Tagged: Hilary Benn MP

Unity, fear and hopes for a better society

Sarah Champion MP addresses attendees of the 3rd White Flowers Campaign vigil opposite Parliament

Sarah Champion MP addresses attendees of the 3rd White Flowers Campaign vigil opposite Parliament

Ian Pace live tweeted yesterday’s (14 January 2015) White Flowers campaign meeting in the House of Common’s here. My summary of the meeting, plus the meeting I had afterwards with Hilary Benn MP is below.

Committee Room 14 – the largest committee room in Parliament – was packed with survivors, campaigners, whistle-blowers, charities and concerned members of the public for the White Flowers Campaign Group meeting aimed at kick-starting the Child Sexual Abuse Inquiry. A number of MPs were there as well, including John Mann, Simon Danczuk and Sarah Champion who all addressed the audience (it wasn’t clear how many more were in the room, or how many had engaged outside the meeting).

Dr. Liz Davies (whistle-blower and reader in child protection) explained to the audience that the White Flowers name comes from the Belgian campaign which remembers the children who were abducted, abused and murdered by a paedophile ring involving members of the Belgian establishment. The idea has spread internationally (e.g. Australia).

Photo of white flowers, The 3rd White Flowers Campaign Vigil, opposite Parliament.

The 3rd White Flowers Campaign Vigil, opposite Parliament. (http://bit.ly/1CamFuP)

The first White Flowers vigil was outside Elm Guest House; the second at Grosvenor Avenue, Islington honoured victims from Islington Children’s homes. The third vigil took place before yesterday’s campaign meeting in Parliament and was very well attended by survivors, campaigners, MPs and members of the public and press.

The campaign group meeting was chaired by Phil Frampton who is a survivor from Southport Barnados (his story is here). He opened by saying that survivors have been called treasure hunters, publicity seekers and now even conspiracy theorists. In Phil’s experience, the only thing that stopped abuse from happening was people coming together and acting – unity is needed. This was the main theme of the meeting and something echoed by all the speakers. The meeting was the first time that MPs, survivors, whistle-blowers and charities had come together in a public meeting. The media were there too, and Phil said they were essential in getting messages to survivors and driving for the truth. But they mustn’t exploit or exaggerate survivor stories to sell papers – this undermines the cause.

Phil said the group would not respond to the Inquiry until it was transparent and had a drive for justice, and when it safeguards and protects those coming forwards. The Inquiry is only one tool to do the job though. More whistle-blowers need to come forward, and journalists must be true to their profession and uncover the truth.

Actress Samantha Morton, a survivor herself, was unable to attend the meeting due to her filming schedule, but sent a message of support to the meeting. She said survivors must not be quiet. Abuse is happening right now to children – we must all come together for justice.

Nigel O’Mara spoke about the long-term effects of sexual abuse. It affected the individual deeply, but also those around them, and society as a whole. He had rebelled against his abusers and ended up being sent into care in the 1970’s. He lost his chance of education and as a result ended up homeless and destitute, not emerging from prostitution and hard drug use until his mid-20’s. Forty years on from his abuse he is still unable to find work – partly because of education – but mainly because he experiences difficulty in situations where people have power over him, such as in the workplace. Survivors can only ever learn to live with effects – there is no cure. He asked the Government to put proper support in place for survivors.

Chris Tuck, a survivor who runs the Survivors of Abuse Network, also spoke about the long term effects, which include PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Chris said we need a body that supports victim’s needs and helps them through the criminal justice system. At the moment, no-one knows what is happening – this has a negative impact on survivors. Chris also called for mandatory reporting of abuse – something which has strong support across government, and proper sex and relationship education in schools so children understand what is a good and a bad relationship and learn to set boundaries. Chris said it was controversial, but we also need help and support for paedophiles.

Andy Kershaw – a survivor of Forde Park – shared some of his experiences, including how the authorities had consistently failed to deal with reports of abuse. Whistleblowing had built evidence against 190 people but only 4 were ever convicted. Andy reiterated the White Flowers Group’s call for the cut-off date of the inquiry to be pushed back to 1945. Andy said the Group had confidence this was going to happen.

John Mann MP speaking to the press by the 3rd White Flowers vigil

John Mann MP speaking to the press by the 3rd White Flowers vigil

John Mann MP spoke of the symbolism of holding the meeting in a parliament committee room. He said how in his Nottinghamshire constituency people had now come forward from every single care home to report abuse. But the police and social services need the resources to deal with this – at the moment they don’t. He said that if those in the room couldn’t be united then they would be handing power back to the abusers. We must stand together.

Liz Davies said we’d moved from whispering about abuse and cover-ups from dark corners during the early 1990’s to shouting it out loud today. However, the stakes are very high for those trying to stop the organised abuse because it relates to so much power and money. Evidence of the abuse was being used to manipulate the abusers, so there were vested interests in seeing the abuse continue. We are challenging the establishment, so people are trying to undermine us, spread disinformation, attack us – academics are trying to justify paedophilia – but we will continue to fight them off every day. With the cross-party support we have we will move forwards. Personal testimony was so important when evidence is routinely ‘destroyed’ – not just the Dickens dossier, but on many investigations, including Liz’s in the past.

Liz said she rejected the NSPCCs move to medicalise paedophilia, and said we need to reinstate the definition of ‘organised sexual abuse’ and the guidance to deal with it that this government had removed from the statute.

Ex-chief constable of the Lancashire Police Force, Pauline Clare, sent a message of support to the meeting say she understood how abuse has wrecked the lives of so many and it was time that abusers were brought to justice – stronger measures needed to be put in place now to protect children. She offered to work with the campaign group.

Whistle-blower Peter McKelvie recounted how, 21 years after his investigations were closed down, he went to MP Tom Watson who then raised his concerns about a paedophile ring going to the heart of government with Prime Minister David Cameron during Prime Minister’s Questions. Peter said that, regardless of some people saying ‘don’t go to the police’, things were changing and survivors should now go to the police with their evidence. This was a very contentious point for some members of the audience who spoke of their terrible experiences when doing this in the past – not being believed, or even being punished or prosecuted themselves as a result. Sarah Champion MP later said she was unimpressed with changes to policing following the Rotherham Inquiry, and others had expressed resourcing and capability concerns. Ann Coffey MP’s report into child sexual exploitation in Greater Manchester documented many similar experiences of policing. There is clearly a long way to go to build up trust. Sarah Champion MP said she didn’t want to politically point-score but the Coalition policy of police budget cuts and probation privatisation was the opposite of what we need.

Simon Danczuk MP, co-author of ‘Smile for the Camera’ which exposes the detail of the Cyril Smith scandal, said there were far too few meetings about child sexual abuse in parliament. MPs needed to connect with the mood of the nation on this. He said the factor that linked the scandals of the past to the slowness of progress today was ‘fear’. Frontline child protection workers, social workers, nurses, all say they are scared to speak out – scared of losing their livelihoods, being blacklisted, being prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act. Fear protects the abusers. We must introduce practical measures such as mandatory reporting and properly protect and celebrate whistle-blowers. He said people wanting to whistle-blow had contacted him to ask ‘who will protect and support me?’ Although the law had been strengthened recently, Ministers were paying lip service and not driving home the culture change. We must stop gagging public servants. This is a sophisticated cover-up. People in the frontline must be empowered to come forward.

Andy (a survivor) then spoke about how the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse was dealing with the issue in a much more robust way than our CSA inquiry was – it ensured that survivors were treated appropriately, and had the power to make people come forward. He also said that Ireland had set up an agency to support victims of the church – if Ireland can manage it then why can’t a country as rich as ours do it? Andy said he saw widespread denial about what was going on in this country. This plays to the sublime arrogance of the paedophile.

Phil Framptom said that a demand had been sent to the Tony Blair Government in 2001 for a national inquiry, but all they got was the North Wales Children’s Homes Inquiry which was limited by William Hague to looking at abuse that happened on the premises, missing out the abuse that occurred as children were trafficked around the country.

Alison Millar from Leigh Day Solicitors who represents CSA clients and has been very critical of the CSA Inquiry’s process for involving survivors, highlighted the issue of civil redress where survivors pursue legal action against the institution that failed them. She said there was currently no legal power to compel institutions to apologise to victims. Later on, Tim Hulbert talked about how insurance companies pressure Local Authorities into not apologising to victims.

Ian McFadyen – survivor and campaigner – made a point echoed later by Stuart Syvret: the CSA Inquiry is not actually about child abuse. It’s about the failure of government and institutions. Ian said many of the people in the room had been failed – for them the damage had been done and it was too late – but we can hold the people who failed us to account and make sure it doesn’t happen in the future to our children.

Tim Hulbert, ex-Director of Bedfordshire Social Services, said that missing files were not important – the most important thing was whistle-blowers coming forward. Tim talked about the malignant influence of insurance companies who, in wanting to minimise their liabilities, instruct councils not to apologise to victims. They try to narrow terms of reference and insist that the names of those involved are not released. When he resisted this the insurer started talking to the Chief Executive and councillors. They implied the threat that the council would not be underwritten if they did not comply. A statutory inquiry would have the power to tackle this. (The Jillings Report was compromised by the Municipal Mutual Insurance Company). Tim urged whistle-blowers from the institutions who had failed children to come forward.

Phil Frampton said he’d asked Barnados why they wouldn’t support victims in their quest for justice; their response was that their insurance companies wouldn’t let them. Phil said a FOI had been submitted to find out which insurers were underwriting the CSA inquiry.

Whistle-blower and ex-Jersey senator, Stuart Syvret, recounted how he had been jailed twice for whistleblowing. Jersey was further down the line in this process and could pass on some valuable lessons to the new CSA Inquiry: What do we want the CSA inquiry to investigate? And what does success look like? Stuart echoed Ian McFadyen’s point that this was not about child abuse but rather the abuse of power and the absence of real accountability of those in public office. He suggested a successful CSA Inquiry would result in properly enforced law, an independent prosecution service, and the removal of corruption from the police. He said it was the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, but we still did not have the properly enforced rule of law.

I left the meeting at that point (missing the last few speakers) to meet my MP, Hilary Benn (who had signed the call for the inquiry) to discuss the White Flowers meeting and the CSA Inquiry. Hilary said he and Labour fully supported the Inquiry, but he voiced some scepticism about whether there was, or had been, a paedophile ring operating through parliament. Where was the evidence? Hilary said he’d only followed the mainstream news reports on the Inquiry and related events, so I showed him some of the recent evidence reported via Exaro provided by new witnesses coming forward, and summarised some of the things said in the White Flowers meeting, in particular by the whistle-blowers and by his peers Simon Danczuk and John Mann, the latter having recently handed further evidence to the police (and said it was inconceivable that police would not now arrest and interview some of the politicians he has named). We discussed Simon Danczuk’s co-authored book which showed how, time and time again, the police knew what Cyril Smith was doing but were prevented from acting – things were never allowed to go through the proper CPS process – I’m not sure if Hilary had entirely appreciated this. Politicians – Hilary’s peers – knew what was happening but put party success before justice and children’s well-being, as in the case of David Steel. To countenance the idea that members of the establishment are above the law, Hilary Benn cited the example of the expenses scandal which led to MPs being jailed (Hilary was one of the tiny minority who emerged with a perfect record on expenses). My view was that this was only a handful, with relatively small sentences, and then only after huge and sustained public and media pressure. When it comes to the sexual exploitation and rape of children we only see entertainment figures being convicted, or revelations properly emerging after the criminal has died.

I would have liked to have seen Hilary Benn at the White Flowers meeting so he could hear the speakers himself, but he did meet me and genuinely debate the topic; some attendees MPs wouldn’t meet them, and a lot of MPs refused to sign the call for the Inquiry. The CSA Inquiry will need to make some serious progress before Hilary Benn and other’s faith in Government and the criminal justice system is shaken. Hopefully the White Flower’s Campaign will be a catalyst for that progress and, in the long-term, we’ll have a better society as a result.

Hilary Benn MP announces his support for a national inquiry into child abuse

On Friday evening, Hilary Benn MP added his name to the growing list of MPs from across the political spectrum who want a national inquiry into historical cases of children sexual abuse.

The call for a national inquiry was first made by Yvette Cooper MP in November 2012 following Home Secretary, Theresa May’s reopening of the investigation into child sexual abuse at North Wales children’s homes. But it was a recent cross-party letter to the Home Secretary signed by 7 MPs (Tim Loughton, Zac Goldsmith, Tom Watson, Simon Danczuk, John Hemming, Tess Munt, and Caroline Lucas) which kick-started the current campaign which has so far led to well over 100 MPs stepping forward in support of the inquiry. Although it is for Members of Parliament to make the decision, members of the Lords have also come forward in support, and the British Association of Social Workers has asked its 15,000 members to lobby their MPs to support the inquiry.

The pressure continues to build on the Government to agree to the inquiry as members of the shadow cabinet, including Andy Burnham and now also Hilary Benn, join the call. Following Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s apology on Thursday to victims for government and NHS failures highlighted in the Savile reports, Andy Burnham challenged Jeremy Hunt that the reports were “effectively the hospitals investigating themselves”. Burnham called for an independent review, akin to the Hillsborough inquiry, into why there was “such large-scale, institutional failure to stop these abhorrent crimes.”

The NHS Leeds report into Jimmy Savile’s crimes is a valuable piece of the jigsaw but the scope of all of these individual reports cannot answer the critical question of why it was that time and time again the police and other authorities had evidence of organised sexual abuse of children but failed to stop the abuse and bring the perpetrators to justice.

In MP Simon Danczuk’s book, Smile for the Camera, he provides damning evidence of how the Westminster elite were able to work with the police and MI5 to ensure Cyril Smith MP was never brought to justice – “There was a network at the highest level that was out to protect him at every turn”. And there are many other cases, such as the disappearance of a dossier of evidence about powerful and politically connected paedophiles shared with a previous Home Secretary by the late Geoffrey Dickens MP, and the failure to properly investigate and bring abusers to justice in the Elm Guest House and Grafton Close Children’s Home cases.

Please write to your MP if they are yet to state their position on the call for a national inquiry into historical child abuse.

How to win friends and influence planning panels: The Beeston Campaign for Affordable Homes

The former Ice-Pak site at 49 Barkly Road, Beeston (image from YEP)

The former Ice-Pak site at 49 Barkly Road, Beeston (image from YEP)

In late 2013, hundreds of households across Beeston in South Leeds received a leaflet headed “Beeston Campaign for Affordable Homes [BCAH]” encouraging residents to object to the proposal by Aspiring Communities to build a community centre on the former Ice Pak site on Barkly Road. Is the “Beeston Campaign for Affordable Homes” a genuine campaign group? And if it isn’t, should people be concerned about the influence BCAH might have on the final planning decision which is expected within the next two weeks?

So, what is the “Beeston Campaign for Affordable Homes”? Unlike most campaigns, it has no online presence. But here’s what I found out:

  • The “Honorary Secretary” of the campaign is Dr. William John Birch, a mining engineer by profession who has stood as Conservative Party candidate for councillor a number of times in the past. Dr Birch’s name appeared on a later version of the campaign leaflet, with an earlier version having been anonymous.
  • Dr. Birch is a member of the Beeston Community Forum. The Beeston Community Forum also object strongly to the Ice Pak development but two members of the Forum, including Vice Chairman Richard Bell (see comments section), have stressed that BCAH is not affiliated or linked to the Beeston Community Forum in any way and they are not aware of any other Forum members being involved with BCAH.
  • The BCAH leaflet has been hugely influential in encouraging people to lodge objections about the Ice Pak development with the Council. The vast majority of objections either mention the leaflet, or are signed versions of the leaflet, or are a petition based on the leaflet. The language in MP Hilary Benn’s objection letter suggests he may have also been influenced by the campaign leaflet.
  • Dr. Birch has lodged a number of objections to the Ice Pak development as “Honorary Secretary” of the Beeston Campaign for Affordable Homes (see his letters of 16, 19 and 24 December 2013 under planning reference 13/05214). Dr. Birch uses phrases like “a local resident showed us“, “as it is our understanding”, “we would request that”, “to give the official response of our group”. But no one else’s name except for Dr. Birch’s appears on the letters and it appears that no one else lodging an objection has stated they are a member of BCAH, including the person who sent a hand written objection letter on 28 December 2013 from the same household as Dr. Birch.

I have contacted Dr. Birch twice since the start of the year having been told by an intermediary that he would be happy to answer my questions about his campaign. He has not responded to date, including to the last letter which he signed for in early February. In the letter I asked him about the purpose (in addition to opposing the Ice Pak development), history and membership of the Beeston Campaign for Affordable Homes. I also asked if there was an opportunity for local people to get involved in the campaign (in addition to objecting to the Ice Pak development) and whether the campaign had any links to other affordable housing campaigns such as Hands Off Our Homes (Leeds). Finally, I asked Dr. Birch what he thought the chances were of affordable housing being built on the Ice Pak site should the Aspiring Communities proposal be rejected. Steve Williamson had previously suggested the affordable housing issue was a red herring.

All of this suggests it might be more accurate for the “Beeston Campaign for Affordable Homes” to be renamed “Dr. Birch’s Campaign to Stop the Ice Pak Development”. But what about the planning process? Could an individual have more influence on the process by presenting themselves as a campaign? The information that Leeds City Council’s Planning Team gave me about the process suggested to me there might be two ways that BCAH, as a “campaign group”, could exert more influence on proceedings than individual members of the public could.

Firstly, the views submitted by the BCAH “Honorary Secretary” could be separated out from those of the general public in the planning report which the Planning Team will present to the South and West Plans Panel for decision in the same way that the views of the  Beeston Community Forum and local ward members will be separated out. We will need to look at the actual report when published to see if this happens. Individuals who signed copies of the BCAH leaflet or the petition version will likely have their responses summarised by saying xx number of respondents signed a standard letter/petition agreeing with the points in the BCAH leaflet. But the report shouldn’t give the impression that these people are part of the BCAH campaign, and the Planning Team were keen to stress it is not a numbers game.

The second way that the BCAH “Honorary Secretary” might exert more influence than a member of the public is if any of the Plans Panel members (see picture below) or other attendees use the BCAH “campaign” to imply that a ‘group’ – which might be perceived as being representative or having relevant expertise – objects to the proposal. While neutral residents will hope that the  Plans Panel makes a decision based on the facts, it is ultimately up to each individual councillor to choose their words and tactics during what may well be a highly charged meeting.

The Planning Team are aiming to take the final report to the panel on 3rd April, but this is to be confirmed by the Chair, Councillor James McKenna.

South and West Plans Panel members. Clockwise from top-left: James McKenna (chair), Javaid Akhtar, Jonathan Bentley, Ann Castle, Mick Coulson, Robert Finnigan, Rod Wood, Paul Truswell, Christine Towler, John Hardy, Caroline Gruen.

South and West Plans Panel members. Clockwise from top-left, councillors: James McKenna (chair), Javaid Akhtar, Jonathan Bentley, Ann Castle, Mick Coulson, Robert Finnigan, Rod Wood, Paul Truswell, Christine Towler, John Hardy, Caroline Gruen.

Hilary Benn MP on Surveillance Laws, Undercover Policing and the Police State

Hilary Benn MP

Hilary Benn MP

Hilary Benn MP sent me the email below in response to a request for him to support the Don’t Spy On Us Campaign and to push for Parliament to launch an independent inquiry to recommend legislative reform on this issue.

“The revelations of Edward Snowden are and should be the subject of vigorous public debate.  As ever in these matters, particularly where security is concerned, there is a balance that needs to be struck, and the law needs to make sure that it keeps up with technological development. Given that three of the London bombers came from, or worked in, our community I want the police to be able to stop that kind of terrorism which claimed so many lives in London that day. But there has to be proper public and Parliamentary oversight.

On police surveillance operations, I share your concern not least because it has been reported in the newspapers that one of the protesters who tried to occupy my constituency office a decade ago was in fact an undercover police officer dressed in a clown’s outfit!

I have been trying, since this became public, to get an answer from the Home Office and the police, but to date none has been forthcoming.  There are of course occasions when it is wholly legitimate for the police to undertake undercover operations – for example in investigating terrorism and violent crime.

Finally, in spite of all the concerns you express, I really don’t think that we are living in a police state. You only have to look around the world to see what a real police state looks like.”

I asked Hilary Benn a couple of follow up questions, but he would not be drawn on whether the advent of mass un-targeted surveillance, which is one of the classic features of police states, moves us closer to becoming a police state. He also didn’t give a view on the dangers of the secret services driven assumption that “more data means better capability to prevent terrorism”. More data requires more resources (which we don’t have) to store and process it, and an increase in statistical errors such as seeing patterns where there are none and missing patterns that are there, as discussed by Professor Mark Harrison. The police and secret services knew about the 7th July 2005 bombers – three of whom had strong connections to Hilary Benn’s constituency – but were still unable to stop the attacks. Would mass-surveillance data have made any difference? It was interesting to note that the Liberal Democrats voted overwhelmingly in favour of a digital bill of rights that would prevent the government from embarking on the “bulk collection of data”.

Hilary Benn did express his support for the judge-led public inquiry announced in the last few days into undercover police spies.

The idea whose time has come

The Living Wage is a brilliant idea. If you pay employees enough to meet the actual cost of living and participate economically in society then it is good for them, good for the business they work for, and good for society. People will be happier. They won’t need to top up subsistence wages with benefits. They’ll be able to buy more goods and services to help fuel the economy.

It’s such a brilliant idea that it has cross-party support. The Prime Minister says it is “an idea whose time has come”. But here’s the problem: he said that 3 years ago and it’s still not Government policy. So why the delay and how do we get the politicians to deliver on their words? Continue reading

Manufacturing Your Apathy, A Case Study: Police & Crime Commissioner Elections

Dangers of voter apathy

Voter apathy may suit the mainstream political parties in the short-term, but the long-term dangers to society could be catastrophic.

The Police & Crime Commissioner elections of November 2012 were momentous for all the wrong reasons. Just 15% of the electorate turned out to vote – the lowest turnout for an election ever. Should we believe David Cameron when he tells us that this was because we, the electorate, did not understand the new role? Continue reading