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Child Sexual Exploitation Inquiry:  Appointment of a Chairperson

Ministerial Statement – in the Northern Ireland Assembly on 5th November 2013.

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Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I wish to make the following statement on the independent inquiry into child sexual exploitation (CSE) in Northern Ireland.

In my written ministerial statement of 25 September 2013, I indicated that, following the appointment of the independent chair to the inquiry and agreement of the terms of reference, I would make a further statement on the independent inquiry and the thematic review by the Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland (SBNI).  I advise the House that I have appointed Professor Kathleen Marshall to lead the inquiry into child sexual exploitation.  Professor Marshall has a long and distinguished career as a practising and academic lawyer.  She is a former Commissioner for Children and Young People in Scotland.  She was part of the team that undertook the youth justice review in Northern Ireland, which reported in 2011.  She also chaired a statutory inquiry into child abuse in children’s homes in Edinburgh, which resulted in a published report.

Professor Marshall will lead an inquiry board, which will include the chief executives of the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA) and Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland (CJINI).  I am also confident that we will secure the involvement of the Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI) with the agreement of Minister O’Dowd.  The board will be supported by an inquiry team, which will include individuals with experience and knowledge of child protection.

The methodology will be a matter for the chair to decide.  However, I understand that it is intended to hold an initial summit this month.  I also understand that it is intended that calls for evidence will be made and that key stakeholders will be involved throughout the process of the inquiry.  I have emphasised the need to ensure that the views of children and young people are considered and given due weight.  I met Professor Marshall yesterday.  Among other things, we discussed and agreed the terms of reference for the inquiry.

As agreed with Professor Marshall, the inquiry will seek to establish the nature of child sexual exploitation in Northern Ireland and a measure of the extent to which it occurs; examine the effectiveness of current cross-sectoral child safeguarding and protection arrangements and measures to prevent and tackle child sexual exploitation; make recommendations on the future actions required to prevent and tackle child sexual exploitation and on who should be responsible for those actions; and report the findings of the inquiry to the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, the Minister of Justice and, with his agreement, the Minister of Education within one year of the commencement of the inquiry.  In addition, I have agreed that the inquiry should consider specific safeguarding and protection issues for looked-after children, taking into account the SBNI's ongoing thematic review; seek the views of children and young people in Northern Ireland and those of other key stakeholders; and engage with parents to identify the issues that they face and seek their views on what needs to be done to help them keep their children safe from the risk of CSE.

The inquiry will not focus on the circumstances and/or responses to the 22 children who are part of the ongoing police investigation known as Operation Owl.  That will be the focus of the separate thematic review that is being undertaken by the SBNI.  However, available learning that is generated from that review will be taken into account by the inquiry.  The terms of reference reflect that this is a wider societal issue affecting children in a variety of circumstances, not just those in the care system.

I expect the inquiry to conclude and report before the end of 2014.  Where learning is identified by the inquiry, it is essential that it be shared and acted on quickly.  I want to ensure that, as far as possible, we prevent further sexual exploitation of children and young people in Northern Ireland.  I also want to ensure that our child safeguarding systems are sufficiently robust across all sectors.  In particular, it is essential that those who are responsible for exploiting children in that way face the full rigours of the law.

I have agreed with the inquiry chair that information will be made available at appropriate junctures; for example, at the end of the call for evidence strand of the inquiry and when the inquiry board and team have analysed evidence that has been provided.  An inquiry website will be established to facilitate the sharing of information throughout the process.  Of course, any evidence that emerges throughout the process that indicates that immediate action is needed to protect children in the here and now will be made available to the appropriate authorities, that is, the police and/or social services.

Members are aware that the SBNI is being directed to conduct a thematic review into the 22 cases that triggered the ongoing police investigation.  As I am required to in law, I have consulted the SBNI on the terms of the direction.  Consultation is ongoing, and I hope to be in a position to report further to the House on the terms of reference for the review in the near future.  The SBNI review is a complex piece of work in the sense that it interfaces directly with an ongoing police investigation.  So, we need to be assured that the risk of interference with that investigation is kept to an absolute minimum.  That is the ongoing discussion with the SBNI.

Photo of Maeve McLaughlin Maeve McLaughlin Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat.  I thank the Minister for his statement.  I welcome the appointment to what is a critical piece of work into safeguarding our children and young people.  The Minister will be aware that the Committee has written to the Department three times in the past six weeks asking for sight of the terms of reference in advance of it coming to the House.  Therefore, why has the Minister chosen to simply ignore that offer of assistance and has, effectively, undermined the Committee's scrutiny role?  Will the inquiry have powers to address the failures in the system that have been identified throughout the process?  What powers will be in place to deal with that?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

First, we agreed the terms of reference last night with Kathleen Marshall, who is going to head up the inquiry.  The terms of reference were then agreed with the Justice Minister, and they have also been sent to the Education Minister.  If the Committee wants to draw the process out, elongate the process and slow down the inquiry's actually starting, I could have started engaging with it on that basis.  However, in that respect, I think that there has been adequate opportunity for key people to be involved in identifying the terms of reference for the inquiry.  As the Committee looks at the terms of reference, I think that it will see that it is a process that is inclusive, a process that will involve the Committee at appropriate stages, and a process that all Committee members can participate in in a very fulsome way.  This is not a process about exclusion.  I want it to get started.  I would have liked to have started it quicker, and I do not want further delay.  So, without being disrespectful to the Committee, that is my line of thinking.  I think that it is important that we get the process under way and that the work is done and that, if there are failings and weaknesses, they are identified at an early point so that we can seek to close those gaps.

Photo of David McIlveen David McIlveen DUP

I, too, welcome the Minister's statement.  Will the Minister advise us who will be on the inquiry team that is to be established?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

The inquiry team will include experts in the field of child safeguarding and protection, as well as professionals from each of the three organisations that are involved in the inquiry, that is, the RQIA, the CJINI and ETI.  Other experts and professionals may be co-opted and brought on for support when required.  That will be in the hands of the inquiry team, led by Kathleen Marshall and those support organisations, to facilitate.

Photo of Fearghal McKinney Fearghal McKinney Social Democratic and Labour Party

The SDLP would also have liked to have seen the terms of reference presented at the Committee.  We welcome the inquiry and the appointment.  Given the way that it is designed, in thematic form and inquiry, will the Minister assure the House that we will not end up with simply a narrative about the nature of child sexual exploitation, as opposed to a robust inquiry drilling down into accountability?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP 10:45 am, 5th November 2013

It is important to identify the fact that there are two different inquiries on two different streams.  The Safeguarding Board will carry out a thematic inquiry that will focus on the 22 cases that were reported and that the police are investigating.  So, you have a police investigation, and running alongside that you have the Safeguarding Board's inquiry.  That will be very important in order to see where particular weaknesses can be identified in those cases.  The inquiry that we are conducting will be more policy-driven, and, therefore, we need to look at how policies are implemented on the ground and see where those changes need to be made.  Two different and separate inquiries are taking place.  It is important that there is no considerable overlap and that each inquiry covers all the relevant issues that are of concern to Members and ensures that we have better safeguarding procedures in future. 

As to the results of the inquiry, I am not sure whether our failings are significant.  I do not think that we should prejudge it.  However, one way or another, 22 children have been the subject of sexual exploitation.  Even if many of them have been willing participants, we need to do more to protect them.  It is important that we try to get to all these issues and discuss this in a very open and honest way in an honest framework to ensure that those who have an opportunity and need to say something about it will have a chance to do so.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I, too, thank the Minister for his statement and welcome the appointment of the chair.  In his original statement, the Minister announced, just like today, the close involvement of the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority and Criminal Justice Inspection.  He also expressed an aspiration that the Education and Training Inspectorate would be involved.  How have you engaged with the Department of Education and the Minister, and why are they not yet on board?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

My officials and I have engaged with both Departments.  We have been in regular correspondence on the issues, so a course of work has happened.  Justice was able to come on board with the issue, and I think that Education will come on board.  I honestly do not believe that Education can sit outside the process.  We are looking at a situation where around 20% of children who are being exploited are in the looked-after sector, but 80% are not.  Where are those 80%?  Most, if not all of them, will or should be in the education system.  Can Education afford to sit outside the process?  I do not think so.

Photo of Kieran McCarthy Kieran McCarthy Alliance

The Alliance Party also welcomes the announcement this morning and the appointment of Professor Kathleen Marshall.  Does the Minister agree that we should examine past practices while we await the outcome of the review?  What assurances can the Minister give on measures being taken now to ensure the protection of vulnerable young people in care?

Photo of Pam Brown Pam Brown DUP 11:30 pm, 5th November 2013

I also welcome the Minister's statement and, indeed, the appointment of the chair of this important inquiry.  Will any children or young people be involved in the inquiry?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

It is absolutely essential that children and young people are involved and that their voices are heard.  We know that many of these young people are very vulnerable.  The inquiry will give early consideration to the most effective and, indeed, ethical ways of involving children and young people in its work and gaining their perspective on the issues.  I have discussed this with the chair, and she is fully committed to a meaningful engagement with children and young people.  She has experience of that, having been Commissioner for Children and Young People.  It is intended that some engagement will also take place through our schools.

Photo of Mickey Brady Mickey Brady Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.  I, too, thank the Minister for his statement.  In your statement, Minister, you talked about the ongoing police investigation known as Operation Owl and said that it will be the focus of a separate thematic review by the Safeguarding Board.  You referred to 22 children.  Can you confirm that only 22 children are involved in that operation, or are more likely to become involved?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

As far as I am aware, that is the figure; that is what has been presented to me.  I do not know whether there will be any change to that, but I do not think it is appropriate for me to speculate.  What I do know is that there are evil, wicked people out there.  There are predators out there, and predators always look for the vulnerable.  Children who are looked after are amongst our most vulnerable.  We need to recognise that.  We also need to recognise that a lot of people have a responsibility to those young people, so, if they see things that perhaps should not be happening, they should report it, and, if they see things that could go wrong, they should seek to use the appropriate interventions through the appropriate authorities.  It is incredibly important that we all recognise that vulnerable young people — vulnerable people in general — need to be protected, as far as possible, from predators.  We all have some work to do on that front.

Photo of Gordon Dunne Gordon Dunne DUP

I, too, thank the Minister and welcome his statement on a most sensitive issue of great concern to the public.  If, as a result of the inquiry, major non-conformances are found that highlight system failures, what actions will the Minister take?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

If system failings or concerns about any agency's actions or, indeed, inactions are identified, they will be referred to the relevant organisation's senior management.  The appropriate governance and accountability arrangements will then be enacted.  Concerns may also need to be referred to the Safeguarding Board so that it has the opportunity, through its member organisations, to cascade learning appropriately on a wider scale.  I should say that that may apply not just to major failings; it may apply to minor failings as well, because a series of minor failings can often lead to major consequences.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.  Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a fhreagra agus as an fhógra go dtí seo.  I thank the Minister for his announcement.  I go back to a point that Mr McCarthy touched on earlier: will the Minister expand on what specific measures his Department has taken in its areas of responsibility to ensure that the abuse alleged in those 22 cases does not happen again?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

A number of measures were taken on the back of the Barnardo's report of 2011, including the establishment of the Safeguarding Board.  A series of measures were taken in line with six recommendations, one of which was for the police, and five of which were for my Department.  All those measures have been acted on.  Most have been implemented in full, and some are being completed.  Members should take some comfort from the fact that one key area that we have implemented is the close liaison and the embedment between the police and social services, which is absolutely essential.  I know that many parts of GB will look on quite enviously at the close cooperation between those organisations in Northern Ireland.  Much has been done, but do I think that more could be done?  I will be very surprised if we do not identify areas of weakness, vulnerabilities and gaps that we can close to provide greater support to these young people.

Photo of Sandra Overend Sandra Overend UUP

I thank the Minister for his statement.  Will he give a commitment that the inquiry will focus on ensuring the safety of children through critiquing current practice as opposed to simply apportioning blame?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

This inquiry is about a critique of practice; the Safeguarding Board will be more associated with the 22 cases and that course of work.  This inquiry is more policy-focused.  When people fail, blame often has to be applied.  However, the inquiry has not necessarily come about because of a series of individual failures; it is more down to a series of very challenging circumstances.  People often believe that they are doing the right thing, but it may not necessarily be the right thing.  The inquiry will focus strongly on policy and on identifying what more could be done.  It will look at interpretation of the law and ensure that staff interpret the law appropriately so that too much weight is not given to one aspect of the law to the detriment of young people.  I assure the House that all those things will be looked at.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I thank the Minister for the statement and welcome it.  This is a grave issue, and it is important that there is full and proper public scrutiny.  In light of that, what steps does the Minister intend to take to ensure that the House is kept informed of progress?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I will make regular statements to the House on the progress of the inquiry and the review in so far as my doing so will not compromise the integrity of the process.  Members will appreciate that I want to be fully advised by the respective chairs on an ongoing basis, and I expect that I will receive topical and listed questions from Members because the issue is of importance to the public.  It may not affect a large number of people, but, nonetheless, the effects on the relatively small number need to be felt by all of us, and all of us must ensure that we do as much as we can to make sure that it does not happen as regularly as it has in the past.  I do not believe that we can entirely eliminate it, but we need to do everything that we can to mitigate the circumstances of vulnerable young people and to ensure that predators do not find easy access to them.

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP

The Health Minister and the Justice Minister have made it clear that any form of child abuse should be reported to the appropriate authorities immediately.  Given that, how concerned is the Minister that, yesterday, the deputy First Minister compromised that message by defending Gerry Adams, who clearly failed to report the abuse of his niece to the appropriate authorities?  Furthermore, what steps can be taken to educate not only politicians but parents and the public about the risks associated with child sexual exploitation?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I was somewhat struck yesterday by the views expressed by the recently retired Director of Public Prosecutions in GB, who indicated that those who fail to report child abuse should be prosecuted for such activity and that the law should allow that.  We should all reflect on that.  It is wrong for people not to report child abuse.  It is one of the most obscene things that anyone can do, and those who have failed to report it have to live with their conscience.  I also think that the PSNI and the Public Prosecution Service need to ensure that nobody is above the law, otherwise the law is diminished in the eyes of the people.

Photo of Alban Maginness Alban Maginness Social Democratic and Labour Party 11:00 am, 5th November 2013

I thank the Minister for his statement, and, along with my colleagues, I welcome it.  The appointment of Professor Marshall is indeed a wise appointment, given that she was a former Children's Commissioner, a member of the youth justice review in Northern Ireland and led an inquiry into sexual abuse in Edinburgh in Scotland.  Given that and the timetable that the Minister has laid down, is there not a greater urgency to get a report earlier rather than in about a year's time?  These issues are very urgent and need a focused, sharp report.  Would the Minister respond to that?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I would, because I asked the same question myself:  why do we have to wait a year?  The argument was made very strongly by the RQIA that, after all its consultations and the work that it had done, it will reasonably take from nine to 12 months to produce the report.  That disappoints me, because, when we did the Troop review, which was a different course of work, we had an initial report in three months and the final report in six.  I have agreed with the inquiry team that, where key findings come to light, they will be made available to us so that we can act on them.  The fact that the inquiry will take a year should not stop us taking action where it is identified that action should be taken.  I take some comfort from that.  I asked the same question myself, and a strong and convincing case was made that it will take this length of time to fully carry out the work that is required.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

Going back to the comments of Keir Starmer, does the Minister think that the term of reference that says:

"make recommendations on the future actions required to prevent and tackle child sexual exploitation" is adequate to permit a recommendation that, as Mr Starmer suggested, failure to report child sex abuse should be made a criminal offence?  Is that term of reference adequate for that, and, if it is not, will the Minister look further at that particular term of reference?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

The Member will know, because he practised for many years, that people were prosecuted under the legislation in respect of the withholding of information on wrongdoing.  Therefore, I do not accept what some in the PSNI seem to think, which is that withholding information on child abuse is something that is untested.  In fact, withholding information on criminal activity has been tested, and people have been found guilty of it.  It is absolutely essential that the police and prosecution service do not in any way give succour to people who withhold information of any kind on criminal activity:  terrorism, child abuse or otherwise.  They should come forward and make what they know known to the police and the Public Prosecution Service and allow justice to flow from that.