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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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Child Protection – shining a light

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The following is the speech Meg gave to start the debate she initiated in Westminster Hall.

Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op): Child protection scandals of recent years have generated a lot of media coverage, putting the sexual abuse of children in the spotlight. However, as we know, the issue is not confined to history, and nor does it involve only celebrities as perpetrators.

Children are still being abused by family members, by their peers and in institutions that are meant to care for them. The focus for professionals, politicians, the media and the public must be on the children who are suffering now. We must shine a light on what sexual abuse is, where it takes place, what can be done to prevent it and how we can support abused children.

We know that 90% of children who have suffered sexual abuse have been abused by someone they know, with the vast majority of abuse taking place in the home. In 2012-13, the ChildLine service run by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) found that nearly half the young people who rang about sexual abuse said the perpetrator was a family member.

One teenage boy said:

“I often think about killing myself because of what my brother does to me. He has been physically and sexually abusing me for years. It makes me wish my life would end. I’ve told my parents about what my brother does to me but they’ve done nothing—I don’t understand. I feel so depressed.”

Social workers, teachers and other practitioners must be trained to recognise the indicators of intra-familial sexual abuse, know how to communicate with the child, and give them space and time to explain what has happened.

Abuse in young people’s romantic relationships appears also to be increasing, as does sexual coercion within gangs and groups of young people. The number of reported sex offences by those under 18 has risen by 38% since 2009-10 and two thirds of sexual abuse is perpetrated by under-18s.

David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): I congratulate the hon. Lady on obtaining the debate. Can she clarify something? There is no single piece of legislation on child protection, but numerous laws and items of guidance; so should things remain that way, or should we change them? It is a horrendous situation when children are abused.

Meg Munn: That is a complicated area and I was not going to address it specifically today. Probably, rather than throwing everything up in the air again, we need very clear guidance. I know that the Government have been seeking to provide that, but there is always a need to keep it under review and seek ever greater clarity.

To return to the question of sexual abuse within relationships, one young girl said:

“My boyfriend was really abusive to me and we used to get into massive fights and stuff. The other week it went a bit further and he forced me to do sexual things to him that I didn’t want to do. I’m terrified of him and I don’t want to see him again. I don’t want to tell the police about it because I’m scared of what might happen. I talked to my teacher about it and she just told me she would catch up with me later about it but never did.”

The Jimmy Savile scandal about the extent of abuse in institutions shocked the nation. It highlighted the importance of adults being able to report concerns they have about children to the relevant authorities. Research has shown that even when individuals have a concern they often take no action, fearing that they will not be believed or taken seriously.

The dynamics of power and secrecy so often present in incidents of abuse are magnified within an institutional setting. Those factors, combined with the often hierarchical nature of institutions, make it even more important that there should be strong safeguarding policies alongside a clear culture of communicating with and listening to children.

One child said:

“I really struggle to talk to anyone about being sexually abused. It happened for a few years so I feel like it took my childhood away. I feel really ashamed that it happened to me—I’m unable to cope. I want some support but I don’t know what kind of support I need or what will even help. I just can’t carry on like this.”

That boy was aged 17.

Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab): My hon. Friend will recall the case of Baby Daniel, in Coventry, about 18 months ago. Something struck me, to do with not only child abuse but child health matters; I have always thought that perhaps someone from outside the school setting, with a medical background, could look at a cluster of schools and look for the signs of abuse going on, whether physical or medical. What does my hon. Friend think about that?

Meg Munn: The heart of the issue is for there to be a greater number of people with an understanding of child abuse and what to look for. A particular aspect of that is not immediately thinking that something is wrong with the child. Daniel, obviously, was very young, but sometimes older children are treated as naughty or difficult. The distress and the issues that come up can be indicators that all might not be well within the family.

In autumn 2013, the Child Protection All-Party Parliamentary Group launched a seminar series on the three areas I have just outlined:

·        intra-familial abuse;

·      peer-to-peer sexual abuse, including young people’s harmful sexual behaviour; and

·        prevention of child sexual abuse within institutions.

We invited experts and front-line practitioners to share their knowledge with parliamentarians so that we could better understand what needs to be done to improve support to children who have experienced sexual abuse and to prevent it from happening in the future.

However, the most powerful testimony was listening to the experiences of children who had been sexually abused.

We recognise that there has been welcome progress in recent years, but we are concerned that the Government are not addressing the issue holistically. Our findings show that the complicated relationship between different forms of abuse necessitates a unified response. That is not currently happening. The All-Party Group fears that without a clear, coherent approach that links work across Departments, children will not receive the support they require, and that opportunities to prevent problems are being missed.

I am grateful to the Children’s Minister for the recent meeting to discuss the report and for his commitment to consider our concern. Our report outlined six key recommendations that would, I believe, bring the focus back to all aspects of child sexual abuse, and promote a clear and consistent approach to protecting children and young people.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): My hon. Friend knows as well as I do that ChildLine, which has been going for some years, has been a good influence. Does she believe that a neutral child line in every local authority would help to bridge the gap for children who are terrified of talking to anyone?

Meg Munn: ChildLine certainly makes it much easier for children to raise the issue. The work it does in providing an ear for children is the right way forward. I am not sure whether it would be appropriate for every local authority to have a child line. Some local authorities have in the past considered a phone number providing a complaints system for children being cared for within the authority.

I agree that it is an enormously important area. We did not consider it this time in our report but it would be good to examine best practice and what happens in local authorities that investigate complaints they receive from children. Perhaps the Minister will comment on that.

The report and recommendations are available in hard copy and also, thanks to the NSPCC, on its website.

The recommendations must be set in the context of greater interministerial working, with action plans for all areas to ensure that every child who has experienced sexual abuse gets the support they need. It is only in that context of a joined-up action plan that a truly preventive model can be developed.

The recommendations are:

·        for a review of the information-sharing guidelines issued in 2009;

·        for the Home Office national working group on sexual violence against children and vulnerable people to prioritise the issue of harmful sexual behaviour—defined as abuse by children and young people against other children and young people;

·        for the Department for Education to work with education providers and local safeguarding children boards to make sure that priority is given to specialised sexual abuse training for social workers and teachers;

·        for better and more consistent support for victims of child sexual abuse to be available, from disclosure through the entire court process and beyond into therapeutic support;

·        for the Government to improve whistleblowing processes by promoting the whistleblowing code of practice and improving training and support for professionals; and

·        for the Government to work with professional disciplinary bodies and other expert bodies to consider forms of institutional duty on leaders of institutions to report allegations of abuse.

I know that the Minister is committed to developing an effective service and therefore I ask for his response to the recommendations.

Finally, I want to talk briefly about the Government’s recent consultation on allowing greater outsourcing or delegation of children’s services. The All-Party Group did not consider that, so I am giving my personal views.

Most of the responses to the consultation raised the issue of privatisation and seeking profit out of child protection services. I welcome the Government’s speedy response that the range of functions in question can be delegated only to non-profit-making organisations. I recognise that many services are already provided by such organisations, and that that can be beneficial.

However, there is a big difference between providing therapeutic services to children and being responsible for the investigation of suspected child abuse. The Minister has been clear in parliamentary answers to me that local authorities will continue to be responsible for child protection investigations even if they delegate them to someone else, and will therefore remain responsible for quality. I caution about going down that route, however.

Reviews into the deaths of children over the past four decades identify the same key contributors: poor communication and sharing of information. Even more problematic is the point at which a case is referred from one local authority to another—a danger point for children and for continuity of service.

Surely delegation of that responsibility would exacerbate the risks, building in another layer of accountability, monitoring and checking. I ask the Minister to consider the special nature of child protection investigations.

Mr Sheerman: On that point, does my hon. Friend agree that in children protection we want the best service possible? That is usually delivered by a locally and democratically accountable children’s service, maintained by highly skilled and highly trained professionals who are rewarded, led and managed well. It is about having a culture of excellence. Does she agree that the designs to introduce outsourcing could destroy that culture?

Meg Munn: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, who makes an important point. I know that the Minister is concerned when local authorities do not deliver that high standard.

I believe strongly that this sector is the responsibility of local authorities, and that if they are failing, that should be dealt with not by delegation but by the kind of action the Government have taken in various situations. I am not judging those particular situations—it is not for me to do so—but I believe that if there is an issue with local authority services in child protection investigations it should be dealt with through the offices of the Children’s Minister and not through delegation.

Mrs Emma Lewell-Buck (South Shields) (Lab): My hon. Friend mentioned that in the Minister’s response to her he stated that non-profit organisations would be involved. Was he explicit about which organisations those would be?

I have worked in a lot of local authority child protection teams, and know the level of expertise that is there. I am struggling to see what expertise there would be in non-profit organisations.

Meg Munn: I was referring at that point to the Government’s response to the consultation, which as I understand it relates to the whole range of services that could be delegated. I am sure my hon. Friend will know of good examples of therapeutic services, for example, being run well by charities and third-party organisations. But responsibility for child protection investigations is an entirely different thing. I put it to the Minister that that should be exempted from further delegation.

I suggest that the Government avoid regulating in haste and ensure that there is fuller consultation on the draft regulations. The consultation itself was only six weeks long. The opportunity for thorough consideration must not be lost. I also suggest to the Minister that the regulations should be subject to the affirmative procedure to ensure that Parliament has the opportunity to scrutinise this important area of work properly.

The full report and recommendations are here:



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