The following article was published in the New Law Journal in July, 2023.
The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) was a statutory inquiry beginning in 2015 and was set up in the wake of the Jimmy Savile scandal. Its terms of reference were:
‘To consider the extent to which state and non-state institutions have failed in their duty of care to protect children from sexual abuse and exploitation; to consider the extent to which those failings have since been addressed; to identify further action needed to address any failings identified; to consider the steps which it is necessary for state and non-state institutions to take in order to protect children from such abuse in future; and to publish a report with recommendations.’
Over seven years, the inquiry held 15 investigations, provided 19 other investigation reports, took nearly three million pages of evidence, received nearly 29,000 different correspondences and held 325 days of public hearings. It established The Truth Project, which gave voice to victims and survivors of child sexual abuse to talk of their experiences and speak to what needed to change. In total, it heard from over 7,300 victims and survivors, with more than 700 actually giving evidence. 64 different organisations and individuals came forward as IICSA Changemakers.
The final report
Published on 20 October 2022, the report detailed how institutions failed to protect children by prioritising their own reputations and those of people within them. It described
in detail how there was often a complete lack of any, let alone appropriate, policies or procedures to deal with allegations of child abuse.
The report identified not just the historical failures to identify abuse and protect the vulnerable, but also signposted the proliferation of future opportunities for this abuse to flourish, particularly online. This was most readily manifested in online sexual abuse and grooming, often for distribution to others.
It spoke of the fundamentals of how child sex abuse is perpetuated and the constant theme of victim-blaming. It acknowledged that the inquiry had finally given voice to so
many who had felt exposed and abandoned, and then ultimately disbelieved.
The report made plain that the extent of such abuse was unquantifiable due to the complete lack of unified and coherent data, even when that information was provided by
statutory bodies such as the police and local authorities. This frustrated its conclusions.
1. A single set of core data relating to child sexual abuse and child sexual exploitation.
2. Creation of a child protection authority in England and in Wales.
3. Creation of a cabinet-level minister for children.
4. A public awareness campaign on child sexual abuse.
5. A ban on the use of pain compliance techniques on children in custodial institutions.
6. Amendment of the Children Act 1989 to give parity of legal protection to children in care.
7. Registration of staff working in care roles in children’s homes.
8. Registration of staff in young offender institutions and secure training centres.
9. Extended use of the barred list of people unsuitable for work with children.
10. Improved compliance with statutory duties to inform the Disclosure and Barring Service about individuals who may pose a risk of harm to children.
11. Extending the disclosure regime to those working with children overseas.
12. Mandatory online pre-screening for sexual images of children.
13. Introduction of a statutory requirement of mandatory reporting for child sexual abuse.
14. Compliance with the Victims Code: government to commission joint inspection of compliance.
15. Removal of the three-year limitation period for personal injury claims brought by victims.
16. A guarantee of specialist therapeutic support for child victims of sexual abuse.
17. A code of practice for access to records pertaining to child sexual abuse.
18. Further changes to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme.
19. National redress scheme for victims and survivors.
20. More robust age-verification requirements for the use of online platforms and services.
The government response
On 22 May 2023, the home secretary, Suella Braverman, gave the government’s official response to the final report’s 20 recommendations.
What has the government said? That they would act on all but one of the recommendations; many have indicated it is unclear which. Declaring that no crime is more horrific, leaving terrible mental and physical scars, the response pointed to tougher sentences being brought in by the Police and Crime Sentencing Act 2022 and better protection from the proposed Online Safety Bill. It also highlighted the Victim and Prisoners Bill brought on 29 March 2023, which would facilitate the better navigation of victims and survivors in the criminal justice system.
The government accepted the need for a redress scheme, but its specific detail, including eligibility, types of redress available, and the extent of any financial component, was to be assessed by way of a further ‘extensive engagement’.
Accepting that there should be improvement in the collection of data, the government pointed to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and to its Centre of Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse (CSA), established by the Home Office in 2016 which it suggested already undertook a lot of this work.
The notion of a Child Protection Authority was rejected and that of a specific children’s minister was said to be part of the remit of the education secretary. This was despite the
report making it clear that existing oversight was not working, and there needed to be a coherent unified body with a designated government minister in charge.
There was a stated commitment to improve barring and the registration of staff working with children, but without any specific new mechanism being announced. The point regarding use of pain compliance techniques for children in custody, rather than being subject of a ban, was said to lead to further training.
Chorus of criticism
Exceptionally, in this case, there has been combined criticism from the inquiry chair Professor Alexis Jay, and many participant organisations.
The unified theme of the criticism of the government response was that rather than taking immediate action, this was in effect promises and talk; and that the government’s assertions that existing systems would deal with the risks showed it had simply not understood how those systems had historically failed, and why urgent change was thus necessary.
The assertion that current processes— albeit with a better focus—were enough had completely missed the point; the suggestion of further consultations was failing to protect children now, and the report had already provided a necessary package of recommendations that applied across sectors. Bearing in mind the overstretched organisations currently tasked with child protection, the government response, it is said, offered nothing new, no new funding and no new meaningful support for victims and survivors.
Recognition & reporting
Historic failures by institutions to deal with child sexual abuse has always largely centred around the desire to protect reputation and the inability to act, save in the clearest and
most concrete cases. But the nature of child abuse is that there are no absolutes; it is often shrouded in secrecy, manipulation and control of the child, founded in a relationship
where there is an imbalance of power, and frequently features an abuse of trust.
A key recommendation—the call for statutory mandatory reporting of child abuse—was met with the promise of a further consultation. Critics have deemed this one of the biggest lost opportunities. We, who have for many years worked on matters involving child sexual abuse, understand the devastating importance of reporting. But before one can report, one has to recognise child sexual abuse—therefore, structures for mandatory training are absolutely crucial.
Those of us who train police and investigators, and who in the criminal courts deal with young victims, know that we have to operate under a completely different system of communication and modify our language accordingly. This frequently requires an assessment of the cognitive abilities of the child to process and explain what has been done to them, to then be in a position to properly explain it to a court. The use of intermediaries to facilitate this for young witnesses is now commonplace.
Thus, training is crucial in order to be aware of this when flagging potential signs of abuse, and to understand the careful path that must then be trodden when questioning possible victims, to safeguard not only them but also the rights of those accused to protect the integrity of the process.
The future roadmap
What is the path forward for those who feel failed by this response? What could be urged upon future administrations?
Should the government not consider the setting of an exact and precise timetable for new statutory provisions for a single point of contact and responsibility across England and Wales for the identification and reporting of child sexual abuse? What about the immediate enacting of criminal sanctions in respect of failure to report abuse and
failure to properly register those who work with children?
If there is to be mandatory reporting, what should be the threshold of evidence? Many believe that it should be at the indication of any signs of abuse. The legal test for the
prosecution of child sexual abuse is, as it is for any criminal offence, that there must be a realistic prospect of conviction and it must be in the public interest. But here we are looking
not at the end result of the process, but the protective trigger to an investigation and the consequences of a potentially criminal failure to report abuse. This was a recommendation
of the report, notwithstanding the safeguarding obligations that already exist in respect of schools, social services, and the NHS.
In 2015, the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 was amended in respect of nonsexual child abuse in terms of the offence of child cruelty to include an offence founded on
neglect and failure to protect. Many will ask: how can corrosive sexual abuse of children not have the same triggers for an arrest?
As a core foundation, should there not be a national database for information sharing between non-governmental organisations, police, social workers and courts, so no child
in future falls through the cracks?
What about the future avenues for abuse identified by the report? As specialist child abuse prosecutors in the crown court, we receive many cases where it is external organisations—or so-called ‘paedophile hunters’—who go online to root out those who are seeking to meet and abuse children. The Crown Prosecution Service frequently takes over these cases. Those who act in a civilian capacity to do this work complain that they do so because they fill a need. Police forces work hard to act in covert and undercover operations to identify offenders. The rapidly expanding nature of this online abuse, which can happen in any part of the world, means that the work of these groups will inevitably continue: hence, the stated need for the extension of disclosure regimes beyond England and Wales.
For any person convicted of a child sex offence, there is invariably the imposing of a sexual harm prevention order dealing with their access to devices, monitoring by the police and, coupled with the barring regime, how they come into contact with children in the future. Many would argue this important structure should come in tandem with precisely the above recommendations which deal with the start of protection.
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