John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD):
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) on calling for and securing this debate. Progress has been made; we now have a panel to look at the wider issues relating to child sexual abuse. I am pleased that Ivor Frank, a barrister who has himself been in care, has been appointed to the panel. I did get Michael Mansfield to agree to chair the panel, but I have not yet managed to persuade the Home Secretary to appoint him.
It is worthwhile to look at the issues that the panel will be considering, some of which are not in the terms of reference, which should be widened to include Northern Ireland, the Crown dependencies and possibly the British overseas territories. My speech will range wider than that. I spoke on this subject on 13 November 2012; anyone interested should read column 246 of Hansard of that date. I will not repeat the speech, but I refer again to Mike Stein, who, in his excellent article in Child and Family Social Work in February 2006, explained how widespread the problem was, with a possible one in seven children in care being subject to abuse. Perhaps that bears repeating: one in seven children in care. I accept that care is not the only place in which child sexual abuse occurs, but we need to understand how large a number that is. Obviously, it explains why there are so many survivors who are upset about the cover-up.
When looking at the past, it is important that we learn lessons for the future. One lesson that we should really learn is how easy it is for things to be concealed by agents of the state. Hillsborough is relevant in that sense. It should be noted from the Rotherham report that it is only through media attention that anything happens. The checks and balances operating in the system might as well have been welded together for all the challenge that they provided. I remain concerned about the work of Verita, for example, which has been involved in previous cover-ups of errors by the state. I was shocked to see it at the centre of the Savile inquiries both in the UK and Jersey. The central control over the reports from hospitals enables any links to those people protecting him to be concealed.
Let me turn now to the word “independent”. Someone who is paid by someone else is not “independent” of the payor. We see that in the petition I presented for Shaz Hussain, which demonstrated how the local hospital can commission KPMG to write what suits the hospital management rather than the truth. The word “independent” is massively misused in the child protection system. The independent reviewing officer is just another employee of the local authority, and we can see how ineffectual that role is by looking at A and S (Children) v. Lancashire county council 2012 EWHC 1689 (Family).
England has many more problems than Scotland, although there are cases such as that of Mark and Kerry McDougall, who lived happily with their two children in Ireland, but were on the receiving end of vindictive proceedings that saw their children removed when they returned to Scotland. Sadly, they have had to return to Ireland as mum is pregnant, and we will see where that goes.
The state has many tools at its disposal. Local authorities get injunctions to stop people from complaining to legislatures, which is an appalling situation. When it comes to child sexual exploitation, there have been problems with the attitudes of those responsible for caring for children even if they do not go as far as the one in seven reported by Mike Stein.
In Birmingham, practitioners in the past have argued that children should be permitted to prostitute themselves while not being allowed to make toast for each other. Attitudes are now shifting, but it remains the case that I have reported cases and felt that my reports were not taken seriously. Someone spoke to me this year about a paedophile network operating in Birmingham in the 1990s, which included at least one senior manager in the child protection arm of social services. I reported that to the police and the local authority. I spoke again to my contact this morning who confirmed that the council had said nothing and that the police had failed to give an update, although they did speak initially.
The council has produced a report called “We Need to Get it Right” in which it states that child sexual exploitation was a “hidden issue”. I raised that in Parliament in 2007 and had expressed concern previously to the local authority. Hence, the issue was not so much hidden as ignored. I have recently raised concerns on behalf of a constituent about activities around the canal going into the city centre, but neither my constituent nor I are satisfied with the response of the authorities, which seem to want to sweep the matter under the carpet—or into the canal.
Some of the public have wondered why, if we have parliamentary privilege, we are not naming names. Speaking personally, I am always concerned that there should be evidence. Lots of things are said on the internet, but we need to remember that not everything on the internet is true. Furthermore, we also need to avoid prejudicing any formal inquiries.
What is true is that very recently, in mid-2011, a journalist from the USA, Leah McGrath Goodman, was banned from the common travel area because she told authorities she was investigating child abuse in Jersey. That included Haut de la Garenne, one place where Savile was active; this happened before he died. She could have asked him who was protecting him, but she was banned by the UK Government. Not only that, but she was obstructed in Heathrow later when the ban was reduced to a year from two years and she finally got a visa. It seems clear that there are influential individuals still using the tools of the state to hold back investigations. What is important is that there will still be an audit trail of evidence and if something is missing it will be obvious.
Jersey is an important element of the debate. It is excluded from the terms of reference, but we know that children were sent there from London to be sexually abused. There are also reasonably widespread reports of abuse cruises involving children in Jersey being visited by people from the UK.
We know that with Kincora, which is outside the terms of reference, and with Cyril Smith, the security services were involved in covering up child abuse. Sir Peter Hayman’s role is obviously key in considering that question. Robert Armstrong should have known by the end of October 1978 about Sir Peter Hayman’s involvement in Paedophile Information Exchange because he had access to all the UK’s secrets and was potentially vulnerable to blackmail. The finding of a sealed letter addressed to him in his false name at his secret London flat—a very curious sequence of events—should have been raised with Merlyn Rees and then with James Callaghan. PIE’s membership is, of course, both a threat to and an opportunity for MI5.
What is interesting about the Wanless report is that the Home Office had a set of secret files on about 100 children’s homes that was passed to the Department of Health in 1972. Their purpose is not described and all the files were marked to be retained and not disclosed for 75 or 100 years. That set of files was not disclosed to Wanless, although Wanless does refer to a standard National Archive file called “Home Secretary’s Meetings” that ended in 1984. That file is missing from the National Archives and could not be found by National Archives staff. Furthermore, the security services refused to provide any information to Wanless and there are questions about what has happened with the special branch files.
There are signs of security service involvement in the treatment of Leah McGrath Goodman as well, and that is of course recent. Answers are needed and the events are sufficiently recent for the answers to be there for anyone who looks with their eyes open.
I have been approached by police officers who are concerned that the management within the Metropolitan police—the senior sergeants or whatever—instructed junior police officers to conceal evidence, and there are examples that can be identified. I put to the Home Secretary the suggestion that where there is a command structure and a senior officer instructs a junior officer to break the law, there should be an opportunity for some sort of amnesty for the junior officer if they then reveal that, so they do not end up being prosecuted for revealing how they were forced to commit offences.
I wrote to the Home Secretary in July asking whether that could be done and received a standard response about the inquiry about a week ago. I have written again to suggest action if we wanted to find out the truth of what has gone on in the Met. There is no doubt that there were people in the Met who were involved in the cover-up. I have had people report that to me; a lot of people are willing to speak up, but not if they end up going to jail as a consequence of admitting what they were forced to do. It is a complex issue, of course, because whenever we have amnesties we need to consider their limits, but if things continue to be concealed because people are frightened to tell the truth it will be very difficult to get to the truth. One of the critical points in all this is getting to the truth.
I recently asked a question to find out about reports written about British overseas territories such as St Helena. It appears that people have known for years what is going on in such places but that nothing has been done to make things work any better. I happen to know that a couple of employment tribunals, which I do not think are covered by the sub judice resolution, started today in Kingsway and will be reported in the media tomorrow. They are relevant and if people are interested they should follow the proceedings.
Let me mention again the failure of the Government to modify the SSDA903 return in order to track when children are lost or trafficked out of the care system. It does not appear that the Government are bothered about this given that they refused to even count them. I continue to go on about this. I know that I am a bit of a techie who is really interested in computer systems and things like that, but if children are disappearing from the care system and we do not bother to count them, what does that say? The response from the Minister was:
“The Department has no plans to expand the codes under which local authorities provide statistical returns on children missing from care, as this will lead to an unnecessary increase in reporting requirements.”—[Official Report, 13 December 2011; Vol. 537, c. 641W.]
Frankly, that is unacceptable. We should be concerned if children are being trafficked. We should be sufficiently concerned as an absolute minimum to count how many are trafficked and find out which authorities they are lost from and what their ages are. We are lucky in that we have a reasonably good database that tracks what happens to children in care. Every year, a large number disappear for other reasons—not that they have gone back to their parents, or have been adopted. They just disappear from the system. I do not think that that is reasonable. We are happy to send in auditors if we are worried that money has disappeared. We send in local government auditors to check about local government finance. We audit the finances to make sure that money has not been stolen. We do not audit what happens to children to make sure that they have not been stolen. That is a failure of this Government, of whom I happen to be a quasi supporter as a Back Bencher.
The history here is all about abuse of power by employees of the state. The fact that it involves the maltreatment of children for sexual gratification makes this all the worse. For the future, we need to make it harder for state employees to conceal abuses of power. More transparency and accountability are needed, as well as less secrecy. Parliament, which is the voice of the people, has to stand on the side of the powerless. Whitehall mandarins, judges, BBC managers, council bureaucrats and professionals all have their own interests and a desire to hide mistakes. Parliament needs to balance the scales on the side of the weak—those without wealth who are crying out and not being heard.