HC Deb 19 December 1988 vol 144 cc46-70

5 pm

Mr. Geoffrey Dickens (Littleborough and Saddleworth)

I beg to move, That this House expresses its disgust and alarm at the spread of child abuse throughout the United Kingdom; welcomes the provisions contained within the Criminal Justice Act 1988 designed to protect children and to deter potential child abusers; and calls upon Her Majesty's Government to ensure that the range of sentences available to the courts are regularly reviewed, are sufficient to enable the courts to deal effectively with those who commit offences against children, and strong enough to serve as a deterrent to those who may act towards a child in an unnatural way.

When Back Benchers win a little Front Bench time, as we have this afternoon, it is important to maximise the opportunity. I felt it important, just before Christmas—which is a time for children—to lay one or two markers and remind those who regard children in an unnatural way and might be potential child abusers of what might be in store for them. Unless they understand that, all the provisions that we pass are just a punishment. They will not be a deterrent unless we get across what will be in store for the child abuser.

Today, many more people are likely to be caught and charged than previously. Many more are much more likely to be convicted and receive a custodial sentence. It is not common knowledge, but life in prison is usually hell for such classified offenders.

The general deterrent effect of those elements is not easy to measure. The inference most commonly drawn from research studies is that the probability of arrest and conviction is most likely to deter potential offenders. Others believe that severity of sentence is the key to deterrence, but the poor quality of prison life should not be ignored. Taking all those elements together, anyone should think twice before touching a child in an unnatural way, be it physical or sexual.

Why are offenders more likely to be caught and charged today? Children find it much easier to tell because they have been listened to. We have got the message across to children that it is all right to tell, which is good. Friends, neighbours and grandparents are much more alert. School teachers watch for certain signs, and I shall give a few examples of such signs. It is a sign if a child who formerly was a chatterbox is sullen and withdrawn at school. Another is if, when they change for PE, they seem to have lost a lot of weight or are bruised. Teachers are much more alert to those signs.

Social services, voluntary support agencies and the police are working better as teams. Child care law has improved. The Children Bill, which I am sure will be amended, will help those at the sharp end—the field workers who must keep an eye on children at risk. Child protection is a high-risk business and we rely heavily on those in the field to detect, counsel and prevent abuse.

I should like to mention something that is bothering me, and it is the only time that I will be a little political, but I believe that child protection has all-party support. I am gravely concerned about jobs for the boys in social services. People throughout the country have fallen down on the job, but have been moved to other authorities, sometimes with grave results. It has happened at every level and goes right to the top. If a director shows lack of management skills and is criticised by his board he is unlikely to secure a directorship of an identical company, yet in social services potential problems are laundered between local authorities. I can give many examples, such as the former assistant director of the London borough of Brent, who is now the director of the London borough of Southwark. He was criticised in the Jasmine Beckford tragedy, and now a child has died in Southwark. I cannot go further because a court case is pending and it is sub judice, but I report that as a fact. This week, Manchester city council appointed the former director of Cleveland social services, who was criticised by the Cleveland inquiry, and deep concern has been expressed in Manchester. I want to lay down that marker because it is causing people concern and the position must be watched.

Why did I say that people are more likely to be convicted today? The Criminal Justice Act 1988 has led to an improvement, and under section 32, children under 14 are able to give evidence at court through a live television link. A pilot scheme has been operating in Bexley, but from 5 January the process will be accelerated to include selected courts. Many cases have broken down because a poor little child has had to look across court and face the person who abused him, which is tragic. Hon. Members must think of the poor little child who must face the person who has been awful to him. Most adults know that a court is not a nice place to appear, but what is it like for a child? The extension of the pilot scheme is wonderful news; it works well in America and I am sure that it will be a great success here. I congratulate the Home Office and the police on introducing it so quickly in the courts.

Committal proceedings in magistrates' courts are now designed to be less of an ordeal for children. A child may not be called as a witness, so the court can rely on the child's statement, which will spare the child. There are exceptions to cover the prosecution's needs, but by and large children will be spared from having to give evidence in magistrates' courts, which is wonderful.

Under section 34 of the Act, the requirement that the unsworn evidence of children must be corroborated has been abolished. Judges are no longer required to warn the jury about convicting the accused on the uncorroborated evidence of a witness simply because the witnesss is a child. As one would expect, the general rules on corroboration must still be respected, but it is a wonderful step forward. A child's unsworn evidence has now been put on the same footing as that of an adult, as long as the court is satisfied that the child is possessed of sufficient intelligence and understands the duty of speaking the truth.

Much more important is the fact that the unsworn evidence of one child may corroborate the sworn or unsworn evidence of another. The merit of that change is that evil paedophiles abuse a child not in front of an audience but in secret—which is why it is hard to obtain convictions—and often the only other witness is a child, so Parliament has straightened out that problem. We can see the net closing on abusers in a sensible way. I hope that that message will go outside Parliament. All would-be child abusers should understand that, with the advent of genetic fingerprinting, the net of detection and conviction is being drawn ever tighter.

Another matter in which I am interested is the examination of whether children's video evidence—that is, recorded first statements—could be another way forward. There is an advisory group under the chairmanship of Judge Thomas Pigot, Common Serjeant of the City of London. In his team are detective chief superintendent Anthony Kilkerr of the Metropolitan police, who has been closely involved with the Bexley experimental project in video recordings of interviews with children; Mr. Roy Parker, the assistant director of social services in Sunderland; Miss Anne Rafferty, a barrister with considerable experience in child abuse cases; and Ms. Jennifer Temkin, a lecturer in law at the London School of Economics and an expert on domestic violence. I cannot predict the result of their work, but I hope that they will move in the right direction.

In the American states that I have been in touch with, 80 per cent. of defendants change their pleas to guilty when the first video recording is shown. Sometimes they do so through remorse, and sometimes purely because they do not want such films to be shown in open court. For whatever reason, if we can get 80 per cent. to change their pleas to guilty, think how we shall spare the children. How can children be expected to remember everything when a case goes through committal proceedings and into the county court? How can we expect a child who is filling its head with new ideas every minute of the day—learning all the time—to remember the precise incidents that happened months ago? The system was loaded towards the child abuser. We have had to restore the balance. I cannot predict the result of the advisory group's work, but I hope and pray that it will give this a try. It is important.

The question whether video-recorded evidence should be readily admissible in court cases in which children are victims of abuse is complex. It is of paramount importance that anything that we do should be in the interests of child victims of such detestable crimes. In the wider interests of justice, we must guard against any risk of unwittingly increasing the stress and suffering to which the criminal process exposes child victims. At the same time, we must protect the right of the accused person to a full and fair trial.

Why did I say that people have a much greater chance of receiving a custodial sentence for tampering with children? Such is the public outrage that judges are tending to take a strong line when sentencing those convicted of child abuse, whether physical or sexual. Section 36(1)(b)(ii) of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 allows the Attorney-General to refer a case to the Court of Appeal when it appears to him that the sentence handed down by the Crown court has been unduly lenient. The Court of Appeal will have power to quash the sentence and to replace it with such sentence as they think appropriate for the case", in view of the sentencing powers which were available to the Crown court but which it did not use. That is a big step forward, particularly for people such as myself, who have had their hands smacked time and again for criticising judges. However, that practice has worked, because the good old Home Office has come up trumps. It is just what we wanted—just what we have been fighting for—and it is wonderful news.

I hope that parents, when they hear about the Bill, will be convinced that we are on the warpath today. Several Commonwealth countries follow this practice, and it works well.

There was a recent case in which a judge apologised for only being able to give the maximum sentence of two years for cruelty. A baby was so cruelly treated that it died. Section 45 of the Criminal Justice Act and the corresponding provision for Scotland increase the maximum term of imprisonment for cruelty to children under the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 from two years to 10 years. That is a wonderful step forward. That increased term of imprisonment followed the outrage surrounding that case.

Many cases have failed by a whisker to satisfy a jury that murder or manslaughter was intended. Defendants were then convicted of cruelty under the Children and Young Persons Act 1933. Babies and children died from their batterings, and two years' maximum custodial sentence was the result. A term of 10 years' imprisonment is now available for offences committed after 29 September 1988. That is wonderful.

I mentioned that prison could be hell. As a humble Back Bencher, perhaps I am able to deal with this matter more easily than the Home Office can, as it must be cautious about what goes on inside prisons. Prisoners do not take kindly to child abusers. Sometimes, prisoners were victims in their younger lives, and the experience has sharpened their attitudes. Some think of their own children, and are pained that they are not free to protect them. That is important. They compare their sentences with those of child batterers and child sexual offenders and feel aggrieved. For that reason, at times certain prisoners must be placed under section 43 provisions for their own protection. Child abusers should get the message that that could mean solitary confinement. In some cases, it means being shut up only with other child abusers. It means a lack of exercise. They must be prevented from meeting other prisoners. They have little work. They cannot be sent off to the workshop. They have few privileges. For example, they cannot sit in television rooms with other prisoners. Life in prison is hell and restricted. It is time people got the message because the net is tightening.

The possession of child pornography is now a criminal offence. It was a defence to say that it was for a person's own use. The Bill will protect children, because children must be procured to produce such disgusting material. Child pornography corrupts adults and entices them to seek the real thing. We must reflect on how many children go missing or are murdered to satisfy the lust of paedophiles.

I have resisted the temptation to dwell on the growth of the occult and groups practising black witchcraft, devil worship, black magic and satanism, but work to deal with this growth is going on behind the scenes, and it is proceeding very well. Children are being delivered from the hands of such groups. It is evil, it is spreading, but many of us are fighting. I will not mar my speech by moving down that road today, but I shall return to that subject because it is worse than any hon. Member would dream.

We have also amended sentences for serious attacks on children. Murder, rape, grievous bodily harm and buggery now carry a maximum of life imprisonment. That is how it should be. Also, spouses of alleged child abusers can be compelled to give evidence against them. That is an important step. We are continually seeking to restore the balance between the child abuser and the child, so that, when cases go to court, there is at least a sporting chance of properly sorting out matters under the legal system.

For more than 10 years those of us who have actively been working with children and families have strongly believed that the 32 Acts on child care law have created unnecessary confusion. In recent years a number of documents—in 1984 the Select Committee report on children in care, the 1985 Jasmine Beck ford report, the 1987 Kimberly Carlile report, the 1987 Tyra Henry report, the 1988 Cleveland report, and the 1987 Government White Paper entitled "The Law on Child Care and Family Services"—have drawn attention to the need for major reforms to meet the contemporary needs of children and assist social workers and others.

The Children Bill is, without doubt, the most important legislation dealing with children to be introduced for many years. The foundation stone on which the new child care framework is constructed is the welfare of the child, and that is right. Hon. Members will remember that the phrase "a child in trust" was used after the Jasmine Beckford case. It is wonderful that we have got that message here.

It is my honour to serve on the all-party parliamentary children's group. The group's chairman, Baroness Faithful, has gathered together a strong group of child care specialists and is working tirelessly to ensure that sensible amendments are tabled to the Children Bill. Children and families will have much for which to thank Baroness Faithful when they remember her work on this subject over many years. What are we up to behind the scenes? We are carrying out a detailed study of the Children Bill and trying to maximise the golden opportunity that it provides by suggesting helpful improvements. I do not expect that all of them will be taken on hoard, but the Bill will be far better than it is at the moment.

I have the Bill here, but I do not want to be accused of introducing it in the House. However, hon. Members may be interested to know that part I deals with general principles on child welfare, part II with orders in respect of children in family and other proceedings, part III with local authority support for children and families. part IV with care and supervision, part V with emergency protection, part VI with community homes, part VII with the organisation of voluntary homes, part VIII with registered children's homes and part IX with private fostering arrangements. The Bill contains about 80 clauses, but there are improvements to be made. I hope for improvements to protect the rights of grandparents, and I am sure that they will come.

Much work is being done by dedicated people and I am pleased about that. I want to take this opportunity to thank all the dedicated people working in the area of child protection and the wonderful fund-raising groups who support organisations such as the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, the National Children's Home, Dr. Barnardo's, Childwatch and other groups too numerous to mention. I do not know what we should do without them because they are wonderful organisations which are working hard to protect children.

I do not believe that extra financial resources are always the answer. I believe that the good management of existing resources, strict guidelines and first class communication with other interested agencies are the key, as long as Parliament produces the right framework—as we are, with the help of the Opposition. Of course, more resources will be required when the Bill is enacted and I am sure that provision has been made already for that. May I ask the Government to consider spending a little extra on television advertising late in the evening, pointing out the consequences of child abuse? I hope that the message will say, as I said earlier, that child abusers must recognise that they are far more likely to be caught and charged, far more likely to be convicted and far more likely to receive a custodial sentence and that prison will be hell. Some paedophiles may think that it is worth touching a child, but they will be for the high jump. If we have put that message across this afternoon, we have done well.

5.25 pm
Miss Joan Lestor (Eccles)

The House is grateful to the hon. Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Dickens) for raising this matter. I agree, to some extent, with what he has said. It is a pity that we have not had a full debate on the Cleveland report and its implications, but we shall have a chance, during the passage of the Children Bill, to raise many of the matters that we could have discussed in a debate on Cleveland. Of course, I support most of the provisions in the Bill.

I do not want to fall out with the hon. Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth on any matter, but I am not convinced that the physical or sexual abuse of children is spreading. I believe that many more cases are being reported and, as the hon. Gentleman said, children have been given the confidence to come forward and complain, whereas in the past they did not have that confidence. The evidence does not show that there is any greater incidence of child abuse, but we now provide the facilities for people to come forward and there is greater vigilance by people who are working with children, enabling them to detect abuse.

I do not want to follow up the hon. Gentleman's comments on what happens, or what should happen, in prison. Our work is to find out why men abuse children—and it is, in the main, men. We do not know the full story and I am not convinced that simply to threaten people with long terms of imprisonment and violence in prison will necessarily deter them. The all-party parliamentary children's group heard evidence from a person who deals with sexual abusers and who put forward the theory that the sexual abuse of children is sometimes addictive behaviour. We have yet to solve the problem of how to deal with that. However, anything that deters such people is to be welcomed, if we ensure that they are deterred in the long term.

I am the last person to want to suggest that a person who has been sexually or physically abused as a child will grow up to be an abuser. However, I want to underline to anybody who saw the recent television programme in which violent men were interviewed that the main thread that ran through the history of all those violent men was that they had themselves suffered violence as small children. We must therefore consider carefully the treatment and therapy given to children who have been abused in any way. If we do not, there will be a minority—I stress the word minority—whom we shall later call all the foul names on which we can lay our tongues because they repeat the pattern. Such people are a minority, because most people successfully survive those early experiences.

Those of us who have been interested in the problem of child sexual abuse know that many adults now come forward and say how glad they are to talk about what happened to them when they were children. They have never talked about it before, but have managed to cope somehow. It would have been better if the facilities that we are now beginning to develop to treat abused children had been available for them. Some of the people who have disclosed the fact that they were abused as children have kept quiet for 30, 40, 50 or more years. If only the help and facilities had been available for them to come forward and complain, their lives might have been far happier.

That point brings me to the main reason why I wanted to take part in this debate. Through the Children Bill, and in other ways, the Government are moving towards providing greater protection for children and better training and help for those dealing with children. However, it is a pity that the Government did not decide on three-year training courses for social work. There are two other important points, which can be dealt with. I recently asked the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie), when she was Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health, in a written question, what the Government were doing to ensure that undesirable people did not set up child-lines. That is an area that is wide open to abuse—so much so that Valerie Howarth of Childline wrote to the Department in March about the matter. That arose out of an incident at Childline when a person was making inappropriate contact, as she described it, with children through the use of the child-line facility. It was discovered that there was no way in which that individual—or any other who wished to use the telephone service in that way—could be prevented from doing so. The magazine Social Work Today also took the matter up. I should not simply have been brushed aside and told that there was no need for any protective measures but that if I knew of any cases I should report them to the police. It is not my job, and I do not have the facilities, to monitor the people who set up child-lines. The Government should be looking at some form of registration and monitoring system. Child-lines can do great and useful work with children, but they are open to abuse if the wrong people are on the end of the line. I hope that the Government will reconsider. As the hon. Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth said, this is not a party political issue; all of us are worried about what is happening to children.

The other day, I asked what the Government were doing to ensure that voluntary organisations dealing with children had access to the police records of those whom they employed. I believe that I am right in saying that it is four years since the recommendation was made, and that local authorities have the facilities—and have been helped—to gain access to the police records of those whom they may employ. I was told that a pilot scheme for voluntary organisations would be set up some time in the summer. There has been much foot-dragging on this matter, which has been raised with me by various voluntary organisations whose employees have direct contact with children.

Recently a man who was used by a local authority to foster children on a voluntary basis was found to have been abusing those children over a long period. When I was out of the House for four years, I was director of the trade union child care project, so I had a chance to consider these problems in detail. Anyone who has been involved in such matters will know the difficulties that organisations face in finding out the background of those whom they employ. Anyone who reads what has happened to children who have been removed from home because they have been sexually abused will know that occasionally—too often—those children are abused again by the very people who are supposed to be protecting them. It would be foolish to say that that happens everywhere all the time; of course it does not. But there are instances. Having made it easier for the local authorities to gain access to the police records of people whom they may employ to care for children, we should help all voluntary organisations to ensure that potential employees have no record of abusing or interfering with children.

We shall never get it absolutely right; many people will get round any provision that we make and unfortunately there will always be new abusers coming on the scene. We can at least seek to ensure, however, that no one with a record of child abuse is appointed to care for children or put into a position of trust by them.

The answers that I received on the telephone counselling services and on the employees of voluntary organisations contradict the aims of the Children Bill and many of the positive steps that the Government have taken to try to deal with physical and sexual child abuse. It is important that we should vet those in contact with children as well as we can. Otherwise we shall be betraying the children who have been removed from their families because they have been abused—another betrayal of children by adults. It is no surprise to me that many youngsters who have suffered abuse two or three times grow up feeling that they can never trust an adult again because they are betrayed wherever they turn.

If we are to encourage children to say what is happening to them—the change in the climate has helped us to do that—we must ensure that help is available for them. I regret that we did not decide to extend the training period and I believe that we have much to do in that respect. Any child who has been physically, sexually or emotionally abused—although the last is perhaps a matter for another time—needs special help afterwards from a trained person. Children who do not get such help will have great difficulty in coping with their lives, particularly as they reach maturity. It is important that the people with whom children are placed should have proper training and should properly understand the difficulties and emotional problems that those children will face. Life will be tough enough for them anyway and we shall be betraying them if we do not place them with people who have the expertise and training necessary to deal with their problems.

5.35 pm
Mr. Roger Sims (Chislehurst)

I welcome the opportunity to discuss this important subject and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Dickens) for initiating the debate, even if I would not perhaps have chosen exactly the same phrases he did.

My hon. Friend referred to the spread of child abuse, but, as the hon. Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor) said, we simply do not know the extent of child abuse. Until recently, child abuse was recorded only by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in child abuse registers and they probably accounted for less than 10 per cent. of cases. I warmly welcome the Government's establishment of a national child abuse register, although it will take time before that is fully operational and its records can be taken as accurate. As the hon. Member for Eccles said, the number of adults who told us following the establishment of Childline that they had been abused as children is proof that we do not know the full extent of child abuse. That abuse had been hidden for years. There is no way that we can know the extent of child abuse, and we must take the figures at face value.

I agree that we need a range of sentences for dealing with such offences, as the motion suggests. The House will recall the general philosophy behind sentencing: the aim is to punish the offender and show society's detestation of the offence committed. It is, if possible, to reform the offender, or at least, while he is in custody, to prevent the recurrence of the offence, and it is to deter others from committing similar offences.

In child abuse cases, there is a different element. I refer, of course, to the interests of the child. In some cases it may be best for the father to finish up in prison but in others counselling and family therapy may enable the family to stay together, which is a far better outcome. Let us also bear it in mind that the very prospect of a prison sentence for the father—who is often the abuser—may deter the child from disclosing the fact that he or she has been abused. We must take that into account. In any case, sentencing is only a small part of the battle against child abuse. One could argue that each sentence is an admission that society has failed in that case to protect the child. We must do all we can to try to prevent abuse from occurring in the first place.

One is expected to have some qualification or training for most things nowadays, but one exception is parenting: one does not even have to be married to be a parent. All of us who are parents know just how hard it is to bring up children—to cope with a crying baby, to nurse a sick child or to handle a difficult youngster. Parenting does not come easily or naturally, and we have recently had royal endorsement of that fact. We need training for parenthood, and that is the theme of the current NSPCC campaign "Putting Children First". The NSPCC is known for what used to be its inspectors, who were known colloquially as "cruelty men". The inspectors have now been replaced by child protection teams, and I emphasise the word "protection".

If I refer frequently to the NSPCC, it is because I have the honour to sit on its central executive committee. Perhaps I may add that I occupy a position once occupied by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, whose support for the society not only publicly but in many discreet ways belies the uncaring label so unjustly attached to her. The society appreciates the support of my hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Health, who is not present for the good reason that he is attending an NSPCC function in Leicester. I am delighted to see my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Freeman) in his new capacity in the Department of Health and we all look forward to working with him. In addition to the NSPCC there are other bodies doing sterling work in this area—for example, the Church of England Children's Society and Barnardo's, to mention but two.

Training for parenthood can take place in schools, but it should not be confined to girls; boys become parents too. It can be carried out in youth clubs. Pregnant mothers are taught basic baby care, but it is important that both parents are encouraged to learn how to look after children as they develop. The child protection teams provide family care and help in learning parenting skills and to meet children's needs. That can he done in family centres, in the home or simply by the use of literature. I draw the attention of the House to the admirable guide issued by the NSPCC called "Putting Children First". It is easily available to all parents, and it is a useful document.

It is important that we put the court cases to which attention has naturally been drawn into perspective with the problem as a whole. In the year ending September 1987, the NSPCC had referred to it 23,000 cases involving 45,000 children. Of these, only 120 led to court proceedings and 446 to court actions. This year's figures, which are to be published shortly, are likely to show a small reduction in the overall figures, but a similar proportion. Of those cases some 58 per cent. are referred to the society by members of the general public.

It is interesting to note that 18 per cent. of the cases are referred by parents themselves. They may have come to the end of their tether. All of us who have been parents can understand how near one can get to that point. Parents turn to the society and seek and receive help. All parents should know that that service is available from their local child protection team 24 hours a day.

We think of child abuse in terms of physical or sexual abuse, but of the most recent year's figures, 21 per cent. involved physical abuse, 15 per cent. sexual abuse and 23 per cent. neglect. Children were underfed or badly clothed. Some 16 per cent. were cases of children simply being left alone; one might describe that as negative abuse. To deprive a child of love, care and proper clothing and nourishment is as much an abuse as striking that child.

If time allowed, I could cite several cases to show that, including some where the poverty is not material but emotional with potentially tragic consequences. It is important that all such cases are spotted at an early stage. There is a real need for professionals, social workers, teachers, parents and health visitors to be able to detect early signs of child abuse. The NSPCC offers a national training scheme for such professionals. Its value is recognised by the financial assistance which the Government provide for that training. The Minister is today at the new training centre in Leicester.

Despite these measures, incidents of child abuse occur and they must be dealt with by the courts. As my hon. Friend the Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth said, the Criminal Justice Act 1988 strengthens the courts' powers in several ways which I need not repeat. I warmly endorse his plea that the Pigot committee should proceed as rapidly as possible with its task so that we can see whether we can take the extremely valuable step forward of being able to use, not simply a video link, but video recordings in court cases. The issue has been fully debated in the past and I hope that it will not be long before we can take this valuable step. It is useful as the child does not have to appear in court. There are other valuable spin-offs, in that it assists police and social workers in pursuing their aspects of the case if they have not simply a written but a video record of what the child says took place.

I, too, warmly welcome the Children Bill which is being debated in another place. It seeks to strike the balance between the rights of children and the rights of parents which is so important, as was made clear recently in Cleveland. It also seeks to describe where and how the state should step in and take over as a parent. I have sat as the chairman of a juvenile court and made care orders, deciding in the name of the state to take children away from their mother and put them into care, so I know what a serious but sometimes necessary step that is.

Later in the Session, we shall have an opportunity to examine the Bill in detail, but perhaps I can refer to one omission which is relevant to today's debate. At present, if an officer of the social services or the NSPCC has suspicions or information about a particular child, calls at the house and either receives no reply or hears that the child is asleep or "away with aunty", there is little that he or she can do. If that happens several times, the social worker is in a dilemma, either to let the matter rest or to return armed with a warrant and a place of safety order and literally take the child away.

The House may recall that in April my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, South-West, (Mrs. Bottomley), who would certainly have taken part in this debate had she not been elevated to ministerial rank, introduced, under the 10-minute rule procedure, the Medical Examination of Children at Risk Bill. It gave the power to social workers in such cases to serve an order on the parents, requiring them to produce that child for medical examination within three days. That would not deprive the parents of the child, but it would put the onus on the parents to produce the child. It would be a valuable weapon in the fight against child abuse, and I hope that we can add it to the Bill when it comes before this House.

My hon. Friend the Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth and I approached this subject perhaps from slightly different angles, but we share the same views, and I thank him again for this opportunity to discuss it.

5.49 pm
Mr. Stuart Randall (Kingston upon Hull, West)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Dickens) on tabling this motion. As he rightly said, this matter has the support of all parts of the House. We are all deeply concerned about the protection of the child. I add to the points that the hon. Gentleman made our appreciation of all the agencies that carry out this work. I do not want to list them, because I may leave one out. I believe that all hon. Members recognise their good work, and this is an opportunity to voice our appreciation.

Although we are entirely in agreement on this matter, I feel that the hon. Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth was perhaps over-optimistic about what had been done in the Criminal Justice Act 1988. Of course many measures contained in that Act were good and valuable, and will help in sentencing and in stamping out abuse, but I see those only as a step forward in getting to grips with child abuse. I believe that there are many avenues to be pursued—especially our policy on non-custodial sentencing. It would be wrong and certainly over-simplistic if the House believed that we could slap people in prison and that would be the end of it. After the Cleveland affair, we have enough information to realise that the issue is complex and that there is no simplistic approach to sentencing policy. We must look at each case on its merits, because what might be suitable for one case might not be for others.

The great benefit of the efforts of the hon. Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth to have this debate is that we can place before the country some of the strategic issues in preventing child abuse and neglect. My hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor) mentioned the teenage chat lines, about which I have great concerns. It worries me that telephone companies can, at phenomenal tariff rates, encourage people to have telephone conversations which are titillating and stimulating in certain ways. Those services are there purely for the purpose of making profit and nothing else. The profit margins are massive, and the consequences of encouraging that kind of service worries me.

I believe that a number of measures in the Criminal Justice Act were positive and the hon. Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth was right to point them out. The use of live video for children, not when giving preliminary evidence but during trials, must be especially applauded. To be confronted by all the paraphernalia in a court—for instance, people dressed in wigs and gowns and especially to be confronted by the accused—could be traumatic for many children. I welcome the pilot trial that is commencing on a greater scale in the 10 Crown courts and we look forward to the results with interest.

I welcome, too, the sentences of from two to 10 years for the abuse of children under the age of 16 which came into operation in September.

The right of the Attorney-General to send alleged lenient sentences to the Court of Appeal—which is contained in section 36 of the new Act—is also to be welcomed. The recent case presided over by Judge Harold Cassells was an example of a judge failing in his judgment. In fact, there was uproar throughout the country about what he said in court. Frankly, it showed that judges are not perfect people, by any stretch of the imagination. That net to ensure that leniency will not have a deleterious effect is something that the Opposition welcome.

I do not fully understand the ideas of the hon. Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth about the leniency of the rules of corroboration. I am not sure that that will be as powerful as he suggested. Will the Minister comment on this matter, because I understand that he piloted the Bill through the House? Although I understand that there has been a change, and that a child's sworn evidence has the same status as that of an adult, I am not sure that, in sex cases especially, there is much of a change from the present situation.

We have measures now that will help the child involved in court processes. Some of the measures in the Criminal Justice Act 1988 provide a wider range of sentences which the court may apply in very serious cases. However, I believe that we need to go further. The NSPCC has made some suggestions, and I shall put a few of them briefly to the House. It commented on the use of video recordings in child sex abuse cases. Those are the video recordings which would be associated with preliminary statements. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) has spoken out powerfully and often on such recordings. I have listened carefully, and I believe that we will all benefit from the study that Judge Pigot is presently carrying out. Although videos have now been accepted in principle, I believe that the extension needs to be based on sound advice and evidence, which I hope Judge Pigot's review will provide.

The notion of improving training for the magistracy, for lay benches and for the judiciary will help children. The NSPCC feels that many people in such positions do not understand the full effect of the court process on children and that it finds, for example, tax evasion cases, and, perhaps, criminal cases more interesting than child abuse cases. It has been said that their priorities are not as great as they could be.

The work of the NSPCC suggests that, when a sentence has been passed, that can be helpful to a child, because, if a person is behind bars, that child is safe from further abuse. Members of a family may dispute what a child has said, and that child may feel isolated. Of course, if somebody is convicted of that sort of crime, it means that the other members of the family could support the child, because they know that the person who was abusing the child has been convicted. That is a beneficial effect of such convictions.

If someone is convicted, a child can also be reassured that he or she is not the guilty party. Although children may be abused, they often love their parents and feel guilty about disclosing their parents' activities. Children can consider such disclosures disloyal and they can cause them great difficulties. It is ironic that the break-up of a family can, in many respects, be more traumatic than the abuse encountered by a child. Of course, that varies from case to case, as it is a complex issue, but often there is pressure on a child to do what he or she can to keep a family from breaking up.

The NSPCC believes—a belief shared by many people —that custodial sentences may not act as a deterrent. This is an emotional issue, and we must consider it carefully. When an abuser within a family is discovered, the reaction is often, "Lock that person up. Never let them see the light of day again." My hon. Friend the Member for Eccles, in her excellent speech, pointed out, however, that some people become addicted to the sexual abuse of children. If someone is put behind bars and then allowed out at some time in the future, that does not necessarily solve the problem. Often, all they do is come out of prison to abuse again.

When custodial or non-custodial sentences are imposed, it is extremely important that people receive the right kind of therapy and treatment to break the cycle of abuse that can occur within families. Without such therapy, the chances of recidivism are exceedingly high. I congratulate the Government on introducing measures that we are delighted to support, but we must ensure that the pulic do not believe that the Act is all about locking people up. That would be misleading. We must ensure that we deal with this matter properly.

I should like to refer the House to the views of Lord Justice Butler-Sloss—the House will be aware that she headed the inquiry at Cleveland—which were expressed in The Independent on 24 September. Unfortunately, the article carried the alarming title: Sex abuse fathers could stay at home, judge says". I have a lot of time for The Independent, and it is a great pity that it should treat this matter in such an alarmist manner. In the article, Lord Justice Butler-Sloss called for radical new approaches to sentencing child sex abusers to prevent children becoming double victims. She said: Alternatives to prison had to be explored to spare children's agonies of guilt. In Cleveland, many children felt that by disclosing abuse they were responsible for splitting up their own families … Even in cases of incest, where a father admitted the offence and was genuinely repentant, probation or therapy might be considered as an alternative to prison. Where a father was genuinely sorry for what he had done, the option of probation or therapy might prompt him to admit the offence and spare the child the further agony of a court appearance. In some cases, if the protection of the child could be ensured, the father might even be able to stay with the family … 'I do not mean that violent offenders should be let off.' It is important to stress that we are not talking about violent offenders. Lord Justice Butler-Sloss said: 'we ought at least to look at the different approaches which might be more beneficial for the child and family.

It is very interesting to note that the article also reported that the chief constable of West Yorkshire, Colin Sampson, recently said at a conference that there had to be 'very special circumstances' before the police would feel happy that a child abuser might return home. 'There is always the worry that the offence might be repeated. However, he went on to say that the police were not a hard-line organisation and added: 'alternatives to prison have always to be considered. Each case has to be looked at on its merits. If the merits of the case indicate there is better treatment than prison, I would be all for it.' It is worth putting that long quote on the record because it demonstrates that there are people who believe that we must carefully consider each case to ensure that the sentence imposed is correct.

Mr. Richard Holt (Langbaurgh)

The hon. Gentleman referred to Cleveland. How would he and my hon. Friend the Minister react to the letter that I received this morning from the Rev. Michael Wright, who has helped all the families whose children have been taken away from them? He told me that two girls and a boy had been taken from a family, in which the boy was the baby of the family. There was no question of sexual abuse, and the two girls have been returned to their family. The parents want their son back, but he is so confused about who his parents are that there is now a court application being made for the child to be adopted by his foster parents. The natural parents are desperately upset.

Mr. Randall

That is very interesting. Although it does not fit in with the logic of my argument, I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has made his point. The incident he has described is a terrific tragedy, and it shows that we must carefully consider how we deal with abuse and suspected abuse cases.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles that it is staggering that we have not had an opportunity to debate the Butler-Sloss report. I know that the hon. Member for Langbaurgh (Mr. Holt), together with my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell), has played a significant part in the Cleveland case; I congratulate them both on their efforts. The example that the hon. Member for Langbaurgh quoted illustrates the difficulties and tragedies that can ensue from such cases.

I am aware that other hon. Members wish to participate, so I shall be brief. In common with the hon. Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims), however, I should like to quote one or two statistics about the scale of the problem. I refer to the article that appeared in The Guardian on 16 June 1988 under the headline: Legal changes sought to end evil in the home". The article is based on the NSPCC report, which called on the Government to legislate so that the child abuser, not the victim, could be removed from the family home, without necessarily going to prison.

We need to debate that idea. In child abuse cases, the child is often taken into care while the abuser remains at home. I am not sure that that is necessarily the right way to do things. Of course, cases vary and we cannot be too dogmatic, but I am sympathetic to the NSPCC director's comments.

In the report, the NSPCC spoke of many cases not coming to court because the evidence was inadmissible and because it was too traumatic for the child to give evidence in person. But some of the statistics are frightening: The NSPCC analysis offers a revealing profile of the typical child abuse case. Fewer than 40 per cent. of victims were actually living with both natural parents when abused. About a quarter lived with their natural mother and a stepfather or boy friend. Another quarter lived only with their mother. Stepfathers and boy friends were implicated in 19 per cent. of injury cases and a quarter of sex abuse cases. Natural fathers were implicated in a third of sex abuse cases, compared with 3 per cent. of mothers. So natural fathers were involved to a greater extent than boy friends or stepfathers.

The average age of registered victims of all forms of abuse was six years and 10 months, which is horrific. The average age of sexually abused children was nine years and eight months. The article went on to say that marital problems were the most common cause of abuse, followed by unemployment.

A number of measures, including some in the Criminal Justice Act 1988, have been introduced, many of which we support, but we feel that we must go further than introducing custodial sentences and bring in therapeutic work under a statutory obligation. These services are patchy throughout the country. It is important that the Government should compel prison authorities and others to provide such services.

For the future, we need a range of sentences and services to ensure that those who are sentenced return to life in a more normal and natural way. These measures are desperately important, and the list of what we should like to do is almost endless. Today, both sides of the House have supported the motion introduced by the hon. Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth, whose initiative we welcome.

6.13 pm
Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

I join other hon. Members in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Dickens) on his initiative in bringing forward this important subject for debate. I want to refer briefly to what the hon. Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor) said. I greatly respect her experience. My own long experience in dealing with children as schoolmaster and teacher and in clubs and so on tells me that what often matters most in a person, be he amateur or professional, is motivation.

For many years in this country children's orphanages were run by gifted amateurs from religious orders. The nuns and monks were highly motivated to do the job, but they were removed after the war from this vocation and professionals were put in to do the job. As a result there is often less love around for the children: the motivation is not the same. I think that children have suffered as a result.

I believe that sound marriage gives children the best hope of not being molested or abused. It is incredible that any adult can lay into a child in the way that some of them do. I came across a case only last week in which a man of 6 ft 4 in had smashed into a four-year-old child with all his considerable force. That is both unbelievable and heartbreaking. Clearly adults who behave like that suffer from some sort of inadequacy.

The national honorary secretary of Family and Youth Concern wrote to me this morning as follows: I understand that the government is mounting a campaign for more child care facilities to enable more women to join the labour force. In Sweden where the state assumes responsibility for the care of children from an early age there are serious problems. One study showed that half the nation's seven-year olds suffer from harmful stress. Teenage rioting is a recurring problem. 25,000 children are in state custody (12,000 having been forceably removed from their parents) compared with a sum total of 1,500 in other Nordic countries. Over 125 children commit suicide each year. Among explanations for these problems, the one most cited is the decline of parental supervision in a country where most parents work full-time. The Select Committee on Education, Science and Arts visited Washington earlier this year to observe the education of the under-fives. It was amazing to discover that 57 per cent. of parents with children who were one year old or younger both worked full time, and that their children went into creche or other facilities from the age of two weeks. Of course, I understand that there is often a social or financial need for both parents to work, but when they do it is imperative that society provide alternative facilities and care for children which will provide them with substitute parental love. If that does not happen, we build up much trouble for ourselves.

There is a great need to strengthen the family. Children in families are rarely battered, although, as hon. Members said, they can be abused. That is a matter for great concern. The marriage commitment strengthens the parental bond between men and women to whom children are born, and the children benefit greatly from that—

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Greenway

No. I am anxious to be brief.

The taxation of man and wife on the same basis as that for unmarried people living together is welcome and should go further.

I also welcome the Children Bill, which is being debated in another place. However, I am worried about an amendment to it which will be debated this week and which would ban the odd parental smack of a child. It is quite absurd to try to legislate on parents' physical control of their children, which is occasionally necessary. My three children are now 18, 17 and 13 and my wife told me yesterday that she has issued three smacks in their lives. I do not know who got what, but it happened because she was exasperated—and on each occasion it cleared the air. She felt better, the children felt better, and everything was all right—[Interruption.] I have never battered my wife.

To move to the position in Sweden, where children are told from the age of five that they should report it to the police if they are smacked by their parents, would be an unwarranted intrusion into family life and would help no one. It would divide children from their parents, which is the worst thing that one could do. The loving bond between parent and child should not be violated. If a parent loves his child, he will not wish to batter him, and if the child loves his parent, he will do what the parent wants him to do in his own interests. Any law that encourages the reporting of chastisement of a child would be highly divisive and must be resisted at all costs. I hope that this week the House of Lords will throw out the suggestion for all time.

School security is essential. When I was running a school with 2,200 pupils, I was always there at 8 am, especially on cold mornings, to ensure that the school was open so that children who wanted to come in had a warm atmosphere in which they could be comfortable, sit down and read or even take part in some recreation with their friends in the games room. That gave children a sense of security and was part of the reason why some schools decided to extend their school day. It gave children the extra security that they could not get at home because both their parents were working.

I am extremely anxious about the security of children in some schools. Sadly, on 13 October, in my constituency, an eight-year-old child was molested by an intruder in a school lavatory. That should not happen anywhere. The local authority spends only £15,000 a year on school security throughout the borough. That cash must be spread over many schools, and it is an inadequate sum. In that case, there were four schools for young children on the same site, but the council failed to put high railings round each school so that they could be secure.

Also, head teachers or deputy heads should always be walking the school. I always did that as a teacher, no matter how junior I was. When I was a head teacher, I did it because I always found children who should be at their lessons walking about the school and I could do something about them. By walking the school, a head teacher could find any intruders and deal with them. The fencing of Wood End school in Northolt was promised by Christmas, but it has not happened. I hope that the local authority will get its act together and fence the school properly early in the new year. It is essential to protect those little children from child molesters.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth said, the welfare of the child is paramount. Molesters must be kept off council estates. I agree with the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Randall) that child molesters can rarely be cured. Sadly, recividism among child molesters is very high. Two or three years ago in my constituency, a child molester who had been in Broadmoor for several years was released and, because there was inadequate liaison among the police, the prison authorities and the local authorities, he was allocated accommodation on a council estate next door to a flat in which some small children lived. It was no time before he was giving them sweets, and then £1 or £5 to lie on his bed. To the consternation of us all, he molested two children there. That should not have occurred. I hope that in future there will be more co-operation among the police, local authorities, schools and all concerned with children. Only if everyone pulls together shall we obtain the proper protection that children so urgently require.

6.24 pm
Mr. Ronnie Fearn (Southport)

I am broadly in favour of the motion introduced by the hon. Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Dickens), but it does not distinguish between sexual abuse and other types of deliberate physical maltreatment. Although the former occurs across the social spectrum, the latter is prevalent in deprived families. Neither type of abuse can be justified, but the number of battered children would probably be reduced more by the reversal of some social security cuts than by the introduction of extreme punishments.

For every type of child abuse, the justifiable outrage of decent citizens tends to result in a clamour for tougher sentences. We are all worried by the fact that some judgments are only a slap on the wrist, rather than an expression of moral outrage. The judiciary cannot be seen to condone child abuse. Unfortunately, the vast majority of judges are white, male and middle-aged or elderly. Sometimes they seem to be more worried about the protection of property than about assaults on the person —even those committed against innocent children and, especially, babies.

The Social and Liberal Democrats believe that the extension of family courts would help in that direction. We support the section of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 that deals with evidence given by children. But we should not fall into the naive belief that legal arrangements will cure the cancer. Like sadistic murders, the abuse of children is sometimes committed by mentally sick people, and legal sanctions would not restrain them. Tougher punishments may be satisfying for some, but they delude us into thinking that the problem is being tackled when it is not.

Much of the terrifying amount of child abuse that now occurs, and perhaps has been occurring for many years, is committed by so-called ordinary people. The number of crimes may be reduced by more education of parents about child development. In some circumstances, children with disabilities are especially at risk. If their parents were taught to accept their difficulties, there might be less tension in some households. Moreover, the social services should pay greater attention when a stressful family is faced with a sudden crisis that could act as a trigger to child abuse. I have spoken to many directors of social services. The director in Southport, who also represents Sefton authority, has said many times that his budget is too restricted to allow him to deal with all the matters that he would wish.

I had the honour of meeting and talking to a constituent, Mr. Charles Oxley—the gentleman is now deceased—who was the main opponent of paedophile organisations. Although such organisations have been made illegal in Britain, diaries are still sold here which advertise international paedophile organisations. Some abusers in Britain use the fact that those diaries are on sale as an excuse for their activities, saying that it cannot be wrong as long as such material is available. I believe that it is wrong and that the diaries should be banned. I hope that the Minister will examine the matter.

I should like to praise the Government for at last conducting a national survey into child abuse. At last, the scale of the problem should become clearer. However, I am disappointed that that research appears only to cover England. Is there no child abuse in Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland?

I also welcome the publication of guidelines for social workers which might help them in what can undoubtedly be very difficult situations. However, unfortunately, human judgment is still crucial and mistakes are therefore possible. The risk could be reduced if the social services were not so badly funded and understaffed. Clearly, the Government must act to protect children. I believe that they will do so through the Children Bill, which will certainly have my support and that of my party.

6.30 pm
Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne)

I wish to speak in this debate for two simple reasons, first, to stress how little we know about child abuse and, secondly, to plead with the House to take one specific aspect of child abuse a great deal more seriously that it has been taken in the past.

Abusing children is so self-evidently abhorrent and wishing to protect children is so self-evidently good that there is a real danger of jumping to conclusions without too much thought. However, if we are to make any real progress in this matter, we must first take one step back from those instinctive and emotional reactions and take a long, hard look at the facts.

However, if we set out to look at the facts, we quickly make a rather nasty discovery—that very few facts are available. Many of the key issues have yet to be researched. One of the infrequently quoted parts of the Cleveland inquiry report states on page 245: There are some issues of importance upon which we did not receive evidence and which we have not addressed. These include specifically the nature of abusers and the reasons for sexual abuse of children; the effectiveness and appropriateness of the strategies used once the problem has been identified; and the response of society and the agencies to those who abuse. That is a pretty fundamental list of issues and, until it is addressed, we shall continue to know next to nothing about who the abusers are and why they do it, or about the worth of the way in which we are currently responding.

Clearly, the Government have an important role to play in such research. They need to concentrate on more than the abusers and the abuse. They also need to focus on the abused children, the effects of that abuse on the children, how such children can be helped and how families can be steered away from abuse.

The Government can also help in other ways, first, by standardising the definitions of abuse, which are many and varied, and, secondly, by compulsorily requiring reports to be sent to the Department of Health on all matters concerning abuse. Only then will reliable statistics be available and, until then, we can only guess how much abuse is taking place.

We must do a great deal of research, but we must also abandon some familiar preconceptions. For example, we must give up the idea that child abuse is carried out by dirty old men in raincoats on street corners. The Cleveland inquiry report states on page 243: We have learned during the Inquiry that sexual abuse occurs in children of all ages, including the very young, to boys as well as girls, in all classes of society and frequently within the privacy of the family. By way of example, we must give up the idea that child physical abuse is caused simply by poverty and/or unemployment. I quote from a survey by Vallender and Fogelman, published this year, about existing knowledge on the subject. It states: One misconception is that we are all potential batterers and that the main causes are depression and poverty. In fact, most parents who violently assault their children are young, immature, ill-educated, disorganised and aggressive; many of the fathers involved have criminal records. Their incomes are similar to those of non-battering families, but they organise their finances badly. Besides doing more research, we must abandon those preconceived notions and be clear in our minds about the ultimate objective of our efforts. It is not simply the protection of children; it is not even the conviction and punishment of offenders. It is the prevention of abuse and, in that context, it is easy to forget that protection and prevention are not necessarily the same thing.

What can we do to prevent child abuse? First, society must take early action rather than wait and then indulge in crisis intervention. Secondly, we must promote children's welfare within the family unit rather than simply stepping in and removing children from their parents. Thirdly, when the removal of a child has become inevitable, we must make certain that there has been adequate parental change before that child is returned to the family.

How does the Children Bill fit in with this analysis? It will improve the framework and help professionals operate in a much clearer environment, but legislation alone is not enough. Society also has a part to play. We should ask ourselves three basic questions about our current values and standards. First, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) asked, should we be worried about recent trends in family life? Secondly, does the law's view of children as possessions and chattels, rather than as whole people, make abuse more likely? Thirdly, does the daily diet of sex and violence in the media, particularly on television, make child abuse seem more normal?

I have concentrated so far on child abuse in the family, where most abuse takes place, but I want to say a few words about child abuse outside the family, particularly about the abuse in the name of religion. I do so because many people are all too ready to laugh this off as unimportant, but it is not; it happens. It is evil and those who are involved must he tracked down and dealt with. Those who systematically and deliberately abuse children for their own depraved ends must expect no sympathy from this House, the nation or from people anywhere.

Let me give two examples of what I have in mind. First, there is a cult known as the Children of God. Its members are followers of a defrocked Christian minister, David Berg, and they give everything in the Bible a sexual meaning. Thus, I will make you fishers of men becomes a call for teenage girls and young women to become prostitutes to recruit new members. In taped sermons in my possession, Berg preaches that there is a new commandment, "Thou shalt have sex", starting as a young child. We do not need to go further than a shopping mall in my constituency to meet members of that organisation.

My second example is satanism. All too often, its mention produces giggles and images of witches on broomsticks, but satanism is not the same thing as witchcraft. It is about the ritual mutilation and torture of people, particularly children, human and animal sacrifice and cannibalism. I shall quote from an article in Style magazine, published in January of this year, which states: Sam Hoyer's nightmare began at birth. Sam spent the first 16 years of her life in an … orphanage in New England … When Sam was 9 years old, cult leaders designated her and a handful of other children as candidates for the role of high priestess … Testing the children's powers, the religious impostors strapped six of the 'candidates' to crosses and burned them. Sam alone survived … As part of her grooming, Sam was required to watch other children being sacrificed; then she was forced to witness and participate in cannibalism. In case any of my colleagues are tempted to dismiss that report as the exaggerated ramblings of American journalists, I must tell hon. Members that I have a list of 30 recent satanic murderers who have been brought before United States courts. If any of my colleagues are tempted to believe that those things do not happen here, I must tell them that only 10 days ago one of my local newspapers, the Egham and Staines News, carried a headline stating: Baby in satanic killing. Throat cut by coven members. I hope that I have said enough to prove that cults do not consist of eccentric people who wear black robes and funny pointed hats. All too often they involve the deliberate abuse of children and young people. We cannot afford to laugh cults off. The time has now come to take them much more seriously than we have in the past. We must warn the public about them and the real dangers that they represent. We must act against the organisers of such depravity and cruelty.

6.40 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. John Patten)

We have had an excellent debate initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Dickens) and all hon. Members have joined in congratulating him on presenting the motion and on the way in which he conducted himself while doing so. I was delighted that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Randall) spoke from the Labour Front Bench and that he was able to join in the congratulations offered to my hon. Friend.

My hon. Friend the Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth was right to refer to the need for deterrence and the importance of deterring, punishing and, sometimes inevitably, alas, simply keeping people off the streets and away from possible temptation. My hon. Friend, like others today, mentioned the importance of prevention. A policy of deterrence and punishment must go hand in hand with a policy of prevention. There is all-party agreement on that approach and much of that approach was marked in my hon. Friend's most interesting speech.

My hon. Friend the Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth did almost as good a job as the excellent civil servants who advise Home Office Ministers in giving us a list of the new penalties that have been introduced for child abuse in the past four years. His list was almost complete and makes it almost otiose for me to take the House through each of the new penalties to which my hon. Friend referred. He was right to say that the penalties are becoming more severe. Everyone in this country, while wishing to reform and repair the damage among those who have committed crime, wants to see child abusers almost more than anyone else—perhaps other than those who commit crimes against women—dealt with by the courts with the maximum possible severity.

I believe that my hon. Friend was also right to draw to our attention, and therefore perhaps to the attention of the media and through it to the attention of those who are tempted to commit crimes against children through sexual or physical assault or by neglect, or a combination of all three, the fact that should those people be caught and convicted after due process in the courts and sent to prison, their lives in prison will be difficult, although not because that is the sentence of the courts or because that is what the House wants. We want people to be sent to prison to be punished. Being sent to prison is the punishment and life in prison should be austere but nothing other than that. Nothing that happens in prison is part of the punishment of being sent to prison. The punishment is the deprivation of liberty. That is what prison is all about.

None the less, other prisoners are human beings with emotions. As my hon. Friend said in a chilling part of his speech aimed at those who may be tempted to commit child abuse, people who are sentenced for that will be segregated and cut off from much of prison life. Of course they will be protected by the hard-working prison officers who ensure that order is maintained in prisons. They will be protected from violent and verbal abuse as much as possible in the circumstances. However, prison life being as it is, other prisoners feel very strongly about such crimes. Having to be segregated, as child molesters and child offenders sometimes must be, will be an even more disagreeable experience than simply being in prison. Life in prison for those people will become even more of a punishment, and some would say rightly I dare say, than for most people who are imprisoned.

In his list of the punishments available to the courts and other reforms introduced by the Criminal Justice Act 1988, my hon. Friend the Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth came up with an idea that was totally new to me. He raised the concept of advertising. He suggested that we should take further steps to counter the menace of child abuse, and he proposed that televison advertisements aimed at potential child abusers should be shown with the broadcasters' late-night output.

We must not discount any measures which might be effective. However, I am not sure how far we can take my hon. Friend's idea at the moment. Television advertisements can certainly be very powerful in drawing attention to problems and consequences to change people's behaviour. Advertisements for drink and driving, drugs, AIDS and the Government's campaign on crime prevention are examples of that. As almost all hon. Members today have said, child abuse is an exceptionally complex phenomenon. I do not think that we should underestimate that. We would need to take advice from psychiatrists and others before we were certain that we could devise an advertising campaign which would help to overcome perversion.

Who would see the advertisements? It is perhaps too easy to assume that those who watch certain material late at night necessarily include a high proportion of child abusers. We simply do not know. We do not know enough about the profile of the child abuser. I believe that it is at least as likely that abusers will watch other programmes at other times. We have been resolute in trying to restrain unsuitable material being seen in the home. We hope to introduce new measures to the Broadcasting Standards Council about the standards of taste and decency. We also have a very sound system for classifying videos through the Video Recordings Act 1984 which is doing much to stamp out the most undesirable material. Through the Criminal Justice Act 1988, we recently extended the powers of trading standards officers to enforce the law in that respect. We are not letting things slide in the wrong direction.

I am sad that at least one other hon. Member who has taken a notable interest in this issue, the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding), did not speak. Perhaps she was observing the old convention that the Whip should not speak, but should be mute in the Chamber. Happily for us, during the Committee stage of the Criminal Justice Bill last summer, the hon. Lady was not remotely mute. From time to time she would nip niftily to the back of the Committee from the Whip's seat and make an impassioned speech, quite often against the Opposition Front Bench. She would then nip back to Whip the troops. That was a tour de force, and I was hoping that we might see something like it this evening.

Mr. Wilshire

What about the Government Whips?

Mr. Patten

Well, a terrible chill went through the Chamber and the nerves tingled down the back of my neck when my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (Sir J. Stradling Thomas) entered the Chamber to take up his one-time accustomed place on the Government Benches as a Whip. He is standing in. Perhaps some terrible horror has struck the Whips' Office. Perhaps they have all been laid low. However, when I entered this House in 1979, my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth disciplined me and other new Members with a ferocity unparalled in the Whips' Office.

Let me deal in turn with the speeches made by hon. Members. I hope also for an opportunity to debate an issue with the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks), when he chooses to intervene.

In a balanced speech, the hon. Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor) pointed out that often those who abuse were themselves abused when young. It is clear from research undertaken by the Home Office and by work that the prison service has done that many sexual abusers were subject to sexual or violent abuse when they were themselves children. Much good therapeutic work is under way in Her Majesty's prison Grendon Underwood, both to reform and cure, but also simply to understand the motivation of so many child abusers. We are a long way from being able to draw up a satisfactory profile of the average child abuser, if there is such a thing. Nevertheless, several hon. Members have made a good attempt at doing so this afternoon, and they all point in the right direction.

A second important point made by the hon. Member for Eccles concerned the worrying report—which was new to me—that perhaps child-lines are open to abuse through the British Telecom and Mercury networks. I was not aware of that, but my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Health was on the Front Bench when the hon. Lady made her remarks, and I know that he will give them the characteristic care and attention that he gave to matters of defence procurement for which he was responsible until the end of last week—[Interruption.] Luckily, I did not hear what was said by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West, and I am sure that Hansard, with its characteristic good taste, did not hear it either.

The third important point made by the hon. Member for Eccles concerned access to police records by voluntary organisations that have children in their care from time to time or that help children. She questioned the point of having good records of people who have been child abusers in the past, and who therefore may present a risk to children's future health and welfare, if responsible individuals cannot gain access to such information.

Arrangements are already in place for local authorities, the National Health Service and independent schools to have access to police records. After considerable negotiations conducted by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, we have reached agreement on three pilot schemes allowing for access to such information by the voluntary sector. There is, first, one national pilot scheme to consider how the matter can be dealt with effectively nationally and, secondly, two local schemes—at least one of which will be in the west midlands.

Those negotiations have been protracted and difficult, not because of lack of good will by either the voluntary sector or the Home Office but because there are so many voluntary groups involved in the care of children, or who may be involved, at any one time. Working out how they can get the best route into police records but within the bounds of propriety has not been an easy task. Those pilot schemes are in detailed planning and we intend bringing them into effect in the summer of 1989.

Dame Jill Knight (Birmingham, Edgbaston)

In the light of efforts made some time ago in respect of access to police records, can my hon. Friend say whether, before a person is put in charge of a local authority children's home, the question of a police record will invariably be checked?

Mr. Patten

That should always be the case, and we hope to extend that provision to the voluntary sector.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst (Mr Sims) raised several important points. He, like my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire), is concerned about the extent of child abuse and wishes to know how far it has gone. The Department of Health, in consultation with the Home Office, is now considering establishing research into the characteristics and circumstances of child abusers. We hope to proceed with that as soon as possible. My hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst spoke of the NSPCC, with which he has long had a link. We value his work, as we do that of Dr. Alan Gilmour, the society's director, who, alas, will shortly retire. Dr. Gilmour is tireless in pursuing Ministers. He frequently pursued me when I was in the then Department of Health and Social Security, and the other day he winkled me out in the Home Office.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst referred also to putting the child first. He moved on to the difficult territory of those occasions when the police, social workers and others decide between them not only that a criminal charge will not stick but, even if it would, it is not in the child's best interest to bring a prosecution. Such are fantastically difficult decisions for those in the caring agencies and in the police to take. Rather like those life and death decisions that physicians and surgeons in hospitals must sometimes take about when a course of treatment should be terminated, decisions taken privately by the police and social workers are excellent decisions, when they work. However, when they go wrong—as sometimes, alas, they do—they go horribly wrong, publicly and in the glare of publicity. It is not an easy course for anyone to take.

Mr. Tony Banks

I wish to raise the question of the social workers' role in the context of my own constituency. I understand that each year there is a loss of about 900 social workers throughout the United Kingdom. In the context of the problems associated with child abuse, having more professionally trained social workers available must clearly be one of the resource approaches to dealing with a terrible problem. What proposals has the Minister for increasing the number of local authority social workers? My constituency, because it is an outer London borough, has difficulty in attracting sufficient numbers of social workers as it cannot offer inner London weighting.

Mr. Patten

That matter continually exercises the Department of Health, as it will my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Health, who was in his place on the Government Front Bench earlier. I shall ensure that the point made by the hon. Member for Newham, North-West is brought to my hon. Friend's attention.

In an interesting speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) drew attention to what happens when there is family breakdown, and how it alone may be not the cause of abuse—because no single factor is usually the cause—but how an unstable family structure can provide the setting for it. I agree entirely with my hon. Friend in his remarks about the importance of the family and the help that we must always give the family.

My hon. Friend referred also to the problems sometimes facing working mothers. Forty three per cent. of the country's work force are women. We are told by demographers—although they are rather a rum lot, and I am not sure that they can predict the future any more than psephologists can predict the outcome of elections—that, by 1995, about 80 per cent. of all new entrants into the labour market will, to quote from something I recently read, have to be women if the jobs are to be filled. That must mean increasing help for families. It must come from employers first and foremost, and not from the state.

I and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, together with others responsible for ensuring equal opportunities, do not wish to see a set-up of state-run creches. We are totally opposed to that. However, we would like to promote and to see in the next few years, in close consultation with employers—because there is no collision necessarily between caring and a career—good local provision by the private sector and voluntary organisations that will give the small-scale framework for child care, and provide—to paraphrase my hon. Friend's words—that surrogate family style and love and support during the hours when a mother is at work. That, I believe, is the right framework for the development of child care rather than larger scale provision.

The hon. Member for Southport (Mr. Fearn) raised an important point about paedophiles, drawing to our attention the existence of diaries providing addresses internationally and the possibility of their encouraging paedophiles. If any such diaries have been sent to him by those who have complained, I urge the hon. Gentleman to make them available to the police and the prosecuting authorities. I recently held a talk with justice Ministers in other European countries, and we are determined between us to do all that we can to stamp out this vile abuse.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That this House expresses its disgust and alarm at the spread of child abuse throughout the United Kingdom; welcomes the provisions contained within the Criminal Justice Act 1988 designed to protect children and to deter potential child abusers; and calls upon Her Majesty's Government to ensure that the range of sentences available to the courts are regularly reviewed, are sufficient to enable the courts to deal effectively with those who commit offences against children, and strong enough to serve as a deterrent to those who may act towards a child in an unnatural way.