“My Lords, I support the amendment. I begin by pointing out that, had I been in this House two years ago, I would not have supported it. It is my experience of listening to and hearing stories, not just from within the church sector but from many sectors, that has led me to be convinced that this is a move we need to make” – Bishop of Durham, 15.7.14
On 15th July 2014, the Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, co-sponsored two amendments to the Government’s Serious Crime Bill, during its Committee Stage. The first amendment sought to make three small changes to legislation making child neglect a criminal offense – raising the age of those covered by the provisions to 18, and made clarifications to the ways in which neglect would be classed as a criminal offense. The second amendment sought to create a duty to report abuse in institutions and activities where there are children and vulnerable adults. Both amendments were withdrawn after they had been debated, pending assurances from the Government.
Clause 62: Child cruelty offence – Amendment 40BZA
The Lord Bishop of Durham: I rise to support the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, on behalf of myself and my colleague, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Truro, who chairs the Children’s Society. The Serious Crime Bill rightly seeks to update the law on neglect of children. We welcome the Bill and the Government’s commitment to seeking to improve the response to victims of emotional neglect. The current law is outdated and inadequate. We also support the amendment tabled by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss.
The UK is one of the only countries in the world that fails to recognise emotional neglect as the crime it is. It is to the Government’s credit that they seek to address that through the Bill. However, I believe that the Bill should go further and increase the age a child can be defined as a victim of cruelty and neglect from under 16 to under 18, which the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, seeks to do through his amendment. By changing the law in this way we can, for the first time, offer protection to all children from cruelty and neglect.
I, too, am grateful to the Children’s Society for its briefing, and I shall offer a story that it gives of Jessica. Jessica was known to social services because of the neglect and abuse she experienced in her family. When she was 16 the relationship between her and her family deteriorated and she was forced to move out of her family home. In the next year and a half she experienced unsuccessful placements in a hostel and bed and breakfast accommodation. Experiences of neglect at home made it difficult for her to form meaningful relationships. During that time, starting with her first unsuccessful placement in a hostel, Jessica became a victim of sexual exploitation, started using drugs and developed mental health problems. Stories such Jessica’s mean that we need to ensure that this measure applies to all children under 18.
This definition is the one enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. It is in the Children Act 1989, which governs what safeguarding responses children should receive if there are concerns about their well-being. The PACE codes of conduct for the police were amended last year so that all under-18s are treated as children. From a safeguarding point of view, children should be viewed as being under 18. Sixteen and 17 year-olds can be very vulnerable. The statistics mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, showed that. Yet they do not always get access to the services that younger children can receive. Professionals often see 16 and 17 year-old children as more resilient than younger children. They are often seen as more able to avoid abuse, or more grown-up and therefore more able to cope. It does not help that the criminal law aiming to deal with the perpetrators of child neglect does not cover 16 and 17 year-olds. This sends all the wrong signals that they are not as vulnerable as younger children.
The Government’s other reforms increasingly recognise that 16 and 17 year-olds are children. For example, they are not normally treated as adults under the benefits system. The position has recently been reinforced through the rules of the new universal credit system—a basic condition of entitlement for which is that the claimant is at least 18. That was debated in this House when the Welfare Reform Act 2012 went through Parliament. I would like to hear from the Minister why children aged 16 or over cannot be considered at risk of neglect and why the new law on emotional neglect should not apply to them.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Taylor of Holbeach): …The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, mentioned the difficulty of providing help to people who are vulnerable in that regard. He is right to do so. The Government very much understand that that is one difficulty that one has in the whole area of child neglect: the parents themselves have often suffered neglect in their childhoods. His point was well made. The noble Baroness, Lady Howe of Idlicote, the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, to whom I have already referred, the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth of Breckland, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham all spoke generally in support of what the Government seek to do but also felt that we ought to consider the contents of the amendments…
Baroness Walmsley: …I thank the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham for agreeing with me that we need to level up the age at which we consider children to be vulnerable. They may be able to get married legally, but that does not mean that they are not vulnerable…
Mandatory reporting of abuse in relation to regulated activities – Amendment 40BZEA
The Lord Bishop of Durham: My Lords, I support the amendment. I begin by pointing out that, had I been in this House two years ago, I would not have supported it. It is my experience of listening to and hearing stories, not just from within the church sector but from many sectors, that has led me to be convinced that this is a move we need to make.
Currently, under the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006, a form of mandatory reporting already exists; that is to say, a duty to refer arises in certain situations connected with regulated activity. Admittedly, that is just for vetting purposes, but what the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, effectively proposes is an extension to this. It will mean that those who work with children or vulnerable adults in regulated activity and have reasonable grounds for suspecting or knowing that abuse of these vulnerable groups has taken place are under a duty to report this to the local authority. I wholeheartedly support this principle, and I welcome the suggested amendment. Indeed, every person who works with children or vulnerable adults, which includes teachers, doctors, nurses, youth workers and volunteers, has a responsibility for keeping them safe. No one individual could possibly have a complete picture of a vulnerable person’s situation. All professionals who come into contact with those vulnerable groups have,
“a role to play in identifying concerns, sharing information and taking prompt action together”.
That is from Working Together to Safeguard Children.
At present, those professionals who fail to report may face disciplinary procedures or be held to account in a serious case review. Yet, far too often in the past, abusers have been allowed to get away with their crimes because those in authority have failed to report. As the recent NHS inquiry in relation to Jimmy Savile at Leeds General Infirmary stated, a number of organisational failures had allowed someone,
“as manipulative as Savile to thrive and continue his abusive behaviour unchecked for years”.
The serious case review in relation to Vanessa George at Little Ted’s Nursery in Plymouth noted that, while the offender exhibited high levels of sexual behaviour and often engaged staff in inappropriate discussions of sexual activity, no concerns were raised with the manager and no action was taken. This failure contributed to providing,
“an ideal environment within which George could abuse”.
Similarly, there is the case of the teacher Nigel Leat. Leat was jailed indefinitely in 2011 after admitting 36 sexual offences. He had been allowed to get away with his crimes because, despite numerous reports to the head teacher from staff and parents raising concerns over a 14-year period, the head teacher had not kept accurate safeguarding records, had failed to report concerns and ultimately did not meet his responsibilities to safeguard children in his care.
More recently, the serious case review into the tragic death of Daniel Pelka at the hands of his mother and her partner stated:
“Unlike the UK, some countries have a process for mandatory reporting of child care concerns to government departments, which raises the question that if it existed here, whether injuries seen upon Daniel would have been independently reported by individuals to the authorities”,
and thereby resulting in further more effective interventions to protect Daniel. That was published last September.
There are too many other cases. Too often, confusion over the threshold for reporting and concerns about confidentiality have prevented those who have suspicions or concerns that an individual is being abused reporting those concerns to the appropriate authorities.
Many countries already have some form of mandatory reporting. Indeed, in Northern Ireland it is an offence not to report an arrestable crime to the police which, of course, includes crimes against children or vulnerable adults. There has already been mention of Australia, the United States and the vast majority of jurisdictions in Canada. Of course, in introducing this we would need to look at which of those systems works most effectively, because they operate differently. Mandatory reporting acknowledges the seriousness and often the hidden nature of abuse, and can enable the early detection of cases which may not otherwise come to the attention of the authorities. It reinforces the moral responsibility of individuals to report suspected and known abuse, concerns and/or allegations. Such laws help to create a culture which puts the most vulnerable first, where their welfare is paramount and serves to illustrate that abuse will not be tolerated in any circumstances.
Of course, I acknowledge that the introduction of mandatory reporting will not provide a complete solution but it will serve to increase professionals’ and the community’s awareness of abuse and, as stated, put the needs of the vulnerable first. This can, of course, mean that there is a substantial increase in the number of reports being made to the authorities—probably particularly in the first instance. That is why it is essential that such authorities are resourced properly and that adequate funding is provided so that support services can respond and intervene where needed, and to such an extent that preventive work is not restricted. In addition, it is essential that professionals, who are subject to such a duty, are properly trained so that they are aware of which cases should and should not be reported.
Last week, the Prime Minister asked in the other place,
“should we change the law so that there is a requirement to report and make it a criminal offence not to report? … I think it may well be time to take that sort of first step forward”.—[Official Report, Commons, 9/7/14; cols. 282-83.]
We have already had reference to the NSPCC and I agree with the critique of the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, though welcoming Peter Wanless and the NSPCC’s move.
I therefore support the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, in tabling this amendment and urge the Government to do likewise. We cannot continue to fail the most vulnerable in our society. If our country is to grow and thrive, we must act now and ensure that we establish a culture that will not tolerate abuse. Mandatory reporting of such crimes will assist us in that task. Hearing far too many stories of unreported behaviour has led me seriously to change my mind in the past two years and is why I support this amendment.
Baroness Howarth of Breckland: My Lords, I feel some trepidation in challenging some of the issues about mandatory reporting, although I think that we need to find a different language. I do not think there is any difference between me and the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, and the right reverend Prelate in what we want to find at the end of the day. However, I want to caution them and the Government to ensure that they look at this in great depth—I know that they are doing so in other places—and that there are no unintended consequences from the action that is taken…
I understand why there is a wish, particularly in the church, to get this sort of prosecution. I say to the right reverend Prelate that I have probably talked to more victims than most in my 50 years, many of them children; I know the victims’ groups and I know the pain that they have experienced. But it is crucial that we base whatever we do in the future on what is happening now, and that we prevent children being abused in the present, and learn from those people in the future. They have a lot to offer but sometimes it can be clouded by pain, which I understand.
What we want to do, particularly in churches and similar organisations, is to develop a culture of openness. We know of a recent investigation into a particular area in the Church of England, where misogyny was rife and women’s views—never mind children’s—were not tolerated. I am a member of the Church of England so I say this in all good heart but that is one institution that really has to look at it itself—as I know it is doing because the right reverend Prelate is the chair of the committee looking at the issues within the church. There are other organisations that need to look at their culture because we are not going to change these issues by the law, although I think in some areas it will help. We need to get a cultural change in organisations and our nation…
Lord Taylor of Holbeach: …I hope that I can provide some reassurance to my noble friend Lady Walmsley and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham about the current process of referrals to social services. The noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, referred to this. It is important to recognise that existing statutory guidance is already crystal clear that professionals should refer immediately to social care when they are concerned about a child or vulnerable adult. Many thousands of referrals are made to children’s social care each year. In the year ending March 2013, there were 593,500 referrals—that is nearly 600,000. I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Walmsley for offering to provide me with figures that she has available, but I think that we need to bear that figure in mind and appreciate the scale of situation that we are seeking to engage in…
I can only again seek to reassure my noble friend and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham that we are actively examining the options and treating the matter with the urgency that it deserves. While I cannot undertake to bring forward government amendments on this issue on Report, I certainly expect that, by then, I will have more to say on where we have reached in our consideration of this important matter. Having put the issue firmly on the table as my noble friend has done, I hope that she will now be content to withdraw her amendment.