The Home Affairs Committee has agreed to the following Report:
THE CONDUCT OF INVESTIGATIONS INTO PAST CASES OF ABUSE IN CHILDREN'S HOMES
1. In the last five years, 34 of the 43 police forces in England and Wales have been involved in investigations into allegations of child abuse in children's homes and other institutions. All of the allegations relate to historical abuse, said to have occurred several yearsoften decadesago. In Merseyside alone, the police have investigated 510 former care workers suspected of child abuse. Of those, 67 individuals were charged, resulting in 36 convictions and nine acquittals. In the remaining 22 cases, the prosecution was either discontinued or dismissed by the judge.
2. It has been suggested, and we believe it to be so, that a new genre of miscarriages of justice has arisen from the over-enthusiastic pursuit of these allegations. Those who argue the case, contend that police methods of 'trawling' for information, from a wide net of former residents, produces unreliable evidence for the prosecution and, hence, unsafe convictions. There is deep concern over the conduct of police interviews with witnesses and the integrity of witness testimony. In addition, trawling is said to provide fertile conditions for the generation of false allegations. Set in the context of a growing compensation culture and a shift in the law of 'similar fact' evidence, the risks of effecting a miscarriage of justice in these cases are said to be unusually high.
3. It is not only those who stand accused, or their families, who have voiced such concerns. Similar fears have been expressed amongst the legal profession including by some members of the judiciary. In one case, the trial judgewho had dismissed all of the charges against the defendantexpressed serious concerns over the difficulties of defending such allegations:
"Anyone who is in charge of children is vulnerable to allegations of assault from some dissatisfied or angry child, and if no complaint is made for months or years how can any teacher, social worker, nurse defend themselves?...How is he or she going to be able to...prove his or her innocence when so much time has passed?"
4. Our decision to conduct this inquiry was made in response to a large number of well-argued representations received by the Committee. However, we have not sought to investigate any individual case, or to review the safety of any particular conviction. That is not our function. Our purpose was to examine the general method and process by which convictions have been achieved.
5. By taking on this delicate task, we are conscious that we have ventured into some sensitive and controversial issues when there is so much justified concern over physical and sexual abuse of children. At the outset we would stress that child abuse is one of the most dreadful crimes and the suffering of victims, even years after the offence has taken place, is difficult to imagine. We believe that police forces should always seek to investigate allegations of child abuse, even if the alleged offence or offences in question have taken place many years ago. We also recognise that the police face an unenviable task. Investigating events in the distant past is immensely difficult as gathering evidence, aside from witness testimony, can be close to impossible. We believe, however, that the undoubted need to protect children from abuse and for the authorities to investigate allegations is not helped by destroying the careers and reputations of innocent people. Our report, therefore, tries to address the rules that should cover these investigations, to help ensure that miscarriages of justice do not take place in future.
6. During the course of our inquiry, we have seen the emergence of two important guidance documents. In March 2002, the Association of Chief Police Officers issued an internal police handbook to all senior investigating officers engaged in 'The Investigation of Historic Institutional Child Abuse'. In June, the Government published a multi-agency guidance document on the conduct of complex abuse investigations. The emergence of these documents suggests that, albeit belatedly, both the Government and the police are beginning to take these issues seriously.
7. We heard from 27 witnesses over a total of seven evidence sessions. These included the Chair of the All-Party Group on Abuse Investigations, investigative journalists and others who have written extensively on the subject, criminal defence solicitors and four individuals who have been accused of abusing children in the past. We have also taken evidence from the Chief Constable who leads on child protection matters and three senior investigating officers with experience of some of the biggest investigations of this kind. We have heard from the Social Services' liaison consultant in South Wales, the Chief Executive of the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority, two civil compensation solicitors, representatives from four victim support organisations and experts in the fields of psychiatry, psychology and criminology. In addition, we have put these issues to the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Chairman of the Criminal Cases Review Commission, during our general scrutiny sessions earlier in the year. A full list of those who gave oral evidence appears on pages 64-5.
8. We are also grateful to the more than 200 people and organisations who provided written submissions. All of these memoranda have been carefully considered. Some are published with this report; others which relate to individual experiences or which deal with points already covered in the published memoranda are available for examination on request but are not being printed in order to contain costs. Several further memoranda, which appear to relate to continuing legal cases, are not being made available to avoid trespassing into matters sub judice. Finally, we are grateful to the officers of Northumbria Police who gave us a very valuable and informative briefing on the logistics of a major investigation, which they conducted, into allegations of past institutional abuse.
9. We would emphasise that this has not been an easy inquiry to undertake. The evidence received has covered a broad range of views and opinions. Many of the issues have been arguedoften forcefullyfrom positions that were diametrically opposed. Although it was, on occasions, difficult to judge between conflicting evidence, we took all submissions into consideration before reaching our own conclusions.
10. The terms of reference, which we set at the start of the inquiry, were as follows:
The Committee has decided to conduct an inquiry into possible miscarriages of justice arising from the conduct of investigations into alleged abuse in children's homes, some of which occurred many years ago. The Committee will not investigate individual cases, some of which may still be subject to legal proceedings, but it will address the following issues:
1. Do police methods of 'trawling' for evidence involve a disproportionate use of resources and produce unreliable evidence for prosecution?
2. Is the Crown Prosecution Service drawing a sensible line about which cases should be prosecuted?
3. Should there be a time limitin terms of number of years since the alleged offence took placeon prosecution of cases of child abuse?
4. Is there a risk that the advertisement of prospective awards of compensation in child abuse cases encourages people to come forward with fabricated allegations?
5. Is there a weakness in the current law on 'similar fact' evidence?
1 Commons Hansard, 1 November 2001, col. 853-856 w (John Denham MP). The ACPO survey, which is referred to in the Parliamentary answer, is appended to this report. Back
2 24 pleaded guilty. Back
3 Chief Superintendent Mike Langdon, Q. 632 and Vol. II, Ev 10-11, appendix D (ACPO memorandum). Back
4 Judge Jonathan Crabtree. Reported in the Evening Press (Yorkshire), 24 June 1999. Back
5 SIO Handbook: The Investigation of Historic Institutional Child Abuse, (March 2002, ACPO Crime Committee), unpublished. Back
6 Complex Child Abuse Investigations: Inter-agency Issues, Guidance, (May 2002, Home Office, Department of Health). Back
7 The House is bound by the Resolution on Matters Sub Judice, 15 November 2001. Back