Duty to Report Suspicion of Child Abuse

Orders of the Day — Children (Scotland) Bill – in the House of Commons at 7:30 pm on 1st May 1995.

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  1. '.—(1) It shall be the duty of those staff in establishments who have direct concern for the care, training or education of children, or young people under 16 years of age, to report to the director or superior of the establishment without delay any reasonable suspicion that any such child or young person within the establishment has been abused whether before or subsequent to that child's or young person's admission to the establishment.
  2. (2) It shall be the duty of the director or superior of the establishment referred to in subsection (1) above to make enquiry into the reported suspicions and, if appropriate, to refer the matter to the relevant authority.
  3. (3) In this section, "relevant authority" means the education or social work department, the Principal Reporter or the police force for the area of the local authority district in which the establishment is situated.'.—[Mr. McFall.]
Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of John McFall John McFall , Dumbarton

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

My new clause would make it a duty to report any suspicion of child abuse. It places a duty on staff in establishments that have responsibility for the care, training or education of children or young people under 16 years of age to report to the director or superior in the establishment, without delay, any reasonable suspicion that a child has been abused, whether before or subsequent to that child's admission to the establishment.

Under the new clause, the director or superior would be obliged to investigate the matter and, if appropriate, refer it to the relevant authority, which means the education or social work departments, the principal reporter or the police force in the local authority area in which that establishment is situated.

The new clause arises out of personal experience and I take full responsibility for it. I thank the Minister for his co-operation and courtesy during the past few weeks relating to the information that I sent him and his reply to me. As the hon. Gentleman kindly pointed out, my original amendment would have resulted in rather harsh consequences as there was a criminal aspect to it. For example, he said that "reasonable suspicion" was a matter for individual judgment and that it would not sit easily with a criminal penalty. I had not foreseen that problem, but I have now altered my proposal, so although there is still a duty, it is an obligation rather than something that would attract a criminal penalty.

I consulted a number of people outwith the House on this matter. One was Mrs. Mary Hartnell, the director of social work for Strathclyde. She said: While there is whole hearted support for the aim of making all forms of care for children free from abuse, I would suggest that this subject would perhaps be better dealt with in rules and regulations rather than in primary legislation. This could lead to all organisations having to have procedures in place whereby on receipt of allegations of abuse, staff would be required to pass these on to the appropriate manager who would then be bound to consider whether sufficient concerns existed to warrant the involvement of the police. Staff failing to observe these procedures would then be subject to disciplinary action. That is why I have included the principal reporter and the education and social work departments, as well as the police.

Mrs. Hartnell continued: While our current child protection procedures require this course of action, legislation could be formulated to make it compulsory for all organisations offering some form of care to children to be bound by similar procedures. That highlights a gap in the existing legislation.

8.45 pm

I also consulted Professor Kathleen Marshall, who is doing a study for the Independent Schools Information Service, which covers an area where at present no regulations exist. She gave me good advice, as did Miss Kay Tisdall from Children in Scotland and the Children Consortia. I also contacted various individuals, advocates and Queen's counsel, and in particular, the Centre for Residential Child Care, under Meg Lindsay. That is a partnership between the university of Strathclyde, Langside college, Save the Children Fund and Who Cares? Scotland. The message from all of them is that the intention behind my previous amendment was too prescriptive, but nevertheless something needed to be done because the procedures and guidelines do not work as they should.

In December, I tabled a number of parliamentary questions on the issue. One asked the Secretary of State for Scotland: how many a) teachers, b) social workers, c) nurses, d) doctors, e) community education workers and f) other professionals working with children have been found guilty of crimes of indecency or of lewd and libidinous behaviour against persons under 21 years of age in each of the past five years." —[Official Report, 20 December 1994; Vol. 251, c. 1059] The Minister replied that the information was not available. The fact that that information is not categorised shows a weakness in the statistical gathering for which the Minister is responsible.

There must be a base line. If we are to err—and certainly that is possible—we must do so on the side of child protection. That is what the voluntary organisations and others conveyed to me when I consulted them. That is why they think that debate on the new clause would be useful. They feel that it will throw the spotlight on the whole issue of child abuse.

I accept that the debate is in its embryonic form. Indeed, the CRCC has said that it would like to hold a seminar on the issue, to include all the relevant professionals, so that we can take the debate forward and learn from the experience of other countries—for example, Australia and America, where reporting is mandatory, and Canada. How do the systems work in those countries?

As I said earlier, my interest stems from my personal experience as a school teacher, but also as a Member of Parliament. A number of constituents have contacted me directly because they were sexually abused when they were young people—one, in particular, when in a residential establishment. Those people are now adults, but the legacy of the traumatic experience lives with them 20 years after the incidents. Even today, all these years later, they regularly feel alone, vulnerable and guilty.

Photo of Mrs Maria Fyfe Mrs Maria Fyfe , Glasgow Maryhill

I fully support the intention behind my hon. Friend's new clause. Does he agree that as well as the experiences that he is relating, we have all read the appalling newspaper accounts of incidents when young people and children have been in residential care—the sort of incidents that no one could have imagined before they read those accounts? We must ensure that children are safeguarded when they are in residential establishments. As my hon. Friend says, the debate is still at an early stage, but I am glad that he has tabled his new clause.

Photo of John McFall John McFall , Dumbarton

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. In the past, for one reason or another, a veil has been drawn over the incident; there has been a conspiracy of silence. That cannot be allowed to continue. I have tabled this new clause to push the debate forward.

The problem is widespread, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mrs. Fyfe) said, and it affects all areas of society. Indeed, only a few weeks ago I was reading an article written by Mr. Alan Draper, who is chairman of a newly formed team to advise the bishops' conference of Scotland on the handling of allegations of sexual abuse made against Church personnel. He said: What has to be faced is that the abuse of children is widespread. It flourishes in a society which is based on competition and power and is undermined by violence towards women and their sexual exploitation. The challenge to transform society becomes enormous when we begin to realise the terrible social cost of the toleration of child sexual abuse. Children are powerless to speak for themselves. That is very true. Children find themselves in an unequal relationship. Adults have the power and children are powerless. People have to speak for children and the law must be right for them. It is extremely important that we put the proper procedures into place.

Mr. Alan Draper indicates that the abuse of children is not only a Church problem but a social problem. It highlights the fact that our society is not yet mature. Anything smacking of sex is considered distasteful and swept under the carpet. To this House, it should be the shame of the victim that matters. Victims have to go through hoops to be believed and the shame is directed and transmitted towards them rather than the perpetrator. They are placed in circumstances almost the same as those faced by the victims of rape 10, 15 or 20 years ago, when it was never the man's fault; "the woman's skirt was too short"; "too much was being revealed"; and so on. Only through persistent education of society was it realised that it was the man's fault. He did not have to give in to temptation.

The Zero Tolerance campaign, which is well established in Scotland and exists in a substantial number of local authorities, is a good example of the product of such education. With regard to sexual and other abuse, the need for education is paramount. Education of parents is essential. If they have to be told to look for signs of drug abuse, however distasteful that may be, they have to look for signs of abuse in children. The message to children from this debate is: Do not accept someone interfering with you. Do not think that you are to blame. Even after a successful campaign, some people will fall through the net and some children will be victimised, so we need a mechanism to deal with such cases. I suggest that we consider such areas as enhanced compensation—state-funded—but, more importantly, counselling. Counselling on a long-term basis is required. This is a victim's issue and a hidden victim at that.

The Scottish Office has recognised the problem because it commissioned a report, "The Child Sexual Abuser", which was published last December. The report was based on four years' research conducted by teams at Edinburgh and Cardiff universities. It identified four different types of child abuser. Incest abusers proved to be most common; paedophile accounted for 30 per cent. of abusers in the survey; random abusers were considered the most dangerous; and deniers comprised 10 per cent. of the survey.

The chairperson of the team which produced that report, Professor Lorraine Waterhouse, said: The Child Sexual Abusers Report makes very depressing reading and many of the discoveries have shocked us"— despite having worked in that field of research for some time. Professor Waterhouse added: The actual sexual behaviour towards the children did involve more aggression than I think we had concluded. They found that in almost half the cases studied, violence or physical coercion was used. Even among those who claimed not to have used violence, it could not be dismissed. One such man, a paedophile who claimed not to harm his victims,' stated for the report: I have seen myself putting my hands over the boy's mouth and lift him up, place him in the bushes, put him on the ground, take his clothes off him. That is about it. Nae violence. The survey also found that more abusers than was previously thought had sexual intercourse with their victims. More than half those convicted of incest had full sex with their victims. Offenders are usually known to their victims as fathers, stepfathers or family friends, and only one abuser in 10 is a stranger to the child. Abusers ranged in age from 10 to 81.

The message from that report is that the abusers are not monsters; they can be nice people whom the victim knows. Society has to be prepared and draw up proper procedures. That is why social workers are calling for a paedophile register. David Colvin, the deputy general secretary of the British Association of Social Workers, said: It is astonishing that we have not had information about the people who commit sexual abuse before now. Scotland Yard believe there are more than 4,000 practising paedophiles in Britain and the current method of approaching the problem from the child protection register is absurd; listing the children not the offenders". About 1,500 children go to hearings each year to complain about abuse and in only 2 to 5 per cent. of cases are adults prosecuted. That is a shocking clear-up rate for a very serious offence.

It is very important that we take on board such comments from professionals and others and do something about them. My new clause is a new idea. It will formalise something which already happens. Local authorities have guidelines and procedures on how individuals should behave, but the new clause will put them on a statutory footing. It will place an obligation—a duty—on staff to report to their superiors any suspicion of abuse: to take action. If they breach that duty, they will not be liable in the criminal courts, but may be liable in the civil courts for damages. Obviously, that will depend on each individual case.

The new clause would impose a similar duty on a director or superior to refer the matter to the relevant authority and "relevant authority" means either the principal reporter, the social work department or the police. The proposal is not cumulative. It is self-standing and applies to whatever agency is appropriate. If the case is clearly criminal, it will go to the police. If it is another form of abuse, it may go to the reporter or be reported to the social work department.

I realise that the new clause is not definitive. Its main purpose is to impose a duty on individuals. It would assist in preventing people from entering into a conspiracy of silence as that creates a climate in which abuse can flourish. I hope that the new clause will aerate the debate as there is an insufficient political wind behind the issue at the moment. I hope that it will help lift the veil of secrecy and pierce the conspiracy of silence and, in the process, contribute to transparency in human relationships.

By accepting or amending my new clause, the Government and the Opposition will assist in promoting in society a more mature, honest and direct approach so that fewer children will suffer the trauma of sexual abuse and those who do suffer that trauma will be dealt with on a compassionate and constructive basis.

Photo of Dr Norman Godman Dr Norman Godman , Greenock and Port Glasgow

The Minister may well reject new clause 7, with which I have considerable sympathy. He may suggest that the problems highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall) can best be dealt with through regulations or guidelines. However, it seems to me that the employing authorities of the establishments referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Dumbarton have a responsibility. Perhaps the Minister should be focusing his attention on the sanctions that he can impose by way of regulations against employing authorities which have betrayed the interests of the children in their care.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dumbarton referred to all sorts of establishments. I want to raise one or two points in relation to the protection that should and must be given to children who have been taken into care. We sometimes seem to imagine that when a child has been rescued from a violent parent or abuser and has been placed in residential care, that is the end of the line, whereas in some instances it may well be the start of further torment for the child.

9 pm

What guidelines are given to local authorities in relation to those employed in residential homes for young children? There must be a very important role in that regard for the employing authorities to ensure that certain people are not employed and that they become unemployable. There is a major responsibility in that regard on the employers to be very tough gatekeepers and to refuse employment to those about whom they have well founded suspicions in regard to sexual proclivities.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dumbarton referred to the need for the director or superior to make inquiries into such suspicions. Again, I think that that might well apply most appropriately through guidelines issued to employing authorities. I am concerned that children taken into care within the framework of a new small authority may be placed in a residential home in another authority's jurisdiction. How is the local authority which has care of the child able to monitor what goes on in a home outwith its district?

In relation to the new clause, in terms of defending the interests of youngsters against those who are in loco parentis to them, does the Minister envisage that the authority with care will be able to monitor homes to which children have been sent outwith its own area? Will the local authority with care have the right to demand access to the personal files of people employed in those homes? Does the Minister envisage that? It may sound harsh to say that the authority with care in cases of children placed outwith that authority's region should have access to the personal files, but too many people seem to get through the gates and past the selectors and are given responsibility for the care of children when manifestly they are not fit individuals to take on such responsibilities.

When the Minister argues the case against new clause 7, he should say something about the efforts of the Scottish Office, local authorities and other organisations to eliminate from such occupational roles the paedophiles and others who are not fit to come anywhere near children, especially vulnerable children who have already suffered distress and harm. Not enough is done to weed out those people during the selection process. Too often we discover the whereabouts of such people after complaints have been made. Also, is it not a good idea for such residential homes to be restricted to as few children as possible so that, first, their care can be of the best quality and, secondly, they can be in a family environment, or close to a family environment, rather than an institutional environment?

My hon. Friend the Member for Dumbarton has raised some important questions. I am not sure that his new clause will be accepted today, but such concerns have been raised with all of us, particularly in my case when children have been taken into care. I am sure that the overwhelming majority of residential social workers are very fine people—I have met many of them, and I know that they are fine people—but there is always the odd bod who seems to slip through the selection process and is placed in charge of very vulnerable young children. Somehow or other we must prevent such squalid, seedy characters from obtaining those jobs in the first place.

Photo of Sam Galbraith Sam Galbraith , Strathkelvin and Bearsden

I support the new clause. It is an important part of the jigsaw that we are trying to put together for the protection of children. I am sure that some people will be unhappy with what we have done in the Bill and will complain that we will not get it right and so on, but the new clause is an important part of the mosaic of the Bill that we are trying to establish. My hon. Friend the Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall) said that child abuse is widespread. I am not sure what he meant by "widespread", but one thing is true: child abuse is certainly a problem, and one that we must tackle.

Two problems have hindered our dealing with establishments in the past. One is that, until recently, child abuse was not taken seriously enough. It was considered to be a lesser crime: someone had committed a wee indiscretion and if we all kept it quiet it could be overcome. Secondly, some establishments seek to protect their good name. There is nothing wrong with that; we would all wish to do that. Again, if one thinks that it is a lesser crime, one might not take appropriate action. We cannot allow either of those two problems to prevent proper management dealing with cases of child abuse or to produce what my hon. Friend described as the conspiracy of silence that occurs in all walks of life and in all establishments which seek to look after themselves. The new clause goes some way to dealing with that matter, but I do not know whether it will be perfect.

Are there are any other practical steps to be taken? What rights do non-local authority establishments which look after children—my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) raised the point in a slightly different way—have to examine the employment records of the individuals they employ? Do they have to take the word of the establishment or do they have access to the records of people involved in such establishments?

Photo of Lord James Douglas-Hamilton Lord James Douglas-Hamilton , Edinburgh West

The hon. Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall) was a deputy head teacher at Bellarmine secondary school, which has very high standards, and I appreciate the importance of this extremely vital issue.

Child abuse, whatever form it takes, is an obscenity which must be tackled with the utmost vigour. Staff in care establishments and teachers in educational institutions are well placed, as the hon. Gentleman was in the past, to spot indications of abuse, and a considerable number of cases brought to the attention of investigating agencies come from that source. However, it seems somewhat heavy handed to impose a statutory duty on staff to report any reasonable suspicion that a child may have been abused.

In response to the hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Galbraith), I can say that local authorities already have in place clear arrangements in relation to care establishments and educational establishments for referring suspicions of child abuse to statutory agencies. Those are complemented by child abuse awareness-raising training, and child protection training generally can be used to underpin the procedures adopted by establishments for reporting suspicions of abuse.

Photo of Sam Galbraith Sam Galbraith , Strathkelvin and Bearsden

Child abuse awareness training is all very well, but we are talking about cases where such awareness training is not needed. These are cases where someone knows that abuse is going on, but still does not report it to the statutory agencies. That is what the new clause is aimed at. It is concerned not with getting people to recognise child abuse, but with getting people to report it.

Photo of Lord James Douglas-Hamilton Lord James Douglas-Hamilton , Edinburgh West

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's point. Following the Orkney inquiry and representations, guidance is being prepared which will be issued to cover that issue. Local authorities can also monitor institutions, and they have the right to have access to the files. It is important for suspicions to be reported, and to be properly investigated if they are found to have substance, but I feel that placing a statutory duty on staff to report such suspicions goes a little too far. There is a general duty to report cases to the reporter. In principle, the hon. Gentleman's point is correct that reporting must take place, but to put a compulsion to do so in statute is a little heavy handed.

Photo of Dr Norman Godman Dr Norman Godman , Greenock and Port Glasgow

The Minister said that he believes that local authority staff have access to files in such establishments. Does that include access to files concerning employees of such establishments, because that is important? I should hate to have a social work secret police in operation, but it is important that local authorities have knowledge of the people working in the establishments.

Photo of Lord James Douglas-Hamilton Lord James Douglas-Hamilton , Edinburgh West

When making appointments of people to work with children, local authorities can consult the Scottish Criminal Records Office for advice on any previous convictions, and that is absolutely right. Local authorities are aware of the need for careful selection of staff, and we regard that as extremely important. There is no question of a witch hunt, but the protection of children should be given a high priority.

With regard to the inspection of residential establishments, I can confirm that section 67(a) of the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968—to be replaced by paragraph 29(6) of the Bill—gives powers of inspection in relation to the records of residential establishments. That covers the point raised by the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman).

Photo of John McFall John McFall , Dumbarton

I thank the Minister for his constructive reply. Mary Hartnell, a director of social work, wrote to me recently to say that while child protection procedures in certain areas require such a course of action, legislation could be formulated to make it compulsory for all organisations offering some form of care to children to be bound by similar procedures. That does not happen at the moment.

Only a few months ago, there was a story in the newspapers about allegations of misconduct at the Rudolf Steiner school in Aberdeen. Lothian region had placed some children at that school, but it could do nothing about the allegations because the school was not covered by the measures. I make no comment about what happened in Aberdeen; I merely refer to the principles of the issue.

The Minister said in his response to me dated 20 April: the Scottish Council of Independent Schools has commissioned Professor Kathleen Marshall to draft child protection guidelines for independent schools, and this is being done in consultation with HMI and SWSI. So there are not even guidelines at present. All that I ask is that there should be a general duty. I do not intend to criminalise people, and I took seriously the Minister's comments about not wanting to be too heavy handed. My amendment states that the superior or the director has a duty to investigate, if appropriate: in other words, the doubt—if there is any doubt—would reside with the director or the superior, and it might not be taken further.

9.15 pm

My hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Galbraith) referred, as did the Minister, to my background in education. In the past, teachers have come to me and said that they had suspicions but that the head teacher did not want to take the issue further because it would reflect on his stewardship of the school or the status of the school in the local community. So investigation can be cut off at a basic level. That should not happen: there should be a duty and obligation to report and it should be written into the law. In no way do we wish to criminalise, but we wish to provide the most adequate protection available for young people. I believe that Parliament could do that by accepting the new clause today.

I ask the Minister to take on board in a constructive manner, as he has done today, the comments that Mary Hartnell has made about the procedures and the need for all organisations to be bound by similar procedures. May we have a commitment today that the Minister will consider some legislation so that when the Bill goes to another place we have some hope that something can be done?

Photo of Lord James Douglas-Hamilton Lord James Douglas-Hamilton , Edinburgh West

All that I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that I will refer what he said to my right hon. Friend the Minister of State. In the case of the Rudolf Steiner school, the inspectorate was put in immediately. That was helpful in clearing the air in that particular case. It performed an invaluable role. I will refer the points that the hon. Gentleman has made to my right hon. Friend the Minister of State.

Photo of John McFall John McFall , Dumbarton

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.