Lauren Wright

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 1:00 pm on 16th October 2001.

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Photo of Mrs Gillian Shephard Mrs Gillian Shephard Conservative, South West Norfolk 1:00 pm, 16th October 2001

Thank you, Mr. O'Brien, for your kind good wishes. All I can say is that just walking along and breaking one's leg is no fun at all. [Interruption.] As Dr. Gibson says, it would have been better with a gin and tonic.

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the case of Lauren Wright in this Chamber. In more than 30 years of experience in health, education and social services I have known no more appalling case than hers. This tragic child was let down by all those who should have cared for her. Despite warnings from people in the community, Lauren died by slow degrees, in full view of the agencies responsible for her care. We deserve to be told why, and that is why I am calling for a full public inquiry into the circumstances surrounding her death. I am supported today by the hon. Members for Norwich, North and for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb). The Minister will therefore readily understand that this is an all-party approach. I am also supported by my hon. Friend Mr. Simpson, who would have been here but has something wrong with his mouth—we people from Norfolk have some unfortunate afflictions at the moment, one way and another—and by my hon. Friend Mr. Bellingham.

I shall give a brief and rapid outline of the facts. Lauren Wright was born on 16 July 1993; she died from a blow to the abdomen, with extreme bruising all over her body, on 6 May 2000, two days before the date of the case conference finally organised by Norfolk social services to discuss her plight. From her birth, she was known to Hertfordshire social services, and she became known to Norfolk social services from 31 July 1997. Her name was removed from the Hertfordshire child protection register in August 1998, after a residence order was granted to her paternal grandmother in Norfolk. In January 1999, Lauren began school at the William Marshall primary school in Welney. During 1999, her care was transferred to her father, Craig Wright, who married Tracey Wright in the summer of that year. Lauren then moved to live with her father and stepmother, next door to her paternal grandmother. Tracey Wright was employed as a supervisory assistant at the William Marshall primary school from April 1999. Her responsibilities included supervision of children's play at lunchtime.

Towards the end of 1999 there were reports of bruising to Lauren. On 30 November 1999 she was seen by a consultant community paediatrician. Further anonymous allegations from the community of neglect and emotional abuse of Lauren by her stepmother were made during the early part of 2000. Claims from the family that Lauren was being bullied at school resulted in her teachers being asked by social workers to monitor the situation. She was seen by a general practitioner at Upwell on 14 March 2000, and on 15 March by a paediatrician at the King's Lynn hospital. Both observed numerous bruises of differing ages on her body. The GP suspected abuse, and the paediatrician put them down to bullying at school. Police following up the case were told that the medical evidence was inconclusive.

Hertfordshire social workers visited Lauren at home on 25 April, and the next day they alerted Norfolk social services to their concerns about Lauren's appearance and behaviour. Between 2 and 5 May, she was dealt a fatal blow to the stomach. She died on 6 May. Her stepmother and her father were convicted of her manslaughter and her wilful neglect at Norwich Crown court on 2 October 2001.

That bare recital of the facts, appalling as it is, conceals the real concerns about this case, which are that Lauren's treatment by her stepmother took place in public, observed by the local community and under the gaze of doctors, teachers and social workers. Trial evidence revealed that Tracey Wright was seen hitting the child and screaming abuse at her; that she fed her pepper sandwiches and put bugs from the garden in her food; that the taps in the house were turned off so tightly that the child could not get a drink of water; that she was made to carry the schoolbags of her step-siblings; that she was taunted and tormented by her stepmother in the local shop, and was made to stand for hours fully dressed in front of a hot stove. Her class teacher, in evidence at the trial, said that she saw marks on Lauren

"lots of times, often she was covered with lots of small bruises and with major bruises about once a month. These included black eyes, bruising on her face and scratches across her back."

At the time of her death at the age of six, Lauren weighed little more than two stone. In the words of her head teacher, her physical deterioration had been

"apparent for at least five months before she died."

There can be no doubt that in Tracey Wright, the stepmother convicted of manslaughter, the agencies were dealing with an exceptionally evil woman. Martin Wright, the acting chief superintendent, said:

"I think that any human being who can inflict this kind of treatment on a defenceless child must notch up very near the top of the scale of inhumanity"— and that is a comment from a policeman.

Tracey Wright was clearly also incredibly plausible. She apparently had an IQ of 78, but nevertheless deceived doctors, teachers and social workers. As Mrs. Cooper of Easton, near Norwich, in a letter to me dated 2 October said:

"Little Lauren went from six stone to just over two, her hair was falling out, she was of a shabby appearance, she seemed sad, not to mention all the different horrific bruising she endured. However plausible and deceitful Tracey Wright was, you just don't keep accepting excuses when a child is constantly and clearly suffering like Lauren. This was going on for sixteen months, not just a one off occurrence, what more evidence did they need?"

After Lauren's death, Norfolk social services department asked the area child protection committee to review its procedures. That department is already the subject of a critical child care inspection report, carried out in 2000. Lauren's death is the fourth in as many years of a child under the protection of Norfolk social services. The ACPC report reveals some of the failures in Lauren's case, including failure to follow up action and no action at all being taken following reports from the public of abuse. As David Wright, the director of social services, in a letter to me of 29 August said:

"There were failings in other agencies, but I believe that our Department should have been able to intervene to save her."

Mr. Wright has been candid about the shortcomings of his own department. We are not to know if any disciplinary action is to follow this appalling affair, but it is clear that there is a shortage of resources for Norfolk social services—although I shall not major on that point. Mr. Wright describes the position thus:

"Our thin blue line of child protection workers feels stretched close to transparency."

He points out the contrast between Norfolk funding which, on paper anyway, allocates to services for children under 18 something like £117 per head, while for Westminster the allocation is £577 per head—five times the amount that Norfolk is adjudged to need. That, although it is a point, is not the main point that I want to make.

The trial following the death of Lauren Wright convicted her stepmother and father of manslaughter and wilful neglect, but its purpose was not to examine the roles of the public services involved. Those public services are accountable not only to all of us but to the 750 other vulnerable children in Norfolk. That is why I seek a public inquiry into the series of muddles, blind eyes, missed chances, errors and sloppy professional practice revealed by Lauren's death.

The Minister, whom I am glad to see here, will want to explain how Department of Health officials could have rejected my call for an inquiry before it reached her desk. She may even care to dissociate herself from their chilling words. I quote from The Times of 2 October:

"It would not be appropriate to hold a public inquiry into all the child killings that happen each year."

My plea is supported by nigh on 1,000 readers of the Fenland Citizen, a local newspaper, who have taken the trouble to petition the paper to indicate their support, and by the 98 per cent. of the Norwich-based Evening News readers who, in a telephone poll, demanded a public inquiry. That has been the unanimous message from the countless letters, telephone calls and e-mails that I have received from members of the public. I am delighted to see that my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk, who supports me, is here, and there is strong cross-party support for a public inquiry.

The following questions are among those that must be answered. What was the role of Hertfordshire social services department in the affair? Did it make its Norfolk colleagues aware of its concerns for Lauren? Why did it visit Lauren in April 2000? If it had not, would Norfolk social services have remained unaware of Lauren's plight? Did the head and class teacher at the William Marshall school in Welney follow Norfolk's child protection procedures that were in force at the time of Lauren's death? Those procedures require teachers to report to the education welfare service, among other things that might indicate the abuse of a child:

"listlessness, poor physical growth, weight loss, looking very tired, bruising or lacerations."

I do not know whether the teachers did what their own authority required. Press reports indicate that they expressed their concerns only to Tracey Wright. Did they, or did they not, follow the local education authority's procedures? If they did not, what action will the LEA take, and did they really not do that because neither of the two teachers was a designated teacher? The school has only 30 pupils, for heaven's sake; there is the head and there is the teacher. One of the excuses for taking no action is that at the time there was no designated teacher concerned with non-accidental injury to children. That is the most extraordinary excuse that I have ever heard. What was the role of the head teacher? If there was not a designated teacher, was the head teacher able to say, "There isn't a designated teacher, so it's nothing to do with me." We do not know. How long was the school without a designated teacher, and what did the LEA do about that problem? When was Tracey Wright dismissed from her post at the school? On the day that she was found guilty of manslaughter? I suspect so.

What action was taken by the paediatrician who saw Lauren Wright on 30 November 1999, fully five months before she died? Was it his advice that "reassured" social services so that it took no action at that stage, which self-evidently was a time when Lauren could have been saved? On 14 and 15 March 2000, when Lauren was seen by a general practitioner and then a paediatrician, did they discuss their differing interpretations of the bruising on her body? What contact did the paediatrician have with the school to support his assertion that the bruising had been caused by bullying at school? Lauren could, even at that stage, have been saved. I put those questions to the Norfolk health authority. It replied that it was not

"able to supply information that is not currently in the public domain."

However, there have been developments. Last night, the chairman of the Norfolk health authority, Mr. John Alston, contacted me. He told me that the letter from the health authority to me, dated 12 October 2001, was neither factually correct—that was not the word that he used, but we are in Parliament now—nor complete. He said that the original version of the letter, which I have not seen, but which is being faxed to my home this morning, had been reduced and altered by the regional press officer to the version that I was given. What sort of operation is this? Obviously, I will pursue the matter—I am not majoring on that this morning either, because the Minister has not been warned and clearly cannot know the answer. However, she will hear from me, especially when I receive the original version of the letter. This does, however, support my demand for a public inquiry. How can we trust the health service if it cannot even give a Member of Parliament a factually correct and complete set of answers to a number of questions?

Norfolk social services has rightly shouldered much of the blame for the case, but its professionals are not the only ones involved, nor is it the only local authority concerned. People from all over the United Kingdom have contacted me to express their disgust at the circumstances of Lauren's death, with its revelations of failure of professional judgment and liaison. They, and we, are not prepared to be fobbed off with promises of internal NHS agency inquiries, in which the conduct of the doctors concerned will be examined by other doctors. Nor will we be fobbed off with attempts to bolt this case on to another appalling case, that of Victoria Climbie. We are sick and tired of hearing about procedures, strategies, reports and restructuring. In the name of the thousands of vulnerable children at risk across Britain, the Minister should today demonstrate her concern by announcing an immediate public inquiry into the case of tragic Lauren Wright.