HC Deb 09 June 2004 vol 422 cc99-120WH

2 pm

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby) (Lab)

First, I need to make hon. Members aware of the fact that I chair the all-party group on abuse investigations, which was established three years ago and has 60 or 70 members drawn from both Houses. In addition, I have been a member of Rape Crisis for four years.

I intend to talk about the interviewing techniques used with victims of physical or sexual abuse. The categories of victim I wish to discuss include: children who make allegations of sexual or physical abuse against teachers; individuals in prison who are victims of sexual abuse; women who are the subject of domestic physical or sexual abuse; and children who make allegations of abuse against individuals, irrespective of where it occurs.

The interviewing of teachers following an allegation of abuse is of immense interest to thousands of teachers in schools throughout the country. Let me give hon. Members some idea of what we are dealing with. According to the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, since 1991 nearly 2,000 of its members have been the subject of a complaint by a young person at school. Of those complaints, nearly 1,800 were proved to be false, but even though the allegations were malicious or vexatious, the lives of many of the 1,800 people who were falsely accused have been ruined for ever.

Following work in which I was involved last year, and with the support of the Home Office, the Press Complaints Commission and the other broadcasting authorities have come under concerted pressure to deal with the way in which allegations of sexual abuse are reported. That was in recognition of the fact that, even though very few of the many people accused of that horrendous crime go on to be convicted, the accusation and the publicity associated with it mean that lives are trashed for ever. Three teachers who were members of NASUWT committed suicide as a consequence of the allegations that were raised against them. That is sad for many reasons, not least because, if they were innocent, they have lost their opportunity to prove their innocence. Such cases reflect the stress, horror and revulsion experienced by those who face such charges.

Absolutely nobody is saying that it is wrong of a child to make an allegation of sexual or physical abuse, but we must be mindful of the procedures that are employed in taking evidence from children. If 1,800 children make allegations that eventually falter, 1,800 too many allegations go forward into the system. It has long been a concern of mine—not only in this regard, but in others, which I shall discuss later—that those involved in taking statements from children are not adequately trained. We do not have facilities that enable children to make declarations that are untarnished by the contribution of any of the agencies that are involved in the process. A child who makes an allegation in school may see half a dozen people before a formal statement is eventually taken from them, and throughout the country, there is a paucity of appropriate venues for taking statements. Despite good efforts—I want more effort to be made in this respect—the people who take evidence from the children may not be trained to do so. Despite being very nice and well intentioned, they might not be able adequately to assess whether the child is speaking the truth or lying.

In this country at this time there is a general belief that children who make accusations of being sexually or physically abused are telling the truth. That is a natural reaction to the decades—probably centuries—in which children who alleged that they were being sexually or physically abused were routinely ignored. It was thought that they could not be telling the truth because no adult would perpetrate that sort of crime on a child. We now know that not to be the case. However, there is now a real concern within the teaching and caring professions that once a child makes an allegation, there is a presumption that the child is speaking the truth. The nature of the evidence provided by the child means that it frequently cannot be corroborated by a third party—the case may consist of their recollection of an event against a teacher's Given the climate that has been engendered over the past few years in relation to any individual who is accused of sex offences, who could blame a teacher for doubting whether they will ever be free of the allegation made against them, even if they manage to prove their own innocence?

The NASUWT and the other teachers unions have expressed concerns to Education Ministers, and I have made known to the Home Office my concerns about the way in which individuals are interviewed. If we poured more specialist resources in at the beginning of the process, probably far fewer cases would be taken forward. That could save teachers' lives, given that, in the present circumstances, teachers so accused are not afforded anonymity

Without anonymity, as I said earlier, there is the risk that many lives will be lost. We are talking not just about the lives of teachers and their future welfare, but about the families of which they are members and the communities of which they are part. Such allegations touch everyone. I have dealt with men who have been able to prove that they are not guilty of the crime of which they were accused, but even so it is almost impossible to look it them and not think, "Are you really innocent?" There is no other crime of which someone can be accused that leaves such a stigma and such everlasting doubt. In these cases, more than in any other, people believe that there is no smoke without fire, and that belief damns thousands of people every year.

I back the NASUWT campaign for anonymity for teachers until they are convicted of the charges brought against them. Such anonymity is only fair. When I put that proposal to the Home Office, I was told that if it was implemented it would preclude others coming forward to make further allegations against the individuals concerned. I understand that claim, but it presupposes that the police have not already trawled extensively for further complaints. We must not think for one moment that when a teacher sexually abuses a child, only that child is subsequently interviewed. It will not be only that child. It could be every child at the school, and perhaps every child who has attended the school over the previous decade. There will be extensive trawling for further evidence to substantiate allegations against teachers, so they should be protected from publicity until the point at which they are convicted. In that way, if such individuals are found to be innocent, they can walk away and try to rebuild their lives.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD)

I am following the hon. Lady's speech with great interest. Would her proposal exclude, for example, the identification of a children's home or a particular school without a teacher or care worker specifically being identified at an early investigative stage?

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas

I did not quite understand the hon. Gentleman's question. Will he be kind enough to rephrase it for me?

Mr. Carmichael

I am suggesting that, rather than identify an individual teacher as being under investigation, thus engendering publicity that allows other people to come forward, it might be possible to identify a particular school, children's home or other institution as being the place in relation to which allegations have been made. Putting such information into the public domain could allow other victims to come forward.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas

That happens in some cases. For example, when no win, no fee solicitors want to bring a class action for compensation, they frequently advertise in different venues the fact that they are looking for young people who may have resided in a particular home, or attended a particular school. Furthermore, in some cases—especially in the large, historical sex abuse cases that are being conducted in this country—the police might identify every member of staff in a particular establishment as suspects whom they might wish to interview about sex abuse allegations. There is much talk within communities about such matters. People understand what is happening. I draw attention to the broad-brush declaration made in the press. Some of the reporting is horrific and people never, ever recover from it.

Before the hon. Gentleman intervened, I said that I was backing the NASUWT campaign for anonymity, particularly in relation to the caring and teaching professions.

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con)

The question is not solely about identifying the school or the individuals concerned, but what stage the criminal proceedings have reached. In other words, are we talking about the investigation stage or the point at which a charge is made? If she referring to police making haphazard investigations or fishing expeditions, I have much more sympathy with the hon. Lady's argument regarding anonymity than if she is saying that it should continue past the point at which the charge is made.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas

In fact, individuals who have not even been interviewed by the police or charged have had their names flashed across the papers. It does not matter what stage the process is at. The first time that a teacher may know about such matters is when he opens the evening newspaper and learns that he has been suspended following allegations of abuse. When people read about abuse, they think automatically not of physical abuse, but of sexual abuse. Even at that early stage, those against whom allegations have been made might learn for the first time what is happening from reading details in the newspaper. That cannot be right.

I should be interested if my hon. Friend the Minister, who has been immensely helpful so far, will be kind enough to let me know what improvements have been made to interviewing techniques and the facilities and services that are available to minimise the number of false allegations that are taken forward.

I have serious concerns about the interviewing in prison of people who have been sexually abused. Members may be aware that in recent years, and continuing today, police authorities throughout the country have been engaged in major investigations that centre on historical and complex sex abuse allegations. They have been considering cases of sexual abuse that occurred five, 10, 20, 30 and in some cases 40 years ago. The investigations centre on care homes and the teachers or care workers in those homes. Unfortunately, many of the children from those homes have gone on to a life of crime. It is a sad indictment of our society that many of those people have ended up in prison. The historical sex abuse cases conducted have involved more than 20,000 suspects and more than 10,000 individuals in care homes who say that they have been either sexually or physically abused. The scale is fantastic. Over a long period, the police have established contact with those individuals and obtained statements to substantiate their allegations. The way in which the police access those individuals and the way they are treated in prison are of deep concern to me.

First, the police may conduct a trawling exercise, writing repeatedly, until they get a reply, to everyone who has been in a certain care home or school in the past 20 years. In one case, 800 letters were sent on three occasions to individuals who had been at a school, seeking information about a named care worker. In the event that they get no response, occasionally the police visit people. Many of the people they visit are in prison. The police arrive at prison to interview an individual who may have been convicted of the most appalling crimes. I think that I could write a best prison guide, having been to so many, and I have met many witnesses in such cases. Even though some have been convicted of terrible crimes, it is tragic to hear about their lives, which have been utterly ruined. I ask them to explain the nature of the contact that they had with the police before, during and after their statement was given. Let us assume that the person whom the police interview is 35 years old and that they are in prison for 18 years for committing an awful murder. Such an example would not be untypical.

The criminal tells me, "The police came to see me one day and the first thing I knew about it was when I was told that they were here to see me." Most criminals' response to that is that it must be about clear-ups. Their automatic assumption is that the police are coming to see them because they can help the police with their inquiries. The police say, "We would like you to help us with our inquiries. Would you like to tell us about your time in this home? We are in receipt of allegations of sexual abuse committed by this person against your friend in that home, and we would like to know whether you can corroborate the allegations so that we can get the case to court." The term for that is corroboration by volume.

Ideally, one could assume that the conversation took place once and once only, and that the individual concerned was immediately able to disclose some awful sexual activity to which they were subjected many years before. That does not happen. Having worked in Rape Crisis, I know that it is not possible to get people who have been subjected to terrible abuse to tell everything at one sitting. They may not have the capacity, the words, or the voice to do that. The police therefore argue that they need to return to interview the individuals concerned regularly.

It should be borne in mind that the police assume that the individuals whom they interview have been subjected to the worst conceivable forms of sex abuse. We have heard of the case of men convicted of abusing 53 boys in the most atrocious way 30 years ago. The police go to the prison in the knowledge that they may interview someone who was subjected to abuse of that kind. If one believes that someone has undergone the most horrendous abuse, it is not remotely acceptable to interview that person about it in prison.

I do not know how many hon. Members have been inside our prisons, but I can tell them that the interviewing suites are nothing more than glorified dog kennels. There is no notion of a comfort suite, no echo of a supportive environment. There is nothing. Many of the individuals concerned have made declarations or statements about being horrendously abused; when they have done so, the police leave—to return at an undetermined time—and the person who made the declaration is left. It is not right to leave an individual who has disclosed such abuse to their own devices—particularly in prison. I do not care if the person sitting before the police in the interview is a mass murderer. He is disclosing sex abuse of a degree experienced by very few people, and he should be afforded the support that every other rape victim could expect in this country.

Many years ago I asked how many times Victim Support had been into a prison and I was greeted with a complete blank. Victim Support is about victims of crime, and the people in prison are the perpetrators of crime. However, we should recognise that they can be victims as well. I want those victims to be brought out of prison and interviewed in appropriate suites. I want them to have the psychological support that they deserve as a consequence of the statements and declarations that they make. Undoubtedly, in many instances when individuals are in court having been accused of committing crimes, their defence will argue that they committed them because of the way in which they were brought up—because of their childhood experiences. If we recognise that there is a relationship between being abused as a child and one's subsequent behaviour, we should recognise that the individuals concerned need support.

I am concerned also because the conversation between the police and the witnesses is not independently witnessed. It is not possible to know what goes on between the police and the prisoner. I know that many of the allegations result in convictions and that, moreover, the people concerned receive significant compensation. That is fine, but I deal with constituents whose relations have been convicted of the crimes who are convinced that, in the prison cell, there is a conversation between the police and the prisoner about the soft benefits associated with presenting a statement. The police tell me that that does not happen, but I cannot prove it does not. If we took those people to a video suite outside the prison we would have independent, uncorrupted evidence that I could show to the families and say, "You can hear it for yourself."

Mr. Djanogly

Will the hon. Lady say why the videoing could not take place in the prison?

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas

My hon. Friend the Minister might say something about that. I know that trials with roving mobile units have been conducted, and some witnesses are giving statements on video, but that is only a halfway house; the individuals are still interviewed in a prison environment and are not afforded the benefit of an environment that is more conducive to talking in a relaxed way. When I go on legal visits, prison warders are right outside the room and are capable of hearing what is going on. Such matters are deeply private and personal, and the police say that it is sometimes necessary to interview a person 15 times before they get a statement because the men in question find it difficult to talk about what has happened. Why not remove them to another place that has been demonstrated to enable people speak more willingly about such problems?

Mr. Carmichael

The hon. Lady mentioned victims being eligible for criminal injuries compensation. My knowledge of the operation of that scheme is that those who have a significant criminal record are generally excluded from receiving criminal injuries compensation. Does the hon. Lady have any figures to show that that is the case?

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas

The hon. Gentleman is correct. The Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority does pay out compensation to criminals, but normally on the basis that they have not received a custodial sentence. In exceptional circumstances someone who has received a custodial sentence may be paid, but other than that the compensation that individuals access comes through civil litigation. They are informed of the compensation either directly by solicitors writing to them in prison, or by adverts that appear in the prison advising them of class actions that are being taken and asking anyone who has been physically abused or suffered trauma in certain schools or homes to come forward. Class actions are the preferred method for insurance companies because they are more cost effective. The downside is that the state does not know how much it is paying for such litigation. At least one authority that I know of spent 10 per cent. of its social services budget on compensation, which is a huge amount of money.

There is an easy way around the problems for all the classes of individuals that I shall talk about today. Some of them are already classified as vulnerable witnesses. Vulnerable witnesses are people under the age of 18, people with a learning difficulty, and there is a third category that I am desperately struggling to remember—perhaps the Minister will remind me of it later. Whatever that category is, prisoners do not fall into the category of vulnerable witness. In cases of sex abuse, such individuals should be classified as vulnerable witnesses, and if they were, they would have the opportunity that is afforded to other individuals who have been raped and receive the support that younger people already receive in such cases.

There has been some good news in relation to domestic abuse cases—and, I was going to say, some bad news, but I prefer to think of it a, work in progress. We cannot underestimate the scale of the problems associated with domestic abuse case. I have talked to the Metropolitan Police Authority about the issue. I will talk about the type of cases that it is handling, because I think that that is indicative of what is happening throughout the country. I was surprised to hear that between 2002 and 2003, there were 104,000 cases of domestic abuse in London. The next, t thing that I was surprised to learn is that there is only one community safety unit in each of the 32 London boroughs. The community safety unit is where interviews with people who have been the subject of domestic abuse normally occur. By dividing the number of domestic abuse cases by the number of community safety units, we can calculate that there is approximately one community safety unit per 4,000 cases. That is clearly not enough to meet demand, and it may be why so many domestic abuse cases fail to get off the starting blocks.

In order to make a substantial allegation of domestic abuse, a woman needs a significant amount of reassurance and protection. Such women, too, are not classified as a vulnerable witness. I appeal to my hon. Friend to consider the classification of vulnerable witnesses to see whether they can be extended to include victims of domestic violence. To make a statement, a woman must attend a community safety unit or a conventional police station. She may be greeted by somebody who has little experience of domestic abuse cases and who may not have appropriate facilities to look after her and, importantly, her children.

Mr. Djanogly

I had not intended to speak about non-sex offences today. The hon. Lady makes an interesting point, but should she not extend her remarks to cases involving female-on-male violence which is much in the press?

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas

Yes. When I use the term domestic violence, I include both women and men who have been the subject of abuse in the home. Of course, sexual, physical and mental abuse are frequently mixed together.

An environment that is conducive to making statements must be created. It is, in small part, present. An announcement was made last year about an additional —1.3 million being spent on units and facilities. That would buy a very decent detached house in London but not much more. That means that, in UK terms, facilities still fall far short of demand. I believe that we must refocus our energies, because many women who are involved in domestic abuse are not protected. They have no avenue by which to pursue an allegation against their partner, simply because the environment is not there for them to do so safely.

I want the facilities to be open at any hour so that they serve the people who have been abused at a time when they can best be served, which is when the abuser is not at home, so that the abuser does not know that the victim has gone to a police station It is important that sound facilities for managing children are available, because women often need to take their children with them. They cannot make statements about the abuse that they have endured with their children bouncing and running around. Children are often witnesses to abuse, but all too frequently the measures that we have asked to be put in place to allow children to give their evidence on video or from behind screens are not available. The picture is therefore mixed: in some areas there is good practice; in others much more needs to be done.

I am conscious of the fact that I have spoken for a long time. I reiterate my seminal concerns that teachers' anonymity should be protected until they have been convicted of the charges brought against them. That would greatly reassure the hundreds of thousands of teachers who work in the UK every day, not one of whom has not considered the possibility of an accusation being made against them against which they cannot defend themselves. I want the Government to consider the definition of a vulnerable witness to see whether it can be extended to include others who are obviously vulnerable. Finally, I want the Government to examine the adequacy of the services and the competencies of the staff who take statements to see what they can do to reduce the number of false allegations made against various people in this country.

2.36 pm
Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) on securing the debate and on the reasoned and measured way in which she presented her arguments. She has dealt with several issues that are sensitive in the extreme and are open to being sensationalised, and which the wider public and indeed Members in this place are often happier not to discuss. She introduced several issues that were new to me—not least allegations made by people in prison—and she has done the House a service in bringing these matters to our attention.

It might be helpful to start my speech by reminding the House of my background. Before I entered the House, I was a solicitor in private practice. Before that, I trained and worked with the Procurator Fiscal Service in Scotland. In the course of my professional life, I have dealt with several sex abuse cases involving adults as well as children, which has informed my thinking on the subjects that the hon. Lady brings before the House today. I should also remind the House that I served as director of Aberdeenshire Women's Aid and was involved in the provision of refuge services in the north-east of Scotland. Again, I have seen at first hand some of the practical difficulties that allegations of rape and domestic violence can cause when they are made within the family unit.

The subject is particularly pertinent to me as the Member for Orkney and Shetland, because it was in my constituency several years ago that several children were removed from their homes in South Ronaldsay on the basis of some very interesting interviewing and disclosures made at the time. That led to a substantial investigation under the chairmanship of Lord Clyde and ultimately to the passing of the Children (Scotland) Act 1995. I have always maintained a very keen interest in these issues.

The first overriding principle in these matters must be that the witnesses are always treated as individuals, whether or not they are vulnerable. Those interviewing them must always bring to bear whatever experience they have so that they treat the witness as an individual. The second overriding principle is that the objective of the person responsible for the interviewing is to get at the truth. That comes down to training. There are few more dangerous things than a professional with an agenda or a person on a mission doing the interviewing in a sex abuse case. That is why the resourcing and training of people involved in this area, especially those in the criminal justice system, is of supreme importance.

My experience is that the preparation and prosecution of the defence of such cases is very harrowing for the individuals concerned. Frankly, there are days when all one wants to do on coming home from the office is take off all one's clothes and have a shower. The manner in which cases are dealt with and the inadequacies of the court system in dealing with them are horrific. One of the most distressing things that I have ever endured in my professional life was sitting through a child abuse trial at the High Court, sitting in Aberdeen, in which a seven or eight-year-old girl gave evidence about the taste of semen. No one should have to endure that sort of indignity.

The legal profession and the criminal justice system are not well equipped to deal with such cases. I once heard about a training session given to advocate deputes—High Court prosecutors in Scotland—who were gathered in a nice, oak-panelled room with a roaring fire in a country house hotel. They were sitting there in their twill trousers and tweed jackets when the child psychologist training them, who was quite a go-ahead, in-your-face, assertive woman, said, "Right. I want you to think about your last sexual experience. I want you to think about the sounds, smells and tastes involved and about the other person who was involved, if indeed there was another person. Then, we will go around the room and. one by one, I want you to tell us about that." When she said that to those middle-aged men, the atmosphere in the room could have been cut with a knife. Then she said that they were not really going to do that, but that maybe that thought had given them some understanding of what is required of children who give evidence in child sex abuse cases. I have held that incident with me throughout my time in professional practice. It is a very real way of illustrating the point, and it comes back to my earlier point about the need to treat such people as individuals.

The Minister may wish to look carefully at the situation north of the border. We now have, as a matter of routine, joint investigations by specially trained police officers and social workers in appropriate surroundings. As the hon. Member for Crosby suggested, such investigations will often happen in a specially adapted house in which the situation is more relaxed, so that disclosure can be more open, free, and, it is to be hoped, more honest.

The Procurator Fiscal Service has been given resources to provide specialists in each region of that service who are qualified in interviewing child abuse and sex abuse witnesses, and trained in countering the difficulties associated with prosecuting such offences. The Scottish Executive propose that child witnesses and other vulnerable witnesses should automatically give evidence via video link in cases such as those in which an application to do so can now be made. That is the sort of direction that the Home Office may wish to consider taking.

There have been useful developments in the law on rape, which are to be examined thoroughly north of the border. The extension of the crime to include rape within marriage is an obvious example that was long overdue and which we now take for granted. However, the figures for successful prosecutions in rape cases remain disturbingly low. That issue is linked to the hon. Lady's point about support for people who make allegations, which hopelessly inadequate in all parts of the country.

That is the case not only because of training, but because of a lack of resources that is not immediately obvious. Resources can be put into a nice, cosy interview suite in a house away from a police station, but what happens to the won an when she leaves? Where does she go? What resources are available to support her and her family? She may be allowed to stay in the family home, but excluded from the rest of the family, who might take the side of the abuser. Such a witness, whether male or female, would require substantial and resource-intensive support in order to remain in the community. There is simply no option but to address the question of resources.

If we are to increase the number of successful prosecutions, the Crown Prosecution Service has to address how cases are prioritised. Cases involving allegations of sex abuse should be given priority for resources with regard to investigation and obtaining court time. Cases of sex abuse are the classic case of where justice delayed would be justice denied.

The hon. Lady spoke of the number of complaints of domestic violence that are withdrawn. I know from my experience that the pattern is depressing: the complaint is made, the victim is left without support in the community and, as a result, the only option available is to withdraw the complaint or not to see through the prosecution. Ultimately, the person involved has to go back to the environment from which they sought to escape in the first place.

The hon. Lady dealt at length with the issue of people who make complaints while serving as prisoners. I know from my experience of time spent in prisons that the interview facilities are basic, at best. That is an interesting issue, which I had not considered before today. I was not aware that it was an issue, but if she tells us that it is, we have to treat it as such and take it seriously.

My practice allowed me to experience the fact that the attitude of people it prisons as a community is often skewed by the compensation that may be available. Among sex offenders, there is almost a myth that such complaints are made so that the complainer can obtain criminal injuries compensation. Trying to break that down is next to impossible. If there is a case for saying that compensation skews the picture, I do not know how we will deal with it. We certainly have to bear the issue in mind. That goes back to my initial point: one always has to treat witnesses as individuals and look at all the circumstances, rather than approach them as a class.

The hon. Lady made the good point that it is often those who have been through the care system in the first place who end up serving custodial sentences in the criminal justice system. That struck rue at an early stage of my practice, when I was required to consider a case in which allegations of fairly mild inappropriate conduct had been made in a children's home The names of all the witnesses became familiar to me in the following 12 months, as their number crossed the threshold of 16 and they began to make regular appearances in the district and sheriff courts. Just about every individual who had been through that children's home in Aberdeen went on to have a career before the criminal courts in the north-east of Scotland, which was quite depressing.

We are dealing with individuals who are often among the most dysfunctional and difficult people in society, and they need particular support. If the hon. Lady has brought anything to our attention today, it is the need to look at all the aspects of sexual abuse as a whole, rather than pick at individual aspects.

That brings me to the final point raised by the hon. Lady, who was right to speak of the problem of teachers being subjected to the allegation that they have abused those in their care. The issue needs to be addressed if 2,000 complaints are made, but 1,800 are not ultimately brought to an successful conclusion. The Government will not find that statistic reflected in the broader range of sex abuse cases. The complaint in question is a particular species of complaint, and we will have to examine the need for anonymity for those of any breed who face such charges.

We live in a climate that makes the accusation of any sort of sexual abuse especially potent. Mud always sticks, and it leaves a stain that can never be removed. Such allegations can ruin reputations and careers. The presumption that children will tell the truth is rebuttable if it can be shown that they are not telling the truth. If that is so—it clearly is for a number of teachers—some redress should be available. We must ensure that no damage, or as little as possible, is done to them, and if publicity is to be given to such cases, surely it should be done post-conviction.

2.51 pm
Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con)

After that expert contribution from the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael), I thank the hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) for opening this important and serious debate. I acknowledge the tremendous work that she has done over a considerable time; she also chairs the all-party group on abuse investigations.

I agree that we need to consider sex and abuse cases in the round. If it seems that I am not doing so, it may be due to the title of the debate; it is not that they should not be so considered. Victims of sexual abuse, like victims of all crime, should be able to bring the perpetrators to justice, and, in an ideal world, they should not be afraid of doing so. However, the opposite is the case. Research shows that sexual abuse goes greatly unreported, whether it is abuse of adults or children.

The inherent problem with the arrest and conviction of sex abusers is that there are often no witnesses and the victims are often reluctant to give evidence. The problem is particularly evident with child sex abuse, because many abused children are physically and emotionally dependent on their abusers. The law should protect the innocent and give confidence to the abused when giving evidence against their abusers.

The report "Speaking up for Justice", published in June 1998, made 78 proposals to encourage and support vulnerable or intimidated witnesses and to help them give their best evidence in criminal cases. Those provisions that required legislative action were included in the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999. Victims of sexual offences are automatically considered eligible for special provisions unless they tell the court that they do not want to be eligible.

Those special provisions include being asked questions through an intermediary, giving evidence from a separate room via a television link, giving evidence through an interview recorded on video before the trial, and having cross-examination recorded on video before the trial. Those provisions can give much-valued security and support to victims of sexual abuse. It would be helpful if the Minister could give us an update on how effective those provisions have been. I am not sure whether she is allowed to do so, but, as previously requested, I hope that she can give us some idea of how Scotland is placed in relation to those proposals.

The Home Affairs Committee report "The Conduct of Investigations into Past Cases of Abuse in Children's Homes" recommended the video recording of police interviews of witnesses. I certainly agree that there is a good argument for making such video recordings, but I am concerned that various reports say that the police may find it hard to carry out the proposal, due to the often complicated procedures for taking witness statements. The issue has been subject to ongoing review, and it would be helpful if the Minister would share her current thinking on it.

The subject of expert evidence is also relevant. As I said, there are no independent witnesses or medical evidence in most sexual abuse cases. With that in mind, advocates often expect experts to shed light on the facts of the case. In the interests of justice, it is essential that expert witnesses are cross-examined in a way that does not do more harm than good to a case.

I recently read an interesting article written in 2001 by Mr. Charles Fortt on expert witnesses and the problems with using them in cases involving children. An excerpt from it states: Historically, the professionals who deal with victimised children—paediatricians, child psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers etc—have been separated by training and employing agency from those professionals who deal with offenders, mostly adults. This has tended to mean on the whole that those who deal with the aftermath of sexual crimes against children do not have much experience of dealing with the perpetrators of it. Again, historically, the bizarre and repugnant nature of child sexual abuse has usually prompted the courts and the legal profession to look to psychiatry for explanations and clarification. However, since most perpetrators of sexual crime are not mentally ill and since most sexual abuse follows a rational pattern of attitudes, thinking, fantasy and behaviour, psychiatry is not necessarily best equipped to assist Courts to pick their way through a minefield of ignorance and prejudice. Mr. Fortt goes on to state: However, lawyers frequently engage experts to assist in presenting their clients' cases, and to make the best of the evidence available it is important for advocates to have a rational way of evaluating their witnesses' expertise—the skilled cross-examination of a poorly chosen expert can do more to damage a case than not calling one at all. Mr. Fortt made a series of proposals that I shall not go into, but I wonder whether the Government have been reviewing that area and, again, whether the Minister would give us her thoughts on it.

We should be aware of the fact that miscarriages of justice occur and of the consequences that investigations into sexual abuse have on the accuser, but we should not let that detract from the principle that it is essential to protect victims and to encourage them to bring their abusers to justice.

The effects of a miscarriage of justice may be severe, and we must work to ensure that innocent people are not convicted of a crime that they have been accused of due to false memory syndrome or an accuser's desire for compensation. I appreciate the concern of the hon. Member for Crosby for teachers, although I would not wish to make a special law just for them. They are no more or less deserving than anyone else, such as those who work with children in care homes. As a social services chairman in days gone by, I have personal experience of that situation.

However, at the same time, we must have faith in our justice system. We must ensure that abusers are punished and that the abused are not exposed to further abuse, but faith in our justice system must cut both ways. If an investigation is closed, it is unlikely that people will get anything more than a letter saying that the allegations were unsubstantiated. That procedure has two problems: first, it may protect public servants from scrutiny; secondly, it could leave the person who has been investigated with a lifelong stigma. In so far as it is possible that an individual who is guilty of a sex crime could be found not guilty in court by reason of lack of evidence, so it is also possible that a guilty person will get off at the investigation stage through lack of evidence. However, if due process has been carried out and adequate evidence has not been found, the human rights of the person being investigated must be respected and, after a reasonable period, they should be clearly exonerated so that they can get on with their lives.

Of course, if new evidence comes up at a later date, there could be a fresh investigation. The problem may be that the investigators, such as local authorities, might be more concerned about improving their chances in future litigation and claims against them than admitting that they were wrong. Surely, however, the initial concern should be about the reputation of the person being investigated, once the case has not been made.

I have referred to the impact of one aspect of the compensation culture, which works against people's reputations. Unfortunately, however, the problem goes further, as has been said. Some individuals may falsify claims of sexual violence against them, perhaps even from decades ago, to qualify for compensation. I am sure that all hon. Members would agree that, to whatever extent such violence occurred, it would of course be of great concern. It is also a fact that a relatively high proportion of criminals suffered abuse as children. Importantly. many were also brought up in broken homes or care homes, which the hon. Member for Crosby mentioned, where sexual abuse could have been more likely.

It is also likely that an existing criminal may not be as concerned about lying for compensation as a non-criminal. If that is added to police trawling operations for collaborative evidence, the potential for abusing the system could become magnified. Have the Government investigated that and, if so, to what extent does the Minister think that it is a problem? Why have more individuals not been prosecuted for conspiring to pervert the course of justice or for perjury? When people lie to the authorities, particularly for monetary gain, examples should be set. That does not seem to happen.

3.1 pm

The Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing and Community Safety (Ms Hazel Blears)

We have had an extremely interesting and, dare I say, wide-ranging debate this afternoon, with some valuable contributions. I, too, would like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) not only on securing this debate, but on taking forward some of the submissions that she made in the debate that we had about 12 months ago in response to the Home Affairs Committee's report on historic sex abuse cases. Some of the issues that have been raised today are similar to those that we discussed last time, but my hon. Friend has added new concerns. She is not only an expert, but extremely committed to ensuring that such issues are properly ventilated, at least in the House. As I think I said last time, such issues are not universally popular and it takes courage to pursue them. She has exhibited such courage and commitment again this afternoon.

I should like to make some general points about where we are in protecting vulnerable and intimidated witnesses and give hon. Members a flavour of how the "Achieving Best Evidence" guidance is being implemented. I shall then consider the positions of teachers, people prison, whom my hon. Friend mentioned, and some of the issues that other hon. Members raised.

In 1997 the Government made a general commitment to providing greater protection for victims in rape and serious sexual offence trials and for those subject to intimidation, including witnesses. It was recognised then that the criminal justice system did not adequately protect vulnerable and intimated witnesses or the victims of sexual offences. That was a broad promise. Almost the first thing that we did in government was commission a working group to consider how to improve the treatment of vulnerable or intimidated witnesses in the criminal justice system. That was a huge undertaking. As the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) said, the "Speaking up for Justice" report contained 78 recommendations. Those recommendations included defining vulnerable or intimidated witnesses and identifying the special measures needed to ensure that they could give their best evidence, thereby increasing the likelihood of conviction where offences had been committed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Crosby asked for the definition of vulnerable or intimidated witnesses, and whether it could be extended to cover some of the matters about which she expressed concerns. Vulnerable witnesses are defined as those who are subject to a mental disorder, a learning disability or—this, I think, was the category that she was searching for—a physical disorder. Intimidated witnesses are defined as those whose evidence is likely to be affected by intimidation, and my hon. Friend asked whether that definition could encompass victims of domestic violence. I think that the evidence of such people—men or women—could be affected by the possibility of intimidation arising from the circumstances of an alleged offence. There is therefore no reason why they cannot be encompassed in the definition of vulnerable or intimidated witnesses, who are entitled to the special measures in the scheme. Clearly, that is a matter of interpretation, but the definition is certainly wide enough for us to contemplate including the kind of witnesses whom my hon. Friend mentioned.

It is important to emphasise that all victims of sexual offences are automatically entitled to special measures under the provisions. If domestic violence gives rise to allegations of a sexual offence, therefore, the victim is entitled to special measures, unless they indicate that they do not want them put in place. The only instance of where that might occur that has been highlighted to me is when a child has been subject to abuse involving video recording. In those circumstances, it is difficult to think of anything more horrendous than offering the child the possibility of giving evidence by video. Most hon. Members would accept that that would be entirely inappropriate, and video evidence would not be one of the special measures implemented. In the normal run of things, however, a victim of sexual offences is entitled to such special measures. Again, the definition is fairly wide. All children come within the definition of vulnerable witnesses and are entitled to be considered as such. That is clearly set out. As far as adults are concerned, cases are considered individually.

The implementation of the recommendations of the "Speaking up for Justice" report in the "Achieving Best Evidence" guidance has taken us significantly further forward. However, it is not just a matter of defining who is covered and then giving them access to special measures. There is a third issue, which is vital, but which has not been raised this afternoon: improved communication between the police and the Crown Prosecution Service as regards witness needs. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) talked about bringing the agencies together so that they share such information. It is important that these matters are not left to the police, be cause the CPS has a key role to play in how the case is conducted in court. It is essential that there are early meetings to ensure the right circumstances so that people can give their evidence.

There should also be guidance on appropriate interviewing methods for vulnerable or intimidated witnesses, and that is at the heart of the concerns that have been raised this afternoon. I have had a look in a little detail—although probably not as much detail as my hon. Friend—at the "Achieving Best Evidence" document, which I commend to hon. Members. It is extremely detailed. It first sets out the general principles involved in interviewing vulnerable and intimidated witnesses. It then has two sections specifically about interviewing children. There is a big section about how to plan the interview—how to get involved early on, how to shape the interview, how it should take place, how to take account of the circumstances and the background, and how to guarantee the best evidence.

There is then a section on how the interview should be conducted, and I found it especially interesting that it is all about establishing ground rules. The document discusses how to deal with very young children and older children in different circumstances. There is also an important section about truth and lies, and I think that it was the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland who raised the issue of how to interview children and of whether they know the difference between truth and lies, right and wrong. That is difficult to ascertain, but the document contains the very best information about how to pursue such matters. It gives examples of the kind of questions to ask and the inferences to be drawn. There is a big emphasis on the witness freely giving a narrative account—on the police not leading them or placing words or ideas in their minds, but obtaining the account that the witness wants to give.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas

I agree with the Minister that the document is excellent. The Home Office has produced a number of documents containing guidelines on interviewing techniques, and that is absolutely fine, but how many of them are really implemented? Has the Minister considered auditing for compliance and if not, would she do so, or permit Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary to consider it?

Ms Blears

My hon. Friend raises an important point. Issuing guidance and strategies does not of itself indicate that the service and the culture are changing, or that we are implementing the action in the guidance. I would however ask her to accept that there is an ongoing process of changing the culture and practice not just in the police but in a range of agencies that are involved in the area. She makes an important point about audit and measuring implementation, and she will know that HMIC recently conducted a baseline survey of all police forces in the country, measuring them against a number of criteria. Those baseline assessments are due to be published shortly. They are the first ones ever to be conducted in that way. Clearly, professional practice is an important part of that measurement. I am not aware whether there is a specific requirement in that baseline assessment to consider implementation of the guidance, but I undertake to look into that area to assess whether we can do more to audit it.

Every police officer receives training in investigation techniques, and at the national centre for police excellence we are developing a code for investigators. That includes investigation skills at level 1, level 2, level 3 and level 4, ranging from the day-to-day grass-roots investigation of a minor incident through to very serious investigations. We are trying to professionalise the investigation capacity in our forces. It is a relatively new development to ensure that every officer has some rudimentary basic training, and that those who are involved in the more serious, technical investigations have the necessary skills. We are trying to increase our capacity.

My hon. Friend is aware of the senior investigating officers manual on investigation technique, which we have talked about on previous occasions. It sets out clear guidance for investigators on how to go about their business. I gave her an undertaking that the SIO manual would be reviewed in light of some concerns that she and the Home Affairs Committee expressed about past sex abuse cases. I can tell her today that that review is ongoing and that the manual is being reviewed by people who have been involved in recent cases, to try to ensure that its guidance incorporates recent learning.

Mr. Carmichael

While the Minister is on the subject of technique and guidance, can she tell the Chamber whether any formal guidance is given centrally to police officers who conduct what the hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) referred to as "trawls"? That procedure seems to be fraught with difficulty, so some guidance must be given to forces engaged in it.

Ms Blears

There is guidance; it is clearly an important area. Even though the Home Affairs Committee expressed some reservations about the procedure, it was satisfied that the use of the technique was legitimate. The senior investigating officers manual covers that area. We have disputed whether it is trawling, fishing or—the term that the police prefer to use—dip-sampling, but it is a proper, credible investigatory technique, concerned not simply with trawling for evidence but with dip-sampling people to see whether they are making appropriate investigations, and there is guidance for it. Part of the undertaking that I gave to my hon. Friend was that we would update and review the guidance on the basis of learning from cases. In those terms, over the past few years there has been a major impetus to try to ensure that the way in which we conduct investigations is more professional and designed to elicit the best possible evidence.

In the "Achieving Best Evidence" guidance, there is a presumption that there will be video interviews for child witnesses in cases involving sexual offences, violence, abduction or neglect. Several hon. Members have raised the issue of resources for video facilities. Last year, the premises improvement programme—a general police programme—was opened up for bids for video suites. That, together with a specific £2 million fund for video interviewing facilities, means that we have invested £7 million in trying to increase capacity. Hon. Members will say that we never have enough, and there will always be pressure to do more, but I hope that they accept that we are trying to ensure that as many facilities for video evidence as possible are available.

In addition to the early meetings between the Crown Prosecution Service and the police, therapy is available for particularly vulnerable witnesses before a trial. That is something I was not aware of, but it is a significant step towards ensuring that people are in a position to give their best evidence. We are also trialling the introduction of intermediaries, which could be controversial. Providing an intermediary in court for someone with communication difficulties could again ensure that a witness can give their best evidence, without interfering with the substance and integrity of the evidence. That is a difficult balance to achieve. The pilot started in Merseyside in February, and I will be interested to see the outcome.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas

I am aware that intermediaries and support are available for children who have been involved in sexual abuse—in about one case in 10. However, there is concern about the independence of the intermediary or the person providing assistance. Usually, they are from social services, the Crown Prosecution Service or another authority. There is concern about whether they are tainted by association with the prosecution authorities and therefore hold a position relative to the outcome of the inquiry. Would the Minister advocate an independent advisory and support unit rather than something stemming from the current bureaucracies?

Ms Blears

Those matters will always be the subject of challenge and concern. We must get the balance right as to where intermediaries come from. How do we ensure that they have appropriate and sufficient skills without being tainted by bring seen to be part of an existing organisation? I am sure that when guardians ad litem were introduced into care proceedings many years ago, similar concerns we re raised about whether they would have sufficient independence to act on behalf of the child and not another party. I will inform my hon. Friend of the details of the pilot, and if she wants to make representations about it I will consider them. However, if the legal representatives of defendants have concerns, they are at liberty to raise them during proceedings. I have no doubt that those concerns would be raised and adjudicated on.

I shall now deal with specific matters raised by hon. Members. The issue of teachers being accused of sexual offences is very important. We are aware of the devastating effect on individuals falsely accused of sex offences or child abuse. We recognise that being accused of such offences carries a social stigma and brings adverse publicity. Such an allegation could have serious implications for someone's reputation, employment and sense of self-worth. We have carefully considered whether defendants in such cases should be entitled to anonymity, but we do not think that there is a case for it.

We appreciate that teachers feel vulnerable to being identified because they have a public profile, but we are not convinced that legislating to provide anonymity is the answer to those concerns. Regrettably, some allegations of abuse are true, and being abused by a person in a position of trust and authority, such as a teacher, can have a devastating effect on a child. I ask hon. Members again to try to ensure that we strike a balance: allegations can devastate the individual accused, as the hon. Member for Huntingdon said, but it is important to listen to those who have been abused.

We genuinely sympathise with defendants who are accused but subsequently acquitted, or against whom no further action is taken, but the principles of open justice are necessary to the maintenance of public confidence in the criminal justice system. It has long been established that criminal trials take place in the open in this country; the media are allowed to report them freely and that is an important principle in the criminal justice system, which must be open and transparent. The media must be able to say what went on in court if people are to believe that the legal system is functioning properly. In that way, the confidence that victims and witnesses have in the system is reinforced.

However, anyone who has been investigated by the police but who has not been charged should not be identified in the press in the period between investigation and charge. The Association of Chief Police Officers has issued revised guidance to all police forces, which applies to all offences, making it absolutely clear that anyone under investigation but not charged should not be named, and no details should be provided to the press that might lead to their identification before they are charted. It would be a serious disciplinary matter if members of the force were to transgress that guidance.

It is for the police to make sure that that guidance is very strong; equally, the Press Complaints Commission, which has safeguards against the publication of inaccurate or misleading information, oversees the system of self-regulation of the press. Sometimes, good investigative journalism has revealed cases of crime that might otherwise not have been revealed, but it is important that the PCC has proper guidance in place to ensure that people's reputations are not damaged by their being splashed all over the tabloid press when they have not been charged with an offence.

I understand that the PCC is drawing up stronger guidance on the issue and it is important to give it a chance to achieve the desired effect, because we do not want to take the legislation path at this stage. The enhanced ACPO guidance and work by the PCC needs to be given an opportunity to have an impact. Legislation to prevent a teacher's identity being published would not necessarily achieve the desired result: the people who are most concerned by the allegation—parents and the local community, as my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby said—will know what is going on in the area. Even if it is couched in the most general terms, mentioning a subject teacher in a particular school, for example, means that identification would be possible. The hon. Member for Huntingdon said that teachers are no more vulnerable to false allegations of abuse than other groups who work closely with children, and many people in chose groups feel at risk, too. Any concessions to teachers in that respect would inevitably lead to wider calls for anonymity for others who work with children.

I note that my hon. Friend is supporting the campaign for anonymity up to the point of conviction, which is a long way along the spectrum of anonymity in these cases. It would be very helpful if we could ensure that the cases were dealt with as speedily as possible, so that false allegations could be weeded out at the beginning and matters did not proceed, and people did not have the threat of possible charges hanging over them for months, with the consequent effects on them and their families. The Department for Education and Skills spends £1.5 million a year employing about 26 coordinators, who each have a cluster of schools. Their job is to ensure that allegations are dealt with quickly and weeded out, so that only the serious allegations go forward.

There may be more that we can do to ensure that the system does not militate against teachers in these circumstances, but we do not at present feel that anonymity is the way to go. I give an undertaking that we will monitor the revised guidance issued by the PCC and ACPO to see if it is working. The Secretary of State for Education and Skills and the Home Secretary have discussed this, and they are due to discuss it further. They are aware of the campaigns by the NASUWT and the National Association of Head Teachers. These are important and significant areas of concern and we will keep them under review.

I have dealt with the trawling issues, but I also want to say something about prisoners who report crimes. My hon. Friend talked about the circumstances in which they are interviewed. That is a difficult issue in relation to prisoners: because of the very nature of custodial sentences, people are in fairly coercive regimes that do not necessarily provide the kinds of supportive and therapeutic environment in which disclosures about long-term sexual abuse can be managed in the most effective way. However, with the decision to move the prison health service into the national health service, we are beginning to take great strides towards providing a health service environment that is far more appropriate. In addition to allegations of sexual abuse, many prisoners have mental health problems, and there is a great need to improve the mental health provision for prisoners in these circumstances.

However, I can say to my hon. Friend that where a prisoner needs to be interviewed, there is advice in the guidance about choosing a location to achieve best evidence. It is perfectly possible for a prisoner to be taken to an external location for an interview, or to be taken to one of the specially equipped suites. It will be for the governor and the prison authorities to weigh up the balance between security, which is clearly their concern, and the appropriateness of the environment, but such interviews can be carried out either in the health centre within the prison setting or externally.

I understand that we will be investing up to £20 million a year by next year in trying to ensure that there are good mental health services in prisons. We have to go a long way to catch up to make sure that our health services are right in those terms. However, there is the possibility of providing a more appropriate setting for these kinds of interviews to take place. My hon. Friend has raised an important issue.

Finally, I turn to the matter of support for victims of domestic violence, both men and women. The Government can be proud of the progress that they have made, but I would not suggest for one moment that everything is now perfect—we still have much more to do. However, sexual assault referral centres have now been established up and down the country. I visited one in Preston just a few weeks ago, where victims of sexual offences and domestic violence are able to go to disclose in very supportive environments. GPs are on the premises, there is a range of referral workers, and there is outreach counselling to provide support. That is a world away from where we were just a few years ago, when very little support and help were provided to victims in those circumstances.

We have managed to obtain £27 million from the Treasury for our "no witness, no justice" pilots which ensure that there is a witness adviser taking victims through the entire legal system step by step so that they can give the best possible evidence.

I take on board my hon. Friend's concern about the sparsity of specialised domestic violence support in the community. We need to build capacity in that area, but if she were to visit the excellent scheme in Cardiff where the CPS, the police, the local authority and the housing authority are all working together to support victims of domestic violence, she would see something that represents a step change from where we were.

I know that we have much more to do to ensure that we put victims and witnesses at the heart of our criminal justice system and that the issues raised this afternoon are extremely important. I have no doubt that my hon. Friend and other hon. Members will continue to press me on them. It is right that we are called to account and that there is proper and adequate scrutiny.