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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:45 pm on 28 October 2014.

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Photo of Baroness Howarth of Breckland Baroness Howarth of Breckland Crossbench 3:45, 28 October 2014

My Lords, I fear that I may be a lone voice in that I take a slightly different view from my colleagues—all of whom I deeply respect. I understand their position. I should also say that I look forward to a full debate on this, and I hope that the Minister will meet with those of us who take a different view as well as with those who are pressing for mandatory reporting. That is because there is another argument, part of which I will cover today. However, meeting some of those in the various fields where this proposal would make their work difficult would be worthwhile.

Of course, when a professional or indeed an ordinary person hears about a child or an adult of any kind—I will not use the word “vulnerable” because it means all sorts of things—who is being abused, they have a responsibility to ensure that they go to some authority. I would say to my noble friend, with deep respect, that, as a doctor, my view is that if she had a suspicion, it should have been forcefully conveyed to the authorities. I think that the problem is that some time ago, the atmosphere around child abuse, and particularly child sexual abuse, was very different from the one we know now. I shall come to Rotherham in a moment because it is a different issue. We are in a different era in relation to child abuse and people are now very highly motivated to get it right.

As I said in the last debate, it is important that systems are in place to ensure that there is a clear pathway for reporting. Most organisations are working towards that, if they have not already got it. Most local authorities and statutory authorities have it; here I declare an interest because I am working with the church at the moment to try to ensure that it has that clear pathway to take people through to the reporting place. I do not think that they would knowingly fail to carry out that duty because the consequences are huge. I do not know how many noble Lords watched the programme last night about Baby P, and saw the total destruction of people’s careers and indeed lives based on extraordinarily flimsy evidence, which some of us knew about previously. We have to be absolutely sure that, when reporting takes place, it takes place in a structure that can pick things up quickly and get the information right from the beginning.

I will speak about the issue of exemptions. I do not agree that psychotherapists should be exempted. If someone knows that abuse is taking place, they have a duty to report it, whoever they are and wherever they are. The difficulty comes when we are not quite sure. This is where the psychotherapists are anxious, and this is where I am anxious about a whole range of professionals who are working in the field of perpetrators —and I declare an interest as vice-chair of the Lucy Faithfull Foundation, which works directly in this field—including of course ChildLine and the NSPCC. They have children ringing up about issues that they are not quite prepared to talk about.

If there are going to be exemptions, they have to be absolutely clear. The procedure has got to be right. It is not about whether you are a particular kind of professional. It is about the situation, the circumstance and where you are in terms of the abuse. That is why I value the debate, because ChildLine, the Lucy Faithfull Foundation and all similar organisations have very clear guidelines on when confidentiality must be broken in the interests of the child.

I know things can go seriously wrong. I was as appalled, shocked and amazed at what happened in Rotherham as anyone who has been involved in safeguarding for far less time than me—and I have probably been involved in it for more years than anybody in this House. I think, though, that we have to look at the circumstances of those kind of situations and what is happening in that particular institution and how we put it right, because what really counts are not structures and procedures but culture. It is about whether the people in the particular organisation understand the values that they must have in relation to those for whom they are responsible and whether there is a culture right through that organisation that takes them forward.

The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, asked a detailed question about the statutory inquiry into child abuse. The last issue concerns me particularly. At the moment the National Crime Agency is telling us that it cannot deal with some 50,000 referrals that it has at the moment. The Lucy Faithfull Foundation cannot take all the telephone calls, despite the government help that we are getting—and we are working on behalf of the Government to try to take more calls from people who are anxious about their thoughts and behaviour.

As soon as we open the Pandora’s box on historical abuse for the inquiry, the Government will have an avalanche of people coming forward. The example given by the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, is one I could repeat time and time again. I have been year after year in situations where people come to me and say, “This happened to me when I was 10, when I was 11”. The historical abuse issue, because we did not have procedures in place then, is going to hit the Government and the inquiry like nothing we have seen.

The reason I am so concerned is that we have put all that into a position of trust. It is about getting people to divulge things that they may not have talked about for 40 years. Do we have the resources in place to meet their needs once they have divulged this? At the moment children’s services are totally overwhelmed, CAMHS cannot meet the mental health needs of children in the communities and victim support groups have only just enough money to last until next year. That is the environment in which we are thinking about mandatory reporting. I will be interested in the Government’s looking at evidence from other countries because my evidence from Australia is that the authorities were overwhelmed at the beginning. They were totally overwhelmed by mandatory reporting.

It ensures that you cannot prioritise work. You have to do something about things that as a professional you might decide are probably not the highest on the agenda. Doctors have to make those difficult decisions, social workers have to make them and the police have to make them. Sometimes they will get them wrong, even if they have mandatory reporting, but at least we should give the services a chance to be able to meet the demand that we have at the moment. If we are going to increase that demand, the Government have to think beforehand about the resources that are going to be needed to meet that promise and the trust that is placed in those resources by the victims who have suffered so much.

As a former director of ChildLine, as a director of the Lucy Faithfull Foundation and as someone who has worked in this field for a long time, I certainly value the noble Baroness bringing this debate forward. I just come to a different conclusion.