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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:00 pm on 28 October 2014.

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Photo of Lord Bates Lord Bates The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department 4:00, 28 October 2014

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Walmsley for again bringing this important matter to the House and for her persistence and perseverance in working with us to find a way forward on this issue. As many of your Lordships have said, we are united in our abhorrence for these crimes. We are resolved to lift the stone—in the analogy of my noble friend—and to face and tackle what lies beneath.

This coalition Government are absolutely committed to improving the safeguarding of children and vulnerable adults and to doing all they can to protect them from all forms of abuse. In recent years, we have been confronted all too frequently with the most appalling cases of organised and persistent sexual abuse of children. The public have been justifiably horrified by the historical cases of child sexual abuse that came to light in the wake of investigations into Jimmy Savile, and those raised by the more recent cases of organised child sexual exploitation in Oxford, Rochdale and Rotherham, to name but a few. Some of these cases have exposed a failure by public bodies to take their duty of care seriously and some have shown that the organisations responsible for protecting children from abuse—including the police, social services and schools—have failed to work together properly. The recent report by Professor Jay into the horrific cases of child sexual exploitation in Rotherham also highlighted the failure of many of those involved to recognise the seriousness of the problem, and—perhaps most shockingly—their failure to see the children concerned as victims, rather than the makers of their own misfortune.

Each one of these various reviews and reports makes for deeply distressing reading, and this coalition Government are determined to learn their lessons. As noble Lords will be aware, the Home Secretary announced in July the creation of a new independent inquiry which will consider whether, and the extent to which, public bodies and other non-state institutions have taken seriously their duty of care to protect children from sexual abuse. The inquiry will consider all the information available from the various published reviews and will identify any issues or allegations requiring new or further investigation. It will advise on any further action, which could include any legislative changes, needed to address any of the gaps or failings within our current child protection systems on the basis of the findings and learning from the reviews. The inquiry will take full account of what happened in Rotherham and elsewhere, and it will make recommendations on that basis.

My noble friend asked about the status of the inquiry. As things stand, the inquiry will, like the inquiries into Hillsborough, be a non-statutory panel inquiry, which means that it will not be able to compel witnesses to give evidence. However, the Home Secretary has been very clear that, if the chair of the inquiry deems it necessary, the Government are prepared to convert this into a full public inquiry under the Inquiries Act 2005. This means that, if the panel is converted into a public inquiry, Fiona Woolf will have powers to compel witnesses and subpoena evidence. This power would come to her under provisions in the Inquiries Act, which means that the inquiry does not need to be chaired by a judge.

My noble friend’s amendment would place a duty on providers of regulated activity, and anyone whose services are used by providers of regulated activity, to report known or suspected abuse against children and vulnerable adults to the appropriate local authority within 10 days. Breach of this duty would be a criminal offence punishable by up to three years in prison. That would essentially mean that anyone who works or volunteers in any capacity with children or vulnerable adults would commit a criminal offence if they did not report suspected abuse of any kind.

Since the debate on this issue in Committee, we have given this matter further careful consideration. It has been discussed on several occasions by the national group, and has been raised by the Home Secretary’s ministerial task force on Rotherham. However, we have not yet come to a firm decision on the matter. This is not surprising given the complexity of the issue. Research is inconclusive in determining whether mandatory reporting regimes help, hinder or simply make no difference to child safeguarding outcomes. In the USA, Canada and Australia, mandatory reporting legislation has been accompanied by significant increases in the number of referrals of suspected child abuse and neglect made to the authorities, a large percentage of which have not been substantiated. That was the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth of Breckland.

There is a real risk that, in introducing a duty, we would divert child protection services from the task of increasing the safety of our most vulnerable children to evidence gathering and investigation of cases that are eventually unsubstantiated and which often lead to significant disruption of family life. Additionally, there is evidence to suggest that existing mandatory reporting regimes can lead to unintended consequences, such as creating a culture of reporting rather than acting—a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Rosser—and dissuading children from disclosing incidents for fear of being forced into hostile legal proceedings. That point was touched upon by my noble friend Lady Benjamin, who talked about the need to give people the courage to come forward and recognise that they are the victims of this and should certainly have no shame in coming forward.

I recognise that there are contrary views on the utility of introducing a statutory duty of the kind set out in my noble friend’s amendment, and some of those views have been raised this afternoon. I firmly believe that, given the conflicting evidence of the impact of such a duty and the concerns expressed by groups such as the NSPCC in its advice on this and the General Medical Council—though taking into account the practitioner’s perspective that the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, brought to this debate—it would be perhaps a leap in the dark to legislate on this issue right now in this Bill. It is right that, before coming to a final decision on this issue, we listen to the views of the many stakeholders and experts, including victims’ groups, who quite rightly hold strong opinions on this.

I can therefore advise the House that we will now hold a full public consultation on the issue of mandatory reporting. We will consult broadly on the advisability, risk, nature and scope of any reporting duty, including questions on which forms of abuse it should apply to, and to whom it should attach. I should emphasise that the Government will look at all the responses they receive with an open mind. It will be a thorough, open and transparent consultation with a rigorous evaluation of the responses. Although hitherto the Government, like the Opposition, have taken the view that we have concerns about the specific wording of this amendment, we are entering into this consultation in good faith, in our desire to evaluate the evidence that comes forward.

The views of noble Lords will of course be very welcome indeed. There is a tremendous amount of personal knowledge and expertise in this House, and I accept the comments made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham in that regard. I would further encourage other Members to make their opinions heard. We intend to launch the consultation as soon as possible. Given the significance of the issue, it will run for the full 12 weeks. We will undertake to report back to Parliament on the results. I hope that this commitment and the spirit in which is it offered to my noble friend will leave her reassured about the Government’s resolve to probe this serious issue by this commitment to consult.

The Government recognise concerns about the current safeguarding system. We are not complacent about that. We understand the public’s anxiety, which has been raised by many Members, about the potential underreporting of abuse and the scale of it. Reference was made to the 50,000 figure that was used by Keith Bristow of the National Crime Agency. We are deeply shocked by the scale of what we are uncovering, both in terms of services and in the online environment.

It is right that we should take further time to listen to the views of all those with an interest—those who will be directly affected by such a measure of mandatory reporting. I hope that my noble friend will be reassured that the Government absolutely share her objective of enhancing the protection of children and vulnerable adults, but that we have to be absolutely certain that we get it right. The consequences of not doing so are potentially very serious. On that basis, I ask my noble friend to consider withdrawing her amendment.