Keith Vaz plans to stand aside as chair of the House of Commons home affairs committee after he was accused of paying for the services of male prostitutes in a Sunday newspaper sting operation.
The Labour MP and former Europe minister, who has chaired the high-profile committee for nine years, apologised to his family for the distress caused and condemned the conduct of the Sunday Mirror as “deeply disturbing”.
Vaz’s committee is carrying out an inquiry into prostitution, focusing on whether “the balance in the burden of criminality should shift to those who pay for sex rather than those who sell it”. In July, it published an interim report saying it was not yet convinced that buying sex should be outlawed, but that soliciting by [prostitutes] should be decriminalised.
In his statement to the Mail on Sunday about the Mirror story, Vaz reportedly said: “I am genuinely sorry for the hurt and distress that has been caused by my actions in particular to my wife and children. I will be informing the committee on Tuesday of my intention to stand aside from chairing the committee with immediate effect.”
According to the Sunday Mirror, which has illustrated its report with a picture showing Vaz with a man said to be one of the [prostitutes], the MP met two eastern European male [prostitutes] eight days ago in a flat he owns in north London.
According to the paper, Vaz asked one of the men in a text message sent before the encounter to bring poppers, the sex-enhancing drug used by gay men that the government came close to banning in a law passed this year.
Vaz argued in parliament that poppers should not be included in a list of substances banned by the Psychoactive Substances Act and in the paper he is quoted as telling the [prostitutes] that he did not use them himself.
Vaz, who reportedly told the men his name was Jim and that he was a washing machine salesman, is also quoted discussing with the men the possibility of obtaining cocaine for the next time they met, although Vaz reportedly said he would not want to take the drug himself.
The paper says two payments of £150 each were made into a bank account before the 27 August encounter after one of the escorts supplied the account details to Vaz.
In a statement, Vaz said: “It is deeply disturbing that a national newspaper should have paid individuals to have acted in this way. I have referred these allegations to my solicitor Mark Stephens, of Howard Kennedy, who will consider them carefully and advise me accordingly.”
According to the Mail on Sunday, although Vaz is standing aside as chair of the Commons home affairs committee, he wants to see how much support for him there is on the committee before making a decision about whether to resign fully.
A Labour party spokesman said Vaz had been elected chair of the committee and that his future on it was a matter for him and the Commons.
The Home Office has been accused of burying a long-awaited consultation that could recommend that people who work with children should be forced to report concerns of child abuse.
Documents seen by the Observer confirm that an impact assessment, necessary for the consultation to begin, was signed off last October. But the consultation, which concludes next month, did not begin until 29 July, the last day of parliament, when it was published along with 30 written statements.
The impact assessment suggests that high-profile abuse cases such as those in Rotherham and Oxford have “exposed professional and organisational failings to respond to child abuse and neglect”, and that there is a case for considering action against professionals who fail to take “appropriate action in relation to suspected child abuse”.
Now the manner in which the consultation was launched has prompted claims that the government is dubious about the merits of mandatory reporting – a requirement for certain organisations and employees working with children to report child abuse or neglect if they knew or had reasonable grounds to suspect it was taking place. Currently there is no obligation for anyone in the UK working in a regulated activity to report the fact that they have witnessed abuse.
Supporters of mandatory reporting, which is observed in many other countries, say it would mean professionals could not turn a blind eye and would have to report their suspicions or face prosecution.
The government’s apparent lack of enthusiasm for the consultation is in marked contrast to its earlier position. A letter from the former Home Office minister Lord Bates, dated 23 November 2015, to Baroness Walmsley, the Lib Dem peer, confirmed that the consultation would begin “shortly after the New Year”.
Last year the then prime minister, David Cameron, outlined plans that would see teachers, councillors and social workers in England and Wales who failed to protect children jailed for up to five years.
Walmsley, who backs mandatory reporting, expressed frustration at the way the consultation was being handled. “I do think they’ve buried it,” she said. “It was ready months and months ago and they didn’t release it. I’ve been harassing them and hassling them ever since the consultation was promised, which was a very long time ago. Now it’s happening at a time when those who will be most affected by it – teachers – are on holiday.”
Walmsley said the government feared that the new law would result in system overload.
But evidence from an expert, Ben Mathews, a professor of law at Queensland University of Technology, which has been omitted from the consultation, suggests the measure significantly increases detection of abuse.
Tom Perry, founder of Mandate Now, which campaigns for mandatory reporting, was scathing about the government’s approach to the consultation. “The principal objective of the consultation is to keep the number of [abuse] referrals down in order to save money,” Perry said. “It has nothing to do with improving child protection.”
He said claims that “dinner ladies would be jailed” for failing to report signs of child abuse revealed the level of ignorance about the proposed new law.
“The government are being advised by the NSPCC and for some reason the NSPCC are not in favour of legislation about mandatory reporting,” Walmsley said. “They are mistakenly thinking it will affect social workers – which it won’t because they don’t work in a regulated activity. Those of us campaigning for this want it to affect only those in regulated activities – we’re talking about schools, hospitals, youth clubs, GP surgeries. We need to make sure people are obliged to report if they seriously suspect a child is being abused. People need not just the freedom to tell what is going on, but a duty and to feel that they are protected if they do that.”
Kath Stipala, head of public affairs at the National Association of People Abused in Childhood, said the organisation was “broadly in favour” of it. “The evidence we have seen from Ben Mathews comparing similar places with one another suggests we’d get better reporting and that it saves money in the long term. If you look at the comparison of Victoria and Ireland, carried out in 2010, the evidence is that mandatory reporting will detect much more child abuse and pick it up earlier.”
A Home Office spokeswoman said: “In line with our commitment as part of the Serious Crime Act, we launched a consultation in July on possible new measures relating to reporting and acting on child abuse and neglect. It’s important we get this right – which is why we are seeking views from practitioners and professionals as well as the wider public. We urge everyone with a view on these issues to respond and ensure their voices are heard.”