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IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

Children in the care of Lambeth Council Investigation Report


J.4: Key issues

70. In considering the various investigations about child sexual abuse and prosecutions in Lambeth, a number of issues have arisen.

Investigating offenders and links between offenders

71. It is clear that the scale of offending against children in Lambeth Council’s care was not identified by the Metropolitan Police Service at the time of its occurrence or during Operations Bell and Middleton. The Inquiry has identified failures to follow up evidence leads – in particular, the links between perpetrators that may have led to the identification of further offending.

Listening to children and obtaining cogent accounts

72. The police are required to identify vulnerable or intimidated witnesses, and provide assistance as necessary to ensure equal access to justice. Where children are concerned, this may include the introduction of communication aids or intermediaries during interview, especially where the child is very young or has complex needs.

73. Assumptions must not be made about a child’s credibility or competence at an early point of contact with the police. With this in mind, in 2001 the Home Office produced guidance, Vulnerable Witnesses: A Police Service Guide.[1] In 2001, the guidance stated that the initial assessment of a witness is not an assessment of competence – it is about understanding how to obtain best evidence from that child.[2] As Mr James Bowler (director-general for policy communications and analysis in the Ministry of Justice) said, the initial contact and the guide is about “achieving best evidence and how you can help to do that”.[3]

74. The updated version of the guidance, published in 2011, is more useful in providing advice to the police than its predecessor in many important respects.[4] However, the starting point – that competency is presumed at that stage and the initial police contact is not about assessing competency – is not made explicit. Mr Bowler made the point that police officers are now specialists, trained to deal with child sexual exploitation, for example, and the 2011 guidance may therefore be aimed at a more educated and trained audience than earlier versions.[5] While that may be true in principle, as Mr Bowler conceded it would be preferable to make it explicit at the outset that the police are not assessing the competence or credibility of a child at this early stage.

75. Any interview with a child should comply with the guidance Achieving Best Evidence in Criminal Proceedings (the ABE 2011 guidance).[6] We understand that, in December 2014, a joint inspection team considering the handling of child sexual abuse cases recommended that the Ministry of Justice should update the ABE 2011 guidance, including by producing a booklet or aide-mémoire to assist the police in their pre-assessment, planning for interview and considerations on engaging an intermediary.[7] The 2014 joint inspection team also recommended that an update should clarify interviewing and obtaining best evidence from children, particularly in complex cases and where multiple interviews are required (this need for an update appears to be recognised by the Metropolitan Police Service, the Crown Prosecution Service and the Ministry of Justice).[8]

76. At the time of the hearing in July 2020, the ABE 2011 guidance had not yet been updated, nor an aide-mémoire produced.[9] Steps should be taken as soon as possible to implement these changes recommended in the 2014 joint inspection. Mr Bowler told us that he agreed that the guidance needed to be updated for a number of reasons, including that the Ministry of Justice was due to publish a new Victims’ Code at the end of 2020.[10] An updated Code of Practice for Victims of Crime (the Victims’ Code) was published by the Ministry of Justice in November 2020 and was updated in April 2021.[11] As a statutory code, it sets out the minimum level of service that victims should receive from the criminal justice system (including the police and the Crown Prosecution Service), with 12 separate rights for victims and a system of redress where that level of service is not met.[12]

77. Dr Emily Phibbs, a psychologist, explained how children and vulnerable witnesses can be assisted to provide cogent accounts of sexual abuse.[13] It is crucial that the communication skills of the child are fully understood:

It is essential to consider each child’s individual needs as it is entirely possible that a child who does not appear to have complex communication difficulties may have hidden disabilities or complex trauma which would immediately impact on their ability to communicate effectively.[14]

78. As Dr Phibbs said, there will on occasion be significant background information available about a child (such as psychological services or speech and language assessments). Information-sharing at a multidisciplinary strategy meeting prior to interviewing a child may provide a good source of information for police officers. In respect of these multidisciplinary strategy meetings, Dr Phibbs told us:

They may offer an opportunity for officers to talk with teachers and social workers who may have prior knowledge of a vulnerable child. This point of information exchange however is often not capitalised upon because in my experience the interviewing officer is not always the officer who attends the strategy meeting.”[15]

79. As we heard in evidence from Dr Phibbs, trained intermediaries are now used to assist those children who have communication difficulties to speak to the police.[16] Both the questions and the setting are important in order to “have the best chance of allowing a child to give best evidence”.[17]

80. In a report, Barnahus: Improving the response to child sexual abuse in England (2016), the Children’s Commissioner referred to the issues facing children who disclose sexual abuse:

Children who disclose that they have been sexually abused face multiple interviews with social workers, the police and medical professionals in a variety of settings. Interviews are often the only source of evidence in sexual abuse cases, yet for many children the interviews led by the police do not enable them to provide the best possible evidence … Children can be traumatised by having to give an account of their abuse to multiple professionals in multiple locations.[18]

81. The Inquiry heard from Ms Emma Harewood, development and service manager at The Lighthouse in London. The Lighthouse is available in five north London boroughs to children and young people who have experienced sexual abuse.[19] In terms of Achieving Best Evidence interviews, The Lighthouse offers two options. First, a police officer can lead the interview with the child as they would normally, but they can do this in the environment provided at The Lighthouse, with the appropriate support in place. Second, The Lighthouse can offer a psychologist to lead the interview. The psychologist will conduct a pre-interview assessment, work with the child to build their confidence and then move through to do the video-recorded interview. When describing the skill involved, Ms Harewood gave this example:

a great example, I think, of the added value a psychologist brings is in a case example the other week. A young boy aged 9 was becoming very dissociated and distracted in the interview and she [the psychologist] was able to bring him back in the moment with a clapping mirroring game, with some stop/start stones they use, with a short break.[20]

We note that this ability to focus the interview may well have been difficult for even highly trained police officers to achieve.

82. As Ms Harewood explained, The Lighthouse provides children with:

a holistic service all under one roof in a place where they can really feel safe to talk. So we aim to allow them to tell their story and gather the best evidence, whether that’s through a forensic examination … or through a video-recorded interview. We want to help them get the best out of the criminal justice process by supporting them through that, to give them a really holistic medical and then provide the emotional and well-being support not only for them, but also for their family as well.[21]

As Commander Murray noted, there are issues of scale, capacity and cost in implementing this approach: “it’s how we industrialise that I think is the challenge”.[22]

83. Engagement with victims and learning about their communication skills is critical to the detection and prosecution of child sexual abuse offences. We were pleased to see that, at the conclusion of the hearing, the Metropolitan Police Service encouraged complainants to contact them about any unreported allegations as well as any unsatisfactory police response to an earlier report.[23]

84. The court process is also adapting to the needs of child witnesses. Children may now give evidence at trial with the assistance of intermediaries. ‘Ground rules’ hearings take place so that a judge will scrutinise the proposed cross-examination of a child and make restrictions on what will be asked, where necessary.[24] Those with complex needs can give evidence using communication aids or props.[25] Children have their evidence-in-chief video recorded before trial, and soon will have their cross-examination pre-recorded before any trial as well.

Training and support for officers

85. Officers involved in the investigation of child sexual abuse must be trained to recognise and understand the nature of risk.

86. As with all crimes, there must be forensic assessment and detailed scrutiny of evidence when investigating child sexual abuse. It is also crucial that police officers are trained to consider the wider picture and to engage in comprehensive risk assessment. For example, Paul’s access to children and the Operation Bell offences should have led to consideration by the Metropolitan Police Service (and of course Lambeth Council) of whether he had abused other children. LA-A337’s allegation that Hook held her whilst LA-F93 touched her indecently should have raised concern about the joint conduct of both men.

87. We also note the challenges of recruitment and retention in child protection investigations. Commander Murray told us:

The risk that you carry as a child protection officer and some of the stuff you’re exposed to that victims have suffered is significant, and the amount of scrutiny you’re under, and then, when things go wrong, it’s also very, very difficult and we need to rise to that challenge … But it is a challenge and we have a shortage of detectives in this area and we want to make it an attractive area to work, but it is one I think that is considered quite high risk because so much can go wrong and the workload burdens are very high, as you can imagine.”[26]

The judgements of trained and experienced police officers make a real impact on sexual abuse investigations and ultimately the outcomes for victims. It is crucial that officers – such as the 2,000 currently working in safeguarding in London – are properly funded, continuously trained and supported to undertake their role.[27] We noted in our Interim Report that victims and survivors felt that their encounters with the police were “positive when compared with their contact with the police in previous decades”, but that issues remained.[28]

88. In our Interim Report, the Inquiry recommended that any police officer (or staff equivalent) who wants to progress to the chief officer cadre must (i) be required to have operational experience in preventing and responding to child sexual abuse and (ii) achieve accreditation in the role of the police service in preventing and responding to child sexual abuse. We recommended that the Home Office should amend entry requirements, using its powers under the Police Regulations 2003 to achieve this.[29] As at July 2019, the Home Office and College of Policing had drawn up a programme of non-legislative changes to ensure there is understanding of safeguarding and vulnerability across all levels of leadership in policing. The UK Government response also stated that the Home Office had not yet identified any need for legislative change but would keep this under review.

The assessment of the evidence of a child

89. As acknowledged by Mr McGill, the Code for Crown Prosecutors in the late 1980s looked at things very differently in terms of the evidence of children.[30] In 1986, the matters prosecutors were required to take into account when examining the evidence included whether there were “matters which might properly be put to a witness by the defence to attack his credibility”, as well as whether “child witnesses … are likely to be able to give sworn evidence”.[31] The 1988 version of the Code noted, regarding the prosecution of sexual offences involving children:

The credibility and credit of the child will often be of limited value, and in the case of very young children, may be nil.[32]

90. Children in care are vulnerable to sexual abuse and have also been disadvantaged when it comes to the evaluation of their evidence in criminal proceedings. Private and sensitive details about their lives are documented in social care files, and records may be made by those who do not know the child well, have a vested interest in discrediting the child or are simply inaccurate. The rules of disclosure require consideration of material held in care files and assessment of the effect that it might have on the case. We were told this could result in the discontinuation of proceedings. For example, in 1992 the prosecution of LA-F4 (a residential care worker at Angell Road) for the rape and sexual assault of a child in care was discontinued after disclosure of the child’s records was ordered.[33]

91. The disclosure of care files is now subject to greater scrutiny and regulation. For example, in 2013 a protocol was drawn up to deal with the disclosure of information in cases of child sexual abuse and linked criminal and care directions hearings. This made provision for the Crown Prosecution Service to notify a local authority where it considered that material provided by the local authority fell to be disclosed in criminal proceedings. The local authority was afforded the opportunity to object to disclosure including on the grounds that the person affected by the disclosure did not consent.[34]

92. The Crown Prosecution Service’s Child Sexual Abuse: Guidelines on Prosecuting Cases of Child Sexual Abuse (updated in November 2018) now states:

Children or young people who have been in the care of, or have come to the attention of, social services will inevitably have a great deal of information about them contained within social services records compared to other children or young people. Every episode of misbehaviour, even of the most minor nature, is likely to be a matter of record. Most children misbehave but not every child has their misbehaviour recorded. Victims who are, or have been, in the care of social services should not be disadvantaged in the criminal process by this fact, and prosecutors should be prepared to address this issue as part of the presentation of the prosecution case.[35]

This highlights the disadvantage clearly and requires prosecutors not to focus solely on the child but rather on the evidence of the allegation being made.

Children giving evidence at court

93. As in other investigations, we heard that children often found the experience of court proceedings traumatic. They must remember and relive the abuse in order to provide evidence, and encounter their abuser again.

93.1. LA-A25 lived at Shirley Oaks in the 1960s and 1970s. From 1968, Hosegood was her house father. She was abused at Shirley Oaks by Hosegood between the age of 11 and 16. The abuse consisted of physical violence, indecent assaults and rapes. In 1975, Hosegood was prosecuted in relation to abuse of four children at Shirley Oaks, including LA-A25. She told us that giving evidence in court in the 1970s was frightening. She was 17 years old at the time of the trial. No one explained the outcome to her: she discovered Mr Hosegood had been acquitted from her sister. She got no support after the trial.[36]

93.2. In 1993, LA-F5 stood trial for the indecent assault of LA-A80, following allegations being made to his social worker in 1992 that LA-F5 had perpetrated sexual abuse against him. LA-F5 was charged with buggery.[37] During the course of his evidence, LA-A80 broke down during cross-examination and was unable to continue. He was 12 years of age. As a result, the judge directed the jury to return a ‘not guilty’ verdict.[38] Charlie Elliott, a team manager at Lambeth Council, wrote to Inspector Ian Gordon of the Metropolitan Police Service noting the “extreme disappointment” felt at the outcome of the trial.[39]

93.3. LA-A7 (who gave evidence at Paul’s 2015 trial) said:

Giving evidence was extremely hard for me, it felt like I was in the witness box for a lifetime and it was a very traumatic experience. I don’t think that trial helped my mental health, forcing me to relive events that I had tried to forget.[40]

94. As Mr McGill acknowledged, a child facing their abuser in court, as well as the court environment generally, would have been “a much more intimidating environment” in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s than it is now.[41] Victims are now able to have their evidence-in-chief pre-recorded over video. Shortly, a scheme facilitating pre-recorded cross-examination of victims will be available nationally. Through such means, victims will not be required to give evidence at court.

95. We stated in our Accountability and Reparations Investigation Report that victims and survivors of child sexual abuse often find it difficult to access support at the right time, particularly during the criminal justice process.[42] Mr McGill noted, “the more support you can give victims, and the more specialist support you can give them, can only benefit them”.[43]


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