A very busy week. I had three meetings to the House of Commons Defence Committee, chaired three meetings for an All-Party Parliamentary Group Inquiry, I spoke in a Westminster Hall Debate on organ donation, and I was able to contribute to Monday's statement about child abuse.
Thursday also saw the introduction of a Data Bill that will be accelerated through Parliament before recess; the Government intends to have it passed before next Wednesday. If anybody has any opinions about this, please get in touch before the debate on Tuesday.
Yvette Cooper (Shadow Home Secretary): Child abuse is a terrible, devastating crime that traumatises children when they are at their most vulnerable and ruins lives. Perpetrators need to be stopped and brought to justice. Too often, the system has failed young victims, not hearing or believing them when they cried out for help, and failing to protect them from those who sought to harm them. There have been particularly troubling cases of abuse involving powerful people and celebrities, and the failure of institutions to act. As Members in all parts of the House and from all parties have made clear, when allegations go to the heart of Whitehall or Westminster, it is even more important to demonstrate that strong action will be taken to find out the truth and get justice for the victims.
The Home Secretary is right to announce today that she has changed her position on and response to child abuse, but I want to press her on the detail. We need three things: justice and support for victims; the truth about what happened and how the Home Office and others responded; and stronger child protection and reforms for the future. Any allegation that a child was abused, even decades ago, must be thoroughly investigated by the police. Will she tell us whether all the allegations uncovered or put forward in any of these investigations will be covered by Operation Fernbridge? Will the files that she said had been passed to the police go to Operation Fernbridge? We understand that it has only seven full-time officers working on it. Does she think that they have the resources and investigators they need? She referred to the importance of prosecutions when there have been child sexual offences. She will know that prosecutions have dropped in recent years. Does she believe that that is cause for concern, when recorded offences have increased?
Secondly, we need to know what happened when the allegations were first made decades ago. The Home Secretary will know that former Cabinet Ministers have said that there may have been a cover-up. The previous response from the Home Office was not adequate; the 2013 review to which she referred was not announced to Parliament, did not reveal that more than 100 files had gone missing, and has never been published. Will she tell the House whether she or other Ministers saw that review, and whether they were told about the missing files?
I welcome the involvement of Peter Wanless, who is well respected, but will the Home Secretary clarify whether this is simply a review of a review, or whether it will look again at the original material? Will this review have the power to call for further information, range more widely, and interview witnesses if necessary? She talked about publication of the review; does she mean the original 2013 review, the new review, or both? It would be very helpful to have transparency.
Thirdly, as the Home Secretary will know, I raised the issue of the need for an overarching inquiry directly with her in Parliament 18 months ago, when she made a statement about abuse in care homes in North Wales. She and the Prime Minister rejected the need for such an inquiry at the time, but I welcome her agreement to it now. There is currently a range of reviews and investigations in care homes, the BBC, the NHS and now in the Home Office. Also, more recently, there is an inquiry into events in Rochdale and Rotherham. At their heart, they all have a similar problem: child victims were not listened to, heard or protected, and too many institutions let children down. Reform of those individual institutions must not be delayed, but isolated reforms are not enough. An inquiry needs to draw together the full picture to look at the institutional failures of the past and to examine the child protection systems that we have in place that may continue to fail children today. An inquiry must also be able to take evidence from the public, in public, as the Hillsborough review was able to do. I welcome her comments on that and her decision to keep under review whether an inquiry has the powers it needs and whether a public inquiry is needed.
An inquiry must also cover the child protection system in operation today. The Home Secretary’s answer in Question Time to my question on the 75% drop in the number of criminals barred from working with children suggests that the Home Office is still too complacent in that area. I urge her to include the vetting and barring system and the current child protection system in the overarching review. It is important that we do not have systems in place that store up future child protection problems.
The cases that have emerged involving child abuse and sexual assaults by high-profile, powerful people and celebrities have been deeply disturbing, as has the failure of the system to stop them and to protect children and young people today. Previously, the Home Office had not done enough to respond, but I welcome the further steps that the Home Secretary has announced today. She will understand that that is why we seek assurances that the investigations will now be strong enough. She and I will agree that we need justice for victims, the truth about what happened and a stronger system of child protection for the future. People need to have confidence that the process will deliver justice for past victims and protect children in the future.
Theresa May (Home Secretary): The right honourable Lady shares my concern to ensure that we have proper safeguards and protection for children in the future and that not only are lessons learned but that action is taken as a result of those lessons being learned following the various reviews into both historical and more recent cases of child sexual exploitation.
The right honourable Lady asked whether all the matters that are felt to be for the police to investigate will be matters for Operation Fernbridge. Actually, a number of investigations are taking place across the country into historical cases of child abuse; it is not appropriate that all those investigations will be in relation to Operation Fernbridge. The National Crime Agency, for example, is leading on Operation Pallial, which is the investigation into potential sexual abuse in children’s care homes in north Wales, and other investigations are taking place elsewhere. All allegations do not necessarily go to a single force; they go to whichever force is the most appropriate to deal with the particular cases and to ensure that people can be brought to justice.
The right honourable Lady asked about the number of prosecutions and offences, which is a matter that is most properly for my right honourable and learned Friend, the Attorney-General, but she will have noticed that he is on the Treasury Bench and has noted her comments. My right honourable Friend, the Minister for Policing, Criminal Justice and Victims, answered a Parliamentary Question in 2013—in October 2013, I think—in which reference was made to the missing 114 files.
The Shadow Home Secretary asked what I had seen as Home Secretary. I saw the executive summary of both the interim report and the final report commissioned by Mark Sedwill. I did not see the full report for very good reason: the matters that lay behind the report were allegations that senior Members of Parliament—and, in particular, senior Conservative Members of Parliament —may have been involved in those activities. I therefore thought that it was absolutely right and proper that the commissioning of the investigation and the work that was done should be led by the Permanent Secretary at the Home Office, not by a Conservative politician.
The right honourable Lady asked a number of questions about lessons learnt. Some of those lessons are already being acted on. As I mentioned, the national group that my honourable Friend the Minister for Crime Prevention is leading has already brought forward proposals on how the police and prosecutors could better handle these matters, and it will continue with its work. That will of course feed into the work of the wider inquiry panel that I am setting up. I want it to look widely at the question of the protection of children. I want it to ensure that we can be confident that in future people will not look back to today and say, “If only they had introduced this measure or that measure.” We must ensure that the lessons that come out of the various reviews that are taking place are not only properly learned, but acted on.
Madeleine Moon (Bridgend, Labour): In the early 1980s, I was working in child protection in South Wales, and rumours such as those that have been circulating this weekend were also circulating then. Many of the people who were working in child protection in the 1980s have now retired. Will there be a confidential access line to enable such people to come forward and reveal what they saw happening at the time? Such material might not be suitable for a police inquiry, but it might well help to build a picture of what was prevalent then and of what engagement took place between the police and other authorities and those who had concerns about children being picked up at the end of the lane in large cars but found that they could get nowhere with those concerns.
Theresa May (Home Secretary): It is precisely in order to learn the lessons that we need to know what was going on, and the inquiry is obviously going to have to look quite widely in order to find that out. It will have to look at the documentary evidence from the reviews that have taken place. I do not want to dictate to the inquiry what it should do or how it should undertake its work, but I am sure that the chairman and the panel will be alive to the fact that, in order to get to the truth, they will need to hear from those who have felt unable to speak out in the past.