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IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

Allegations of child sexual abuse linked to Westminster Investigation Report

Contents

J.2: Safeguarding and child protection policies in government departments, political parties and the Palace of Westminster

4. The Inquiry instructed Professor June Thoburn, Emeritus Professor of Social Work at the University of East Anglia (UEA) and member of the UEA Centre for Research on Children and Families, to provide an expert report examining the safeguarding and child protection policies of government departments, political parties and the Palace of Westminster.[1]

5. Professor Thoburn made a number of observations about how Westminster institutions respond to allegations of child sexual abuse and exploitation.

5.1. There is considerable variation in the content and detail of policies on safeguarding and child protection in government departments and political parties. In Professor Thoburn’s opinion, no department or political party provided documentation that met all the requirements for child safeguarding policies and procedures that she considers necessary in the light of current knowledge about the nature and extent of child sexual abuse and exploitation. Some came very close while for others there were important deficits.[2]

5.2. At the time of the hearing in this investigation, some political parties had no specific safeguarding and child protection policies at all, and relied instead on member codes of conduct and disciplinary procedures (the Conservative and Unionist Party, the Democratic Unionist Party, the Co-operative Party, Plaid Cymru and the United Kingdom Independence Party). Insofar as the Co-operative Party, the Democratic Unionist Party and Plaid Cymru are concerned, in their evidence to the Inquiry they stated that they were each reviewing the requirement for a safeguarding and child protection policy.[3] By contrast, other parties (the Green Party, the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrat Party, the Scottish National Party and the Ulster Unionist Party) had detailed policies and procedures, some of which had undergone detailed review recently, and which had elements of best practice endorsed by Professor Thoburn.

5.3. Further, a number of the policies for political parties were not accessible online, meaning that party members and volunteers – including those overseeing youth groups – would not be able to avail themselves of what to do, or what to be aware of, when carrying out their duties and functions.

5.4. Professor Thoburn found that the Palace of Westminster’s policies provide a good example of practical guidance for Westminster managers and employees who may come into contact with children but who do not have specific mandated child protection responsibilities.[4]

6. Child safeguarding policies and procedures appropriate to the function of each government department, the Palace of Westminster and all political parties are essential, even though it may not be immediately obvious that it is something that they need to consider. As Professor Thoburn explained, “safeguarding is everyone’s business”.[5] It is critical that even Westminster organisations or institutions which do not regard themselves as having regular contact with children have policies in place. Professor Thoburn concluded that:

it is the role and/or degree of access to children and not whether they are a volunteer, an elected member or an employee that should determine the policies and contractual terms relevant to them”.[6]

7. Professor Thoburn recommended that a cross-departmental review should be undertaken of child safeguarding statements, policies and procedures, and that the Cabinet Office would likely be best placed to undertake this task. This would build on work already being undertaken within individual departments.[7] This is a sensible way forward and would ensure that the necessary consistency is achieved. We welcome the indication on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government that government departments are considering Professor Thoburn’s recommendations carefully.[8] The government should consider in particular Professor Thoburn’s recommendation that the Cabinet Office take the lead on this policy issue across Whitehall.

8. It is unacceptable that any political party in England and Wales operates without suitable safeguarding and child protection policies and procedures. It is incumbent on all political parties to ensure that they have suitable policies in place, that these policies are kept up to date and that they are implemented effectively in practice.

Policies in practice

The Labour Party and Nick Brown MP

9. Whether a policy is effective in practice is key. As Richard Scorer and Kim Harrison of Slater & Gordon suggested in written submissions on behalf of a group of complainant core participants:

it’s one thing to have a safeguarding policy, it’s quite another to embed that policy in the party culture so that MPs, party officials and party activists understand it and clearly abide by it”.[9]

10. We heard evidence which gave rise to concern that even the policies which were regarded as comprehensive and effective by Professor Thoburn may not be understood by those in a position to apply them. In his witness statement to the Inquiry, Nick Brown MP, Labour Party chief whip, said that:

If an allegation of criminal conduct against a member of parliament came to my attention, I would immediately advise them to contact the relevant authorities, including, of course, the police”.[10]

When asked by Counsel to the Inquiry whether he would make a referral to the police himself of an allegation he received of child sexual abuse and whether this reflected Labour Party policy, Mr Brown told us:

it really does depend on the strength of the evidence. But if I – and it is quite difficult to fully answer without having understood the nature of the complaint and who the complainant was and what sort of supportive evidence there was, but if I thought it was credible, then I would raise it with the police myself. But it would have to be – you know, I don’t regard myself as having to report every bit of gossip I hear to the police. I mean, the distinction is: look, how serious is this?[11]

Similarly, when asked about the case of an allegation of child sexual abuse against an MP, he answered that “It would depend on what the evidence was for that” and said that he would be “forced to” make an assessment of that.[12]

11. Professor Thoburn’s view of this was that “the Labour Party’s policy makes it absolutely clear that it applies to every MP, every volunteer, every party member, and since he has somebody called a safeguarding manager and a safeguarding team, I would have expected him to say, well, I will get in touch with them to check out whether I’m doing the right thing”.[13]

12. In her closing submissions on behalf of the Labour Party, Ms Eleanor Grey QC said that:

there is often, in many contexts, a potential gap between policies and their practical or full implementation, and that the evidence implies that there is still work to be done to embed knowledge of the policies into the Party and its members. We are certainly not complacent. However, we would respectfully point out that Mr Brown was clear that he had not actually been faced with a situation which required him to exercise any sort of judgment with regards to allegations of child sexual abuse, or to ‘triage’, still less to discard, any allegations. Considering such allegations might well, of course, have been the very point when policies were checked, and advice sought. So the importance of this point should not be exaggerated or used to single out an individual who has not, in fact, let children down or actually failed to follow procedures in any way. We do accept that these safeguarding policies are relatively new, and so the fact that knowledge of them is not yet second nature is not, perhaps, surprising.[14]

13. However, the importance of safeguarding is not a new matter for political parties. We would expect the chief whip of a major political party to be familiar with his party’s own safeguarding and child protection policies and procedures. He might well receive reports of child sexual abuse. Mr Brown’s evidence demonstrates that despite its well-drafted policy, the Labour Party has failed to ensure that those who may receive allegations, such as the chief whip, have an adequate grasp of the procedure to be followed. We reiterate that it is not for Mr Brown, as chief whip, to attempt to assess an allegation of child sexual abuse or exploitation. That he would consider attempting this demonstrates that comprehensive policies are not sufficiently embedded into the culture of Westminster organisations. In recent correspondence with the Inquiry, Mr Brown stated that he intends to undertake some training in this area.

14. Those in senior positions within political parties must show leadership in order to achieve the necessary culture change in the recognition and handling of allegations of child sexual abuse and exploitation. As Mr Scorer and Ms Harrison said in their written submissions on behalf of a group of complainant core participants, this:

illustrates the depth of the problem at Westminster  the Labour Party policy looks great on paper, ticks all the boxes, but the Chief Whip  who is more likely than anyone to be in receipt of an allegation  doesn’t really understand the policy or the philosophy behind it. This is in a political party which, in its public policy platform, is officially committed to mandatory reporting in its policy programme.[15]

The Green Party and Aimee and David Challenor

15. In November 2016, David Challenor was charged with 22 serious criminal offences, including taking indecent photographs, false imprisonment, rape, sexual assault of a child, assault by penetration and assault occasioning actual bodily harm. He was subsequently convicted of 20 offences including rape and was sentenced to 22 years’ imprisonment.

16. At the time, Ms Aimee Challenor, David Challenor’s daughter, was a member of the Green Party and chair of the national LGBTIQA+[16] Greens. When her father was charged, she informed two external communications coordinators for the Green Party, Matt Hawkins and Clare Phipps. This was in general terms (via a private Facebook message) that her father was being charged; she did not mention that the charges related to offences against children. On the same date Ms Challenor also informed Coventry Pride, of which she was a trustee.

17. On the same day, 5 November 2016, Mr Hawkins informed three Green Party staff members in the press team by email that a close relative of a Green Party spokesperson had been arrested. He asked the staff members to contact him if anyone contacted them concerning the matter.

18. In April 2017, Ms Challenor was selected to be the Green Party General Election candidate for Coventry South. In May 2017, she appointed her father David Challenor as her election agent when she stood as a general election candidate. In May 2018, David Challenor was appointed as election agent for Aimee and for Tina Challenor, his wife, in the May 2018 local elections. In June or July 2018, Ms Challenor was selected as a candidate for deputy leader of the Green Party.

19. Throughout this period, David Challenor was facing very serious charges of child sexual abuse.

20. The Green Party commissioned Verita, an independent investigations consultancy, to carry out a private investigation. Its report dated January 2019[17] found that:

Prioritising the safety of children and vulnerable people is an individual responsibility of every member of society. There could hardly be a bigger ‘red flag’ in this respect than someone being charged with 22 sexual offences. Irrespective of where the responsibility lies, one of the effects of the way this case was handled was that someone who had committed serious sexual offences was given roles of responsibility within the Green Party during a period of almost two years after a major safeguarding risk should have been apparent. David Challenor bears some responsibility for this, but Aimee Challenor, as an officer of the party both nationally and locally should have considered safeguarding issues.[18]

Aimee Challenor had a number of roles, both locally and nationally, each of which carried important responsibilities. In not ensuring that the right people in the party were told what they needed to know, Aimee failed to fulfil her roles adequately. This is even clearer in her encouragement of her father to become more involved in the party by, for example, appointing him as her election agent in 2017 after she knew of charges against him. This was a serious error of judgement, which she repeated when she appointed him as her election agent in 2018.[19]

21. The Verita report also stressed the importance of the Green Party developing a strong safeguarding culture and made the following observation:

It is disappointing that many people we spoke to in the party failed to see the safeguarding issues that arise here. Those in the party who were told about David Challenor’s activities saw the issue as primarily a communications one  about protecting the reputation of the party. Awareness of safeguarding issues in the party in general appears to be low.[20]

22. From the evidence we heard from Liz Reason, Chair of the Green Party Executive, safeguarding issues remain a matter which the Green Party needs to address. On 17 December 2014, the Green Party received an email containing allegations of child sexual abuse against a Green Party candidate for the House of Commons.[21] Ms Reason told us that the Green Party could not find a record of this on their system or of any action taken in response to the email at the time.[22] In a supplementary witness statement, she said that the Green Party was still investigating how they had responded to the email when it was received in December 2014, adding:

From the information ascertained so far it appears that key officers spoke to the party member accused of child sexual abuse in the email and established that no child sexual abuse charges had been brought against them.[23]

23. The 2014 email was provided to the Inquiry in response to its request for any information held by the Green Party pertaining to child sexual abuse. However, it was not until the Inquiry made a rule 9 request to the Green Party on 8 November 2018 that further internal inquiries were triggered. Ms Reason explained this on the basis that the first time any current officers and staff in the Green Party had seen the email was when a copy was provided along with the Inquiry’s request (notwithstanding that the email had originally been provided to the Inquiry by the Green Party itself).

24. The information contained in this email appears not to have been dealt with in accordance with appropriate safeguarding and child protection procedures. The email was archived when staff members left. This was a failing. If it is correct that the only action taken was to speak to the member concerned, it supports the Verita findings that the Green Party saw allegations of child sexual abuse as primarily a communications issue – about protecting the reputation of the Party – rather than a safeguarding one.

25. After these events, Aimee Challenor joined the Liberal Democrat Party. At the time of the hearing, we understand she was the Diversity Officer on the Coventry Liberal Democrats Executive Committee.[24] In light of this, Mr Scorer and Ms Harrison asked whether action should be taken where an individual who is known or suspected of having failed to respond appropriately to safeguarding concerns as a member of one political party joins another political party at a later point in time.[25]

26. Professor Thoburn told us that she would expect the matter to be covered by a crossover of safeguarding and child protection policy and disciplinary policy, and that further training may be appropriate for any such person.[26] For child protection and safeguarding to be effective, political parties must ensure that their members and those in positions of authority – including those who may have joined from other parties – are appropriately trained and aware of safeguarding and child protection policies and procedures.

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