Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 980-999)



  980. Does everybody agree that recovered memories are generally false?
  (Mr Parker) I think it is very important to just emphasise what our current definition of recovered memory is, because I think it is a point that is often confused in the literature and if the academics cannot determine the difference between recovered memory and false memory, then how can members of society. My view is that one of the definitions of recovered memory is associated with the notion of repression. I know Dr Boakes will certainly be able to tell us about repression. However, there is false memory as well, which can be recovered or it can be produced by other mechanisms, not necessarily the therapeutic process.
  (Dr Thompson) It might be helpful to go deeper into that, but before we do, I think the Committee ought to be aware that in the six cases that I have reviewed, I have frequently seen that there has been a reference to a previous conversation with police officers in which the person concerned, the complainant or eventual complainant, has asked the police to be put in touch with a therapist or to receive counselling. And one of the first things that police officers have done is if a potential complainant asks for that, they give them a referral. This of course may take them out of the system for up to 12 months. They may be in therapy or counselling for that year or so and then come back and make a statement. So it may well be that some things are happening outside the police interview process, prior to collecting that statement and that recovered memory therapy might have occurred in those circumstances. Of course, in these cases you cannot necessarily get to that material or through disclosure get the therapist's notes. So that question is often left up in the air. Maybe, I do not know, Janet might help us here, it might be a good idea to make a very clear distinction between three kinds of memory. One of is the false one that Andrew has mentioned. People do make mistakes about what they remember. There are several famous studies. I think the most important one is the Challenger Shuttle Study in which people were asked "Where were you when you heard or saw about it?" All the accounts were taken down. In a longitudinal follow up, years later, they went back to these people, asked them to repeat again "Where were you when you saw it?" and the divergence between those accounts immediately after the event and several years later was quite dramatic. So a lot of people suffer from false memories. They make mistakes. There is suppression. That is where people do not like a thought and try to suppress it. They might have intrusive thoughts and they try to reduce those by thinking of something pleasant, thinking about something completely different, trying not to remember it, asking people not to raise the matter and so on. So they suppress their memory or try not to think about it. Repression is a completely different kettle of fish. It is claimed that it exists before but it is usually identified with Freudian psychoanalysis. The idea that any trauma, particularly those that happen in childhood, force the memory of that event, the experience of that event, to be buried somewhere in the mind, in the unconscious, and that it lies dormant in there waiting to be called forth by a therapist who has the skills. It is associated too with the belief—there have been studies and anything between 70 and 80 per cent psychotherapists believe this—that these memories, when they are recalled, are extremely accurate. This of course fails to take into account two things; one, what research psychologists have achieved in their study of memory. All memory, to a greater or lesser extent, is an act of construction when you call that memory forth and it does not come up like some shot on a video camera that is pristine and exactly how it happened. In between suppressing things and wanting to forget them, in between trying to deal with traumas—and I would disagree, I do not believe that repression exists—people can be very mistaken about what happened. If you want, I do have several alternative explanations through my work on those six cases as to where alternative memories of events can actually come from.

  981. Yes. I do not want to go into too much detail here because I do not think it is a very large part of the problem we are dealing with. I just want to check with you, does anyone disagree that we would be right to be sceptical of someone saying that they have undergone recovered memory? Does anyone disagree with that?
  (Professor Gudjonsson) No.

   Chairman: No? Let us move on from there. Mrs Watkinson has some further questions.

Angela Watkinson

  982. I just preface my question with a comment that has occurred earlier in this investigation about the lack of regulation in the interactions between the police investigating and adult witnesses when the events are alleged to have occurred 10 or 20 years ago and the fact that a witness statement gives no hint of police involvement and, in fact, reads as though it is a narrative of the witness alone. So just bearing that in mind, could I address my questions first to Professor Gudjonsson. Would you support the view that the police plant suggestions, producing narratives that fit their case rather than the truth?
  (Professor Gudjonsson) No. As a general statement, I do not think I can agree with that. Of course, on occasions, that is the case and I have seen it happen, but generally speaking, as a general statement, I cannot support that view.

  983. In that case, how is it possible for the police to produce statements from ten or more complainants of sexual abuse against the same individual if there is no substance to those complaints?
  (Professor Gudjonsson) If there is no substance, there may well be substance to the complaint. I just want to make sure I got your question. As I understand it, my view is that the police are not generally implanting false memories or distortions into people's testimony. That is my assumption and that is my view. Now, when the police are interviewing several people from a very long time ago, obviously there are problems and obviously it depends on the circumstances because it may well be that the event has been restored to memory and may have been even rehearsed. There may be something that was told to someone else a long time ago or even written about. And so obviously you cannot just say just because of time delay that immediately means the evidence cannot be supported. One has to look at the circumstances and the nature of that evidence, but it makes it more difficult when you are going back many years because memory does fade with time and obviously if the event is very significant and has been rehearsed, that makes it easier, but as a general rule memory does deteriorate and it makes the job of the police much more difficult when you are going back ten, 15, 20 years.

  984. Are you aware of many cases where the complainant appears to have had a genuine memory of abuse but is objectively mistaken as to the identity of the abuser?
  (Professor Gudjonsson) Yes. This is called source memory error. Of course, it may happen that the abuse has taken place and the source of it is that people are remembering the wrong individual or even a source error can occur in relation to fantasy. So even if there has been some kind of a fantasy or an imagination about it, that can also be mis-attributed to a real event. There have been important cases of people who have made such attribution errors, so they do sometimes happen.

  985. But this is a genuine error?
  (Professor Gudjonsson) No. I think that source errors are commonly known to happen, but if you look at the practice, do source errors commonly occur in cases of sexual abuse, I do not know. This is something that has to be considered on the basis of each case, but I cannot say that this is a general problem and it is a very extensive problem. It is something that has been known to happen on occasions, but I do not know how extensive this kind of error is likely to occur.


  986. Does anybody else want to comment on that? You do not all need to, but if somebody has got something to add—
  (Dr Thompson) I definitely would. I think that in one of the six cases, we do possibly have an error in which the description of the accused did not fit, but would appear to have—what shall we say—described another person who was working at that institution. Their vehicles were also confused. It is a matter of the colour of a van, blue or white, but blue was clearly made and so it is the other member of staff. And also, the social practices, the normal ones, we are not talking about the allegations of sexual assault here, that were attributed to the accused would appear, when you look at all the other information that was supplied by the other complainants and those in unused statements, it would appear that one of the major complainants made a mistake and attributed certain abusive acts to the wrong person.

Mr Prosser

  987. I want to ask you about the possibility of various police practices like "trawling", generating unreliable evidence. It is a rather structured question, so I am going to give you a whole number of anecdotal incidents we have been supplied with here and ask you whether each of them, in turn, gives a low, medium or high risk of evidence contamination. One of the practices we have heard about is the sending out of a general letter to all former residents of institutions that clearly states that the police are investigating and what sort of evidence they are looking for. One of the examples we have been given is a letter which says something like "We are conducting an investigation into allegations of abuse at care homes which occurred a number of years ago" and we have had other examples. How would you rate that practice in terms of its likelihood to generate false evidence?
  (Mr Parker) It depends what the question is. If it is a statement of fact that the police are investigating this, what is the purpose of the enquiry on which the letter is based? Is the purpose to find other witnesses who have been mentioned in a complainant's statement as having relevant evidence that could support or corroborate an allegation or is the enquiry one of a general nature such as a blanket search for people who were present or resident in the home at that time? It depends very much on what the question is. I think the issue of "trawling" and whether it leads to false allegations being made relates to people coming forward with allegations before they are interviewed. Just taking on your point about the interview process. The police service and police officers only generally interview people once an allegation has been put. So the process of the interview itself would not necessarily lead to false allegations. It may lead to further memories. But going back to "trawling", generally I would say it depends on the circumstances and it depends on the nature of the enquiry.

  988. That first example I gave you was of a general nature. So if it was general—
  (Mr Parker) If you are asking whether that would be likely to lead to false allegations, not in itself, no.
  (Dr Thompson) I would concur with that. I have seen several of these letters. They are of the most general kind. They did not say what the investigation was looking for, merely that an investigation into a care home was taking place and they would like to know if the person receiving the letter could furnish them with any information. So it was a general invitation. But I think you have to put it within context. In South Wales, for example, such letters would have been circulating and sent out to the ten per cent, or whatever, at the same time as you have lots of television programmes telling everybody what is going on and that in North Wales they have caught all these perverts. So in those circumstances you have a difficulty. Within the context in which it occurs now, you could create a problem. People could say "Ah, our number has come up. It is our care home now. What can we say?" It would always be possible that someone seeking to gain an advantage, jump on the band wagon, could take an innocuous ordinary letter, a general invitation, but within the context know exactly the kind of questions or issues that are going to be raised because of the wider publicity. It is a good argument that when you have multiple cases of any kind, and whether it was satanic abuse, which I was doing ten, 12 years ago, whether it is care homes now, you quash any publicity until that inquiry is over.

  989. I move to some more specific examples. If attached to that general enquiry there is an attachment which says words to the effect "Do you consider that you were a victim of abuse while at school or in care? If yes, was it (a) sexual abuse, or (b) serious physical abuse?" How would you rate that sort of element in a letter in terms of its effect on evidence?
  (Mr Parker) From my perspective, that is clearly an invitation to make an allegation. I do not think anybody could interpret it any other way. Whether those allegations that do come out of such an enquiry are false or genuine or mistaken in some way, bearing on what we know about memory over time and decay, would be determined in an investigation and if the investigation is structured in such a way that it takes account of memories from historical accounts, then the truth will out, hopefully.

  990. But you have suggested in the first part of your answer that there is the danger that you could be eliciting.
  (Mr Parker) Yes, but that is not to say that there is proof. That is why we have the investigation. As soon as an allegation is made, if someone comes forward with an allegation, then that is subject to an investigation which would determine the strength of evidence which would prove or disprove the allegation. It is on the basis of the structure of the investigation whether we get justice or there is a miscarriage of justice.
  (Dr Thompson) I would concur. It would depend how well that investigation is conducted, how well it is reviewed, what the caveats are, what the criteria are. But even that kind of letter, I think one would have to be fair to police forces in this country, while it may open the door to a false allegation, it is not an incitement per se to making a false allegation.
  (Mr Parker) Absolutely.
  (Dr Thompson) It is an invitation to explain what has happened to you or not what has happened to you. It is obviously trying to put people in boxes to begin with to aid the investigation process, maybe reduce the cost of the investigation. Put the sex assaulted people over there, put the neglect people over there, put the physical violence people over there and put the people who were caned, who we are not going to prosecute, in a fourth box. I can understand that. If I can give you an analogy, you can see how different it could be. If a police force was to send a letter similar to that to parents who have school children where a child has, say, been sexually assaulted or it is alleged they have been sexually assaulted by a janitor or a cleaner or whatever at the school, that would be a different kettle of fish because that would panic parents who would then begin to question their children ad nauseam until they began to get generated false allegations. You have to have someone who wishes to make a false claim or a false allegation. The police themselves cannot make those people make a false allegation. You have to wish to do that.
  (Professor Gudjonsson) But I think there is an element of, if the police are interviewing people to confirm whether an allegation has taken place. For instance, if they go to siblings and say "Your sister has told me that your father has been abusing her for a number of years and has he done the same to you?" That is very leading and I think that is potentially quite dangerous when witnesses are approached in that particular way. So there is an element of danger there.
  (Dr Thompson) There is definitely a difficulty here, in these cases, of police seeking corroboration. I hope to be able to clear up a point that has obviously been troubling you and some witnesses in the past, as to how people can have completely different versions of apparently the same event. And in certain circumstances, Professor, that is precisely what is happening. When they are going to someone deliberately to see if an allegation made by someone else can be corroborated by a second, a third or a fourth party, I think that is where the problems really occur, not necessarily with those opening letters.

  991. My next example is very much along the lines of the Professor's suggestion. How do you feel about the circumstance where, during the police investigation looking for evidence, the police makes the suggestion or actually tells the witness that a certain character has already been accused by other witnesses of particular specific offences? That is a very high risk factor.
  (Professor Gudjonsson) I think that should be addressed, considered and thought about very carefully by the police, because first of all they should be aware of the extent to which that might mislead the witness. So the first thing to do, for them, is to be aware of the possible impact of it. So they have to consider it. Whether they should not ever do it or whether they can find an alternative way of doing it is a separate issue. But I do think it presents problems when you are suggesting to somebody that they themselves could potentially have been the victim, like in a household or in a care home, when somebody says "A member of people here have made allegations against a particular care worker. What about you? Has he assaulted you on a number of occasions?" or anything like that. I think I would try to avoid, if I was advising the police, that kind of situation, that kind of scenario. I do not know how the police, practically, would overcome that. Would you like to comment?
  (Mr Parker) I think generally there is no standard answer to that in terms of approach. It depends on the dynamics of the investigation, the need, what other information is available and what investigation there is that might identify a group of people as being potential witnesses. I think the approach needs to be thought about around the particular inquiry. I do not think there is a general approach.
  (Dr Thompson) You could definitely imagine a scenario, can you not? You are asking people to remember what happened 20 years ago. Sometimes they may have been seven to ten, they may be ten to 14, 14 to 16. They may be in a large institution, several hundred boys, a couple of hundred staff, lots of temporary care staff, night wardens and so on. And imagine a night warden was doing something and there were lots of temporary night wardens. Over the period of institutionalisation, that person may have come across six or seven temporary night staff just on their house alone, let alone if they moved houses. How are they going to remember who was who until they have got a complete list? If someone comes in immediately and says "This investigation is homing down on Mr X or Miss Y" it is quite possible, of course, that they then might attribute events that happened, rumours that they heard in the past that they were told 20 years ago, to the person who is now in the frame. I would think it is actually dangerous to tell yourself, particularly when you are starting that kind of investigation, "We are looking at Mr X". I do not think you should do that at all.
  (Dr Boakes) I would add to that that some of the people who make complaints are psychiatrically vulnerable at the time that they do it. And this kind of scenario that we have been describing—you get somebody who goes away, who starts to worry and to wonder and then perhaps has a nightmare. And that becomes the basis for entirely false memories. So they are not necessarily making false allegations because they are lying, but because actually a process of self belief and self induction takes place. And I have certainly come across that. It may not be a very widespread problem, but I think that it can and it does occur.
  (Dr Thompson) Operation Ozone definitely cornered a couple of real perpetrators who had very—


  992. Remind us where that was.
  (Dr Thompson) Sorry. That was up in Warrington. It has been referred to as the "Van under the bridge" case and that is the man I am thinking of too. He would have been a further accused. They had two perpetrators. Now what is interesting, as I reviewed that case, is that the MO that was being described to this man, the third man, the van under the bridge man, was very similar, extremely similar to two people who everybody agrees were guilty of sexual assault. What is intriguing, however, is that none of the complainants could remember exactly when this person was on duty, which was every Thursday night and very, very occasionally at weekends in the afternoon. No, according to these complainants, this person worked on Mondays, Thursdays, Wednesdays, or weekends at certain times. If that information was true, they are clearly identifying the wrong person. But no attempt seems to have been made to recover the records or compare these complainantss descriptions of when these events took place. Likewise, that person, during the day, worked at another school. He was only working on Thursday nights as a temporary houseparent to do that institution a favour. He was not there the rest of the week. And yet, it would appear that some of the complainants assumed that he worked all night because they give elaborate descriptions of going to his house and getting up to all sorts of shenanigans during the day time when it can be proven that this person was elsewhere, teaching in his real job in another school. And so it is quite possible, once again, that because of what we have talked about previously, people are, if they are telling the truth, identifying the wrong suspect. And unfortunately, in that case, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that person was actually convicted.

Mr Prosser

  993. Does Mr Parker agree with that? You have got quite a strong statement in terms of the dangers of—
  (Mr Parker) Absolutely, yes. There are clearly dangers there and they need to be taken into consideration.


  994. So the big danger here is not so much people making things up, as mistaken identity?
  (Mr Parker) Mistaken identity, mistaken context or situation. Memories can be incorrect in many different ways; settings, activities or protagonists involved.

  995. And the longer the period that has elapsed, the greater the possibility of mistaken identity?
  (Mr Parker) Well, the greater the effective delay, or rather, decay on the memory, certainly.
  (Dr Thompson) If you were looking at certain aspects in isolation, it would be very difficult to say someone has simply forgotten the layout of the institution. Imagine if you are moving up through a series of ages in a care home and it has got several houses. And you go to different parts of the grounds and you go to different houses, as you go through your career in that institution. At some time, 20 years later on, you may get confused about the corridors, the locked doors, who was where, who was working with who, who the house parents were because, of course, they get promoted, they get swapped around the houses too. It could be extremely confusing. One of the unfortunate aspects of these cases, of course, is that a lot of the records are destroyed as boundary changes occurred and things like that took place and so you could not always check the records. Though it interesting, although I have only done six cases, it would appear, particularly when I hear about others, that the more records you have, the more likely it is that a false allegation is not going to succeed in the court because you then have some tangible evidence to deal with. Another problem in these cases, I think, possibly because of time or other reasons, is that the police officers concerned have not had the time, it does not look like the CPS has had the time before they put the case to court, to go back and check all the logistical details. I have seen accounts of people who are supposed to have been locked in rooms where there is no space in that room because it is full of water tanks. You could not have stayed in that room. And so on. And it is quite clear that, in some cases where people are adding details, they are picking parts of institutions that were usually out of bounds and claiming things occurred there, that if you look at the logistical details, could not have existed. But it is difficult to separate those unless, of course, you have all the records.

Mr Prosser

  996. I want to stay mostly on the actual investigation practices, rather than what comes afterwards in proving or disproving matter. Can we take it that the dangers you have expressed with regard to naming an individual would also be the case if a police officer showed a photograph of an individual to a witness?
  (Mr Parker) I have got some problems with the question and the theme that you are developing. I think my difficulty with it is that it seeks to ask us to generalise when I do not think it is possible to generalise in all cases that certain circumstances and certain methods are wrong or right. In certain circumstances, the showing of a photograph to be able to identify people present at a time may be wholly appropriate.

  997. But if the police officer says this fellow has been accused of X, Y and Z—
  (Mr Parker) Absolutely. It depends what the nature of the inquiry was. Back to my original point, the first part of your question, it depends what piece of information we are seeking to obtain by going down this line of enquiry. I think to generalise all cases of historical abuse on the basis of a generalised assumption whether it would be risky or not risky to approach or use a certain method is difficult.

  998. But that means it is almost impossible to devise any coherent guidelines as to the way those investigations are conducted, does it not?
  (Mr Parker) I know Dr Thompson is hoping to go onto how possible investigative processes could be tuned to be able to provide officers with the means by which they can determine what is an appropriate approach or not and I know that I may have some comments about that as well.

  Chairman: We will come to that in due course.

Mr Prosser

  999. A few more examples; what about the example of the investigating officer who says to a potential witness who has not made any allegations that if a certain form of abuse has been committed against him or her, then there is compensation to be sought? Would that be acceptable at all under any circumstances?
  (Mr Parker) No, none whatsoever. The police service is not in the business of offering compensation.


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