BARONESS Smith of Basildon rose on the floor of the House of Lords to make a number of pertinent points regarding the calls for a child abuse inquiry.
“My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Home Secretary’s Statement, which we welcome. There is a lot at stake today. Child abuse, particularly child sexual abuse, is an abhorrent crime that devastates its victims. There has been mounting distress and revulsion at the avalanche of allegations, arrests, charges and convictions that we have seen to date. The clear evidence is that abused children have had their pleas for help and reports of crimes dismissed. The fact that no action was taken must be fully investigated. Even when the abuse is historic, the trauma continues into the future. The truth may be painful and distressing, but nothing less will do.
We have rightly been angered and we have demanded action when there has been evidence of abuse and potential cover-ups. That has now been brought to the Government. It is truly shocking, as the Minister said, that allegations are being made that the Home Office not only failed to investigate evidence that was brought to it, but that crucial documents were lost and others may have been destroyed. The Minister will, I am sure, understand the concerns already expressed of a deliberate attempt to cover up crimes and to protect perpetrators.
The 2013 review that has now come to light was clearly inadequate. It was not announced to Parliament and it was not revealed that more than 100 related files had gone missing. The Minister will recall from previous debates that we called for a much wider, overarching inquiry. Indeed, I raised this with Ministers in your Lordships’ House on both 6 November and 14 November 2012 in debates on child abuse. At that time Ministers rejected those calls, but today’s announcement is a step further towards that and we welcome it.
I would like some clarification on the new process, both of the review and of the inquiry panel. Both have to be thorough investigations. Peter Wanless is highly regarded and, alongside his personal integrity and expertise, he brings the reputation and trust of the NSPCC. Nothing matters more now than reaching the truth, because only through the truth can we achieve justice and support for victims and provide stronger and better child protection now and for the future. I want to ask the Minister a few questions. What legal expertise and support will be provided to Mr Wanless? He will no doubt want to talk to those who have been victims themselves, so will professional support be made available when he does so? There have been reports that police officers have felt unable to provide information as they had signed gagging clauses.
Will the Wanless—the Minister calls it a review—inquiry be able to override any such clause where criminality is suspected? Will the inquiry be able to obtain information from individual civil servants, whether in work or retired, and from any government agency or its employees? What powers will the Wanless inquiry have to compel witnesses to provide evidence? Will it be given access to any and all papers, notes and minutes of meetings from government and government agencies? The inquiry cannot just be given the information that it asks for; it needs to have the freedom to investigate and to search for information that it might not yet know is available.
The Minister will understand the serious concerns regarding the apparent mystery of the disappearing Dickens file or files that were handed to the then Home Secretary. What records and notes were kept of those initial meetings? Was the 2013 review able to identify whether any investigation or action followed from those meetings? Can the Minister confirm whether the Home Secretary has been advised of the identities of the private office staff and senior civil servants who were aware of the documentation and asked to review its contents and whether they were involved in the 2013 review? Can he confirm that they will be asked to co-operate with the Wanless inquiry? Will that 2013 review—inadequate as I think it is recognised now that it was—be published? When were the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister told that the files were missing or destroyed? Finally, can the Minister confirm that there will be no hiding place from justice for those who have committed child sex abuse crimes or have been involved in destroying or hiding evidence? Will a further Statement be made on the terms and references of the inquiry panel once the appointments are in place? At this stage there are more questions than answers and I hope that the Minister will agree to keep Parliament informed as this process proceeds.
Action has to be taken to deal with the past, but equally important are the lessons that we learn for the future. The Minister will know our concerns about the Government’s changes to the vetting and barring system. The system is designed to protect children, but we believe that the Government have weakened it. Is he aware that the number of people barred from working with children as a result of committing sexual offences against children has fallen by 75% in the past three years? Can the Minister assure me that the Government will, in the light of increasing evidence that perpetrators of child sex abuse have evaded justice for many years, reconsider the changes that they have made to this legislation?
We welcome the two investigations. I hope that, given the importance of the issues, the Minster will be able to answer my questions today, but if he is unable to do so I hope that he can write with answers to those specific points.