Serious Crime Bill [HL] — Report (2nd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:30 pm on 28th October 2014.

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Photo of The Bishop of Durham The Bishop of Durham Bishop 3:30 pm, 28th October 2014

My Lords, I once again support the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley. Indeed, since I last spoke in this place on this matter, the need for an obligation to be placed on certain individuals to report knowledge or reasonable suspicions of abuse involving the most vulnerable has become more pressing.

It was with increasing dismay that I read about the events in Rotherham. The independent inquiry report into child exploitation there makes sobering reading. At least 1,400 children were subject to sexual exploitation between 1997 and 2013, with collective failings from both the council and South Yorkshire Police. The report noted:

“Over the first twelve years covered by this Inquiry, the collective failures of political and officer leadership were blatant. From the beginning, there was growing evidence that child sexual exploitation was a serious problem in Rotherham ... Within social care, the scale and seriousness of the problem was underplayed by senior managers. At an operational level, the Police gave no priority to”,

child sexual exploitation.

There has also been the recent case of Thorpe Hall School in Essex. For more than 14 years a senior teacher had secretly photographed young boys undressing in changing rooms. The child protection unit CEOP, now taken over by the NCA, had been aware, via a report from Canadian police, that this teacher was a purchaser of paedophile videos, but more than a year passed from that report before Essex police were notified. Similarly, in the case of Dr Myles Bradbury, the paediatric haematologist at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge, who pleaded guilty on 15 September this year to numerous sexual offences against children, CEOP had, again, been aware since July 2012 that he had been buying paedophile videos online but passed this information to Suffolk police only in November 2013. The National Crime Agency stated that CEOP’s delay in disseminating the information was “unacceptable”.

Sadly, the list continues to grow. In Birmingham, on 18 October this year, the city’s safeguarding children board noted that,

“the perpetrators of these horrific crimes remain at liberty and continue to target other children”.

These numerous scandals have shocked, and continue to shock, the nation and serve to emphasise the importance of imposing an obligation that is subject to criminal sanction if there is a failure to report.

Power and secrecy, which are so often present when abuse occurs, are magnified in an institutional setting, where there is often a considerable power imbalance between the most vulnerable and the perpetrators of abuse. It should not be forgotten that the vulnerable, particularly in institutions, are at risk not only from individuals who may commit abuse but from all adults who fail to report suspicions and knowledge of abuse. Indeed, the vulnerable may be placed in institutions in order to safeguard them from abuse but, ironically, it is in these very institutions that their exposure can become more acute.

This issue will not go away. Time and time again, individuals in institutions have failed the most vulnerable in their care by failing to report. The fact remains that, although child abuse is a crime, reporting it is only discretionary, which is why I welcome this amendment, the provisions of which, as can be seen, have been strengthened and clarified since our last debate. Regulated activity providers and those who are in a “position of personal trust” must be held accountable if they fail to report.

Public opinion is in favour of such legislation, as a recent YouGov poll indicated. The former Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer QC, has stated that the introduction of a mandatory reporting provision would close a gap in the law which has been there for a long time. The Child Protection All-Party Parliamentary Group has called on the Government to consider certain institutional duties which,

“require people in leadership positions in institutions ... to report allegations of criminal abuse committed against children by people working on behalf of the institution”.

The former Secretary of State for Education, after hearing the words of a survivor of abuse, also suggested that the Government should re-examine their position, after previously blocking such an idea.

On 22 July this year, the Government co-hosted, with UNICEF, the first Girl Summit aimed at strengthening domestic and international efforts to end female genital mutilation and forced marriage within a generation. As part of this, the Prime Minister announced that mandatory reporting would be introduced for health, educational and social work professionals in known FGM cases. If mandatory reporting is to be introduced in relation to this specific area of abuse, surely it would make sense to extend this to cover other types of abuse. Now is the time. We need to act.

As I stated previously, I agree that imposing such an obligation may increase the number of reports, and this will need to be resourced properly. However, this increase is no bad thing. Knowledge or reasonable suspicions of abuse must be reported. The omission of an obligation has allowed those such as Savile and Bradbury to continue to abuse. I do not agree that the introduction of mandatory reporting will lead to authorities being swamped by erroneous or fallacious reports. In fact, mandatory reporting can highlight cases that otherwise may never come to the attention of the relevant authorities. I hope for an announcement from the Minister that there will be a serious look at the evidence.

We need a culture in our institutions and across our society that prioritises the protection of the most vulnerable over and above all other considerations. As the Home Secretary stated in the other place:

“We know that child sexual exploitation happens in all communities. There is no excuse for it in any of them and there is never any excuse for failing to bring the perpetrators to justice”.—[Hansard, Commons, 2/9/14; col. 168.]

This is why I wholly support the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley. A change in the law could lead to a change in culture, helping to raise awareness, where certain individuals realise that if they fail to report their knowledge or reasonable suspicions of abuse they may be subject to prosecution.