After I was invited by Talk TV to give my views upon the recent report commissioned by Andy Burman, Mayor of Manchester into the handling of Child Sexual Exploitation (“CSE”) in Rochdale, I started to give the topic some thought. It occurs to me that civil law needs to change so as to broaden the situations where Local Authorities owe a duty of care to children in their care. At the moment, the less they do, the easier they can escape liability at common law.
To get back to the subject matter:. According to the BBC:-
Girls were “left at the mercy” of paedophile grooming gangs for years because of failings by senior police and council bosses, a report has said.
The review covers 2004 to 2013 and sets out a series of failed investigations by Greater Manchester Police (GMP).
It also highlights the apparent local authority indifference to the plight of hundreds of youngsters identified as potential victims of Asian men.
GMP has apologised and said such cases were handled very differently now……..
The review, which focuses on 111 cases in Rochdale from 2004 to 2013, also concluded:
BBC News 15th January 2024
- Compelling evidence of widespread organised sexual exploitation of children
- Statutory agencies failed to respond appropriately
- The threat of CSE was not addressed between 2004 and 2007
- The probability that at least 74 children were being sexually exploited – and in 48 of those cases there were serious failures to protect the child
- CSE was a low priority and under-resourced by GMP
In response, both the police and the local authority have said that those who made the mistakes have left and that things are very different now, but criminal prosecutions relating to the men involved are still proceeding today, with trials stretching into 2025. Inevitably, some will escape the clutches of the police for a variety of evidential reasons.
Why did it ever happen?
It comes as no surprise to hear these conclusions because :-
- In the Children’s Home abuse investigations that I was involved in, there was repeated evidence of children in care complaining of abuse by residential care workers but being dismissed as liars. It is an age-old problem dating back many years
- The children in care were disbelieved, and their complaints were dismissed several times.
- Firstly, by other staff in the children’s homes,
- secondly by police when they were returned after absconding, and
- thirdly, by their own social workers
- The “turning of a blind eye” and alleged cover-ups by those in charge contributed to the call for a change in the law and the introduction of “Mandatory Reporting”, which would have made it a crime not to pass on such complaints for action, with the consequence that many children could have been saved from abuse.
- The Police Code of Practice, or “Victim’s Code,” at the time was very different from what it is now. It was, indeed, Keir Starmer who changed the code in reaction to this very scandal and other CSE investigations nationwide. At the time, there was a ban on “trawling” for allegations, which is exactly the approach needed in CSE cases. There was an inappropriate and unhealthy focus on the nature and reliability of the victim. This arose from a flawed Home Office Select Committee Report of 2003. Keir shifted the focus away from the nature of the victim to searching for evidence to support their testimony (cleverly not referred to as “trawling”).
- The Police traditionally do not go out and look for crimes but rather react to complaints made by members of the public. In CSE cases, however, the victims are threatened by the “exploiters” into silence, so the police need to go out looking for evidence to support that initial allegation. They need to have the nous to realise that it is unlikely that one stand-alone allegation is where the crime begins and ends and that there is an endemic town-wide problem in, say, Rochdale.
- The Children’s Home cases all started with just one allegation by a man who saw his former abuser crossing the road with a group of children. He realised that this man was still “at it” and marched into Widnes Police Station to make a complaint. The insightful Detective Inspector, unlike those in Rochdale, realised that a man who worked with children all his life was likely to be a career paedophile and took steps, in partnership with Social Services, to contact all the man’s peers. Unsurprisingly, that one allegation turned into many.
- I never forget the Inspector saying to me, “Peter, I like golf, so I have joined a golf club. Child Sex Offenders like children, so they go and work at a Children’s Home.”
- If the police investigate and there are a variety of offences to choose from, ranging from possession of drugs with intent to supply, assault, theft, and an offensive weapon, to conspiracy to participate in child sexual exploitation, then will the police not take the easy option of a specific offense rather than the more risky route of finding more complainants, protecting them from threats, particularly if they are vulnerable, and looking for other participants? One can see how the more labour-intensive pursuit of a conspiracy is not the preferred route.
Changes to the Law
So how does the law need to change to make the path of victims seeking justice and truth easier? And how is the title of this article, which suggests that there is a problem with the duty of care of Local Authorities, relevant?
- Abolish the rules on time delay, which is used as a weapon to defeat valid claims of victims who are unable to pursue their case for many years. This was recommended by IICSA (Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse), but was not responded to favourably in the response of the Home Office. The law presently expects victims to issue legal proceedings either before their 21st birthday or within 3 years of the act that gives rise to the claim in the case of negligence and 1 year in the case of Human Rights.
- Widen the scope of the circumstances in which a Local Authority will be held to owe a duty of care to a child.
- In a recent Supreme Court case called HXA v Surrey County Council & YXA v Wolverhampton City Council it was decided that unless a local authority takes a child into care, and then only during the time when it is actually not in the care of the parents do they assume responsibility for the child so as to make them liable if they are deemed to be negligent.
- So the period of time when they have the child on the child protection register, for example, or are investigating whether or not to apply for a care order, does not render them liable at all.
- One can see the effect this devastating judgment can have on victims of child sexual exploitation when the local authority can ignore obvious signs of exploitation going on and do nothing in the circumstances set out in the GMP report. It must be unjust that this negligence allows them to escape liability on the basis that somehow they do not owe a duty of care?
- The simple rationale is that A (the Local Authority) is not liable for failing to prevent B (The victim) from being damaged by the acts of C (the exploiter)
- It cannot be right that the less the Local Authority do, the more they escape liability, whereas the more they do, the more they imperil themselves
- Introduce Mandatory Reporting into the law.
- Implement the 20 recommendations of the IICSA Final Report, some of which are highlighted in this list.
So in summary, a Local Authority should surely assume responsibility and owe a duty of care for letting down the girls in the Rochdale Child Sexual Exploitation scandal, particularly when they have been heavily criticised in the report for doing less than would professionally be expected. Each case, of course, depends on its own facts, but the above decision of the Supreme Court carries with it dangerous precedent in this area of law and should be overturned, in my humble opinion. No doubt, one day, a suitable patently unfair case will come before the Law Lords and expose the scandalous back-covering establishment-biased decision.