Home Affairs CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Lynne Featherstone MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State [PI22]

At the Home Affairs Committee Inquiry’s evidence session on 22 May, I undertook to write to you about the Government’s plans for tackling child abuse linked to faith or belief, for example belief in witchcraft or spirit possession.

There has, as the Committee will be aware, been much media and public interest in child abuse cases in which the perpetrators believe the victim is a witch or has been possessed by evil spirits. There have been a number of previous high profile cases over the last few years where belief in supernatural forces has been a factor in the abuse of children, including that of Victoria Climbie.

The Department for Education hold the overall lead on child safeguarding issues and in February 2011, my Ministerial colleague the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Children and Families, Tim Loughton, committed to establishing a working group to tackle the issue of abuse linked to faith or belief. The group, which is comprised of partners from the community, faith and voluntary sectors as well as local statutory partners, the Home Office and the Department for Education (DfE), have developed an action plan of measures they believe will help address this issue. The plan is owned collectively by the partners and actions are being led by each of them, both at a local and national level. A number of organisations have already produced information and resources about child abuse linked to belief and the action plan will draw upon this existing good work. It is aimed to publish the action plan later in the Summer.

Although the level of violence involved in such cases is particularly shocking, these are nevertheless first and foremost cases of child abuse that fall within the police’s child protection and child abuse investigation responsibilities. However, child abuse linked to faith or cultural beliefs can have links to other abuse crimes including trafficking and domestic violence, and a successful approach to tackling the issue will need to address the linkages between these types of harm. There are also other forms of child abuse which take place within cultural and faith contexts, such as forced marriage and female genital mutilation, which local areas may benefit from addressing jointly.

Robust data on the prevalence of this type of abuse is extremely difficult to obtain. The most recent statistics nationally are from research into child abuse cases involving belief in witchcraft or spirit possession published in 2006.1

That research covered the period 2000–05 and found 38 cases involving 47 children which were relevant and sufficiently well documented. DfE have therefore commissioned a small scale research study to draw together what is already known about the issue and it is hoped to publish this research in the Autumn.

I further undertook to write to you in response to Bridget Phillipson’s statement (at 0482), that “various breaches by the Department for Work and Pensions, where staff had inappropriately accessed or passed on data to third parties, but that those breaches had not been reported to the Information Commissioner”.

I have raised this with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) who have provided me with the following information.

1.The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has published guidance to data controllers which covering the notification of data security breaches to the ICO. This guidance is published on the ICO’s website at the following address, but for convenience I attach a copy of the document. http://www.ico.gov.uk/for organisations/data protection/the guide/principle 7.aspx

2.The guidance explains that while there is no legal obligation in the Data Protection Act for data controllers to report breaches of security that result in loss, release or corruption of personal data, the Information Commissioner expects that serious breaches should be brought to the attention of his office. The term “Serious breaches” is not defined in the guidance, however certain criteria are expected to be applied by data controllers in assessing whether to report a particular incident. These criteria include an assessment as to the level of significant actual or potential harm to the data subject(s) concerned, the sensitivity of the personal data, and the volumes of individuals affected.

3.Bridget Phillipson made reference to the Freedom of Information response by the DWP that was itself mentioned in the Channel 4 Dispatches programme and which was screened on 14 May 2012. All the cases detailed in the response were dealt with by the Department in accordance with the Department’s disciplinary procedures. While the DWP takes its responsibilities to protect personal data extremely seriously in accordance with its statutory obligations, none of these particular cases amounted to a breach of data protection legislation of a sufficiently serious nature to require reporting to the ICO in accordance with the published guidance. The DWP have also asked me to point out that the same Freedom of Information response did actually provide details of all the cases that had been reported to the ICO in accordance with these procedures since 2007.

4.The DWP have also stated that they work very closely with the ICO to ensure that appropriate action is taken in cases where outsiders attempt to illegally procure personal data.

I trust that these responses are sufficient to answer the points raised.

June 2012

1 Child abuse linked to accusations of “possession” and “witchcraft”, Eleanor Stobart, 2006. Research commissioned by the Department for Education. www.education.gov.uk/publications/standard/publicationDetail/Page1/RR750

Prepared 5th July 2012