Submitted by Carole Howlett, Deputy Assistant Commissioner, Metropolitan Police (CA 109)
(NB This submission was originally sent as a letter to Beverley Hughes MP, Home Office Minister, and was subsequently copied to the Committee)
Sex Offences Review
I am writing in my capacity as the lead ACPO officer in the Metropolitan Police on child protection issues, the ACPO lead nationally on combating child abuse on the internet and as a member of the Home Office Task Force on Child Protection on the Internet. The article in the Independent Newspaper of 23 November 2001, in which Lord Justice Woolf stated that many child abuse convictions could be unsafe, and recent press coverage suggesting that the Government is considering a 10 year statute of limitations for historic sexual offences committed against children, have prompted me to put pen to paper to address some of the issues raised.
There is no doubt that allegations of historical sexual abuse are difficult to investigate due to the length of time between the alleged event, realisation that an offence had occurred and disclosure to police. The background to such cases varies. Some come from people having apparently recovered memories of abuse emerging within the context of therapy, some through deployment of cold call methodology and some where the victim has delayed disclosure for personal reasons. In many cases, there is no independent witness to events and no forensic or medical evidence to support the allegation. The sole evidence is often testimony which may or may not lead to prosecution on the basis of the strength or weakness of the credibility of the victim and nature of the offence. Reluctance to proceed on the basis of childhood memories of historical events without supporting validation of the evidence can deny the victim a sense of justice, and there are no doubt genuine cases not being proceeded with. Conversely, evidence not obtained through validated and robust interview and investigative processes can be highly vulnerable to miscarriages of justice or at least unfairly mark those accused falsely.
The overriding principle for all child abuse investigations, whether current or historic, must be that the welfare/interests of the victim are paramount. Within this context, it is important that both legislators and law enforcement agencies are mindful that offences involving the sexual abuse of children are serious arrestable offences committed against the most vulnerable members of our society.
It is often the case that victims do not disclose abuse against them for many years. They may not have sufficient maturity or confidence to disclose sooner, or even have realised that they suffered abuse at all. If an individual, for example, were abused at the age of five years, the suggested 10 year statute of limitations would mean that disclosure would have to be made at the age of 15, when he/she is just beginning mature and desperate to fit in. Indeed, significant numbers of victims who have come to light in Metropolitan Police Service enquiries are aged between 30 to 40 years. Many victims, as a direct or indirect result of abuse, have become involved in crime, drug and alcohol abuse. Dealing with their subsequent disclosures and creating an environment where they have an opportunity to have their experiences listened to and taken notice of, can assist in changing this anti-social behaviour and help prevent crime. The court process and disclosure to police is an integral part of the healing process for many victims.
Lord Woolf suggests that child abuse allegations might be motivated by claims for compensation. In the experience of my officers, this is not the case. It is police practice not even to mention the criminal injuries compensation scheme until the conclusion of the enquiry. An extension to the time limit for notification of a criminal injuries compensation claim is arranged for each police operation so that victims are not told until the conclusion of the trial. We have found that a significant number of witnesses have no prior knowledge of their eligibility for such payments.
The human rights of both victims and offenders are obviously a key consideration, and such human rights do not expire after 10 years. It would, of course be crass to suggest that witnesses become dishonest simply because of the time that has elapsed since the alleged offence. Furthermore, a statute of limitations of 10 years could exclude cases where there is, for example, photographic or video evidence corroborating abuse of a child. A trait of many paedophiles is to record their offences to relive the moment and develop their deviant fantasies. A current operation, being dealt with by the Metropolitan Police Paedophile Unit, Operation Doorknock, has many examples of offences over 10 years old, that have been recorded in such a way, including rapes and indecent assaults. Paedophiles rarely stop offending. One recent example of an 84 year old man who, at this advanced age, attempted to bugger two young boys, proves the point. He received four years imprisonment and had a life long record of sexual offences against children. Perhaps key is the fact that significant numbers of accused persons do plead guilty and prevent victims from having to relive their abuse in the witness box.
In the Independent article, Lord Woolf comments "It may be that in some respects in relation to some sexual offences the balance has gone the wrong way already". It will not surprise you that I cannot agree with that remark. Not only, quite rightly, does the offence have to be proved beyond all reasonable doubt, but there are many checks and balances within the criminal justice system itself to safeguard against false allegations, including CPS review of the evidence, and the use of corroboration and similar fact evidence. Additionally, the police investigative process does not adopt a blanket "trawling" approach of any possible victim, but involves an intelligence led approach based upon enquiries. Great care is taken by my officers not to divulge information to the victim or to ask leading questions.
I thought you would be interested to know of a joint MPS, Institute of Psychiatry research project to assess the veracity of historical allegations of childhood sexual abuse made by adults concerning events allegedly occurring in childhood. The project is examining the difference between historical, genuine and false allegations of sexual assault in an attempt to provide investigating officer some practical guidance in the investigation of so called "recovered memories" and those where disclosure is delayed. It attempts to apply a scientific approach to validating the interview and investigation processes, develop appropriate case investigation models, and inform MPS strategies in the investigation of child sexual abuse. This may well address some of the concerns implicit in Lord Woolf's comments.
In February this year, as you will be aware, a new ACPO manual for detectives designed to enforce national standards and improve practice in this field will be published. This specifically addresses the issues raised by Lord Woolf, with the guidance, "Do not discuss compensation. Do not solicit or put pressure on individuals to co-operate or make a statement. Do not discuss other complainants". In addition, a new research team is being established by Chief Constable Terry Grange at the National Crime Faculty at the Police Staff College at Bramshill, to deliver national police protocols for all child abuse investigations. These additional checks and balances should help to provide reassurance to those who remain concerned about false allegations.
I hope that the above is helpful, but if I, or my officers, can assist further, perhaps by way of practical input to your deliberations and the sex offences review, please do not hesitate to contact me.