Insurance Companies: Child Abuse Inquiries

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:19 pm on 16th July 2015.

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Photo of Caroline Dinenage Caroline Dinenage Minister for Equalities (Department for Education), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice 5:19 pm, 16th July 2015

I congratulate Ann Clwyd on securing this important debate. She has been absolutely tireless in her efforts to expose the barriers to justice for children who were abused while in the care of the state. She speaks today with as much passion as ever about this tragic issue, and I commend her for bringing it to our attention once again.

Child sexual abuse is of course a despicable crime that this Government are absolutely determined to eradicate. It is a fundamental right of children and young people that they should be protected from such abuse.

The right hon. Lady spoke very eloquently about her concerns that local authority inquiries into abuse in care homes in the former county of Clwyd and other areas of the country have been barred from publication so as not to jeopardise councils’ insurance cover. She is absolutely right that that is completely unacceptable. I wholeheartedly agree with her that it is terrible if inquiries do not see the light of day. That is true whether these are cases into child abuse or into failings in any other institution. Not only is it a completely unacceptable waste of money and resources for an inquiry to be carried out and not published, but, much more importantly, it is unforgivable if the failure to publish an inquiry means that we do not learn the lessons from the atrocities of the past and that more children suffer in the future. In my response, I hope to be able to demonstrate that the Government have addressed her concerns, and that we are learning from the past to make sure that children are protected both now and in the future.

I fully understand the right hon. Lady’s disappointment that the then Government failed to take forward recommendations in the Law Commission’s 2004 report. That report followed recommendations from the Waterhouse inquiry into child abuse in north Wales children’s homes. She outlined a lot of what the Law Commission said. As she pointed out, although its recommendation was accepted when it was presented to Parliament, it was never implemented. However, there have since been a number of changes, in both the insurance industry and the statutory framework for inquiries, which I will outline.

I fully appreciate the right hon. Lady’s view that it is not appropriate for insurers to influence the terms of reference, the processes or the outcomes of inquiries that local authorities commission; nor is it appropriate for them to influence the content or publication of the final reports. As I understand it, that is also the view of the Association of British Insurers.

I understand that many standard insurance contracts across a range of product lines contain a clause requiring the insured not to admit liability or to settle a claim until the insurer has provided written permission. One of the reasons for that is to ensure sufficient time to establish the facts in an individual claim properly.

I have checked the position with my counterparts at the Treasury. Their view is that, at present, there is no indication that any insurer has broken any regulatory rules. That said, the Government are determined that financial services firms be subject to appropriate regulation. The Financial Conduct Authority regulates the insurance industry in the UK and sets the standards required of insurance firms in relation to their business. It also supervises the conduct of insurers and will take action against insurers that are found to be in breach of the FCA rules.

Furthermore, the Association of British Insurers has informed me that it is working with its members to create clear guidance and to make sure that an insurer’s role in these sensitive processes is very clearly understood. The insurance industry recognises the sensitivities of such child abuse inquiries for the survivors of abuse, as well as their importance in investigating what went wrong and what lessons can be learned.

As well as better regulation of the insurance industry since the right hon. Lady first became involved with these issues, the whole statutory framework for inquiries has changed beyond recognition both in local government and in central Government inquiries. She asked for clarification about whether previous redacted reports would be available to the new inquiries. As they were statutory inquiries, the reports will indeed be available.

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has the power to direct a local inquiry to be held into the way that a local authority has carried out its functions if he is satisfied that an authority has failed to comply with its duties. In such local inquiries, witnesses can be compelled to attend and give evidence on oath. In central Government, we now have the Inquiries Act 2005, which repealed the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921, under which the Waterhouse inquiry was originally set up. The 2005 Act provides a much more solid statutory framework for inquiries, to make them swifter, more transparent, less costly, and more effective at finding facts and making practical recommendations. It also aims to restore public confidence in inquiries, particularly given the concerns following previous inquiries such as that into Bloody Sunday. It clearly sets out the respective roles of inquiry chairs and Ministers, and it stipulates that proceedings should be in public unless there are good reasons to restrict public access.

Nowadays, public inquiries rightly expect to receive full and frank co-operation from all parties. They regularly take steps to ensure that the evidence gathering process, and subsequent recommendations, are free from undue influence and retain public confidence. Public inquiries are a vital means of holding public bodies to account and providing answers to some of the most troubling events, and nowhere is that more necessary than in relation to child sexual abuse.

The Home Secretary’s independent inquiry into historical child sexual abuse will investigate whether, and to what extent, public bodies and non-state institutions have taken seriously their duty to protect children in England and Wales. The inquiry will challenge institutions and individuals, without fear or favour, to get to the truth. It has been established under the Inquiries Act 2005 and so can compel witnesses and call for evidence. There are no time limits on what the inquiry can consider—it is free to consider evidence from any point in the past without restrictions.

The Government very much welcome the fact that Justice Lowell Goddard—a highly experienced and respected High Court judge from New Zealand—is leading this inquiry. Victims and survivors were instrumental in setting that up, and they will be at the centre of the inquiry’s work as it moves forward. We want nothing to stand in the way of the inquiry. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to get to the truth, expose what has gone wrong in the past and learn lessons for the future. In addition to the Goddard inquiry, in March 2015 the Prime Minister launched the “Tackling Child Sexual Exploitation” report. We are getting on with delivering the actions in that report.

As the right hon. Lady knows, Lady Justice Macur is carrying out a review into the scope of the Waterhouse inquiry and whether any specific allegations of child abuse falling within the terms of reference were not investigated. I know that the right hon. Lady has been interested in that review from the outset. Like the Goddard inquiry, that review is entirely independent of Government, and Lady Justice Macur made it clear from the outset that her review would be thorough and that she would draw no conclusions until she had considered all the evidence. We look forward to receiving that report in due course.

There have also been major changes in the way that children’s homes are run since the right hon. Lady first became involved in these issues. Children’s homes provide care for some of the most vulnerable, traumatised and challenging children and young people in the country. Many homes provide excellent care, but we want to make sure that all homes provide high-quality care that meets each child’s individual needs and enables them to live their life to the full and reach their full potential.

The legislative and regulatory framework around the regulation of children’s homes is very different today from how it was in the past. Changes over the past 12 years include a comprehensive programme of legislation that aims effectively to safeguard all children living away from home in residential and foster care. For example, all children’s homes and fostering services must now be regulated and inspected by Ofsted, and all people working in them must undergo enhanced disclosure checks. Last year, the Government reformed care planning and children’s homes regulations to improve the safety of children in residential care. That included strengthening safeguards when children are placed out of area, and when children go missing from care.

Earlier this year, the Government introduced new children’s homes regulations, which include quality standards that all children’s homes must meet for their children. One of those is the protection of children standard, which clearly sets out what staff must do to ensure that children are protected from harm and enabled to keep themselves safe—a lot of change, and all for the better.

The right hon. Lady highlighted a sensitive issue that goes to the heart of society, and society must surely be judged by the way that it looks after its children. The historical sexual abuse of those trusted to the care of children’s homes in north Wales and in foster care was truly shocking. More recently, we have seen the systemic and appalling abuse of children in Rotherham, Rochdale, Oxford and elsewhere, and we know that this crime affects communities up and down the country.

Sir Ronald Waterhouse’s report in 2000 led to the Law Commission report and recommendations, but nothing was really done about the issue. Today, there is a real will to tackle this stain on our society. Many of the issues that the right hon. Lady has highlighted are now being addressed by initiatives across Whitehall.

The right hon. Lady has worked utterly tirelessly on this issue and I give her every credit for doing so. I have every confidence that Justice Lowell Goddard’s inquiry into historic child sexual abuse will both allay her concerns about transparency and finally fully expose the truth behind the troubling events that she has been fighting to uncover for so many years.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.