Home affairs - Minutes of EvidenceHC 68

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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Home Affairs Committee

on Tuesday 11 December 2012

Members present:

Keith Vaz (Chair)

Nicola Blackwood

Michael Ellis

Dr Julian Huppert

Steve McCabe

Bridget Phillipson

Mark Reckless

Karl Turner

Mr David Winnick


Examination of Witness

Witness: Sue Berelowitz, Deputy Children’s Commissioner, gave evidence.

Q672 Chair: Deputy Commissioner, thank you very much for coming to see the Committee today. Could I call the Committee to order and refer everyone present to the Register of Members’ interests where the interests of the Members of this Committee are noted?

Deputy Commissioner, you have now published your longawaited report into child exploitation. Thank you for the thoroughness of this report and for agreeing to come before the Committee so soon after it has been published. You have given us some staggering figures: according to your report, 16,500 children were at risk of sexual exploitation and 2,409 had been exploited in a 40month period. Does this stack up with what you said to us last time, that there is child abuse in every town and village and city in the country?

Sue Berelowitz: I am afraid it does. To be honest, I did not know what the figures were going to be. It would have been wrong of me or the inquiry panel to anticipate them and we came at this with a completely open mind. The figures are as they are and, if anything, they are an undercounting. They are actual figures of actual children, because we have the initials and dates of birth of each of those 2,409 children plus the 16,500. The reason I say they are if anything an undercounting is that although we had a fantastic response to our request for evidence, nonetheless, there were two local authorities and other agencies that did not respond, which included, for example, one very large metropolitan area, so it will be a undercounting.

Q673 Chair: Was that metropolitan area London? We have had the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis in to see us, and we talked to him about Rochdale and south Yorkshire, Rotherham in particular. I questioned why there were not figures for the Metropolitan Police, and he tended to indicate to this Committee that he did not feel that the numbers justified it. He is not saying it is not happening but the Rochdale and Rotherham figures are huge in comparison to what is happening in the Metropolitan Police area. Are you surprised at that? Were they the authority that did not give you the figures?

Sue Berelowitz: Strictly speaking, because of the strict confidentiality and ethical framework around this inquiry, I should not be saying anything about which agencies did and which did not, but I can tell you it was not London.

Q674 Chair: You must have some figures for London.

Sue Berelowitz: I cannot reveal which figures relate to which region. We are in discussion with police forces around the country, and indeed I am scheduled to have a conversation with the Metropolitan Commissioner on Friday of this week. As you will be aware, there has not been the same number of prosecutions in London as there have been in other parts of the country. Of course that is of interest, and we are very keen that the Met follows through on the recommendations. One recommendation includes the Met and other police forces mapping out all the girls who are gang-associated, because they are all very high risk.

Q675 Chair: One of the comments made in the newspapers, which I am sure was brought to your attention, were Government sources in one newspaper, the Daily Telegraph, which said on 20 November that the report was, "Hysterical and half baked". I am sure you saw that. I reacted in the same way you did because, of course, if it is a source, you do not know who it is; you do not even know whether someone said it or not. Were you surprised to see criticisms of that kind?

Sue Berelowitz: What I would say to that is these are very, very deeply uncomfortable matters. It does not surprise me that for some people they are so uncomfortable that they can hardly bear to look at them. The report is absolutely factual. We have stuck rigorously to the evidence we have gathered. I am very confident that it is sound and that it is robust, but I do appreciate that it is hard-hitting. What I can say to you and the Committee is that we have held back from publishing some of the truly harrowing accounts that we have listened to. I have listened to children telling me the most harrowing things I have ever heard in my whole professional career.

Q676 Chair: Let us deal with the race issue. Other witnesses, like Andrew Norfolk, have welcomed your report and have said that the report is actually very, very helpful in terms of the information given. However, he feels that you have missed the boat as far as race is concerned as, for example, the statistics point out that people of British-Pakistani origin are more likely to be represented in grooming. But you have been extremely clear on this. You have set your face against saying that race is a factor in respect of the grooming of young girls.

Sue Berelowitz: The single most important common denominator across all perpetrators is that they are male, which is not the same as saying every man is a perpetrator. Those are very different things. That is the most important and salient single common denominator.

In terms of perpetrators, the evidence in the report is limited because what we were sent was incomplete. Unfortunately, police forces and other agencies do not gather very detailed data around the profiles of perpetrators. That is why we have made that recommendation in the report. To give you some figures: in terms of the evidence submitted on perpetrators, in over two-thirds of submissions there was no perpetrator added to the inquiry. There was no perpetrator identification of any kind at all, so our statistics, our percentages, relate to the remainder-just over one-third-on which we did get some kind of data, but even that was incomplete. For example, sometimes we were told about nationalities and not about ethnicity, and those are not the same thing. In fact, it was only in 3% of the one-third that there was complete perpetrator data.

Q677 Chair: The Times has reported that the Education Secretary and senior Government Ministers believe that the report deliberately plays down the role of Asian abusers. You are very clear that it does not do so, that this is a fair reflection of what you have seen, because they are pretty critical of this part of your report?

Sue Berelowitz: I know that they are pretty critical. I have been having those conversations with them as well. It is deeply troubling to me that they are finding it so difficult to accept the evidence that we have, which is that people from every single ethnic group are carrying out this particular type of sexual violence against children. We have absolutely incontrovertible evidence about that.

As I talk to you, I have in my mind a very large sheet of paper that I saw when I was visiting a police force recently. It had photographs of over 100 victims on that piece of paper, with almost the same number of perpetrators. Given the demographics of that part of the country, what I can tell you is that virtually all of those victims were white and virtually all of those perpetrators were white. That is an ongoing investigation so I cannot say much more about it. That is the picture I am getting all around the country, that the perpetrators reflect the local demographics.

I will go so far as to say that, although people make their statements-I believe from good intent-from the evidence we have gathered, I do believe that it is actually dangerous to hold fast to that position, because what we know is that victims are falling through the net, when people hold fast to a position that victims are only white and perpetrators are only Asian.

Chair: Yes. We will explore that a little bit further with a couple of contributions from colleagues on this point.

Q678 Mr Winnick: It is said that there are those who are eager to maximise the notion that most are Asians, which you rightly deny and challenge. There are those who do so for purely racist motives, which we all know and condemn. Then there are others who would say that, from the best of motives, just as you said your critics do from the best motives, some people want to minimise that people of Asian origin are not necessarily the main culprits. What would you say to that?

Sue Berelowitz: My remit is to promote and protect children’s rights. My starting point in everything is the best interests of children. It is not in the best interests of children to try to hide or minimise anybody or any group that might pose a risk to children. I can assure you, and all the Committee, that we have been totally rigorous in facing up to the realities of everything that we have heard and seen. This is an entirely evidence-based inquiry and, therefore, the report is entirely evidence-based. If I believed that this was something that was being perpetrated by one particular community against another particular community, I would say that. The reality is much more serious and more complicated than that.

Q679 Mr Winnick: You have anticipated the question I was going to ask. I am not going to ask you a different one. You have made it clear that if those of Asian origin were in the majority you would not have any hesitation in condemning them

Sue Berelowitz: No.

Q680 Mr Winnick: One further question; perhaps I have put it before but I do believe it is important. Whether it is a white, Asian or black population, would it not be the case that the overwhelming majority of people condemn these criminals? So no doubt Asians would have no hesitation in condemning the criminals who happen to be of Asian origin, just as whites condemn those who happen to be white. Would that be the position?

Sue Berelowitz: That is completely correct.

Q681 Steve McCabe: Would it be easier for people to accept that there are a variety of models of exploitation? Rotherham may have been an example of one where it was predominately about Asian men and white girls. We should not draw the conclusion that is the totality. There is actually a variety of models involving all races and ethnic groups across the country?

Sue Berelowitz: That is exactly what we are saying in the report, yes.

Q682 Nicola Blackwood: Ms Berelowitz, I want to pick up on a couple of the comments you have made. You commented that your report is entirely evidence-based, and that you have been going around and identifying models that are perhaps not in the public domain yet because they are ongoing investigations. The problem is that you have also said that for over two-thirds of cases there is no perpetrator identification, and in only 3% of cases is there complete perpetrator identification. How is it possible to make conclusive statements about perpetrator identification if there is no data about perpetrator identification but the report is based on evidence?

Sue Berelowitz: What I can say conclusively-which is why we are being very clear in the report about sticking to the figures we have-is that, from the evidence we have, we know that the perpetrators reflect the local demographics. That comes from conversations. We gathered our evidence in a number of ways; there was a call for evidence and we had a lot of narrative evidence coming through from that. There was the data collection. There were the 14 site visits and the evidence gathering days, when people came and gave oral evidence to us. Some of that is-

Q683 Nicola Blackwood: It is different kinds of evidence. So it is oral evidence and narrative evidence, rather than police databases, and those kinds of evidence that you speak of when you say "evidence-based"?

Sue Berelowitz: Yes. The figures we have come from the hard evidence sent, for example, from police databases.

Q684 Nicola Blackwood: That is the two-thirds and the 3%?

Sue Berelowitz: Yes. Also talking with victims themselves, you say, "Can you describe the people who are abusing you?" I will give you another example, in terms of victims. When I was meeting in a large metropolitan area they produced a very big pack on victims. They were all group-associated victims, all white girls in care. It was beautifully produced. At the end of reading it all through I said, "What about victims who are not white and are not in care?" and they said, "We are not looking for those". We have been finding that kind of evidence all over the place.

Q685 Nicola Blackwood: I think that the problem is that, until that hard data is available, it is very difficult to argue against evidence, such as we heard last week from Andrew Norfolk. He speaks of 17 prosecutions, which have gone through the courts, which are in the public domain, of which there are 56 convictions, 53 of which were Asian. That is the sort of evidence that needs to be counteracted against. If it is narrative evidence and oral evidence that is being used, rather than real hard data, it is quite difficult to test it in that context. It would be helpful if we could see details of that evidence. That would be helpful. Thank you.

Chair: If you could let us have that?

Sue Berelowitz: Yes.

Q686 Michael Ellis: Ms Berelowitz, thank you for your work. I do not envy you the very difficult and often, as you have described it, challenging and harrowing-I have no doubt-work that you do. You may have heard in the media about the Communications Data Bill. I realise it is not solely within your sphere of responsibility; in fact, I know it is not. We have heard evidence about child online exploitation and how important it is to try to defeat these paedophile rings, and the need for communications data in that regard. Would you agree with CEOP about that?

Sue Berelowitz: CEOP will know more about that that I do, and I am sure they are right in what they are saying.

Q687 Michael Ellis: Thank you. You have been investigating localised child grooming for over two years. What I wonder is, are you satisfied with the changes that have taken place in that time? I appreciate you may think there is more that needs to be done, but are you generally satisfied with those changes?

Sue Berelowitz: Yes. I should say that so far we are only beginning year two now, so we have done one year. Even within that space of time what I can say is that I have seen a significant change, from October 2011 through to where we are now, in that awareness has substantially increased. For example, fewer people are talking about children as prostitutes than there were before.

Q688 Michael Ellis: Do you think language is really important?

Sue Berelowitz: It is terribly important because people then see the children as the agents of their own abuse and do not think they are worthy of being protected.

Q689 Michael Ellis: It is quite recent that that change has come in. Police would regularly refer to "child prostitutes" and it is not the right terminology.

Sue Berelowitz: It is not only the police. I have had chairs of safeguarding boards talk to me about children as prostitutes.

Q690 Michael Ellis: Really? So how will you monitor the implementation of your recommendations-this is key-and how are you going to follow that these things are being done? What mechanisms do you have?

Sue Berelowitz: We are just in the process of doing that now. Because of the Commissioner’s powers, we have a power to require those in statutory agencies to respond to our recommendations. Those letters are all being put together at the moment; to Government, to directors of children’s services, Chief Constables and chairs of safeguarding boards, with the specific recommendations for them being sent out. We will be sending out a template with a return date. I expect that by the end of May next year. I will be checking everybody. We will see it through.

Q691 Michael Ellis: So you are alive to these issues, you are going to monitor them?

Sue Berelowitz: Yes.

Q692 Michael Ellis: Do you have sanctions available to you should there be a failure to implement your recommendations?

Sue Berelowitz: No. Regrettably we do not. What we do is carry a lot of moral authority and I would say we exploit that moral authority, I hope to the best effect.

Q693 Michael Ellis: Yes. For example, you could utilise the media in that regard.

Sue Berelowitz: If need be, but what I think works more effectively-because the media is a last resort, in terms of naming and shaming-is to go to the person in charge and tell them in no uncertain terms how important it is that we expect a result.

Michael Ellis: I am sure that is right. Thank you very much.

Q694 Nicola Blackwood: All along the line in the discussions you had, you found problems of co-ordination between agencies and intelligence falling between the cracks-perhaps a child disclosing to a GP or a school teacher and that information not being put together properly. Do you think that this has stemmed, historically, from confusion about data protection laws, and do you think that that is still going on?

Sue Berelowitz: That is definitely one factor impacting on people not sharing information. That is most significant for health agencies who readily quote the requirement to maintain confidentiality, for example, the Caldicott guidelines and so on, as a reason for not sharing information. It is my view-and we have taken counsel’s opinion on this-that that represents a misunderstanding of the Data Protection Act, and that where people have a concern that a child is being hurt, in some shape or form, that it is indeed their duty to report that information on. It is a major problem.

In my view, from the evidence we have gathered, it is definitely getting in the way of children being protected. I know where the best practice is taking place. What makes for best practice is that the agencies are sharing information on a regular basis, and working in an integrated way to make sure that all the dots are joined up.

Q695 Nicola Blackwood: Are you finding areas where they have co-located units to deal specifically with this issue of breaking down these barriers?

Sue Berelowitz: Yes.

Q696 Nicola Blackwood: Do you find that there are concerns within the social work teams, and other teams, about giving information over to the police for fear of what action will taken on information?

Sue Berelowitz: I have not found that so much with social work teams. There are barriers around information sharing between schools and social work teams, in both directions-as I say, particularly with health. In my experience, the police are very good at sharing information but others may be more reluctant to share with them. It is not so frequently that social workers are failing to share with the police. In a sense, it may be that social workers have not identified the information that they hold, rather than they know they are holding something and they refuse to share it. I think it is more that sometimes they are not recognising the value of what they hold.

The other issue around information sharing is that youth offending teams are huge repositories of very, very important information around sexual exploitation. We found a lot of information held by them that simply was not held by anybody else, and often they do not seem to have mechanisms for sharing information between YOTs and the other services. Again, we are encouraging them very much to get out and do that.

Q697 Nicola Blackwood: Have you noticed that there are any moves towards adopting some kind of agreed method for recording the ethnicity, perhaps sexual orientation, or disabilities of victims and perpetrators particularly, so that we can address this issue of lack of data in this regard that has been identified in your report?

Sue Berelowitz: Yes. There is a clear recommendation in the report, so it is one of the things I will be following up to see whether that has, indeed, been done. I do expect the police and the other agencies to be developing mechanisms for doing that. It will be very good to see consistency across the country.

Q698 Nicola Blackwood:Are you talking about ACPO or CEOP?

Sue Berelowitz: Well, I am talking to all of them actually. I cannot give the answer at the moment on who is going to be leading on that. I guess I would expect ACPO to lead on that given that they are the national body for representing the police. We want the same consistency on recording with the local authorities, social services departments, with the health-and I include A&Es in that, for example-sexual health clinics, because many different people are getting different pieces of the jigsaw puzzle. If they all record consistently then put the information together, generally you are going to get better records.

Q699 Nicola Blackwood:Who do you think should be responsible for collating that information at a local level and then at a national level?

Sue Berelowitz: Oh, at a local level what I am saying is that LSCBs need to identify one person to be the coordinator because the danger otherwise is that lots of people think they might be responsible but are not, then it will not happen.

Q700 Nicola Blackwood:There is a lead person in the LSCBs. Who should be leading in terms of data collection and making sure that there is consistency in recording and ramifications of that?

Sue Berelowitz: Well, different agencies will need to be recording different things.

Nicola Blackwood:In terms of collating to get a proper picture of what is going on in that area?

Sue Berelowitz: Well, that is why I said it is the safeguarding board. So in respect of the safeguarding board, being a multiagency entity, it would not matter whether it was the police or social care who took the lead because if they are all required to work in partnership through the safeguarding board it is the coordination and the consistency that matter.

Q701 Nicola Blackwood:That should be reported up to CEOP or ACPO?

Sue Berelowitz: Well CEOP is taking the lead on the protection of children from a police perspective. So, it would be good if CEOP held the information. ACPO has more of a coordinating role as far as I understand. I think at the moment, in terms of DfE, I would be very pleased to see DfE taking a very active role in being the national lead within Government for all of this.

Q702 Karl Turner: The Committee is interested in the court process in relation to victims and has heard evidence from a number of witnesses. They describe the issues that victims face in giving evidence against their attackers. I want to know whether you intend to look at this issue and, I suppose, what the problems are from your perspective.

Sue Berelowitz: Yes. It is a very, very troubling area. I am already in discussions with the DPP about this and he is acutely aware of the issues. I have, in fact, done a presentation of that at a conference for the Crown Prosecution Service. So we are working with the DPP on this. I think the struggle for him is to identify how to, because he is certainly sympathetic, take this forward without intervening in-fair trials, really.

In my view, something does need to be done because there was no doubt at all that children are being victimised through the court process. We have some very big trials coming up, you know-you have nine defendants, nine barristers, and one child being crossexamined by nine barristers is an untenable situation. Something does need to be done. I commenced that process and will be continuing to have those discussions-indeed, I intend to go and sit in on some of those trials myself during the course of the year so I can see first hand what the impact is.

Q703 Karl Turner: Thank you. There is clearly a very definite effect on a victim’s mental health, having given evidence for so long. What is in place to protect them in terms of psychological support, if anything, and could you suggest what could possibly improve the situation?

Sue Berelowitz: Well, the victim’s mental health begins to suffer a long time before they get to the trial process. I have already referred to the harrowing nature of what I have heard, but I only have to listen to it; they have to live it. It is hard to see how children can survive psychologically given some of the experiences that they have had. I have no doubt that they are in need of wellserviced and welltargeted psychological services. Some of them get that, but the reality is that our services are patchy around the country. They are better in some areas than others, and it just would not be possible to say with any certainty that the children are getting what they need.

They often get their psychological help from other sources, interestingly enough. I have spoken with some young people who have come through these experiences where they have been supported in an ongoing way by the police. They have done the most extraordinary work in befriending them and sticking by them. I am thinking of three young women I met with recently, who have all been supported by the police for several years. They said the thing that made the biggest difference to them was that they knew that person was going to stick by them whatever happened-that they could phone them at midnight, two in the morning, any time of day, over the weekend and they would see them regularly as well as being available to them. They always had somebody there who is just there for them and genuinely cared. We do not always need something wildly fancy, although I do know of some young people, for example, who are now diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, emerging psychosis and so on as a result of their experiences.

There is a combination of things. The first thing is to do a good assessment, but also just to treat these young people like human beings because often they simply have not been treated like human beings. That is the thing they say to me most consistently. They want somebody who cares for them and about them, and that makes the biggest difference. Of course, you also need the assessment to know whether a child has an emerging, diagnosable condition that needs treatment by a psychiatrist. Both of those are very important. Yes, it is patchy at the moment and I am sure it needs to be improved.

Q704 Chair: On your site visits, you found that 70% of the cases that you saw related to gangs as opposed to localised grooming. Do you think grooming is now established as something that happens through gangs, with individuals being passed from person to person?

Sue Berelowitz: Well, one of the interesting differences between gangassociated and groomingassociated sexual exploitation is that there is very little grooming in a gang situation. Children are in such fear of gangs anyway, they do not need to resort to grooming. If you expect somebody to be available for sex, they just have to do it. You do not bother with the grooming process.

One of the few occasions in which we came cross grooming in a gangassociated context was in a situation in which two girls met over the Facebook site. One eventually, as it turned out, lured the other-it appeared that she was simply inviting the girl to her part of town to meet, "Let’s finally get together" but in fact she was lured. The girl who had invited her over was not there at the appointed meeting place, but there were eight boys. They picked the child up, took her to the local park and raped her and then another group of boys came and took her to another part of town and she was raped again. She was raped by about 16 boys that afternoon. There was an element of grooming over the internet but it was more about luring. In a gangassociated context actually there is very little grooming taking place.

Q705 Chair: We have had evidence from Lancashire police and South Yorkshire police and the difference between the two policing authorities is quite remarkable. Lancashire prosecuted 100 individuals last year and until this year South Yorkshire had not prosecuted anybody. Your report highlights the good practice and those police authorities that need to improve. You have touched on this with Nicola Blackwood, how they share this information.

Are you satisfied that they have the message now? Obviously, this started with Andrew Norfolk’s articles-your reports, the Committee’s hearings, et cetera, but has everyone got the message? I still think that there ought to be more people on this subject. There are eight officers dedicated in South Yorkshire’s grooming issues but 30 officers deal with Operation Yewtree. There is a big difference there, is there not?

Sue Berelowitz: It is a very big difference. Well, it goes back to the question about how widespread is the understanding now, in a sense really, and what has changed in the last couple of years. Clearly, more people have got the message. Have they got the message loudly and clearly enough? I think it is still an open question and it is one of the reasons why I will be pursuing chief officers of all the agencies to which our recommendations are targeted.

Q706 Chair: In terms of those resources-eight against 30. The Savile allegations go a long way back-I am not saying they are not important; they clearly are-but you have some live cases of grooming going on as we speak and there seems to be only eight officers in South Yorkshire.

Sue Berelowitz: Yes. I can only say what you have probably heard from Lancashire already. Clearly, when you put in the right amount of resources and also work in a multiagency way-as you will know, in Lancashire they have integrated teams-it does make an enormous difference. As far as they are concerned, if they only carry out enforcement after a child has been abused, they have failed. Their aim is to intervene at the point at which a child is being targeted. Now, clearly you would want everybody to be working in the same kind of way and delivering the same best practice. We are focusing year two of the inquiry on best practice and we will be disseminating those messages out with a view to trying to push everybody to focus properly on it.

May I just add something? I am just in the process of writing to all police and crime commissioners around the country, sending them a copy of the report and highlighting to them the importance of this area and of putting the right resources in to support it. Again, it is just getting in through that door as well.

Q707 Mr Winnick: In view of your work and the media publicity, I think you would agree that, whatever the criticism, Mr Norfolk’s articles were very useful in The Times, and recognising undoubtedly that this sort of terrible position has gone on, I suppose, for centuries, how confident are you that with more pressure, more publicity and more awareness we will see a reduction in this criminality?

Sue Berelowitz: Well, I think the reality is that if all the agencies do their jobs effectively what we will actually see is an apparent increase because you will see more victims and offenders being identified. That will appear to be an increase.

If there is a sudden diminution in the few number of trials that there are, that would worry me greatly; I do not think that would be an indication that things were decreasing. I have many years’ experience, unfortunately, in the field of child sexual abuse in an intra-familial environment and I know that trying to combat sexual abuse of any form is an ongoing battle. Being realistic, I do not think we will ever see the end of this. I would like to see a significant diminution-

Q708 Mr Winnick:Are you confident that there is a likelihood that that will occur?

Sue Berelowitz: I am confident of that, as long as people heed the messages, take heed of the warning signs, put in the resources and do not somehow think that in a year or two it will magically have gone away-because it will not have.

Q709 Chair: One final question on this in respect of the work that has been done in Rochdale. We were alarmed to hear evidence that, because of cuts in social services budgets, one particular team called Sunrise was being affected. Are you looking at the effect of changes to local councils and social services in respect of this issue?

Sue Berelowitz: I think that would come up during the course of our work in year two where we are looking at this. What I would say already, however, is that in another city-it was not Rochdale-there has been a really superb jointagency child sexual exploitation unit that has done wonderful work over about seven or eight years now. As a result of budget reductions in the various departments, significant reductions were made in that unit, including the loss of the manager and all the knowledge that she had garnered over the years. I wrote to the Director of Children Services at the time because I was so concerned about that. It is a very, very worrying development. As per a previous question, this is not a time to be reducing resources on these things. It is a time for really focusing resources because without that we will absolutely not see any diminution at all.

Chair: Deputy Commissioner, thank you very much. On behalf of the Committee, I thank you for all your excellent work in this area. Please keep us informed of any developments you think are relevant to the Committee’s inquiry.

Sue Berelowitz: I will be pleased to. Thank you very much indeed.

Prepared 11th June 2013