Tim Loughton is the Member of Parliament for East Worthing and Shoreham, and was Parliamentary Under Secretary for Children and Families from 2010 until 2012. Follow Tim on Twitter.
Dear Prime Minister,
I am writing further to the statement by the Home Secretary earlier this week on the inquiry into the investigations around the North Wales children’s’ homes scandal, and the comments I made from the backbenches.
Just as I congratulated her on the swiftness of her statement to Parliament, I am pleased and relieved that you have also acted urgently and decisively with your own announcement. I know that you personally take these matters incredibly seriously, and it is important that the Government is seen to be on the front foot on the situation and empathetic with the clearly growing concerns of the public.
It is important that the Government is able to provide public reassurance, pointing to the solid foundations in reforming and de-bureaucratising the child protection system which have been a priority since we came into office. In particular, we should be particularly proud of the extensive work carried out in formulating the Child Sexual Exploitation Plan a year ago and, more importantly, the widespread practical measures that are coming about since, as detailed in the Progress Report I published in July. I believe it was the most important piece of work I carried out in my time at the Department and it is essential that it continues to be used and developed as the blueprint of our approach.
However the concern that I raised again, as I have on various occasions over recent weeks, is that we are beginning to ‘drown’ in inquiries which now run into double figures. Indeed, this week’s announcement includes an inquiry about an inquiry. Whilst the imperative of this announcement and parallel inquiries within the police and elsewhere is to bring remaining perpetrators to justice, I believe the time has come to set up an overarching inquiry into what went wrong across a whole range of institutions. It is something I first mooted some time ago when I warned that the Savile revelations only represent the ‘tip of the iceberg.’ Without this, I fear we risk a substantial number of inquiries across the police, the BBC, the heath service, the church and so on, overlapping in many of their findings and circumstances, but reporting incrementally at various intervals over coming months and years.
Notwithstanding the need to avoid anything that would hamper ongoing or revived police investigations, I think we need to demonstrate that there is one substantial inquiry undertaken by a highly respected group of experts with gravitas and authority to look at wherever the evidence takes it. It should be able to investigate all the institutions that have substantial contact with children and young people of which the BBC and other entertainment bodies, the Church, care homes, and the NHS are just the starting points that have been subject to exposure already. Without this, I believe we risk an almost weekly call for yet another new inquiry as the media uncovers some fresh or reheated stories of child abuse involving yet another body. The public is rightly asking ‘Where will it all end?’, and beginning to show signs of ‘abuse fatigue.’
The renewed focus on the horrendous cases in North Wales in the 1970s and 1980s showed that the tentacles of abuse stretched out well beyond Clwyd and Gwynedd, involving investigations of suspects and victims as far afield as my own area. It is inevitable therefore that all the individual investigations going on will produce evidence and problems cutting across geographical boundaries and professional responsibilities – hence the need for a genuinely joined up and holistic inquiry.
I have no doubt that the child protection policies that we have in place in the 21st Century are far superior than those that were in existence or failed to operate in the latter half of the 20th Century. Residential children’s homes, for example, are heavily regulated as are the staff who work in them, although the review I set up in July will hopefully point to further measures that can be taken to improve the quality of care for their vulnerable residents. But organised child sexual exploitation has been manifesting itself in recent years in the form of the horrendous accounts of abuse by mostly British Pakistani male led gangs as evidenced in Rochdale, Derby and elsewhere.
This is the modern day equivalent of North Wales care homes. This is happening now, (indeed it has been happening under the radar for many years before now), and there are many more deeply shocking cases still to come to court. The public will still be alarmed that this can happen in Britain in 2012 and will now wonder what has actually changed since Savile or North Wales. The irony is of course that the more of these cases that hit the headlines means the more seriously the problem is being taken and the more effective the police and CPS have become in pursuing the perpetrators and making charges stick.
The purpose of such an overarching inquiry must include at least the following:
- To investigate thoroughly what went wrong with child protection in the 1960s-1980s effectively up to the advent of the watershed 1989 Children Act. To see what institutions were implicated; was it an institutionalised problem based on ignorance, incompetence or complicity and whether everything reasonable has been done to bring wrongdoers to book subsequently?
- To make sure that victims have been able to have their say, confident that their stories are at last being taken seriously and to investigate what were the barriers to this happening in the first place, and of course to offer them some form of closure.
- To make sure that current child protection procedures are fit for purpose in the 21st century and that every institution which has regular contact with children and young people has in place robust protocols for child protection currently which manifestly show how very much more difficult it is now for the kind of abuse that happened previously in that institution or parallel ones to be repeated. The work that we instituted in the Department from 2010 through Munro, the Child Sexual Exploitation Action Plan and indeed with UKCCIS and the online angle that was obviously not an issue pre-1990’s must all feed into this.
On a related matter, you may not be aware that I have undertaken to take up the reforms surrounding children involved in performances as a Private Members Bill, and I have now secured a date to initiate this in the House in January. It is based on the work that I initiated in the Department following the Thane Review from 2010 and which made some straightforward and practical recommendations, but which I was unable to persuade Michael Gove to include in forthcoming legislation. Given the heightened relevance post Savile, I hope that you will be able to give me Government support to carry this forward as a matter of urgency, not least because we were looking to make it a ‘hand out’ bill in any case as an alternative route.
It is ironic that is has taken a rather quirky and once almost ‘beatified’ celebrity throwback to the 1960s to have put child abuse full square on the front page in a more intense way than ever I have known, including even the Climbie case. If there is one good thing to come of it, then surely it is the heightened public awareness, giving rise to a greater recognition that we all need to be vigilant in this area and to embolden the victims to come forward with their stories. As I have seen too often from the many victims of child sexual exploitation I have met, many are condemned to suffering in silence because they are not taken seriously by the very institutions there to help them, or worse still they in some way believe they are somehow culpable of the terrible things that have happened to them.
I know that you will give the above your serious consideration and when we exchanged letters after the reshuffle you urged me ‘to ‘keep in touch.’ That is what I am doing now and I would of course be happy to discuss this with you further. In particular, it is imperative that you appoint people to head up such an inquiry who have the most widespread respect and expertise, but I would also point out that there is clearly a role here for the four Children’s Commissioners from throughout the UK whose genesis was of course born out of the North Wales care homes scandals in the first place.