Examination of Witness (Questions 787-799)
MRS CLAIRE CURTIS-THOMAS MP
THURSDAY 20 JUNE 2002
787. Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to Mrs Claire Curtis-Thomas. Can I just say to Mrs Curtis-Thomas, our main object today is to focus on what needs to be done, since most of us have grasped the point there is probably a problem; but before we do that we do have a few preliminary questions. Perhaps I can start the ball rolling by just asking you how you became involved in this issue?
(Mrs Curtis-Thomas) In about 1998, three constituents came to see me; two came together. One was a gentleman who was a headteacher of three special needs schools, who had been arrested on several occasions and released, in association with these particular allegations. Another gentleman had, in fact, been arrested and was awaiting trial. And in the second visit a young woman came to see me who was working in one of these homes, saying that she would like to express her support for her colleagues, but she felt that if she did so she would become the subject of police inquiries herself. There are several motivations for people coming to see a Member of Parliament, and I said, and I have subsequently said, that I was not really interested in the outcome of any court proceedings, I was only interested in the integrity of the processes that led to the outcome of cases, but I would ask some Parliamentary Questions, in order to determine whether or not their comments had any degree of validity; and, in fact, I tabled my first Parliamentary Questions in relation to these cases in 1998. And, unfortunately, those concerned Operation Care; Operation Care turned out to be one of the three largest inquiries within the UK.
788. Is that the Merseyside one?
(Mrs Curtis-Thomas) It is, yes; and the scale of it gave me grave cause for concern.
789. Have you had other cases since then come to you from your own constituency?
(Mrs Curtis-Thomas) Yes, I have.
790. About how many altogether, would you say?
(Mrs Curtis-Thomas) About 20.
791. From your own constituency?
(Mrs Curtis-Thomas) Yes. And I was going to say, of course, some constituencies are the benefactors of special sorts of care homes for very troubled children; and, in fact, I have two of those care homes in my constituency and they have been there for a very, very long time. So I have quite a number of care workers who are both working in those establishments at this time and who have been retired from those establishments for many, many years.
792. And so about 20 of your constituents have been charged, or what?
(Mrs Curtis-Thomas) Identified as suspects, many of them charged, many of them subsequently arrested, then quite a number convicted, some who have appealed their conviction, and sort of the whole gamut of individuals that might arise within the criminal justice system.
793. And have you had any alleged victims of sexual abuse in children's homes come to you, from your constituency?
(Mrs Curtis-Thomas) No, I have not. I have had referrals and I have had letters from individuals who have been subject to abuse, but not directly from my constituency.
794. And how many MPs have you got in the All Party Group?
(Mrs Curtis-Thomas) I am afraid I cannot remember exactly, Mr Chairman.
795. About 40, is that a fair stab?
(Mrs Curtis-Thomas) Yes; but if you consider Members of the Lords, about 60.
796. Why did you feel it necessary to set up a Group?
(Mrs Curtis-Thomas) I had hoped that reasonable argument might persuade people that there was something amiss here, but I failed dismally, in terms of getting anybody, Ministers or civil servants, to be remotely interested in this subject. And there was another issue as well, which is, I had spoken to a number of people who had been instrumental in trying to change the processes within the criminal justice system, and they said to me, "If you don't handle this well, all you'll get is a backlash from various structures within the criminal justice system, and, instead of seeking to want to improve their processes, they will seek merely to defend the processes as they currently exist." Now I am far more interested in making things better than people sort of confirming a position and not being prepared to move from that; so I pursued an argument, a sort of gently, gently, you know, sort of quiet persuasion, talks, meetings with lots of people, but in the end I felt that perhaps I was not listened to simply because people thought I was a lone voice and therefore I could be dismissed. That was why I wrote to my colleagues and asked them if they might consider joining this group, so that I would no longer stand alone, as an individual with sort of a special interest, but be one of a much larger group of concern.
797. Would you have any idea how many cases of this sort there are, any global figure?
(Mrs Curtis-Thomas) I estimate, because, of course, Mr Chairman, I have no doubt colleagues will have read the Parliamentary Questions, were those statistics not collected; certainly there are some feelings, but I am not terribly keen on feelings, I think the reason we find ourselves here today is because there have been far too many feelings and not enough objective fact. So I would have to answer the question cautiously and say I think there are probably of the order of 5,000 individuals who are suspected of committing sex abuse crimes against children, and probably double the number of people who allege that they have had these crimes committed against them.
Chairman: Thank you.
798. What is the basis of your understanding that 75 per cent of the children that were in residential care over the last 30 years go on to engage in criminal activity?
(Mrs Curtis-Thomas) In fact, I say, I think I reference in my statement, that I am led to believe that it is 75 per cent. There have been a number of social studies, unfortunately, none of them formally published, or, in fact, in reference journals; but when I speak to care home owners, and when I have spoken to many prisoners in prison, they have arisen from the care sector. I am not aware of individuals who are prosecuting these cases who have not arisen from the care home sector. And I would like to further illustrate that point by referring you to the evidence that Peter Garsden gave, where he is, in fact, defending, or representing, 800 claimants, and he has attested that a substantial number of those claimants arise from the care home sector; and he is representing primarily Merseyside, Manchester and I think it is Lancashire; and if I look at the total number of figures that are passing through those three inquiries at the time, they equate approximately to the number of people that Peter Garsden is, in fact, representing.
799. Thank you. Does your All Party Group have any impression of the extent to which there was widespread sexual abuse in children's homes in past decades?
(Mrs Curtis-Thomas) I think there is no denying that there is a presumption that there have been sexual abuses, or abuses against children, in care homes, which has been left unchecked and unprosecuted for many, many years, and there is no doubt about that. I think people essentially in the Group are concerned not with whether or not there was or was not, but what are the processes used to determine whether or not there was or there was not.