Child Sexual Abuse: Football Clubs - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:23 pm on 15 December 2016.

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Photo of Baroness Walmsley Baroness Walmsley Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Health) 2:23, 15 December 2016

My Lords, I start by saying how impressed I have been by the bravery of those footballers who have found the strength to talk about their painful childhood experiences; I thank them for what they have done. We all have a duty to ensure that their suffering has not been in vain. I have talked to some of them, including Ian Ackley and Paul Stewart, and it is clear that their main motivation is to try to ensure that these terrible experiences are not suffered by vulnerable children in the future.

I have long been a campaigner for mandatory reporting. I and many of the footballers feel that if we had had a legal duty to report 20 years ago, someone would have told the authorities about their suspicions—indeed, there were disclosures in some cases—and the abuse would have stopped. This is what children want when they disclose abuse. They want action and they want the abuse to stop. The Government agreed in 2014 to have the public consultation on mandatory reporting, which has recently ended. The responses have not yet been published and, of course, neither has the Government’s response. It took them over 18 months from promising the consultation to actually reporting it. I do not want to wait for another 18 months before they respond to the views expressed. When will the responses be published and when will the Government respond? In doing so, will they take seriously the victims’ demands for legislation to try to ensure that this never happens again? Will the Government now accept that all the guidance, training, professional sanctions and so on have not worked? Not all the cases that the police are investigating are non-recent. It is still happening. Mandatory reporting would include national sporting bodies, so some of this abuse could be stopped before more young people are damaged for life.

I am not looking for custodial sentences for those who ignore suspicions of child abuse and fail to report it to the authorities, but I am looking for a criminal offence and a fine, not in order to criminalise people who work with children, most of whom do wonderful work, but to act as a disincentive to the perpetrators. If they know that thousands of eyes are watching and they have a legal duty to report what they know, some will be deterred from acting and many will be caught before they damage any more children. One of the footballers said to me yesterday that if parents realised that no legal duty to report exists—just guidance and professional sanctions—they would be more hesitant about exposing their children to the opportunities that are so readily taken up by paedophiles. Current measures have patently failed to protect children and it is time to go further.

I believe that those who have reported suspicions in the past, and risked damage to their own careers, would be protected by a law that mandates them to report what they know. Mandatory reporting works in Northern Ireland and in Australia, where a seven-year study has been carried out by Professor Ben Mathews. He found that there was initially an increase in reports, but resources must be made available to deal with them. I fear the Government have resisted this for as long as I have been pressing for it because of money. That fact is being disguised by spurious claims that increased reports would prevent services being provided for the worst cases. In the end, MR would save money because of the mental health costs avoided and lives destroyed. Ian Ackley’s late father raised his concerns 20 years ago. I have here all his letters from organisations which passed the buck and said that they could not do anything until the Government acted. Do we have to wait another 20 years before the Government act?

The Government have resisted demands for legislation on MR for years. Ian Ackley was in a supermarket yesterday and was charged 5p for a plastic bag. He says that if the Government can legislate to save plastic and marine life, surely they can legislate to save children. I remind the Minister of how few people used seat belts until it became illegal not to. Legislation is not a silver bullet but it works. Will the Minister agree to meet with me and some of the footballers to discuss how we can move forward?