Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:10 pm on 20th December 2018.

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Photo of Lord Winston Lord Winston Labour 4:10 pm, 20th December 2018

My Lords, I am very grateful for permission to speak briefly in the gap. I have just come back from an overseas trip, which is why my name was not on the list. I am speaking simply because I felt that in a debate such as this it was very unlikely that somebody would speak any science, so I am intending to do that for a couple of minutes.

Some years ago we photoshopped pictures of married adults who had young children aged six into a hot air balloon. We showed them the photographs and tried to reinforce the idea that they remembered being in this balloon when they themselves were six. We had gathered pictures of them as six-year olds from the grandparents of the children whom we were studying at the time. To a man and a woman, each person who saw the photoshopped image of themselves aged six in a hot air balloon denied that they had been in one. But by the following day a number of them—quite a large proportion—remembered being in a hot air balloon. We had manipulated their memory. Moreover, those who were of a neurotic disposition tended to remember thinking that they might fall out of the balloon or hit the ground with a bump, and those who were in fact rather optimistic people on the general OCEAN scoring, which is a standard psychometric test, were happy to see the birds and the sheep in the fields and thought how lovely it was to be floating with a gas burner holding them up in the hot air balloon. This was an entirely created memory.

When we look through the scientific records, which are not particularly good, we can see that recreated memory and long-term memory is a very controversial area. Several people have looked at this. For example, one expert in Calgary in Canada points out that, while the issue of long-term memory is highly controversial in many cases, memory is open to two particular issues, one of which is contamination. It is very easy to contaminate somebody’s memory, perhaps if it involves a topical issue or a famous person, or if they have a carer or well-wisher who feels that they have been badly treated and tries to reassure them that there will be justice for them and to encourage them.

That is one of the reasons why, with respect, I take slight issue with what the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chichester said. He talked about the courage of these individuals in coming forward. Of course they have courage, but the very fact that they are told that they have courage could actually encourage them in a memory that is in fact not substantiated. I am not for a moment suggesting that people are lying; that is not my point. The point is that I know this from my own experience at school. I was convinced that one master had ill-treated me, but when I went back to my school recently to look at the reports I found that he had already left the school by the time when I thought he had ill-treated me—and that is an easy mistake to make. By the way, I do not think that I am a depressed person or somebody who is particularly neurotic, but it is interesting that that memory stuck with me. If I were thinking about writing a memoir, I obviously would not want to write about that now, given that I have absolutely no evidence for it.

This is something that we need to consider, because in our efforts to do right we might do great harm and do wrong. Not having cross-examination, where you can look at the evidence properly, is a major flaw, and that is something that we have to understand when we take evidence in these situations.