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16 Oct 2002 : Column 95WHcontinued
Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby): In 1998, I was holding one of my regular Saturday surgeries when two men came to see me to discuss their deep concerns about a friend. Their friend was a social worker in a local care home that had been established for many years and looked after young men who came from broken families or had misbehaved. For one reason or another, those young men had no one else to care for them except the council. The men's friend had been arrested for sex abuse, but they said that it was impossible that he could have committed the crimes of which he was accused.
Of course, that is a pretty normal response from anyone who learns that a friend has been accused of a horrendous crime. Sex abuse is one of those private things, and we now understand that the most vulnerable and innocent sorts of people can at one time be sex offenders. I told my visitors that they should be content with the outcome of the criminal proceedings and the jury's verdict on their friend, but I promised that I would ask some parliamentary questions about sex abuse crimes.
The answers that I received to my questions were alarming. It transpired that more than 40 police authorities had investigated cases of historical sex abuse, as opposed to one-on-one abuse, during the past two years. Police authorities receive two sorts of complaints about sex abuseone about abuse initiated by an individual against an individual, and the other about abuse by an individual against many individuals. Those 40 police authorities were considering complex sex abuse cases involving hundreds and thousands of complainants and thousands of potential sex offenders.
Dozens of prisons hold sex offenders in this country. I have been to prisons that are exclusively the domain of sex offenders. Sex offending is a huge problem in the UK, and the associated costs of the inquiries are fantastic. When I asked a parliamentary question about Operation Rose, an inquiry by the police in the north-east, I was informed that the police costs alone for prosecuting those cases were £5 million. I estimate that £5 million must go to the Crown Prosecution Service and another £5 million on court proceedings, so each inquiry must cost about £15 million. I therefore suspect that the amount of public money allocated to the prosecution of cases is some half a billion pounds.
Armed with that sort of information, I received inquiries from other hon. Members whose constituents had come to see them. I decided that we should form an all-party group, but it was with some hesitation that I wrote to my colleagues asking for support. On the surface of it, we appeared to be a group who were generally in support of paedophiles, but that was certainly not the case.
I was very reassured when, after writing my first and only letter seeking support for the group, we received 60 responses from hon. Members on both sides of the House. The group was established one year ago. Our terms of reference were that we should not interest ourselves in individuals' guilt or innocence, but merely seek to identify and examine the processes used by the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and the courts
Last year we dealt with 3,000 letters and made dozens of visits, and I have been into more prisons than I care to recall. I have spoken to complainants, victims and people who have been accused of sex offences and incarcerated for 20 years. I have spoken to judges, the Attorney-General and the Solicitor-Generaland, indeed, the Minister who is here today.
The group has had a significant amount of correspondence from many different people, although essentially it has come from two groups. First, there are those who have been accused by another person. Secondly, there are the friends and families of the accused, or "the damned", as I prefer to call them. This group has relatives who have been accused of the most horrendous acts against not just one, but dozens of people.
I also have many letters from social workers and care workers who have been arrested and released, but who are waiting for another knock on the door. I have letters from people whom the police have identified as suspects and who are desperately waiting to discover the outcome of the deliberations, which can sometimes take as long as three or four years. I have letters from people who have been arrested and who are waiting for the police to put together their case. I have letters from those who have been charged and who are waiting for their cases to come to court. Finally, I have letters both from those who have been acquitted and from those who have been convicted.
All those people discuss their grave concerns about the processes that the police use to execute their inquiries. I think that often, the only difference between those who are acquitted and those who are convicted is luck, which consists of little more than the calibre of the team that supports them and the climate in which the case is conducted on the day.
How do people such as care workers with an unblemished service history find themselves accused of sex offences? When do they know that their world, and that of their family and friends, is about to collapse? It happens in one of two ways. Some of them may be at work. Someone who has been working in a care home for 30 years may be summoned to their supervisor's office to be told that allegations have made against them and inquiries are being made. They must go home at once and waitwhich is what they do. Some of them wait a long time before finding out the nature of the complaint against them. Other people, however, may have been retired for 20 years. There may be a knock at the door at six o'clock in the morning, and six police officers may be waiting outside to tell them that they are being arrested for sexually abusing 20 people, 30 or 40 years ago.
Those who find themselves in that position have two ways out. They can admit their guilt; contrary to popular myth, many do. Many sex offenders are glad that they have been arrested, because they were locked into appalling behaviours from which they were waiting to be liberated. I have met sex offenders in prison who never want to be released in any circumstances, because they are so afraid of what will happen to them when they get out, and because they know that they are still extremely vulnerable.
Other people with whom I deal profess that they are innocent, as one would expect, and I have come to believe that there is in fact every likelihood that some of them are. They then wait to go to court.
How do the police come by the allegations that place those individuals in such a predicament? Police use a number of processes, one of which is trawling, and they receive complaints from a number of sources. What is trawling, and where do the complaints come from? Some come from solicitors who manage compensation schemes. Their advertisements say, "No win, no fee," and, "Have you been subject to a traffic accident?" or "Have you been abused? If so, you may be entitled to compensation." People who have been abused or who are seeking compensation may come forward legitimately and the solicitor refers them to the police; that is one source. A second is the individuals who go directly to the police.
There are also cases in which the police go "cold calling" and realise complaints directly. What does that mean? In certain operations the police authorities have identified every social worker who has ever worked in a care home as an individual who might have committed a sex crime. They have to start like that; they seem to believe that sex abuse is rampant in care homes. I do not share that viewit is a damning indictment of the vast majority of people who give their lives to help those who are far more vulnerable than they are.
The police may write to all the individuals who have ever lived in a certain care home asking them to help with inquiries and advising them to make contact if they suffered any problem while in that home. That may identify an individual, who will then give a statement along the lines of, "I was sexually abused"or perhaps physically abused"But I can't remember when."
The police then have just one statement. If they present one statement in court against a man who might have had 40 years' unblemished service, they will not win. That has something to do with the majority of complainants in such cases; they are largely convicted criminals. I have visited such people in prison, and many have themselves been convicted of murder, grievous bodily harm or other horrendous crimes, including sex abuse.
Thus the police have a statement from somebody and there is every probability that that person is a convicted criminal. They know that they cannot take the case to courtthey would never secure a convictionso they need corroboration of the evidence that they have from that one person. Therefore, they seek others. They do so by telling the first individual that it is necessary to identify others who might be able to help, and asking whether that person can think of anyone else who was present at the time. The individual might offer a list of people whom the police can then interviewusually in prison, because most of those whom they seek to interview are in prison, on remand or on parole.
The police go to prisons, frequently unannouncedI know that because I have spoken to people who have been interviewed by the police in prisonand sit down with a complainant. They say, "We've come to see you today because we hope that you can help us with our inquiries in connection with an individual who has been accused of, and arrested for, sex offences." They normally offer a photograph at this point, and say,
In a real case that came to court this year, the police had been to see an individual in prison. At the first interview, he said, "I've got nothing to tell you at all. This man has done nothing." But the police say that such people are hardened criminals, that they find it difficult to make disclosures so they have to be encouraged. So they went back to see that individual again and again and again. They went back to see him 15 times in 10 different prisonsthen they got a statement. He was not the only person whom the police were seeing, because although they now had two allegations, two were still not enough, as the two people who had made them were convicted criminals, serving sentences for the most horrendous crimes. That is not enough; the police have to find others, and they do.
During the conversation the police can say, "There's compensation available; it's only right that you should receive that." Or they can say, "You know, you're coming up for parole," which may be in 20 years' time, 10 years' time, five years' time or next week. "How good will it look for your parole that you have identified the fact that you were abused as a child?" I have interviewed people, and for many of them money is not the issue. They have more to gain from helping the police than just money. They receive many visits from the police and see much activity. They become the centre of attention; they are not the baddy any more, but the goody. Some are very much persuaded by the opportunity to get a good report when it comes to parole time.
At the end of the day, the police may have 20 complainants. They need 20 to get to court because invariably, days before the case is to be heard, that 20 is whittled down, perhaps to 10. They know that statistically, they need at least eight to get a conviction. I can tell hon. Members that if anyone comes to their surgery and says that he has been accused of sex abuse, there is only one question that has to be asked, if he is a social worker: "How many complaints are there against you?" If it is eight, tell him to forget the judicial process and not to bother going to court, because he can go and see the judge and tell him that he can save the public purse a lot of money because he knows he is going down. He will go down. There is no way that eight people can be dispensed with , because the idea is that one can fool some of the people some of the time, but not all of the people all of the time. If someone is facing eight individuals accusing them of the same crime over decadesthere may be 60, 80 or 100 different sex indictmentspeople will think that there is no smoke without fire. Someone in there must be telling the truth; they cannot all be telling lies. Therefore the person goes to court.
I attended court this summer, and on that day the newspaper that I am holding now carried the following headlines, with pictures: on page 1, "Dani, 15, killed by the uncle who lusted for her", and on page 2, "Dani's blood on stockings". Page 5 read, "Huntley's not mad, he's not depressed. He will be tried", and page 6, with a picture of bereaved parents, "We still have each other".
Then people found the accused before them and discovered a sex offender present in their midst. They had one of these people. They could not get the ones here in the paper, but they had another one in front of them. The list of indictments for him included: buggery, sometime in April 1983; indecent assault, 1984; indecent assault, 1983; buggery, 1984. There is page after page of dates: 1973, 1978, 1969. That is the kind of accusation that such people face.
In a case earlier this summer, an individual who went to court faced 10 complainants; he was summonsed with another chap on 58 counts not dissimilar to those that I have mentioned. Two of the people who were brought to court to give evidence against him were from Broadmoor and had serious psychiatric problems, so they were refused. The third person who came before the court had made a mistake in that he had applied for compensation before the court caseI wish that they had all made that mistake. He was subjected to a significant amount of cross-questioning, which eventually culminated in the defence lawyer saying, "You're doing this for the compensation, aren't you?" to which he replied, "Yes, I am." Then he said, "And everything that I've said is a complete pack of lies." Next morning he was dispensed with and was subsequently brought before the judge for perjury, for which he is awaiting trial.
The letter said something like, "I'm not coming to court today because all the statements I've given have been an absolute pack of lies." That situation is very commonplace. I do not want hon. Members to think that it is an exceptional case, because it is notI could be talking about any one of the hundreds that are going on.
The judge discharged and exonerated the two men before him, saying that there was no case to answer. One man had lost everything, including family and friends. Of course, the police are law-abiding citizens who would never do anything remotely corrupt. They never have, have they? How does such a person recover his reputation? In fact, he has not been able to.
Social services have a right to instigate their own inquiries, and having been exonerated by the court, the men now find that they are the subject of an internal social services inquiry, which will last three weeks. At the end of it, they will be told either that they will be sacked from their jobs because people believe that they have committed a crime, or that they will not. They will never recover from the allegations, nor will their families and friends.
I am deeply concerned about the processes that the police are using. I do not think that they are actively engaged in some form of corruption, but like the rest of us, they feel a collective guilt for having done nothing for so many years. So many people who were locked into
It cannot be right that the only evidence used to convict a man is that obtained by the police from a witness in privacy, with no independent witnesses to the interview. I have been told that complainants can talk among themselves, but that would be difficult or impossible, because most of them are in prisons in different parts of the country. It is not necessary for complainants to talk among themselves, given that the same group of police officers are going from prison to prison writing statements on their behalf. That is what creates the consistency that allows such cases to come to courtthey have been corroborated by volume.
Dr. John Pugh (Southport): It is a very stark claim to say that the only distinction between those who are convicted and those who are not convicted is luck. I want to be clear about what the hon. Lady is saying. Is she claiming that some or many people who are innocent are convicted, or is she making the lesser claim that some people who are innocent are nevertheless investigated and suffer as a result of the allegations? Those are two different positions, and I should like the hon. Lady to clarify which she is taking.
Mrs. Curtis-Thomas : I have had letters from people who maintain their innocence of the crime of which they have been accused. I do not know whether they are innocent. All I can say is that the processes employed by the police in the execution of their duty, which have been compounded by the Crown Prosecution Service, lead me to believe that opportunities exist for the judiciary and the criminal justice system to abuse those processes to deliver a result. Some people who are brought to court, as many people have been this summer, are subsequently acquitted of the crimes of which they were accused, but only through the largesse of the complainants on the witness stand, whereas others being prosecuted face complainants who are absolutely adamant.
I was told by one complainant that the compensation was the quickest £50,000 he had made in his life, and some of the people whom I have interviewed in prison have said something like, "I'll have nothing when I get out of here, but at least that person will still have his family"if he ever gets out, that is. I am currently trying to get the Criminal Cases Review Commission to take 30 cases, all of which are similar to the ones that I have outlined today. Two of those cases will now be taken posthumously, because of the age of the people involved.
I have a set view on what must be done. All conversations that take place between the police and the victims must be video recorded. The cases are far too important for the evidence not to be video recorded. I have seen the Minister several times about that, and he keeps saying nobut I say absolutely yes. I have spoken to judges about it, and they say yes. They say that video recording makes matters much easier. I want to see all those interviews, and be able to tell my constituents that there was no way that the police could have persuaded,
People accused have very little recourse to appeal, because they need new evidence, for example about the incompetence of their team. There will be no new evidence for cases in which people believe there was no evidence to convict them in the first place. Such people are in the most horrendous position. I cannot give precise figures, but I suspect that about 100 people are locked up in prison for crimes of the most horrendous nature, which they did not commit. One man was given a severe beating just a couple of weeks ago; he now has a fractured cheek, a fractured nose and fractured eye sockets. He will stay in prison, because such people are not sent down for short periods. Eighteen years, when a person is 70, is a life sentence. I want interviews video recorded and, for the reasons that I have identified, the processes must be made utterly transparent. I will then feel more confident about the outcome.
The police have done something to try to minimise the abuse of processes. They introduced guidelines earlier this year, on the day that the Association of Chief Police Officers was due to give evidence in the Select Committee inquiries into the casesbut that is five years too late for the vast majority of people. The guidelines include a list of dos and don'ts, including the fact that there must be no talk of compensation. That advice is all too late for most people, and is not enforceable.
I have asked questions about who considers the processes that the police use. The answer is nobody. I asked judges whether, when cases come to court, the processes that the police use are ever discussed. They say that that is not under their jurisdiction. I asked the Home Office who reviews the processes and checks to ensure that they are not open to abuse. Is it, perhaps, Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary? It is not. That provides some evidence to child protection teams, but it does not look at the processes, or question whether people are vulnerable and being abused when they are interviewed. Is it an abuse to interview someone 15 times to obtain a statement? I think it is. That must be reviewed.
We might see changes and have cases video recorded. Although such people may be considered the most disgusting people on the face of the earth, we might still think that it would be worth video recording conversations with them. That would be fine for those who are yet to be subjected to the process, but I am worried about the men who have already been through itmen such as those who went to court this summer. They could easily have gone down. The complainants could have said, "No, I'm not seeking compensation. I don't want anything out of it. I'm not getting anything out of it." I know dozens of cases of people who have gone down. It is a matter of luck, and I must try to find some way for them to get justice.
I have already referred to the man who was seeking compensation and admitted so in court, so was taken before a judge and charged with perjury. The police force which put that man in that position got off scot-free. When people complain to the police about the processes, they are told they cannot do that. While we
The criminal justice system is being prejudiced by those practices. Thousands of people feel vulnerable and open to the possibility of being accused with no hope of proving their innocence, because the evidence against them was gained in dubious circumstances with no independent witnesses. That must change. I must be able to face my constituents and say that in this country we operate to the very best standardsbut at the moment, I do not believe that we do.
Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough): I congratulate the hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) on her initiative in raising the subject under discussion today and on achieving this Adjournment debate. My congratulations are reinforced by my recognition of her bravery in pursuing a subject that can do her no political good whatever, and may even puzzle some of her constituents. If anyone under investigation by the police has first call on public sympathy, it is unlikely to be those who sexually abuse others, particularly children and young persons in their care in children's homes, schools, young offender institutions and other places where there is expected to be a relationship of care, not abuse, between the adults in charge and the young persons living there.
The hon. Lady is concerned about something with which every hon. Member should be concerned: justice. There should be justice, certainly for the victims of abuse, but also, more controversially, for those who are accused by the police and victims of sexual abusefoul crimes that naturally excite feelings of utter revulsion in right-thinking people. Justice is a concept that is widely spoken of, but from time to time we are all guilty of wanting to define it partially or tendentiously.
One of the hon. Lady's practical suggestions, which has been subject to much discussion among those who practise criminal law and sit as judges, and, I am sure, in the Home Office, is the video recording of the taking of statements in police stations. Many interviews are already voice recorded. I know about the resource implications for the Home Office, but I hope that following the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, when tape recording of statements was introduced, the Home Office, with the assistance of the Treasury, will do all that it can to introduce widespread video statement-taking in police stations, because that will lead to greater justice in all sorts of cases, not just those involving sex abuse.
During the past two years, Leicestershire constabulary has investigated a number of allegations of sexual and other abuse of young people in the care of Leicestershire county council's social services department. The investigationnot Operation Rose, but Operation Magnoliahas been made more difficult than it might have been under different circumstances because the allegations relate to events that are supposed to have taken place well over 10 years ago, and sometimes as long as 20 years ago.
The allegations of criminal activity against members of staff appear to have been made by people who, although now adults in a chronological sense, are in some cases mentally unstable, possibly as a result of things done to them in their childhood. Allegations have been made by people who are abusers of their own children, by people who are in prison and by individuals who are not the most reliable witnesses of truth by virtue of their psychiatric or social problems, or because they have or may have an improper motive for making allegations against their former carers. Some of them may hope for early release from prison for helping the police with their inquiries. Some may hope for financial compensation for their mental or physical injuries, actual or imagined. Some may want revenge for the way in which they were rejected or neglected by their families or schools, or by society.
The picture is complicated, and I cannot attempt to unravel fact from fiction, not least because I am not privy to the nature or substance of the vast number of allegations that have been made and are being investigated. It is, of course, possible that some allegations made against the employees of the two social services departments are true and will lead to convictions in the Crown court. If they are true, I accept that it would be unjust for the perpetrators to go unpunished. It would not only be unjust but it would also destroy public confidence in the care home system and in the institutions that look after the mentally ill, the socially disturbed, the discarded, the abandoned and the young criminal. So far as I knowI may be wrongno one has been charged with any offence arising out of Operation Magnolia, although two of my constituents were arrested in the summer of 2000, put in police cells, questioned and given the firm impression by the police that they were guilty of heinous crimes.
In one of those cases the crimes ranged from non-penetrative sexual misconduct with young boys to buggery. In the other case, that of a woman, the crimes ranged from criminal violence to unkind and unacceptable behaviour. Those allegations were not made clear to my constituents at the outset, but have been put to them serially and over time. They were not told who their alleged victims were and were not given sufficient detail to enable them to refute the allegations coherently. Furthermore, they were both summarily suspended by their employers, and it was only earlier this year that they were both, almost casually, informed by the police that they were not to be charged or prosecuted, and that they no longer needed to answer to police bail. There was, they were told, insufficient evidence for their cases to proceed.
Of course, by then the damage had been done. Those people had become pariahs. For more than 18 months they were unable to go to work, to explain to their friends and families why they were not going to work, to socialise and to go about their daily lives as they had in the past. They were prisoners in their own homes,
My constituents feel that they have been trashed on the uncorroborated say-so of some damaged and ill-motivated people whose stories were accepted as gospel by their employers and by the police, and that their professional lives, which they had dedicated to the care of the young and the vulnerable, have been ruined. One of my constituents is in his mid-40s and sees before him a blank future without the work, the professional satisfaction and the esteem that he had expected would take him through to retirement at 60 or 65. My other constituent, a lady in her 50s, is now back at work but cannot work in the way and with the people with whom she had worked until 2000. My two constituents are like priests who have lost their faith. They are ruined people contemplating ruined lives and a future without hope. Not surprisingly, both are considering legal action against their employers for the way in which they were treated.
Those constituents provide me with stark and immediate examples of the problem highlighted by the hon. Member for Crosby. As she said, the massive growth in police trawling operations has become a danger in itself: it is different from the danger of child abuse but every bit as corrosive to our justice system as child abuse is to the public care system. Even on the limited information that I have concerning my two constituents, it is clear to me that the presumption of innocence that should have been made in their favourboth publicly as a matter of course until conviction and privately within the police and the social services department employing themat least until evidence of probative value became available to warrant precise charges that would stand the scrutiny of the Crown Prosecution Service and independent prosecuting counsel, never existed. It was not just under threat; it never surfaced at all.
The police in the two cases appear to have been desperate to find any information with which to sustain the theory that they had convinced themselves was the right one. They set about trawling through the memories, real or reconstructed, of former residents of children's homes in Leicestershire and believed without question or corroboration the tales that they were told.
I have been very critical today of the conduct of Operation Magnolia, at least in so far as it has touched the lives of my two constituents. I have deliberately not named them. Enough people know their names and what they have been through without making their lives worse through further identification. Equally, I have not identified the officers on Operation Magnolia, although there may be some who hear or will come to hear what I say who will be able to identify them. I want to make
We need to understand why the police investigation in Leicestershire has gone as it has and why the police officers concerned in it wereproperly sodesperate to get to the heart of the crimes that they believed had been revealed to them. The key to the puzzle is one word: Beck. Frank Beck was a senior employee of Leicestershire social services. He worked for the department from 1973 to 1986 as the officer in charge of several children's homes, some in my constituency and some elsewhere in the city of Leicester and the county of Leicestershire. He later worked for the London borough of Brent, and Hertfordshire county council. He was arrested in 1990 on numerous charges of gross sexual and other abuse of children in his care while working in Leicestershire. He was tried and convicted, and received five life sentences from Mr Justice Jowitt in 1991. He died in prison in May 1994.
There is no better account of the terrible case of Frank Beck than that written by Mark D'Arcy and Paul Gosling in their book, "Abuse of Trust: Frank Beck and the Leicestershire Children's Homes Scandal", published in 1998. Anyone who is interested in the subject of this debate and the issues underlying it should read it.
The Beck case was not simply another case of a sexual predator operating undetected within an otherwise healthy competent institution. Leicestershire's child care services were subverted to such an extent that Beck and his followers were able sexually to abuse young children at will. This was possible partly because of Beck's remarkable personal qualities but also because of the weakness of the managersand, to a lesser extent, the politicianswho were supposed to be in charge of him and his co-abusers.
Beck was a dominating and manipulative man, but had he been working within a stronger, better managed organisation or in an environment where children's complaints were taken more seriously, he would have been stopped much earlier. As it is, he is now known as arguably the worst child abuser in British criminal history, with a suspected toll of 200 children abused by him. He employed a potent combination of affection, shame, humiliation and domination, which mentally paralysed many of the children in his care and even some of the young men who worked at the homes.
Beck's is a story that has scarred the collective memory of the county and city social services departments, the Leicestershire constabulary and the local political establishment. There has been a criminal trial, and an inquiry chaired by Mr Andrew Kirkwood QC, which revealed massive shortcomings in the management of the county's social services department and the conduct of several key managers. I am happy to say that all that is in the past.
According to Mr Allan Levy QC, the leading child law silk who chaired the pin-down case inquiry in Staffordshire, the Beck case brought together all the main elements of other child abuse cases: sex abuse, excessive physical restraint, a punishment regime that contained elements of torture, denial of civil liberties for children in care and epic managerial incompetence. All that is true, and will have been in the minds of the social services department managers and of the police dealing with Operation Magnolia.
Never again, they must have thought, will this county and this city be caught out by a child abuse scandal. I suggest that, for the best of reasonsthe desire to protect children in care, and to demonstrate that Leicester had learned from the Beck casenormally reasonable men and women lost sight of an essential in their pursuit of a dragon, and cast aside the proper professional caution and need for scrutiny that ought to have governed the conduct of Operation Magnolia, certainly in the case of my two constituents, if not in every case.
I will say no more about the case, or its handling by the authorities in Leicester, save to say that two people have probably been damaged irreparably by their experiences since their arrest in 2000. Had there been a calmer, more considered assessment of the allegations against them made at the time that they were received, their lives would not have been so cruelly changed. I do not say that in cases of child abuse there can never be a prosecution or an investigation in the absence of corroboration, for that could lead to huge difficulties and evil people getting away scot-free, but in this case, common sense and justice lost sight of each other in the rush to stop a Beck mark 2. Two of my constituents were presumed to be guilty when they had a right to due process and the right to expect that the allegations against them would be speedily, although thoroughly, examined.
Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): I, too, express my thanks to the hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) for initiating the debate with considerable passion, and for all the research that she has done during her leadership of the all-party group on abuse investigations, of which I am an officer.
I am anxious that others who wish to contribute may do so. Therefore, I do not wish to rehearse the powerful case made by the hon. Lady, to which my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) has added. I would say simply that, as far as I am concerned, there is no underlying agenda. I wish to reinforce, or recover, my general respect for the criminal justice system, and the conduct of the police in undertaking inquiries.
My own interest springs simply from the experience of two constituents, both of whom were accused of practices alleged to have taken place when they had care of children in south Wales in the 1970s. In the case of
No less significantly, a local solicitor who is well known to me and highly respected, and interestingly, who does not normally practise in the defence of sex offender cases, has come to a case involving somebody whose family matters he has perhaps been dealing with. Suddenly, he became mixed-up in inquiries that they both regarded as ridiculous and inappropriate. That solicitor communicated to the hon. Member for Crosby considerable doubts as to the conduct of the case, in which the gentleman was convicted.
I emphasise again to the House that I hope that no one present holds a brief for paedophilia, or would not wish persons to be convicted of sex offences that they have committed. However, the process gives rise to concern. I am worried about the prevailing climate of a witch hunt, because it is the nature of witch hunts, from Salem onwards, to depress people's critical judgment. Such hunts allow conclusions to be reached that are prejudicial and that have, in many cases, been compounded by the great age of some allegations. I have referred to two cases known to me in the 1970s. It is the nature of those cases that there might be no forensic evidence, so they rely on individual testimony.
The hon. Member for Crosby and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough have mentioned their concern about the conditions under which that testimony may have been obtained and the inducements, whether in cash or in kind, that may be available to those who make those claims. Of course, that does not mean that evidence should not be taken seriously and dealt with by a court, but it must be handled very carefully and the circumstances in which it has been obtained are relevant to that.
To date, the incidence of cases reported is uneven across the country. The hon. Member for Crosby comes to the subject having considered a complete cluster in Merseyside. It seems extremely implausible that such activity, if it is on anything like the scale suggested by those inquiries, is not replicated across the country. Inquiries by other police forces may even the score, but the number of cases seems disturbingly different. Frankly, cases are also likely to cost some local authorities, whose employees are involved in such allegations, a fortune in compensation payments, as they have a general duty.
I am not a lawyer, as will, I think, become apparent, but I am concerned by the creeping extension of similar fact evidence. During the last century, we went a lot further than the famous brides in the bath case, which involved three strikingly similar successive examples of brides dying in the bath. From what I have seen, that extension is beginning to become prejudicial, for reasons that the hon. Member for Crosby mentioned.
I shall make a related point that does not bear on the strength of the convictions of those concerned. There are cases, which have been brought to the attention of our group, involving people convicted of sex offences who continue to deny their guilt. Many such convicted prisoners are not able to access large parts of the sex offender programme because of that, so they are likely to lose their opportunity of parole. Indeed, their sentences are increased as a result. There should be ways to handle that so as not to make it impossible for them at least to participate in activities that could be beneficial to them, and to be released at the appropriate time, given their general conduct.
From what I have seen of sex offender coursesI visited Rye Hill prison in my constituency only last weekthere is a great deal of merit in them, but national moves are needed to ensure that such training programmes are available to all convicted prisoners on an equitable basis and that their outcomes are improved. There is work for the Home Office and the Prison Service to do on that subject.
May I draw on my experience of receiving such submissions when I was a Minister, although I was not at the Home Office? If I were confronted by anything like the concern uncovered by the hon. Member for Crosby and the all-party group, which has been expressed this morning, I would want to reflect on the submissions seriously, especially the safety of convictions.
We know that the case that we have been discussing is difficult, because of the widespread and perhaps proper national anger about the abuse of children. However, even if it is impossible to re-open cases or to establish separate machinery for so doing, I hope that Ministers are prepared to improve the central database that handles what has been going on and what the research of the hon. Member for Crosby has been instrumental in drawing out. The Home Office's approach to managing and monitoring the process has, frankly, got out of hand.
The matter is serious. Justice works both waysfor the victims of criminal activity and those accused of carrying it out. In this case, changes and a fairer process are urgently needed in the interests of justice.
Dr. John Pugh (Southport): I begin by paying tribute to the hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) for securing the debate and for leading on a subject that is difficult for any politician to deal with and which will secure her no cheap votes anywhere. I do not say that the hon. Lady is totally averse to seeking cheap votes on occasion, but the contrary is true in this case.
I became aware of the problem when an individual who was under investigation came to my surgery and whose primary concern was the slowness of determination. He was convinced that he was innocent and that the process of deciding that would take a long time. I was a little uneasy. I did not know the circumstances and, to some extent, I went through the formalities, making inquiries in the appropriate places. I was somewhat discountenanced to find that more and still more people subsequently came to me with similar complaints and claims of innocence. They had been caught in some trawl. I began to take the issue more seriously in terms of its general principles.
Child abuse is a terrible, terrible crimeit destroys childhoodsbut because it is such a terrible crime, to be wrongly accused of it is a terrible event for an individual. It ruins lives, just as the lives of the abused children are ruined.
In our society, there is immense concern, even panic, on the issue. The hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) mentioned Salem, witchcraft and the emotions that run high when there is a moral panic throughout society. Of course, there is an important difference: witchcraft did no real harm, but child abuse does considerable harm and must be taken absolutely seriously by everyone in society. However, there is a parallel danger: the double abuse of innocent people wrongly accused and innocent people abused. That will happen whenever common sense, fairness and the ordinary rules of evidence are ignored in circumstances in which investigators have too much pressure put on them to get an immediate conviction or when they become blind to counter considerations. A recent case in Newcastle, which is not identical to the one we have been discussing, shows what can go wrong. The lives of young professionals were pole-axed by the witch-finder mentality of a particular doctor and the slackness of a social services department.
I have no sympathy whatever, in any circumstances, with paedophiles such as those who do not seek help and prefer to normalise their perversion, desensitising themselves from the vulnerability of children. Precisely because I have no sympathy with paedophilia and find it horrendous, I do not want people to be accused without good evidence, which is the point on which the debate hinges.
Good evidence is not usually obtained when there is the prospect of compensation or any encouragement of malice or revenge. It is not obtained when we ignore circumstance, plausibility or contrary indicators. I may part company with some hon. Members in the Room on this point, but I am convinced that all those issues will come out in court during the judicial process.
I may be a little innocent or a little naive, but if that were not the case, I have sufficient faith in British justice to think that if lawyers are up to their task and if judges are what they pretend to be, that will ensure that considerations such as the one to which the hon. Member for Crosby drew our attention will be properly aired in court. However, that is different from saying that such considerations are foremost in people's minds during investigation. There is evidence that that is not always the case. In certain areas, the ratio of suspects to prosecutions, for example, is a cause for concern. Leicestershire was cited as an example. We must ask ourselves whether the process is ideal when there is a large number of suspects, but a very small number of successful prosecutions.
A serious investigation that does not lead to a conclusion involves certain deeply distressing elements. As the hon. Member for Crosby pointed out, it can involve a police raid, often early in the morning, on the home of the person suspected. It will almost certainly result in suspension from work, gossip, stigma and shame for the individual, but may not result in a conviction and may not mean guilt. I accept that the two are different.
The hon. Member for Crosby alluded to the possibility that people who are not convicted may be guilty, but acting without proper evidence or without proper conduct and examination of that evidence, and not using the rules that would apply in ordinary investigations, causes problems. There is intense suffering for the innocent person, which has been drawn out in many cases, especially in Merseyside. People who are acquitted have been cleared, but none the less they have remained under suspicion for long periods. A likely corollary of that problem is that if we conduct investigations in such a way and do not reflect on how we conduct them, we shall create a general social anxiety about all relationships with children. Society is not noticeably improved if adults fear to talk to children, or if every contact is seen as some sort of sexual advance.
I cannot spot the child molester, and I have been surprised and shocked by people who turned out to be one. However, I do not think that we shall get back to a more wholesome world by encouraging false accusations, suspicions or malicious claims if the rules and procedures for investigating child abuse are different from those used in other serious crime investigations conducted by the police.
Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): The hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) has taken a valuable and courageous step in bringing the matter before the House. No one who listened to her arguments, or who heard the emotion in her voice, which is important in such matters, can fail to be moved by her concern that the conviction of a certain category of offender in sex abuse cases is turning into a lottery. The matter should be of grave concern to the House, because if that is happening, the quality of justice that we tend to take for granted in this country is being undermined. She raises a serious issue.
Justice is human and therefore fallible. This country has a system of justice that we hope operates well, perhaps better than those in other countries, but that does not mean that there cannot be miscarriages of justice. That is one reason why, historically, we have tended to weight the scales of justice in favour of the accused. We require the conviction of the accused only if a jury is satisfied and sure. Through our common law system, we have introduced a series of extra safeguards, designed by judicial interference, to protect the accused. However, we must face up to the painful but inevitable fact that the more safeguards there are in place, the more likely it is that, in addition to acquitting the innocent, on occasion the guilty may be acquitted.
That is one of the difficult balances to be struck, and I dare say that a reason for it is the fact that there were usually only two options available in the criminal justice system in England and Wales in the early 19th century: the accused was either acquitted or, for a serious offence, hanged. The fact that we have moved away from such a
Over the past 20 years, the trend has been all one way. It is significant that the title of this debate refers to sex abuse cases and corroboration. Prompted by legislation from a Conservative Governmentthis is why I say that the matter is not party politicaland in response to public concern, the House got rid of certain safeguards. For example, in 1988, we got rid of the safeguard that no one should be convicted on the uncorroborated statement of a child. In 1994, we got rid of the requirement for corroboration in sex cases, as well as in respect of accomplices. That meant not that someone could not be convicted, but that a judge had specifically to warn a jury in such cases. It is worth asking why that was done. I think the reason was societal pressure arguing that guilty people were being acquitted as a result of the safeguards used by lawyers in the criminal justice systemit was all a bit of a game and that it would be better if evidence were put before juries so that they could make up their minds. That raises important issues.
We cannot get away from the fact that although sex abuse cases constitute only 1 to 2 per cent. of convictions on indictmentit has rightly been said that an atmosphere of Salem witchcraft can so easily prevail in such casesthey constitute about 30 per cent. of referrals to the Criminal Cases Review Commission, as a result of which there is growing disquiet about whether justice is being done.
We are shortly to embark on a criminal justice reviewa massive piece of legislationduring which, once again, we shall be subject to exactly the same pressures, but in a widening field. For example, there will be pressure to allow previous convictions to be disclosed to juries and to allow much more hearsay evidence to be admitted in court. Such evidence is not from the person directly concerned with the case, but what they heard from someone else. Such provisions are all designed for the same laudable aim of trying to ensure that the guilty are convicted.
As the Home Secretary has said, we want the truth, but one problem that we face is that the truth is often elusive. Our justice system has, historically, tended to shy away from it and to say, "Let's concern ourselves not with the truth, but with whether we can be sure that somebody is guilty of an offence." The hon. Member for Crosby has rightly highlighted the fact that, in our concern to ensure the conviction of the guilty and their punishment for serious and horrible offences that right-thinking people believe should be investigated and punished, we are in danger of doing our society a grave disservice. We are making it much easier for the innocent to be convicted, both by the processes that we have set up and by the background pressure from the public to see something happening to prevent things that they regard as particularly horrible. That is an enormous challenge not only for the Government, but for the House.
We have to be the protectors of the innocent and we must always have regard to the consequences of legislative change. The hon. Member for Crosby has been very specific, so I hope that she will forgive me if I widen the scope of the discussion, because unless we examine the background, we shall not see the way forward. She said that it would be desirable for the taking of witness statements to be video recorded, but that poses problems. It would be desirable, but logistically, in view of the sort of areas in which it would take place, it would place great burdens on the police.
The process of taking witness statements, as I know from personal experience, can be extremely complicated and rather difficult. In the time we have, it would not be right to go into the detail. Suffice it to say that I realised as I gave a statement to the police about a burglary at my home that they were, for the perfectly legitimate reason of trying to protect my identity, distorting what I was saying while recording my statement. As I am a lawyer and I was not too concerned about my identity being disclosed, I did not want to have anything to do with that.
I mention the incident because it illustrates the sort of problem that can easily give rise to the desperately worrying situation that the hon. Member for Crosby highlighted. She has raised legitimate issues that are not popular at the moment; members of the public are not excited about them. However, they are excited by newspaper headlines over many pages that encourage them to believe that terrible situations exist that must be remedied, and the Government do their best to respond.
Consider the long-term trend in the House in terms of criminal justice legislation. We are subtly and consistently moving the goalposts and we are likely to do so again over the next 12 months, for reasons that I fully understand. However, in our desire to secure those convictions that satisfy the public, are we losing the quality of justice? That is the important issue that the hon. Member for Crosby has raised, and I am grateful to her for her courage in doing so. I hope that the Minister responds to her specific statements and that, in the coming year when we consider the many other criminal justice issues that so closely relate to these matters, he carefully bears in mind what she has said.
Mrs. Annette L. Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole): I shall be brief. We all want to hear the Minister, so I shall concentrate on just two or three points. I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas). We have had a moving experience this morning, and many of us will think about it for a long time.
Child protection is so important, and I came to the debate thinking of three things: a report out this week says that many improvements are needed, that agencies should work together and that there should be better guidelines for the police. Then there is the issue of the innocent who are wrongly convicted. I have a statement from a professional in the field, which fills me with horror, as
As my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) said, reputations can be irreparably damaged. The hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) said that the picture is complicated. As we progress, I think that we shall find that that is a great understatement, because the issue is so complex. The Home Affairs Committee is carrying out a full investigation, and I urge the Minister to act on its recommendations. A vast amount of evidence was submitted to it, which will clearly be important.
We are talking about the present, and we need to take a holistic approach to getting child protection right and to how matters are investigated. There must be a well-publicised framework that everyone in the field accepts. In addition to carers, we should briefly mention teachers, many of whom have had their careers irreparably damaged, although very few convictions have been made. Some responsibility must rest with those who make accusations. They must be made aware of the seriousness of their claims, and we should perhaps make clear what happens when false accusations are made. It is not always easy to proceed with a private court case to clear one's name.
The Minister for Policing, Crime Reduction and Community Safety (Mr. John Denham) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) on obtaining the debate. I also congratulate the other members of the all-party group who have contributed to this serious discussion. As the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke) said, the Home Affairs Committee has been considering the issue, and the Government will want to examine its conclusions carefully. I must say, however, that the widespread use of expressions such as "witch hunt" does this complex and important issue no justice. I would not like to give credence to the idea that it is being dealt with in the atmosphere of a witch hunt.
Should we attempt to investigate allegations of sex abuse that took place some time ago? It is easy to suggest that events of 10 or 20 years ago are in the distant past, but we should remember that someone who was in his early 20s when he abused children 20 years ago is in his early 40s today. I doubt whether most members of the public and, indeed, most Members of the House would say, "That's too long ago. Let's forget about it."
We are discussing allegations of appalling crimes, which have a traumatic impact on victims. That trauma can be made worse for those who finally talk about it if they have the fact of their abuse denied. I doubt whether the House would accept that events should not be investigated because they took place some time ago. It is important that we ensure that complaints of serious crimes are followed up and that victims who show bravery in coming forward are treated justly and with compassion. The police must be able fully to follow up complaints and to pursue all lines of inquiry, whether they point to or away from the suspect.
We have had two different debates, and I want to distinguish between them. My hon. Friend the Member for Crosby used a line of argument that invites us to believe that there has been a widespread and massive
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Daventry for advising me on the basis of his considerable experience as a Minister. I can assure him that I take the issues raised by the all-party group, and by my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby in particular, very seriously. I have returned to them on several occasions, and some changes have been made as a result. Let me make it clear, however, that, as a Minister, I can act and can advise the rest of the Government to act only on the basis of facts that can be properly examined.
Many months ago, representatives of the all-party group referred to cases in which individuals were induced to give evidence by the offer of compensation. I did what I thought was the right thing for a Minister to do and asked for instances, names and cases that could be followed up. Many months later, despite a reminder, I have not been provided with an instance of a single case.
I am in a difficult position. Allegations have been made in the debate that that practice is widespread and that certain individuals have said X, but I have not been able to find an individual case as yet. We have heard allegations about the conduct of interviews.
Mr. Denham : May I finish my point? Terence Grange, the chief constable who speaks for the Association of Chief Police Officers on the matter, has sought details of cases in which abuse of investigations could be followed up. They have not been forthcoming. It is difficult to introduce a change of Government or police policy when there are no cases to investigate. I give way to my hon. Friend, but I want to make further points on the subject.
Mrs. Curtis-Thomas : I thank my right hon. Friend for letting me intervene. I know that he receives thousands of letters from families of people accused of the crimes that we are discussing, and from the people themselves. He is aware that many of those cases are on their way to the Court of Appeal, and he will have been advised by Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary and other parts of the criminal justice system that they have received a considerable correspondence on specific cases that are being conducted throughout the country.
Mr. Denham : It is the case, however, that the all-party group has not been able to identify cases for me or, despite the offers, for the chief constable who speaks on the subject for ACPO. We must look to other sources of evidence, therefore.
We can study the cases brought before the Court of Appeal, as a widespread miscarriage of justice on the scale alleged could reasonably be expected to show up in significant cases. I am not suggesting that a large number of cases would be involved, but some would have been thrown out due to the quality of evidence or because the investigative process was shown to be flawed. At the moment at least, evidence of such a miscarriage is not, in my judgment, forthcoming from the Court of Appeal.
The hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) referred to the Criminal Cases Review Commission. The commission's chairman has said that although the number of cases reviewed involving sexual offences is relatively high, the number involving historical abuse is negligible. The hon. Gentleman was making a point about the conduct of sexual abuse cases, but significant numbers of historical abuse cases do not appear to be reaching the CCRC.
I am not at all complacent about these matters, and no Minister in my position could lightly dismiss allegations of a widespread miscarriage of justice. However, I have spent some time in the past year studying the indicators and signs that might make one believe that such an extensive miscarriage of justice has taken place. At this point, I remain unconvinced that such a miscarriage has occurred. Of course, we must continue to consider cases that are raised and any evidence that is brought to light.
I turn to a different point, which was raised by the hon. and learned Member for Harborough and the hon. Members for Daventry and for Southportone on which we have made progress this year. Innocent people may be caught up in such investigations, just as they may be caught up in any other sort of investigation. The damage done to an individual faced with such allegations may be marked, and the hon. and learned Gentleman made that case extremely well. Of course, justice is not served by the distraction of fraudulent or malicious claims. Indeed, the conviction of an innocent person will not help survivors of sexual abuse. We must remain vigilant for clear evidence of possible problems.
Over the past year, the Government have recognised that investigations need to take account of the damage that can be caused to the accused, who may be innocent. We made sure that that point was explicitly made in the guidance that was produced following a recommendation in the Waterhouse inquiry report and issued by the Government to all agencies involved in investigating complex child abuse cases. It builds on the guidance in "Working Together to Safeguard Children".
The issue was not explicitly addressed in previous guidance to those handling such cases, but now it has been. In parallel with that guidance, ACPO has developed and published an operational handbook for senior investigating officers based on the experiences of practitioners who have been involved in that type of police investigation. Again, the handbook directly addresses the need to take into account the position of those accused of that type of crime, who may be innocent.
Both sets of guidance have been developed from evaluated good practice. The awfully entitled but quite important inter-agency strategic management group, which consists of senior staff from the police, social services, health and local authorities, has set the policy and the terms of reference, and has created the protocols for that type of inter-agency working. One change from the position of a year or so ago is that we have two sets of guidance that are intended to provide a strategic policy framework and good practice guidelines within which the police, together with other agencies, should operate to deal fully, thoroughly and fairly with an initial complaint and the alleged perpetrators.
I hope that hon. Members who have raised concerns today about the position of the innocent accused feel that we have responded to some of them. It is also worth pointing out that, despite the lack of substantiated cases of abuse of the compensation mechanism, the guidance also puts beyond doubt how compensation issues should or should not be addressed in the interview process.
My hon. Friend the Member for Crosby, the hon. and learned Member for Harborough and the hon. Member for Beaconsfield all raised the question of recording interviews and statements. The Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 allows for the video recording of interviews in police stations. Video recording is being piloted in five police force areas, and over the summer we made additional funds, which will enable an extension of those experiments, available for forces to bid for, but it will be some time before all police stations are covered. That, however, is different from recording interviews that take place outside police stations, which would cover millions of conversations that occur between the police and the public in the investigation of many different types of crime.
We have had to consider the issue, on which we are not yet persuaded, of whether an exception should be made on recording interviews, no matter where they take place, in historical sex abuse cases while not applying the same criteria to all other types of police investigation. Aside from the question of resources, I am not convinced that the case has been made for distinguishing between historical sex abuse investigations and other investigations that the police have to undertake.
The debate is enormously important. We have all remarked that the Home Affairs Committee will reach its own conclusions, which the Government are bound properly to consider at the appropriate time. I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to the debate, and to give our commitment to ensuring that we can protect children and my commitment to ensuring that the justice system works properly.