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5 Nov 2002 : Column 55WH—continued

Sexual Abuse

1 pm

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The sexual abuse of children is a problem that many, including hon. Members, are unwilling or embarrassed to address. It is estimated that between 35,000 and 72,000 children are abused in England and Wales each year, and another survey suggests that one in 10 children experience some form of sexual abuse during their childhoods. Sexual abuse can destroy lives and debase people's humanity, and we must do everything we can to prevent it.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) on her Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall on 16 October in which certain aspects of sexual abuse were discussed. Today, I want to take a slightly different look at the subject by making a case for early intervention to deter potential abusers at an early age—even when they are children. There is much debate and public outrage after offences are detected, but far less debate and action on how to prevent offences from taking place in the first place.

The Government have an excellent record on tackling sexual abuse, but they have almost no record on prevention. Children are best protected by finding potential abusers as early as possible and preventing them from offending. In 1987—my first year in Parliament—I was approached by a family who wanted to get back two of their children who had been taken into care. For me, that marked the beginning of an infamous sexual abuse case, the Broxtowe case, with which people in Nottinghamshire will be familiar. It hurt many of my constituents and has scarred the police officers who had to deal with it. The horrors of those cases made me ask why a parent or relative would abuse a child. We should devise an effective intervention to prevent abuse and save such children, along with countless others.

We should intervene early and actively in families and households where there are factors that could develop into abusing behaviour. A tragic feature of all abusive relationships, especially those involving children, is that abuse becomes a familiar pattern of existence, and we need to intervene before that pattern becomes established and before the victim cannot imagine life without it. Otherwise, the abused can in turn become the abuser, which is an all too familiar, although not inevitable, pattern.

Without intervention, some of those children become the adolescents who commit one third of recorded sex attacks on children. Many of those young people respond well to treatment, the provision of which needs to be more equitable and better funded. Around 50 per cent. of children who sexually abuse others were or are being abused themselves. That is not making excuses; it is a sad fact. Schemes established through the guidelines issued by the Department for Education and Skills, the Department of Health and the Home Office have produced inter-agency co-operation. Those schemes have worked in my constituency where the relevant agencies have received a positive inspection report. The creation of whistleblowing policies and training to deal with abusers has also had a positive impact.

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In the long term, an impact needs to be made on the problem by serious and systematic parenting skills classes in school to allow children to discover standards and models of care, respect and love that sadly they have not experienced at home. Will my hon. Friend the Minister undertake to discuss parenting skills in our education system with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills?

It is vital that abused children become aware that better relationships are possible. The biggest influences on children are television and films, and I have no wish to censor those media or suggest that they retreat into some sort of cosy model family that existed in the 1950s. None the less, will my hon. Friend the Minister encourage the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to open a debate with people who make programmes and films, especially for children, on the need to hold up good models of behaviour and relationships? Children who have been damaged in real life do not need to see that damage repeated in their entertainment. Adults should not have their abusive behaviour reinforced.

Sadly, far more sexual abuse is committed by family members, household members or someone well known to the victim than by strangers. "Stranger danger" accounts for only about 20 per cent. of sexual abuse cases. A recent National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children survey on child maltreatment found that 1 per cent. of all our young people have been sexually abused by a parent and 3 per cent. have been sexually abused by another relative.

We all know that there are abusers of all ages, from all walks of life and areas, but we should be looking out for families where abuse is likely to occur. One key factor in many, if not most, child sex abuse cases is that sexual attraction is not the prime motive. The abuser wants to wield and display power. Sexual abuse is often part of a wider pattern of violence and emotional abuse. Indeed, it completes that pattern. The sexual abuse of children is often accompanied by many other more familiar symptoms of physical and emotional distress. Those symptoms may well be attributed to a more conventional cause, particularly since children are so often unable or reluctant to talk about abuse of any kind.

It is important to have data-sharing between midwives, health visitors, police officers, teachers, social workers and probation officers. They need to talk to one another and pick up the early signals. Together, they may identify a risk that may be missed by individual agencies. The multi-agency panels that gather after abuse is revealed are needed earlier to intervene and prevent abuse. Data-sharing can give vital clues to the need for early intervention. Apart from delivering children from intolerable suffering, such intervention might head off a lifelong problem that would require vast resources to contain and manage.

Some of the things that I have talked about may sound draconian or seem to infringe civil liberties, but what rights does an abused child have? We must be prepared to take action against the potential abuser. The removal of a violent or abusive partner could be the best solution for all concerned. In Nottingham, North, the social services department encourages the removal of the perpetrator and provides support to the non-abusive parent. The solution may not always be that

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simple. The supposedly non-abusive parent may have colluded in the abuse and forfeited the child's trust. For some abused children, there may be no alternative but to be taken into care.

Many agencies also still find it quite difficult to work together and that results in unco-ordinated policy and an inability to share good ideas and best practices nationwide. The Government must sponsor a multi-agency response to deal with the varied cases that come before local authorities.

In Nottingham, North, there is an early intervention and assessment panel that offers help to the abuser. It has been an incredible success and I commend it to the Minister. It was set up as a result of a local initiative in the social services department. The panel works with young sexual abusers and those showing signs of worrying sexual behaviour to assess their needs and to find the right response at the earliest possible moment. In many cases, that involves not just the criminal justice system, but training and education. The panel has made another breakthrough in working with both the abuser and their parents. It has helped families to stay together in incredibly difficult circumstances. I pay an unreserved tribute to the hard-pressed local council officers who have worked so hard on making the initiative a success.

The NSPCC is developing the work of its young abusers teams, which are excellent. Teams are sent out to help those who have not yet abused others, but who show signs of doing so in the future. They are also crucial in developing centres for young people convicted of sexual abuse crimes. Those centres give abusers the help and support that they need so that they do not reoffend. At one such centre, treatment was given to a group of 59 offenders. The usual rate of reoffending is 20 per cent. After treatment at the centre only three people reoffended.

The provision of care centres is patchy. Some offenders do not have access to the help that they need. In his reply to the debate, will my hon. Friend undertake to develop nationwide records of community nursing showing where those services are? Non-statutory bodies, such as the NSPCC and Barnardos, have taken the lead in care treatment and support with programmes such as G-MAP and the Lucy Faithful Foundation.

The lack of provision means that almost anyone can set up a centre to treat young people. The mixture of social services, non-statutory bodies and private care means that it is difficult to establish and guarantee a uniform level of care. The provision for those with sexually harmful behaviour is even more scant in young offenders' institutions. Only two out of 10 have provision for treating those young people. The programmes are often based on adult schemes, which are unsuitable and inappropriate for young people. A prison system that does nothing to stop offenders developing is not acceptable.

The NSPCC informs me that lack of national funding for specialist treatment means that the meagre funds allocated by social services departments are often wasted, resulting in a refusal by some councils to send people out of the area for treatment if there is no local specialist provision because of the cost. The Government must also now begin to consider the funding of those treatment centres. Leaving it to the

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private sector is not good enough. Money spent now will prevent investigations, prosecutions and prison sentences later.

Government spending on research does not match the size of the problem. I would be grateful if the Minister would write to me and let me know current research spending throughout Departments on the sexual abuse of children. When he has discovered that figure, I will leave it to his good judgment to decide whether we should establish a national institute for research into the sexual abuse of children. I raised the matter within a year or two of coming to the House in 1989 and I assure my hon. Friend that I shall continue to do so. Whether he is the Minister responsible is not a matter for me, but I wish him well in answering the queries that I shall raise.

The problems need to be addressed coherently. When preparing for this debate, I was shuttled between the social exclusion unit, the Home Office, the Department of Health and the Department for Education and Skills—I exonerate the Home Office and my hon. Friend the Minister's private office—before I could obtain answers to some obvious questions about the sexual abuse of children. We must develop a clear and overarching strategy in those Departments and someone must be clearly designated by the Prime Minister to take the lead and responsibility in this difficult matter.

What must the Government do to help to prevent sexual abuse of children? First, they must give as much emphasis to prevention as they rightly do to punishment. Secondly, the Government must build on the excellent work at local level in developing multi-agency teams and defining responsibility for spotting families where sexual abuse of children is likely to take place. We must be brave in our actions to remove children before irrevocable damage is done to them. Thirdly, the Government must take action to help potential young offenders not to offend and to treat and re-educate those who have offended. Fourthly, the Government can no longer pass all the responsibility to local level. They must have a national strategy to help to develop and fund the treatment that is already working so well in some parts of the country. They must also fund a coherent, serious programme of research into the causes and prevention of sexual abuse.

Finally, the Prime Minister, who heads our Government and could deal with such issues in an afternoon were he focused on them, should give a named Minister direct responsibility for a prevention programme that would join up the thinking between Departments, including the Department for Education and Skills, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Department of Health and the Home Office. Without the actions I have outlined today and more, we will not have done all we can to fulfil our responsibilities towards children who have already suffered sexual abuse and the countless thousands who could do so unless we act promptly, clearly and soon. I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for his presence today and look forward to hearing his response.

1.14 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Michael Wills) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North

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(Mr. Allen). With characteristic acuity and perspicacity, he has identified an important issue. We should be grateful to him for the trouble that he has taken over many years on behalf of the most vulnerable and needy members of society.

Sexual abuse is a serious, profoundly damaging crime, for all the reasons that my hon. Friend has set out, particularly when it is committed against children and within families. By their nature, such crimes are not visible. They usually occur in private and without witnesses. Victims, therefore, experience—almost by definition—an appalling breach of trust and a terrible transgression of self, in a way that often leaves them damaged psychologically and, almost worse, unable to discuss the abuse with anybody. Sexual abuse thrives in an atmosphere of secrecy. That is why it is important to stress—as my hon. Friend has done—our shared responsibility to protect children from such crime. It is not easy, as he recognises. It requires concerted action at local and national levels, across government and across a range of agencies, both governmental and third sector. As a society, we should engage with the problem in a considered and strategic way in order to prevent it. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for having taken exactly that approach.

Department of Health figures indicate that some 160,000 children are referred to the child protection process each year. That is a horrifying figure. Every year, 40,000 children become the subject of child protection inquiries under section 47 of the Children Act 1989 and 27,000 names were added to the child protection register in 2000–01. An increasing proportion—more than three quarters—of initial child protection conferences result in registration. However, 96 per cent. of those 160,000 children remain at home and the majority of those who are separated from their families are swiftly reunited. The number on the child protection register has recently reduced to 26,800.

Fewer children now remain on the child protection register for long periods of time. That is because, in many cases, their problems are addressed by way of more intensive early intervention to meet their overall developmental needs and by the provision of support to families.

Providing such support is a top priority for the Government, and the Prime Minister is focusing on it. I am sorry that my hon. Friend has been shuffled from Department to Department, and I hope that he will recognise that because the issue is complex, it is inevitable that a number of Departments will have an interest in it. He paid tribute to multi-agency working at local level, and we must work in the same way. The Home Office has an interest, in that criminal offences might be being perpetrated. The Department for Education and Skills—with its responsibility for the development of young people—has an interest, as, clearly, does the Department of Health. So, too, does the social exclusion unit. Problems are often most acute when they are visited on the most vulnerable members of society, because they are compounded by other issues that arise from social exclusion.

Mr. Allen : Can I first make it clear that I do not mean anything untoward by pointing out the slight

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dislocation in Government policy? I certainly do not want to berate officials or Ministers, because everyone is trying extremely hard at national and local levels. I simply want to suggest that joined-up thinking at national level would produce many benefits, and my hon. Friend could play a co-ordinating role by drawing all the strands together. We did something similar with the street crime initiative, and people were going in and out of No. 10 Downing street. If the Prime Minister were to bring the same amount of energy and co-ordination to bear on tackling this awful, secret aspect of crime, I am confident that we would see even better results.

Mr. Wills : I thank my hon. Friend. I recognise, as I am sure officials do, that he has approached the issue graciously. It is a matter not of blame, but of delivering better services, and I assure him that we are at one on that.

The Prime Minister has already taken action on the issue and, as my hon. Friend will be aware, he announced new Government structures in July 2000 to co-ordinate better policies and services for young people. A new Cabinet committee on children and young people's services was created, and, for the first time, we have a Minister for children and young people—my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) at the Home Office. The children and young people's unit at the Department for Education and Skills is also part of the new Government structures. We are trying to achieve joined-up policy-making across Departments, as my hon. Friend rightly wants. That will remove barriers and enable better and more effective co-ordination. My hon. Friend is right to highlight the issue's importance.

I hope that I can reassure my hon. Friend on the development of parenting skills. The family support grant scheme is intended to develop more positive parenting skills, which will go some way towards addressing people's concerns.

Clearly, however, we need to do more. In recent years, we have revised the core inter-agency child protection guidance, which is called "Working Together to Safeguard Children". It sets out the roles and responsibilities of different agencies and practitioners and how they should work together to promote children's welfare and protect them from abuse and neglect. We have also introduced the framework for assessing children in need and their families. The implementation of such guidance will ensure that vulnerable children are safer, their needs are properly assessed and their welfare is promoted.

Mr. Allen : If the Prime Minister were to make a public announcement on the issue, the Government's actions would carry his weight and could incorporate his suggestions for policy development. He would, however, make another important contribution by helping to break the taboo on discussing sexual abuse. It is difficult to raise the issue even in a sensible environment such as this, particularly when there are many competing pressures. The Prime Minister could do an immense amount for local practitioners and for those who work for the NSPCC by helping to break that taboo so that we can all talk about ways forward on this important issue.

Mr. Wills : I am sure that the Prime Minister will carefully note my hon. Friend's views, but I should

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reassure him that there is no doubt that everyone in the Government, including my right hon. Friend, is determined to tackle the issue effectively. My hon. Friend has done everyone a valuable service by highlighting sexual abuse and he is right that people often shy away from discussing it because it is so sensitive and raises many difficult issues. That is precisely why we must approach it in the way that we have—by co-ordinating action across government and across different agencies and by bringing in organisations such as the NSPCC and other third-sector bodies, with their skills and experience, to tackle the problems. There are no magic-bullet solutions, and everything that my hon. Friend has said recognises that.

My hon. Friend rightly drew our attention to the fact that, as we are all aware, too many offenders and potential offenders do not come to the attention of the authorities. That is why we launched the inter-agency "Stop it Now" campaign in September. It will use public health education to prevent child abuse and increase the general public's awareness of sexual abuse in a way that encourages responsible action. I think that that is precisely the sort of approach that my hon. Friend wants, and we need to build on it. The campaign aims to prevent abuse by encouraging abusers and potential abusers to seek help and by giving all adults the information that they need effectively to protect children. We cannot be overly prescriptive about it, but we have to lay the ground in that way.

It is not possible to predict whether a child who has been abused will go on to abuse others. Many of those who sexually offend against children do not have a history of sexual abuse. Similarly, because only a minority of those who are sexually abused go on to offend, a history of sexual victimisation is not, in itself, sufficient to create a sexual offender. That is important. Nevertheless, histories of childhood sexual abuse in sex offenders are often associated with other childhood risk factors, including neglect, family instability and problematic parenting, and we need to offer them support.

As I said, the family support grant scheme is one way to support such children. Many children who have been abused will receive therapeutic help from child and adolescent mental health services and other children's agencies—and, again, I pay tribute to the NSPCC. Those services are invaluable, and we need to build on them and to provide them with the support that they need.

My hon. Friend knows that we recently announced the publication of a Green Paper to identify radical options for improving services for children and young people. I hope that it will act as a platform to take forward some of the factors mentioned by my hon. Friend. The Green Paper will focus on identifying the referral and tracking of children at risk, and the provision of mainstream and specialist services. It will deal with overhauling existing arrangements, and consider the services that work with young people and children, including social services and youth justice, as well as the more conventional roles of schools, families and local communities.

The Green Paper will build on work that we have already done. From next year, we shall ask the chief executives of all the top-tier authorities in England to take a lead in co-ordinating the development of a

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strategy for preventive services for children and young people at risk. The aim of the strategy, which should be agreed by all the local agencies in the sort of partnership way that my hon. Friend envisages and would support, will be to increase the focus on preventive services—precisely what my hon. Friend has advocated—such as family support, early years development, behavioural support, including preventive child and adolescent mental health services, and youth services.

We know that we have to do better. We have to improve the life chances of children, and to give strong support to families. For far too long, it has been a hidden subject, and we must do better.

Mr. Allen : May I press my hon. Friend—I do not expect him to reply immediately, but perhaps to write to me—on the funding for such services? Will it be ring-fenced? For various reasons, the money in many social service budgets is often spent under other heads. That is a serious and long-term issue, and I hope that my hon. Friend will consider it.

Before he brings his remarks to a conclusion, will he say something about the need for having a research capacity, so that we can examine why sexual abusers offend and what we can do to prevent them offending in the first place?

Mr. Wills : I shall conclude by picking up on what my hon. Friend said. I reassure him that I understand absolutely why he is so concerned about those matters, and he is right to draw attention to them. If I may, I shall write to him about some of them.

I understand the importance of ring fencing. It sends an important signal. My hon. Friend will be aware of the important issues of principle and practice of ring-fencing such money, but such things are not necessarily as simple as they should be. My hon. Friend's interest is well known, and I understand why he is so concerned. We recognise that ring fencing is a complex matter. It crosses many Departments and agencies, and raises difficult issues.

We know that more needs to be done. We need to encourage every member of society to recognise the importance, the nature and the scale of the problem. We must ensure that agencies such as the police and social services, when responding to public concerns, are equipped to act swiftly and decisively. Funding, of course, is important in that respect. Equally, my hon. Friend will realise that there are no easy answers. We must accept that great difficulties face those who have to police and investigate allegations of that nature. It can be traumatising for those people, too, as my hon. Friend suggested from his experience in his constituency.

Having said all that, we must not use any of it as a reason for inactivity or complacency, or as an excuse not to set ourselves the highest targets to prevent such crime through the earliest possible identification of potential offenders and children who may be at risk. We must think creatively about how we use and share information, and how we spread understanding and awareness of the realities of the crime.

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We are determined to make progress, and I hope to write to my hon. Friend to respond in detail to his questions.

Mr. Allen : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker : I fear that there can be no point of order, as it is 1.30 pm and we must move on.

Mr. Allen : Would it be in order to bring to your attention, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the fact that I intend to seek another Adjournment debate this time next year to see how well the Government have done on the subject?

Mr. Deputy Speaker : The hon. Gentleman has made his point very effectively, with or without my permission.

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