Official Report: Minutes of Evidence

Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety, meeting on Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

Ms M McLaughlin (Chairperson)
Ms Paula Bradley (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr M Brady
Mrs Pam Cameron
Mrs J Dobson
Mr Gordon Dunne
Mr K McCarthy
Ms R McCorley
Mr M McGimpsey
Mr F McKinney
Mr George Robinson


Mr Wells, Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety
Mr Seán Holland, Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety
Mrs Fionnuala McAndrew, Health and Social Care Board
Mr Hugh Connor, Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland

Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Northern Ireland: Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, Health and Social Care Board and Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland

The Chairperson (Ms Maeve McLaughlin): Minister, you are very welcome. We have Seán Holland, chief social services officer at the Department; Fionnuala McAndrew, director of social care and children at the Health and Social Care board; and Hugh Connor, chair of the Safeguarding Board (SBNI). You are very welcome. Members and Minister, I apologise for the delay. It is obviously an important subject, but because of time constraints I will ask members to keep questions and comments as succinct as possible. Minister, I will hand over to you for some opening comments.

Mr Wells (The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety): Madam Chair, first of all, I do not mind being delayed at all. There are one or two issues out there in the country that have exercised my mind this morning, and I certainly valued the extra time.

I thank the Committee for giving me the opportunity to attend this session so that I can provide an update on the report on the independent child sex exploitation inquiry, which was made public yesterday. For ease of reference I will use the phrase "CSE" throughout the presentation as shorthand for "child sexual exploitation".

I know that Kathleen Marshall, the chair of the inquiry team, along with Stella Taylor and Glenn Houston, has already briefed the Committee, for what turned out to be quite a long time, about the report. Members will be aware that I made an oral statement in the Assembly yesterday on behalf of myself and Ministers Ford and O'Dowd. I paid tribute to Kathleen Marshall and those who assisted her for their work, and I would like to repeat that here today. I am glad that I got a chance to thank her personally there, in the rotunda.

In addition to those made for other Departments or agencies, there are recommendations made in the report for my Department, the Health and Social Care Board, the health and social care trusts and SBNI. For this reason, I have along with me Fionnuala McAndrew, director of social care and children in the board, who is well known to you all, and Hugh Connor, who is the chair of the SBNI. Members will be aware that Mr Connor has tendered his resignation from the end of this month. Consequently it is likely that this will be Hugh's last appearance before the Committee as chair of SBNI, and I am sure that members will want to wish him well as he moves to what is truly retirement. Of course, Seán Holland, who is the chief social services officer, has been with you many times before.

Members who were in the Assembly yesterday — I think that was almost everybody — will have heard my statement and the media coverage on the report. At this stage, I hope that all members will have had an opportunity to consider that statement in full. Some of you may also have had an opportunity to consider the full report, although I accept that it is quite a bit of reading; it is quite a comprehensive document. I do not intend to repeat everything that was said yesterday, but, just to refresh members' minds, I will make them aware of the key findings of the report, which I will summarise briefly.

The report clearly indicates that child sexual exploitation exists in Northern Ireland and takes a number of forms, ranging from planned or systemic abuse to relationships between under-16s and those a few years older than them. CSE does not exist here in the same way as was found in places such as Rotherham and Rochdale. Very importantly, there are no cover-ups, no corruption, no lack of commitment on behalf of the agencies or individuals and no ethnic minority dimension. That makes it radically different from the situation in Rotherham, in particular.

Some children and young people, including disabled children and looked-after children, are more vulnerable than others. The Internet and social media are particular challenges and can facilitate CSE. Drugs and alcohol also play their part. There are elements of organisation to CSE here, although it is not thought to constitute organised crime as defined by the National Crime Agency.

We need to work to address underlying vulnerabilities in children and young people and the range of issues that renders them more open to sexual exploitation. CSE is not a problem only for looked-after children; it is a part of life for other children who are not known to social services and who have not been identified as vulnerable. The report has identified a number of children and young people — up to 120 — who are considered to be at risk of exploitation. However, the number who may be experiencing CSE may be significantly higher. Such is the nature of CSE and child abuse more generally: the majority of it is hidden and unreported.

We are not going to solve the problem of children going missing from care by simply locking them up. We need to create safe spaces for them. We have a particular Northern Ireland dimension to CSE in that it is linked to paramilitaries. Some individuals are using their paramilitary links and the fear that they engender to sexually exploit children and young people.

Finally, we have a job of work to do to further improve our understanding of CSE in Northern Ireland. We can never be complacent, and the solution requires a cross-departmental, cross-agency and societal response. I appreciate Mr McGimpsey's having raised that issue in the House yesterday.

There are a number of points that I want to make in response to what was said yesterday in the Assembly by those who contributed to the debate. I hope that this proves that we not only make statements in the Assembly, we listen to what Members say and we take action on that. I hope that Members will be reassured when they hear our views, even after only 24 hours.

There have been repeated calls from some quarters, but not all, for a statutory inquiry to consider CSE in Northern Ireland. I remain wholly unconvinced of the need for a statutory inquiry and stand by the decision of the former Minister to undertake this inquiry in the way that it has been done. Significant as the issue is, he did not want it to be a huge drain on a public purse already under significant pressure, and nor did I. I think that most right-minded people would agree with that. We have had plenty of public inquiries that have taken many years to complete and consumed significant public finances. The O'Hara inquiry, which has been going for nearly nine years and is still to report, is a classic example of that. That delay is not doing anything for those who were afflicted by that terrible condition. Equally, it is my opinion that the pseudomonas model, which the previous Minister instigated, was exactly commensurate with the problem that we had. It reported very quickly, recommended a series of actions, which were promptly taken, and eliminated the problem. That was quick, sharp and fleet of foot. That is why I support the way in which the Marshall report was constituted.

You have to ask yourself what compelling witnesses would have achieved. I believe that it would have done little to add to our knowledge of the prevalence of sexual abuse, as we have seen from the Marshall report that young people who may be considered to be at risk will not engage if they do not want to. Statutory agencies cooperated fully with the Marshall inquiry and candidly offered their views. There is no suggestion to the contrary in the report. We also need to consider the faithfulness of some of those who came forward to the inquiry to give an account of the links between CSE and the paramilitaries. A power to compel would certainly have put many of them off making a contribution at all.

The statutory inquiry point is tied up with calls to hold to account. I will repeat what I said yesterday: the inquiry team discovered no cover-ups, no collusion, no corruption and no lack of commitment on the part of the agencies and individuals, both at the front line and in managerial positions. Of course, that does not mean that we should not be doing better. Of course we should, and we should have done things differently. Across the full spectrum of HSC services, we need to be continuously seeking to improve the way that they do things. The report highlights where things were working well and where things need to be, and can be, improved. We can always do better.

This is not to say that no action has been taken over the past number of years relevant to issues raised in the Marshall report and in other reports. Significant activity has been undertaken in connection with child protection generally, child sexual exploitation, children missing from care and those who have been missing from care over a considerable period. We have made service changes underpinned by significant additional investment; introduced new guidance, standards and strategies; and introduced new reporting mechanisms. If members want us to, we will be happy to provide more detail on what has been done, either today or at a later session. Of course, Hugh Connor is here today, so the very fact that, in the intervening period, we have constituted the SBNI — it is up and running, following the appointment of its members and a chair — indicates that there has been a general commitment to the issue.

The Marshall report concludes that CSE is not a stand-alone issue. Underlying vulnerabilities, such as neglect, poverty, substance abuse and domestic violence, can increase the vulnerability of young people to the risks that need to be addressed. A holistic approach to keeping all children safe from all forms of abuse and to integrating messages about CSE into what already exists makes sense and is an approach that we have to consistently take. This reflects the Department's commitment to strengthening and improving child protection and looked-after services for all children and young people who need them. That is not to say that we do not need to make some specific responses to CSE and to children who are missing from care.

Much has been said about the hidden nature of CSE and how little is known about victims and perpetrators. I compare CSE to cancer: it can go unseen for a long time, and it takes different forms. It took many years to improve our diagnosis and treatment of cancer, and it was an incremental journey. Today, recovery rates for cancer have improved greatly, but just because we have not found a cure, it does not mean that we are failing. If we imagine that we can eradicate CSE, we are being unrealistic. As with cancer, we must strive to deal with CSE in a more effective way. We must get better at identifying, preventing and disrupting it. Not long ago, people did not speak openly about cancer. Thankfully, that has changed as recovery rates have improved and people have been given hope. We need to give people, particularly young people who are being exploited, the confidence to speak openly and the hope and belief that those who are harming them can, and will, be stopped.
In our consideration of the recommendations and responses to them, this should be at the forefront of our minds.

I turn to the report's recommendations. If there is some overlap with what Mrs Marshall said, I apologise. I was not here to hear the contribution that her team made. As members will be aware, there are seven key recommendations for my Department and 13 supporting recommendations. Some recommendations require me to work with the Department of Education and the Department of Justice, and some require me to work with the Health and Social Care Board. I have said that there are a number of recommendations, both key and supporting, for the Health and Social Care Board, the trusts and the SBNI. I will not say anything about recommendations exclusively for the other Departments. That is a matter for those Ministers, Mr O'Dowd and Mr Ford, and I am certain that their respective Committees will be seeking an update from them in due course. However, I will say that we have had good support from both Ministers on this particular issue. I cannot complain about their lack of commitment on this matter either.

Those key recommendations for my Department relate to a public health campaign on CSE-related issues along with the DOJ guidance for parents and carers, including foster carers and residential care workers on how to capture evidence when a child who has gone missing returns or otherwise is considered at risk of CSE. They include an exploration of the benefits of amending or adding to standards for children's homes to ensure that they promote a culture that respects the best interests of the child and takes account of the specific needs of separated and trafficked children and those affected by CSE. Along with the board and the trusts, we will give consideration to how safe places can be developed for children and young people at risk and subject to or recovering from CSE, taking account of the models of best practice, the views of young people and the international human rights standards. We will be ensuring that the planned review of the SBNI considers streamlining joint working arrangements to make them more realistic, effective and efficient. We also want to ensure that there is a clear reporting pathway 24/7 for reporting concerns about children and young people, including on CSE, with appropriate feedback provided to those making the report, along with the Department of Education and DOJ leading on the development of a regional strategy to prevent, identify and disrupt CSE.

I want a coordinated HSC response to the Marshall report. As a result, I have asked for a HSC CSE response team — sorry for all of the jargon here — to be established, and I want it to consider the report's recommendations for the HSC and report back to me by the end of January 2015. That is only two and a half months away, so I think that you will understand how seriously we are taking this issue. That report will advise me on which recommendations should be accepted. If it is proposed not to accept any recommendation, I will want to know why. The response team will then develop a detailed implementation plan which will identify who will do what and when, and thereafter I will receive a six-monthly report on progress. I will ensure that the views of children and young people, parents and those with experience and expertise in CSE are built into the implementation process. I will ask the response team to set out how that will be done.

I made the point yesterday that some of the recommendations for my Department are already being progressed, including the development of the new safeguarding policies for adults and children and new guidance on information sharing for child protection purposes. Also, I have already made CSE a commissioning training priority for the Health and Social Care Board and commissioned a CSE training strategy for all relevant HSC staff. That has been drafted and, once agreed, will be rolled out across all the trusts with immediate effect. The significant risk presented by technology is a theme that we will be coming back to many times; it is a very important issue. Technology is increasing children's vulnerability to being exploited. I am seeking the response of my ministerial colleagues to develop an e-safety strategy. This is being done through the Executive process. I believe that it is something that all Departments will have to buy into, not just Health.

The point was made yesterday in the Assembly, and previously by Kathleen Marshall, that preventing and tackling CSE will require a collaborative and coordinated response, and I cannot agree more. It is not just a health and social care issue; it is an issue for other sectors. I will need the support of other Ministers, other Departments, statutory agencies, voluntary and community organisations, community service providers, parents and communities if we are going to succeed in this task. This is a societal issue. My Department alone cannot deal with it in isolation. It was suggested yesterday that perhaps we need a ministerial task force to deal with the issue of CSE. Indeed, that issue was raised by Mr McGimpsey. It is unfortunate that he has had to go, because I said in the Assembly yesterday that I saw a great deal of merit in that suggestion. I am attracted by it and think that the suggestion that we have a task force that covers all of those involved, not just my Department, merits very careful consideration. As you know, I have set up groups to look at the implementation in DHSSPS, but I think it goes much wider than that.

Overall, I think Kathleen Marshall's report is balanced in its findings. We know more about the nature of CSE in Northern Ireland and have a much better sense of the challenges and how we need to adapt and improve our services to respond more effectively. We do not have a precise assessment of prevalence, but that is the nature of child abuse. In that respect, we are no different from other parts of the United Kingdom. I doubt whether we will ever have a definitive data set regarding its full extent. I believe that we can continue to develop our understanding so that it is more readily recognised and reported. That is extremely important.

I am proud that it is a matter of record that the Marshall report states that there are many dedicated and committed front-line staff, social workers, care staff, police officers, health workers, youth and community workers and those in the voluntary sector who are all doing their utmost for children and young people who go missing or are at risk of CSE. I am confident that we have the human resources available to respond to the challenges and threats of CSE in all its forms and all of the threats that it poses to children and young people.

Again, I thank you for the opportunity to meet the Committee and set out what I plan to do in response to the Marshall inquiry. We are now more than happy to answer any questions. I have the experts with me, so if I am unable to answer any specific point, I will simply refer it to someone who does know the full answer.

The Chairperson (Ms Maeve McLaughlin): Thank you for that overview, Minister. In the last session we heard some quite alarming commentary from Professor Marshall and the team who accompanied her. It effectively was that the whole issue of child abuse should have been given priority since 2006 and was not given priority at that time. By her own admission, that lack of action could have resulted in children being put at risk or abused. How do you respond, Minister?

Mr Wells: I am disappointed that Professor Marshall has formed that perception. I have asked for a list of the actions that have been taken since March 2007. I will actually leave them with the Committee. I will just cite a few examples. For instance, the Department funded the Barnardo's specialist service for missing children — the Safe Choices programme — to the tune of £222,000. In 2008-09, we invested £1 million for trusts to train residential staff in therapeutic services. In February 2009, the Department invested an initial £3·5 million in child protection services. Indeed, it is worth saying that there has been a 52% increase in investment in family and childcare services since 2001. You are aware of the formation of and legislation that was brought forward for the Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland. We have had joint social services and police guidance on missing children. I could go on and on. An awful lot has been done.

The Chairperson (Ms Maeve McLaughlin): With respect, Minister, I think that people round this table know that there is a lot of ongoing good work in that regard. I am asking you a specific question. In the previous session, Professor Marshall mentioned the fact that this issue should have been given priority since 2006. By dint of not being given priority, it ran the risk of children being at risk or abused.

Mr Wells: The report is very clear that there was no sense of a cover-up or maladministration. Officials were taking it seriously and took a series of steps that directly or indirectly helped the situation. It also said that more could have been done, and I accept that.

The Chairperson (Ms Maeve McLaughlin): The report did not set out to explore whether there was a cover-up or collusion. It set out to look at the extent and nature of child sexual exploitation and actually examine how effective safeguarding processes were.

The Chairperson (Ms Maeve McLaughlin): What I am saying again is that, in the previous session, Professor Marshall indicated — I think that it is a note of concern for all of us — that the issue was not given priority and should have been as far back as 2006 and that therefore, ultimately, children were put at risk.

Mr Wells: What I can say to you is that I respect Mrs Marshall's comments, but I am saying that, if full account is taken of the large number of steps that were instigated between 2006 and 2014 on the issue, we will see a very clear pattern of taking it extremely seriously. Now, do I accept, from her report, that much was done but a lot more is required? I accept that. That is why we instigated the report. That is why we funded Barnardo's to carry out its detailed analysis of it. It was useful to have an outside adviser telling us what could be done.

What I can also say is that she concludes that our situation is nothing like the one which occurred in Rotherham, for instance, where 1,400 children were sexually abused and there was very clear evidence of gangs from ethnic communities carrying out that terrible abuse and of officials turning a blind eye and ignoring reports and material. It is quite clear that, every time new information became available, my officials took action.

The Chairperson (Ms Maeve McLaughlin): So, in short, do you believe that the Health Department has done everything in its gift to ensure that this issue was given priority and actioned on the basis of reports that actually date back to 2001?

Mr Wells: First of all, I accept that the Department took a lot of action but that Kathleen Marshall's report indicates that more could have been done. I think that it would be very difficult to indicate that that led directly to children's being made more vulnerable. With the hindsight that we now have with the report and the thematic review, which, as you know, will bring out its report, I am sure that we could have done things better, but, in that respect, we are in a very different place to the rest of the United Kingdom, where heads have rolled left, right and centre. People have been forced to resign because they overlooked damning reports and did not take them seriously. It is quite clear that with the knowledge our staff had, they were taking very strong action to try to protect children. As it turns out, we needed to have taken more.

The Chairperson (Ms Maeve McLaughlin): OK. If more could have been done, whose responsibility was it?

Mr Wells: Well, ultimately, the responsibility would have been that of the various Ministers in charge at the time. There were three from different parties. Of course, they would not have had the knowledge that we now have of the situation.

Could I also say that the development of internet technology has moved so quickly that things that were unimaginable, even in 2006, are common now. The vast majority of children now have access to the internet and mobile devices and are being exposed to material of a sexual nature, and that could never have happened even a decade ago. So, this is very much a situation that is moving very quickly.

I will ask Seán to come in on this. I feel that, compared with other authorities throughout England, our situation has not been as difficult and testing. Yes, we need to do more and this report is telling us so. I hope that, by the immediacy of the action that is being taken, I am showing that we are taking it very seriously.

The Chairperson (Ms Maeve McLaughlin): Did we need to more in 2006 or further back?

Mr Seán Holland (Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety): Chair, obviously, you do not want me to read out a long list of actions that we have taken, but I would highlight a few that I think are very germane to the point that you are pursuing.

If I go back to 2006, a date that has been mentioned, I think that it refers particularly to a Social Services Inspectorate overview. Can I point out that that work was actually done by the Social Services Inspectorate, which was part of the Department. So, that, in itself, was the Department doing something about the issue. It was inspecting services. When it looked at services, particularly those that were relevant to looked-after care, it identified that there were risks to young people in residential care. A recommendation was made in that overview report, which was particularly about doing interviews with young people when they had run away from care. All the trusts established action plans in response to the recommendations and implemented actions. They had a specific recommendation that was relevant to child sexual exploitation, and they implemented the action that was recommended.

I highlight that action because it is illustrative of the issue of trying to believe that, at a point in time, if you did something, you would cure this problem. Professor Marshall's report of 2014 contains really revealing interviews with young people highlighting that, actually, taking the very action that they took in response to the recommendation probably did not make that much difference.

I mention that because you can implement recommendations in good faith, people can take plenty of actions and, hopefully, it moves the situation on, but you are always just operating with the knowledge that you have at the time. In 2006, with the knowledge that was presented as a result of an inspection report, people took action. That action continued between 2006 and 2014. There were actions that were particularly relevant to child sexual exploitation. Indeed, I could take you back to 1995, when we introduced the definition of child sexual abuse that included child sexual exploitation.

The Chairperson (Ms Maeve McLaughlin): With respect, Seán, I indicated that there is ongoing work — I accept that — from a number of agencies. I know that you referred specifically to the social services inspectorate report. However, page 24 of the inquiry report itself refers to the work produced by Include Youth in 2001, 'Out of the Shadows', which made a number of recommendations, many of which are still pertinent. Those recommendations are still valid but have not been actioned.

Mr Holland: No, I do not think that that is correct. I think that if you were to —

The Chairperson (Ms Maeve McLaughlin): The report says it in black and white.

Mr Holland: If you wish, we can do a mapping exercise to map the actions that we have taken that are relevant to the report of 2001 and the inspection in 2006 or any of the times that the issue has been raised.

The Chairperson (Ms Maeve McLaughlin): Let me give you another example. The Minister indicated a few minutes ago that he would bring forward a response to the inquiry by January — Minister, you said January 2015 —

The Chairperson (Ms Maeve McLaughlin): — which would consider the recommendations from the report. You then talked about a detailed implementation plan. A detailed implementation plan was recommendation 3 in the Barnardo's report of 2011. I will quote from it. It was the board that was tasked at that time.

"The ... Board should progress the development of a targeted and fully resourced action plan on sexual exploitation that includes, but is not limited to, consideration of the following issues:"

It details all those issues, including data collection, competency best-practice models, etc. That was recommendation 3 in 2011. We now have a recommendation for an implementation —

Mr Holland: Between 2011 and now, a number of actions have been taken that are relevant to —

Mr Holland: — that are relevant to that recommendation. Fionnuala can comment in a moment on the actions that the board specifically took.

The Chairperson (Ms Maeve McLaughlin): Seán, with respect, that one was not, if we are now being told that we have this inquiry and that we have a report coming to the Minister's desk in a few months' time that may consider the recommendations from the inquiry, one of which will be a detailed implementation plan.

Mr Holland: I think that the implementation plan, in itself, probably is not that significant; it is the actions that you implement in an implementation plan. In response to the issue of child sexual exploitation, the board implemented a number of actions, dating from 2011 but also before that. However, as I said, I will pass over to Fionnuala, who can talk in more detail about the actions that the board took.

Mrs Fionnuala McAndrew (Health and Social Care Board): Thank you, Seán. Chair, just to reiterate, you are going back to 2006, and, before I talk about the 2011 work, I would like to point out that I think that significant measures stemming from the 2006 report mean that the service is more readily available, it is easily accessible and there is a heightened awareness of child sexual abuse within the service. In relation to that, I point, very briefly, to the Understanding the Needs of Children in Northern Ireland (UNOCINI) single assessment tool that is a standardised process for assessing the needs of children who are referred to social services, and it incorporates child sexual abuse. I also point to the formation of the gateway teams, which is a single point of contact for anybody who is concerned about a child, with our most skilled and experienced social workers at the front door, taking those referrals and assessing them. Those are significant measures, and they have strengthened the response of social services to children.

Specifically, the board was targeted with improving data collection and monitoring, particularly in relation to missing children. I know that you probably want me to talk about that. If that is appropriate at this juncture, I am happy to do that.

The Chairperson (Ms Maeve McLaughlin): We can come back to the subject of missing children and how that is reported.

Mrs McAndrew: Not going into detail, but measures have been taken forward in relation to the data collection on missing children and children who are potentially at risk of child sexual exploitation.

There has been a lot of work on policies and procedures, staff training, and looking at the best methods of responding to children who are at risk of sexual abuse and child sexual exploitation. Whilst the board might be criticised for not having provided a detailed action plan, I suggest to you that a lot of the measures that I can point to, and as Seán says, we can map those out, were a direct response to the 2006 child protection report, the Include Youth report and the Barnardo's report.

Can more be done? I do not think that any director or manager of social services would sit before you and say, "No, we have refined our processes and our systems as much as we possibly can." Of course more can be done. I believe that Professor Marshall's report gives us a lot of indication of where we should put our energies as we take the recommendations forward.

The Chairperson (Ms Maeve McLaughlin): OK. There are two references in the report, one of which is on page 13. It specifically talks about the 2006 report and states:

"The Inquiry has ascertained that some of the actions in the plan have been completed, but others remain outstanding."

In a similar vein, and I want to raise this point because I think it is critically important. The report refers to the private Member's Bill that was being brought forward in 2009-2010 by Michelle McIlveen around missing and runaway children and the need to legislate and provide accurate numbers. The report refers to that, stating:

"she experienced a great deal of hostility from the Department and some children's agencies for having raised the issue."

The Bill was ultimately withdrawn, and there was an agreement that there would be an administrative system for the collection, collation and recording of quarterly statistics and the formulation of an action plan.

Mr Wells: Can I say that if Miss McIlveen felt that she had been treated badly by officials, then, on behalf of the Department, I wish to apologise unreservedly. It is certainly not the intention of the Department to make her feel that way, and I am sorry that she was left in that position.

I was very aware of that at the time, as I was Chair of the Committee. I was aware of the intention to bring forward that private Member's Bill. An agreement was reached with Michelle McIlveen to deliver the policy intention behind her private Member's Bill by administrative means. Given her interest in missing children in particular, which I welcome — Michelle has always shown herself to be on the lead in this issue — I have asked officials to provide her with a full update of what has been done since she originally raised the issue with the Department in 2010. I accept that that was an unfortunate situation and one that we have learnt from.

The Chairperson (Ms Maeve McLaughlin): In your view, would the private Member's Bill have assisted this issue?

Mr Wells: The intention of the private Member's Bill was very honourable, but it was felt better that this could be carried out through actions by the Department rather than through primary legislation. I accept that that was a balanced argument, which had validity either way. At the time, I remember looking at the Bill and thinking that it could go either way. At that stage, an assurance was given by the Department that the intention behind what she was trying to do could be achieved more quickly by means of administrative changes rather than by the long and tortuous process of a private Member's Bill. As you know, it can take two-and-a-half years or three years to get that through.

The Chairperson (Ms Maeve McLaughlin): I accept that, Minister. I am trying to get a direct answer to the question of whether the private Member's Bill would have assisted us in dealing with this blight in the community.

Mr Holland: It is notable that Professor Marshall has not recommended that we now proceed with similar legislation.

The Chairperson (Ms Maeve McLaughlin): Does that mean that it would not have assisted?

Mr Holland: I think it tells us that she has looked at the issue and that she is aware that there was once a proposal for putting this on a statutory footing. If she felt that that would have assisted, then, I assume, she would have made a recommendation to that effect: she has not done so.

The Chairperson (Ms Maeve McLaughlin): OK. The agreement at that time was that there would be an administrative system and a detailed action plan. Page 70 of the report says that the Health and Social Care Board advised that this was a one-off action plan, and it actually states in the first paragraph:

" Although referred to in correspondence as interim, it is not clear that a final version ever emerged."

Mrs McAndrew: Chair, may I comment on that? You made reference to an action plan mentioned on page 13 and page 70, and my understanding and how I am going to respond to your question is that both are references to the strategic action plan. Those were actions that the Health and Social Care Board agreed to take forward following the intervention of Michelle McIlveen and her concern that we were not collecting and collating relevant information about missing children to help us to understand what was happening to them. The strategic action plan was developed at that time, which was drawn up on my instruction to my staff, to make sure that we did not neglect to document and address the agreements that we had with Miss McIlveen at the time.

The strategic action plan is given as a appendix to the report. I think that, if you look at that, you will see that a number of the actions have been completed. There are some that are ongoing, and there is one significant one, which I know Professor Marshall referred to today, that relates to the revision of the missing persons guidance and the joint training for police with social workers. That is in relation to the action plan. That still stands. Some of the actions are complete, some are nearing completion and some are ongoing. So, we are continuing to work on the revision of the missing-children protocol and the data collection. We have done a lot of work, and I am very happy to run through that now, as you see fit —

Mrs McAndrew: — in relation to the data collection and the missing children protocol.

The Chairperson (Ms Maeve McLaughlin): The issue is that we do not have a final version of an action plan from 2010.

Mrs McAndrew: Most of the actions are complete. Some —

The Chairperson (Ms Maeve McLaughlin): But we have not got the final version of the action plan from 2010.

Mrs McAndrew: We updated it in September 2013. I think that you will see that the version that we provided in the report — I will just double-check that — was an update. We took stock, we reviewed ourselves and updated where we were in September 2013, and that document is the appendix to the report.

The Chairperson (Ms Maeve McLaughlin): I will finish on this, because I know that a number of members want to come in, but, Fionnuala, the board's role in this is quite clear in the report, in black and white, on page 70, under the strategic action plan:

"In short, it appears that there have been improvements in data collection, but, until recently, this has not been accompanied by analysis and oversight to inform a strategic overview."

It also says, importantly, that:

"We understand that the action plan was not the subject of consultation and not disseminated."

Mrs McAndrew: The action plan, as I said, Chair, was compiled at my instruction to my staff. As a result, it was not required by any organisation or by the Department. It was an instruction to my staff to make sure that the commitment that we had made to Miss McIlveen, in response to her concerns about missing-children data, was taken forward. It was largely considered to be an internal document. However, I am happy to report on it. We updated it in September 2013, and I am certainly very happy to give the Committee detail on how we have responded to those commitments.

The Chairperson (Ms Maeve McLaughlin): Do you accept that it is a piece of work that has not been completed?

Mrs McAndrew: Most of the actions in the plan have been completed, and some are ongoing.

The Chairperson (Ms Maeve McLaughlin): It was also an action plan, from my understanding, that involved other agencies.

Mrs McAndrew: In relation to the protocol and its revision, it has involved the police and we have been working very closely with the police. We have a revised missing-children protocol agreed with the police, and we have a commitment from them that, once their organisations have approved the protocol, joint training will be taken forward.

The Chairperson (Ms Maeve McLaughlin): So it was not an internal document? It also included voluntary organisations.

Mrs McAndrew: I suppose, Chair, that I am perhaps not explaining myself terribly well. We were not asked for an action plan as a response. I instructed my staff to put that together, internally, to make sure that we honoured our commitments in that regard. So it was not a case of having to report to the Department on that actual plan on an ongoing basis. I think that that is why, perhaps, there is a sense that it has not been regularly updated.

The Chairperson (Ms Maeve McLaughlin): OK. However, I want to make reference to that again. On page 69 it says:

"A meeting between Ms McIlveen and officials on 1 June 2010, concluded with a commitment to the production of an administrative system for collection, collation and recording of quarterly statistics and the formulation of an action plan on missing children."

It seems fairly clear to me.

OK. A number of members —

Mr Wells: Madam Chair, could I just clarify a couple of things which have been raised? You referred to the meeting of June 2010. Given the fact that the mandate would finish in May 2011, it would have been very difficult to have got a private Member's Bill on this important issue through on time. Lord Morrow's Bill took two-and-a-half years. So it was a choice between legislation, which had a great degree of validity but which, we thought, probably was not going to get through, or immediate action by the Department to address Ms McIlveen's concern.

We have been throwing a lot of facts and figures at you about the period from 2006 to the present. I will provide you with a paper showing every step that was taken in that period to address these issues; because I think, it indicates — unlike Rochdale, Rotherham, Sheffield, greater Manchester, etc — that this was being taken very seriously in the Department. However, had we the knowledge then that we have now, I suspect that we would have done things differently. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.

Of course, in the middle of all this, we pushed through the legislation to form the SBNI, and it was up and running in 2012. That was a major contribution to this issue as well. Hugh was appointed chair, and the organisation was staffed and funded to a level of £750,000 a year. So the quantum of all this would indicate to me that the Department was taking this very seriously — a lot more seriously than elsewhere in the UK. But, as it turns out, with hindsight, we could have done more.

The Chairperson (Ms Maeve McLaughlin): I will come back on that issue because the recommendation in the Barnardo's report is not talking about the establishment of a safeguarding board, it says:

" When established, the SBNI should, as part of its work plan, consider the issue of child sexual exploitation".

I make that point.

Mr Wells: Hugh, as chair of the board, can come in on that.

Mr Hugh Connor (Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland): I have said to the Committee previously that, when the board was established in September 2012, it was asked, in the first six months of its existence, to produce a strategic and operational plan, which then went out for consultation. One of the four priorities that were identified by the Safeguarding Board was child sexual exploitation. The plan was consulted on between April and June of 2013, and it was endorsed through the consultation process. About the same time, it began to emerge that the police were reporting an issue here.. That is a very important point: it was the safeguarding system itself, no other body, that was actually drawing attention to the fact of child sexual exploitation and wanting to respond to it. Clearly, at that time, the matter came further to the public's attention. The board developed its own processes for handling those issues but was also mindful of the fact that the work, or some of it, had been delegated to Mrs Marshall.

The Chairperson (Ms Maeve McLaughlin): Hugh, I know that, and I do not want to have this discussion, but I must come back to you. The 22 cases came into the public domain as a result of the PSNI trawling through its own missing persons processes.

Mr Connor: Yes. I am not saying anything else. What I am saying is —

The Chairperson (Ms Maeve McLaughlin): You say that it was as a result of the safeguarding process.

Mr Connor: No. It was not.

Mr Holland: Excuse me. If I could just make a point of clarification, the 22 cases were analysed by the PSNI. They were analysing all the cases reported by social services to the PSNI.

The Chairperson (Ms Maeve McLaughlin): Yes, but they were going through their own internal processes on missing persons.

Mr Holland: Yes, but I am saying that those were cases where social services were sufficiently concerned about these young people to contact the PSNI about safeguarding issues relating to them.

Mr Connor: If I may clarify, the PSNI is one of the members of the Safeguarding Board. I was not trying to say that the Safeguarding Board per se — that is, myself and the officers — actually identified this as an issue. It was an issue that came from the child protection system.

Mr McKinney: Thank you for your presentation. Whatever about actions that you were taking, they all ultimately ended up with gaps in the information, and that was reflected liberally through the Minister's statement to the House yesterday. I will reflect on it for a second. It states:

"not been able to establish actual numbers of young people ... a rough idea of the extent of CSE ... we do not know the full extent of CSE". — [Official Report, Vol 99, No 6, p10 and 11].

All of that gap emerged from inaction, not action, and it was sufficient for Kathleen Marshall to say that, as a result of that inaction, some children will have been abused. That is her conclusion. What is your reaction to that?

Mr Wells: I am not entirely certain, Fearghal, that I would come to the same conclusion.

Mr McKinney: She authored the report.

Mr Wells: I am not trying, for one minute, to hide behind any issues that have arisen. There is absolutely no doubt that it is better to have a series of tangible actions rather than strategies and timetables. For understandable reasons, you have not yet had a chance to see just how seriously that was being taken behind the scenes in the trusts and the board. Lots of actions were taken, and we now know what we know as a result of Kathleen Marshall's and other reports, some of which were funded by the Department, which gave significant funding to organisations like Barnardo's to critically analyse what we were doing. That shows that there was no intention to try to hide anything. Why would you spend £130,000 or £200,000 in some cases funding an in-depth investigation if you were trying to hide malpractice or were not showing good intent? I am content that we were doing a huge amount of work, and, had we had the knowledge then that we have now, I am sure that we would have done even more.

Mr McKinney: The point is that your public presentation to the House and the report itself said that not enough was done.

Mr Wells: I accept, Fearghal, that, given the knowledge that we have now, that is true.

Mr McKinney: That not enough was done.

Mr Wells: We are now much more knowledgeable on this situation than we were 10 years ago.

Mr McKinney: But not enough was done. Do you agree?

Mr Wells: Some of that was because we did not know enough about this terribly difficult situation.

Mr McKinney: But we were being asked to find out by the Barnardo's report that the board funded.

Mr Wells: Yes. That was critical of some of what we were doing, and we made major changes.

Mr McKinney: It was not done.

Mr Wells: Fearghal, I am trying to say to you — I will ask Seán to come in here — that, once you see the paper trail of what was going on, you will see just how seriously we were taking it. We were taking action. We were not producing so many plans and wish lists, but we were on the ground, spending a lot of money and a lot of time and effort to deal with a serious situation that was emerging daily. Therefore, unlike other organisations in the rest of the United Kingdom that were simply covering their eyes, denying what was happening and desperately hoping that it would go away, we were taking it seriously. I regret that Kathleen Marshall felt, in her report, that we had not done enough. Had she seen the full list of what we had done and considered it, she would have been reasonably reassured.

Mr McKinney: This is perhaps an exaggeration, but you can have activity, and then you can have activity disguised as movement. In this case, we did not get the result that we wanted despite advice, it appears to me, that suggests that, had we done things differently, we would have got a different result.

Mr Wells: Seán —

Mr McKinney: Surely somebody, Minister — not Seán — has to be held accountable for that.

Mr Wells: I do not think that it is at that level. Kathleen Marshall is not indicating for one moment that there was any cover-up or any attempt to bury this incredibly important issue.

Mr McKinney: In my view, with respect, that is a red herring. This is about people who are employed to do a job being responsible for the job. Nobody has accused anybody of a cover-up. That should not be drawn into this conversation, because it is not part of the conversation and certainly not part of any input from me. I am only interested in that, when people have a responsibility, they fulfil the job against best advice, and when it does not happen and when those who are investigating establish at this Committee that people may have been abused as a result of that inaction, somebody must be held accountable. Who is that?

Mr Wells: Ultimately, the Minister responsible is the person who takes the final criticism. Of course, in this case, it is three Ministers.

Mr McKinney: Whom will you hold accountable?

Mr Wells: I do not actually want to do that. I want to look at the lessons learned from the Marshall report and instigate even more improved policies. I am about to give you a document. Any reasonable person looking at it will say, "Yes, the Department took it seriously, and the Department, the board and, subsequently, the SBNI took a series of steps, which, together, indicate that this was being taken terribly seriously and that a lot of hard work was going into making children in Northern Ireland safer than those elsewhere within the UK".

I will ask Seán to come in on the technical aspects.

Mr McKinney: If you do not mind, I do not really want to hear about those, because I think that I have dealt with them. You can present me with a list, but, ultimately, I still see the gap that the list did not satisfy. Therefore —

Mr Holland: Sorry, Fearghal, can I address the gap? There are some significant technical issues, and, although Kathleen Marshall touched on some of them, there are other pieces of information that might be of assistance to the Committee.

You are talking particularly about the fact that we are not able to identify accurately the number of young people who may be experiencing child sexual exploitation in Northern Ireland. I think the inference from that is that, if we had done things that were recommended in the past, we would be in a position to do so. I would like to address that if possible.

Can I start by saying —

Mr McKinney: The context is that Kathleen Marshall has agreed that point, so, if you are going to contradict her —

Mr Holland: I will start by saying that the Department's funding of the Barnardo's research was us putting money into an attempt to find out more about child sexual exploitation. Globally, trying to measure sexual abuse, including child sexual exploitation, is problematic. You can count the number of people who are prosecuted for offences relevant to child sexual exploitation. You can also count the number of people who come forward for services as a result of having experienced abuse, and you can add those figures together. Neither of the figures will give you an accurate understanding of how many children have experienced child sexual exploitation. You can do things that will improve the accuracy of the figures, such as training staff to make them better able to recognise abuse when they see it, having public awareness campaigns to encourage people to come forward and having services that people make themselves known to because they feel they might help them. Even by doing all those things, which are the things that Kathleen Marshall said that we need to continue to do, you will not get an accurate figure.

There are experts globally who will tell you that you cannot accurately count the number of people who experience sexual abuse. If I may refer to some experts: there is David Finkelhor in the United States —

Mr McKinney: Sorry —

Mr Holland: No, it is an important point, Fearghal, please. This is science. The point is that people will report as adults what they would never disclose as children. We can see that because we know how many young people are currently receiving a service because they came forward and were identified as having experienced child sexual exploitation. Those numbers are a huge distance from the speculated number of victims. Good estimates would say that even the best reporting systems will be 80% out on the number of people who experience abuse.

The Chairperson (Ms Maeve McLaughlin): Seán, I am going to come in there, because this is straying off the topic. We are all mindful of the fact that this is a complex issue that society is only beginning to come to terms with.

Mr McKinney: If I could —

The Chairperson (Ms Maeve McLaughlin): Ultimately, it goes back to the point —

Mr Holland: Then, to summarise in one sentence: no matter how you improve your data collection systems, and no matter how much work you do on that, you will never be able to identify accurately how many people are experiencing abuse at a given time.

Mr McKinney: Thank you, and I understand that, but information can be 100%, 90%, 80% or 70% complete. We need to see whether we can maximise that.

You said that people who were abused as children sometimes report it only as adults. You need to get to the stage at which the gap in the data collection could have helped with that. You need to get to the stage at which children can report abuse when it is happening and feel empowered to do so, and that may help to reduce the —

Mr Holland: No child protection system in the world has achieved that.

Mr McKinney: That is OK, and, if we want to stay with the status quo —

Mr Holland: No. We always strive to improve.

Mr McKinney: Yes.

Minister, I will finish with this point. It is an issue that I raised with Kathleen Marshall. I heard her references to Rotherham and Rochdale and took issue with her because the comparator, if it were headlined, could make it look as though our problem was not as bad as that elsewhere. As such, it would take out of context the severity of the abuse for those involved. She said that she was only really trying to say that, organisationally, it was not. It concerns me that you have interpreted that in a different way, which is, "We are not experiencing this. There was not a cover-up. No cover-up was ignored". Our problem is our problem.

Mr Wells: Fearghal, let me make it clear: one child being sexually abused is one child too many. It is a horrendous experience for that person for the rest of his or her life.

Mr McKinney: Absolutely.

Mr Wells: Therefore, it is wrong to say that we are being complacent because we believe the problem not to be to the same extent as that in Rochdale or Rotherham. On sheer scale, there is absolutely no doubt that those two communities have experienced sexual abuse of young people that is in a different league, numbers-wise, from that occurring in Northern Ireland. The population of Northern Ireland is bigger than either of those communities'. That is a horrible way in which to have to say it, but, as a percentage, the scale of abuse is much smaller in Northern Ireland.

Mr McKinney: You see why it is important to refer to that. It is important so that people do not interpret this, somehow or other, as meaning that, simply because it is not happening over here —

Mr Wells: Yes, I accept that. Importantly, the report pointed out the significant differences in the form of child sexual exploitation in Northern Ireland, and not so that we can sit back and be proud of ourselves because it is a better situation here. It is not, and it is important that we address it. For instance, had we identified organised gangs in Northern Ireland, or a particular problem in an ethnic minority, we would have had to adopt a series of policies to deal with such situations. In Northern Ireland, we know that child sexual exploitation often involves loners and the party-house scene, and — this makes us fundamentally different from the rest of the United Kingdom — there is evidence of those involved in paramilitary organisations using the power that they have in the community, and the fear that that instils, so that, if they are predisposed to wanting to abuse children sexually, they take that power and use it. That makes us significantly different from Rochdale and Rotherham. We have to know that, because a different enforcement emphasis will be required to deal with the problem and to get into those communities to ask them to come forward with the information that we need. The evidence came from only about 120 —

Mr McKinney: Just to be clear, you said:

"The PSNI view is that organised paramilitary involvement in child sexual exploitation has not been established." — [Official Report, Vol 99, No 6, p10, col 2].

It is another unknown.

Mr Wells: If you noticed the interviews carried out last night by the senior police officer, he said that, although he could not categorically say that it had happened, he would not be remotely surprised if individual criminal elements in paramilitarism in Northern Ireland were involved directly in using that power.

Mr McKinney: That is the gap. Those are elements of the gap.

Mr Wells: Fearghal, what I will also say is that the information was based on face-to-face interviews with young people, some of them a bit older now, who had been directly targeted by paramilitary figures for sexual exploitation, and who pleaded with the Marshall report team to make it known that they had been targeted by people whom they knew to be paramilitary bosses on both sides of the community. The tap-on-the-shoulder situation arose. Mr Big, or whatever he likes to call himself, asked girls to remain behind in a bar or club. They were abused, and everybody in that bar knew the status of the individual. That is why it is important.

Did that then lead to convictions? No, because those young people were scared witless that their names would be revealed to the paramilitaries and that they, or their families, would be targeted. That is why they felt unable to take the next step — we all hope that some day they will be able to — which is to go to the police and the courts and name the individuals, who are well known in their communities.

Mr McCarthy: Thanks, Minister, for your statement earlier. It seems quite a while since you made it.

You may have answered this question in your statement. You paid tribute to other Ministers' cooperation. I would not expect anything other than the best of cooperation from Minister Ford. Can you tell us whether a formal structure will be put in place to coordinate the responsibilities of different Ministers and Departments to address the horrendous problem of child sexual exploitation?

Mr Wells: I thought that Mr McGimpsey's point is one that should have been considered. It is a pity that he is not here, because I think that he could have expanded on it. I will be contacting my colleagues in the Department of Justice and the Department of Education. I have promised to take this forward so that, instead of having a working party, steering group, implementation group or whatever, three separate Departments can simply ensure that their particular recommendations are implemented. I think that we should have a triumvirate representing all the agencies, including the police, the Courts Service, the board — there are myriads organisations here — to see whether that is the best way forward. The Assembly, because of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, tends to operate in silos. We tend to have 11 or 12 Ministers looking after their own little private fiefdoms. That is the structure. However, it would be wise to come out of those structures at times, as it would be in the best interests of our community. If I am convinced that that is the best way forward to implement the Marshall report in a way that gives maximum protection to our children, I am certainly not going to stay in my silo; rather, I will reach out to the other Departments — realising, of course, that we are probably the lead Department — to work together and have an almost Executive exercise instead of each of us simply doing our own thing. We owe it to our community to look at that. To be honest, I did not think about it until Michael suggested it yesterday, and it will take a bit of time to work through the consequences of that suggestion. However, at least that shows that we listen to points that are made during statements in the Assembly.

Mr McCarthy: Are you saying that there will be a formal structure?

Mr Wells: All that I am saying is that I am enthusiastic about it. I am very keen, but I cannot speak for John O'Dowd and David Ford. Therefore, I will have to have buy-in from the other Departments.

Mr McCarthy: If that is not the case — if your Department, David Ford's or whoever's did not do something — the fear is that it will simply be a case of passing the buck. A formal structure would be in the best interests of everyone, I would have thought.

Mr Wells: I see a huge degree of merit in that. This is far too serious an issue to let it sit on any shelf gathering dust, and you would, quite rightly, condemn me and the other Ministers — apart from Mr Ford, of course — if we did not implement it effectively, because the Marshall report has taken the matter into a different league. Remember, however, that we still have the thematic review of the 22 cases, which, I think, will add considerably to the whole situation. Of course, outside all of this is the OFMDFM report into institutionalised abuse in religious orders. We are getting information, and, more and more, the true extent of this is coming out. If I am not seen to be taking this seriously, I will expect, quite rightly, to be ridiculed by you and other members of the Committee.

The Chairperson (Ms Maeve McLaughlin): Sorry, Kieran. Pam has indicated that she wishes to speak on this issue.

Mrs Cameron: Thanks, Chair and Kieran, for letting me in. I was also going to raise the issue of the ministerial task force.

Minister, there is an ministerial group already on the domestic and sexual violence issue. To me, this fits in exactly with that, and perhaps it could simply be included in that ministerial group's remit. The group could be elevated to having higher importance, and there could be more urgency shown in dealing with the whole issue of domestic and sexual violence, because this is what that is. It is all part and parcel of the same problem.

Mr Wells: That is a very good option, and one that is worth considering. However, that particular group has a wider remit than purely child sexual exploitation, but it could quite neatly dovetail with the work that is being done. I want the best option, but I cannot make a commitment for the other Ministers without consulting them. They may chase me on this — I do not know. However, up until now, we have had very good buy-in from the other Departments. Although I spoke yesterday as Minister of Health, I was also speaking on behalf of the other two Ministers. They had seen the report and agreed strongly with the thrust of what was being said. They did not raise any concerns about the way in which we were going forward.

Mrs Cameron: I am not sure which Ministers are part of the domestic and sexual violence group, but if the Education Minister is not a member, he could be made one. Does it include all —

Mr Holland: Any group that might be formed would have to include the Minister of Education. I think that that is clear from Professor Marshall's recommendations.

Mrs Cameron: Is the Minister of Education involved in the group that already exists?

Mr Holland: No, we do not believe so.

Mrs Cameron: That would be imperative. It is OK investigating, examining and questioning what has gone on before, but this problem is not going to go away and it has to be dealt with. The most important thing to come out of the Marshall report is its recommendations, which gives us ways in which to tackle the problem and raise awareness. Hopefully, it will enable our children to grow up more safely, but we do need to educate children and adults.

Mr Wells: It is worth saying that Kathleen Marshall did not suggest this. This is Marshall-plus. It shows the benefit of having an Assembly, where people can come up with what I think are very good ideas. This is being taken forward as a matter of urgency. I would like to think, given the dates that we have set for doing this, that it is going to ruin a few officials' Christmases, such is its urgency. We are taking the matter very seriously, and we will be coming back to the Committee very quickly with the outcomes.

The Chairperson (Ms Maeve McLaughlin): If it protects children, it will be worth it.

Mr Wells: It is worth it, yes.

Mr McCarthy: What support mechanisms are in place for young people who have been victims of sexual exploitation? How will you take into account — this has been mentioned before — the fact that some people may not appreciate that they were victims at the time, realising so only later on in life?

Mr Holland: I will hand over to Fionnuala in a moment, and she will give some detail on that. Currently, we have a number of young people whom we have identified, through sharing information among the PSNI, social services and Barnardo's, as being at significant risk. All those young people are in receipt of a service.

I do not know how many Committee members are aware that Ofsted published a report on child sexual exploitation today and recommended a particular model of working to support young people who are victims of child sexual exploitation. Ofsted was critical of the fact that that is not the model adopted in many local authorities in England. It should be the case that young people co-work with an ascribed social worker and be in receipt of a specialist service. That is not necessarily the way in which it is done in other parts of the UK, and that has been a criticism. That is the way in which young people are currently being supported here. Young people who have been victims of child sexual exploitation, or who have been identified as being at significant risk of child sexual exploitation and are known to services, currently have a social worker and are referred to the Safe Choices programme that the Department initially funded, as the Minister said, and that the board has funded subsequently.

There is a range of services that can support adults in the statutory and voluntary sectors. Unfortunately, many adults who experienced sexual abuse will go on to have lifelong consequences, often linked to their mental health or to addiction. They are accessing those services. We also fund some specific sexual services. Mr McKinney is no longer here, but he has a strong association with the Nexus Institute, which is one of the key services for supporting people. Fionnuala, would you like to add anything to that?

Mr Wells: May I just say, in addition to what Seán has said, that we have a wide range of services. We have therapeutic and mental health services, as well as those linked to drugs and alcohol. Our annual investment in the child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) teams is currently £19 million. More recently, we have invested another £2 million in the development of primary mental health workers teams and crisis response services.

We now have a sexual assault referral centre (SARC), which provides a range of services for men, women, children and young people who have been sexually abused, assaulted or raped, no matter when that has happened. The service is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and is provided by a dedicated, professional and highly trained team. That, in addition to the paper that I gave you, indicates just how seriously we have been taking the matter. In very difficult financial times, it shows the amount of money that we have been investing in what is an increasingly difficult issue. Fionnuala, do you want to add to that?

Mrs McAndrew: I do not think that there is an awful lot more to add. I will just emphasise the fact that the support services are there. There is a full range of support services, ranging from one-to-one counselling to help with some of the trauma that the victims have experienced — through CAMHS or adult psychology services — and the Minister referred to addiction services as well. Therefore, a range of services is available to people who have suffered trauma in their life, including child sexual exploitation or sexual abuse.

Mr Holland: I do think that the SARC deserves special mention and recognition, because it is recognised as being probably the best in the UK.

The Chairperson (Ms Maeve McLaughlin): The Committee has looked at it.

Mr Holland: I know that the Committee is very familiar with it. That is a service that is absolutely relevant to the issue. It is one that has taken many years to plan, design and build. Therefore, I think that it is relevant to the fact that we have been responding to the issue, and it is seen as class-leading in the UK.

The Chairperson (Ms Maeve McLaughlin): We are aware of the expert and valuable services available for this issue and others. That goes without saying.

Mr McCarthy: What plans does the Minister have to factor all that information into the delivery of a much better and improved mental health service? I asked Mrs Kathleen Marshall that question, and Sheila Taylor was adamant that more resources must go into mental health. I think that that is what you instigated in your answer.

Mr Wells: That is one of the most difficult questions that we are going to face all day. I have spent all day today, and I will be spending all of tonight, firefighting on budget issues. Everywhere that I look, there are pressures on budgets, and there are very hurt people who are being affected by budget reductions. I have had to appear at mental health conferences and speak to those on the front line. I cannot sit here and promise a radical change in the structure of mental health provision in Northern Ireland. We all accept that, by UK standards, we are spending less than we would want to, but remember that social services on the UK mainland are a council responsibility. There, people can go to the ratepayer or the council-tax payer and look for extra money. Mental health services are battling against the big items, such as the cancer units, heart disease treatment and domiciliary care. Next year, mental health will get its commensurate share of the £150 million. It is not £200 million but £150 million, because we have to make savings of £50 million from organisations such as the Fire and Rescue Service (FRS) and the Public Health Agency (PHA). That is going to be very painful.

What Kathleen Marshall recommends is correct. Yes, we need to give mental health more in the way of resource, but it is very difficult to do that. The most important legislation coming before the Committee will be the Mental Capacity Bill. We hope that it will be a vehicle to make a very strong case for increased funding. I as Minister am not happy with the level of resourcing for mental health in Northern Ireland, but how on earth can we balance the numerous activities of the health service, social services and mental health? It is extraordinarily difficult. If you had seen some of the text messages and emails and heard some of the phone calls that I have had this morning from every corner of Northern Ireland about funding issues, you would not feel as relaxed as —

The Chairperson (Ms Maeve McLaughlin): I am going to have to bring it back to the subject, folks.

Ms McCorley: We have gone into the detail of the Marshall report and previous reports in this evidence session and the one before, so I will not labour the point. What will the Minister do differently to ensure that changes are made to protect children who are victims of child exploitation, given that recommendations in previous reports were ignored? They were left to lie and were treated disgracefully. "Ignored" is the best way of putting it. What will give us confidence to move forward?

Mr Wells: First, as I said in the Assembly, I will not be doing anything radically differently from my predecessor. I had the highest regard for his professionalism and ability as Minister. I watched very carefully from this table and from the Back Benches of the Assembly what he was doing. On almost every occasion, I said to myself, "I would do exactly the same". I have been in post for 56 days. I have to say that it feels like 56 months. It has been absolutely frenetic, to put it mildly, because of the activity that has been going on with all the issues.

The timetable that I have set officials is not only challenging but stretching. I expect responses back within two or three months. Therefore, by the end of January or March, depending on the report, I will have the responses from the various elements of my Department. We will keep the Committee up to date with progress. I expect to get a letter from your Committee Clerk if we overshoot on this that asks, "Where is this material?". In the same way, the individual funding requirement issue is to be on my table in two weeks. I have committed to reporting back when that is available. I will not let that sit on the long finger. I do not want a knee-jerk reaction. I want to get that information back quickly so that we can produce a coherent response. Equally, if we can get buy-in for a wider framework development, no one would be happier than me.

We come from very different political backgrounds, but I have no baggage. The aim of all of us should be on what we can do to protect all our children. Let us set aside any differences we have regarding political outcomes or, indeed, budgets and let us do what is best for them.

I will act on that immediately, because I think it is a very good suggestion. Having sat on this Committee for five years, I always felt that its contribution can be very significant. I want everyone to work together quickly to ensure that we get rapid buy-in to this and get it off the ground.

What I cannot say in advance is that I will do x, y and z, because I need reports back from officials on what they feel is the best way to deal with this. You have my personal pledge that I am committed to doing anything I can to help to eliminate the scourge of child sexual exploitation in Northern Ireland. I have seen and read things in the past few weeks in the lead-up to the Marshall report that I did not understand and, when they were explained to me, could not believe they existed.

It has been horrendous to hear some of the background material on what is going on. I do not want my grandchildren and great-grandchildren to be exposed to that. What really worries me is the Internet and the power that children have to access absolutely repugnant material. We need to get the entire Assembly and Executive to buy in to a programme to make the cyberspace safe for our children, because at the minute the law of the jungle applies.

You would not believe — and I did not believe until I read about it — what our children are exposed to daily in little Northern Ireland. My colleague Leo Varadkar in Dublin, and his colleague James Reilly, are really worried about how bad the situation is on the island of Ireland. If we cannot crack that, some of what we are doing here is only putting our finger in the dyke. That is my honest view. It is dreadful.

Ms McCorley: I look forward to seeing that approach. In response to my question, when you delivered your statement yesterday, Minister, you said, speaking in the present tense, that there are evil men exploiting children in West Belfast. That is my constituency and I am very concerned about this. You also implied that my community is protecting people who are exploiting children.

I would just like to know what that is based on. What is your information about those evil men? More seriously; who are the children you say are being exploited? I would also like to know how you are approaching this in other constituencies, or is your focus on just West Belfast?

Professor Marshall did not single out any community. She did not even suggest that children were more in danger in one place than any other place in the North, so I am surprised that you have such a focus. You have a history of verbally attacking my constituents in West Belfast and I am very concerned about that, so I would like you to address what I have said as to what information you have and what you are doing or have done about it?

Mr Wells: First of all, Madam Chair, I am glad you brought up that last issue, because you will recall — and I have looked at the transcript of that previous hearing — that you very quickly picked up on the line I used . At the end of the hearing, I made it absolutely clear what I meant by that comment.

The Chairperson (Ms Maeve McLaughlin): Sorry, I think the member is referring to the debate in the Assembly yesterday.

Mr Wells: Yes, but I think you are also alluding to the comment I made three weeks ago at this —

Ms McCorley: I am not referring to that now. I am referring to your comments yesterday.

Mr Wells: The evidence for west Belfast was the very clear evidence of Maíria Cahill. It was quite clear from her extensive media interviews that she was referring to west Belfast, largely, as the area where she was abused by known republican paramilitaries.

I was quoting it because you were a West Belfast representative raising the issue. I was making the point that there are people in your community who are aware of strong men — big men, as they call themselves — who are linked to paramilitaries, or who are believed to be linked to paramilitaries, and who have been getting away with child sexual abuse in that constituency and seem to have been immune from prosecution because individuals who were aware of them did not bring that information forward.

Yesterday, I was hoping that a member of your group would have come forward and made it absolutely clear that if anybody has information about that activity in west Belfast, east Belfast or any other part of Northern Ireland, even if it is old or retrospective, they should bring it forward to the police and the social services immediately. I was disappointed that none of those who spoke made that pledge. Is there a commitment by public representatives, who would know some of those individuals well, to bring that information forward to the authorities now, given the fact that all of us are meant to be supporting policing and justice?

The Chairperson (Ms Maeve McLaughlin): Minister, every one of us round this table is very clear and unequivocal about getting support in place and ensuring that processes are in place. That is the very reason why we are having such an in-depth focus on this piece of work. That goes without saying. Do you accept that the statement "these evil men in west Belfast" is a sweeping generalisation? It is very much unfounded.

Mr Wells: The Maíria Cahill comments were a lot worse than, "these evil men in west Belfast".

The Chairperson (Ms Maeve McLaughlin): I am talking about your comments.

Mr Wells: I am talking about the comments she made. Unfortunately, the Marshall report was too far down the road to deal adequately with the startling revelations that that lady very bravely made in the media. She specifically referred to west Belfast. The Marshall report makes it clear that this is happening throughout Northern Ireland. It is happening in areas where, in the past, there was a lack of willingness to support the forces of law and order. That applies to nationalist areas as well as areas under the control of loyalist paramilitaries. She did not identify any particular group. A series of people pleaded with her to make it public that they had been molested by those identified as paramilitaries. She did not say that paramilitaries had an active programme of CSE; she said that loyalist paramilitaries who had a predisposition to attack young girls —

The Chairperson (Ms Maeve McLaughlin): Do you want to come back on that?

Ms McCorley: I live and work in west Belfast. I know the people who live and work in west Belfast, and I know people who have lived their lives there. What you are saying does not reflect the people. We are opposed to any child exploitation or abuse. The people I know would stand strong against that. You might have one person who is making statements or allegations, but that does not constitute a case against unnamed people in west Belfast. I will say this again: anybody with any information should go to the police, the social services or whatever authorities are relevant. That is what they should do if they have information about anybody who is abusing children. I cannot make it any clearer than that. It has been made clear. You have insulted my community by suggesting that anybody in my community would see it differently.

Mr Wells: Is that retrospective? What about information held about the past activities of republican paramilitaries? Would you urge people to come forward?

Ms McCorley: Any knowledge of abuse of children should be taken to the relevant authority.

Mr Wells: That is the information that I was asking for yesterday. If I have offended the people of west Belfast, Ms Cahill has certainly offended the people of west Belfast because she has been very specific about allegations concerning individuals in west Belfast who have committing those terrible crimes.

Ms McCorley: With respect, Minister, you have responsibility for the health and well-being of the people of west Belfast: nobody else does. You are the Minister; you have a duty to apologise.

Mr Wells: That is why it is unfortunate that you did not give me the opportunity to clarify the west Belfast comment the last time. I take your ruling, Madam Chair. All I can say is that I felt that you accepted, at the end, that I made it absolutely clear that I could have been referring to anywhere in Northern Ireland —

The Chairperson (Ms Maeve McLaughlin): Sorry, what I talked about was stereotypes.

Mr Brady: Minister, you seem to be fixated on west Belfast. I mentioned all constituencies in the question I asked you yesterday. With respect, there was an incident in your constituency not that many years ago where an individual with a fairly high public profile was charged and convicted, if my knowledge is right. I did not hear you coming out then as strongly as you are coming out about particular issues now. Consistency is to be admired. On this issue, you have not been as consistent as you might have been. If you want to discuss it with me afterwards —

Mr Wells: I am not aware of what you are referring to, but I have no doubt that you can provide me with details —

Mr Brady: It got a lot of publicity in the local press and national press.

Mr Wells: I would be very interested to know —

Mr Brady: I am sure that you were aware of it.

The Chairperson (Ms Maeve McLaughlin): The point has been made well, clearly and loudly by the member. I know that it has been raised as a point of order on the Floor of the House and has been reflected in the Hansard report. Hopefully, it will be brought back to the Floor of the House. I urge the Minister to consider the member's view.

Mrs Dobson: Minister, during our frank discussion with Kathleen Marshall, so many issues were raised, and we are still looking for so many answers. Kathleen spoke about interviewing people who do not normally have a voice, as she put it, and she asked ambulance drivers and people with information to come forward about child sexual abuse. I very much welcome that and the detail she went into about those whom she felt had a voice.

During your briefing, I noticed with interest that you spoke about a clear reporting pathway 24/7. Will you clarify that? Kathleen talked about taxi drivers who had witnessed valuable information and said that they did not know who to contact with that information outside normal working hours. When you talk about a clear reporting pathway 24/7, does that refer to children who have been abused, or people like taxi drivers, for example, who want to report but do not know how to or what is available. When do you envisage this happening? How do people with valuable information know where to go 24/7?

Mr Wells: I will ask Seán to come in on this.

Jo-Anne, I want to thank you for last night. I noticed you on the media and, in my opinion, you acted very responsibly to the report and gave a balanced view on it. I do not often say this, but I felt that the media did themselves a lot of credit by giving the report balanced consideration. Rather than homing in on one or two major issues, they tried to indicate the scale and nature of the problem, which is so serious. I hope that that will set the trend for the future. I felt that people, having watched the media coverage and read the papers this morning, would have got a very clear indication of the nature and extent of the problem and what was being done about it. Thank you for that.

I think that Seán has the technical information on this.

Mr Holland: That is a really good point, because it highlights a number of aspects of this abuse. The first thing is that it is an example of how our understanding of the nature of child sexual exploitation and what we can do about it has changed. A number of years ago, people focused purely on professional service providers, whereas, increasingly, there is recognition — and Kathleen Marshall highlighted it — that this is a challenge for everyone in society.

There are some people in society who, through their jobs, may have particular opportunities to intervene. Taxi drivers are one group and ambulance drivers are another. However, it could also be people working in fast food outlets or in the hotel and hospitality industry, all of whom may just be in the right place at the right time to see something that needs to be addressed.

The police and social services have 24/7 response opportunities available to people. We have an out-of-hours social work service and, obliviously, the Police Service has a blue-light service; therefore, they can be contacted 24/7 and certainly out of hours.

However, the key behind your question is people knowing what to do. I will hand over to Hugh, because the SBNI has been leading on this and plans to continue to try to promote awareness so that people can recognise this and then know what to do.

Mrs Dobson: Seán, before you hand over to Hugh; I got the impression from Kathleen's presentation — obviously, she spoke about valuable witnesses and people who do not normally have a voice — that those people did not know where to turn to get that information out. You said that you have social workers detailed 24/7, but how do those witnesses know where to go, and how do they know that that mechanism exists?

Mr Holland: That is exactly why I was going to refer to Hugh. He has been leading a campaign that is about trying to make sure that people do know where to turn and what the mechanisms are.

Mrs Dobson: I got the impression from Kathleen that it was scant.

Mr Holland: Certainly, if you were to go back a couple of years ago, no one was thinking that there was the possibility that people like taxi drivers could play a crucial role. We are starting to recognise that, so inevitably there is going to be a lag. That is why it is important that there is a public information campaign.

Mr Connor: If I may add a few points. One of the very first things that the Safeguarding Board decided it wished to do was raise the knowledge of child sexual exploitation — by the Safeguarding Board, I mean all the membership of the board, not just the officers — because we thought that it meant little or nothing to the vast majority of citizens. Essentially, what we have been working on over the past year is an attempt to talk to a range of people, from parents to those involved in what Seán refers to as the night-time economies. We tried to talk to taxi drivers and those in the hospitality trade to get awareness out —

Mrs Dobson: How are you doing that, Hugh?

Mr Connor: We are carrying campaigns to those groups. We have worked with taxi companies —

Mrs Dobson: You are contacting taxi companies.

Mr Connor: We work with taxi companies and the licensing trade. In the last two weeks, we went across the Province holding community events in each of the five trust areas to raise awareness and talk to community representatives —

Mrs Dobson: Is that a one-off measure? Taxi drivers change; people change jobs. Will that be ongoing?

Mr Connor: You are absolutely right: it will not work if it is a one-off measure. One thing we are really keen to do, as the Minister mentioned, is keep the campaign going. We need to make sure that it is a drip feed of information to those organisations. Kathleen Marshall's comments about ambulance drivers were an insight for me. Clearly, we need to rise to that challenge. The other thing we plan to do, which is contained in one of the recommendations, is to have an education and training campaign for professional staff.

The last thing I want to say about this again goes back to Kathleen's message about children themselves. In recent months, we have been trying to find a way of talking to children to make sure that, when we actually come to the message, it is relevant to them, is meaningful and is done in a way that they are likely to access. So, although we have not brought anything out in that regard yet, we have been doing the planning behind the scenes.

Mrs Dobson: So, you are saying that taxi companies, for example, will be given specific details about who to contact out of hours when they spot a vulnerable child. Kathleen alluded to the fact that valuable information that could essentially save a child's life was being lost because they did not know who to contact, which number to use, or how to get in touch after 5.00 pm. You are categorically saying that that information will be widely available and that people will have the numbers and know who to contact.

Mr Connor: That is our intention. If you are asking us what we have done at the moment, then we have worked directly with taxi drivers and companies to make them aware of CSE. The issue you are raising is an ongoing strand of the work that we do.

Mrs Dobson: What timescales do you envisage? You mentioned the ambulance drivers issue, which was something you were not aware of. Certainly, it was very valuable for the Committee to hear Kathleen refer to ambulance drivers and the vital information they have.

Mr Connor: The board officers will need to plan this. However, I imagine that we are talking about the very early months of 2015.

Mr Dunne: Thanks to the Minister and the panel for coming along. Minister, we appreciate that you have a lot of priorities at the moment. One of them is about trying to keep services in North Down going.


We appreciate all your efforts on that.

How will you ensure that this report is kept on the top of your in tray and does not become buried under all the other priorities? How are you going to progress this, update us, and make sure that this is actioned thoroughly within your term? We appreciate that you are new to the job and have a lot on, but this needs to be followed through.

Mr Wells: First, the public and MLAs will make very certain that, if we were ever to deviate from making this a priority, we would be told about it very quickly. Given the issues that I raised earlier about recent TV documentaries, dealing with this issue is very much at the forefront of public opinion. I think that the more that comes out from that programme, the more we will find that there is much more to be discovered and ascertained.

I am committed to it, because I find it very hurtful — sorry, hurtful is the wrong word. It is frightening and shocking to me when I hear what has been going on in our society among, in particular, vulnerable young girls, some of whom are in care and some are not. I hear things that are unimaginable and that I, as a parent or grandparent, could never have believed was happening. Therefore, I am personally committed to this. Lives could be ruined and destroyed by sexual exploitation and we owe it to our community to get this right. We certainly owe it to our community to ensure that nothing that happened to the extent it did in, say, the rest of the United Kingdom, ever occurs here.

However, I am not resting on my laurels. I know that even the figure of 120, which is conservative, is 120 lives destroyed — absolutely destroyed — by sexual abuse. That is 120 too many, and I want to make certain that we drive the figures down.

Can we eliminate it from Northern Ireland? I think that that is almost impossible. Unfortunately, with the way society is moving, I do not believe that we can achieve that. However, we have to make Northern Ireland a cold house for those who would exploit our children, and we have to make it very clear that everyone in society is committed to reporting things to the police and the social services, so that there is no hiding place for these individuals.

Mr Dunne: Will the actions proposed be influenced in any way by the constraints of the budget?

Mr Wells: Budgets are an issue, but I have to say that, in the overall scale of things, Kathleen Marshall's recommendations are not going to break the budget; they are not on that scale. We have already committed ourselves to the SBNI and its funding. We have also committed ourselves to take action to find another proactive chair to take this issue forward when Hugh retires. It is guaranteed, more or less, that this will continue and that we will continue to fund social services and the police in their very difficult situation of giving this real priority.

It requires the three Ministers to get together to instruct officials to always keep the funding for this at the top of the league. We can talk about costs, but when this goes wrong, and some young person's life is destroyed, then the costs of future care, counselling and help can be extremely high. We will pay that, but I do not want to think of it. We have to ensure that as few people as possible end up needing that care. In the long term, it is for the health of our community that we need to tackle this issue vigorously.

Mr G Robinson: Very briefly, I must say that today has been very informative with respect to both presentations. Kathleen, and her team are to be commended, and Jim and his team as well. It was an excellent presentation.

I have known Jim for quite a few years, and I have always found him to be a sincere and credible human being. Any allegations against him today should be refuted. He did spell out that he was only speaking from Maíria Cahill's point of view, and I think that the matter should rest there. As far as I am concerned, he, his team and Kathleen have given us an excellent presentation and it has been very worthwhile to me, as a new member of the Committee, to hear the sincerity of the people who have spoken here today, from Jim and Kathleen's points of view.

The Chairperson (Ms Maeve McLaughlin): A point of order has been raised, and we will reflect on it. Thank you for that.

Mr Wells: Is that the last question, Madam Chair?

Mr Wells: Thank you for agreeing to meet us. It is nearly 6.00 pm. Clearly, members have taken this seriously, and I welcome the amount of probing that you have given me and Kathleen Marshall.

To summarise, this is an issue throughout Northern Ireland. It is an issue in rural communities, Belfast, Londonderry and in all the major towns and villages. It would be wrong to say that it is an issue that is particular to one community; it is not. It is one that we, as society as a whole, are responsible for and that we, as MLAs and public representatives, can do a lot about to make certain that our constituents feel happy about coming forward. The police tell me that, unless there is a flow of reliable information, data and intelligence about this issue, it is very difficult to prosecute those who are involved in something which, by its very nature, can be clandestine and can be done in a way that many people do not know even exists. Therefore, I do not want to underestimate the difficulties that we have.

Equally, I am very minded of the fact that social work in Northern Ireland is one of the most thankless tasks imaginable. On the 999 occasions when Seán's staff get it right, nobody is interested; occasionally, when there is a slip up, there is mass press coverage. I do not want to say anything today that will discourage those who are at the coalface, trying desperately to get on top of this difficult issue and having to carry home with them at night some terrible memories of what they have just heard. I think that that is a desperately difficult role, so I have been trying to say that staff over this last nine years have been making a real effort. I hope that, when you get my paper, you will agree with that. However, given the knowledge that I and the team now have, we can and will do things better. If mistakes were made in the past, we have to learn from them. I am determined to make certain that as few young people as possible in Northern Ireland are exposed to this dreadful crime.

I think that Sean wants to make a last comment.

Mr Holland: I have just one point to make and I appeal for it not to be misunderstood. CSE is clearly a poison in our society, but I would not want the Committee or the public to believe that it dwarfs other issues connected with child protection. Quite rightly, this is something that you are all concerned about, but it is worth pointing out that we receive 40,000 referrals to children's services every year. Some 4,000 of those become child protection cases, and amongst those, the majority are not actually about CSE but about physical or emotional abuse, neglect or sexual abuse that does not meet the definition of CSE.

We should not forget that, probably, the majority of children who are sexually abused are sexually abused within their own family. Some 45% of women — I think that is the probable figure — who experience sexual abuse as a child experience it at the hands of their father. It is important that we are looking at CSE; it is new, it is changing and we need to know more about it and do more about it. However, we also need to realise that, unfortunately, this is not the only challenge facing the child protection services. I just want to ask members to bear that in mind.

The Chairperson (Ms Maeve McLaughlin): OK. I thank you all for your attendance and time today.

Find Your MLA


Locate your local MLA.

Find MLA

News and Media Centre


Read press releases, watch live and archived video

Find out more

Follow the Assembly


Keep up to date with what’s happening at the Assem

Find out more



Enter your email address to keep up to date.

Sign up