Examination of Witness (Questions 800-819)
MRS CLAIRE CURTIS-THOMAS MP
THURSDAY 20 JUNE 2002
800. David Rose told the Committee that over 50 of the 120 former care workers convicted in these cases of sexual abuse and serving prison sentences were innocent. Do you think it is possible there have been any miscarriages of justice on that scale, do you agree with him?
(Mrs Curtis-Thomas) I have examined the processes that are employed by the criminal justice system in these cases extensively and in detail, and I believe that the opportunity to abuse the processes is significant and that, if individuals choose to do so, the only outcome likely is a miscarriage of justice.
801. Would you agree with the over 50 of the 120, have you made any estimates in that direction?
(Mrs Curtis-Thomas) At the moment, I am looking at 20 cases where we believe there is an overt indication that there have been significant abuses of the criminal justice system. There are other cases where we think there has probably been an infringement of the criminal justice processes, but 20 cases where we feel reliably confident that there are aspects of those cases that would be of considerable concern to various parties.
802. Do you have a number of cases who have been referred to you or to your All Party Group where you do not think there has been a miscarriage and yet it has been portrayed that there is?
(Mrs Curtis-Thomas) Apart from receiving cases concerning historical sexual abuse, we have also received, of course, many cases of a domestic abuse nature; and, I am afraid, I have not researched those cases in detail or begun to compare and contrast how those are different from historical abuse cases, at this time. I know that they are subject to the same process, and therefore I must assume that if the investigation has been conducted in a similar manner then they are equally suspect.
803. David Rose said that, quote: "there is simply no basis at all anywhere in the scientific literature to suggest that a victim of sexual abuse is more likely to be dishonest;" in other words, that abuse leads to greater criminality in later life. Do you share that view?
(Mrs Curtis-Thomas) There is no academic literature that I can find which actually supports or disproves that view. I have asked the Home Office if they have conducted any investigations or research into the relationship between abused children and abusive adults, this is very topical, and there has been no such research actually carried out, and that concerns me enormously.
804. Your organisation is a lobby, that is perfectly legitimate, but, basically, first and foremost, it is a lobby on the basis that injustice has occurred to a number of people; would that be a correct description?
(Mrs Curtis-Thomas) Actually, within the terms of reference of the particular Group, it does not actually use the word "lobby", it says, I think it is, the All Party Group for Abuse Investigations, and looking at the criminal justice processes in relation to these cases. I do not think we actually start with the presumption that people are innocent, we start with the presumption that we must have robust processes, and that is what we are seeking to establish, and then everything else should look after itself.
805. Indeed, other colleagues, to other witnesses, have made the point that, of course, if innocent people are in prison, that is a terrible miscarriage of justice, like any other miscarriage of justice, and it is a situation which, obviously, one has the greatest sympathy with; but do you accept there has been widespread sexual abuse of children over the last 25, 30 years, in residential homes?
(Mrs Curtis-Thomas) I think it is how you define "widespread", actually; sexual abuse is just one of the abuses that have been perpetrated against children and young people.
806. It is monstrous, is it not, against children?
(Mrs Curtis-Thomas) There is absolutely no denying that whatsoever; and I think that, as a nation, we were guilty of ignoring the cries of children who were abused in institutions over many decades. And I think what we are trying to do now, I think what everybody is trying to do now, is to put right those wrongs, and in doing so I think there is an overzealous approach, on behalf of some people, who are well-meaning and well-intentioned but are abusing the process to deliver an outcome which they believe should have been delivered many years ago.
807. When we had the witnesses from the police, on Tuesday, just two days ago, they made the point, and it would be interesting to have your comment, Mrs Curtis-Thomas, on this aspect, they said, "if we are criticised now for being overzealous," they did not actually perhaps use the exact word "overzealous", but in essence this is what they were saying, "would we not have been criticised by other people for not having carried out investigations when we believed there was a basis for doing so?" As I say, would you like to comment on that?
(Mrs Curtis-Thomas) I have to say, I am absolutely delighted that the police have undertaken these inquiries, and they seem to be doing them in such a thorough way. However, I am concerned that that activity is only going on in certain parts of the country, in some parts of the country there have been only three people identified who have committed sex abuse, and, I said before, in fact, I am led to believe that the incidence of sex abuse is evenly distributed throughout the UK. If it is, then some police forces have undertaken this activity with great gusto, other police forces have not undertaken this activity with any degree of conviction whatsoever. If everybody that has been arrested and convicted is as they appear to be, then what we have in this country is a large number of really offensive sex offenders walking around these streets who have not yet been picked up. So I would like to see some continuity of approach, and we have not seen that yet. I would not criticise the police if I thought the processes that they were using were objective and could stand scrutiny and were fair, open and transparent; they are not, blatantly they are not.
808. So, if I understood you correctly, what you are saying is that the police have concentrated their activities in certain parts of the United Kingdom, but in other places, where quite likely there has been such sexual abuse of children in residential homes, the police have taken no action?
(Mrs Curtis-Thomas) Absolutely. They have chosen not to take any action.
809. Could you give any explanation, because it seems somewhat of a mystery to me, if not to my colleagues, why should the police have acted in certain areas though not in others, I do not quite understand the explanation?
(Mrs Curtis-Thomas) I think it is how close you were to the hot spots, the sex-abusing hot spots of the eighties, the late eighties and nineties. The North Wales case, for instance, North Wales, its co-location virtually with Manchester, with Liverpool; so I think that explains that one. If you look then at the Cleveland inquiries, up in the North East, you can see why there would be major sex abuse inquiries taking off there, which there have been. But, of course, in other parts of the country, if we move down towards Leicester, there is very little activity, because, historically, there has been very little activity; or it could be that the whole approach to how these cases are conducted in those areas does vary enormously.
810. It will be interesting to have your police comment on that. In the documentary evidence which was sent to us by one of the senior police officers who gave evidence on Tuesday, it said that of those persons charged with offences of sexual abuse, and who went to full proceedings in the Merseyside operation, some 50 per cent pleaded guilty; presumably they pleaded guilty because they were guilty?
(Mrs Curtis-Thomas) I have a number of Parliamentary Questions related to Operation Care, and, in fact, the statistics provided by the Merseyside police do not substantiate that; and I have the Parliamentary Question here, and it says "To ask the Solicitor-General how many of the cases referred to the CPS as part of Operation Care were (a) accepted and (b) refused; and what the main reasons for refusal were." And the answer is that the CPS accepted 181 cases from the police, accepted 59 of these cases, or approximately a third; of the third, 20 pleaded guilty, seven were convicted that initially pleaded innocent, three were acquitted, three discontinued and three stayed. So I am afraid I am not aware that there has been a significant change in the position, as far as operation is concerned; so, if this answer was given, which was last year, I would be happy if the situation had changed, but the Parliamentary Answer does not indicate that.
811. Could I just ask you, Mrs Curtis-Thomas, do you think the police and the CPS have improved the processes, in response to criticisms made by people like yourself over recent years?
(Mrs Curtis-Thomas) I hope the Committee is aware that the new guidelines in relation to these cases were published on 13 June. It is very lamentable, actually, that is two and a half years after I asked for them to be published, and it is two and a half years in which many people have gone down, or been sentenced and convicted for a very long term, against procedures which, I guess, did not match those guideline requirements. You will notice, in there, there has been a significant reference to the management of victims, and reference to victims in prisons. I have a real concern about how prisoners are interviewed by the police. There is reference to compensation, that the police must not refer to compensation. Having interviewed prisoners in prison, of course, financial gain is not always of interest to them, there are many more inducements the police can offer to an individual in prison, over and above money; in fact, helping the police is often seen as a very positive thing for a prisoner to do, for all sorts of reasons.
812. With a view to qualifying for early release, you mean, for example?
(Mrs Curtis-Thomas) It is not only early release, but a good word in, yes, early release, a good word in for parole, a good word in here, there and everywhere, "to improve your circumstances;" particularly relevant for serving sex offenders, of course, because some of the people that are in these cases have gone on to be sex offenders themselves. In order to establish whether or not there has been any improvement in the processes, I have looked at all the reports produced by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary since 1995, because I would rather hope that the auditing function of the police, in fact, would have looked at the effectiveness and efficiency of processes employed by the police in the execution of their work. I can identify no reports that actually look at the effectiveness of processes, or academic reports that have been commissioned to establish whether or not those processes are effective and actually deliver the results that we want. Then, when I have asked individual police authorities if they would be kind enough to let me have details of internal reviews, or if they could tell me what improvements have been instigated, as a consequence of their inquiries, the answer, well, I do get answers, because, of course, that information is not available to the public, it is certainly not available for my scrutiny, but, where it has been available, I have been told that they are perfectly satisfied with the procedures and see no reason to change. And, in fact, that was exactly the same situation in 1981, prior to the Sir Cyril Phillips report, which led to the tape-recording of statements from suspects; the police, prior to that Royal Commission, were equally comfortable with the way in which they behaved. They are not going to say, "Well, actually, we're not doing a terribly good job," are they; but I find no evidence which tells me anybody else has had a look at this and has found it to be wanting.
Chairman: Right. Now turning to possible changes, Mr Prosser.
813. We have heard of a lot of possible changes to the system and to the process, but if you were required to give us just one change, a priority change, what would that be?
(Mrs Curtis-Thomas) It would have to be the tape-recording of every interaction that takes place between the police and witnesses in these specific cases, and, by that, I mean cases where the only evidence that is going to be used in a court against another individual is the verbal testimony of an individual without any other corroborating evidence. That would be it; that is what I feel would improve the situation enormously and make it far more open, fair and transparent.
814. And what about some of the other changes we have heard about, what about-time-limiting prosecutions for sexual abuse cases and for rape cases, for instance?
(Mrs Curtis-Thomas) I am afraid I have done insufficient research in that particular area to be able to give you a considered response. My view is that, providing the processes used by the police when they are investigating these cases are as I have described then people should be allowed to bring these cases many years after they have taken place. Because I subscribe totally to the fact that people, for one reason or another, may be totally incapable of referring to this abuse, that may have taken place for many, many years, it does not make it any less real or any less valid. I think the system has to be robust when they choose to come forward with these allegations.
815. What is your view, and perhaps the view of your Group, of civil compensation and the effect that might have on witnesses?
(Mrs Curtis-Thomas) I have asked the question, you know, has any work been done to determine the impact of environmental factors on these witnesses, in these particular cases, so what studies have been carried out on the impact of conducting an interview in a prison with sort of three police officers and a guy that is down for 20 years, what is the impact of the possibility of compensation, or other favours, being awarded, and how does that influence what an individual says to you; what impact does the way the police frame their questions have on an individual, how powerful is this issue of suggestion.
816. What sorts of answers did you have?
(Mrs Curtis-Thomas) I believe that the environment in which these questions are taking place is absolutely crucial to the outcome of these interviews. I believe that the possibility of compensation can corrupt, does corrupt, and should be removed; but I think that day has gone. When I go to prisons and meet with prisoners, they all know about this, they all know that there is compensation available, they all know people who are on the compensation bandwagon; if you go up to Walton, you will find half a dozen people there at any one time who are all waiting to give evidence in Operation Care, all of them talking about what the advantage is going to be for them in terms of compensation. I would not feel so concerned if they were also talking about psychological services to help them recover from the trauma of these particular events, but, for many of them, actually, the psychological damage is not significant, but the opportunity to get recompense is very desirable. I presume the police have said, when they go to visit people, they do show photographs of perpetrators, they do show names, they do talk about the fact that they have already gained evidence, this person is a known sex offender, and they carry that information from person to person; undoubtedly, that has an impact upon these people. I have spoken to a prisoner who is also a sex offender and he said to me, "You know, when I've been interviewed and the police come to you," and if they came to me, if they came to any one of us and said, "see that man there; we know that he is a sex offender, and we would like you to help us nail him, because he's a really, really bad guy, and these people have already told us he's a very, very bad guy. Is there anything about him that you've found slightly sort of like this, anything that you could say to help us?" Now you can see it, can you not, when you go, "Well, yes, there was that time when. . . yes," and that is just absolutely appalling, it is appalling; because I think people are sort of caught up in something, they do not understand the consequences of what they are caught up in, they only realise that what they want to do is to help somebody that they have confidence in, and people have confidence in the police.
817. When the police witnesses came before us on Tuesday, we put some of these points to them, and, I have got to say, they strenuously rejected the reports, and they were quite robust really in saying they would not dream of allowing that to happen, and, although they were not sitting on the shoulders of the investigating officers, they believed that was way out of the ordinary. To what extent could you corroborate those stories with the witnesses you have met, and the victims and the witnesses you have met?
(Mrs Curtis-Thomas) Many of the sort of complainants in these cases are untouchable, as far as I am concerned, out of my reach. I have tried to contact them, but the likes of Peter Garsden stand between me and them, because, in fact, they are claiming civil litigation, so they do not want me to talk to them about how the case was conducted, how the police treated them. I am particularly interested in the fact the police are speaking, in my view, to many vulnerable victims, I want to know what the engagement looked like, and what sort of care was provided to this individual; but that is out of order for me. I can well understand the police's position, seeking to defend the execution of their role, but that was exactly the same position they adopted in 1981, prior to the Sir Cyril Phillips report, when they were seeking to defend the way in which they interviewed suspects. Then there was a notorious case, the Maxwell Confait case came, and after that they said, "I'm sorry, but there is great unease about the way in which these interviews are conducted." Subsequently, I have here the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice, there was a report here, carried out by a gentleman who is calledthe Baldwin Study, I would commend it to you. Baldwin carried out a review of the interviewing techniques used by the police, this was after the implementation of PACE, and even after the implementation of PACE, he said, this is his comment: "They entered the interview room with their minds made up, and treated the suspects with unjustified scepticism. The interview often descended into a repetitive series of questions; in several cases, one-word admissions were obtained, in response to leading questions." Baldwin also observed what he regarded as unduly aggressive treatment of suspects by police at interviews; although this happened in a relatively small number of cases, Baldwin felt unease about the outcome, particularly where juveniles and young persons were involved. "In another group of cases, suspects were offered unfair inducements to confess, particularly as regards the sentence they were likely to receive if they agreed to have offences taken into consideration. There were also three instances in which private exchanges between solicitors and suspects were video-recorded, despite the officer assuring both parties that the camera had been turned off." Now, 1981, we must have tape-recording of all suspects' interviews, and even after that has been instigated there have been major abuses of the interviewing process. I have asked questions, to say, what Baldwin-like study has been carried out on the interview of witnesses in these cases, where only their word leads to the conviction of an individual. No such comparative study has been done; and it should be done, it should be done in the context in which these statements are taken.
818. What about legal aid, do you think legal aid should continue to be available to victims?
(Mrs Curtis-Thomas) Yes; yes, I read the evidence, Mr Garsden's evidence, last week, and his admission that if legal aid were withdrawn he would go bang tomorrow. Well, some of us would not say that was such a bad thing. Certainly, I think legal aid is a distorting motivation for some solicitors. Mr Garsden has gone from the position where he says that all of his complainants are legitimate complainants to the point where 1 or 2 per cent, he said, may be making vexatious complaints. Well, I have to tell you, 1 or 2 per cent of 800 varies between eight and 16 people; if those eight to 16 people have been instrumental in putting innocent people into long-serving sentences then something needs to be done. I agree with, Howard Webber, in fact, made some comments about, the money is coming essentially from the same pot, and, therefore, why are not these cases referred to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority, where they would be dealt with far quicker, I think that was a point that you made, Mr Chairman. I think eight years to prosecute these particular cases and gain compensation does not do the victims any good whatsoever. I think a quick turnaround and the removal of legal aid might, in fact, improve this situation and make it less open to abuse.
819. And, finally, what is your view of providing anonymity to those who are accused until the end of the process?
(Mrs Curtis-Thomas) I think it was either Neil O'May or Chris Saltrese made the point that anonymity, while the issue is fairly fresh in people's minds, is one that we should preserve. However many years after the event, I think the right to have anonymity should be lifted.