Children and Vulnerable Adults: Abuse — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:25 pm on 26 June 2014.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Walmsley Baroness Walmsley Liberal Democrat 3:25, 26 June 2014

My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to lead this very topical debate today and look forward to hearing what all noble Lords have to say about this important matter.

I believe that this is basically a humane country, and public tolerance of any kind of abuse of vulnerable people has diminished enormously over the past few decades. But I am afraid that we have a problem and it could be growing. Today, we have heard evidence in the Lampard report of the failings of the system to protect children and vulnerable people within the NHS from the foul predations of Jimmy Savile. I trust that, when we have had time to digest the report and the other reports that are under way, we will be able to give due time in this House to discuss the lessons learnt. In the mean time, we know we have a problem with sexual and physical abuse of children, older people and disabled people. We hear of new cases every week. Of course, the law forbids this sort of behaviour, but, sadly, it does not prevent it happening, and the effects on victims last a lifetime.

The figures are disturbing. The UK’s latest report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child admitted:

“The number of children in England who were subject to a child protection plan increased by 47% between 2008 and 2012”.

This is the same percentage increase as that recently reported by the NSPCC in cases of emotional abuse being reported to the police. I welcome the Government’s plans to clarify the law on that in the Serious Crime Bill.

Last year, the Children’s Rights Director consulted children in England receiving care services and found that 10% felt that they were not enjoying their right to be kept safe from all sorts of harm. Last May, the National Crime Agency reported that a new threat has emerged on the internet. While the number of static images of child abuse remains stable, there is a sharp rise in live streaming of videoed child abuse and paedophiles’ use of the “hidden” or “dark” web. These sites do not emerge when one is using normal search engines and are therefore not easily detected. These people are unscrupulous and clever and we need more resources to catch them. I was pleased to note that, following government initiatives, the Internet Watch Foundation is now able proactively to seek out criminal content and, thanks to funding from a number of UK ISPs, has tripled the number of staff engaged in finding and destroying such imagery.

Recent high-profile cases, as well as that of Jimmy Savile, have shown that there are others who have got away for years with abusing children or vulnerable adults. In some cases, nobody knew about it apart from the victims. They did not have confidence that they would be believed or that anything would be done, and therefore did not report it. In some cases of elder abuse, the family has resorted to placing hidden cameras in the room, in order to prove the unacceptable treatment of their elderly relative by those charged with caring for them.

However, in most of these cases there were suspicions. Indeed, in some cases professionals looked into the issue and wrote reports, which were then ignored. This tells me that we need a massive culture change. Many serious case reviews indicate failures to protect, failures to report abuse or act upon reports, and failures of professionals to communicate with each other and with the authorities. I suppose that it is inevitable that we focus on failures, but while we lament those we must remember and applaud all those who care for children and vulnerable adults in a professional and compassionate way. I do believe that attitudes are changing, and it is hard to believe that the reports from Rochdale, which at the time were not acted upon, would be ignored today. The culture has changed, but my question today is whether it has changed enough. I do not believe that it has.

So I now pose three questions. Are we doing enough to prevent abuse happening? Do we know enough about how and why it happens, and what works in other places? Are we doing enough to deal with the perpetrators, and bring justice and support to the victims?

Perhaps I could deal first with prevention. Prevention involves providing training and qualifications, screening staff and volunteers—in the way that Jimmy Savile was not screened—and ensuring that children and vulnerable people know their rights, and know where to go for help if they are attacked. Prevention also involves decent child protection services, and proper therapeutic treatment for perpetrators, so that they do not do it again.

I have always felt that a child is his or her own best protector. We can do what we can to protect a child, but we cannot sit on her shoulder all the time. This is why it is so important that children are taught in every school, through a balanced PSHE course, how to protect their own personal integrity and how to keep safe, including in their use of the internet. They also need to be taught what a healthy, non-abusive relationship looks and feels like, and who to turn to in case of fear or of actual abuse. I believe that this is every child’s right.

Schools need proper oversight from Ofsted of their safeguarding policies and practice. Indeed, Ofsted is the only statutory body given specific responsibility for ensuring that schools keep children safe. Unfortunately, the methods and infrequency of Ofsted inspections make that difficult to do—my noble friend Lady Sharp will speak in more detail about the shortcomings of the inspection system. Then we need to provide decent children’s services. I have every sympathy for cash-strapped local authorities and social workers with large caseloads, and I support the policy of giving freedoms to local authorities to spend the money locally in the best possible way for them. However, I am very relieved that, after careful consideration, the Government have announced that they will not allow authorities to delegate children’s safeguarding services to profit-making organisations. It is vital that there is no chance of the profit motive being put before the welfare of a child.

We must then minimise the opportunity for perpetrators to reach vulnerable children. Here, the DBS checks, formerly called CRB checks, and training for organisations in safe recruitment practices are vitally important. Many organisations have found to their cost that DBS checks alone are not enough, as they only identify those who have offended before, and are no use against first-time offenders or those who are clever enough to avoid detection. There has recently been some streamlining of the system, and the numbers being barred have fallen. I would like to ask my noble friend the Minister how that new system is working. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Bichard, will have more to say about this.

Many serious case reviews have highlighted failures of professionals to communicate. I believe that there is a very strong case for some common training elements for those working with children, so that the professionals understand each other’s perspectives, and are more likely to communicate with each during their career. The Lucy Faithfull Foundation has an excellent programme called Stop it Now! to raise awareness about the dangers of child abuse, and to help those who are concerned about their own sexual proclivities to avoid offending. Such preventive work is to be applauded, and we need more of it.

In the case of care of older people, it is training, qualifications and proper oversight that is needed. Families need to know what quality of care is being offered to their elderly relatives. I was therefore delighted to read in a Parliamentary Answer last week that regulations will soon be introduced to allow the CQC to take robust action against providers that do not offer an acceptable quality of care, and will produce ratings of care quality to provide users with a fuller picture than they now get. Will my noble friend the Minister comment on these plans? I would also like to ask why a Law Commission recommendation to streamline disciplinary codes covering more than 30 health and care professions has been shelved by the Government. It seems to me that such arrangements could act both as a deterrent and as an effective measure for dealing with wrong-doing.

I turn now to knowledge of abuse. Knowledge means doing research about causes and about what works, bringing information together and disseminating knowledge of best practice. Knowledge also means ensuring that those who know what is going on report the facts to the authorities. I have been informed by lawyers who acted for dozens of Jimmy Savile’s victims that the most shocking revelation of all was the number of victims who had reported what had happened at the time to someone in their institution, only to be ignored and their claims covered up. One girl in Stoke Mandeville told a nurse what Jimmy Savile had done, only to be told, “You’re making a mountain, you silly girl. Do you know what he does for our hospital?”. That is why I believe that we need mandatory reporting, which would make it a new offence for those in a position of caring to fail to report knowledge or reasonable suspicion of abuse in a regulated activity. By “regulated activity” I mean schools, hospitals and so on, as defined in Schedule 4 to the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006, although the definitions would need amending to exclude such confidential helplines as ChildLine and Stop It Now!. This has been done successfully in Australia, so I do not believe that it would be a problem here.

We would also need to deal with patient confidentiality, such as when a child discloses information to a doctor. The fact is that many of Savile’s offences took place in schools, hospitals and prison institutions, where vulnerable people and children should have been able to rely on being safe. Fortunately, we now believe children better than we used to. However, in many cases, in order to secure a conviction we need the corroboration of adults who know what has happened. Keir Starmer, the former Director of Public Prosecutions, knows this well, which is why he supports this change in the law. Victims universally support such a change, and tell us that it would not prevent them from reporting the abuse themselves. Indeed, they would be encouraged to do so if they knew that the person to whom they confided was obliged by law to do something to make it stop.

Often ChildLine advisers will encourage children to report the abuse to a trusted adult. In that situation, the child must be able to have confidence that, if they do so, their disclosure will be properly dealt with, and no concern about reputational damage would get in the way of that adult doing the right thing by that child. The only way they can have that confidence is to make failure to report abuse an offence. The intention is not to put people in prison but to change the culture, and I believe that it would help workers to report abuse if they saw it as a public duty and not as telling tales. There is also considerable public support for this. In a recent independent poll of the public, 96% of people supported it.

We also need more research about how mandatory reporting is working in Australia, and I call on the Government to support a current application to the Nuffield Foundation to fund such a research project.

Its aim is to identify barriers to identification and reporting by teachers of suspected child sexual and physical abuse and serious neglect, and to identify effective practice. This would fill a declared gap in the DfE’s research portfolio.

Of course, mandatory reporting would apply not just to teachers. I also support the call from 88 MPs, led by Tim Loughton MP, to ask the Home Secretary to set up a Hillsborough-style inquiry into organised sexual exploitation of children. We need to restore trust in the system by learning the lessons of all the cases that have come to light, rather than just having the present drip-feed of information.

Finally, I come to my third question. Justice involves encouraging victims and witnesses to come forward and ensuring that they are treated properly, so that they can give their evidence clearly and consistently. Justice for potential victims also means that perpetrators are given programmes to tackle their perversion and ensure that they do not commit more crimes. Without those programmes, those imprisoned may well go on to reoffend after release. We are not protecting children if we allow that to happen.

I was recently privileged to sit on a commission of inquiry into child sexual abuse, facilitated by Barnardo’s. It became clear from the evidence that we heard that there was a lot of good practice, but a great deal more needs to be done. I support all the recommendations in our report, which would help the police and the justice system to support young witnesses and enable them to help to bring their torturers to justice. My noble kinsman Lord Thomas of Gresford and my noble friend Lord Paddick will deal with those issues in more detail.

Finally, as an honorary fellow of UNICEF, I must support its calls for improvements to the Modern Slavery Bill in relation to trafficked children, child pornography and child prostitution—although I abhor the use of the latter term and would like it removed from the legislation. There is no such thing as a child prostitute.

On this day of shocking revelations of how we have let victims down in the past, I look forward to hearing from my noble friend about how the Government plan to improve their protection of vulnerable people, young and old.