Avoiding another Lambeth

By Richard Scorer | 31 August 2021

Richard Scorer says the obvious question hanging over the report of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse on the experiences of children in Lambeth’s care is are children safe in local authority care today?

The report of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) into the experiences of children in the care of Lambeth LBC was published this summer. IICSA’s conclusions were profoundly shocking: for decades, the council failed to protect children, employed staff who were known to pose a risk to children, and failed to investigate staff suspected of abuse.

But IICSA’s criticisms extended well beyond the council: the Metropolitan Police failed to properly investigate links between offenders, and Ofsted and its predecessors didn’t do enough to identify serious flaws in services and staff practices. In a childcare system supposedly based on effective multi-agency working, almost every element of the system was shown to be seriously defective.

The report examined events over several decades. Because of this, and because IICSA has decided to complete other investigations before making meaningful recommendations, the report has a retrospective feel to it with little analysis of current risks to children in local authority care, and of any reforms needed to protect them. But the obvious question hangs over the report: are children safe in local authority care today?

In relation to Lambeth itself, the report refers briefly to ‘much improved systems’, but also notes with concern that ‘the inquiry heard evidence of a more recent case, in 2016, of a child in the care of Lambeth Council placed in Sheffield who made allegations of rape, but neither local authority convened a strategy meeting, as should have happened’.

As a lawyer who often represents children in care, I acknowledge some improvement from the dark days of the 1970s, but I also have little confidence that the appalling failings identified in the report could not recur. For one thing, whatever agencies claim to do today, practice on the ground is inevitably impacted by austerity.

Many local authorities are struggling to deliver on baseline legal obligations, let alone improve or extend the services available to vulnerable young people. This is not to excuse the shocking failings seen in councils like Lambeth, but merely to acknowledge that a decade of ever deeper cuts has impaired service delivery. If councils are going to improve, we need to resource them to do it.

A second point – which I set out in my submissions to IICSA during the Lambeth hearings – is that mechanisms for hearing the voices of children in care remain seriously deficient. To be empowered to speak up when something is wrong, vulnerable children in state care need well-resourced independent visitor and advocacy services.

Most importantly, as the children’s commissioner said in 2019, to inspire the confidence of children and young people, such services need to demonstrate their genuine independence from the systems they are challenging. This is yet to happen in many authorities. I hope it will feature in IICSA’s recommendations, along with proper resourcing to underpin it.

A third point – and for me a central one – is that the concealment of abuse exposed in Lambeth and elsewhere will continue as long as the law allows it to happen. Most people assume that the law requires that knowledge or reasonable suspicion of abuse in regulated activities must be reported and investigated. In fact the law does nothing of the sort.

It remains perfectly legal, for example, for a teacher to know that a child has been raped, and not report it to anyone. In this respect the UK is an outlier internationally. This must change. We need well-designed mandatory reporting of child sexual abuse for those working in regulated activities who are personally responsible for the care of children.

When mandatory reporting was extended to education in New South Wales in 1987, referrals more than doubled as did substantiations. This is repeated in each regulated activity to which mandatory reporting is introduced. Combined with a suite of additional components it delivers a step-change to the safeguarding of children.

Having unpicked countless abuse scandals, I can say with certainty that every scandal now being examined by IICSA would have been stopped in its tracks at the time had mandatory reporting of known and suspected child sexual abuse existed. Mandatory reporting also imports neutrality into the reporting process.

If an allegation has to be reported by law, then the act of reporting is a genuinely neutral notification not an imputation of guilt. Data reveals the law supports good personnel – of which there are many – when raising concerns. They can escape the inevitable pressures to say nothing simply by pointing out that the law requires a report to be made.

But most importantly of all, international evidence demonstrates overwhelmingly that mandatory reporting of child sex abuse by regulated activities helps protect children across society. If another Lambeth is to be avoided, this is the most important and urgent reform.

Richard Scorer is head of abuse law at Slater and Gordon

@SlaterGordonUK

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