HC Deb 16 October 2001 vol 372 cc221-8WH

1 pm

Mr. Bill O'Brien (in the Chair)

I now call the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard). May I say how sorry hon. Members are to see that her leg is in plaster. We hope that it is not too serious, and that she soon recovers her former health.

Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk)

Thank you, Mr. O'Brien, for your kind good wishes. All I can say is that just walking along and breaking one's leg is no fun at all. [Interruption.] As the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) says, it would have been better with a gin and tonic.

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the case of Lauren Wright in this Chamber. In more than 30 years of experience in health, education and social services I have known no more appalling case than hers. This tragic child was let down by all those who should have cared for her. Despite warnings from people in the community, Lauren died by slow degrees, in full view of the agencies responsible for her care. We deserve to be told why, and that is why I am calling for a full public inquiry into the circumstances surrounding her death. I am supported today by the hon. Members for Norwich, North and for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb). The Minister will therefore readily understand that this is an all-party approach. I am also supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson), who would have been here but has something wrong with his mouth—we people from Norfolk have some unfortunate afflictions at the moment, one way and another—and by my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham).

I shall give a brief and rapid outline of the facts. Lauren Wright was born on 16 July 1993; she died from a blow to the abdomen, with extreme bruising all over her body, on 6 May 2000, two days before the date of the case conference finally organised by Norfolk social services to discuss her plight. From her birth, she was known to Hertfordshire social services, and she became known to Norfolk social services from 31 July 1997. Her name was removed from the Hertfordshire child protection register in August 1998, after a residence order was granted to her paternal grandmother in Norfolk. In January 1999, Lauren began school at the William Marshall primary school in Welney. During 1999, her care was transferred to her father, Craig Wright, who married Tracey Wright in the summer of that year. Lauren then moved to live with her father and stepmother, next door to her paternal grandmother. Tracey Wright was employed as a supervisory assistant at the William Marshall primary school from April 1999. Her responsibilities included supervision of children's play at lunchtime.

Towards the end of 1999 there were reports of bruising to Lauren. On 30 November 1999 she was seen by a consultant community paediatrician. Further anonymous allegations from the community of neglect and emotional abuse of Lauren by her stepmother were made during the early part of 2000. Claims from the family that Lauren was being bullied at school resulted in her teachers being asked by social workers to monitor the situation. She was seen by a general practitioner at Upwell on 14 March 2000, and on 15 March by a paediatrician at the King's Lynn hospital. Both observed numerous bruises of differing ages on her body. The GP suspected abuse, and the paediatrician put them down to bullying at school. Police following up the case were told that the medical evidence was inconclusive.

Hertfordshire social workers visited Lauren at home on 25 April, and the next day they alerted Norfolk social services to their concerns about Lauren's appearance and behaviour. Between 2 and 5 May, she was dealt a fatal blow to the stomach. She died on 6 May. Her stepmother and her father were convicted of her manslaughter and her wilful neglect at Norwich Crown court on 2 October 2001.

That bare recital of the facts, appalling as it is, conceals the real concerns about this case, which are that Lauren's treatment by her stepmother took place in public, observed by the local community and under the gaze of doctors, teachers and social workers. Trial evidence revealed that Tracey Wright was seen hitting the child and screaming abuse at her; that she fed her pepper sandwiches and put bugs from the garden in her food; that the taps in the house were turned off so tightly that the child could not get a drink of water; that she was made to carry the schoolbags of her step-siblings; that she was taunted and tormented by her stepmother in the local shop, and was made to stand for hours fully dressed in front of a hot stove. Her class teacher, in evidence at the trial, said that she saw marks on Lauren lots of times, often she was covered with lots of small bruises and with major bruises about once a month. These included black eyes, bruising on her face and scratches across her back. At the time of her death at the age of six, Lauren weighed little more than two stone. In the words of her head teacher, her physical deterioration had been apparent for at least five months before she died. There can be no doubt that in Tracey Wright, the stepmother convicted of manslaughter, the agencies were dealing with an exceptionally evil woman. Martin Wright, the acting chief superintendent, said: I think that any human being who can inflict this kind of treatment on a defenceless child must notch up very near the top of the scale of inhumanity"— and that is a comment from a policeman.

Tracey Wright was clearly also incredibly plausible. She apparently had an IQ of 78, but nevertheless deceived doctors, teachers and social workers. As Mrs. Cooper of Easton, near Norwich, in a letter to me dated 2 October said: Little Lauren went from six stone to just over two, her hair was falling out, she was of a shabby appearance, she seemed sad, not to mention all the different horrific bruising she endured. However plausible and deceitful Tracey Wright was, you just don't keep accepting excuses when a child is constantly and clearly suffering like Lauren. This was going on for sixteen months, not just a one off occurrence, what more evidence did they need? After Lauren's death, Norfolk social services department asked the area child protection committee to review its procedures. That department is already the subject of a critical child care inspection report, carried out in 2000. Lauren's death is the fourth in as many years of a child under the protection of Norfolk social services. The ACPC report reveals some of the failures in Lauren's case, including failure to follow up action and no action at all being taken following reports from the public of abuse. As David Wright, the director of social services, in a letter to me of 29 August said: There were failings in other agencies but I believe that our Department should have been able to intervene to save her. Mr. Wright has been candid about the shortcomings of his own department. We are not to know if any disciplinary action is to follow this appalling affair, but it is clear that there is a shortage of resources for Norfolk social services—although I shall not major on that point. Mr. Wright describes the position thus: Our thin blue line of child protection workers feels stretched close to transparency. He points out the contrast between Norfolk funding which, on paper anyway, allocates to services for children under 18 something like £117 per head, while for Westminster the allocation is £577 per head—five times the amount that Norfolk is adjudged to need. That, although it is a point, is not the main point that I want to make.

The trial following the death of Lauren Wright convicted her stepmother and father of manslaughter and wilful neglect, but its purpose was not to examine the roles of the public services involved. Those public services are accountable not only to all of us but to the 750 other vulnerable children in Norfolk. That is why I seek a public inquiry into the series of muddles, blind eyes, missed chances, errors and sloppy professional practice revealed by Lauren's death.

The Minister, whom I am glad to see here, will want to explain how Department of Health officials could have rejected my call for an inquiry before it reached her desk. She may even care to dissociate herself from their chilling words. I quote from The Times of 2 October: It would not be appropriate to hold a public inquiry into all the child killings that happen each year. My plea is supported by nigh on 1,000 readers of the Fenland Citizen, a local newspaper, who have taken the trouble to petition the paper to indicate their support, and by the 98 per cent. of the Norwich-based Evening News readers who, in a telephone poll, demanded a public inquiry. That has been the unanimous message from the countless letters, telephone calls and e-mails that I have received from members of the public. I am delighted to see that my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk, who supports me, is here, and there is strong cross-party support for a public inquiry.

The following questions are among those that must be answered. What was the role of Hertfordshire social services department in the affair? Did it make its Norfolk colleagues aware of its concerns for Lauren? Why did it visit Lauren in April 2000? If it had not, would Norfolk social services have remained unaware of Lauren's plight? Did the head and class teacher at the William Marshall school in Welney follow Norfolk's child protection procedures that were in force at the time of Lauren's death? Those procedures require teachers to report to the education welfare service, among other things that might indicate the abuse of a child: listlessness, poor physical growth, weight loss, looking very tired, bruising or lacerations. I do not know whether the teachers did what their own authority required. Press reports indicate that they expressed their concerns only to Tracey Wright. Did they, or did they not, follow the local education authority's procedures? If they did not, what action will the LEA take, and did they really not do that because neither of the two teachers was a designated teacher? The school has only 30 pupils, for heaven's sake; there is the head and there is the teacher. One of the excuses for taking no action is that at the time there was no designated teacher concerned with non-accidental injury to children. That is the most extraordinary excuse that I have ever heard. What was the role of the head teacher? If there was not a designated teacher, was the head teacher able to say, "There isn't a designated teacher, so it's nothing to do with me." We do not know. How long was the school without a designated teacher, and what did the LEA do about that problem? When was Tracey Wright dismissed from her post at the school? On the day that she was found guilty of manslaughter? I suspect so.

What action was taken by the paediatrician who saw Lauren Wright on 30 November 1999, fully five months before she died? Was it his advice that "reassured" social services so that it took no action at that stage, which self-evidently was a time when Lauren could have been saved? On 14 and 15 March 2000, when Lauren was seen by a general practitioner and then a paediatrician, did they discuss their differing interpretations of the bruising on her body? What contact did the paediatrician have with the school to support his assertion that the bruising had been caused by bullying at school? Lauren could, even at that stage, have been saved. I put those questions to the Norfolk health authority. It replied that it was not able to supply information that is not currently in the public domain. However, there have been developments. Last night, the chairman of the Norfolk health authority, Mr. John Alston, contacted me. He told me that the letter from the health authority to me, dated 12 October 2001, was neither factually correct—that was not the word that he used, but we are in Parliament now—nor complete. He said that the original version of the letter, which I have not seen, but which is being faxed to my home this morning, had been reduced and altered by the regional press officer to the version that I was given. What sort of operation is this? Obviously, I will pursue the matter—I am not majoring on that this morning either, because the Minister has not been warned and clearly cannot know the answer. However, she will hear from me, especially when I receive the original version of the letter. This does, however, support my demand for a public inquiry. How can we trust the health service if it cannot even give a Member of Parliament a factually correct and complete set of answers to a number of questions?

Norfolk social services has rightly shouldered much of the blame for the case, but its professionals are not the only ones involved, nor is it the only local authority concerned. People from all over the United Kingdom have contacted me to express their disgust at the circumstances of Lauren's death, with its revelations of failure of professional judgment and liaison. They, and we, are not prepared to be fobbed off with promises of internal NHS agency inquiries, in which the conduct of the doctors concerned will be examined by other doctors. Nor will we be fobbed off with attempts to bolt this case on to another appalling case, that of Victoria Climbie. We are sick and tired of hearing about procedures, strategies, reports and restructuring. In the name of the thousands of vulnerable children at risk across Britain, the Minister should today demonstrate her concern by announcing an immediate public inquiry into the case of tragic Lauren Wright.

1.16 pm
Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North)

I congratulate the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) on securing this debate and on her tenacity in pursuing an appalling case. It is a special case in that it is the fifth in Norfolk in the past few years. The public in Norfolk have a crisis of confidence in social services and their delivery on such issues. That will have to be addressed by an open and transparent public inquiry. There is a lot to be said and there should be no attempt to hide what went on in this tragic case. Unless there is a public inquiry, confidence in Norfolk will erode. Such a case must never ever happen again—and if we do not get it right, there will be another such case.

I am not going to blame individuals. A failure in the development of services has been admitted to. If we are to achieve the change that we need in the way in which such situations are addressed, only an inquiry will bring out all the issues in an open and transparent way and ensure that the public acquire the confidence that is sadly lacking.

I would like the inquiry not to be secret. It is possible to have an inquiry whose chair decides to open only a specific aspect to the public. That would increase suspicion. The whole inquiry will have to be open, because the case has touched the people of Norfolk so deeply. The morale of those who work for social services must be at rock bottom, too. There is a resource requirement to be examined. The way in which we treat our children, viewing them as possessions about whom no one can ask questions, is a general problem in society, which such an inquiry would illustrate.

I give my full support to the right hon. Lady in her demand for a public inquiry. I hope that the Minister will listen and ensure that there is one. The case is a special one, against the background of a county struggling with such issues. Comparisons with anywhere else are not valid at this stage. Will the Minister ensure that the debate is opened up? We must see to it that this never happens again in Norfolk in our time.

Norman Lamb (North Norfolk)


Mr. Bill O'Brien (in the Chair)

I shall call the hon. Gentleman, but we do want to hear the Minister's answers to the questions that have been put. That is important.

1.18 pm
Norman Lamb

I understand that. I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate, and will keep my remarks brief.

The revelation that we have heard today concerning the apparent doctoring of a letter from the health authority is of enormous concern. It smacks to me of a spin too far, and of a cover-up, which strengthens the case for a full and proper public inquiry. For an information officer of a public body to conceal information is contrary to the whole public service ethos and ethic. I share the view of the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) that it is extraordinary that the officials in the Department of Health rejected calls for a public inquiry within hours of the verdict, without first hearing the case for one.

A public inquiry should consider two specific issues. It is important that we do not demonise social services or social workers. The thrust of an inquiry must be to avoid future tragedies. We must also examine the impact of staffing on the service, and the protection that it can provide with current staffing levels. We must confront that critical issue. We need to look at the co-ordination between agencies and different social services departments. I understand that issues of confidentiality and the requirements of data protection legislation may be preventing the necessary sharing of information. The use of information technology should give those who need to know access to information that can help inform judgment. An inquiry should consider whether data protection rules place impediments in the way of sharing information and investigating facts. For those reasons, I fully support the cause of the right hon. Lady and I urge the Government to avoid further delay in calling a public inquiry.

Mr. Bill O'Brien (in the Chair)

I call the Minister.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk)


Mr. Bill O'Brien (in the Chair)

We must give the Minister a chance to respond.

Mr. Bellingham

I simply want to say that, as a neighbouring MP, I wholly support my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs Shephard).

1.21 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Ms Hazel Blears)

Thank you, Mr. O'Brien. I am grateful to the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard), and I acknowledge the widespread support from people in all parties for the points that she has made. The death of any child is desperately sad, but the death of a child through abuse or neglect is tragic. We know that at least one child each week dies as a result of abuse or neglect. That figure is horrifying. We must all share the responsibility of trying to protect children from abuse and neglect; it is a monumental task. Home Office research indicates that more than 100,000 adults in the UK have convictions for offences against children.

All agencies, and all people with child protection responsibilities, have to work together. As hon. Members have outlined, health, education, social services and other agencies make a complex jigsaw, the role of which is to ensure that concerns are picked up. We are all too aware of the tragedies that can unfold when vital information is not shared between different agencies.

Lauren's death should not have happened. Social services have made a public acknowledgement that had the procedures been followed, the matter would have been noticed, action would have been taken, and Lauren's death would have been avoided. However, I want to make it clear that Lauren was not killed by social workers or health workers. Lauren was killed by those who should have been caring for her—people who should have safeguarded, nurtured and cherished her. Mistakes were clearly made in the inter-agency handling of the case, but we must not place the responsibility for her death solely at the door of the statutory agencies.

There is always publicity when things go wrong in child protection cases because of the nature of the issues, but too often little is said about the excellent work carried out by social services and other agencies across the country to protect hundreds of thousands of children from harm. Some 160,000 children are referred to social services every year. Nearly 30,000 are added to the child protection register each year, and the vast majority of those children will have better lives because once they are registered the authorities can intervene and be effective. It would be very wrong to think that all children are being failed by our child protection system, but when things go wrong, we have a vital responsibility to find out why.

The "Working Together to Safeguard Children" guidance states that when factors of abuse or neglect are known or suspected to be a factor in a death, local agencies should get together to consider whether lessons can be learned from the terrible incident. When a child dies in such circumstances, the area child protection committee should always conduct a review, the purpose of which is to identify the lessons to be learned and to set out steps about how they will be acted upon, what is expected to change as a consequence, and how interagency operations can be improved. A serious case review of the circumstances leading up to Lauren's death has been undertaken. A summary of that review was published on 5 October, and there is an action plan to take forward all its recommendations.

Norfolk social services department is already under close regional monitoring as a result of a report into children's services in 2000. The Department of Health social services inspectorate will continue to monitor the implementation of that specific action plan by the social services department. The area child protection committee will take local responsibility for the implementation of those plans. There will be a follow-up inspection by the social services inspectorate, which is planned for January. It will assess the safety of all procedures in Norfolk and, crucially, how the recommendations are being implemented. A social services inspectorate and Audit Commission joint review are scheduled for March 2002, which will again closely monitor the situation.

I understand Members' desire for a public inquiry into Lauren's death. We must be satisfied that the lessons learned from the serious case review and the action plan are being learned in Norfolk. There are several specific matters that the action plan promotes in terms of training, assessment frameworks and an integrated electronic recording system. One big issue in the case concerned the series of notes written by GPs and other professionals involved. There was no way in which those notes could have been brought together. With consent, an electronic system can help to ensure that those notes are immediately available and that we have protocols about data sharing, which is an important issue.

All primary care trusts have a named doctor and a nurse for child protection. We must ensure that they take their responsibilities seriously. I take the point made by the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) that we are all responsible in that regard. Simply designating somebody to take on that responsibility does not remove it from everybody else involved in the system.

The question has been raised of having a public inquiry into this particular incident. There is obviously an on-going public inquiry into the case of Victoria Climbie. It is important to explain why the decision was taken to have a public inquiry in that case, but not in that of Lauren Wright. It is the first statutory inquiry into the death of a child for more than 20 years; there is not a public inquiry into each incident. The major reason why there has been an inquiry into the Victoria Climbie case concerns the complexity of the system, which involved approximately nine different statutory agencies. We want to ensure that we learn the lessons from that inquiry, and how they can impact on incidents such as the one that we have discussed today. We shall ensure that the issues raised by the Climbie case are taken into account in Norfolk. We already have a wide-ranging inquiry in operation and we do not want to duplicate the issues that will arise from it.

Another key reason why a public inquiry will not take place in the case of Lauren Wright is that there will be an external independent review covering the health services aspects of the case, which concern the King's Lynn and Wisbech trust, the West Norfolk primary care trust and the Fenland primary care trust.

Mrs. Shephard

Will that review be conducted by doctors?

Ms Blears

It will be conducted by the Royal College of General Practitioners and the Royal College of Paediatricians. It will be external and independent, and people who have not been involved in the case will conduct it. It is expected that the review will cover competence and confidence, communication and transfer of information, and the policies and procedures within each trust. The action plan that has been produced provides a positive way forward for dealing with the specific issues concerning child protection in the Norfolk area. I take the point that there are other cases that underline Members' concerns about issues in that area.

The best way to safeguard children in Norfolk is to ensure that we implement the recommendations in the action plan. We must monitor that process and ensure that those steps are being taken. In future, there must be proper co-ordination across all agencies because, as has been said, if the procedures had been followed in this case, Lauren need not have died. Later, we can learn the lessons of the Victoria Climbie inquiry to try to make sure that we safeguard children wherever they may be. We are taking steps to ensure that we protect children in this community as far as we possibly can. The scale of the problem is immense, but we must ensure that the action plan is implemented in Norfolk, as well as elsewhere in the country. Lauren's death need not—and indeed, must not—have been in vain.