The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes in which to propose and 10 minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. One amendment has been selected and published on the Marshalled List. The proposer will have 10 minutes in which to propose the amendment and five minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes.
Go raibh maith agat. I beg to move
That this Assembly notes with concern the recent revelations regarding the abuse and exploitation of children and young people; calls on the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to liaise with the Minister of Justice to initiate an inquiry to ascertain the prevalence of abuse and exploitation of children both in care and elsewhere; and further calls on all relevant Departments to outline the strategies that will be put in place to safeguard and protect all children and young people.
I start by reinforcing the last line of the motion, which is that all that we do is about strategies that will protect children and young people. Everything that we do in the House and beyond to highlight and eradicate that abuse needs to be child-centred and about safeguarding and protecting our children and young people, especially those who are most vulnerable.
No one can ignore the public exposure of the issues over the past few weeks. However, we should not be shocked, as the issue was highlighted in a Barnardo's report that was published in 2011. Its research dates back to 2009. In effect, the work is four years old. In fact, I can confirm to the House that a Social Services Inspectorate report titled 'Our Children and Young People — Our Shared Responsibility' was commissioned in 2006. Although the vulnerable nature of young people involved in sexual exploitation is shocking, particularly when we learn that some of them do not even realise that they are being abused, it is just as shocking that reports date back to 2006 in which organisations and agencies were recommended and mandated to respond to the abuse of children. That, in anybody's terms, is wrong and has failed children.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Dallat] in the Chair)
Although I appreciate that a huge amount of work goes on in social services to protect children, the fact remains that 18 children left care facilities over 400 times in an 18-month period. That is nothing short of failure. Although I am not advocating that those children be locked up, we need to ensure that the law is robust so that it enshrines the protection of children as paramount and that that is the judgement taken in all those situations.
'Minimum Standards for Children's Homes' states:
"The home considers with the placing authority what action should be taken to prevent the child or young person going missing in future."
It refers to the statutory implementation of the North of Ireland guidance on missing children in homes policy. If a child's whereabouts is known to the PSNI, assistance must be sought. Regional guidance for police involved in residential units was published by the Health and Social Care Board and the PSNI in May 2012. Although it is apparent that child sexual exploitation is not an offence under the Sexual Offences Order 2008, there is enough to act if harbourers are used. Article 21 concerns the arranging or facilitating commission of a sex offence against a child.
So, if options exist within the law, if safeguarding boards are in place and if joint protocols exist, why have we failed these children? Although I very much welcome the Health Minister's change of heart, going from considering appointing an independent expert to reviewing practices and then, finally, to establishing an independent expert-led inquiry, a number of questions still need to be answered. Following his statement, during public interviews the Minister referred to an "investigation". That is not what is required. An inquiry with proper independence, powers to investigate and accountability mechanisms is required. We should not be afraid to learn the lessons, and, if Departments have failed after they have been mandated to act, they will need to be accountable.
The Barnardo’s report had six recommendations. Five were in the remit of the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, and the sixth was the responsibility of the Department of Justice. Recommendation 3 requested that the Health and Social Care Board develop a:
"targeted and fully resourced action plan ... that includes consideration of ... data collection and monitoring; professional competency and capacity; best practice models ... including ... a co-located inter-agency model of response; regional implementation of the sexual exploitation risk assessment tool; resourcing of a regional specialist support service."
It was recommended that the Public Health Agency develop a public campaign to:
"raise awareness of the sexual exploitation of children and young people."
However, at the joint Health and Justice Committee meeting of the past few weeks, we were told that this is only the beginning of some of these processes. I remind Members that all six of those recommendations were commissioned by the Department of Health and were launched publicly in 2011.
I also remind the House that the children order was established in 1995, which is some 18 years ago. That order requires an examination that ensures that the protection of children and young people is paramount. Although the focus in this current investigation has been on children in care, child sexual exploitation will be happening to children in the community who are not known to social services. It is vital, therefore, that we get messages to parents who may be concerned about their children. NSPCC has initiated a public helpline, and its number is 0800 389 1701. Since 16 September, there have been 13 enquiries, resulting in 10 referrals to PSNI and social services. That is 10 referrals in 14 days.
On Wednesday 25 September, the Minister of Health announced in a written statement to the Assembly that he and the Minister of Justice will set up an independent expert-led inquiry. No further detail has been provided on that. There is no further detail on the nature of the inquiry, the powers that it will have or whether it will be a public inquiry that experts will lead or whether it will take evidence and hear witnesses. It is our view and the view of the Children's Law Centre and other groups supporting children and young people that this inquiry must be robust, fully independent and equipped with all the necessary resources and powers to address the abuse that has taken place. The inquiry must acknowledge the experiences of the children and young people who have been abused. Critically, it must look at the failures that have allowed child sexual exploitation to continue.
I note that the Health and Social Care Board produced a strategic action plan in August 2010 entitled 'Children Missing from Home or Care'. That was never consulted on, disseminated or acted on. It is now fundamental to the credibility of any inquiry established to address child sexual exploitation that it is wholly independent. Independence must be real and viewed as such by the children involved, the agencies of government and the public.
Although the Safeguarding Board plays an important role in safeguarding children, given the jurisdictional nature of the issue and the fact that the Safeguarding Board is constituted of people representing bodies that have a current statutory duty to protect children, it may be perceived — probably wrongly — that the Safeguarding Board may not be independent enough to examine those cases. Transparency is critical. Although the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA) and the Criminal Justice Inspection do an excellent job, they will not be perceived as sufficiently independent to carry out the inquiry. In that context, it is vital that the inquiry examines why, when it was known that child sexual exploitation was happening from at least 2006, the Departments failed to protect those children.
Any proposed inquiry must also be set within the framework of international human rights standards. What does not appear to have been included in the proposed remit at present is an examination of whether any failings have occurred regarding the Health Department's obligations to children and young people. There does not appear to be any accountability mechanism for those failings within the proposed remit. This is an opportunity to address an awful blight in our communities and societies. We all need to remain focused.
I beg to move the following amendment:
Leave out all after "protect" and insert
"all children and young people."
It is important that we put in place safeguarding and protection strategies that will cover all our young children; it is not just about the children in care. Yes, we need to have a particular focus on them, but we have to ensure that all vulnerable children, particularly those living in our communities, are also adequately protected.
I picked up on some comments at the end of last week from a child carer who had been talking to a group of young people. The comment that was reported in the media was, "Why are the officials arguing when we are still being raped?" Let us make sure that we move forward constructively, take the lessons and solve the difficulties that are there. After all that is done, let us spend as much time as it takes to investigate the past, but let us try to prevent the abuse that is happening now today. It is important that we move forward.
Why did I feel that it was necessary to table an amendment to the original motion? In the evidence to the joint Health and Justice Committee, Seán Holland, chief social services officer, said:
"Children in care are particularly vulnerable to sexual exploitation for a number of reasons, particularly the experiences that probably led them to being in care in the first place. However, the academic evidence is that they represent only about 20% of children likely to experience childhood sexual exploitation. So it is a much bigger issue than just children who are in care."
For that primary reason, I felt that it was important for us to look at the safeguarding and protection of all children.
The statistic recently highlighted was that 22 young people have been sexually exploited while in care. There is a lot of information stating that that is just the tip of the iceberg. There may well be other children in care also suffering, but even just look at those 22. If those statistics, which have been established from desktop research, are accurate, we can expect there to be 80 more young children in Northern Ireland being sexually exploited in the community where they are living. So, it is important that, while focusing on the children in care, who are particularly vulnerable, we must also ensure that we look at other young children in our community who are equally vulnerable.
I thank the Member for giving way. He has outlined that 20% of children are in care, in addition to the greater number of children who are not. Therefore, does he agree that it is essential that the wider community gets the unanimous message from the Assembly that it is the care of and compassion for all children that must be the defining factor of the outcome of today's deliberations?
I accept that absolutely. Given the fact that sexual exploitation is occurring in the community, it is important that we do not overlook that fact, and that we do not stigmatise the children who are in care. The life that they have experienced so far is not their fault. However, it is important that we recognise the scale of the problem that exists beyond our care homes. It is important that the community — neighbours, friends, and children and young people in schools — watch out for warning signs and feed their concerns into the system so that they can be addressed at the earliest possible opportunity, and so that fewer children reach our care homes and experience such difficulties in their life.
I notice from the recent child protection referral statistics that, at 30 June 2013, 1,790 children and young people are on the child protection register. There are 436 in the Northern Trust; 378 in the Belfast Trust; 359 in the South Eastern Trust; 316 in the Southern Trust, and 301 in the Western Trust. Those young people are deemed to be vulnerable. However, it is widely known that that vulnerability can often expose them to additional risks. I have no doubt that there are predators in the community who would spot a vulnerability — a lack of parenting assistance perhaps — and try to take advantage of that. So, it is important that, as a community, we look together to try to combat that and protect some of the weakest members in our community, those vulnerable children. We must look after all children in our community. It is not just about the children in care.
The third reason for the amendment is that, if we are actually going to empower our children and young people against grooming and predators who try to ingratiate themselves and ultimately abuse and misuse them, it is important that we work at the earliest possible stage. There is no point simply working with children once they reach care and have a very thorough protection and safeguarding system at that stage. We must work at the earliest stage, right from primary-school age children. Take, for example, stranger danger; we must start warning all our children and young people, with age-appropriate messages, of the dangers that exist.
There has been a lot of concern recently around how inappropriate relationships are built over the internet, through Facebook etc. It is important that children and young people are educated in that with, I say once again, age-appropriate information. Ultimately, where children are vulnerable, they have to be told about the dangers of grooming. Where there is a clear risk for older children, that must be talked about. It goes much wider than our care homes. We have to start in the community, in schools and in youth clubs. Perhaps some vulnerable children are not at school regularly.
So, we must work out how we are going to get the message to such vulnerable children, how we are going to look after them and how we are going to support families with difficulties. In my own constituency, I am aware of some very successful programmes with families where relationships had become estranged. By early intervention — perhaps for children deemed to be at risk of offending — and by working with the family, the parent and the child, great improvements can be made at that early stage so that family breakdown does not happen, so that children become less vulnerable, so that normal parenting support is there and so that we are not reliant on our care homes, with the difficult relationships that exist there.
We must be cognisant of our social workers who work in care homes. It is a very difficult job. They are working with young people who have been frequently damaged by their life experience, and there are regulations and restrictions in respect of what you can and cannot do. Do we want children in our care homes all placed under lock and key? That would be a fire hazard to start with. What are we going to do in terms of restraining? When is it appropriate? If you are going to rely on that as a last resort, I say that that is much too late. We must put greater emphasis at the earlier stage, have earlier intervention, work through the community and give better education and support so that fewer of our vulnerable children reach that stage.
Equally, we must continue to fund Safe Choices, which is the very successful programme that Barnardo's has been running. It tries to befriend and to help to make many young people aware that they are in abusive relationships, as they might not recognise that they are in such relationships, because abusive adults have befriended them and, ultimately, have betrayed those friendships and are abusing them. So, I think that it is important to widen it to all our children at that earlier stage.
Turning briefly to some of the wider issues, I agree that it is important that we have an independent inquiry, which the Minister has set up. It is equally important that we have a speedy inquiry and that we concentrate on learning lessons and not looking back into the past for the sake of it but making sure that we have the best possible procedures in place today so that we can safeguard and protect the children of today. There is great concern and danger that, if we look back at what happened in the past, the cooperation that has been happening could fall apart and the protection may not be as good as it should be.
I have spoken to some social workers, and they have told me that they have been aware that this has been going on for 30 years. This is nothing new. There have been abusive adults in our society.
There is no doubt that this is one of the most serious issues that the Assembly will debate in this mandate. We have to accept that the basic building blocks of our society that protect our children are rapidly breaking down. We have a huge increase in the number of relationship failures. We have social media, the internet and the shocking statistic that 90% of boys under 16 years of age in the United Kingdom have been exposed to hard-core pornography. These are all issues that many of us in this Chamber did not face as children. Many of us were fortunate to be brought up in very stable, loving homes, where many of the things that our young people today are being exposed to were unimaginable. Yet, now, unfortunately, our children are being exposed to things that no 16-year-old should ever experience.
We also have to accept that, unfortunately, while we are dealing today with abuse in institutions controlled by the trusts, the vast majority of abuse that goes on in Northern Ireland is going on in the home or is being committed by persons known to the victim. Therefore, while this is a very worrying situation, and there is a special need to care for those in homes who are most vulnerable, we seem to be facing an epidemic of abuse of our most vulnerable well away from the eyes of the state and the trusts. Therefore, I agree entirely with Mr Beggs when he states that we need to look much more widely at what is happening to our children.
Sadly, a large number of those who are abused do not realise that they are being abused at all. The majority are young girls who have had a desperately poor hand dealt to them in life. They have perhaps come from broken homes and been passed from pillar to post and from one family to the other, and when they are shown some form of affection by an older man — and these men do not tend to be in their 50s or 60s; they tend to be only a few years older than the girls — they latch on to it. Even though that affection can often have a terrible price in terms of abuse, and, often, the young girl is passed around for sexual services among other men, they still latch on to the fact that someone cares for them, someone is paying them attention and someone is buying them alcohol, drugs or presents for what they are doing. Therefore, you are dealing with a situation where it is very difficult to control young people leaving institutions and getting involved in things that are highly undesirable.
Now that we realise that it is happening, the Minister has been absolutely right in taking the action that he has taken. It was the Rochdale and Oxford cases that alerted the police to a succession of random events that were building up and indicating a pattern of almost systematic sexual abuse. As soon as the Minister became aware of that, action was taken.
The Safeguarding Board was established. The Committee, when I was its Chair, spent a huge amount of time ensuring that that body was strengthened in its powers and effectiveness. The Bill that set up the Safeguarding Board was improved as a result of the scrutiny of all members of the Committee. The board is up and running, and it has produced an action plan.
The Minister has announced that there will be an inquiry, which is also the right action. The honourable Member for Foyle mentioned that she felt that there was a lack of detail about that. I have no doubt that the Minister, during his summation, will provide more detail. If he does not, it is up to the Member to table any questions that she feels need to be answered so that we have more information. Given past records, I am absolutely certain that this inquiry will be open, exhaustive and extensive. We have learned our lessons from other inquiries in Northern Ireland. We now know that we need to try to make them quick and to the point, and they should report quickly. With the pseudomonas inquiry, for example, rather than going for a full-blown judicial inquiry that could last a decade — as one has — we have gone for something that gets to the point of concern more quickly. I am absolutely certain that this inquiry will be very much like that.
We need to know the facts and the truth, but we have a much more fundamental issue to address. If our society continues to break down the way that it is, we will have more and more examples of vulnerable people being abused. We need to address the core issues as to why that is happening and take action immediately.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Cuirimse fáilte roimh an rún agus roimh an leasú chomh maith. I welcome the motion and the amendment. The recent revelations have caused widespread concern among the public about how we care for some of the most vulnerable in our society. From the media reports, it appears to many that children in care have been abandoned to deal by themselves with the abusers and sexual predators. It is essential that we restore faith in the social care system that is responsible for looking after children and young people at risk. Likewise, it is crucial that we recognise and put on the record that many people in that social care system do valuable and good work.
It is vital that the justice system is seen to be able to deal with those responsible for abusing children and young people. I welcome the decision to direct the Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland to undertake a thematic review of the cases that triggered the police investigation in order to learn lessons from the management of those cases and improve future practice.
The setting up of an independent, expert-led inquiry into child exploitation here, supported by the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority and the Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland, is also a welcome step. The Health Minister has said of the inquiry:
"The remit is wide-ranging and not confined to children in the care system ... the recommendations will be wider reaching than justice and health and social care."
Let us hope so, because it is clear that there has been a massive failure in some areas of social care and policing. There are any number of unanswered questions to be addressed by the review and inquiry. Why did the police decide to review those cases in the first place? Having done so, what mistakes were found to have been made in the initial investigations? What interventions did social services attempt in those cases? Who was responsible for the decisions being taken? We have all seen reports, and the problems have been highlighted previously. Why was prompt and properly coordinated action not taken to address those problems?
Of particular concern is the suggestion that the recommendations of a 2010 Health and Social Care Board report on children missing from care have not been fully implemented. It has been reported that there are:
"concerns about how much information was shared between the police and social services about young people at risk of abuse."
If that is the case, that issue also needs to be investigated fully.
We must also be mindful of the warnings from the NSPCC and the children's charity Barnardo's. The cases currently identified, involving 22 young people aged between 13 and 18, may be only the tip of the iceberg.
We have a responsibility to investigate what went wrong and do everything we can to prevent that situation recurring. However, there is also a need to ensure that attention and resources are not diverted from the crucial task of protecting children and young people at risk of sexual exploitation, and keeping them safe, here and now.
I support the motion and the amendment.
I support the motion. I have to concur with the comments of the Deputy Chair, Jim Wells, who said that this was perhaps one of the most important and distressing debates that we have had in the Assembly during this mandate.
What we have heard recently is totally and absolutely obnoxious, shocking and horrendous and a real let-down and failure of our young people. Though the words of the motion may have been somewhat overtaken by events, the debate remains highly relevant, and I am grateful to Maeve McLaughlin, the Chair of the Committee, and her colleagues for bringing it to the Floor.
Everyone must join in expressing alarm at the sexual exploitation of children and young people and how it has been allowed to continue for so long. It is particularly sad when the young people are vulnerable or have suffered abuse.
Although the focus has primarily and originally fallen on young people who live in care homes or in other care settings, others have stressed that young people are at risk in a wide range of settings. Coercion can be obvious, but it can often be very subtle, so exploitation can come in many forms and may not be readily apparent to the victim, either at the time or even with the benefit of hindsight. Also, the nature of coercion or enticement can quickly change, and it is in this regard that we should be mindful of the particular dangers that can come from the internet and via social media.
The current efforts of the Office of First Minister and deputy First Minister to coordinate the policy and actions of various Departments on the dangers of the internet and the protection of young people take on particular importance. No doubt, there have been systemic failings, but, in acknowledging that, we should also acknowledge the very committed and professional role played by many care staff, including social workers, in our social services and care system.
I welcome the statement by the Minister of Health and Social Services on setting up an independent inquiry in conjunction with others, including the Minister of Justice. This is a multifaceted problem, and addressing it will involve a range of inputs and responses from a number of Departments and agencies. However, it is right and appropriate that the Department of Health and Social Services takes the lead. A number of key questions must be asked and fully explored. It is not immediately clear whether all those issues are explicitly covered in the terms of reference of the inquiry announced by the Minister last week, but I presume that they will be addressed.
We need to understand how we ended up in this situation. My understanding is that relatively recent police investigations lifted the lid on a situation that is, potentially, much more widespread. Why did systems not flag up problems much earlier? Were previous attempts to highlight problems spurned or downplayed? What evidence is there of learning from the risks becoming apparent in other jurisdictions? Those are questions that should be answered. What lessons have already been learned and applied from the Barnardo's report and other similar initiatives?
I hope, Mr Deputy Speaker, that this can be a speedy and efficient inquiry, given the urgency of getting it right. The key first step is to properly understand the nature and scale of the problem. Once the recommendations have been made, it will be incumbent upon government to work proactively and collectively to ensure that they are properly implemented without delay. I know that my colleague the Justice Minister and the agencies of the criminal justice system will be very committed to playing their part in supporting the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and others in that regard. Such is the urgency of the matter, I urge any of the relevant agencies to introduce new policies and procedures —
This is a very important issue. That is why I called a special meeting of the Justice and Health Committees when the news broke. Within 48 hours, we had the two Ministers sitting in front of the Committee and were holding them to account and asking questions about how this could have happened. I put on record my appreciation for them enabling us to do that.
What has disappointed me so far in this debate is that, to date, not one Member who has spoken has mentioned where the blame for this rests, which is on the perpetrators who carried out this most horrendous crime against the vulnerable individuals who are now the victims. I welcome the debate in the Assembly, but the proposer of the motion spent 10 minutes talking and did not mention the perpetrators. She spent 10 minutes saying that the focus needs to be on holding people to account and on an investigation of what went wrong in the past. I agree with that; it is right that we do those things. However, like the proposer of the amendment, I think that it is important that we focus on what we are doing today and now to protect people, children who are vulnerable in care and those across society. I say that because I am listening to the charities and those organisations that have said that the blame game is counterproductive. I could easily call for the resignation of the Justice Minister or the Chief Constable. If I so wanted to grab a cheap headline, I could do that. I do not believe that that would be beneficial, because we need the organisations to work collectively. The charities rightly say that engaging in the blame game could lead to people retrenching into the silos, which is where the system failed in the past, and they say that they are now working more closely together. If we go back to trying to pin this on some individual, we are in danger of losing the practice that exists, which is better than what it was. Did it fail in the past? Yes, it did.
Thank you for taking an intervention. Does the Member agree with organisations such as the Children's Law Centre and other children's groups, which, in effect, say that we need a fully accountable, robust, transparent and independent inquiry in order to deal with what went on previously and to put in place safeguards for children today and from here on in?
The Minister has been doing that. What disappoints me is the one-upmanship that Sinn Féin seems to be engaging in on this issue. From the start, when the Minister said that we needed to have a review, Sinn Féin sought to up it and said that we needed to have an inquiry; when the Minister said that we were going to have an expert-led, independent inquiry, Sinn Féin said, "How can we try to get another one over on the Minister?" From day one, the Minister has been to the fore in saying that we need to learn the lessons of what went wrong, that we need to ensure that what is happening now is best practice and that, where there have been failings, we need to be sure to redress them.
Since this Minister took up office, it has been a very proactive Minister who has been in charge. The Member who proposed the motion rightly highlighted the 2006 child protection inspection report, because it does go beyond Barnardo's. It was the DUP's Michelle McIlveen who picked that up and asked the questions to the then Health Minister, Michael McGimpsey, and who then brought forward a private Member's Bill. When Miss McIlveen was being put under pressure, the Minister, in response, told her that the approach being put forward by the consultation ran a very real risk of stigmatising children in care, particularly those who lived in residential children's homes. The Department briefed against Michelle McIlveen at that time, when she was the one, out of everybody in the Chamber, who was leading in trying to address the problem.
If, at that time, the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety had been listening rather than trying to brief against people, vulnerable young people that otherwise were let down might have been protected. There are lessons that we need to learn from the mistakes that were clearly made.
The police have accepted that they failed to join all the dots. I cannot understand how we could have had that systemic failure in the police and that they looked at individual cases on their own without taking a more global approach. Should they be held to account for that? Yes, they should. I trust that the Policing Board will do that, because the Committee for Justice has already had the Chief Constable in front of it to answer questions.
However, we then asked about the resources that are going into the police now to deal with the investigation to protect children. Requests have been made for more detectives, and I trust that the Chief Constable will answer in the affirmative and provide those to the police, because they have requested them.
Roy Beggs rightly moved an amendment that all children need to be protected, and I agree with that. Early intervention is the key. Mr Beggs mentioned education, and I trust that the education authorities will step up. So far, the Department of Education has failed miserably when it comes to trying to protect vulnerable children. The Member for South Down shakes her head, yet —
I trust that I will get an extra 20 seconds because the clock did not stop.
The Member for South Down shakes her head, yet it was on her watch that the I CAN centre in Ballynahinch for children with the most severe speech problems was closed down. She closed it down, and she should be ashamed for those vulnerable children. When the Shankill Road and Falls Road initiative to deal with vulnerable children who are truant from school was brought to the attention of the Department of Education, it walked away, and it was the Health Minister, Edwin Poots, who had to step in to try to protect those children on the Falls Road.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I support the motion and the amendment, and I will try to stick to the subject. In response to the previous contributor, this is not about one-upmanship but about the protection of children. We should all be very clear on that. This is not about scoring points but about dealing with an extremely serious and emotional subject.
There is an old cliché that is true, which is that the measure of any civilised society is how well it looks after its young people and its older people. Unfortunately, we appear not to be doing too well with either group, taking into account the issues around residential care and now this terrible business of child sexual exploitation involving children in care.
The Barnardo's report, 'Not a world away', was published in 2011. It contains some horrifying examples of what can happen to young people who are used for the purposes of child sexual exploitation. Many young people will not see themselves as victims and will therefore not want to be rescued from their abuser. There is an onus on professionals to consider the young people's views in the light of the wider context of personal and structural vulnerability.
It is accepted that many young people who have been sexually exploited can, as a result of their chaotic background and experiences of abuse, be difficult to work with and resistant to social work support. They can be abusive to workers and refuse to engage. It is therefore important that such behaviours are not misinterpreted as a young person not being in need or deserving of support.
Young people in care are not the only ones affected by the issue. It also applies to many other young people who are not in the care population. Some of those young people potentially have less support than children who are in care because of their family background, and so on. As my colleague Maeve McLaughlin stated, this issue came to light now because the PSNI initiated an internal review of missing persons, which led to the discovery of those cases.
The Minister announced separately that he had directed the Safeguarding Board:
"to undertake a thematic review of the cases that triggered the investigation in order to identify the learning from the management of those cases to inform and improve future practice."
The statement that was released by the Safeguarding Board, however, states that the direction from the Minister is:
"to conduct a thematic review into the recent cases".
There is some uncertainty as to what exactly the Safeguarding Board has been directed to do by the Minister. I am sure that he will clarify that particular issue.
As has been stated, the inquiry that is to be set up must be fully independent and equipped with all the necessary resources and powers. It must certainly look at the systems failures that have allowed the sexual exploitation to continue.
The Safeguarding Board also has an important part to play in this. However, where the inquiry is concerned, it may not be perceived to be wholly independent.
This whole issue of child sexual exploitation is a blight on our society. It must be dealt with in such a way that means that it ceases to continue. It is incumbent on the Minister to ensure that that happens.
As a member of the Health Committee, I also welcome the opportunity to speak on this very important and timely matter. The protection of our children and young people must always be to the fore, and we must ensure that the exploitation of young people is brought to an end.
The recent findings are shocking. They create fear in us all, and we must take all appropriate action to prevent any further exploitation of our children and young people, whether they are in care homes or living at home in our communities.
I welcome the recent measures that the Health Minister, Edwin Poots, undertook. I commend him for taking swift action in announcing an independent expert-led inquiry into child sexual exploitation in Northern Ireland. That is an important measure that is correctly involving the Minister of Justice. It is right and proper that any review of policy addresses the current issues and the concerns about the protection of our children in care.
The Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland is an important body, and it certainly has played a useful role in safeguarding children and young people. The board quite rightly works to protect the most vulnerable by working in partnership with a wide range of agencies and organisations that work with young people. The only way to really combat this problem is to work in partnership. That should be the theme right from the top of the Executive, involving all Departments, right down to a grass-roots community level.
The PSNI also has a vital role to play in helping to bring those responsible to justice. It is essential that the perpetrators of any crime, not least sexual exploitation, are prosecuted to the full rigours of the law. I welcome the PSNI's investigations into this matter, and I trust that those investigations will help the victims and reduce the risk of further attacks or exploitation.
I am grateful to the Member for giving way. Given that there is no specific offence of child exploitation, if, when this piece of work is completed, it is suggested that new legislation is required to empower workers in residential homes and to prosecute those who carry out this offence, does the Member agree with me that the Justice Minister should bring it forward?
Yes. I commend the Member for his point. It is well made, and no doubt the Assembly would consider it and be supportive of it.
Any inquiry must be wide reaching and look right across society. The missing persons register, which the PSNI manages, requires improvements. Agencies tend to report missing persons to the PSNI and, therefore, feel that the responsibility for many of those young people is then transferred to the PSNI. However, we keep being told that the PSNI does not have the resources or the expertise to manage the risks of those involved.
Social media has become another factor and another way for young people to be more open to potential exploitation by evil sexual predators. I feel that more could be done to warn children and young people in care, in their homes and in our communities about the very real dangers of social media. Unfortunately, it is far too easy for false accounts to be set up that could lure vulnerable young people and children into a false sense of security that means that they could end up meeting with a total stranger whom they have never met and know nothing about. I believe that the relatively new risks of social media have created real dangers and the potential for the exploitation of our young people at all levels of society.
This is a very important issue, and we must do all that we can to tackle the problem and put the welfare of our children and young people to the forefront. I support the motion and commend the Minister for his actions to date. I trust that work will continue to resolve this terrible problem.
I welcome the debate on the motion. I will be supporting the motion and the amendment.
It would be valuable if colleagues were not to exploit the debate in partisan political terms, as doing so would be unhelpful. It would be useful to quote the Commissioner for Children and Young People, Patricia Lewsley-Mooney, who said last week:
"The immediate priority must be the children and young people who have been affected or are at risk of exploitation. They must be given the protection and support that they deserve so they are safe. While important, any reviews and lessons are a second priority. Any organisation releasing information or reporting on this must do it sensitively. The welfare of these young people must be at the forefront of their minds so as not to cause any further risk or distress. The victim must not be further victimised."
That is a salutary statement from the commissioner, and we should bear that in mind. We are trying to protect children; we are not engaged in a witch-hunt. We certainly want to find out the truth of what happened, and that is very important. Neither should there be adverse comments about the professionalism of those who work in very difficult circumstances and carry out a very important role in our society. We should support them as well.
It is disturbing that 22 children have been targeted in this way. It is disturbing that there are at least 50 suspects in this sexual exploitation of children, and there could well be more. This could be the tip of the iceberg, although I hope not. I hope that the investigations that will be carried out will be done so exhaustively, so that we have an accurate and truthful picture of what happened. That is absolutely essential.
During the joint Justice and Health Committee meeting, I was a little bit disturbed by some of the evidence, which related to children who were missing from care homes at least 137 times over about 18 months. It seemed to me that although procedures were in place for the monitoring and safeguarding of those children, if those children had been in an ordinary home — as we all have — they would probably not have gone missing. Parental authority would have been there to guide and protect the children and to keep them from leaving home. The Minister and the police emphasised the fact that care homes are not prisons, and that children should not be locked up. However, some balance has to be struck to safeguard the child so that there is not complete freedom to do whatever they want and, therefore, expose that vulnerable child to even more vulnerability. When the experts look at this situation, we will have to revisit the procedures in relation to children leaving the safety of a care home and going elsewhere. That is important.
There are few issues that stir the emotions as when we talk about children and young people, in this case vulnerable children and young people, and the exploitation that has been happening. We sometimes like to think of ourselves as a family orientated and family friendly society. That this happened and continues to happen in our society is a cause of huge concern.
I agree with colleagues who spoke of the need to do more. Most contributions, including that of Mr Maginness, were very much about where we go from here to ensure that this does not happen again, and how we can do our utmost to protect people, making sure that we are not doing so in a witch hunt. However, if there is evidence and people are brought before the courts, we will want to see prosecutions and people held accountable before the law. It is important that we do that in the context of how we prevent this in future. What roles do we need to undertake? What changes do we need to make? What choices do the Assembly and Ministers need to make?
I served on the Health Committee for nearly six years. One piece of legislation, before I left the Committee, related to setting up the Safeguarding Board. This is now a challenge to the board to make its mark on how it lifts the protections for our children and young people to a new level. There is no question of anything but unanimous support for the motion and amendment on such an important issue.
I have a couple of concerns, which I mention only as concerns on this occasion. The Assembly talked about resources being put into this. We are spending huge amounts of police time, money and resources to police a society that is divided by protests and parades, and counter-parades and protests. Whatever side of the argument you are on, whatever protest, society cannot continue to fund that sort of activity and still expect the Police Service to meet all the other needs, whether it is in child abuse, rural crime or community policing. Resources are limited. You have only to listen to Deputy Chief Constable Judith Gillespie, who said that we cannot continue to use resources on those areas and expect the police to be able to carry out their other functions.
I agree with Alban Maginness about the need to have children in proper family homes. That is why I still have a huge concern about why we have sat for four years and not progressed an adoption Bill. With one single issue, and I do not need to highlight what that issue is, we have, effectively, held up that adoption Bill and the change that it could make to children's and young people's lives.
I thank the Member for giving way. With regard to the issue that he has raised, there is an analogy by way of children at school. If a child is at school and he or she leaves school and plays truant, the school has a responsibility and does everything it can to get the child back. I think that it is necessary for us to focus on that type of analogy in order to improve procedures with regard to children in care homes.
I agree with Alban Maginness' point: we do need to do that. I will happily commend the efforts that Michelle McIlveen has made with regard to children going missing from the care system. However, at present, we do not seem to have the procedures that the Member, quite rightly, highlights. We need to get to that point. When someone is in the care system, that person is already in a vulnerable, difficult place in his or her life, never mind when he or she falls out of the system. No one seems to be following that up. It is an important point.