HC Deb 28 March 1991 vol 188 cc1126-35 11.46 am
Mr. Jim Callaghan (Heywood and Middleton)

I wish to assure you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and the Minister from the outset that my sole purpose in raising the subject of the alleged satanic abuse case on the Langley estate in my constituency is not to rake over the dying embers of an unfortunate and tragic case, to apportion blame or to citicise agencies involved in the case. That has already been done by higher authorities. It is my wish to learn from those tragic mistakes in an effort to seek solutions that could prevent anything similar ever happening again to parents and children in the United Kingdom.

It is important to remember that those who have a responsibility to protect children at risk, such as social workers, health visitors, the police and doctors, have in the past been criticised for failure to act in sufficient time to take adequate steps to protect children who are in danger. It is sometimes difficult to tread the line between taking action too soon and not taking it soon enough to protect the children. Effective child protection depends on the skill of professional staff in all the relevant disciplines. To understand the problems that beset the professional staff in the social services department in Rochdale, it is necessary to know the background to this tragic case.

In November 1989, teachers at a school on the Langley estate in Middleton drew the attention of social workers to the disturbed, withdrawn and strange behaviour of a six-year-old boy. He talked to teachers about ghosts and a ghost family who were part of his life. The social workers to whom the case was referred were so concerned about the boy's behaviour and the strange stories that further investigation was made of the family background. That revealed that the boy's father had spoken of ghosts in his previous home. The social workers therefore took the boy, his 11-year-old sister and two other boys into care and made them wards of court. The parents were denied access to the children.

Altogether, a total of 20 children on the estate were taken into care because of their association with the original family. They were taken after dawn swoops by police and social workers. The social workers were convinced that they had unearthed a ritual abuse group on the estate. On 14 September 1990, a special meeting of the social services committee in Rochdale supported the action of the director of social services and invited the Secretary of State for Social Services to ask the social services inspectorate to confirm that all the council's policies and procedures on child abuse were in accordance with Government guidance.

The inspectorate reviewed a sample of 30 cases—none connected with the ones in court. It found fault with some of the department's procedures, which Rochdale social services committee promised to rectify—it is now carrying out that promise. The inspectorate also noted that the local authority had been community charge-capped in 1990 and its budget reduced by £8 million. Accordingly, the council had asked the social services committee to make proposals for saving of £1.9 million from its current budget. A sum of £550,000 had been proposed as a target saving on staffing, with a freeze on staff recruitment. I believe that that proposal should be deeply regretted.

When the case was heard in court earlier this year by Mr. Justice Douglas Brown, he enabled the public to learn the facts of the case. By working carefully through the facts he gave a clear, sober account of an extraordinary chain of events.

Mr. Justice Douglas Brown found that the accusations of ritual abuse were unproven, that there was no evidence of drugs connected with any abuse and no evidence that anyone was missing, mutilated or murdered. He emphasised that the staff of the Rochdale social services department were decent people, not heartless or ruthless, who had acted throughout with the children's best interests at heart. However, they had made mistakes, and criticisms were justified.

The judge said that the social workers were obsessive and mistaken in their belief that a six-year-old boy's ghostly fantasies were real. He accused the social workers of serious errors of judgment because they based their decision almost entirely on the evidence of a disturbed boy who had been fed on a rich diet of utterly frightening and unsuitable videos, such as "Nightmare on Elm Street" and "The Evil Dead".

The judge criticised the dawn raids by police and social workers who removed children from their homes and families, which caused the children to be distressed and frightened. He also criticised the procedures employed by police and social workers in their video interview policies. He said that social workers should have carried out the recommendations made by Lord Justice Butler-Sloss following the Cleveland case. Those recommendations had not been carried out and Mr. Justice Douglas Brown recommended that certain lessons could be learnt from the Rochdale case. He recommended: There should be intensive training for social workers who have interviewed children on ritual or sexual abuse … children should not be removed from their homes in suspected ritual abuse before expert advice is taken. He recommended that, if children were taken, it should happen at the end of the school day. He also recommended that the affidavits from all parties should be balanced and fair and that all interviews with children in such cases should be videotaped. He criticised the policy of the Greater Manchester police of not videotaping the interviews with the children.

Mr. Gordon Littlemore, an honourable and dedicated man, the then director of social services in Rochdale resigned 24 hours after that judgment, and after praising his staff as committed and skilled workers who acted in good faith in what they believed was the best interests of the children". I believe that Mr. Littlemore is an honourable man of great principle and integrity. He was tragically caught between the demands for the safety of the children, the rights of the parents, unnerving stories of satanic ritual and a lack of adequate financial resources.

Mr. John Pearce, chief executive of Rochdale borough, said that Mr. Littlemore's resignation had been received with deep sorrow and regret. He described Mr. Littlemore as a decent man with principles who had served Rochdale's social services department loyally for over 17 years. Mr. Pearce acknowledged that the authority had made mistakes and that the case was painful and a traumatic experience for all concerned. He said: We accept in full what the judge said and added that the mistakes would be rectified as soon as possible. I have been informed that all the recommendations of the inspectors and of Mr. Justice Douglas Brown will be implemented as soon as possible by the Rochdale authority and that an assistant director for families will be appointed by the authority.

Mr. Pearce also said that the social services inspectorate had offered to study the report with senior officers of the department of social services to identify and rectify any deficiencies of procedure and practice to ensure that appropriate action was taken and to tackle issues concerning parents' rights. I believe that the law was equally incompetent, both in the length of the process and in the initial draconian order, in denying the right of parents to visit their children. The problem now is to learn from those mistakes.

The present Minister for Health, the hon. Member for Surrey, South-West (Mrs. Bottomley), said as a Back Bencher in a superb speech on child abuse as early as 26 July 1985: There have been errors of judgment and it is essential that lessons be learnt from those. She went on: Rather than simply adding to the sensationalistic and censorious responses to these recent appalling tragedies, for which simplistic solutions are too often proposed and social workers are more often than not used as whipping boys, I should like to redress the balance and see the problem of child abuse in a clearer context". She went on to describe the parents involved in child abuse cases and said: The parents are more likely to be unemployed, and nearly two thirds are in receipt of supplementary benefit … There are many … stress factors on the families. They include marital discord in virtually half the cases, unemployment, and financial problems".—[Official Report, 26 July 1985; Vol. 83, c. 1423–24.] I could not agree more.

On 9 July 1975, I tried in an Adjournment debate to draw attention to the social problems on the Langley estate, where the present case arose. In April 1990, in another Adjournment debate, I again raised the social problems affecting that estate, which is a Manchester overspill estate of about 4,500 dwellings built in the 1950s and catering for a population of about 25,000 people.

I said in the 1975 debate that the estate was seen as a transit camp, was unrelated to its neighbouring communities and was remote from the Manchester authority to which it belonged. I gave examples of the social problems there and said that any examination of the referrals to the social services department in Rochdale would show that 50 per cent. of them came from Langley and that, generally speaking, 75 per cent. of referrals on child care and family problems came from that estate.

I said: Langley is an area of social deprivation with a need for community assistance from central Government funds."—[Official Report, 9 July 1975; Vol. 895, c. 707.] However, the social problems on the estate worsened after my debate in 1975, despite my pleas for help. In the 1991 labour census the unemployment figure for men on the estate was 43 per cent. Since then, unemployment has worsened.

On 23 April 1990 I again raised on the Floor of the House the many problems facing Langley estate. I said that more than 1,000 houses built in the 1950s were now bricked and boarded up and that 1,005 other houses were unfit for human habitation because of structural defects. I fought for funds from the Estate Action moneys and lobbied Ministers. I quoted the report of Professor Peter Townsend of Bristol university, entitled "Inner City Deprivation, Premature Deaths" which mentioned the high death rate on Langley estate. I described Langley as a dream turned into a nightmare with devastating and desperate problems—a lost cause, a vandalised ghetto of sickness and despair.

I am glad to say that, on asking for a second time earlier this year, my prayers were answered. The Government have now agreed to find £13.2 million to repair property on the estate over a period of three years. I congratulate them on giving that cash. However, that is for bricks and building materials only and extra Government money is needed to help eliminate the dreadful social deprivation on the estate. Many children there are living in families who are experiencing extreme poverty. Additional Government resources are needed to meet the recommendations of the social services inspectors report and the judge's finding on the social services department in Rochdale.

I ask the Minister—nay, I beg the Minister—for extra cash to fund Rochdale's social services department to enable it to do its job properly and to develop a support programme for vulnerable children and families in the area. What can be learnt from the Cleveland and Rochdale cases to help social workers elsewhere in the United Kingdom? In 1985, the hon. Member for Surrey, South-West said: None of us can fail to have powerful professional, political and above all personal reactions when things go wrong. She urged the then Minister to consider the national outrage that is felt when disasters occur and to make every effort to learn from the mistakes". Social workers are always vulnerable because of widespread variations in practice, and one disaster inevitably results in social workers being pilloried. The hon. Member for Surrey, South-West continued: Few people appreciate the complexity of the job that a social worker has to do. Such a worker has to make life and death decisions, he or she has to decide whether or not to place a child on the child abuse register, whether or not to seek a care or supervision order: or whether to go for wardship. The social worker has to decide whether or not the child should be removed from its home or if it should be fostered or adopted, or whether rehabilitation should be attempted."—[Official Report, 26 July 1985; Vol. 83, c. 1425–28.] I could not have put it better. In the light of the Minister's words, spoken so many years ago, it would appear that we require our social workers to have the wisdom of Solomon. Is the Minister convinced that social workers are adequately qualified, trained and experienced and properly paid to do their existing job? If he is not, what will he do to rectify the situation?

Following the Rochdale case, we may ask, what is the impact of videotape on young children? The children in this case watched films such as "Nightmare on Elm Street" and "The Evil Dead" until 1 o'clock in the morning—no wonder they were disturbed. Questions must be asked about parents who allow young children to watch such films. Those films are disturbing, sadistic and full of horror. Bringing the cinema into the home has heralded the end of the automatic protection of children from unsuitable material. Has not the time come when the Minister or the Government should seriously consider whether films whose raison d'etre is violence should be passed by the British Board of Film Classification for release as videotapes?

Ritual and satanic abuse first gained media attention following the imprisonment of nine adults in Nottingham in February 1989, who pleaded guilty to 53 charges of incest, cruelty and indecent assault after 25 children were taken into care. There now appear to be differences between the police and the social services department in Nottingham about whether the children were ritualistically abused.

We now have allegations of ritual abuse of children in Manchester and the Orkneys. Does ritual abuse exist in an organised form in the United Kingdom? If it does not, there must be reassessment of interview techniques and the mechanisms by which children are taken into care. A great deal more needs to be found out about the scale of the problem—if, indeed, such a problem exists. A Government-backed investigation into the extent of ritual or satanic abuse nationally is therefore required.

Just as Cleveland became a catalyst for a serious debate about the prevalence of sexual abuse, so the Rochdale case could launch a serious examination of ritual abuse by Government agencies. The controversy over satanic abuse must not be allowed to continue and become a distraction from the reality of the emotional and physical abuse of some children in which cruelty, neglect, incest and rape take place.

We must continue to learn lessons from the serious cases which arise, as in Cleveland and Rochdale. We must ensure that the law works well. We must produce a much clearer and much more consistent legal framework within which child care practitioners can operate, as strong feelings and human emotions are closely involved. We must make absolutely sure that official guidance is good. We must have sound legal foundations on which we can continue to develop the procedural framework for dealing with child abuse. The time is now appropriate for a much more comprehensive review of that material, to bring the whole lot up to date and to make it as sensible but as direct as possible. In raising those issues, I hope that the Minister will take note of them when drafting the new Children Bill, which is to be published later this year.

12.10 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Mr. Stephen Dorrell)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Mr. Callaghan) on his speech, which demonstrated his long-standing and keen interest in this subject. He quoted correspondence going back 16 years which showed that he has consistently taken an interest in social work issues in general and, in particular, in those on the Langley estate in his constituency. Those issues are too broadly based to be purely the responsibility of the Department of Health.

The hon. Gentleman obliquely acknowledged the long-standing concern and dedicated interest in this subject of my hon. Friend the Minister for Health. Her experience is unusual for a Minister in that, in social work in general and child care social work in particular, it goes back to before her time in the House. My hon. Friend is detained elsewhere this morning. If she had been here, the debate between her and the hon. Gentleman would have contained an unusually high amount of information. I do not pretend to have the knowledge or experience of my hon. Friend in this field, but I shall seek to answer as well as I can some of the points made by the hon. Gentleman.

I have seen the letter written by the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton following the judgment in the wardship case. That letter called for a public inquiry to examine further the lessons to be learnt from the Rochdale experience. However, the Government are not attracted to the public inquiry route, broadly because we do not think that at this stage a public inquiry would advance either the understanding of the facts or the application of the lessons from those facts.

A public inquiry is established for two related purposes. First, it inquires into what happens, and therefore its establishment implies a lack of knowledge about the facts. Secondly, it seeks to draw from the facts of experience lessons for the application and development of future policy.

As I have said, there is no longer a serious lack of knowledge about what happened in Rochdale; nor are we short of lessons to be learnt from the facts as we know them. The agenda set by the social services inspectorate report published last autumn and, possibly, by some of the judge's comments in his judgment, and our current understanding of the facts, are sufficient to keep us busy and to ensure that our time is not wasted in learning the lessons of Rochdale and applying them there and elsewhere.

No one looking at the way in which the Government have handled the case since it came to public notice can doubt our commitment to establish the facts, learn from them and apply the lessons as extensively as possible. That commitment is fired and driven by the enthusiasm of my hon. Friend the Minister for Health, who, as I have said, has great experience and a deep understanding of the subject.

The hon. Gentleman quoted from a speech made by my hon. Friend in 1985. That speech made manifest her understanding of the subject, and in it she laid down the guiding priority for any discussion on the matter. It was that we must not fall into the trap of sensationalising what happens, which is the practice of the tabloid press. We must conduct a calm and deliberate investigation, apply the lessons and try to ensure that people do not repeat the mistakes of the past. It is fitting that it should be my hon. Friend the Minister for Health who has responsibility for implementing the Children Act 1989, which grew at least in part from the experiences in Cleveland, in which the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) was significantly involved.

The hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton asked me to comment on the lessons that we have to learn and on the application of resources for the training of social workers. I shall say something about that particularly in the context of Rochdale because there is no doubt about its importance there, and action has already been taken. The child care training support programme which began in 1989 and which is 70 per cent. grant-aided by central Government, is a reflection of the importance that we attach to training social workers in general, and in particular those in child care.

The Department has allocated a grant of £51,000 to the Rochdale social services department for the training of social workers working with families. The Rochdale department proposes to spend £158,000 a year as part of that programme. The programme includes £22,730 for training staff in child protection work, including sexual abuse, and the balance will go to general child care training. The 1991–92 programme envisages expenditure of £137,000, including £35,000 for training staff in the provisions of the Children Act. The Department has also made a grant of nearly £84,000 towards that expenditure. The programme will benefit 919 staff in general child care training, and 718 staff will receive training specifically under the Children Act programme.

I hope that that information will help to answer the hon. Gentleman's proper question about what we are doing to train social workers. He is legitimately anxious that there should be proper training and that the lessons from Cleveland and Rochdale are learnt not only in those areas but in other social services departments. That training programme is part of our commitment.

Mr. Callaghan

I thank the Minister for his information about the cash that is to be allocated to Rochdale. However, how much will be given to the training of social workers nationally?

Mr. Dorrell

I can give the hon. Gentleman the quantum of our training commitment since the establishment of the child care training support programme. The Government announced the scheme on 6 July 1988 and the making of a grant in 1989–90 of £7 million in support of £10 million for the training of social services staff involved in child care. Therefore, the Government's commitment was 70 per cent. direct support to a £10 million national programme for training of social workers in this sector for the year 1989–90. I do not have the most up-to-date figures at my disposal, but I shall write to the hon. Gentleman with a figure when I get back to the Department. That will not be immediately, because I have three speeches to make in the Adjournment debates.

The hon. Gentleman asked about ritual and organised abuse and whether the Government are taking steps to deepen our understanding of this particularly unpleasant subject, which must cause concern to all of us whenever we read about it, whether the account is sensationalised or in the dullest of prose. Investigation is directed at cases of child abuse, whether perpetrated by one person or a network of abusers. One investigates the fact of child abuse, not whether there is a network leading to it. The Department has been made aware of a number of child sexual abuse networks, which have been successfully investigated by local social service departments and the police.

There has been no investigation of satanism per se. If any child were abused as part of a satanic ritual, that would be illegal—but nowhere in our criminal law is there a ban on the concept, if that is the right word, of satanism. The social services inspectorate has held meetings with representatives of the NSPCC, the Children's Society, Childline and other field agencies to hear of recent investigations into organised abuse, to gather intelligence and to explore the issues involved. It became clear that there was a need to obtain more information about child abuse networks, organised abuse and ritual abuse before guidelines could be produced.

The inspectorate is continuing closely to monitor the position and the Department is conscious of the need to assess the scale and nature of the abuse, which may involve some ritualistic element, so that it can offer informed guidance. We do not hold any figures that give a clear picture of the percentage of children involved in organised abuse, compared with child abuse as a whole. However, evidence to date suggests that it is only a small percentage of the total quantum of the child abuse problem.

The Department intends to commission an eminent academic to conduct research into the extent and nature of ritual and satanic abuse. It aims to produce guidance on organised abuse in the revised version of "Working Together", which the Department intends to publish to coincide with the implementation of the Children Act 1989 in the autumn. I hope that that makes it clear to the hon. Gentleman that we take the matter seriously. However, that does not detract from the proposition that it is the fact of child abuse that should motivate our inquiries, not an unpleasant concern about some network. It is the abuse which is the problem, and it is the abuse which must be our prime concern.

I want to detail some of the lessons that have already been learnt from the Rochdale experience, and some of the steps that the Department has taken to ensure that those lessons are widely learnt and understood. As the hon. Gentleman knows, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State commissioned an investigation by the inspectorate, which was published last autumn. It made 42 recommendations aimed at the Rochdale social services department and agencies responsible for child protection.

The key findings of the report were, first, that the area child protection committee procedures predated "Working Together" and were therefore deficient in a number of ways. The Department of Health published "Working Together" in 1988. It sets out recommendations for arrangements for inter-agency co-operation for the protection of children from abuse. Clearly, it does not make sense if the procedures adopted by area child protection committees are not consistent with the guidelines contained in that document. Following Rochdale's experience, one of the key priorities must be to ensure that its procedures are reformed and brought up to date, to reflect the guidance on the way in which agencies should co-operate in dealing with the problem.

The second major finding of the report was that an unacceptable number of case conferences were delayed and were ineffective because they were not effectively chaired. Abused children and those suspected of being abused were automatically placed on the child protection register, whether or not they were still at risk. There was an absence of clear action plans.

The minutiae of administration were ineffective in identifying the problems, prioritising which problems were the most urgent, and ensuring that proper steps were taken to identify and to follow up clear problems.

The third major finding was that comprehensive assessments and plans could not be clearly identified and there was no rigorous policy of involving parents and children in assessment or case conferences. However, some examples of good practice were found in that area.

Fourthly, it was found that good training existed between police and social service staff, but there was an urgent need for a review by the area child protection committee of arrangements for collaboration. Fifthly, it was found that there had been a lack of action by the area child protection committee to ensure that its policies had been implemented and to monitor the consequences on practice.

The social services inspectorate report looked at 30 cases which were then current in Rochdale, but clearly could not look at the cases that were the subject of the wardship hearings which were then sub judice. It was reassuring that the inspectors found that, in all the cases that they studied, appropriate action had been taken to safeguard the children, which must always be the first goal of child protection work.

Following the receipt of the report, the area child protection committee responded with a positive and comprehensive action plan, with a time scale attached, to put into effect the recommendations produced by the inspectorate. I have a list of the steps that have been taken by the Rochdale social services committee to apply the 42 major recommendations of the social services inspectorate to ensure that the lessons are learned and to prevent such things happening again.

It is fair to add that the implementation of the Children Act 1989 with its revised procedures makes it difficult to see how precisely the same circumstances that occurred in Rochdale could recur. That is not to say that one could not end up in the same place by a different route, but the precise set of cause and effect circumstances that led to the unhappy saga of Rochdale are unlikely to recur under the new procedures when the Children Act is fully implemented in the autumn.

Earlier this month, Mr. Justice Brown handed down his decisions in the wardship hearings on the 20 children from the Langley estate. The judge was critical of aspects of procedure and practice by the social work department. The Department of Health wishes to study the transcript of the judge's statement to identify any deficiencies in procedure and practice that were not covered in the social services inspectorate's report that was published in November 1990.

Following the legitimate public concern in Rochdale, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has taken steps, to ensure that the social services inspectorate investigated what had happened in Rochdale, and has received that report and welcomed the fact that Rochdale council has committed itself to implement the report's 42 recommendations. Now, clearly, we need to study the judgment handed down by Mr. Justice Brown to ensure that we learn from any further lessons of the Rochdale experience.

As the hon. Gentleman said, following the comments and criticisms in the wardship hearings, Mr. Littlemore tendered his resignation as the director of social services at Rochdale. Mr. Ian Davey, previously operational assistant director responsible for children's services in the period covered by the judgment, has been appointed acting director. It is expected that the substantive post of director will be advertised in the next few months.

A major feature of the case that has caused public disquiet is the way that the courts kept children away from their families at the social services department's request without access. The loss of public wardship may result in magistrates being more ready to query refused access in those cases where eventual return to parents seems probable. Parents will have the right to challenge the making of an emergency protection order, and the courts will have to take account of the child's wishes. The local authority will have a duty to return a child looked after by it to his family home unless that is clearly against the child's interests. The authority also has a duty to ensure that children it is looking after and who are away from home have contact with their parents wherever humanly possible.

I hope that the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton will feel that the Government have demonstrated a determination to find out the facts, to learn from them and to apply the lessons wherever the curse of child abuse—something which any civilised person finds it impossible to imagine—is discovered and that the child is protected from abuse wherever humanly possible. That is a shared imperative.