That this House takes note of the case for introducing statutory guidelines relating to the investigation of cases of historical child sex abuse.LORD LEXDEN INTRODUCES MOTION
My Lords, I sought this debate because of the deep public disquiet that has arisen over the manner in which a number of allegations of historical child sex abuse have been investigated. Public concern tends to be at its strongest in relation to instances of alleged child sex abuse, to which this Motion refers, but of course it ranges beyond them to other cases as well. It is unlikely that concern will diminish until action is taken to provide reassurance.
The number of historical allegations under investigation rose sharply following the discovery of the foul Savile crimes. Much police time has been and continues to be devoted to them. In September 2014, a quarter of the major incident detective team of Greater Manchester Police was working on cases of alleged historical abuse. There are a large number of suspected offenders to be investigated. Some will be innocent, others will be guilty, but it can often be extremely difficult to determine where the truth lies.
The difficulties and the damage that is done if they are not successfully addressed have been most usefully highlighted in an authoritative recent report produced by three academics and published by the Centre for Criminology at Oxford University. The report is entitled, The Impact of Being Wrongly Accused of Abuse in Occupations of Trust: Victims’ Voice. The victims in this context are of course those who were wrongly accused. The report documents the distress that has been inflicted on many men and women from all walks of life and backgrounds—people whose voices are rarely heard on the national stage. Here they speak of loss of income, unemployment, family break-up and mental breakdown.
The report leads us to the heart of the matter with which this debate is concerned. It notes a cultural shift towards believing allegations of abuse, adding that the presumption now is in favour of believing those who present themselves as victims. It notes, too, that some reports assert that victims’ accounts are being accepted at face value as evidence of the guilt of the person accused, with little attempt to find corroborating evidence. It is but a short step from such practices to the diminution, if not the reversal, of that most basic of our rights: that we are innocent until proved guilty. Is there a danger that that step might be taken in relation to the investigation of historical sex abuse allegations?
Indeed, it seems that it has in fact been taken in some police forces. The Metropolitan Police’s website proclaimed last year that:
“Our starting point with allegations of child sex abuse is to believe the victim until we identify reasonable cause to believe otherwise”.
This month has brought a powerful reminder of some of the principal causes of the disquiet that has arisen. Sir Cliff Richard has been told that he is not to face charges arising from the investigation of allegations relating to purported events going back more than 30 years. The allegations were made two years ago in a blaze of publicity created by the police and the BBC acting in grotesque collusion before he had even been interviewed. Such a media circus should never have occurred. Could it have been the fact that the initial complainant was aged under 16 at the time of the allegation, which created the temptation that led these two public organisations to take action at Sir Cliff’s expense? How can we ensure that nothing of this kind happens again? Sir Cliff has spoken movingly of the harrowing distress that he endured during the two years that he had to wait to hear his fate, which was that “insufficient evidence” existed on which to bring charges against him. His innocence has not been fully and unambiguously restored.
Those of us in political or parliamentary life will never forget other astonishing police behaviour. The manner in which Field Marshal Lord Bramall was treated shocked us all, as did the distress inflicted on Lord Brittan during his final illness and the additional pain suffered by his much-loved wife after his death. The sight of a senior police officer standing outside Sir Edward Heath’s former home in Salisbury and exhorting those who had allegations to make to get in touch will not fade from the memory.
Nor we will forget the ludicrous, large-scale police operation undertaken on the word of a fantasist to track down a murderous ring of paedophile politicians in Dolphin Square, London. Just a little light research would have shown that much the same story, minus murder, had been manufactured 20 years earlier. I myself was given a role in that first fable.
It does not follow from all this that allegations of historical or recent sex abuse should be investigated with a light touch. Stringent and thorough inquiries must be made to punish evil deeds committed in the past, but is the fundamental principle of innocence until proven guilty entirely safe? Dame Lowell Goddard, whose inquiry will be of such importance, referred recently to the balance which must be struck between encouraging the reporting of child sex abuse and protecting the rights of the accused. It is not evident that all our public authorities are striking the balance correctly today.
This point has been borne in upon me forcefully by the case of Bishop George Bell, which suddenly came to public prominence last October. Indeed, I think it deserves even more prominence than it has so far received, in view of the stature of the man accused and the manner in which a single, uncorroborated allegation of child sex abuse against him, stemming from purported events more than 50 years ago, has been dealt with by the Church of England authorities.
Born in 1883, George Bell has been described as,
“the one undeniably great figure”,
in the 20th-century history of the Church of England. He was Bishop of Chichester for nearly 30 years until his death in 1958, bringing fame to that diocese as his reputation grew. But for the public controversies that his monumental work at home and abroad aroused, he would almost certainly have become Archbishop of Canterbury in 1944.
His interests were astonishingly varied. He was a patron and friend of, among other creative figures, John Masefield, TS Eliot and Gustav Holst. He was one of the first and foremost leaders of the ecumenical movement after the First World War. He was, for some 20 years, a Member of this House, where some of his major public pronouncements were made and where he was held in the highest respect. He was continuously involved in combating injustice and suffering in Germany before and during the Second World War.
Before 1939 no one did more to sustain and defend German Christians and Jews of all kinds in the face of Nazi persecution. During the Second World War he led the protests against the bombing of entire German cities which visited punishment on both the just and the unjust. This brought him much criticism, but no one questioned the deep Christian integrity of this saintly man. He said in 1943:
“The Church has still a special duty to be a watchman for humanity, and to plead the cause of the suffering, whether Jew or gentile”.
A great life is the subject of much study after it is over. In this generation it has been closely examined by Dr Andrew Chandler, a leading historian of the Church of England, who recently published an outstanding new life of Bishop Bell, drawing on his vast archive at Lambeth Palace. Everything that Dr Chandler has examined reinforced the view that this was an unblemished life, a model in every respect of what a great Christian leader should be, in private as well as public affairs. How can a bishop retain his greatness if he is found guilty of a cardinal sin? Here, surely, is a man who has a special claim to the most careful treatment if posterity should ever have cause to doubt his virtue.
Reason for doubt did arise, first in 1995 and then again in 2013. Investigations since then, conducted in secret by unnamed experts under processes that are unknown, led the Church to the conclusion that it should settle a civil claim arising from a single allegation of child sexual abuse in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Compensation was paid to the anonymous complainant in the case, whom the Church refers to as “the survivor”. A statement announcing what had happened was issued last October.
I am a member of the George Bell Support Group, composed of distinguished QCs and other lawyers, Members of both Houses, academics and senior Church figures. The group published a report on 20 March, after examining in detail the processes that led to the Church’s statement last October. We called for an inquiry into the allegations against Bishop Bell. The Church authorities have not replied to the report. Two days ago, however, they announced an independent review into the case.
I look forward very much to the information that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford will no doubt provide about the review in his contribution to this debate. I hope he will be able to answer a number of key questions about how the review will be conducted. First, will the reviewer have legal experience relevant to child abuse cases? Secondly, will the review be willing to receive written evidence and submissions? Thirdly, will the review acknowledge that the burden of proof in civil proceedings rests with the claimant? Fourthly, what provision will be made to prevent the exercise being no more than a review of the processes set out in the Church’s practice guidelines which led to the statement last October? Fifthly, will the concerns raised by the Bell group’s report be addressed?
The occurrence of a series of highly controversial and disquieting investigations in both Church and state in recent years must lead us finally to question the adequacy and effectiveness of the guidelines that the police and the Crown Prosecution Service have produced and use. The College of Policing has devised what is known as authorised professional practice guidance which sets out how the results of an investigation are to be evaluated. The Crown Prosecution Service has produced guidelines under which consultation is advised between the police and the CPS at an early stage in large and complex child sexual abuse cases—something which should surely occur as a matter of course.
Then there is College of Policing guidance on managing such complex cases. It has some significant features. They include,
“media interest and its impact on an investigation”,
and the avoidance of action that would involve trawling for witnesses. As regards the media, where such intense concern has arisen, this official guidance states that,
“save in clearly identified circumstances, or where legal restrictions apply, the names or identifying details of those who are arrested or suspected of a crime should not be released by police forces to the press or the public. Such circumstances include a threat to life, the prevention or detection of crime or a matter of public interest and confidence”.
I am not at all confident that that advice is entirely clear. It certainly seems to provide unduly wide scope for media intrusion on those under investigation. The guidance could usefully be reviewed in the light of what has happened in recent years. Many would feel that an explicit ban is needed on the deplorable media stunts in which the police have been involved and on sustained, irresponsible trawling for evidence. The House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee has recommended a prohibition on naming a person suspected of a sexual offence until they are charged.
Perhaps what we need most of all is a clearly written and readily comprehensible code of conduct, perhaps with statutory backing, for the police and public authorities investigating allegations of historical abuse: a document wholly free from the impenetrable jargon that so many parts of our public service have come to love, and readily accessible to the public it is designed to serve. At the heart of such a code should be the firm reassertion of that basic and precious principle, the presumption of innocence. I beg to move.
DEBATE FOR OVER 2 HOURS
(Well worth a full read)
LORD LEXDEN CONCLUDES
My Lords, we have been discussing a range of acute difficulties created by the whirlwind to which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, referred. The Hansard record of this debate will provide a rich source of material for future reflection and consideration. I thank all noble Lords who have made this debate so important and memorable. I hope that idea of a police code of conduct, which was mentioned by a number of speakers, will not be lost to sight. I am most grateful to the Minister for his careful and considered reflections on the position today regarding guidelines and the difficulties that would lie in the way of rapid progress towards a statutory state of affairs.
For me, this debate has highlighted the particular care needed in investigating allegations against the dead. The Church of England authorities must recognise that decisions reached behind closed doors by secret processes simply will not pass muster in this age of much-vaunted transparency. If the review of the Bishop Bell case, which is to be most warmly welcomed, is to make real progress and allay concerns, it will need to take careful account of points made in this debate. I reiterate the suggestion made by my noble friend Lord Cormack that a meeting of those of us who are particularly concerned might very well be a useful means of making some progress. Above all on this great matter, I must finally stress that the Bishop Bell case needs fundamental reconsideration. That is what the group of which I have the honour to be a member has pressed for, and the case for that fundamental reconsideration will continue. I thank the House for making time for this very important debate.