David Cameron has said he is prepared to introduce new laws that make it illegal not to report suspicions of child abuse, as new claims continued to emerge of links to paedophile networks at the highest levels of politics, public bodies and the clergy.
The Prime Minister spoke in the Commons as the NSPCC announced it would be backing so-called “mandatory reporting” in the wake of the ongoing revelations about an alleged Westminster child abuse cover-up – a significant shift in policy for the charity.
This week the Home Secretary, Theresa May, launched a wide-ranging independent inquiry to look into how allegations of child abuse were handled at major public institutions in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s.
She has appointed the former High Court judge Elizabeth Butler-Sloss to chair the investigation – despite concerns from MPs and lawyers about possible links between the peer and a previous paedophile scandal in 1980.
Today, a whistleblower who used to be an officer with West Mercia Police came forward with the latest allegations of a possible child abuse cover-up involving senior public officials.
Terry Shutt was involved in the arrest in 1992 of the late convicted paedophile Peter Righton, founder of the Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE).
Then a detective constable, Mr Shutt said he saw five suitcase of letters uncovered at Righton’s home which suggested the existence of a paedophile network involving the clergy.
He told the BBC’s Today programme he was “confident that the main link into the establishment” was never followed up.
Mr Shutt’s claims are the latest in a series relating to alleged child abuse going back as far as the 1960s.
It also emerged this week that whip in Edward Heath’s government in the early 1970s boasted about how he could cover up scandals “involving small boys” in order to gain the loyalty of MPs.
Tim Fortescue, speaking in a 1995 BBC documentary about the practices of party whips entitled Westminster’s Secret Service, said: “For anyone with any sense, who was in trouble, would come to the whips and tell them the truth, and say now, I’m in a jam, can you help?
“It might be debt, it might be… a scandal involving small boys, or any kind of scandal in which, erm er, a member seemed likely to be mixed up in, they’d come and ask if we could help and if we could, we did.
“And we would do everything we can because we would store up brownie points… and if I mean, that sounds a pretty, pretty nasty reason, but it’s one of the reasons because if we could get a chap out of trouble then, he will do as we ask forever more.”
Mr Fortescue’s comments were raised in the Commons this week by Labour MP Lisa Nandy. The whip was an MP from 1966 until his resignation in 1973. He died in 2008.
The mounting number of reports of alleged institutional child abuse, and recent scandals revealed in care homes in Oxford, Rochdale and elsewhere, have led the NSPCC to change its stance on the laws about reporting concerns.
The chief executive of the National Association for People Abused in Childhood, Peter Saunders, described the call as “a big step in the right direction”.
“I think this is a really significant U-turn for the NSPCC and hugely welcome,” he said.
Speaking at Prime Minister’s Questions, Mr Cameron said: “Should we change the law so there is a requirement to report and make it a criminal offence not to report, the Government is currently looking at that and of course both reviews will be able to examine this particular point and advise us accordingly.
“I think it may well be time to take that sort of step forward.”
But some children's rights campaigners said the change did not go far enough, because the NSPCC continues to oppose a blanket requirement to report concerns. As things stand, the charity would consider stronger corporate duties on adults to protect children only when living away from home, in institutions like care homes or boarding schools.
Liz Dux, a lawyer with Slater and Gordon representing 176 victims of the disgraced TV personality Jimmy Savile, said she welcomed the NSPCC's turnaround but called for mandatory reporting to be rolled out to other institutions like day schools.
“I would urge the NSPCC to go one step further and back mandatory reporting for both open and closed institutions,” she said. “There are examples where mandatory reporting would have stopped offenders in open institutions as well, why should the children there not be afforded the same safeguards?
“Universally the victims I work with say they want change, they support mandatory reporting. We must not pass up this opportunity to protect our children and we must not delude ourselves that outrages like these ones will never happen again - if we don't act they could.”