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Sex Abuse Cases

9th June 2004

I agree that we need to consider sex and abuse cases in the round.

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.



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 is 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.


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. 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.

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