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Child sex abuse: New policy for police and prosecutors

An overhaul of how police and prosecutors in England and Wales deal with alleged sexual offences against children is expected to be announced in the wake of the Jimmy Savile scandal.

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Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer told the BBC there was an “overcautious” approach with victims.

He said the focus was too much on whether the victim was telling the truth and not enough on the suspect.

“I am not advocating the test for prosecution should change,” he said.

Describing this as a “watershed moment,” Mr Starmer said we need to “clear the decks of a raft of existing guidelines”.

New guidelines for police and prosecutors will be drawn up, and a panel will review cases where alleged perpetrators were not charged. Once the new guidance has been written, training will also be offered to police and prosecutors dealing with child exploitation cases.

‘Pattern of behaviour’

A review into allegations against the late DJ and TV presenter found Savile had carried out more than 200 sexual offences over a 54-year period.

Allegations were reported to police several times while he was alive but no action was taken against him.

BBC Home Affairs correspondent Danny Shaw said a number of wrongful convictions following investigations into historic child abuse about 10 years ago saw the justice pendulum swing toward a more sceptical approach by police and prosecutors.

But he said after the Savile affair there was a sense “the pendulum needs re-positioning again”.

Mr Starmer says police and prosecuting lawyers have sometimes adopted an “overcautious” approach in cases of sexual assault involving children – in order to guard against false allegations.

Many victims do not have the confidence to come forward and the standards used for establishing the credibility of someone making an allegation can mean vulnerable victims are not believed, he says.

This is because complainants often have characteristics – such as a distrust of authority and alcohol issues – which both make them vulnerable and put their credibility in doubt.

In future, investigators will be expected to test the credibility of an allegation by focusing on the suspect as well as the alleged victim.

“At the moment there is a great deal of focus on whether the victim is telling the truth. We need to look equally carefully at the account the suspect has given – look at the context, the pattern of behaviour and make the necessary links,” Mr Starmer said.

‘Current atmosphere’

The new College of Policing, with the agreement of the Crown Prosecution Service and Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo), will develop a new policy to replace the 19 sets of guidelines for investigating child sexual abuse that currently exist.

The CPS has no policy relating specifically to child sexual exploitation, and Mr Starmer believes one “overarching” approach to the investigation and prosecution of sexual offences is needed.

He will say in a speech in London later that the new policy must be informed, coherent and able to withstand the test of time: “We cannot afford another Savile moment,” he will say.

The review panel will look at cases where people have come forward but the case has not proceeded. The panel will then advise chief constables on whether the case should be reopened. Mr Starmer says he expects the number of cases to be in the “hundreds not thousands”.

Alan Wardle, head of corporate affairs at children’s charity NSPCC, said he hoped it would encourage victims to come forward.

“Making them think they will be taken seriously and that they’re not going to be crucified by the whole process as they go through the criminal justice system is really important in helping tackle the scourge of child sexual abuse in this country,” he said.

Former City lawyer Patrick Raggett, who was awarded £55,000 in damages in November after he was abused for years by a Catholic priest at his school, said all those who worked with children must learn to communicate better.

“Teachers, social workers, therapists, the police – they all have to come together to try and improve their collective understanding of child sexual abuse and to acknowledge, frankly, how it’s much more prevalent than people ever dream of,” he told BBC One’s Breakfast.

Mark Newby, a solicitor who formed a panel to look at historic child abuse allegations, said he was “gravely concerned” the balance might be shifted too far in favour of the victim.

“We have to be really careful not to create a whole new genre of miscarriage because of the current atmosphere and pandemonium over these cases,” he told BBC Radio 4 Today’s programme.

The draft policy is expected to be ready in May for a three-month public consultation.

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