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Home Secretary oral statement on child abuse

Theresa May oral statement to Parliament on child abuse investigations.

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement about the sexual abuse of children, allegations that evidence of the sexual abuse of children was suppressed by people in positions of power, and the government’s intended response.

Mr Speaker, in my statement today I want to address two important public concerns. First, that in the 1980s the Home Office failed to act on allegations of child sex abuse. And second, that public bodies and other important institutions have failed to take seriously their duty of care towards children.

As I do so, I want to set three important principles. First, we will do everything we can to allow the full investigation of child abuse and the prosecution of its perpetrators, and we will do nothing to jeopardise those aims. Second, where possible the government will adopt a presumption of maximum transparency. And third, we will make sure that wherever individuals and institutions have failed to protect children from harm, we will expose these failures and learn the lessons.

Concern that the Home Office failed to act on allegations of child abuse in the 1980s relates mainly to information provided to the department by the late Geoffrey Dickens, a member of this House between 1979 and 1995.

As the House will be aware, in February 2013, in response to a Parliamentary question from the Hon Member for West Bromwich East, the Permanent Secretary of the Home Office, Mark Sedwill, commissioned an investigation by an independent expert into information the Home Office received in relation to child abuse allegations, including information provided by Mr Dickens. In order to be confident that the investigation would review all relevant information, the investigation reviewed all relevant papers available relating to child abuse between 1979 and 1999.

The investigation reported last year and its executive summary was published on 1 August 2013. It concluded there was no single “Dickens Dossier”, but there had been letters from Mr Dickens to several home secretaries over several years that contained allegations of sexual offences against children. Copies of the letters had not been kept, but the investigator found evidence that the information Mr Dickens had provided had been considered and matters requiring investigation had been referred to the police.

In total, the investigator found thirteen items of information about alleged child abuse. The police already knew about nine of those items, and the remaining four were passed by the Home Office to the police immediately.

The investigation found that 114 potentially relevant files were not available. These are presumed – by the Home Office and the investigator – destroyed, missing or not found, although the investigator made clear that he found no evidence to suggest that the files had been removed or destroyed inappropriately.

The investigation found no record of specific allegations by Mr Dickens of child sex abuse by prominent public figures.

Upon completion of the investigation, the Home Office passed the full text of its interim report and final report, along with accompanying information and material, to the police for them to consider as part of their ongoing criminal investigations.

As Mark Sedwill has said, the investigator recorded that he had unrestricted access to Home Office records and he received full cooperation from Home Office officials. The investigator was satisfied that the Home Office passed all credible information about child abuse in the time period – from Mr Dickens and elsewhere – to the police so they could be investigated properly.

Mr Speaker, I believe that the Permanent Secretary did all the right things in listening to the allegations made by the Hon Member for West Bromwich East and ordering an independent investigation. I am confident that the work he commissioned was carried out in good faith. But I know that with allegations as serious as these, the public needs to have complete confidence in the integrity of the investigation’s findings.

So I can tell the House that I have today appointed Peter Wanless – the chief executive of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children – to lead a review not just of the investigation commissioned by Mark Sedwill but also how the police and prosecutors handled any related information that was handed to them. Peter Wanless will be supported in his work by an appropriate senior legal figure, who will be appointed by the Permanent Secretary. Where the findings of the review relate to the Director of Public Prosecutions, it will report to the Attorney General as well as to me.

I will ask the review team to advise my officials on what redactions to the full investigation report might be needed in order that, in the interests of transparency, it can be published without jeopardising any future criminal investigations or trials. I expect the review to conclude within eight to ten weeks, and I will place a copy of its terms of reference in the House Library today.

In addition to the allegations made by Geoffrey Dickens, there have also been allegations relating to an organisation called the Paedophile Information Exchange, a paedophile campaign group that was disbanded in 1984. In response to another query from the Hon Member for West Bromwich East, the Permanent Secretary commissioned another independent investigation in January this year into whether the Home Office had ever directly or indirectly funded PIE. That investigation concluded that the Home Office had not done so, and I will place a copy of the investigation’s findings in the House Library today. But, again, in order to ensure complete public confidence in this work, I have also asked Peter Wanless to look at this investigation as part of his review.

Mr Speaker, I now want to turn to public concern that a variety of public bodies and other important institutions have failed to take seriously their duty of care towards children. In recent years, we have seen appalling cases of organised and persistent child sex abuse. This includes abuse by celebrities like Jimmy Savile and Rolf Harris, as well as the systematic abuse of vulnerable girls in Derby, Rochdale, Oxford and other towns and cities. Some of these cases have exposed a failure by public bodies to take their duty of care seriously and some have shown that the organisations responsible for protecting children from abuse – including the police, social services and schools – have failed to work together properly.

That is why, in April 2013, the government established the National Group to tackle Sexual Violence Against Children and Vulnerable People, which is led by my Hon Friend the Minister for Crime Prevention. This cross-government group was established to learn the lessons from some of the cases I have mentioned and the resulting reviews and inquiries. As a result of its work, we now have better guidance for the police and prosecutors, new powers for the police to get information from hotels that are used for child sexual exploitation, and better identification of children at risk of exploitation through the use of local multi-agency safeguarding hubs. In the normal course of its work the Group will publish further proposals to protect children from abuse.

I know that in recent months many Members of the House, from all parties, have campaigned for an independent, overarching inquiry into historical allegations of child abuse. In my correspondence with the seven Members of Parliament who wrote to me about the campaign – the Hon Members for Birmingham Yardley, Brighton Pavilion, East Worthing and Shoreham, Richmond Park, Rochdale, Wells, and West Bromwich East – I made clear that the government did not rule out such an inquiry.

I can now tell the House that the government will establish an independent inquiry panel of experts in the law and child protection to consider whether public bodies – and other non-state institutions – have taken seriously their duty of care to protect children from sexual abuse. The inquiry panel will be chaired by an appropriately senior and experienced figure. It will begin its work as soon as possible after the appointment of the chairman and other members of the panel. Given the scope of its work, it is not likely to report before the general election – but I will make sure that it provides an update on its progress to Parliament before May next year. I will report back to the House when the inquiry panel chairman has been appointed and the full terms of reference have been agreed.

It will, like the inquiries into Hillsborough and the murder of Daniel Morgan, be a non-statutory panel inquiry. This means that it can begin its work sooner, and because the basis of its early work will be a review of documentary evidence rather than interviews with witnesses who might themselves still be subject to criminal investigations, it will be less likely to prejudice those investigations. But I want to be clear that the inquiry panel will have access to all the government papers, reviews and reports it needs. Subject to the constraints imposed by any criminal investigations, it will be free to call witnesses from organisations in the public sector, private sector and wider civil society. And I want to make clear that – if the inquiry panel chairman deems it necessary – the government is prepared to convert it into a full public inquiry in line with the Inquiries Act.

Mr Speaker, I began my statement by saying that I wanted to address the dual concern that in the past the Home Office failed to act on information it received, and, more broadly, that public bodies and other institutions have failed to protect children from sexual abuse. I believe that the measures I have announced today do address those concerns.

I also said I wanted the work we are doing to reflect three principles. That our priority must be the prosecution of the people behind these disgusting crimes. That wherever possible – and consistent with the need to prosecute – we will adopt a presumption of maximum transparency. And that where there has been a failure to protect children from abuse, we will expose it and we will learn from it. I believe that the measures announced today do reflect those important principles. And so I commend this statement to the House.

Read more about Peter Wanless’s review of departmental reviews.