HC Deb 05 April 1990 vol 170 cc1377-83 1.30 pm
Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth)

I wish to raise a serious aspect of child abuse that has caused increasing anxiety. I refer to ritualistic sex abuse, which certainly causes concern within the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, and which was raised by it at a recent press conference. The matter is of significant social importance, as I am sure the Minister will recognise.

As a member of the central executive committee of the society, I felt that I should seek an opportunity to pursue the matter. In some quarters it may be rather fashionable to take a relaxed view about aspects of child welfare: that view was illustrated in an article in The Evening Standard last Tuesday week, which suggested that the NSPCC should take care that it does not harm people's liberties in the relentless campaign against people's vices. However, if there is a real or potential abuse of children, are not the society, the House and the Government under an obligation to take a serious view? It seems that that rather dismissive view of the society's record of vigilant concern was expressed in response to the recent press conference.

I was alerted to the problem two or three years ago when the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe considered a report from the legal affairs committee. It was a factual report, restrained in its approach, but nevertheless entirely horrifying. It contained information about the abduction and misuse of children internationally, and about the trade in obscene video films involving children. I was astonished to learn of the scale of the trade in western Europe and the United States.

From the report, I learned that people took holidays to places such as Bangkok, where wealthy citizens from countries such as our own could satisfy their paedophilic tastes. Children could be purchased as sexual objects and holiday sex toys. Against that awareness of evil, I was not so shocked about the matter aired by the NSPCC, and by others concerned about the development of ritual sex abuse.

What has been revealed is intolerable. The purpose of my debate is to ensure that the Administration perceive the evil and are committed to respond to it. I trust that the Minister will consider the view that the incidence of ritualistic sex abuse is likely to be significantly larger than the number of cases so far established. Perhaps he will accept that those involved, while perverse and evil, are likely to possess a degree of cunning to disguise their practice and to operate securely.

The article to which I referred earlier mentioned the society's fear that some parents were compelling their children to watch video nasties, and suggested that the evidence was entirely anecdotal. Evidence is difficult to secure, and it has often been difficult to present it within the context of prosecution. Perhaps the new arrangements will make the pursuit of legal action more meaningful. Although evidence about ritualistic sex abuse is not easy to obtain, sufficient is available fully to justify the society's anxiety, to justify my raising the matter here and to justify the call for adequate recognition by the Government.

There have been at least five successful prosecutions in the past couple of years, which were referred to in a serious article in The Independent on Sunday on 16 March. One parent, described as a devil worshipper, was sentenced at the Old Bailey to imprisonment for the ritual abuse of seven children, including his own son or daughter. In another case, nine adults were imprisoned by the court in Nottingham on 53 charges of incest, indecent assault and cruelty against 21 children. One child was cut and the rest were required to drink his blood during a period that the children spent in what was described as a vortex of cruelty.

At the Old Bailey in 1980, an old lady was sentenced after she had imprisoned a girl and forced her to engage in black magic and sexual activity. Three men and a woman were sentenced at Chester about 18 months ago for vile activity involving children aged between three and 12. Last year, at Winchester, two men, one described as a practising Satanist, were imprisoned for incest, indecent assault and gross indecency with children from their own families. Those cases are not anecdotal.

Nor can one wholly dismiss the views of a clergyman mentioned in the article to which I have just referred, who said that he knew of girls who had been impregnated to serve ritualistic purposes, or the views of a woman involved in Childwatch, who was reported as having said that she had spoken to 40 children from various parts of the country who had been victims of such abuse. Others from different localities appear to have encountered child victims or other evidence of abuse. That is mentioned in the growing anxieties of experienced officers of the NSPCC.

The society has conducted a survey of its child protection teams. A questionnaire was sent from Saffron Hill, the society's headquarters, last autumn. As the Minister will be aware, the respondents are experienced, responsible and qualified men and women of considerable ability. They noted that it is difficult to secure information, that the practices are necessarily carried out in secret, that the children are fearful of punishment or sanction should they give information and that they may have been almost brainwashed to ensure no disclosures.

Some of the responses from the NSPCC's officers have led to serious concern being expressed. Nine teams have worked, or are currently working, with children who have been subjected to ritualistic sexual abuse. In recent months, four cases have been referred to the society by the police or local authority social services departments. Responses specify that one, two or 15 or 16 or more children have been involved in a group practising these rituals. One respondent said that up to 20 children could be involved in such ceremonies at any one time.

The reports from the society's officers provide some information about the sick activities that are involved. Five of the responses refer to children drinking blood or urine, five to the killing or abuse of animals, and five to the invocation of supernatural powers and the use of masks and costumes. In four cases, faeces were smeared on children's bodies, and in some cases children were held under water. There have been seven reports of threats made to maintain control of children. In several cases, dolls have been mutilated as part of the ritual. Other bizarre elements are recorded. Some children were made to eat what was said to be part of a human heart, while others were shown what was said to be a baby in a microwave oven.

Seven NSPCC teams said that they had worked with sexually abused children who had described symptoms or given reliable accounts of ritualistic activities, including attendance at events where adults had sex before them or where they had been made to eat faeces or to take part in other disgraceful activities. The work of the NSPCC officers and others involved in helping such abused children is not easy, because the abusers tend to have a psychological hold on the children involved which may make them extremely fearful to talk about their experience to others.

It is likely to be extremely difficult to secure factual evidence. It may be rather more difficult than in many activities to establish the facts and to obtain evidence. More children may face such experiences than has been fully established so far. I hope that the House will bear that suspicion in mind as a serious aspect of the matter. I have been told that an NSPCC officer was recently threatened when he was seeking information about activities which he felt should be obtained to assist the child with whom he was concerned.

I am not about to suggest that we are now seeing the tip of an iceberg, but there are grounds for suspicion that such abuse is more frequent than one would have imagined a few years ago. The fact that there have been prosecutions of such cases of evil in different areas seems to justify my suggestion. As able and active officers of the society in various areas are concerned, it suggests that it would be foolish if there were to be a public assumption that the incidence of this evil is slight. I am also sure that the House will agree that even one case is too many. The experience of some children is so horrifying that society cannot readily allow any incidence of such experience to be ignored. Recent evidence suggests that child sex abuse is far more extensive than would have been assumed only a few years ago, and there is no reason for anyone to consider that ritualistic abuse is so odd, extreme or evil that it can exist only in fevered imagination.

These rituals may relate to satanism, to black magic or to devil worship. Such practices may involve ritual, ceremony, fancy words, mumbo-jumbo, strange equipment and weird activities. They may have no general appeal and they may be seen as neither sensible nor tasteful. However, we live in a free country and it would be inappropriate for Parliament or society to seek to interfere with or to outlaw such activities when they involve consenting adults. Such activities may be regarded as ridiculous, and if they became widespread it might be regarded as sad for the nation. However, we may be confident that there is sufficient common sense in this country to ensure that such activities remain a minority taste. Yet common sense must also apply to the protection of children.

There is evidence of evil practices involving children, so society and the House must make it clear that the abuse of children as part of such activities must not happen and that, if it does, resources will be made available to ensure that society provides a proper response.

I hope that the Minister will accept that I have taken a view which, although it might properly be regarded as stern, has not departed from balance. Whatever may be said of my view, I hope that those of the society and of the public and the voluntary organisations involved in child welfare will command respect.

In many ways, our society is nastier, greedier and more violent than it was in the earlier post-war period. I could give reasons for that, but I should not stray too far from the subject before us. Perhaps some of the possible causes of these undesirable developments will one day receive rather more attention. I hope that it will be one day soon. At this stage, I merely make the point that children— perhaps in larger numbers than might have been expected—have been abused or are at risk of abuse from these ritualistic sources and the public response needs to be clear and adequate.

I also want to put it on record that organisations such as the NSPCC—there are other deserving and responsible bodies serving the same cause—and the various professional people and volunteers involved in societies that care for children are fulfilling an essential role. Such groups must continue to receive that priority of public esteem and support that is necessary to enable them to provide the services, help and protection that so many of the nation's children sadly require.

Children are not only their parents' obligation; they are the nation's children as well, and I trust that the Minister will acknowledge that. Governments, parties and politicians may believe that people must stand on their own feet and take responsibility for themselves, but it would be negligent folly if such a rule were applied to children. I hope that the Minister will recognise that public responsibility is substantial, that decency in the treatment of children will continue to be firmly required, and that the abuse of children for perverse purposes of satanism and ritual must lead to firm sanctions being applied.

1.47 pm
The Minister for Health (Mrs. Virginia Bottomley)

The House owes a debt of appreciation to the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) for raising this important subject. It is a constant source of horror and shock that, in a modern society, children continue to be abused and neglected.

The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has played a central role in the evolution of services for the care and treatment of children who have been abused and their families. It has once again identified an area which may have seemed inconceivable to some members of the public but on which sufficient attention needs to be focused. Over the past 106 years, the NSPCC—like many other voluntary organisations—has developed services and earned itself a proud name. It is greatly respected by us all.

In congratulating the hon. Gentleman, I should like to take him back five years, to the time when I introduced an Adjournment debate on precisely this subject, motivated in large measure by the increasing amount of information that was being produced by the NSPCC. I referred then to what the enlightened founder of the NSPCC, Benjamim Waugh, said at the turn of the century: It is better to remove evil from the home than to remove the child. That view is part and parcel of modern thinking on child abuse.

Mr. Hardy

The Minister referred to her own debate on the subject. That leads me to comment that concern for children's welfare stretches to hon. Members on both sides of the House, as evidenced by the fact that the hon. Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims) has been a member of the central executive committee of the society for longer than me and has given it distinguished service.

Mrs. Bottomley

Yes. My hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims) continually raises subjects of this nature.

Frankly, there can be no room for party division in respect of child abuse, and that was borne out during the passage of the Children Act 1989. All hon. Members believe strongly that children should be entitled to a childhood free of sexual or physical abuse or of neglect. All that we know about the long-standing effects of abuse in childhood leads us to conclude that it is a thoroughly vile crime. We should not be satisfied until we have stamped it out.

The hon. Member for Wentworth raised the disturbing issue of the ritualistic abuse of children. The Government are aware of the concern about ritualistic abuse expressed by those handling child abuse cases. Through the social services inspectorate, the Department is monitoring the situation to assess the scale of the problem. I will consider at length the particular points raised by the hon. Member for Wentworth.

In November 1989 the Department arranged a meeting with representatives from the NSPCC, with whom we work closely, Childline, the Children's Society and the Association of Directors of Social Services. It became clear from our discussions that there is a need to obtain more information about ritual child abuse and child abuse networks in general. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that that work is being carried forward.

The Department is well aware of the difficulties facing the statutory agencies when they handle such cases. Where networks have been discovered, close co-operation has developed between social workers and the police. Joint co-operation in investigations is always central to child abuse cases where obtaining evidence and establishing the facts is fraught with difficulty. That co-operation ensures that children can be interviewed sensitively and protected effectively.

So often, a child's abuse can almost be exaggerated or consolidated by the effects of the investigation. The sensitive handling of the investigations and the court hearing process, while protecting fair justice, must also give proper regard to the child's needs.

Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)

Will the Minister ponder the fact that in many cases the simple fact that a child has received attention from the abuser highlights that that is probably the only form of positive attention that some children receive? In some instances, the neglect has been so great that the only care, even though that care was misplaced, vile, vicious and criminal, came from the abuser. It is difficult to get a child to realise then the iniquity of the incident and to appreciate that it should not have happened.

Mrs. Bottomley

The hon. Gentleman shows a profound awareness of the details of child abuse cases. Such cases on the whole do not occur in isolation. They are part of a pattern of family interactions. The child must be considered not simply with regard to one traumatic incident, but in the context of his or her life and experience. It is important that handling abuse cases does not inadvertently consolidate the disadvantage that the child has suffered. So often that is borne out in the summary removal of a child.

The Children Act 1989 makes it clear that a child should not be removed from home unless it is essential for the child's safety and welfare. Very often the preferable course is to remove the perpetrator or potential perpetrator of the offence rather than the child, who frequently is left feeling responsible or guilty. That may sound perverse, but those involved in child abuse would recognise those responses.

We appreciate that we must give further consideration to ritual child abuse. However, it should be seen as part of the wider problem of child abuse in general. Once a new area of concern is identified, so often the professionals involved, the families and the public begin to identify and piece together parts of a jigsaw puzzle that was sometimes previously too horrific even to be contemplated. Once again, the NSPCC has served the public well by placing on the agenda an aspect that some people previously thought did not even bear contemplation.

Regrettably, there is little new about child abuse and neglect. The use of pathological terms to describe its roots, causes and effects and the media's preoccupation with horrific cases should not obscure its long-standing nature or delude us into thinking that its incidence and characteristics are any different now from what has been described in literature over the years. Descriptions of barbarous treatment are widespread in literature and popular culture. There are frequent tales of infanticide, ritual sacrifice, mutilation, starvation, flogging and exploitation. It is only relatively recently that a child has been thought to have any right not to be abused or neglected.

I notice that dogs are among the hon. Gentleman's interests. He will be aware, as we are all aware, that the legislation to protect animals was on the statute book decades before the first legislation to protect children.

Mr. Hardy

I was aware of that, but the Minister might care to note that the people who were responsible for the legislation to protect children tended to be the people who had sought to protect animals. There was no distinction in the early days.

Mrs. Bottomley

I accept the hon. Gentleman's point. Those who combined the protection of dogs and children in their interests clearly had sympathetic, kindly and sensitive personalities.

The Government attach high priority to the problem of child abuse and in recent years have embarked on a comprehensive programme to tackle it. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the important part that is played by the Children Act. We had on the statute book a motley number of laws concerned with children. They were built up piecemeal over the years, and they were complex and confusing for professionals and familes alike.

My hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State, Home Office, steered through the House the important Children Act, which sets a framework that integrates and provides a coherent set of laws to clarify the welfare of the child and the role of the parents and of the local authority, and it sets a much better framework for partnership. Above all, it maintains that the child's interests must always be paramount. All hon. Members would endorse that.

The Department is involved in a major training programme. The establishment of legislation on the statute book is not sufficent to ensure that the law turns into good practice. Before October 1991, we must be satisfied that all those involved in child protection and child care and all those in the judical system are aware of the detail and the implications of the new legislation. We have a training support programme for social workers, currently giving training in child protection to more than 70,000 social workers, and general child care training for more than 40,000 social workers. That amounts to more than £19 million this year. We are also producing guidance and detailed regulations on the Children Act. There has been a process of discussion and collaboration with the many organisations involved in child care. The NSPCC has certainly always been one such organisation with which the Department of Health has worked closely.

We are all aware that, in appalling cases in which tragedy has occurred, lessons must be learnt. Not only are the Department and agencies involved required to produce their own report for the area child protection committee; in extreme circumstances the Secretary of State will set up an inquiry, often with the great assistance of the social services inspectorate, to which I pay special tribute because of its work in investigating, advising and guiding. The inspectorate is universally respected and trusted. We are also examining the treatment of families, including abusers.

Hon. Members and Ministers may condemn child abuse, and many of us recognise that it often takes place in a family context. Facilities for the treatment of those who have been abused or who abuse are important. The Department provides assistance to the NSPCC. We are pleased to have done so over several years. We recognise its vital contribution and we respect it and continue to work with it.

I repeat my appreciation that the hon. Gentleman has raised this important issue today. It deserves our further attention. By working with him, the NSPCC and other organisations, we hope to create a society in which children grow up free from abuse and neglect.