Child Abuse (North Wales)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:31 pm on 17th June 1996.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of William Hague William Hague Secretary of State for Wales 3:31 pm, 17th June 1996

With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement about child abuse.

It has been known for several years now that very serious sexual and physical abuse of children took place in homes managed or supervised by the former Clwyd county council in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1991, North Wales police began an extensive investigation into allegations, and obtained just under 2,600 statements from individuals. Those resulted in eight prosecutions and seven convictions of former care workers. Nevertheless, speculation has continued in north Wales that the actual abuse was on a much greater scale than those convictions suggest.

When I last reported to the House on this issue—in a written answer on 18 April—I expressed my regret that Clwyd county council, which had commissioned its own inquiry into these matters, had apparently failed to ensure that this would be undertaken in a way which would enable its conclusions to be publishable. I explained that I had written to the five successor authorities to Clwyd county council requesting that they seek urgently to produce a version of the report that could safely be published.

The successor authorities have subsequently informed me that they are unable to meet that request. In their view, the report is likely to contain evidence that was given in confidence to the inquiry team, and is in any case so seriously and extensively defamatory that an acceptable version of it cannot be produced.

In the light of my own legal advice, I have considered whether I could make the report as it stands available to the House. I have concluded that, in view of the nature of the defamation it contains, it would not be a proper use of parliamentary privilege to do so.

I find this a deeply unsatisfactory outcome, and one that reflects badly on the former Clwyd county council. It devoted two years and a substantial amount of public money to an inquiry, the report of which cannot safely be published. When public authorities establish investigations, they should do so in a way which, at the very least, permits the principal findings and recommendations to be made public.

One factor in the failure of Clwyd county council to publish the report it commissioned was a concern about the implications of publishing for its insurance cover. This also seems to me to be an unsatisfactory situation. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment and I will be considering, in consultation with the local authority associations, whether there is a need for guidance on this matter.

The Government's main priority remains to do everything necessary to secure the safety and well-being of children in care. It was for that reason that my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), appointed Miss Nicola Davies QC in May 1995 to undertake an examination of relevant documents and to advise whether a public inquiry into the abuse of children in north Wales was required. She recommended not an inquiry but that a detailed examination of the practices and procedures of the social service departments in the former Gwynedd and Clwyd county councils and of the private homes in their areas be undertaken. I appointed Adrianne Jones to carry out this work.

Adrianne Jones has now produced her report. I am grateful to her and to her team for the way in which they have undertaken their task, the thoroughness of their report and the speed with which it has been produced. I am also grateful to all those in north Wales who have co-operated fully in this work. I have arranged for it to be published in full today, and have made copies available in the Libraries of both Houses.

In her report, Adrianne Jones found that, since 1991, when the Children Act 1989 was implemented, the substantial advice, guidance and regulation available to social services authorities had resulted in a progressive tightening of operational, management and personnel procedures in the Gwynedd and Clwyd county councils. There was a framework of policies and procedures in place. However, there were some significant gaps: the authorities were not sufficiently rigorous in developing their own operational guidelines, and did not ensure that these were followed systematically.

The report contains a total of 41 recommendations. Most are directed at the successor local authorities, and are aimed at improving the planning, management and monitoring of children's services. I accept the thrust of Adrianne Jones's conclusions, and mean to ensure that her recommendation for more resources to be devoted to the social services inspectorate for Wales is acted upon as soon as possible. I shall be reporting to the House shortly on how I propose to take all her recommendations forward.

Adrianne Jones's report will make a substantial contribution towards achieving my objective of securing the safety and well-being of children in care in north Wales, but it also reveals that, despite the Children Act, the Warner report and all the other actions that the Government have taken in recent years to protect children, serious shortcomings remained up until the abolition of Clwyd and Gwynedd county councils earlier this year. This is a disturbing conclusion, which has to be coupled with continuing public concern about the full extent of what happened and how it could apparently have continued undetected for so long.

The Government are determined that there should be no cover-up of events in the past, and that every possible step is taken to protect children in care in the future. In the light of these developments, we have decided that further initiatives need to be undertaken.

First, we decided that there should be a judicial inquiry. The terms of reference of this would be: to inquire into the abuse of children in care in the former county council areas of Gwynedd and Clwyd since 1974; to examine whether the agencies and authorities responsible for such care, through the placement of the children or through the regulation or management of the facilities, could have prevented the abuse or detected its occurrence at an earlier stage; to examine the response of the relevant authorities and agencies to allegations and complaints of abuse made either by children in care, children formerly in care or any other persons, excluding scrutiny of decisions whether to prosecute named individuals; in the light of this examination, to consider whether the relevant caring and investigative agencies discharged their functions appropriately and, in the case of the caring agencies, whether they are doing so now; and to report its findings and to make recommendations to me.

The inquiry will be conducted within the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921, and both Houses will be asked to approve the necessary resolution when it is moved tomorrow. I intend to invite Sir Ronald Waterhouse to be its chairman. His experience makes him ideal for the task. He has already indicated that he would be prepared to accept such an invitation, and I shall discuss with him a target date for the completion of this work.

Secondly, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, who has responsibility for children's issues in England, is also arranging for a further review of the safeguards against the abuse of children living away from home in England and Wales. It will be conducted by Sir William Utting, the former chief social services inspector at the Department of Health. He will be asked to review the safeguards introduced for England and Wales by the Children Act 1989 at its implementation in 1991 and the further measures taken since to protect children living away from home, with particular reference to children's residential homes, foster care and boarding schools; and to assess whether those safeguards are the most effective that can realistically be designed to protect such children from abuse and other harm, and whether they are being satisfactorily enforced. My right hon. Friend is informing the House of the details of that review in a written answer today. Sir William will report to my right hon. Friend and me, and his report will be published.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will be keeping in touch with the progress of Sir William Utting's review. Consideration will be given to his recommendations with a view to implementation as appropriate in Northern Ireland.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland will be keeping in touch with the progress of Sir William Utting's review. He will also set up an audit of the arrangements for the care and protection of children in Scotland who are looked after away from home.

Additionally, a White Paper entitled "Crime and Punishment", published today, proposes enhanced monitoring and supervision of all offenders on release from custody in Scotland. Under those arrangements, all high-risk offenders may be subject to an extended period of supervision on release. It is probable that a large majority of sex offenders will be included in that category. Further, a proposed Crown right of appeal against a decision of the court not to impose a supervision order in a particular case provides an additional safeguard.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary is also publishing today a consultation paper on sex offenders. It outlines proposals designed to improve the protection of the public from, and to enhance opportunities for the treatment of, such offenders.

There are five main proposals: to strengthen the arrangements for supervising convicted sex offenders; to require sex offenders to notify the police of their address and any subsequent changes to it; to extend the power in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 to enable samples to be taken for the purposes of DNA testing from convicted sex offenders who are serving a prison sentence imposed before that power came into place; to introduce provisions to prohibit sex offenders from seeking employment involving access to children; and to limit the access of defendants to victims' statements and photographs in sexual offence cases.

The child abuse that was allowed to occur in north Wales, and the apparent failure of the authorities concerned to deal with it, represents a very sad chapter in the history of public child care. The Adrianne Jones report helps to point the way for the future, but its conclusions will reinforce public concerns about the management of children in care in north Wales. The proposals that the Government are announcing today—a judicial inquiry into the events in north Wales, the review by Sir William Utting and the increased supervision of sex offenders after release from prison—demonstrate the determination of the Government and the House to tackle the evil of child abuse and to secure the safety of all children in care.