happened, why it happened, what stopped it happening, and what has changed to make sure that the perpetrators, who may still be at large, are at last brought to book. Importantly, it would ensure that the victims come forward and this time have their stories taken seriously and believed and, where appropriate, acted on, so that, we hope, they get some sort of closure. Even more importantly, it would help us to ensure that in 2012 every institution that has significant contact with children and young people has a robust child protection policy in place that can make these horrendous crimes much less likely.
Only today in my own area, in the diocese of Chichester, as a result of the report by Lady Butler-Sloss into allegations of child abuse, there have been two further arrests involving a former bishop. This goes everywhere, and we must not be blind to looking into every nook and cranny and under every carpet where it has been swept in the past.
Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree, from his experience, that the age group of victims goes from 16 to birth, so a considerable
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proportion of the victims cannot speak out? In the baby P case, we used legislation against witnesses that has since been expanded. We might want to look at that aspect so that those who stand by and watch, and do not speak out, could be brought to book as well.
Tim Loughton: My hon. Friend makes a good point. As my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon said, the Government cannot solve this on their own. The stories we have heard over recent weeks and months have made it clear to all of us that everybody has a responsibility of vigilance, while those in positions of care and trust have a greater responsibility than the rest of us. There is now no excuse for not realising that child abuse goes on and no excuse for someone not doing anything about it when they see it happening, or suspect that it might be happening, in their street, community, school, church, business, or whatever it might be.
Pauline Latham (Mid Derbyshire) (Con): Very often the children who have been abused have gone to people who are in a position to help them, but, no matter what age they are, they have not been believed. Even if they have been believed, they have been told, “It’s not something that we need to worry about because it is about somebody famous”, or if it is not somebody famous they have not been believed and nobody has taken notice of their cry for help. We must help children who are being abused to be believed, because they know what is going on.
Tim Loughton: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One of the scandals was the fact that in some cases children were not only told to shut up or not believed but threatened physically with violence if they kept on coming forward with their stories. People said, “They’re children—what do they know about it? It’s Jimmy”, or whoever it might be, “so just go away and forget about it.” That must not happen now. We have organisations such as Childline and some excellent children’s charities that have people working in the community to whom, we hope, children can go. We have better procedures in schools, with teachers trained to look out for this sort of thing—to listen and to be able to know what to do when these stories come to light. The biggest scandal is the fact that these children were completely rebuffed in the past and not taken seriously; that must not happen in 2012.
Nicola Blackwood: One of the issues that has particularly shocked me is the attitude of some of those in the agencies that are supposed to be protecting these children in saying that they are making bad choices, as though there is a choice and a question of consent when children as young as 11 and 12 enter into sexual relationships with adult men. We must address that within all these agencies, because it cannot be allowed to continue.
Tim Loughton: My hon. Friend rightly made that point, as I have done on numerous occasions, including, I think, before the Home Affairs Committee on which she serves. It came out of the Rochdale inquiry, among others. The possibility that a 13 or 14-year-old girl who was being sexually abused by a 48 or 50-year-old man she did not know, plied with cigarettes and alcohol, and taken to strange places and passed around various different men could have been doing that as a result of a
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lifestyle choice is absolutely incredible. It also says something about how our society looks at the way in which our children grow up in this century and when they stop being children and start to become adults. As far as I am concerned, until people are 18 they are still children and young people; we have responsibilities and duties towards them, and they need looking out for. Any institution or professional who thinks that such a child could have made that decision of their own volition and in their own interests should be sacked and has no place whatsoever in any safeguarding role with children.
I will quickly make progress, Madam Deputy Speaker, because I remember your warning, and many others want to speak who are much better equipped than I am. The reason I suggest we need an overarching inquiry is that we now have a double-figure amount of inquiries—within the BBC, the health service, the police, and children’s homes, including in the Channel Islands. For the next three to six months—a year or so—we will incrementally have reports from these reviews and inquiries, and I am sure that we will have more of them. I know that various other investigations—responsible investigations—are going on within the media and other areas that will uncover a whole load of other aspects that we had not previously considered. Nothing should stand in the way of the police doing their work now—the most important thing is that these perpetrators are brought to book and past crimes are looked at—but we need to have an overarching inquiry by a group of well-respected, heavyweight professionals who can look at the whole history of this and give their recommendations, quite aside from the individual reviews that are being conducted. Indeed, the Australian Government have announced just that—in the past few days, the Prime Minister of Australia has announced a royal commission. She said:
“The allegations that have come to light recently about child sexual abuse”
“have been heartbreaking. These are insidious, evil acts to which no child should be subject. The individuals concerned deserve the most thorough of investigations into the wrongs that have been committed against them. They deserve to have their voices heard and their claims investigated. I believe a Royal Commission is the best way to do this.”
That mirrors the situation in this country, which is why I think we should go ahead with an overarching inquiry.
Are the perpetrators still at large? As I have said, the police must be able to do their work. Are victims being deterred from coming forward? We must not put any barriers in their way and we must make sure that the damaging allegations of shoddy journalism over the past few days do not do that.
Are our children safer in 2012 than they were in the ’70s and ’80s, when many of the horrible things that we have been discussing in recent days happened? They are. We have much better child-protection policies now. They are still too bureaucratic and need streamlining, which is why the working together programme was seriously streamlined. That will allow the professionals to do their job much more effectively. We have better local safeguarding children boards, which were not taking the problem seriously. The study by the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre and the university of Bedfordshire showed that 73% of safeguarding
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children boards did not have an up-to-speed policy on child sexual exploitation. That is now changing very quickly.
Local safeguarding children boards did not used to speak to each other, but I was keen to ensure that they did. They held their first national conference a year or so ago. I spoke at it and we had some very good people there who had not met each other before. It is obvious that sharing best practice among those LSCBs was the way to go and I secured some funding to ensure that a network of LSCBs get good advice and good practice from each other for common problems throughout the country.
Mr Graham Stuartrose—
Sir Paul Beresfordrose—
Tim Loughton: I first give way to the Chairman of the Education Committee.
Mr Stuart: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. Does he agree that a chair from one of the health and wellbeing boards should be appointed as a national lead on child protection, to ensure that their organisations have exactly the right focus and are linked to the safeguarding children boards?
Tim Loughton: There is merit in that idea. One of my concerns when I was in the Department was the weak link of safeguarding within the health service, and that has always been the case. LSCBs often say that health representatives are the weak link and the reluctant partners. I believe that is changing. I set up some cross-departmental protocols with my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Anne Milton), who was a then Parliamentary Under-Secretary in the Department of Health. It would be sensible to give a safeguarding role to the health and wellbeing boards. We have LSCBs, public health boards, safeguarding boards and overview and scrutiny committees in local authorities, but we desperately need to link them all up, because the problem of children being abused does not change. We need the right people to exchange the right information and for somebody to pick up the ball, run with it and act on it so that children are protected and safer.
Sir Paul Beresford: My hon. Friend has not mentioned—no one has so far—the fact that legal changes since the Sexual Offences Act 2003, which was crucial, have resulted in a new power, which received bipartisan support, that enables police, those who chase paedophiles on the sex offenders list, and judges to address the crime of grooming.
Tim Loughton: My hon. Friend was involved in bringing that about. It was difficult to define what amounted to child sexual exploitation. Although technology is a wonderful enabling tool, its emergence also enables people such as groomers to do evil things by it. We have to keep up with such people. On my visits to CEOP and Scotland Yard, I saw police officers trawling through all sorts of extraordinary, horrific imagery on their computers. It is often the case that paedophiles and traders in extreme pornography who take advantage of children are technologically one step ahead of law enforcers. We must never shirk from making sure that, technologically,
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our law-enforcement agencies are up to speed in doing their job, because paedophiles are really clever at using technology to peddle their vile trade.
Are we safer in 2012? I believe that we are, but we still have a long way to go. I believe that the modern equivalent of the abuse that took place in north Wales children’s homes in the ’70s and ’80s, and other similar events that are now being revisited, is child sexual exploitation gangs. Most of those that have come to light so far happen to involve British Pakistani men, but we will also see other gangs with different cultural backgrounds around the country. It is child sexual exploitation of a different sort from, but on a similarly serious scale to what happened in those children’s homes. It is not happening in children’s homes any more—we have well-regulated, well-inspected, better-equipped people—but it is happening outside children’s homes in too many cases. That is why we must be absolutely vigilant and make sure that we learn the lessons of Rochdale, Derby, Bradford and all the cases that have and are still to come to light. The knowledge that my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon has of the cases that may come to light in her own part of the world will bring further gasps at the fact that such savagery can actually take place. This will continue to happen.
Tessa Munt (Wells) (LD): I would caution against ever making an assumption that children are safe in any environment, even if we set up safeguards for them. We should never assume that sexual abuse cannot take place in a children’s home from now on. It is the power relationship that creates safety for perpetrators of sexual abuse. Would the hon. Gentleman like to comment on that?
Tim Loughton: I entirely agree. I used the word, “safer.” No child can be guaranteed to be absolutely safe and I would not be surprised if further stories come out of sexual exploitation of children in care homes. That is why the work that I commissioned in July to set up working parties to look at the quality of children’s residential homes, the safety of children who are increasingly being placed well away from their own homes, and better data-sharing between the police and the local children’s services department about homes, is vital. No child can be deemed to be absolutely safe—I hope that I have made that absolutely clear.
Is what happened in a north Wales children’s home less likely to happen in our children’s homes now? I believe it is, but we cannot guarantee that it will never happen. That is the comparison that I wanted to make.
Mr Stuart: Will my hon. Friend give way?
Tim Loughton: I have spoken for quite a while and am almost coming to an end.
One of the most important pieces of work that was done in the Department for Education was the tackling child sexual exploitation action plan, which was launched a year ago. It brought together a whole range of different working groups. Sheila Taylor from the Safe and Sound charity was a pioneer in getting the police to realise the severity of the abuse that was going on in Derby and the midlands. The plan also brought together the National
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Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, CEOP and five Ministers from five different Departments, including the Attorney-General, to consider the problems involved in how to prosecute people without re-traumatising the victims who have to appear in court. Above all, Barnardo’s has done so much pioneering work in this area. I should also mention Andrew Norfolk of
, who over many years, when this was a very unfashionable, little understood issue that nobody really wanted to know about, ploughed away and uncovered some ghastly goings on, particularly in various northern cities, and he continues to do so. He must be given credit for bringing the issue to the attention of the wider public.
We brought together all those parties. The hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) was also part of our deliberations and made a fantastic contribution, as one would expect. It was not just a dusty document that then sat on a shelf. It needed to be acted on—it was an action plan and it needed to do what it said on the tin. When I published the action plan, I said:
“For too long now, the issue of child sexual exploitation has received too little attention. The system has not done enough to support victims and their families. The courts have not done enough to support traumatised young witnesses. And—perhaps most worryingly—too many local areas have failed to uncover the true extent of sexual exploitation in their communities.
This country has to now wake up to the fact that its children are being sexually abused in far greater numbers than was ever imagined.”
Those words are as true today as they were a year ago. Who would have believed, however, that the headlines across all the newspapers would be about child sexual exploitation or that it would dominate the media, albeit along the lines that it has gone down?
Why did we launch the action plan? It was the result of meeting many victims. I met many parents of victims as well. I met parents whose children were rescued from child abusers and whose houses were then firebombed by the abusers, who thought that it was a cheek that the daughter was not still at their disposal for abuse. The families go through horrendous experiences, not just the children.
I pay tribute to the BBC and Barnardo’s for the Whitney Dean storyline that they ran in EastEnders a couple of years ago. It was a lifelike, in-your-face, shocking, but effective story of how an ordinary girl was befriended by an extraordinary abuser and made to feel that she was part of the abuse. It showed how insidious and clever such abusers can be in inveigling themselves into the trust of vulnerable girls and boys. It was a good storyline that shocked the public into waking up to this issue. We needed to raise the profile of the issue and I think that that has been done, albeit not in the ways that we anticipated.
Secondly, the action plan was about better inter-agency working between all the different professionals, who were not sharing information or acting on it well. That is getting better. Thirdly, it was about how we rehabilitate the victims when we rescue them. This is not something that goes away the minute somebody is rescued from the perpetrator; there are mental scars that last for years. Fourthly, it was about better court practices, so that more children could go to court without being scared of giving evidence because they would be re-traumatised by a barrage of barristers operating for the gang of perpetrators.
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In July last year, we produced the progress report, which contained serious practical measures that have been taken, such as the teenage rape prevention campaign, the Safe and Sound project, the BLAST project, the violence against women and girls action plan, the NHS film and social worker training. A lot is happening and a lot is improving. It needs to, because recent events have shown that this problem is still with us.
The Government need rapidly to assure the public that they are on top of this situation, that the professionals at the sharp end, whose job it is to look out for this issue, are looking out for it, and that children’s voices are being heard, taken seriously and acted on. I hope that Ministers who are not here today will hear that message and reassure the public that child protection in this country is taken far more seriously in 2012 than it was in the ’70s and ’80s, and that we will do everything we can to make our children safer.
Mr Graham Allen (Nottingham North) (Lab): I have a slightly different take. I will not talk about cases, although we all have them and they are horrendous. I will not talk about picking up the pieces and how we help victims, although it is incumbent on all of us to try to do that. I will talk about something that people do not want to talk much about: the causes. Why do people perpetrate these horrendous crimes? It is important to talk about that, because if we can understand some of the causes, we can take action to alleviate and diminish these horrible episodes.
We here are responsible for making the overarching legal and cultural frameworks that can lead to there being less sexual abuse in our society. It is our responsibility not to hold another debate in five or 10 years’ time when more cases come forward or, as is the case now, to hold a debate some 15 or 20 years after such cases, but to take action now to change the culture that allows such people to proliferate and continue.
I would like to hear a response on that from the Minister of State, Home Department, the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Mr Browne). However, much as I enjoy his company, I am saddened that there are no Ministers present from the Department of Health, the Department for Education or the Cabinet Office, because this is a matter for the whole of Government. I am not making a partisan point, because Governments over the past 20 or 25 years while I have been a Member of this House have not covered themselves in glory in trying to prevent offences in this field.
Mr Andrew Smith: Will my hon. Friend give way?
Mr Allen: I will make a little progress first. I am conscious that some people have taken a considerable amount of time to make their points, so I will try to be a little more succinct.
It is important that Ministers do not view this matter in relation to celebrities, politicians or the BBC, but that they attempt to get a serious, strategic grip on how we can combat sexual abuse. We can do that in two ways. First, there should be a coherent and precise programme of research on the perpetrators of sexual abuse. Secondly, there should be an inquiry. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) mentioned
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an overarching inquiry. I would like such an inquiry to transcend the individual cases that we have all been talking about over the past few months.
Mr Andrew Smith: My hon. Friend talked about the ministerial presence or absence in this debate. Is that not symptomatic of an attitude that all too easily characterises Governments—I am not making a party political point—which is that Departments do not take seriously enough matters that are raised in Back-Bench debates or from the Back Benches? They would be well advised to start doing so.
Mr Allen: I will let my right hon. Friend make his own points about that. What is important is that Ministers do not act defensively or in a way that is intended to make tomorrow’s newspapers, but that they look at this matter strategically.
There is a plethora of inquiries that have taken place, are under way or are about to take place. The most important inquiry to have, which needs to be heavyweight and overarching, is one that backs off from specific incidents and looks at the steps that we could take immediately. It should ask why the extreme dysfunction of child sexual abuse takes place at all, how the cycle of sexual abuse can be broken, and what plans all public and private institutions must deploy to intervene pre-emptively to eradicate the sexual abuse of children over a generation and longer. It should be about long-termism and should set out a stall, hopefully on an all-party basis, so that we are not back here in 20 years’ time discussing these things. It should also include how we can change personal and family behaviours and social attitudes.
This matter is as significant as the Victorian elimination of cholera and typhoid through the provision of disease-free water. It is the public health issue of our time, and we need to step up and tackle it in a serious and strategic way. I would therefore go further than the former Minister who has just spoken, the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, and say that something on the scale of a royal commission is needed. Such a commission has just been announced in Australia. It should look not at particular cases or at how other inquiries went wrong, but at how we can combat the development of abusive behaviour within relationships and outside the family.
Mr Graham Stuart: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Mr Allen: If the Chairman of the Education Committee can be brief, I will of course give way.
Mr Stuart: I will be very brief. Royal commissions have famously been used to put things into the long grass. Such an overblown inquiry might just put the issue away until the public focus has moved on and so it might be counter-productive.
Mr Allen: Royal commissions have rarely been used in recent years, when inquiries have been used to put things into the long grass or to deal with specifics rather than the generic problem.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) on being so assiduous on this issue over many years, and the hon. Member for Stourbridge
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(Margot James) on helping to promote this debate. Perhaps I may also offer some friendly advice to the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood). A long time ago in 1989, when I had been in this House as long as she has—about two years—I asked questions of the then Prime Minister, Mrs Thatcher, and tabled early-day motions on the sexual abuse of children. I suggested—thankfully, this is still on the record—that the Home Office, and the Departments for Education and for Health should work together to figure out a strategic answer to the problem, and undertake serious, long-term research. I also suggested as part of that campaign that we should take video evidence from children in cases of child abuse. Thankfully that tiny bit of progress has been made.
I hope that success comes faster for the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon than any success that I may or may not have enjoyed. We must now look at this issue in the round, rather than at just those cases that affect us as constituency MPs. We must get to the heart of the matter, stop being reactive and start looking at the causes of the problem. There is a continuum. Abuse often begins in quite trivial ways; it escalates through violence; and it can go even further into sexual abuse—and we must start to understand how such relationships occur and how they degenerate, whether in the family or outside.
A tonne of evidence is available. I will not attempt to put it all on the record, although I will refer to a couple of points. Marcus Erooga has done a lot of work on this issue and writes about the
“high rates of convicted child abusers who have been themselves sexually abused as children”.
This is about breaking the cycle of abuse. In a horrendous case that took place 25 years ago in my constituency, children began to accept as normal some of the things that happened to them—I will not put those things on the record in Hansard—and they grew up thinking that that was part of normal sexual relations. As soon as the case was discovered, people went to great lengths to break those children away from the attitude that such things were normal. If they considered such things to be normal, it could happen again in the next generation.
I do not, of course, condemn anyone who has suffered sexual abuse as an offender in their own right—statistics do not bear that out and neither does common sense—but none the less, a very high proportion of people who perform such behaviour have had some experience of its being perpetrated on them by people they know. We can do something about that by helping people and ensuring that they have the social and emotional capability to make choices. As was mentioned earlier, people do not often choose to enter such relationships, and if we gave them the social and emotional armoury that most of us have, they would have a choice. They would be able to say no and to a greater degree resist grooming techniques.
Beckett, another source, states that abusers are
“typically, emotionally isolate individuals, lacking in self-confidence, under-assertive, poor at appreciating the perspective of others—”
in other words, no empathy—
“ill-equipped to deal with emotional distress. They characteristically denied or minimised the full extent of their sexual offending and problems. A significant proportion were found have little empathy
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for their victims; strong emotional attachments to children; and a range of distorted attitudes and beliefs, where they portrayed children as able to consent to, and hot be harmed by, sexual contact with adults.”
It goes on and on—personality characteristics and psychological well-being; parental histories and the cycle of abuse; substance abuse. Often, abuse is an inter-generational phenomenon that we can tackle by ensuring that people have some of the basic social and emotional capabilities that we all enjoy.
I was saddened that the case of baby P generated into finger-pointing and whether a particular social worker or person was responsible, and there was never a real analysis of why those individuals, who were allegedly care givers, treated baby P as they did. Why was no analysis done of where those people came from, why they acted as they did and why 20 years earlier—when I was new to the House of Commons and in the position that the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon is in now—when those care givers were born, nothing was done to ensure that they were adequately equipped to be decent, rounded human beings, just as we would expect for ourselves and our children?
This is not rocket science; it is about how to promote good parenting and the social and emotional aspects of learning that is provided to primary school children. Every child in Nottingham starts to understand qualities such as empathy, interaction, learning and respecting others, and each time one of those capabilities is built in, the prospect that someone will become abusive, antisocial or treat others in a disrespectful way is diminished. Every teenager in the city of Nottingham studies life skills—it is like personal health and social education but involves talking about relationships and what it is like to have a family or a baby, or to maintain a relationship. By giving people such skills, their parents, care givers or teachers give them not a guarantee but an inoculation against the things that we are discussing today.
This is about the development of empathy and love and about nurturing. If people have social and emotional capability, it is difficult to go wrong. If they do not have that, they might be prone to some of the behaviour that, at its most dysfunctional and extreme, can include the sexual abuse of children. We must think beyond tomorrow’s headlines and constituency casework, and beyond the horrendous things that happen to individuals, and look strategically at how we can start to take steps to eliminate, as far as humanely possible, the sexual abuse of children.
Finally, I congratulate the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon on initiating this debate—it is a great thing to have done. I hope that she, unlike me, will not be here in 20 years’ time listening to Members protest and object to terrible things that have happened in their constituencies, without having seized from the Government an opportunity to help change the culture that allows noxious individuals to grow and thrive in our society. We can do something about this issue, but we need a proper culture in which to develop serious research that the Government can pull together. We also need an overarching inquiry that deals not with individual cases, but tells us how we can combat the development of these predators and reduce sexual abuse of children in our society.
Several hon. Membersrose—
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Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. There are 16 speakers to get in, so it would only be fair, because some of the earlier speeches were quite long, to put a limit of 12 minutes on speeches.
Kris Hopkins (Keighley) (Con): May I offer my congratulations to hon. Friends and hon. Members who have secured this debate? Eighteen hon. Members spoke yesterday about 3p on a gallon of petrol. If this were an Opposition day debate, the Chamber would be packed, and if it were a statement on the armed forces, there would be 50 Government Members in the Chamber. I should tell hon. Members—not for a laugh—that if there were a debate with the word “Europe” in the title, there would be standing room only on the Government side, and yet there is a fairly token response from the House to today’s debate on child sexual exploitation and child abuse.
The first time I heard about and began to attempt to understand child sexual exploitation was when my predecessor, Ann Cryer, spoke out. I pay tribute to her work on the subject, although she did not always get it right and I did not always agree with her. She attempted to engage people in the Chamber and out in the community, but she was very much a lone voice at the time, especially in speaking to the Kashmiri Pakistani community about some of their behaviour.
The day Ann Cryer mentioned that behaviour in August a few years ago, a young British Pakistani lad from Keighley went on Channel 4 and said that her clumsy phrasing suggested that all the men in our town were paedophiles. That is not what Ann suggested, but people said, “How dare you make this accusation? You are accusing all of us in one go.” It is important to say that not all British Pakistani men are child abusers. Unfortunately, we must constantly qualify our statements so as not to give people excuses—I shall elaborate on that later.
The British National party will use grooming as a key element of its campaign in the Rotherham election campaign, which will start soon. Not all British Pakistani men are abusing white kids. There is a minority, though. The media coverage gives long lists of notorious abusers—including vicars, priests and celebrities—who are all white and non-Muslim. I need to put the problem in context before I say anything more. The vast majority of child abusers in this country are white. As my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood) said, there are abusers in every village and every town. The demographics say that they will be white, but we should not get away from the fact that gangs of Muslim men are going round and raping white kids at this moment in time. That is an horrendous thing to say, but it is the fact of what is happening. I want to explore some of the state’s agencies’ behaviour towards that, and some of the community’s associated behaviour and culture. My speech will not fix the problem, but I hope we will make progress in the debate that Ann started. By securing the debate, my hon. Friend has also helped to move the conversation on.
The initial response to Ann’s comments in the community was, “Why is it us again? You must be racist because you are having a go at us again. Why do you keep talking about it?” Lots of the people in that community dismissed Ann’s comments and saw them as inflammatory
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rather than as challenging and helpful. Many people believed another injustice was being done to the community by the fact that Ann kept raising the issue. The victimhood that ran through the community gave an excuse for not facing up to the problem. I went to lots of public events to discuss the issue, but all I heard was that Ann’s constant comments undermined the community. The community failed to face up to the core issues that Ann was putting out there. The reality is that the problem has not gone away. Ann Cryer was right. Since that time, many more children have been abused because of the failures of the agencies and of the communities to address what was happening.
I have been in local government for a long time and have heard lots of comments from police officers. I had to say explicitly to senior police officers that it was okay for them to pursue individuals who were perpetrating such crimes—I needed almost to give them permission to pursue those people. Political correctness ran through the political class and some of our agencies.
Yasmin Qureshi (Bolton South East) (Lab): I hear what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but is he not making the same mistake? The Home Affairs Committee asked the deputy Children’s Commissioner about this particular issue—she is now carrying out an investigation throughout the whole country—and she said that it is not to do with race or religion, but is just one form of methodology of sexual abuse.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. Can I just say that we have to have short interventions? I know that the hon. Lady wants to speak, and I am sure that she does not want to use up her speech this early, but the problem is that if she continues to intervene, she will understand if she is moved down the list.
Kris Hopkins: Perhaps we could conclude that conversation outside the Chamber. What I would say is that I genuinely think that police officers were not encouraged—“sat on” is the wrong phrase—to go in pursuit of people. If we think about the ’70s and ’80s and the culture around child abuse, that was not specific to the Kashmiri community. Generally, police were not encouraged to go in pursuit of people who were abusing children. The consequences of that can be seen in Rochdale and in other cases that are now coming to light. However, I need to put on the record that I am absolutely confident—I have had frank conversations with police officers in my town—that the police will go in pursuit of those individuals. I say to those who have raped children, “Look over your shoulder, because the police are going to come for you, and the full weight of the police and the judicial system will pursue you.”
Some time ago, a friend of mine told me that to address a problem it is sometimes useful to look upstream to find out why it may have occurred. Perhaps some of my friends, both in the House and back home, will not like what I am going to say, but one of the problems is the way that women are treated and valued by Muslim men. I want to challenge the behaviour that says, “I embrace and honour my family, my grandmother, my mother and my sister; you are my blood, I love you and I have great affection for you,” when that passion, love and affection does not address the inequalities those women and girls have to endure. Fundamentally, there
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is a sexist behaviour by Muslim men towards women. We talk about institutions and commissions and all the rest of it. Fundamentally, as leaders, we need to challenge the behaviour that is going on. We need to do that from a point, though, of not being racist. We are friends who want those people to be successful in our society. They are part of British society, but there is behaviour that is unacceptable.
I want to consider the way boys live in those households. I am afraid, as one senior council officer said to me, they are little princes: they can do nothing wrong, their behaviour is not challenged, and eventually that can manifest itself. In one instance outside Bradford university, Muslim men patrolled the streets around the university verbally abusing women and girls all the time. Rather than the community of peers challenging that behaviour, we had to have a specific police intervention to stop that sexual abuse of women. I am sorry, but that is not something that just manifested at 16, 17 or 18; it is a cultural thing about the behaviour towards women that has set in right at the beginning.
I know there can be love in this, and I know there is an issue about arranged marriages, which my faith probably facilitated not many generations ago, but I would ask why so many women are brought into this country to marry. One reason why I think that plays out is that women from Pakistan are subservient. They do not speak English or understand the values and freedoms that a girl born over here may live by and have confidence in. It is more convenient for a man to have a subservient woman in his household. They are not equal citizens.
I have seven mosques in my town. The biggest can accommodate 2,000 people at prayer. I do not visit all the mosques, but I know most of the elders. I say again—because I have to—that I am not a racist, and I respect Islam as a peaceful religion. I must say, however, that some of the behaviour of the elders in those mosques is unacceptable. I talked a while ago about an imam who was caught beating and kicking children—he was caught on television and eventually prosecuted—but the political and mosque leaders tried to cover it up, as if it was somehow all right. Eventually the council had to intervene and run Criminal Records Bureau checks on the imams and tutors.
That mosque was built using the resource of the community and at no small cost—it accommodates 2,000 people, has great minarets and all the rest of it—yet the council had to CRB check those people and look after their kids. I think that some priorities are wrong in this. Do I want a material thing, or do I want my children to be looked after? If those values are not embedded inside that community, I am sorry but there are great opportunities for things to go wrong.
Finally, lots of women wear traditional dress, including the veil, but there is an issue with men looking at women in western clothes—there is the idea that they are doing so because they want sex and think that those women are available. That behaviour by some Muslim men towards western women needs to be challenged. I could talk in-depth about this matter, but I am running out of time. It is enough to say that I want people in my town to be successful, but they must understand the values that we live by.
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Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab): I congratulate all those who have spoken in the debate. In particular, I congratulate the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood) on introducing it so excellently and all my hon. Friends.
In 1996, I tabled four early-day motions. To do that, I had to block parliamentary business two nights running. As Members can imagine, I got into considerable trouble with my party’s Whips, as well as Conservative Whips, but that was the only way I could get on the record what had happened in north Wales, particularly in the Bryn Estyn children’s home. The EDM that I re-tabled last Friday contains the gist of the complaint at that time. Back then, however, the subject disappeared from the Order Paper. The moment the inquiry was announced, it shut down discussion in this place for four years. That is why I thought it so important at the time to table the EDMs.
Someone suggested having a royal commission. I was on a royal commission. It took three years to report. The Waterhouse inquiry took four years. So a royal commission need not necessarily take as long as any other inquiry. I do think, however, that an overarching inquiry is extremely important.
The Clwyd county council report commissioned at the time laid bare the north Wales child abuse scandal. Had it been published at the time, it would have been very useful and things would have moved much faster. The report was suppressed, mainly because the council insurers demanded that the first full investigation into the care home scandals in north Wales be pulped. I hope that in future any council that wants to publish a report, on whatever subject, will be protected from its own insurers. I do not think that has yet been resolved. I have checked with the Library and it is still the case that insurers of a council can put pressure on it not to publish a report. That needs to be put right.
I have seen the Jillings report. There were only 12 copies, but people made copies of those 12 copies. I do not have one in my possession, because I had to hand it back, but I read things in it at the time. For instance, the then newly appointed North Wales chief constable refused to meet the inquiry or help with access to the police major incident database. The inquiry said:
“We were disappointed at the apparent impossibility of obtaining a breakdown of data. We are unable to identify the overall extent of the allegations received by the police in the many witness statements which they took.”
Some 130 boxes of material handed over by the council to the police were not made available to the panel. The council did not allow the inquiry to place a notice in the local press seeking information, because this was considered to be unacceptable to the insurers—it is interesting that the insurers of the county council were also the insurers of North Wales police. Mr Jillings was clear last week about what he had discovered back then:
“What we found was horrific and on a significant scale. If the events in children’s homes in North Wales were to be translated into a film, Oliver Twist would seem relatively benign.”
According to Jillings, the scale of what happened and how it was allowed
“are a disgrace, and stain on the history of child care in this country.”
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Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): The right hon. Lady is raising some serious points, but when she uses the generic term “north Wales” or refers to the country, does she also accept that the majority of children’s homes—child care facilities, orphanages or whatever term one wants to use—are still run, and always were run, by loving and caring individuals, and that although these are serious allegations, they are not as widespread as some might suggest?
Ann Clwyd: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, although I am not as certain as he is that he can make such a categorical statement. I think there is a lot going on in this country still which we need to get to the bottom of.
The Jillings report paints an alarming picture of a system in which physical and sexual violence were common, from beatings and bullying to indecent assault and rape. Some staff linked to abuse may have been allowed to resign or retire early. The insurers suggested that the chair of the council’s social services committee—Malcolm King, a brave whistleblower—should be sacked if he spoke out, writing:
“Draconian as it may seem, you may have to consider with the elected members whether they wish to remove him from office if he insists on having the freedom to speak.”
Despite such obstructions, the panel stuck to its brief to investigate child care in Clwyd in the wake of a number of allegations and court cases involving carers. Most of the allegations covered the period 1980 to 1988, and a four-year police inquiry saw 2,600 statements taken and 300 cases sent to the Crown Prosecution Service. Eventually, eight men were charged and six convicted.
A key issue in north Wales continues to be whether there was a paedophile ring at work. One internal Clwyd council report from the time—like Jillings, unpublished—said:
“There remain worrying current instances of conviction and prosecution for sexual offences of persons who are known to have worked together in child care establishments both in the county and… other parts of the north-west”.
The report continued:
“These suggest, that abuse could have been happening unabated for many years and, that there could be operating a league or ring of paedophiles who help one another find sources and situations where abuse can be perpetrated and the addiction fed.”
Susan Elan Jones (Clwyd South) (Lab): I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend for all that she has done to highlight the historical instances of child sex abuse in care homes in north Wales. Does she agree that one of the most chilling features of what happened is the institutional nature of the crime? Those crimes were not right, even in the 1970s and 1980s; it is not just that society has changed. They involved out-and-out exploitation by people who thought that their victims were weaker than themselves. That is one of the things that makes what happened in the north Wales care homes so shocking.
Ann Clwyd: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention.
There were allegations, too, of abusers outside the care system. The report goes on to state:
“There were numerous claims and suggestions that senior public figures including the police and political figures might have been involved in the abuse of young people”.
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I feel strongly about this matter because children from my constituency of Cynon Valley, in south Wales, were taken to that care home in north Wales, a long way from their families and friends. I put a notice in my local paper, and six young men answered the advert. This was before the Waterhouse inquiry was set up. I took detailed statements from the four of them who said that they were ready to talk to me. I took a long time to interview them individually, and I found the allegations that they made, and the descriptions of their experiences, totally emotionally draining. If I felt that, it is impossible to imagine what they must have felt.
All those young men have been damaged in some way. Their experience affected their future relationships with people. Some of them got into trouble with the law. Of the many young men who gave evidence to Jillings, to the police or to the Waterhouse inquiry, a shocking number have committed suicide, have self-harmed or have been killed in mysterious circumstances. That is one of the many reasons why we need an overarching inquiry. It could be a royal commission, as has been suggested, but whatever happens, we need an overarching inquiry; we do not want any more piecemeal inquiries.
One good thing that came out of Waterhouse was that the Welsh Assembly quickly appointed a Children’s Commissioner for Wales. In the past week, 36 people have contacted the commissioner’s office, of whom 22 have spoken of the abuse that they suffered at Bryn Estyn in Wrexham and at the network of homes connected to it. The other 14 have spoken of historical abuse in other settings.
Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab): My right hon. Friend tells a powerful story. Does she agree that one of the major problems was that nobody believed the young people, and that they eventually felt that there was no point in trying to fight against the terrible things that were being done to them, because the whole system was geared against them?
Ann Clwyd: My hon. Friend’s constituency covers some of the Wrexham area, as does that of my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones). They both know full well the anguish felt by the many young people who would have liked to give evidence but who were just not listened to and will not be listened to. I hope that things will change. I have mentioned those people who have contacted the Children’s Commissioner, and it is known that a number of others, perhaps dozens, have contacted politicians and solicitors to report abuse and to ask for help.
In an interview with The Guardian, Mr Towler—the commissioner—expressed concern that the intense speculation over rumours of a politician’s involvement meant that there was a danger of the victims being forgotten. He said that what happened in north Wales in the 1970s and ’80s was a consequence of children and young people not being listened to. The Children’s Commissioner said the victims’ memories were
“as clear as if it happened yesterday…we say it’s historical abuse, but actually it’s alive. This is not an archaeological dig, we’re talking to people for whom this is terribly alive. People are incredibly emotional—we have had tears, anger, relief. They’re saying, I’ve waited 30 years for this opportunity. I’ve also had conversations with people going through that emotion”.
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It is not a dead issue in the minds of these young people; it is very much alive. There remains the fundamental concern that justice for many of these victims has still not been achieved.
I pay tribute again to Alison Taylor, who was one of the first whistleblowers in Gwynedd, and to Councillor Malcolm King, who was the chair of social services of Clwyd county council. They were both outstandingly brave, and Alison Taylor was sacked because nobody believed her. Only 12 copies of the Jillings report were published. I have urged for several days that it should be published. It is in the hands of the Wales Office, where it was kept at the time. Copies do exist, and I now believe it essential for it to be published. I also pay tribute to the newspapers, particularly to The Independent and The Guardian, to the BBC, ITV and many other broadcasting organisations and the press, who have helped to bring these iniquities to light.
The Minister of State, Home Department (Mr Jeremy Browne): Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for giving me an opportunity to speak on behalf of the Government at the mid-way point of this important debate.
I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood) and others who have provided us with the opportunity to consider this grave matter. I thank those who have already contributed, making powerful and significant interventions on a range of related subjects that all touch on this overarching subject of child sexual exploitation.
Child protection is an absolute priority for this Government, and both the Home Secretary and I are committed to ensuring that children receive the protection they need and deserve. Where child abuse takes place, the effects on the victim can be lifelong and devastating. It is vital that victims feel empowered to come forward to report abuse and that they receive the support needed to help recover from the trauma of this hateful crime.
Equally, we are clear that if child abuse takes place, it must be thoroughly and properly investigated, and those responsible arrested and brought to justice. My message beyond this House today is that anyone who has any information about any paedophile or anyone who has suffered abuse, whether now or in the past, should feel empowered to report it to the police.
Mr Graham Stuart: I find it extraordinary that the Minister is standing at the Dispatch Box now, on two grounds: first, the representative for the Government is not listening to the whole of this important debate; and, secondly, with no disrespect to the Minister, it is he rather than a Minister from the Department for Education who is on the Front Bench now. I think the House deserves an explanation on both those fronts.