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SPAC Nation

– in the House of Commons at 9:20 pm on 8th January 2020.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Nigel Huddleston.)

Photo of Steve Reed Steve Reed Shadow Minister (Education) (Children and Families) 9:28 pm, 8th January 2020

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this important and alarming issue this evening, and I am grateful to colleagues who have stayed late to be present during this debate. SPAC Nation is an organisation that has been in the news recently, and I start by expressing my gratitude to Nadine White and Emma Youle at HuffPost, who carried out some extraordinary investigative journalism to bring the matter to light, to Greg McKenzie and the excellent BBC “Panorama” team for their work, and to many others working in the media and in the press.

When I first became aware of SPAC Nation I thought, as many have done, that it was just another Church. I started to think differently when one of their leaders stood as the Conservative candidate in a Croydon council by-election. There is nothing wrong with a Church leader standing for election, of course, but it was odd to find hundreds of young members of this so-called Church shouting abuse at other parties’ canvassers, shouting obscenities at the council leader, and intimidating voters on their own doorsteps, including by videoing them. When I tweeted my concerns about this unchurch- like behaviour, I was inundated with emails and phone calls from young people and their parents, making alarming allegations about SPAC Nation. I took a full two days to phone them all back, and from that I was able to piece together what was really going on inside this organisation.

I am convinced that SPAC Nation is a cult. It advertises events targeted mainly at young black people in poorer parts of London. It offers free food or free bowling sessions to attract young people to come along. The young leaders vet the young people who turn up and then target those who appear to be most susceptible. They befriend these particular young people and invite them to further functions and events, including dinners. One of the organisation’s leaders will start phoning them, sometimes several times a day. They are then given lifts by that individual to meetings. Then, what appears to be brainwashing starts. They are told that if their life is unsuccessful, if their family is poor, that is because they are not giving enough money to God. They call it seed: “If you give seed to God—as much as you can lay your hands on—you will become rich.” This is the message they try to pump into these young people’s heads.

The organisation’s leaders display extraordinary wealth. They drive cars worth hundreds of thousands of pounds. They wear Rolex watches and expensive designer suits, and they live in multimillion-pound properties. All of this is way beyond the experience of the young people they are targeting. They tell these vulnerable young people that they became rich by giving seed to God and tell them that they can have the same, but first they have to give, and by any means possible.

Some young people are encouraged to break their links with their families and move into properties rented by the organisation’s leaders. They call them “trap houses”, the term used for drug dens in the United States. A woman leader of this organisation running one of these trap houses where vulnerable young girls were placed has 27 convictions for serious fraud. No vulnerable child should be allowed anywhere near her. Once in these houses, the control and coercion becomes far more insidious. One young victim told me they had prayer sessions, which she described as brainwashing, for up to eight hours a day, but the emphasis was not on God or spirituality; it was on wealth and money and the need to give seed to God in order to get rich.

Once the organisation has control of a young person’s mind, it pressures them into making fraudulent personal loan applications so that they can hand the money to the organisation’s leaders. They are pressured into setting up fake businesses so that they can apply fraudulently for business loans. The so-called pastors show the young recruits how to fill in the application forms with false information. In some cases they fill in the forms for the young person simply to sign. In at least one case, an application was made in a young person’s name without their knowledge or awareness.

Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden

On SPAC Nation and the financial implications of some of its dealings, my hon. Friend will be aware of the case of the late Mrs Osinlaru, who seems to have obtained a £150,000 secured loan on her house. Tragically she passed away, leaving her two young adult daughters and 13-year-old son in the house, unaware of this control over it. The house was later repossessed and a bailiff’s warrant secured, but that was stopped only because of the presence of the young 13-year-old son. That family risk losing their home and becoming homeless because of a loan they did not know about, and their mum has passed away. I have written to the Church and it has admitted that it was involved in securing, or helping to secure, that loan. Does that give my hon. Friend further cause for concern?

Photo of Steve Reed Steve Reed Shadow Minister (Education) (Children and Families)

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for raising yet another alarming case of what appears to be a form of fraud and deception perpetrated on a family who had just lost their mother. It seems to have been deliberately intended to disinherit her children.

There are many ways in which the leaders of this organisation appear to be perpetrating fraud in order to enrich themselves. I have spoken to young people who, sickeningly, were taken to private clinics to sell their blood, with a so-called pastor pretending to be their parent in order to sign consent forms. I have spoken to young people who were coached to commit benefit fraud. I have met students—I have also spoken to their parents—who were coerced into handing over their entire student loans before being taken to banks to raise further money through personal loans, so they lost their ability to continue in education and ended up in serious debt.

Tragically, where criminal exploitation is taking place, there is often also sexual exploitation. One young woman told me that she was just 16 when she moved into a trap house and, in her words,

“everyone was having sex with everyone else, it was disgusting”.

I asked her to clarify whether she meant older pastors having sex with younger girls, and she said yes.

When that young woman complained to her pastor, she was taken to the organisation’s leader, who told her that if she complained to the police, it would rebound on her, because he was powerful and had friends in high places. He made that claim look real to these vulnerable young people by inviting politicians and senior police officers to his church services. He even met the Prime Minister in No. 10 Downing Street. I believe all those people thought they were engaging with a Church that helped vulnerable young people, but in reality they were being used to intimidate young victims and prevent them from speaking out.

SPAC Nation is not an organisation that is getting young people out of crime, as it claims; it is an organisation that is criminalising young people for its own ends. It operates right across London and has already expanded into other cities, including Birmingham and Leicester.

Photo of Marsha de Cordova Marsha de Cordova Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Disabled People)

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate and raising what is clearly an important issue. Does he agree that what he has described is criminal activity and preying on the most vulnerable, and it is essential that the Government intervene and take action?

Photo of Steve Reed Steve Reed Shadow Minister (Education) (Children and Families)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that important point. I look forward to hearing what Ministers have to say about how we can work constructively and collectively to tackle many of the problems and horrors that are associated with this organisation.

As I was saying, SPAC Nation started in London. It seems to have spread right across the city, and it is expanding into other cities including Birmingham and Leicester. It has no fixed location—it does not have a home church—which makes it much harder for the authorities to track it. There is no home police unit keeping track of what it is doing. There is no local safeguarding board keeping track of the risks to young people. It holds its services in vast venues in many different boroughs and cities.

I have reported to the police and safeguarding authorities every single allegation that has been made to me, but I am deeply worried that more has not been done to stop this organisation from exploiting vulnerable young people. SPAC Nation claims to have up to 1,000 young people involved right now, and every one of those young people is at risk. It appears to have up to 15 trap houses scattered across London, and every young person inside those properties is at very serious risk. A teacher in north London told me that SPAC Nation had been recruiting schoolgirls outside the school gates. A youth worker in Croydon told me that it had been recruiting outside the youth centre. SPAC Nation is targeting young people so that it can exploit them, and it is imperative that the organisation is stopped.

I have some questions that I would like the Minister to answer this evening, if possible. Allegations about this organisation have been circulating widely in the black community and on social media for up to four years, so why has police intelligence failed to pick anything up? I was able to find out most of this information over a couple of days by speaking to people and googling on social media. If I can do that without the resources of the police, why has police intelligence failed to recognise what is happening to potentially thousands of vulnerable young kids across this city? What action can be taken immediately to stop this organisation recruiting any more vulnerable young people for abuse and exploitation in my constituency and beyond? Given what we have heard, and given what victims have told us, we surely cannot allow this organisation to continue targeting other young people for abuse and exploitation when we can take action to protect them.

What help can be given to young people involved in SPAC Nation now? That includes those living in trap houses who urgently need to get out before they are further criminalised, their family relationships destroyed and their future lives ruined. And why has no help been offered to potentially thousands of young people who have managed to get away from SPAC Nation but who are left burdened with huge debts and who have been criminalised, many of them homeless and many suffering trauma and mental ill health? We cannot simply leave these young people to suffer the consequences of abuse by an exploitative organisation.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

What the hon. Gentleman has illustrated tonight is worrying to everyone who has heard it. It is hard not to be moved and to feel concerned. The magnitude and the massiveness of what he has outlined indicates that it should not be an ordinary police investigation; it probably needs a specialised unit with the resources and the manpower and womanpower to conclude the investigation and put an end to what has gone wrong. Exploitation of young people is abysmal and despicable, and it needs to be addressed.

Photo of Steve Reed Steve Reed Shadow Minister (Education) (Children and Families)

As always, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and I agree with every word he says.

What concerns me further are the worrying echoes of the Rotherham child abuse scandal. In that case, vulnerable young girls’ allegations of serious abuse were dismissed because they came from poor or difficult backgrounds, and it is the same with SPAC Nation. I cannot help wondering, as one desperate mum told me: if this was happening to white middle-class children, would it have been ignored for so many years? Would it have been allowed to go on in this way? We need to address that question, because it is a real feeling and concern in the community. In my opinion, SPAC Nation is a criminal enterprise masquerading as a Church, because that gives it access to vulnerable young people and cover for exploiting them.

I would like to say this to every young person who is afraid or at risk from SPAC Nation’s activities tonight. This organisation might seem powerful, but we are stronger and we are on your side. Collectively, we will not stop until every young person is safe. We will not stop until the wrongdoers inside SPAC Nation have been brought to justice. And we will not stop until this dangerous, manipulative organisation can do no more harm.

Photo of Helen Whately Helen Whately The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport 9:42 pm, 8th January 2020

I begin by thanking Mr Reed for calling this debate and raising these very serious concerns. I also thank his constituents and all those who have had the courage to speak up and bring this situation to his and our attention. I thank other Members who stayed here tonight to intervene and contribute to this debate.

I am answering the debate, as the Minister for arts, heritage and tourism, on behalf of the Minister for civil society, Baroness Barran, who sits in the House of Lords. The allegations concern a charity, and charity policy sits within our Department. I am grateful to have the Minister for safeguarding and vulnerability—the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend Victoria Atkins—and the Minister for London, my hon. Friend Chris Philp, on the Front Bench with me.

I have listened carefully to the hon. Member for Croydon North; I have read a great deal of the media coverage; and I watched the “Panorama” documentary. I find the accusations deeply concerning. These are very serious allegations, and they clearly must be properly and urgently investigated.

The Charity Commission opened a statutory inquiry into SPAC Nation on 5 December 2019, and that inquiry is looking into its finances, governance, safeguarding and overall compliance with charity law. However, it was not the Charity Commission’s first engagement with SPAC Nation. The Charity Commission launched a regulatory compliance case in April 2018 and then issued an action plan to SPAC Nation’s trustees in June 2019.

The Charity Commission was not satisfied with SPAC Nation’s response to the action plan. Along with the further allegations and concerns that have been raised in the media and by the hon. Gentleman, that is why it launched its statutory inquiry in December. It also issued an order under section 84 of the Charities Act 2011, requiring the charity to bank the money it holds in cash.

I hope the hon. Gentleman will understand that while the Charity Commission is carrying out its statutory inquiry, I cannot comment on the specific allegations in this case. A report will be published by the Charity Commission once the investigation is complete. Although the Charity Commission cannot investigate criminal offences, it does have the power to refer charities to the police. I understand that, in parallel, the Metropolitan police are already reviewing these allegations of fraud and other offences relating to SPAC Nation that he has raised, including directly with them.

One of the most upsetting aspects of the allegations is the alleged exploitation of vulnerable young people. The suggestion that the very people who most need help and support are being taken advantage of is particularly worrying. This is a known risk, which is why a huge amount of work has been and is being done across government to improve safeguarding practices and make our society safer for young people.

Photo of Florence Eshalomi Florence Eshalomi Labour/Co-operative, Vauxhall

The Minister may agree that this is an important issue in terms of the safeguarding of young people, but the reality is that this is still happening now to a number of young people, not just in London but across other cities, as mentioned by my hon. Friend Mr Reed. Is there not something the Government can do now to investigate some of these serious allegations, whereby a number of young people continue to be exploited?

Photo of Helen Whately Helen Whately The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

As I am trying to make clear, these allegations are being investigated by the Charity Commission and reviewed by the police, so this is not something the Government can intervene in at this point. However, this debate is certainly raising this issue up the agenda and making sure that there is a great deal of awareness about the situation. I will do my best to address the questions as I proceed.

I wish to talk a bit more about the important role of safeguarding in charities. It is important because it should prevent the exploitation of vulnerable people or enable a rapid and effective response if exploitation does happen. I want to make clear how seriously the Government take this; since 2018, we have invested more than £1 million in the domestic charity safeguarding programme. We have been working with charities and other partners, including the National Crime Agency, to raise awareness of safeguarding; to ensure that charities, whatever their size, whether large or small, know their responsibilities, know how to handle concerns quickly and can easily access advice. The Charity Commission has also launched a whistleblowing helpline to help people report safeguarding concerns, and I encourage anyone who has experienced or witnessed wrongdoing, or are concerned about it, to use that as a means of reporting it. Obviously, Members here can refer people to do that.

Allegations such as those raised by the hon. Gentleman reinforce the importance of this vital work on strengthening safeguarding, and further announcements will be made on that shortly. Protecting people from harm must always take precedence over protecting a charity’s brand or status. Charities must be clear that they will listen to safeguarding concerns and that those concerns must be treated promptly and seriously acted upon. The majority of charities take their safeguarding responsibilities extremely seriously, and it is right that we recognise that, but when concerns are raised, action should be taken by the Charity Commission and, if necessary, local safeguarding authorities and the police.

Many of the hon. Gentleman’s concerns relate to the police matters. As I have said, the police are reviewing the evidence they have received. May I suggest that if he has not done so already, he raises these concerns about policing with both the Mayor of London and the Commissioner of the Metropolitan police?

The Home Office is working extremely hard to transform its approach to dealing with crimes against vulnerable young people. It has invested significantly in a programme of reform to help the police to respond to changing crimes, including child sexual abuse. Child sexual abuse has been prioritised as a national threat, and the Home Office are empowering police forces to develop their specialist skills and expertise, increasing the police’s capabilities to tackle this terrible crime.

Photo of Marsha de Cordova Marsha de Cordova Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Disabled People)

Forgive me if I am being ignorant on this point, but the Minister has asked my hon. Friend Mr Reed to raise this with the Mayor of London and the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, if he has not already done so. The Home Office is the Government’s responsibility and this sounds to me like a Home Office issue that the Government need to look into, so will she clarify whether or not this is an issue that the Home Office should be addressing?

Photo of Helen Whately Helen Whately The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

The important point is that this is a police matter, which is why the Mayor of London, as the police and crime commissioner for London, is the appropriate person with whom to raise concerns. However, there is a bigger-picture point, which is why I am talking about what the Home Office is doing to prevent and respond to crime against young people, particularly sexual abuse.

Let me come to something that is very relevant to this specific topic. In 2015, the Home Office launched the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse, and in May last year that inquiry announced its final investigation strand—into child protection in religious organisations and settings. That strand of the inquiry is now examining the nature and adequacy of child protection policies, practices and procedures, and it will consider whether safeguarding in those kinds of settings needs to be strengthened further.

On safeguarding across government, in July 2018, the Department for Education updated the statutory guidance on inter-agency working to safeguard and promote the welfare of children, and it is funding a £2 million tackling child exploitation support programme to help to deliver more effective responses to child sexual and criminal exploitation and involvement in gangs and drugs.

Photo of Steve Reed Steve Reed Shadow Minister (Education) (Children and Families)

How much longer does the Minister think that this organisation should be allowed to access vulnerable young people and exploit them?

Photo of Helen Whately Helen Whately The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

I am doing my best to make clear how seriously I take these allegations, and I know that the other Ministers on the Front Bench take the allegations very seriously, but the allegations are being investigated, so the hon. Member puts me in a difficult position by asking me to say things that it would be inappropriate for me to say at the Dispatch Box. I recognise that I may not be able to answer all his questions right here and now, so I will do my best to follow up and write to him with the best possible answers that I can give. The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle, has suggested that she might be able to meet the hon. Member and the other Croydon MPs to discuss the wider issues raised by the concerns he has expressed.

Photo of Steve Reed Steve Reed Shadow Minister (Education) (Children and Families)

I did not mean to put the Minister in a difficult position or to be disingenuous in any way; I am just concerned. Given the severity and volume of the allegations, and the type of allegations that we are hearing, can nothing further be done, perhaps by the Government working with the police and crime commissioners, wherever that may be necessary, or with the police forces, wherever that may be necessary, to prevent this organisation, even if only temporarily, from being able to stand outside school gates and youth centres and target young people? I would be happy to work collaboratively with the Minister and her colleagues to seek an answer to that—I understand that I have not given warning of that question this evening—but if there were some way for us to look at working together to prevent any more young lives being destroyed, even while investigations are going on, I would be immensely grateful.

Photo of Helen Whately Helen Whately The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

I am sorry but I cannot give a different answer from this Dispatch Box, but what I do want to say is that none of us would want to say anything this evening that might perhaps prevent an effective investigation taking place, or that might prejudice the outcome in any way that might be unhelpful. Given how serious these allegations are, let us make sure that they can be effectively investigated and pursued.

Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden

I thank the Minister for giving way. She is being very generous. The Charity Commission can often move very slowly, and given the seriousness of the allegations, would it not be possible to suspend charitable status while the investigations are going ahead? Considering other charities that deal with young people from memory, I am aware that this has happened in the past.

Photo of Helen Whately Helen Whately The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

I am very happy to write to the hon. Lady with a full response to that question, but let me reiterate that I know that the Charity Commission is, as I said before, investigating the matter and that, because it does not look into criminal activity, the police are reviewing these allegations. Those two things are happening.

Before we finish, I want to put the record straight on one matter. I do understand that the pastor to whom the hon. Gentleman referred went to No. 10 Downing Street, but I have been told that he did not meet the Prime Minister. I think that that is appropriate to say that. My understanding is that he attended a roundtable event along with 25 other Church leaders to discuss youth violence, and it was in that context that he was in No. 10 Downing Street.

Just before I conclude, I want to make an important point and say how mindful I am, given the context of this debate, of the important role that religion, faith and worship play in our society and what a significant and important contribution that many religious charities make to our communities. They are often the first in and last out of marginal communities, providing invaluable help and support for those most in need. That includes many black majority Churches up and down the country that support their local communities, contributing positively to wider society. That is a very important point to put on the record.

As I have said, I will write to the hon. Gentleman. He has the offer of a meeting with the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department to discuss these wider issues in principle. May I thank him for calling this debate and for highlighting these very serious allegations? His concerns have been fully heard by me, by the other Ministers here and by many thousands via the media coverage that this has received. The crucial next step is for the Charity Commission and the police to investigate the allegations and to take appropriate action.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.