I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the matter of child sexual exploitation.
I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for granting this important debate and to colleagues from across the House for their support, in particular my co-sponsors, my hon. Friend Margot James and Ann Coffey.
First, I want to say that the vast majority of children in this country have safe and happy childhoods. It would be wrong to imply that there is a paedophile lurking behind every tree or that children in general need to grow up in fear. This debate must be approached with proportionality and common sense. However, I am here today because in March this year I received a call from the Thames Valley police to warn me that there were about to be 14 arrests for child sexual exploitation in Oxford. Operation Bullfinch has so far led to nine prosecutions, which will go to the Old Bailey in January. In total, the group concerned will face 51 charges, including the prostitution of girls under the age of 16 and administering drugs for the purposes of rape, trafficking and grooming. There are more than 50 victims, who are aged between 11 and 16, and the exploitation has carried on over an eight-year period. All of this happened minutes from my cosy flat in north Oxford.
Recently, the issue of child sex abuse has shot up the news agenda. In addition to BBC failures over Savile, the Waterhouse allegations were followed by “Newsnight” and ITV journalists and others publicising unsubstantiated and party-politicised allegations that, frankly, would not have looked out of place in the McCarthy era.
My hon. Friend may know that I was a junior Minister in the Welsh Office when the Waterhouse inquiry was set up. Does she agree that many of those who commented on that inquiry would have been well advised to have read the Waterhouse report, as its contents serve to vindicate everything that came to light at the end of last week?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I am by no means an expert on the details of the Waterhouse inquiry. I understand that the report is very lengthy, so I have great respect for anyone who has read it in its entirety. However, I do think those who commented with such certainty would have been wise to have made sure they knew the details before making sweeping statements.
No one takes allegations of child sexual abuse more seriously than I do, but those who attempted to start a vigilante crusade of trial by Twitter were, however pure their motives, certainly not acting in the interests of the victims. At best they clouded the debate and the real issues that affect victims, and at worst they risked undermining prosecutions so that victims might be denied the very justice they deserved. Frankly, I cannot think of any more irresponsible kind of politics or journalism than that. Today’s debate should not be about allegations or rumours; it should be about how we can get better support and justice for victims.
I am daily haunted by the knowledge of what happened to those girls minutes from my home. I cannot refer to any details for fear of prejudicing the case, but that is why I am here now. It is why I called for, and secured, a Home Affairs Committee inquiry into localised grooming, and since May we have been hearing about where the system has failed, such as in Rochdale, and about the reality of the ways in which victims experience child sexual exploitation. Repeatedly I have been told that victims initially do not see themselves as victims and, in a cruel irony, even when they do they struggle to gain credibility from the very agencies meant to protect them.
I commend the hon. Lady and colleagues for securing this enormously important debate, and of course I share her horror and concern at the events in Oxford. Do reports such as ChildLine’s excellent “Caught In A Trap” not scream out that these young people need to have confidence that there is somebody they can go and talk to? Do we not need a pervasive national campaign saying that it is okay to talk about it, coupled with suitably trained teachers, social workers and others to whom young people can go with confidence?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his comment. As we are both Oxford Members, we have shared the difficulty of realising that a thing such as this could happen in Oxford. I agree with him on the importance of victims feeling that there is somewhere they can go and that they will be believed when they go there, but it is important that, first, victims realise that that is exactly what they are—victims. One problem is that many victims are slowly lured into exploitation by someone posing as a boyfriend and are then kept under control by threats. They are encouraged to commit petty offences, drink, take drugs and play truant. During that process, their relationship with their school, their family and their carers increasingly deteriorates and they become seen as disruptive and a bad influence, with the police and social services perhaps considering them to be petty criminals who are making “bad choices”. In that context, their relationship with their real family deteriorates ever more and their relationship with and dependence on exploiters, whom they see as their real family, becomes ever more entrenched, with threats, violence and intimidation commonplace.
The hon. Lady rightly observes that, paradoxically, these victims sometimes do not see themselves as victims, and she has gone on to indicate the patterns in some of those cases. Is she not concerned, therefore, that the criminal injuries compensation scheme that this House passed last night actually says that children aged 13 to 15 will not be automatically treated as victims and that all sorts of other factors can be used by claims officers to discount their claims to victim compensation?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. We should ask the Minister to respond to it, because clearly some of these people are victims of some of the most serious offences that can be imagined. It is not the automatic nature of the programme that we need to consider; rather, that these people are able to access the support when they need it.
The Government have not been idle on this issue. Tim Loughton, who led in creating the tackling child sexual exploitation strategy last November, and Ed Timpson, who now leads on it, deserve credit for the work they have done. However, we are coming from a very low base. The prevalence of child sexual exploitation and the very poor recognition of it by relevant agencies was highlighted in Barnardo’s “Puppet on a string” report as recently as January 2011. So although the Government deserve credit for the action they have taken—the strategy is an effective response—in many areas we still do not have effective plans in place.
Now, counter-intuitively, where areas are taking action the picture seems to look worse, rather than better, as more victims come forward and more perpetrators emerge. We are familiar with the pattern from other hidden crimes, such as domestic abuse; we should not be surprised that as public awareness increases, so reporting increases. We should not confuse that with increased risk. We should be aware that the high level of national media attention is artificially pushing up reporting levels, but if increased reporting does not lead to better prevention, detection and prosecution, the bravery of those victims who come forward will be for nothing. Simply identifying gaps in provision will not be enough to avoid that outcome; we also need to find practical solutions and make sure that they are actually driven through on the ground.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s comments. She rightly makes the point that a sign of success is that more of these cases are coming to court. The fact that the Rochdale perpetrators were given 77 years in total—a tough sentence—sends out a strong message that the police and other agencies are now taking these crimes seriously, that the perpetrators are more likely to be brought to book than they were before and that they will be punished properly for the revolting crimes they have committed.
I thank my hon. Friend for his point. Although we must indentify where there have been failings in the system and root out systems that are not working, it is important that we do not vilify places that take action and bring perpetrators to justice. If we do that, we will put off local authorities and police from taking these cases to court.
Government can only do so much. It is generally accepted that local services, led by the local safeguarding children boards and police, have to lead on responding to child sexual exploitation. But before they can do that, they are going to have to accept that this issue affects them and is worthy of being prioritised in the current economic climate. There are still local authorities that do not think this affects their area. I do not cast any stones. I cannot express the shock I had when the news about the Oxford case emerged, and I do not think I was alone. Organised sexual exploitation on this scale was, to me, something that happened somewhere else—in inner cities with gangs or in cities with grinding poverty. What is more, to me, it did not happen to local girls; it happened to trafficked girls from Cambodia, eastern Europe or west Africa—or just any other place. What I have learned during this process is that it is not so much that it is everywhere, as that it could happen anywhere. The deputy Children’s Commissioner, who is halfway through a two-year inquiry into group and gang-associated child sexual exploitation, said in evidence to the Select Committee:
“what I am uncovering is that the sexual exploitation of children is happening all over the country. As one police officer who was a lead in a very big investigation in a very lovely, leafy, rural part of the country said to me, there is not a town, village or hamlet in which children are not being sexually exploited.”
In that context, it is not enough to have plans, regulations and guidance pushed down from government—we had that in 2009 and it did not work. What we need to know is that effective multi-agency teams are on the ground, trained to recognise risk factors and able to pursue not only prevention and early intervention, but investigation and prosecution. This is what the Government have been trying to encourage since last year, but it turns out that it is quite hard to track local progress on the ground.
Does the hon. Lady agree that one way in which the Government might be able to fulfil their role in this process is by putting a reporting requirement on local safeguarding children boards so that this evidence is collated nationally, not just locally?
It is as though the hon. Gentleman has read my mind; I will be coming to that point later.
When CEOP undertook its “Out of Mind, Out of Sight” report 18 months ago, it received only 13 responses from local authorities—that is out of 154 councils in England. The report was clear: local safeguarding children boards were not fulfilling their statutory responsibilities; they needed to improve their ability to recognise the risks in this area so that they could intervene early; and multi-agency working, particularly through co-located units, was the key to ensuring that data and soft intelligence did not fall between the cracks and did not succumb to overly cautious data protection practices, especially in the NHS and in social services.
The most recent survey of local authority activity that I could find comes not from any official statistic, but from unpublished research by Barnardo’s. In an August 2012 review of its “Cut them free” campaign, it found that although 107 out of 154 local authorities had signed up to tackle child sexual exploitation, few of the 31 local authorities that responded in detail had detailed, well developed strategies. Most local authorities were still planning strategies, data collection, training and specialist service provision, although most were planning to have them in place by the end of 2013. I honestly do not think that that shows a lack of will; it is an indication that this is a very recent strategy and that they are starting from a very low base.
However, it is almost impossible for us to assess the scale of the problem or the consistency of service provision without having a robust policy of data collation and collection. I do not think we can assess the risks, map the need or properly hold our local authorities to account. I would add a caveat: victims are often moved between cities, so if we are going to have any kind of data collection, it needs to be consistent between local authorities, because we do not want victims to fall through the cracks when they go from one local authority to another.
We have already seen data sharing causing too many barriers. One key problem regularly raised with me is the failure of professionals to share data about victims that could have given a full picture of what was happening. I understand, up to a point, that discerning such insidious underlying abuse beneath a bad girl image might have been a leap too far, given superficial behaviour, but what I still find difficult is that a big source of confusion lay in the fact that obvious indicators in data about victims, such as repeated missing episodes, unexplained injuries, sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies, petty offences and truancy were not shared between agencies. That meant that no one even had a chance to put the picture together and discern a pattern of abuse, free from judgment about whether some 14-year-old was simply making bad choices.
I hear two experts behind me, my hon. Friends the Members for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart) and for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), commenting on the detail of that point, so I will allow them to comment further in their speeches. I have spoken at length to CEOP and other agencies since then and they have not given me any indication that ContactPoint would have improved their response.
Does my hon. Friend agree that when a child is in the position she just described, although it is essential that the data are shared, we do not need a vast overwhelming database in which focus is lost and in which the victims can disappear? We need a better system than we have today, but not necessarily ContactPoint, which did not provide the focused, laser-like attention on victims that was and is required.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point—I can see this developing into a heated part of the debate—in that these enormous databases tend to lose focus on the specific point for which they were introduced. We had huge databases and the detail was being lost. A lot of information was being put into databases all over the county, but that information was not being shared or being taken out of the databases and carefully considered. Professionals need to share the information and understand the patterns, which was not happening. It was not the database that was important, but the communication between the professionals—and that did not happen.
The problem has partly been the symptom of an over-sensitive data protection culture in the NHS. I respect the culture of patient confidentiality, but it is a qualified concept and in this case it has got in the way of prosecutions for some really appalling crimes. There is a fear that if professionals share the information, it will be used inappropriately. I have had discussions with a number of professionals in the field and the solution proposed unanimously by the police, social services and others is to have co-located units based on an extraordinary principle that might be unfamiliar to some on the Opposition Front Bench: if people are put in a room and allowed to talk to each other, the outcome might possibly be better than if information dotted around a county is inputted into unrelated databases.
Putting professionals from relevant agencies who are trained to recognise CSE indicators all in the same room means they can build up the necessary trust effectively to share intelligence and work together seamlessly. That is exactly what has been recommended by CEOP and it has been proven to work in pockets of excellence in the UK. I am delighted that the Kingfisher unit, modelled on exactly those principles, will open in Oxford soon. I do not think that that principle is particularly controversial. In my opinion, unless there is conclusive evidence to prove that there is no risk of child sexual exploitation in the local authority area, every area should have such a unit because it will stop children’s lives being destroyed.
The best identification and investigation will be irrelevant if the CPS is reluctant to take up cases of child sexual exploitation. CSE victims are often perceived as unreliable witnesses because they struggle to express their experiences in court and might be unco-operative and difficult to engage with during the pre-trial period. Obviously, criminal allegations must be fully tested, but it cannot be right that under-age victims, who have been through appalling experiences and nevertheless had the courage to come forward, must face cross-examinations of their abuses that blame them, must face being called prostitutes or sex workers by people who remain unchallenged, must often face aggressive and intrusive questioning by multiple defence barristers, and must relive their experiences, often years after they have rebuilt their lives, because trial dates are set so far in advance. I have also heard stories of victims who have had to return day after day before giving evidence because of how the case has progressed. Others have had to face their abuser in open court or risk bumping into them in other parts of the court. One police officer said to me that the court process was so distressing for these victims even now that she would think twice before putting her own daughter through it.
I am pleased that the CPS is reviewing its response to CSE cases, but the serious concerns that have been raised about victim experience need a broader response. Progress has been made in this area. Special measures can make the court experience much more manageable for vulnerable victims but they are not yet applied consistently. Expert witnesses could be used in a better way and have a greater role in explaining the character, nature and consequences of sexual exploitation, as they have in cases of domestic abuse. Independent sexual violence advisors could offer significant support for vulnerable witnesses through court processes. ISVAs can not only provide direct support to the witness but ensure good practice is followed. If they can keep witnesses in the case and stop it collapsing, they will immediately provide good value for money. I hope that the Minister will raise that point with the relevant Department, because those problems are among the biggest barriers to prosecution.
If we are talking about investigations or prosecutions, it is already too late. Somewhere an under-age girl or boy will have been sexually exploited and with all the help in the world, they might never really recover. We must have better education and prevention. This is a hidden crime and many parents, carers and young people are simply unaware of the risks. There have been awareness campaigns, not to mention media coverage associated with the Derby, Rochdale and Rotherham cases, but general public and professional awareness of risk factors is still worryingly low.
In the current climate, many local authorities feel they do not have the capacity to deal with the problem. I appreciate that, but it does not have to be as cost-intensive as many feel. In Oxfordshire in the 1990s, it became apparent that domestic abuse victims were going to as many as 10 agencies before they got the help they needed, so domestic abuse champions were set up by the county council. The scheme offers volunteers from key services such as schools, housing associations, the NHS and churches—and me—two days of free training and updating networking sessions. There are now hundreds of trained volunteers in all those agencies who know how to identify, offer initial support to and signpost a domestic abuse victim. It is like a massive virtual safety net for domestic abuse victims. It is cost-effective, yes, but it is equally effective in raising awareness and reporting across the sectors. I believe that that would be a really good model to investigate for CSE networks and I hope the Minister will consider speaking to the relevant Department about how such a proposal could be implemented nationally.
Let me tell those who are getting desperate that I am beginning to approach the runway. I want first, however, to touch on calls for a public inquiry. It is vital that as we debate this matter we do not lose sight of the children experiencing exploitation and abuse in our communities. That is what we should be talking about. I appreciate that we might end up with an overarching inquiry and I understand the arguments, but we must also consider the risks. The procedures and processes, not the children we should be protecting, could become the focus of such an inquiry. Naming and shaming could take up the headlines, rather than prosecutions, which might be held up by the inquiry, being pursued. Local authorities, police forces and other agencies who are starting to set up CSE strategies might instead decide to wait two years until the inquiry finishes and makes its recommendations. Two years is a long time to wait for an 11-year-old who is being exploited.
We clearly need strong and visible leadership from the Government. We need to demonstrate to the public that this is an issue we could not take more seriously and we need to move faster with reforms so that that 11-year-old gets help now and so that we get more prosecutions now, not in two years’ time.
I wonder whether my hon. Friend agrees that police forces everywhere, not only in north Wales but across England, should not wait until any inquiries reach their findings before looking again at any evidence that they do not think was fully pursued in the past. If their cold case units or others see evidence that needs to be followed up, they should do that immediately. Just as DNA evidence has opened up old cases in the past, if there is evidence that can be followed, it should be followed, and that should be done now.
I absolutely agree, and I think we should all be challenging our local police forces on this issue as much as we can. Although this is not entirely analogous, it is worth noting that when the Hillsborough victims gave evidence to the Home Affairs Committee, they did not want another public inquiry into what had gone wrong; what they wanted was prosecutions. They wanted justice at last because they had been waiting far too long for it.
To make sure that we have a system that can deliver justice, we do need senior leadership to respond to the really significant amount of recent work done on this—the Education Committee’s work on child protection, the forthcoming Deputy Children’s Commissioner’s work on child sexual exploitation, the inquiry of the joint all-party parliamentary group on runaway and missing children and adults, which looks into children who go missing from care, the implementation of the child sexual exploitation strategy and all the other inquiries and serious case reviews that will come forward. We have a Minister who leads on this issue in Ed Timpson, but given that the high-profile cross-departmental and serious issues that are emerging, I think we need to see the current situation as an opportunity to go forward. I hope consideration will be given to whether that needs to be re-looked at within the Department, and in particular to whether it would be appropriate to set up an inter-ministerial group led by a senior Education Minister, but including the Home Office, Justice, and Communities and Local Government to make sure that these reforms are driven forward. I know that Barnardo’s would support that, and I am sure that the Minister would welcome the opportunity to raise that with the relevant Department.
Now I really will give way so that others may speak, and I look forward to speeches that will be far more informed than my own. Finally, I simply reiterate that most children in this country do grow up safe from harm and do not need to fear, but the stories that I have heard of the very vulnerable children in our country who think that what family means is violence, rape and exploitation haunt me. They are in my constituency; they are in your constituency; and we need to run faster and jump higher so that we can overcome the barriers that are preventing us right now from protecting them.
Order. There will not, to begin with, be a time limit in this debate, but if Members make very long speeches it will be necessary for those who come towards the end of the debate to have their time cut, so may I ask you all to bear in mind how long you are speaking this afternoon? May I also remind you, when referring to another Member, to refer to them as an hon. Friend or an hon. Member or name their constituency, because it makes it easy to record? For the record, the Members just referred to were Tim Loughton and the Under-Secretary of State for Education, Mr Timpson.
This debate is taking place following unprecedented publicity about child sexual exploitation and an abundance of high-profile and shocking cases. One of the most shocking facts is that we still do not know the extent of child sexual exploitation in this country. In Greater Manchester we have a very proactive police force. We currently have more than 50 police officers dedicated solely to working full time on child sexual grooming investigations; we have 72 more dedicated to rape allegations, including child rape, and 60 more on “inter-familial” abuse, which includes sexual offences against children.
Detectives are investigating three more major alleged incidents involving young girls after doubling the number of officers investigating claims of abuse. It brings the total number of recently completed or ongoing investigations into the abuse of teenage girls to six. Nine more men from Rochdale are due to appear in court in the coming weeks followed the conviction of nine others in May, and a trial is due to start at Manchester Crown court in January involving a similar investigation which involves girls from my constituency of Stockport.
I take the opportunity to congratulate Greater Manchester police on their dedication in bringing to justice the perpetrators of these horrendous crimes, but I point out to the Minister that these investigations take a lot of resources, and more resources will be needed in the future if we are serious about tackling child sexual exploitation.
So the debate is very timely and takes place against the background of a series of fast-moving events. More than a dozen inquiries of various types have been announced recently into allegations of child sex abuse, amid ongoing concerns that authorities have not taken the claims of victims seriously enough. Over the past 20 years we have seen more than 32 public inquiries into all aspects of public life; in relation to children they included the inquiries into the Soham murders, Victoria Climbié, and north Wales care homes. From all those inquiries we are awash with a sea of recommendations. Some have been implemented, such as improved safeguarding measures to protect children, including enhanced criminal record checks introduced by the last Labour Government. Other recommendations have not.
I was recently struck by the comments of Lord Levy, who chaired the Staffordshire pindown inquiry reporting in 1991, which looked into the practice of keeping children in pindown rooms for weeks and months. Lord Levy, reflecting on what had happened to his recommendations at a later date, said:
“The recommendations resulting from the Pindown Inquiry were variously acted upon, watered down, or ignored.”
I was also interested to read Lord Laming’s 2009 report into progress since the Climbié inquiry in 2001, which made more than 100 recommendations. On inter-agency working, he said that
“it is evident that the challenges of working across organisational boundaries continue to pose barriers in practice”.
I think that meant that things were not getting much better.
Better inter-agency working has been among the recommendations of many inquiries, including the parliamentary inquiry into children missing from care, which was conducted by the all-party group for looked-after children and care leavers and the all-party group for runaway and missing children and adults, which I chair. We found that the police and the Department for Education were not even collecting the same data on children missing from care, so that repeated missing episodes—one of the key indicators that sexual abuse might be taking place—were not being acted upon and children were being placed at risk of sexual exploitation.
Local safeguarding children boards are key to preventing sexual exploitation. They should be ensuring that local agencies are working effectively together, sharing information from health, police, schools and youth services to identify children who may be at risk and developing interventions to keep children safe and to stop them becoming victims of sexual exploitation. But we are a long way from that in many parts of the country, so children are facing a postcode lottery in protection from sexual exploitation.
I am very pleased that my hon. Friend Tim Loughton accepted our recommendations and I am very sorry to have seen him go. I look forward to the actions proposed by the DFE and the Home Office in response, so that in future data on missing children will be collected in such a way that it is a useful tool in identifying children at risk of sexual exploitation. I have to say that one of the concerns, however, is the new definition of missing. It is important that the new Association of Chief Police Officers guidance has enough safeguarding procedures so that the significance of repeated absences that are not recorded as missing is not overlooked and underplayed. We all know that repeated absences are an indicator that a child may be being sexually exploited on a regular basis.
I also think it is important that Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary makes the inspection of police forces’ performance in this area a priority. I know this is a difficult and complex area, and that procedures or statutory guidance are by themselves not enough, although it is not acceptable when they are ignored. There is a statutory obligation for police forces to return missing statistics to the Missing Persons Bureau and yet it was only last year that all police forces returned their statistics to the bureau. So the Minister can appreciate our concern to ensure that all police forces take that seriously.
To return to Lord Levy, he said:
“We really need to bolster the procedures for ensuring that the lessons and recommendations from often expensive inquiries are carried through and actually acted upon.”
I agree, and I think before any more new inquiries are announced we should certainly find a way of reviewing recommendations of past inquiries.
I think that the Children’s Commissioner, in her newly strengthened role as a voice and advocate for children, should be given responsibility for ensuring that the recommendations of any future public inquiries relating to children are implemented and that she should report regularly to Parliament on progress towards their implementation. That might have the additional benefit of stopping the Government’s announcing of public inquiries simply to deal with the immediate pressure to solve a difficult problem. It is one thing for a Government to announce an inquiry when they know that they can kick any recommendations into the long grass; it is quite another when they might be held to account for those recommendations.
Since 2007 there have been 557 serious case reviews, although not all have been the result of child sexual exploitation. It is not clear to me what actually happens to the recommendations of those reviews, besides sitting with the local safeguarding children board. Recommendations relating to sexually exploited children in one area need to be learnt by local safeguarding children boards everywhere. After all, they serve as local inquiries. In the same way that the implementation of recommendations from public inquiries should be monitored, I believe that the recommendations from serous case reviews should be monitored, and perhaps that should be done by the Children’s Improvement Board. I also believe that a serious case review should always be undertaken if a child has been harmed by sexual exploitation, which is not currently the case.
Throughout all the inquiries and investigations into child sexual exploitation, we hear that children feel that they are not listened to. I believe that, above all else, we must strengthen their voice. That was the main message of the young people from one of the Children’s Society’s local projects when they gave evidence to our all-party group’s inquiry into children who go missing from care. It is a depressingly familiar story in most sexual abuse cases. The victims felt powerless, and one of our findings was that the professionals who were there to help them treated them as troublesome, a nuisance and a drain on resources, rather than as victims. That theme ran through the hugely important report from Barnardo’s, “Puppet on a string”, published in January 2011, which said that too often the tell-tale signs that a child was being abused were overlooked.
Children feel that their voice is not being heard, but often it is also those with responsibility for protecting them who do not want to listen. It is hard to listen, because that means having to act—and that might make life uncomfortable. We must strengthen the voice of children themselves. In our society, adults talk a lot about our rights, which in many cases do not exist, but we mean the right to a voice—our voice. I welcome the proposals to strengthen the role of the Children’s Commissioner, but she cannot be the voice of all children at all times and in all situations. Children used to be seen and not heard, and now they are sometimes heard. Somehow, we must move on so that they are always heard.
I strongly support compulsory sex and relationship education in schools, which is the Labour’s party’s policy. If children are to speak out, they must first feel confident that what is happening to them is wrong, and that is why sex and relationship education in schools is so important. They need to know—indeed, they are entitled to know—about issues such as sexual consent, what sexual coercion and exploitation is and how to shape healthy relationships and respect for each other, as well as to be alerted to signs that they are being sexually groomed. That will give them the confidence to reject inappropriate relationships, which is important in relation not only to grooming by older men for sexual exploitation, but to sexually coercive relationships by peers.
We know that harmful attitudes and behaviours are developed at a young age, and there is growing evidence about the impact of pornography on boys’ attitudes to girls. It is a problem that boys are accessing adult websites that give them a distorted attitude. It gives them a sense of entitlement, which means that they might touch a girl inappropriately and use bullying or coercive behaviour. That may explain the findings of a recent YouGov poll conducted by the Schools Safe 4 Girls campaign, in which a third of 16 to 18-year-old girls said they had been touch inappropriately at school.
Peer-on-peer exploitation is a very difficult issue, and the report by the Deputy Children’s Commissioner on gang and peer-on-peer sexual exploitation is due later this month. The perpetrators themselves are children, and that is an even more powerful reason for compulsory sex and relationship education in schools to balance what many boys see on adult websites. Boys need to be supported to form positive and respectful attitudes to girls and women. They need to understand that abuse can have a long-lasting impact, and not only physical, mental and emotional harm, but damage to a girl’s education and future.
Of course we need better inter-agency working and a better job to be done by local safeguarding children boards, but we also need to give children the knowledge to protect themselves. There is good practice around, and I am delighted about how sex and relationship education is being delivered in Stockport primary and secondary schools. Workshops, funded by Stockport council and Comic Relief, on sexual bullying and unhealthy relationships are being delivered in all local secondary schools by Stockport without Abuse, formerly the Stockport Women’s Aid group. The workshops are now being extended to year 6 pupils in primary schools in the borough and a new project will start at the end of this month that involves training young people to become “peer educators” to raise awareness of sexual harassment. The project involves Stockport council’s safeguarding unit, the Brinnington education achievement partnership and Stockport Without Abuse.
After my parliamentary debate on sexting last year, I was invited to see a film produced by two pupils at Harrytown high school. It was based on real-life situations and showed the consequences of uploading or texting indecent images. It is very important that we involve young people in that kind of work, as they will listen to other young people better than they will listen to adults. The more information children and young people receive in schools to prepare them for the world they face, the better, but that is not being done everywhere. We all know that knowledge is power, and power is what victims of sexual abuse throughout the ages have sadly lacked. Well-informed, confident children with a strong voice are less likely to become victims.
In conclusion, it is important that we learn the lessons of the past and understand the risks that children will be exposed to in the future. Only then we will be able to make significant headway in protecting children from sexual exploitation.
I will start by apologising for the fact that I have to be in my constituency later today and so, alas, will be unable to stay for the wind-ups. I have written to Mr Speaker about that and apologised to the Front Benchers and to my hon. Friend Nicola Blackwood, who moved the motion.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Ann Coffey on securing the debate and on the powerful and well-informed points they made. I know from bitter experience, over many years in opposition and then in government, that debates in this House on children’s issues or on safeguarding children are hard to come by. At last we are having a debate on child protection and child sexual exploitation. Perhaps that explains why the Press Gallery is deserted. This is not about celebrities, the structural overhaul of the BBC or senior politicians possibly being connected with paedophilia; it is about child sexual exploitation, a subject of huge concern to all our constituents and members of the public and something that the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children says affects at least 64 children every day of every year, one in four of them aged under 11. ChildLine has had almost 16,000 contacts on just that subject. It is hugely important. Frankly, the recent media circus with sensationalist celebrity scalp hunting has really undermined the importance and severity of the issue we are at last discussing today. I think that the media should take note of that.
It must say that it is puzzling and disappointing that the Minister responsible for child protection will not respond to the debate and, indeed, that no Minister from the responsible Department, the Department for Education, is on the Front Bench. One of the responses to the “Puppet on a string” report produced by Barnardo’s was that one Minister should have overriding responsibility across Government for tackling child sexual exploitation. I took on that responsibility in my previous ministerial role and I think that my successor has also done so. Perhaps the Minister who is here today could explain whether that arrangement has changed. It is disappointing and puzzling, as I have said.
The media circus of recent days has concentrated on the BBC and political links, so it has gone almost unnoticed that there have been further arrests in the Rochdale case, an arrest in the Savile case and arrests regarding a further paedophile ring operating in Leeds. As my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon said, the fact that more of these cases are hitting the news and coming to court is a sign of success in that they are being taken more seriously by the police and other agencies, who are pursuing them and making the charges stick. We need much more publicity about that.
This is an important issue now, but it was also important in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, when, as has become apparent in recent days, we failed to look at it properly. Even now, the NSPCC estimates that only one in 10 cases of child sexual abuse is reported. Back in the ’70s and
’80s we would have been lucky if one in 100 was reported, let alone prosecuted and the perpetrators brought to book.
Let us take stock of recent history. An almost beatified celebrity in the form of Jimmy Savile has now been connected with some horrendous crimes involving young children. Other celebrities might be involved, and it might involve practices within the BBC. Yet when it was going on it was apparently an era of “nudge, nudge” and people saying, “Well, it’s just Jimmy—that sort of thing happens.” In fact, “nudge, nudge” and “That’s just Jimmy” was about serious sexual crimes against children, as we now recognise them to be. That is how it appears from the information that is emerging, although there is still much investigating to be done.
We then had the rumours about links with high-level politicians, which so far have not been based on any properly researched evidence. I have to say that certain allegations that were made without that evidence, both in this Chamber and in poorly researched “Newsnight” programmes, have not helped this case. However, as I said some weeks ago, why should we be surprised if there are people in political life connected with child abuse? It has affected the Church and it has affected children’s homes; it has involved people in positions of trust supposedly caring for vulnerable children. It is affecting the entertainment industry. Why should we be surprised if politicians are also involved? This is a cancer that has gone on for many years, under the radar, across a whole range of institutions that we did not previously consider.
The Waterhouse inquiry, as my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon said, was very thorough. It was supposed to take a year and took over three years, and it uncovered 12,000 documents and hundreds of witnesses. It is right that we should make sure that all the evidence from that inquiry has been properly looked at. However, since last week we have had an inquiry into an inquiry. That is why I take the view, as I did some weeks ago when the Savile allegations started to come to light, that we need an overarching inquiry that goes back to the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s to look at what happened, why it happened, what stopped it happening, and what has changed to make sure that the perpetrators, who may still be at large, are at last brought to book. Importantly, it would ensure that the victims come forward and this time have their stories taken seriously and believed and, where appropriate, acted on, so that, we hope, they get some sort of closure. Even more importantly, it would help us to ensure that in 2012 every institution that has significant contact with children and young people has a robust child protection policy in place that can make these horrendous crimes much less likely.
Only today in my own area, in the diocese of Chichester, as a result of the report by Lady Butler-Sloss into allegations of child abuse, there have been two further arrests involving a former bishop. This goes everywhere, and we must not be blind to looking into every nook and cranny and under every carpet where it has been swept in the past.
Does my hon. Friend agree, from his experience, that the age group of victims goes from 16 to birth, so a considerable proportion of the victims cannot speak out? In the baby P case, we used legislation against witnesses that has since been expanded. We might want to look at that aspect so that those who stand by and watch, and do not speak out, could be brought to book as well.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. As my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon said, the Government cannot solve this on their own. The stories we have heard over recent weeks and months have made it clear to all of us that everybody has a responsibility of vigilance, while those in positions of care and trust have a greater responsibility than the rest of us. There is now no excuse for not realising that child abuse goes on and no excuse for someone not doing anything about it when they see it happening, or suspect that it might be happening, in their street, community, school, church, business, or whatever it might be.
Very often the children who have been abused have gone to people who are in a position to help them, but, no matter what age they are, they have not been believed. Even if they have been believed, they have been told, “It’s not something that we need to worry about because it is about somebody famous”, or if it is not somebody famous they have not been believed and nobody has taken notice of their cry for help. We must help children who are being abused to be believed, because they know what is going on.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One of the scandals was the fact that in some cases children were not only told to shut up or not believed but threatened physically with violence if they kept on coming forward with their stories. People said, “They’re children—what do they know about it? It’s Jimmy”, or whoever it might be, “so just go away and forget about it.” That must not happen now. We have organisations such as Childline and some excellent children’s charities that have people working in the community to whom, we hope, children can go. We have better procedures in schools, with teachers trained to look out for this sort of thing—to listen and to be able to know what to do when these stories come to light. The biggest scandal is the fact that these children were completely rebuffed in the past and not taken seriously; that must not happen in 2012.
One of the issues that has particularly shocked me is the attitude of some of those in the agencies that are supposed to be protecting these children in saying that they are making bad choices, as though there is a choice and a question of consent when children as young as 11 and 12 enter into sexual relationships with adult men. We must address that within all these agencies, because it cannot be allowed to continue.
My hon. Friend rightly made that point, as I have done on numerous occasions, including, I think, before the Home Affairs Committee on which she serves. It came out of the Rochdale inquiry, among others. The possibility that a 13 or 14-year-old girl who was being sexually abused by a 48 or 50-year-old man she did not know, plied with cigarettes and alcohol, and taken to strange places and passed around various different men could have been doing that as a result of a lifestyle choice is absolutely incredible. It also says something about how our society looks at the way in which our children grow up in this century and when they stop being children and start to become adults. As far as I am concerned, until people are 18 they are still children and young people; we have responsibilities and duties towards them, and they need looking out for. Any institution or professional who thinks that such a child could have made that decision of their own volition and in their own interests should be sacked and has no place whatsoever in any safeguarding role with children.
I will quickly make progress, Madam Deputy Speaker, because I remember your warning, and many others want to speak who are much better equipped than I am. The reason I suggest we need an overarching inquiry is that we now have a double-figure amount of inquiries—within the BBC, the health service, the police, and children’s homes, including in the Channel Islands. For the next three to six months—a year or so—we will incrementally have reports from these reviews and inquiries, and I am sure that we will have more of them. I know that various other investigations—responsible investigations—are going on within the media and other areas that will uncover a whole load of other aspects that we had not previously considered. Nothing should stand in the way of the police doing their work now—the most important thing is that these perpetrators are brought to book and past crimes are looked at—but we need to have an overarching inquiry by a group of well-respected, heavyweight professionals who can look at the whole history of this and give their recommendations, quite aside from the individual reviews that are being conducted. Indeed, the Australian Government have announced just that—in the past few days, the Prime Minister of Australia has announced a royal commission. She said:
“The allegations that have come to light recently about child sexual abuse” in Australia
“have been heartbreaking. These are insidious, evil acts to which no child should be subject. The individuals concerned deserve the most thorough of investigations into the wrongs that have been committed against them. They deserve to have their voices heard and their claims investigated. I believe a Royal Commission is the best way to do this.”
That mirrors the situation in this country, which is why I think we should go ahead with an overarching inquiry.
Are the perpetrators still at large? As I have said, the police must be able to do their work. Are victims being deterred from coming forward? We must not put any barriers in their way and we must make sure that the damaging allegations of shoddy journalism over the past few days do not do that.
Are our children safer in 2012 than they were in the ’70s and ’80s, when many of the horrible things that we have been discussing in recent days happened? They are. We have much better child-protection policies now. They are still too bureaucratic and need streamlining, which is why the working together programme was seriously streamlined. That will allow the professionals to do their job much more effectively. We have better local safeguarding children boards, which were not taking the problem seriously. The study by the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre and the university of Bedfordshire showed that 73% of safeguarding children boards did not have an up-to-speed policy on child sexual exploitation. That is now changing very quickly.
Local safeguarding children boards did not used to speak to each other, but I was keen to ensure that they did. They held their first national conference a year or so ago. I spoke at it and we had some very good people there who had not met each other before. It is obvious that sharing best practice among those LSCBs was the way to go and I secured some funding to ensure that a network of LSCBs get good advice and good practice from each other for common problems throughout the country.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. Does he agree that a chair from one of the health and wellbeing boards should be appointed as a national lead on child protection, to ensure that their organisations have exactly the right focus and are linked to the safeguarding children boards?
There is merit in that idea. One of my concerns when I was in the Department was the weak link of safeguarding within the health service, and that has always been the case. LSCBs often say that health representatives are the weak link and the reluctant partners. I believe that is changing. I set up some cross-departmental protocols with my hon. Friend Anne Milton, who was a then Parliamentary Under-Secretary in the Department of Health. It would be sensible to give a safeguarding role to the health and wellbeing boards. We have LSCBs, public health boards, safeguarding boards and overview and scrutiny committees in local authorities, but we desperately need to link them all up, because the problem of children being abused does not change. We need the right people to exchange the right information and for somebody to pick up the ball, run with it and act on it so that children are protected and safer.
My hon. Friend has not mentioned—no one has so far—the fact that legal changes since the Sexual Offences Act 2003, which was crucial, have resulted in a new power, which received bipartisan support, that enables police, those who chase paedophiles on the sex offenders list, and judges to address the crime of grooming.
My hon. Friend was involved in bringing that about. It was difficult to define what amounted to child sexual exploitation. Although technology is a wonderful enabling tool, its emergence also enables people such as groomers to do evil things by it. We have to keep up with such people. On my visits to CEOP and Scotland Yard, I saw police officers trawling through all sorts of extraordinary, horrific imagery on their computers. It is often the case that paedophiles and traders in extreme pornography who take advantage of children are technologically one step ahead of law enforcers. We must never shirk from making sure that, technologically, our law-enforcement agencies are up to speed in doing their job, because paedophiles are really clever at using technology to peddle their vile trade.
Are we safer in 2012? I believe that we are, but we still have a long way to go. I believe that the modern equivalent of the abuse that took place in north Wales children’s homes in the ’70s and ’80s, and other similar events that are now being revisited, is child sexual exploitation gangs. Most of those that have come to light so far happen to involve British Pakistani men, but we will also see other gangs with different cultural backgrounds around the country. It is child sexual exploitation of a different sort from, but on a similarly serious scale to what happened in those children’s homes. It is not happening in children’s homes any more—we have well-regulated, well-inspected, better-equipped people—but it is happening outside children’s homes in too many cases. That is why we must be absolutely vigilant and make sure that we learn the lessons of Rochdale, Derby, Bradford and all the cases that have and are still to come to light. The knowledge that my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon has of the cases that may come to light in her own part of the world will bring further gasps at the fact that such savagery can actually take place. This will continue to happen.
I would caution against ever making an assumption that children are safe in any environment, even if we set up safeguards for them. We should never assume that sexual abuse cannot take place in a children’s home from now on. It is the power relationship that creates safety for perpetrators of sexual abuse. Would the hon. Gentleman like to comment on that?
I entirely agree. I used the word, “safer.” No child can be guaranteed to be absolutely safe and I would not be surprised if further stories come out of sexual exploitation of children in care homes. That is why the work that I commissioned in July to set up working parties to look at the quality of children’s residential homes, the safety of children who are increasingly being placed well away from their own homes, and better data-sharing between the police and the local children’s services department about homes, is vital. No child can be deemed to be absolutely safe—I hope that I have made that absolutely clear.
Is what happened in a north Wales children’s home less likely to happen in our children’s homes now? I believe it is, but we cannot guarantee that it will never happen. That is the comparison that I wanted to make.
I have spoken for quite a while and am almost coming to an end.
One of the most important pieces of work that was done in the Department for Education was the tackling child sexual exploitation action plan, which was launched a year ago. It brought together a whole range of different working groups. Sheila Taylor from the Safe and Sound charity was a pioneer in getting the police to realise the severity of the abuse that was going on in Derby and the midlands. The plan also brought together the National
Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, CEOP and five Ministers from five different Departments, including the Attorney-General, to consider the problems involved in how to prosecute people without re-traumatising the victims who have to appear in court. Above all, Barnardo’s has done so much pioneering work in this area. I should also mention Andrew Norfolk of
, who over many years, when this was a very unfashionable, little understood issue that nobody really wanted to know about, ploughed away and uncovered some ghastly goings on, particularly in various northern cities, and he continues to do so. He must be given credit for bringing the issue to the attention of the wider public.
We brought together all those parties. Ann Coffey was also part of our deliberations and made a fantastic contribution, as one would expect. It was not just a dusty document that then sat on a shelf. It needed to be acted on—it was an action plan and it needed to do what it said on the tin. When I published the action plan, I said:
“For too long now, the issue of child sexual exploitation has received too little attention. The system has not done enough to support victims and their families. The courts have not done enough to support traumatised young witnesses. And—perhaps most worryingly—too many local areas have failed to uncover the true extent of sexual exploitation in their communities.
This country has to now wake up to the fact that its children are being sexually abused in far greater numbers than was ever imagined.”
Those words are as true today as they were a year ago. Who would have believed, however, that the headlines across all the newspapers would be about child sexual exploitation or that it would dominate the media, albeit along the lines that it has gone down?
Why did we launch the action plan? It was the result of meeting many victims. I met many parents of victims as well. I met parents whose children were rescued from child abusers and whose houses were then firebombed by the abusers, who thought that it was a cheek that the daughter was not still at their disposal for abuse. The families go through horrendous experiences, not just the children.
I pay tribute to the BBC and Barnardo’s for the Whitney Dean storyline that they ran in EastEnders a couple of years ago. It was a lifelike, in-your-face, shocking, but effective story of how an ordinary girl was befriended by an extraordinary abuser and made to feel that she was part of the abuse. It showed how insidious and clever such abusers can be in inveigling themselves into the trust of vulnerable girls and boys. It was a good storyline that shocked the public into waking up to this issue. We needed to raise the profile of the issue and I think that that has been done, albeit not in the ways that we anticipated.
Secondly, the action plan was about better inter-agency working between all the different professionals, who were not sharing information or acting on it well. That is getting better. Thirdly, it was about how we rehabilitate the victims when we rescue them. This is not something that goes away the minute somebody is rescued from the perpetrator; there are mental scars that last for years. Fourthly, it was about better court practices, so that more children could go to court without being scared of giving evidence because they would be re-traumatised by a barrage of barristers operating for the gang of perpetrators.
In July last year, we produced the progress report, which contained serious practical measures that have been taken, such as the teenage rape prevention campaign, the Safe and Sound project, the BLAST project, the violence against women and girls action plan, the NHS film and social worker training. A lot is happening and a lot is improving. It needs to, because recent events have shown that this problem is still with us.
The Government need rapidly to assure the public that they are on top of this situation, that the professionals at the sharp end, whose job it is to look out for this issue, are looking out for it, and that children’s voices are being heard, taken seriously and acted on. I hope that Ministers who are not here today will hear that message and reassure the public that child protection in this country is taken far more seriously in 2012 than it was in the ’70s and ’80s, and that we will do everything we can to make our children safer.
I have a slightly different take. I will not talk about cases, although we all have them and they are horrendous. I will not talk about picking up the pieces and how we help victims, although it is incumbent on all of us to try to do that. I will talk about something that people do not want to talk much about: the causes. Why do people perpetrate these horrendous crimes? It is important to talk about that, because if we can understand some of the causes, we can take action to alleviate and diminish these horrible episodes.
We here are responsible for making the overarching legal and cultural frameworks that can lead to there being less sexual abuse in our society. It is our responsibility not to hold another debate in five or 10 years’ time when more cases come forward or, as is the case now, to hold a debate some 15 or 20 years after such cases, but to take action now to change the culture that allows such people to proliferate and continue.
I would like to hear a response on that from the Minister of State, Home Department, Mr Browne. However, much as I enjoy his company, I am saddened that there are no Ministers present from the Department of Health, the Department for Education or the Cabinet Office, because this is a matter for the whole of Government. I am not making a partisan point, because Governments over the past 20 or 25 years while I have been a Member of this House have not covered themselves in glory in trying to prevent offences in this field.
I will make a little progress first. I am conscious that some people have taken a considerable amount of time to make their points, so I will try to be a little more succinct.
It is important that Ministers do not view this matter in relation to celebrities, politicians or the BBC, but that they attempt to get a serious, strategic grip on how we can combat sexual abuse. We can do that in two ways. First, there should be a coherent and precise programme of research on the perpetrators of sexual abuse. Secondly, there should be an inquiry. Tim Loughton mentioned an overarching inquiry. I would like such an inquiry to transcend the individual cases that we have all been talking about over the past few months.
My hon. Friend talked about the ministerial presence or absence in this debate. Is that not symptomatic of an attitude that all too easily characterises Governments—I am not making a party political point—which is that Departments do not take seriously enough matters that are raised in Back-Bench debates or from the Back Benches? They would be well advised to start doing so.
I will let my right hon. Friend make his own points about that. What is important is that Ministers do not act defensively or in a way that is intended to make tomorrow’s newspapers, but that they look at this matter strategically.
There is a plethora of inquiries that have taken place, are under way or are about to take place. The most important inquiry to have, which needs to be heavyweight and overarching, is one that backs off from specific incidents and looks at the steps that we could take immediately. It should ask why the extreme dysfunction of child sexual abuse takes place at all, how the cycle of sexual abuse can be broken, and what plans all public and private institutions must deploy to intervene pre-emptively to eradicate the sexual abuse of children over a generation and longer. It should be about long-termism and should set out a stall, hopefully on an all-party basis, so that we are not back here in 20 years’ time discussing these things. It should also include how we can change personal and family behaviours and social attitudes.
This matter is as significant as the Victorian elimination of cholera and typhoid through the provision of disease-free water. It is the public health issue of our time, and we need to step up and tackle it in a serious and strategic way. I would therefore go further than the former Minister who has just spoken, the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, and say that something on the scale of a royal commission is needed. Such a commission has just been announced in Australia. It should look not at particular cases or at how other inquiries went wrong, but at how we can combat the development of abusive behaviour within relationships and outside the family.
I will be very brief. Royal commissions have famously been used to put things into the long grass. Such an overblown inquiry might just put the issue away until the public focus has moved on and so it might be counter-productive.
Royal commissions have rarely been used in recent years, when inquiries have been used to put things into the long grass or to deal with specifics rather than the generic problem.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Ann Coffey on being so assiduous on this issue over many years, and the hon. Member for Stourbridge
(Margot James) on helping to promote this debate. Perhaps I may also offer some friendly advice to Nicola Blackwood. A long time ago in 1989, when I had been in this House as long as she has—about two years—I asked questions of the then Prime Minister, Mrs Thatcher, and tabled early-day motions on the sexual abuse of children. I suggested—thankfully, this is still on the record—that the Home Office, and the Departments for Education and for Health should work together to figure out a strategic answer to the problem, and undertake serious, long-term research. I also suggested as part of that campaign that we should take video evidence from children in cases of child abuse. Thankfully that tiny bit of progress has been made.
I hope that success comes faster for the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon than any success that I may or may not have enjoyed. We must now look at this issue in the round, rather than at just those cases that affect us as constituency MPs. We must get to the heart of the matter, stop being reactive and start looking at the causes of the problem. There is a continuum. Abuse often begins in quite trivial ways; it escalates through violence; and it can go even further into sexual abuse—and we must start to understand how such relationships occur and how they degenerate, whether in the family or outside.
A tonne of evidence is available. I will not attempt to put it all on the record, although I will refer to a couple of points. Marcus Erooga has done a lot of work on this issue and writes about the
“high rates of convicted child abusers who have been themselves sexually abused as children”.
This is about breaking the cycle of abuse. In a horrendous case that took place 25 years ago in my constituency, children began to accept as normal some of the things that happened to them—I will not put those things on the record in Hansard—and they grew up thinking that that was part of normal sexual relations. As soon as the case was discovered, people went to great lengths to break those children away from the attitude that such things were normal. If they considered such things to be normal, it could happen again in the next generation.
I do not, of course, condemn anyone who has suffered sexual abuse as an offender in their own right—statistics do not bear that out and neither does common sense—but none the less, a very high proportion of people who perform such behaviour have had some experience of its being perpetrated on them by people they know. We can do something about that by helping people and ensuring that they have the social and emotional capability to make choices. As was mentioned earlier, people do not often choose to enter such relationships, and if we gave them the social and emotional armoury that most of us have, they would have a choice. They would be able to say no and to a greater degree resist grooming techniques.
Beckett, another source, states that abusers are
“typically, emotionally isolate individuals, lacking in self-confidence, under-assertive, poor at appreciating the perspective of others—” in other words, no empathy—
“ill-equipped to deal with emotional distress. They characteristically denied or minimised the full extent of their sexual offending and problems. A significant proportion were found have little empathy for their victims; strong emotional attachments to children; and a range of distorted attitudes and beliefs, where they portrayed children as able to consent to, and hot be harmed by, sexual contact with adults.”
It goes on and on—personality characteristics and psychological well-being; parental histories and the cycle of abuse; substance abuse. Often, abuse is an inter-generational phenomenon that we can tackle by ensuring that people have some of the basic social and emotional capabilities that we all enjoy.
I was saddened that the case of baby P generated into finger-pointing and whether a particular social worker or person was responsible, and there was never a real analysis of why those individuals, who were allegedly care givers, treated baby P as they did. Why was no analysis done of where those people came from, why they acted as they did and why 20 years earlier—when I was new to the House of Commons and in the position that the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon is in now—when those care givers were born, nothing was done to ensure that they were adequately equipped to be decent, rounded human beings, just as we would expect for ourselves and our children?
This is not rocket science; it is about how to promote good parenting and the social and emotional aspects of learning that is provided to primary school children. Every child in Nottingham starts to understand qualities such as empathy, interaction, learning and respecting others, and each time one of those capabilities is built in, the prospect that someone will become abusive, antisocial or treat others in a disrespectful way is diminished. Every teenager in the city of Nottingham studies life skills—it is like personal health and social education but involves talking about relationships and what it is like to have a family or a baby, or to maintain a relationship. By giving people such skills, their parents, care givers or teachers give them not a guarantee but an inoculation against the things that we are discussing today.
This is about the development of empathy and love and about nurturing. If people have social and emotional capability, it is difficult to go wrong. If they do not have that, they might be prone to some of the behaviour that, at its most dysfunctional and extreme, can include the sexual abuse of children. We must think beyond tomorrow’s headlines and constituency casework, and beyond the horrendous things that happen to individuals, and look strategically at how we can start to take steps to eliminate, as far as humanely possible, the sexual abuse of children.
Finally, I congratulate the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon on initiating this debate—it is a great thing to have done. I hope that she, unlike me, will not be here in 20 years’ time listening to Members protest and object to terrible things that have happened in their constituencies, without having seized from the Government an opportunity to help change the culture that allows noxious individuals to grow and thrive in our society. We can do something about this issue, but we need a proper culture in which to develop serious research that the Government can pull together. We also need an overarching inquiry that deals not with individual cases, but tells us how we can combat the development of these predators and reduce sexual abuse of children in our society.
Order. There are 16 speakers to get in, so it would only be fair, because some of the earlier speeches were quite long, to put a limit of 12 minutes on speeches.
May I offer my congratulations to hon. Friends and hon. Members who have secured this debate? Eighteen hon. Members spoke yesterday about 3p on a gallon of petrol. If this were an Opposition day debate, the Chamber would be packed, and if it were a statement on the armed forces, there would be 50 Government Members in the Chamber. I should tell hon. Members—not for a laugh—that if there were a debate with the word “Europe” in the title, there would be standing room only on the Government side, and yet there is a fairly token response from the House to today’s debate on child sexual exploitation and child abuse.
The first time I heard about and began to attempt to understand child sexual exploitation was when my predecessor, Ann Cryer, spoke out. I pay tribute to her work on the subject, although she did not always get it right and I did not always agree with her. She attempted to engage people in the Chamber and out in the community, but she was very much a lone voice at the time, especially in speaking to the Kashmiri Pakistani community about some of their behaviour.
The day Ann Cryer mentioned that behaviour in August a few years ago, a young British Pakistani lad from Keighley went on Channel 4 and said that her clumsy phrasing suggested that all the men in our town were paedophiles. That is not what Ann suggested, but people said, “How dare you make this accusation? You are accusing all of us in one go.” It is important to say that not all British Pakistani men are child abusers. Unfortunately, we must constantly qualify our statements so as not to give people excuses—I shall elaborate on that later.
The British National party will use grooming as a key element of its campaign in the Rotherham election campaign, which will start soon. Not all British Pakistani men are abusing white kids. There is a minority, though. The media coverage gives long lists of notorious abusers—including vicars, priests and celebrities—who are all white and non-Muslim. I need to put the problem in context before I say anything more. The vast majority of child abusers in this country are white. As my hon. Friend Nicola Blackwood said, there are abusers in every village and every town. The demographics say that they will be white, but we should not get away from the fact that gangs of Muslim men are going round and raping white kids at this moment in time. That is an horrendous thing to say, but it is the fact of what is happening. I want to explore some of the state’s agencies’ behaviour towards that, and some of the community’s associated behaviour and culture. My speech will not fix the problem, but I hope we will make progress in the debate that Ann started. By securing the debate, my hon. Friend has also helped to move the conversation on.
The initial response to Ann’s comments in the community was, “Why is it us again? You must be racist because you are having a go at us again. Why do you keep talking about it?” Lots of the people in that community dismissed Ann’s comments and saw them as inflammatory rather than as challenging and helpful. Many people believed another injustice was being done to the community by the fact that Ann kept raising the issue. The victimhood that ran through the community gave an excuse for not facing up to the problem. I went to lots of public events to discuss the issue, but all I heard was that Ann’s constant comments undermined the community. The community failed to face up to the core issues that Ann was putting out there. The reality is that the problem has not gone away. Ann Cryer was right. Since that time, many more children have been abused because of the failures of the agencies and of the communities to address what was happening.
I have been in local government for a long time and have heard lots of comments from police officers. I had to say explicitly to senior police officers that it was okay for them to pursue individuals who were perpetrating such crimes—I needed almost to give them permission to pursue those people. Political correctness ran through the political class and some of our agencies.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but is he not making the same mistake? The Home Affairs Committee asked the deputy Children’s Commissioner about this particular issue—she is now carrying out an investigation throughout the whole country—and she said that it is not to do with race or religion, but is just one form of methodology of sexual abuse.
Order. Can I just say that we have to have short interventions? I know that the hon. Lady wants to speak, and I am sure that she does not want to use up her speech this early, but the problem is that if she continues to intervene, she will understand if she is moved down the list.
Perhaps we could conclude that conversation outside the Chamber. What I would say is that I genuinely think that police officers were not encouraged—“sat on” is the wrong phrase—to go in pursuit of people. If we think about the ’70s and ’80s and the culture around child abuse, that was not specific to the Kashmiri community. Generally, police were not encouraged to go in pursuit of people who were abusing children. The consequences of that can be seen in Rochdale and in other cases that are now coming to light. However, I need to put on the record that I am absolutely confident—I have had frank conversations with police officers in my town—that the police will go in pursuit of those individuals. I say to those who have raped children, “Look over your shoulder, because the police are going to come for you, and the full weight of the police and the judicial system will pursue you.”
Some time ago, a friend of mine told me that to address a problem it is sometimes useful to look upstream to find out why it may have occurred. Perhaps some of my friends, both in the House and back home, will not like what I am going to say, but one of the problems is the way that women are treated and valued by Muslim men. I want to challenge the behaviour that says, “I embrace and honour my family, my grandmother, my mother and my sister; you are my blood, I love you and I have great affection for you,” when that passion, love and affection does not address the inequalities those women and girls have to endure. Fundamentally, there is a sexist behaviour by Muslim men towards women. We talk about institutions and commissions and all the rest of it. Fundamentally, as leaders, we need to challenge the behaviour that is going on. We need to do that from a point, though, of not being racist. We are friends who want those people to be successful in our society. They are part of British society, but there is behaviour that is unacceptable.
I want to consider the way boys live in those households. I am afraid, as one senior council officer said to me, they are little princes: they can do nothing wrong, their behaviour is not challenged, and eventually that can manifest itself. In one instance outside Bradford university, Muslim men patrolled the streets around the university verbally abusing women and girls all the time. Rather than the community of peers challenging that behaviour, we had to have a specific police intervention to stop that sexual abuse of women. I am sorry, but that is not something that just manifested at 16, 17 or 18; it is a cultural thing about the behaviour towards women that has set in right at the beginning.
I know there can be love in this, and I know there is an issue about arranged marriages, which my faith probably facilitated not many generations ago, but I would ask why so many women are brought into this country to marry. One reason why I think that plays out is that women from Pakistan are subservient. They do not speak English or understand the values and freedoms that a girl born over here may live by and have confidence in. It is more convenient for a man to have a subservient woman in his household. They are not equal citizens.
I have seven mosques in my town. The biggest can accommodate 2,000 people at prayer. I do not visit all the mosques, but I know most of the elders. I say again—because I have to—that I am not a racist, and I respect Islam as a peaceful religion. I must say, however, that some of the behaviour of the elders in those mosques is unacceptable. I talked a while ago about an imam who was caught beating and kicking children—he was caught on television and eventually prosecuted—but the political and mosque leaders tried to cover it up, as if it was somehow all right. Eventually the council had to intervene and run Criminal Records Bureau checks on the imams and tutors.
That mosque was built using the resource of the community and at no small cost—it accommodates 2,000 people, has great minarets and all the rest of it—yet the council had to CRB check those people and look after their kids. I think that some priorities are wrong in this. Do I want a material thing, or do I want my children to be looked after? If those values are not embedded inside that community, I am sorry but there are great opportunities for things to go wrong.
Finally, lots of women wear traditional dress, including the veil, but there is an issue with men looking at women in western clothes—there is the idea that they are doing so because they want sex and think that those women are available. That behaviour by some Muslim men towards western women needs to be challenged. I could talk in-depth about this matter, but I am running out of time. It is enough to say that I want people in my town to be successful, but they must understand the values that we live by.
I congratulate all those who have spoken in the debate. In particular, I congratulate Nicola Blackwood on introducing it so excellently and all my hon. Friends.
In 1996, I tabled four early-day motions. To do that, I had to block parliamentary business two nights running. As Members can imagine, I got into considerable trouble with my party’s Whips, as well as Conservative Whips, but that was the only way I could get on the record what had happened in north Wales, particularly in the Bryn Estyn children’s home. The EDM that I re-tabled last Friday contains the gist of the complaint at that time. Back then, however, the subject disappeared from the Order Paper. The moment the inquiry was announced, it shut down discussion in this place for four years. That is why I thought it so important at the time to table the EDMs.
Someone suggested having a royal commission. I was on a royal commission. It took three years to report. The Waterhouse inquiry took four years. So a royal commission need not necessarily take as long as any other inquiry. I do think, however, that an overarching inquiry is extremely important.
The Clwyd county council report commissioned at the time laid bare the north Wales child abuse scandal. Had it been published at the time, it would have been very useful and things would have moved much faster. The report was suppressed, mainly because the council insurers demanded that the first full investigation into the care home scandals in north Wales be pulped. I hope that in future any council that wants to publish a report, on whatever subject, will be protected from its own insurers. I do not think that has yet been resolved. I have checked with the Library and it is still the case that insurers of a council can put pressure on it not to publish a report. That needs to be put right.
I have seen the Jillings report. There were only 12 copies, but people made copies of those 12 copies. I do not have one in my possession, because I had to hand it back, but I read things in it at the time. For instance, the then newly appointed North Wales chief constable refused to meet the inquiry or help with access to the police major incident database. The inquiry said:
“We were disappointed at the apparent impossibility of obtaining a breakdown of data. We are unable to identify the overall extent of the allegations received by the police in the many witness statements which they took.”
Some 130 boxes of material handed over by the council to the police were not made available to the panel. The council did not allow the inquiry to place a notice in the local press seeking information, because this was considered to be unacceptable to the insurers—it is interesting that the insurers of the county council were also the insurers of North Wales police. Mr Jillings was clear last week about what he had discovered back then:
“What we found was horrific and on a significant scale. If the events in children’s homes in North Wales were to be translated into a film, Oliver Twist would seem relatively benign.”
According to Jillings, the scale of what happened and how it was allowed
“are a disgrace, and stain on the history of child care in this country.”
The right hon. Lady is raising some serious points, but when she uses the generic term “north Wales” or refers to the country, does she also accept that the majority of children’s homes—child care facilities, orphanages or whatever term one wants to use—are still run, and always were run, by loving and caring individuals, and that although these are serious allegations, they are not as widespread as some might suggest?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, although I am not as certain as he is that he can make such a categorical statement. I think there is a lot going on in this country still which we need to get to the bottom of.
The Jillings report paints an alarming picture of a system in which physical and sexual violence were common, from beatings and bullying to indecent assault and rape. Some staff linked to abuse may have been allowed to resign or retire early. The insurers suggested that the chair of the council’s social services committee—Malcolm King, a brave whistleblower—should be sacked if he spoke out, writing:
“Draconian as it may seem, you may have to consider with the elected members whether they wish to remove him from office if he insists on having the freedom to speak.”
Despite such obstructions, the panel stuck to its brief to investigate child care in Clwyd in the wake of a number of allegations and court cases involving carers. Most of the allegations covered the period 1980 to 1988, and a four-year police inquiry saw 2,600 statements taken and 300 cases sent to the Crown Prosecution Service. Eventually, eight men were charged and six convicted.
A key issue in north Wales continues to be whether there was a paedophile ring at work. One internal Clwyd council report from the time—like Jillings, unpublished—said:
“There remain worrying current instances of conviction and prosecution for sexual offences of persons who are known to have worked together in child care establishments both in the county and… other parts of the north-west”.
The report continued:
“These suggest, that abuse could have been happening unabated for many years and, that there could be operating a league or ring of paedophiles who help one another find sources and situations where abuse can be perpetrated and the addiction fed.”
I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend for all that she has done to highlight the historical instances of child sex abuse in care homes in north Wales. Does she agree that one of the most chilling features of what happened is the institutional nature of the crime? Those crimes were not right, even in the 1970s and 1980s; it is not just that society has changed. They involved out-and-out exploitation by people who thought that their victims were weaker than themselves. That is one of the things that makes what happened in the north Wales care homes so shocking.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention.
There were allegations, too, of abusers outside the care system. The report goes on to state:
“There were numerous claims and suggestions that senior public figures including the police and political figures might have been involved in the abuse of young people”.
I feel strongly about this matter because children from my constituency of Cynon Valley, in south Wales, were taken to that care home in north Wales, a long way from their families and friends. I put a notice in my local paper, and six young men answered the advert. This was before the Waterhouse inquiry was set up. I took detailed statements from the four of them who said that they were ready to talk to me. I took a long time to interview them individually, and I found the allegations that they made, and the descriptions of their experiences, totally emotionally draining. If I felt that, it is impossible to imagine what they must have felt.
All those young men have been damaged in some way. Their experience affected their future relationships with people. Some of them got into trouble with the law. Of the many young men who gave evidence to Jillings, to the police or to the Waterhouse inquiry, a shocking number have committed suicide, have self-harmed or have been killed in mysterious circumstances. That is one of the many reasons why we need an overarching inquiry. It could be a royal commission, as has been suggested, but whatever happens, we need an overarching inquiry; we do not want any more piecemeal inquiries.
One good thing that came out of Waterhouse was that the Welsh Assembly quickly appointed a Children’s Commissioner for Wales. In the past week, 36 people have contacted the commissioner’s office, of whom 22 have spoken of the abuse that they suffered at Bryn Estyn in Wrexham and at the network of homes connected to it. The other 14 have spoken of historical abuse in other settings.
My right hon. Friend tells a powerful story. Does she agree that one of the major problems was that nobody believed the young people, and that they eventually felt that there was no point in trying to fight against the terrible things that were being done to them, because the whole system was geared against them?
My hon. Friend’s constituency covers some of the Wrexham area, as does that of my hon. Friend Susan Elan Jones. They both know full well the anguish felt by the many young people who would have liked to give evidence but who were just not listened to and will not be listened to. I hope that things will change. I have mentioned those people who have contacted the Children’s Commissioner, and it is known that a number of others, perhaps dozens, have contacted politicians and solicitors to report abuse and to ask for help.
In an interview with The Guardian, Mr Towler—the commissioner—expressed concern that the intense speculation over rumours of a politician’s involvement meant that there was a danger of the victims being forgotten. He said that what happened in north Wales in the 1970s and ’80s was a consequence of children and young people not being listened to. The Children’s Commissioner said the victims’ memories were
“as clear as if it happened yesterday…we say it’s historical abuse, but actually it’s alive. This is not an archaeological dig, we’re talking to people for whom this is terribly alive. People are incredibly emotional—we have had tears, anger, relief. They’re saying, I’ve waited 30 years for this opportunity. I’ve also had conversations with people going through that emotion”.
It is not a dead issue in the minds of these young people; it is very much alive. There remains the fundamental concern that justice for many of these victims has still not been achieved.
I pay tribute again to Alison Taylor, who was one of the first whistleblowers in Gwynedd, and to Councillor Malcolm King, who was the chair of social services of Clwyd county council. They were both outstandingly brave, and Alison Taylor was sacked because nobody believed her. Only 12 copies of the Jillings report were published. I have urged for several days that it should be published. It is in the hands of the Wales Office, where it was kept at the time. Copies do exist, and I now believe it essential for it to be published. I also pay tribute to the newspapers, particularly to The Independent and The Guardian, to the BBC, ITV and many other broadcasting organisations and the press, who have helped to bring these iniquities to light.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for giving me an opportunity to speak on behalf of the Government at the mid-way point of this important debate.
I start by congratulating my hon. Friend Nicola Blackwood and others who have provided us with the opportunity to consider this grave matter. I thank those who have already contributed, making powerful and significant interventions on a range of related subjects that all touch on this overarching subject of child sexual exploitation.
Child protection is an absolute priority for this Government, and both the Home Secretary and I are committed to ensuring that children receive the protection they need and deserve. Where child abuse takes place, the effects on the victim can be lifelong and devastating. It is vital that victims feel empowered to come forward to report abuse and that they receive the support needed to help recover from the trauma of this hateful crime.
Equally, we are clear that if child abuse takes place, it must be thoroughly and properly investigated, and those responsible arrested and brought to justice. My message beyond this House today is that anyone who has any information about any paedophile or anyone who has suffered abuse, whether now or in the past, should feel empowered to report it to the police.
I find it extraordinary that the Minister is standing at the Dispatch Box now, on two grounds: first, the representative for the Government is not listening to the whole of this important debate; and, secondly, with no disrespect to the Minister, it is he rather than a Minister from the Department for Education who is on the Front Bench now. I think the House deserves an explanation on both those fronts.
These are rather procedural points, and I want to get back to the substance, but I will answer both of them. On the former, I was advised that in debates such as this, the Minister may speak either at the beginning, the end or somewhere in between—and there are merits and demerits in all those possibilities. It struck me as reasonable to speak at this stage of the debate, although I understand my hon. Friend’s point. As for his latter point, this issue touches on many different aspects of Government responsibility. There is, for instance, a large Home Office responsibility, and because the Home Secretary had already spoken in the House about topical child sexual exploitation cases, it was thought appropriate throughout Government for a Home Office Minister to reply. However, the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend Mr Timpson, and Ministers in other Departments—including, obviously, the Department of Health—take a keen interest in the matter as well.
I want to speak about the substance of the issue rather than the architecture of Government. I will give way now, but perhaps Members will then allow me to deliver a substantial part of my speech uninterrupted.
I do not mean to make any partisan point, but I thought that it might be helpful if the Minister outlined exactly where the responsibilities lie, and with which Ministers. I have a particular question to ask about the strategy relating to violence against women and girls.
The lead Minister is my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich. As I said in response to the question from my hon. Friend Mr Stuart, many aspects of this appalling criminal activity rest—in terms of governmental responsibility—with the Home Office, because a crime has been committed, and the Home Office obviously takes a keen and leading interest in criminal matters. However, other Departments, including the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Department of Health, consider it on a cross-Government basis.
Part of the reason for today’s debate is the fact that a number of recent developments and concerns about child abuse have led to a wide and, some would say, confusing range of inquiries and investigations, and it may be helpful if I update the House briefly on where we stand. Before I do so, however, I think that I should respond to a number of Members who have raised the issue of a single judge-led inquiry into the issues of child abuse that have emerged over recent weeks.
As the Prime Minister made clear last week, the Government do not rule out the taking of further steps. We want to be absolutely on top of the problem of child sexual abuse. We do not want anything to be covered up or any information to be held back, and if there are more things that we have to do, we will do them. We must, however, let the police and others get on with the job of establishing the facts and, of course—in the case of the police investigations—establishing whether any criminal charges need to be pursued. We do not want any further inquiries or investigations to get in the way of that vital and immediate work.
During my speech, I asked the Minister specifically not to concentrate on particular cases and inquiries—although they must go ahead, and he is going to outline why they are going ahead—but to step back and examine the phenomenon of sexual abuse of children. A report on this need not be produced by a judge; indeed, it might well be better for it to be produced, like earlier reports, by an academic or other impartial, independent or respected person. We need someone to view the issue from a broad perspective and to establish how we can prevent further such cases, rather than merely looking at what has happened and what we must do about it, which is what the Minister is doing at the moment.
I was proposing to touch on where we stand today—because many bodies of work have been initiated or supported by the Government and I want people to understand the Government’s position, whether they approve of it or not—and then, in the second half of my speech, to deal with what we are seeking to do more broadly in policy terms. However. I take on board the points that the hon. Gentleman has made—with, as always, feeling and expertise. We are keen to understand and respond to this problem as comprehensively as we can, and I do not rule out the possibility of our doing things differently and better in the future.
There are four groups of ongoing investigations and inquiries, considering four broad issues. The first of them is the accusations made against Jimmy Savile. The Metropolitan Police Service has established Operation Yewtree to lead investigations into historical abuse relating to Jimmy Savile and connected persons. Three arrests have been made to date, and two further related arrests have been made by Greater Manchester Police. The MPS is pursuing over 400 lines of inquiry relating to over 300 victims. This is a criminal investigation, and it is absolutely right that all leads are followed up, offenders are brought to justice and victims receive the support they need.
More widely, Members may be aware that the Director of Public Prosecutions has launched a review into decisions by the Crown Prosecution Service not to prosecute Savile in 2009. The Home Secretary has also commissioned Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary to carry out a specific review to assess what police forces knew and how they dealt with allegations in relation to the specific but worryingly wide-ranging case of Jimmy Savile and related people. In addition to these police investigations and inquiries, a range of institutions, including the BBC, and NHS premises such as Stoke Mandeville hospital, Leeds general infirmary and Broadmoor have also launched reviews and investigations to establish what took place and to ensure that any relevant information is passed to the police and that we understand the circumstances that may have allowed a predatory sex offender to abuse vulnerable children, so that we can ensure that this cannot happen again.
As well as the recent revelations regarding Jimmy Savile, Members will be aware of specific recent allegations on the issue of abuse in care homes in north Wales going back many years to the 1970s. The Home Secretary has been absolutely clear about the need to ensure that those allegations are investigated thoroughly, and that that is done in a way that commands confidence and is seen to be properly independent.
The chief constable of North Wales Police has invited the director general of the National Crime Agency, Keith Bristow, to lead an investigation by the Serious Organised Crime Agency reviewing the historical police investigations and investigating any fresh allegations reported to the police about the alleged historic abuse in north Wales care homes. He will lead a team of officers from SOCA, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre and other investigative assets as necessary. He will produce an initial report by April.
North Wales Police Chief Constable Mark Polin has proposed a formal set of terms of reference for this review, which Keith Bristow has agreed to. The terms have been endorsed by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, who is today placing a copy in the House Library. The Home Secretary has made it clear that the Home Office is ready to assist with the additional costs of this work. The review will identify any new lines of inquiry and pursue any historical cases that warrant further investigation, to ensure offenders are brought to justice and victims receive the support they need.
Mr Bristow’s review will only consider allegations relating to historical abuse in north Wales. Any reports or allegations relating to current abuse will continue to be the operational responsibility of North Wales Police.
I welcome the reiteration of the breadth of the various inquiries. All of them are focused on the perpetrators, the institutions or the police, however, and there seems to be no mention of how we could do a better job of listening to the victims, which is, in fact, the key problem. There have been many years of abuse, and many little voices have come forward but have not been heard. Is the Minister hopeful that this inquiry will result in a greater focus on the victims, or do we need to do more to make sure the most vulnerable are heard?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. We have to understand how the agencies of the state can respond more effectively, and how we can better deter potential perpetrators. I strongly agree with her point about victims, however, and I hope I will give her reasons to be encouraged in my speech.
In relation to north Wales, Mrs Justice Macur will lead an urgent independent review into whether the original Waterhouse inquiry was properly constituted and did its job. The arrangements for the review are a matter for Mrs Justice Macur, but the Ministry of Justice and the Wales Office will provide support to her, and all relevant material will be made available to support the investigation.
Finally, hon. Members will be aware that the Deputy Children’s Commissioner is one year into her two-year inquiry into gang and group-associated child sexual exploitation—this has been mentioned earlier—and that her report, with interim findings on the nature and scale of this appalling crime, will be published next week. The Government will want to consider her recommendations carefully.
My understanding is that that is a matter for the Wales Office rather than the Home Office, so I will refer the right hon. Lady’s point, about which she spoke powerfully a moment ago, to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales so that he can judge what is appropriate in this case. Of course we are already holding an inquiry into the inquiry that came after that report, so there is a thorough body of work here. We want to make sure that nothing is covered up and that lessons are learnt.
Hon. Members will, of course, be aware of a number of ongoing investigations into organised child sexual exploitation and a number a recent court cases that have brought perpetrators of this hateful crime to justice. Many hon. Members have touched on those issues already. Child sexual exploitation is a particularly pernicious form of child abuse and it must not be tolerated. Children are being groomed and sexually harmed and abused, by individuals acting alone or in organised and networked ways. This is not exclusive to any single culture, community, race or religion; it happens in all areas of the country and can take many different forms. That point has been powerfully made by my hon. Friend Kris Hopkins and others.
However, we can see, separate from the cases and accusations that I have mentioned, that a pattern is emerging in relation to a particular model of organised, serious abuse and sexual exploitation of children that predominantly involves British Asian men grooming and abusing white British girls. We are very clear that political sensitivities must not get in the way of preventing and uncovering child abuse. We are committed to dealing with this terrible form of criminal activity, just as we are committed to dealing with all other forms of child abuse. There are lessons to be learnt when things go wrong, but police forces are actively trying to tackle this issue, with an increasing number of cases being brought before the courts. I welcome that higher profile, and the police should not feel impeded in tackling this appalling crime, regardless of its nature and regardless of the perpetrators—regardless of their ethnicity, age or any other considerations. The police should feel free to act as they see appropriate in the interests of the child and the wider public interest.
I want to remind the House of one thing that the debate has not covered so far. Last year, 532 children were abducted, about half of whom, it is estimated, were abducted by strangers. We do not know what happens to them; there are no statistics. That worries me a great deal, because we are probably talking not only about abduction, but child exploitation. Goodness knows what happens to these children. We must not forget them.
My hon. Friend brings to our attention another very important cause of childhood vulnerability, to which the Government are alert.
I am conscious that you do not wish me to detain the House excessively, Mr Deputy Speaker, not least because so many hon. Members wish to contribute, but I think it is important that the Government have an opportunity to explain the many areas of work that are being undertaken. The Government launched their cross-Government action plan last year. It includes a number of key commitments for agencies, including the police, and is aimed at ensuring a concerted and joined-up effort at the national and local level to ensure that all our organisations are working together to identify and tackle child sexual exploitation. It considers the different aspects of child sexual exploitation from the perspective of the young person and, earlier this year, the Government published a progress report outlining action to date.
In addition to measures contained in the action plan, the Home Office is also supporting the police in tackling child sexual exploitation in four areas. First, child sexual exploitation is now explicitly included in the definition of organised crime used in the Government’s organised crime strategy. The strategy recognises that although child sexual exploitation is not driven by profit, it shares many features with other forms of organised crime.
Secondly, we are ensuring that our national capability supports the issue. Hon. Members will be aware that the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, launched in April 2006, is a law enforcement-led agency with multiple sector teams working to understand and tackle child sexual exploitation. CEOP’s role will be strengthened by its inclusion in the National Crime Agency, which will help identify the threat from child sexual exploitation and sexual abuse and ensure that necessary action is taken to protect children and disrupt the activities of those perpetrating these appalling crimes. The NCA will also be subject to a new statutory duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of children across all its functions and activities.
Thirdly, it is important to tackle gang and youth violence and its relationship with child sexual exploitation. Women and girls associated with gangs are at risk of violence, particularly sexual violence. The problem remains under-reported, in our view, and largely hidden. We need to increase reporting, improve the targeting and quality of interventions for gang-associated girls and women and reduce victimisation. To support those aims, the Home Office has already committed to make an additional £1.2 million available over the next three years to improve services for young people under the age of 18 suffering sexual violence in major urban areas, with a new focus on girls and young women caught up in gang-related rape and abuse.
Thirteen young people’s advocates have been funded across the country to provide direct support to young people who have been victims or who are at risk of sexual violence.
Order. The Minister has now spoken for 20 minutes and although people want to hear from him, if he had responded at the end of the debate he would have been limited to around 15 minutes. I hope that he will take account of the fact that many hon. Members want to speak, as taking advantage is not fair to others.
I welcome the Government’s action plan, but I would ask for assurances that victims will be better treated in court. This would be a good opportunity for the Minister to update us on what actions have been taken to ensure that victims are well treated in court.
I am grateful for that intervention, in which an important point was raised. Of course, changes have been made to try to make it easier for victims to tell the truth in court, but we will look again at what further improvements can be made and I shall share that request with Ministers across the Department.
Finally, let me mention what we are doing about the point raised by my hon. Friend Bob Stewart about the strong link between children who go missing and child sexual exploitation. Research has shown that children are more likely than adults to go missing, placing them in risky situations, increasing their vulnerability to a range of issues and, as we are increasingly aware, placing many of those vulnerable young people at greater risk of child sexual exploitation. As children are particularly vulnerable to harm and exploitation while missing, the Government have put in place a tailored response to missing children issues by transferring responsibility for national missing children services to CEOP from
In conclusion, let me reiterate—
I will not, because of the strictures put in place by Mr Deputy Speaker.
Let me reiterate the Government’s commitment to tackle child sexual exploitation head on and to ensure that those that have suffered abuse can come forward knowing that action will taken. As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said in her statement to the House on
I thank Nicola Blackwood and my hon. Friend Ann Coffey for securing this exceptionally important debate. I want to talk about cover-ups in relation to child sex exploitation, and I particularly want to draw on two examples from Rochdale. First, let me turn my attention to what I believe was an attempted cover-up by Rochdale council and the council leader. I do not make these points lightly, and I certainly do not make them for party political reasons. Indeed, it is a Labour council and a Labour councillor is its leader.
As the Rochdale grooming case unfolded in the courts, in April, I first sensed a desire to hide the failure that had occurred when I spoke to Cheryl Eastwood, the then director of children’s services. She explained that it was a “new phenomenon” and that guidance had not been received from central Government—in other words, she was saying that no one was aware of on-street grooming, and she was suggesting that social services needed guidance from central Government to know that raping a young child was illegal.
It did not finish there. Soon after the trial Steve Garner, targeted services director for children, told The Daily Telegraph that his department had not let any of these young girls down. If there was any blame for ignoring the girls’ cries for help, he implied, it did not rest with the department in which he had worked for 11 years.
Helpfully, the Home Affairs Committee immediately started examining issues around child sex abuse, and in June called the leader of the council and the chief executive to explain themselves. It was then that the council leader from Rochdale attempted to suggest that it was a failure of information sharing that had led to the problems in Rochdale. Soon after, with evidence mounting that Rochdale council’s social services department had suggested these girls were making “life choices” and were “prostitutes,” the council leader decided to change tack. Indeed, he jumped on the back of an excellent report by the all-party parliamentary group for looked after children and care leavers, and started suggesting that the problems that occurred in Rochdale should actually be laid at the feet of private care homes. He said:
“They do not protect vulnerable children, they do not rehabilitate them back into the community, they do the opposite.”
He also said:
“Rochdale borough, at the moment, in the current climate, is the wrong place to send these children.”
It was as though Rochdale’s council leader was talking up the failings of children’s homes to avoid having to explain the failings of his own social services department.
The public began to believe that private children’s homes were part of the problem. The reality is that that was not the case, and only one victim had actually stayed in a children’s home. That became apparent months later, when the local safeguarding board published its review. First, it hardly mentioned private children’s homes because they were not part of the problem. Secondly, it pointed out that Pennine Care NHS crisis intervention team had continually tried to share information with the local authority—with the social services department. So the reality is that, contrary to what the council leader had said, people were trying to share information with his local authority, clearly trying to make the point that these girls should be taken into social services care. That was ignored by the local authority.
To bring up to date this sorry tale of an attempted cover-up, only last week the Home Affairs Committee questioned the former chief executive of Rochdale council, Roger Ellis. Throughout the session he denied having known about grooming in Rochdale until the case came to court. He had actually been the chief executive for 12 years. He had served on the local safeguarding board. Indeed, he had been the chief executive of the council when it set up a child sex exploitation working group in 2007 that had identified 50 girls who were at risk or who were experiencing sexual abuse.
Of course, cover-ups happen when reputations need to be protected at all costs. In that respect, attempts to suppress the truth are not new in Rochdale. The culture of cover-ups stretches back much further than the recent grooming scandal and extends right to the heart of our political establishment. If we are to ensure that victims of child abuse are sufficiently empowered to claw back some of the dignity that has been taken from them, we must be open about the widespread abuse of power in our borough. That is why it is necessary to turn to Sir Cyril Smith.
Cyril Smith was a political giant in Rochdale and one of the most recognisable politicians in the country, but his career was continually dogged by allegations that he had abused boys. The allegations even appeared in some of his obituaries. We also know that they appeared in police reports. Lancashire police have recently said that they cannot find those reports, but they accept that they carried out an investigation and it has been suggested that a report was pushed to the Director of Public Prosecutions in 1969.
Today, more victims have come forward and the journalist Paul Waugh, who hails from Rochdale, is reporting fresh allegations against Cyril Smith from victims who claim he assaulted them as young boys at Cambridge House boys hostel. The allegations must be properly investigated and the seriousness of the victims’ complaints must be acknowledged.
I have been passed statements that were issued to the police in the 1970s regarding Cyril Smith’s activities at Cambridge House boys’ hostel, and they make grim reading. For some unknown reason, Cyril Smith had a kind of disciplinarian role at the hostel and was given free rein to administer punishments to the boys. This is one example of how he dealt with bad behaviour:
“He told me to take my trousers and pants down and bend over his knee. He hit me many times with his bare hands and I pleaded with him to stop because he was hurting me. Afterward he came to my bedroom and wiped my buttocks with a wet sponge.”
Another of Cyril Smith’s victims, Barry Fitton, has spoken out today in the article published by Paul Waugh on the PoliticsHome website. Another victim, Eddie Shorrock, has also come forward and spoken for the first time about being abused by Smith. This morning I was approached by another victim who does not wish to be named because he feels ashamed about what happened to him and because his wife is unaware of the abuse. He, too, is angry and upset about how Smith treated him.
I have yet to hear any words spoken about the victims of that abuse: young boys who were humiliated, terrified and reduced to quivering wrecks by a 29-stone bully imposing himself on them. What happened to them? How can they ever forget what happened to them? Why was that allowed to happen? We need to be sure that this type of investigation now takes place and that the victims get a chance to have their voices heard.
In conclusion, confronting child abuse is a hard thing to do, but we must never allow reputations or positions of power to deter us from doing what is right. As new victims of abuse in Rochdale come forward to speak about what happened in Cambridge House, Greater Manchester police should consider re-opening the case. I call on the Minister to do everything in his power to bring police files from previous investigations about Cyril Smith to light. For far too long victims have not been taken seriously in our town, shocking allegations have not been challenged and people in roles of trust, power and authority have abused their positions. Let us hope that Britain is now reaching a tipping point where victims are taken seriously and given a voice. It is only by listening to victims that we can start to understand fully the crime of abuse in our communities. Only then can we ensure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated.
I echo what has been said about listening to victims; whoever they are criticising, they must be listened to.
It is unfortunate that the statue of a naked 13-year-old boy on the front of Broadcasting House was carved by someone who abused children. However, this is not about the BBC; it is the children who matter the most. The BBC does not matter, dead celebrities do not matter, mistaken identities do not matter in the same way; what really matters is that children should be expected to be safe in the control of the state. These children are the most vulnerable because they do not have the protection of their parents and depend entirely on the state.
Only 20% to 30% of the children subject to child sexual exploitation on the narrow definition of the term are in care. Obviously, that means that 70% to 80% of those children are living in the family home. The cost of supporting a family can be as little as £3,000 per annum, whereas secure care can cost as much as £200,000 or even £500,000 per year. I accept that we need a child protection system and that not all parents are “good enough”, but I make no apology for concentrating on the failings of the state. Penny Mellor, who has campaigned against state-tolerated abuse for many years, was imprisoned because of her campaign, and was present for the north Wales inquiry, has said:
“The state as a parent is abominable, proven in Rochdale and proven in North Wales. If we are going to remove children into the care of the state then it is about time we ensured that the state is a better parent than the one we removed them from. The who is not relevant, sexual abuse perpetrated by anyone is devastating.”
It is important to recognise that the state system is still harming children. Rochdale, Rotherham and Oxford are not the whole story. One problem is the lack of accountability. Individual practitioners are basically allowed to get on with things as they wish. There are good practitioners but also bad practitioners, and their bad practice is not picked up by the system. A good example of this is from New Zealand, where social workers encouraged a 14-year-old girl to have group sex with a number of St John Ambulance workers and “divorce” her parents, who wished to discourage this. St John Ambulance has still not finally dealt with this issue and some of the workers are scheduled to receive a Queen’s Award. Another example is from Birmingham, where a child was first sexually harassed in a foster placement and then got pregnant at the age of 15, while in the control of the state. Practitioners in Birmingham have argued in the past that children should be permitted to prostitute themselves while not being allowed to make toast for each other, for health and safety reasons.
25, 30 or later. Very rarely, a Gillick-competent child in his or her mid-teens may make contact with one of the very rare solicitors who are willing to take on the local authority, but usually nothing happens at least until the children are adults.
One of the worst examples of a cover up comes from Jersey. Children in Jersey had the chief of police, Graham Power, and the health Minister, Stuart Syvret, to protect their interests. However, in 2008, as soon as action was taken to investigate historical abuse, the health Minister was sacked and the chief of police suspended. What hope did those children have? It is now roughly the fourth anniversary of the sacking of Jersey’s chief of police, Graham Power, and he has put out a statement to coincide with it. I will not read it all because time is limited, but this is part of what he says:
“I would however simply for the record, remind readers what has been established from a number of credible and independent sources and disclosures. Namely, that my suspension was based on falsified documents, fabricated evidence, misleading information provided to States Members and the public by Jersey Ministers, and the testimony of a number of senior individuals who have since been publicly discredited.
The events relating to Jimmy Saville and other revelations have heightened the general awareness of the issue of Historic Child Abuse, and the substantial difficulties which stand in the way of those who attempt to bring abusers to justice.”
This cover-up has been continued by the UK Border Agency, which assisted Jersey in avoiding scrutiny by banning a US journalist, Leah McGrath Goodman, from Jersey. She is now applying again for a visa, and I hope that the Minister will expedite it.
Teresa Cooper, who says that she was held down by six members of staff and injected with drugs while at Kendall House at the age of 14 and that she was also sexually assaulted in a drugged state, is continuing at the age of 45 to battle to get the evidence to find out why the Government did not act to stop that. We have a duty to provide her and other survivors with the records they ask for.
There have also been numerous police operations, including Operation Rose in Northumbria, Operation Care in Liverpool, Operation Aldgate and Operation Gullane in Yorkshire, Operation Goldfinch and Operation Flight in south Wales, and Operation Camassia in Birmingham. Frequently, such operations do not get to the bottom of the issues. A few, such as that in Kincora, managed to make the link between the abuse and people external to the institution. We need to empower the survivors by providing them with the information to argue their cases. Perhaps we can then also consider the question of who turned a blind eye.
It is often easier to see that there is a cover-up than to get to the truth. For example, if people listen to last Friday’s interview with Stuart Syvret on BBC Radio Jersey—it will be available on iPlayer for a few days—they will hear how the BBC is acting as a tool of the establishment by trying to prevent him from arguing his case. Mike Stein, in his excellent article in Child and Family Social Work in February 2006, explains how widespread this problem was, with a possible one in seven of children in care being subject to abuse. Australia has implemented an all-embracing inquiry, which is a good idea, although the details are complex. I believe, however, that the priority should be to empower the survivors.
We also need to act urgently to find out what is happening to children in the care system today. In the year to
The statistical system used in the USA is called AFCARS—the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System— and records when children run away, but our Government do not bother. Clearly, they do not care sufficiently to ask local authorities to tell them. When I asked the erstwhile Minister, Tim Loughton, to record such instances and change the statistical basis, his response was that to find out nationally how many children are trafficked from care, abducted or run away would lead to
“an unnecessary increase in reporting requirements.”—[Hansard, 13 December 2011; Vol. 537, c. 642W.]
We need to go further. We clearly cannot trust all local authorities to tell the whole truth about everything. We already have a system for auditing what happens to the money. We really ought to have a system for checking whether we are told the truth about what happens to the children, or do the Government only care about the money and not about the children?
The secrecy, lack of transparency and consequent failures in accountability clearly failed children in the past, but they are also failing children today. We need to protect the rights of children and adults to complain and bring in greater scrutiny of family court proceedings. It is the secrecy that arises from the family courts that allows the system to avoid scrutiny and local authorities to simply say, “We are acting in the best interests of the child,” when clearly they are not.
Finally, Parliament needs to be more willing to look at individual issues before they hit the top of the news agenda. There needs to be a threshold at which collective action occurs.
There is disagreement between two particular positions that have been debated today. I have a little time, so it is worth going into this in detail. There is an argument that all we need is a bit more information sharing, but the evidence from Rochdale is that that does not work and that people are not acting. We need to ensure that people are motivated. That is the problem with the independent reviewing officer—they are not independent. The independent reviewing officer is employed by the local authority. I want to address the Lancashire county council case.
I am interested in what the hon. Gentleman is saying and do not want to take issue with it, but I would caution against suggesting that the evidence from Rochdale shows that information sharing does not work. The evidence from Rochdale so far shows that people failed to fulfil their responsibilities and that, had they done so and connected the threads of information and believed the victims, there would have been a much earlier and different outcome.
That is the point. If an employee of the local authority is presented with a challenge—namely that the care system is not working and is not looking after children—they are more inclined to ignore it. If someone is not employed by the local authority, is independent of it and can take the system through the courts if needs be, without the children having to be Gillick-competent, people will act. The problem has not been a lack of information, but a lack of action.
Parliament has to stand on the side of the powerless. Whitehall mandarins, judges, BBC managers, council bureaucrats and professionals all have their own interests and a desire to hide mistakes. Parliament needs to balance the scales on the side of the weak—those without wealth who are crying out and not being heard.
I will start by talking a little about my experience of child abuse cases. I know that the topic of the debate is sexual exploitation, but sexual exploitation is effectively child abuse. I first came across a case of child abuse as a young prosecutor, when I dealt with the case of a six-month-old baby who had been raped, incredible as it may sound. The baby was incredibly injured. It was done by her father and it was done in the home.
That is a topic that we do not often want to talk about, perhaps because we are uncomfortable about it or do not want to acknowledge it. Although cases of sexual exploitation, such as the Rochdale case, the Jimmy Savile case and cases in care homes, make sensational headlines and are heard about, the statistics of sexual abuse show that they are much smaller in number than cases of child abuse within the home or the family. Often, the perpetrators are fathers, stepfathers, older brothers, uncles, members of the extended family or friends of the family. In those situations, the abuse often carries on for years. Such cases tend to come to light only when the victim comes across somebody whom they can trust and to whom they can speak. It may be a friendly teacher at school, a family friend or a family member. The whole thing then comes out.
Again, I speak from experience. During the 14 years that I worked as an in-house lawyer at the Crown Prosecution Service, I was designated as the lawyer who would deal with cases of sexual abuse involving not only young victims, but adult victims. I experienced cases of abuse within the home by the family.
We also do not talk about the abuse of young boys. My hon. Friend Simon Danczuk referred to the abuse of young boys by a particular individual. Young boys, too, are sexually abused and the extent of that abuse is, once again, underestimated and unknown.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech and a powerful point. On the safeguarding of children, does she share my concern that agencies are still not sharing enough data to prevent the type of abuse that she is talking about from taking place?
I agree with my hon. Friend. There needs to be more sharing of information.
Since I started my life as a prosecutor many years ago—now I am at the private Bar—the way in which we deal with victims of child abuse has changed. I am pleased to say that there have been massive improvements in how we deal with children, especially through changes to court procedures. Children can now give evidence by video link so that they do not have to face the perpetrators. Such changes have made it easier for victims to come forward and for cases to be prosecuted. There have been substantial improvements in the system, but—and this is a big but—there is still a lack of knowledge about the sheer amount of abuse against children and young people. Abuse within the home needs to be explored in much more detail. We can have as many inquiries as we like into a particular care home or into what happened at the BBC, but there has been no concentration on the greater problem of abuse within the home.
I was hoping not to have to go into the issue of sexual exploitation being somehow linked with religion or culture, but in light of the speech by Kris Hopkins—[Interruption]— that issue needs to be addressed. In the Home Affairs Committee, the deputy Children’s Commissioner was asked directly whether the issue was linked to race or religion, but she responded that it was not and said that it was about methodology and just one way that sexual abuse takes place. The assistant chief commissioner of Greater Manchester police said that race and religion had nothing to do with the cases in Rochdale and elsewhere. The judge in the Derby case also said that race, ethnicity and culture had nothing to do with the abuse. That is really important.
May I just finish my remarks, and I will come back to the hon. Gentleman?
If we start bringing such things into this debate, we lose the bigger picture. In the case of Jimmy Savile, the whole BBC is under examination. That is fine, but all the headlines in the newspapers are now dogged by the BBC and what it knew, and we have forgotten the 200 or 300 victims of Sir Jimmy Savile. In the case of the care home in Wales, again, we have forgotten about the victims and everybody is talking about procedures and who knew what. Those things are important, and as John Hemming and my hon. Friend Debbie Abrahams said, we need to look at prevention and at how we can make our children safer.
It is not Kelvin, but never mind; and my constituency is pronounced “Keithly” by the way, not “Keely”.
The point I wanted to make was that there is an opportunity for people to be outraged here. The hon. Lady says that this is not about race or religion, but time and again it is a white girl being raped by Muslim men. If we deny that fact in this House, the BNP and everybody else will climb on board. We must be very careful about how we structure these arguments.
Order. The hon. Member for Keighley is, indeed, Kris Hopkins. We must, however, have shorter interventions, important as they are.
I was saying that it is important to recognise the methodology involved. In the cases mentioned by the hon. Member for Keighley, on the face of it the victims were white and the perpetrators were Muslims, but that is coincidental and not deliberate.
My hon. Friend is being extremely generous as she receives no injury time for this intervention. Is the point she advocates so strongly that these samples become self-selecting after a period, and that the evidence base is not advanced enough for us to draw conclusions about race and ethnicity? Understandably, however, certain newspapers will go after certain cases.
Order. I think the hon. Lady has got the message and the hon. Gentleman will understand if he now gets moved down the list. He does want to speak but he has intervened a couple of times already.
Let me explain why this issue is about methodology rather than race or religion. Sir Cyril Smith, for example, seems to have had a desire to abuse young boys, which seems to have been his pattern of behaviour. A system of trafficked victims—young girls who are forced into prostitution—is one method used by pimps and other criminal gangs so that they can take money from them. Jimmy Savile obviously had a penchant for young girls, and he used his position and power, and whatever presents he could give them, to influence them in order to do what he did. Sadly, most of those involved in such activities are men. Care homes contain people in a vulnerable position, and the adults who abused them were mostly men as well.
Hon. Members have also referred to grooming cases. Grooming is not new—there were such cases in many of our cities 20 years ago, but the newspapers never talked about it. I remember dealing with the type of cases that the hon. Member for Keighley spoke of, but the victim and the defendant were white. It is important to emphasise that, and not to fall into the British National party and English Defence League trap of saying that the problem is linked to race or religion—it is not.
A common factor and theme run through those different types of abuse. They virtually all involve men, and the victims are always young girls or boys or children, and always vulnerable. Leaving aside internal family cases, the external cases never involve the child who has a secure, happy family life or a home life where someone looks after or takes care of them. The cases involve children who are abused by priests when the church is looking after them, or children in a care home in a vulnerable position who do not have anyone to look after them, or young boys, such as in the Cyril Smith case, or the young girls in Keighley and other places. Many of these young people are vulnerable. Criminals virtually always commit crime on vulnerable people. People mug little old ladies. Why? It is because they are easy targets. Such people would not want to mess with 6-foot big, burley men, because it would be difficult to take anything from them. The key is vulnerability, and nothing else. If we get distracted by race or culture, we will lose sight of the bigger picture. It is the same with the inquiry into Savile. We talk about him, but what his victims went through is more important.
We need to do a number of things. The country at large needs to be educated and made aware of how prevalent sexual abuse is, particularly sexual abuse in the home. We must set up systems in schools, social services and the police, so that they are places where children can go when they are being abused. When they say what is happening to them, we need to take them seriously. I am not saying that they should be believed, but there should be an objective investigation—they should be heard and the matter should be thoroughly investigated, and their complaints should not just be put aside. At the end of the investigation, action should be taken if it is needed. Many years ago, that investigation process was not happening, as it did not more recently in the Rochdale case. We need to ensure that we have better systems and a better framework so that children can come forward and feel confident in talking to adults, including their teachers and others, about what they have been going through.
Hon. Members are shocked when they hear about sexual abuse, grooming and so on, but should we be so shocked? Historically, since time immemorial, sadly, a small percentage of men—irrespective of which part of the world they come from—have had desires towards children. We need to recognise that that small minority are interested only in abusing young children, whether boys or girls. Many child abusers do not abuse adults—their specific lust is for children. We need to recognise that that is the root of the problem.
How do we deal with that and recognise it? The best way is to use whatever mechanisms we have to prevent abuse, to detect abuse when it happens, and to deal with abusers as criminals, as they should be dealt with. Unless and until we recognise that and have systems to make it easier to protect our children, we will have those problems.
I am pleased to follow Yasmin Qureshi. I thank my hon. Friend Nicola Blackwood and Ann Coffey for co-sponsoring this important debate on child sexual exploitation, and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing time for it. I also recognise the good work of the former Member for Rotherham, the right hon. Denis MacShane, and thank him for his role in securing the debate.
What we have heard reported in the press in recent weeks and months has been, as the deputy Children’s Commissioner Sue Berelowitz said, so terrible that it beggars belief. That has been part of the reason that the abuse has gone on for so many years. The vulnerable young people who have been abused were simply not believed by the people to whom they went for help. The impunity with which Savile went about his hypocritical reign of abuse over three decades was also aided by the silence in which most of his vulnerable victims endured their fate. I hope that those victims, who have been silent or not believed for so long, will be able to get justice at this late stage.
I will focus on the method of exploitation that differs from that of the lone perpetrator, but is systematically organised by gangs of men working together. I want to take issue with a few of the comments made by the hon. Member for Bolton South East on the issue of men of Pakistani origin abusing vulnerable white girls. I congratulate The Times and its journalist Andrew Norfolk on their campaign to expose this previously under-reported method of abuse. I agree that methodology is a key part of it, but even though most of the victims have been under the age of consent, too many professionals regarded them as prostitutes who were somehow complicit in their own rape and abuse. I support calls from Barnardo’s and The Children’s Society to end the use of the term “child prostitute”—it is a misnomer.
One mother in Rochdale, whose daughters were targeted by abusers, gave police and social workers the names and nicknames of more than a dozen men who had raped her daughter. She pleaded for her daughters to be put under child protection, but they were just regarded as bad kids. There seems to have been a complete failure by the adult professionals to understand the nature of the problem and the vulnerability of the victims.
We heard earlier from Simon Danczuk, in a moving and shocking speech, about the director for children, schools and families in his borough who recognised, with the benefit of hindsight and recent local learning, that we missed some opportunities to offer more support and assistance to those children in 2008 and 2009. However, the problem did not emerge in 2008. It had been going on for much longer than that.
A woman I know, who I will call Samina—that is not her real name—was raised in Oldham. She described to me her experience at school 20 years ago. She told me that a lot of the men were, like her, ex-Pakistani: restaurant workers and market stall holders—men who had some money. They abused younger, white girls under the cover of the market stalls to conceal their behaviour from the police. She told me that her friends were well aware of what was going on, and that those girls were being used in the vans in which market stall keepers stored what they sold on the stalls, but everybody just kept quiet. It progressed then to brothels above kebab shops.
It is clear that the authorities were inhibited—this is why the ethnicity angle is important and we must not shy away from it—from acting for fear of being called racist.
We have heard mention of the former Member for Keighley, Mrs Ann Cryer, who was attacked continually in her constituency for raising this problem. Later, Mr Straw, a former Home Secretary, spoke the truth when he said that young men were targeting white girls because Pakistani heritage girls were off limits, but some of his parliamentary colleagues said that his comments perpetuated racist attitudes. I pay tribute to work done by parts of the
My hon. Friend Kris Hopkins said that we need to tackle the underlying causes and attitudes that lead to so many forms of violence against women. The inability of Asian women to tackle the problem is compounded, however, by the isolation of too many of their number. When I meet community groups in my constituency, unless I organise a women-only event, I will only meet men. At the women’s events, I need an interpreter, because many of the group will speak little or no English, as a result of which their employment opportunities are severely limited. Being unable to participate fully in life outside the home or in public life means that such women are disempowered, forced to be dependants and end up living in a closed community—and, as we know from other communities, closed communities can sweep heinous crimes, such as child abuse, under the carpet, because they are perceived to threaten the community as a whole. That has been as true of parts of the Catholic priesthood as the community I am speaking about.
We must press for greater integration, better education and more opportunities for poorer Asian women to make a life outside the home, so that they can play a bigger part in challenging their communities and bringing pressure to bear on the small minority of rogue men who are bringing their communities into disrepute.
In its recent report on child protection, the Education Committee wrote:
“We are struck by the number of submissions which noted that some forms of abuse, including forced marriage, ritual abuse, female genital mutilation, honour-based violence”— so-called—
“and trafficking, are often only secondarily cast as child abuse: they are primarily seen as problems of integration, community or immigration. Casting them as something other than child abuse can mean that child victims are stigmatised”.
The hon. Lady refers to Asian males committing crimes against young white girls. How does she explain Jimmy Savile abusing white girls? In the Welsh care homes, it was white males committing crimes against little white boys. In other cases, ethnicity and religion do not come into it.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention, because it gives me the opportunity to make it absolutely clear that I am only talking about one group-related way of exploiting young children—predominantly girls. There are many other groups and individuals, about whom she spoke eloquently, who indulge in this practice as well, but I am afraid that in the instances I have raised the abuse has gone undetected and unacknowledged by children’s services, social workers and the police in our northern cities because they have been frightened of being called racists. We have to confront that issue head on.
There needs to be more support for the excellent women’s organisations that challenge the negative stereotyping of women and try to improve the situation. There are many, but I would like to mention just one, Jeena, representatives of which spoke at the Conservative Women’s Forum of MPs last week. It works on a shoestring, but is making good progress in challenging negative attitudes to Asian girls and women in schools. Clearly, it could do more with greater resources. I was shocked to hear from Jeena that a lot of schools will not accept its educational programmes, because they fear that parents will take their children out of those schools and place them in other schools that do not raise these difficult issues. That is shocking, so I hope the Minister will raise it with Education Ministers, because we have to change the mindset in some of our schools.
I want to end on prosecutions. Men who are tempted to exploit vulnerable young people need to know not only that their behaviour is unacceptable, but that there will be a far higher likelihood of a prison sentence than there has been to date. There have been far too few prosecutions. Home Office research published in the “Paying the Price” report set the number of victims of sexual exploitation at around 5,000 a year in England and Wales, yet there were only 55 prosecutions in 2009 and 57 in 2010. On the basis of those figures, there is currently a 1% chance of conviction. No wonder the crime is growing.
Mention has been made of the nine inquiries into wider sexual abuse issues, which obviously span a far greater diversity of things than I have been able to mention in my 10 minutes. I support calls for one overarching inquiry that investigates and identifies the lessons learned from young people, social services and the wider societal discrimination against young girls and women, which I have tried to highlight. An overarching inquiry would be able to make recommendations on how specialist police resources should be best deployed to maximise the number of prosecutions from yesteryear, as well as the present day. That will be the acid test of an effective inquiry in this area.
I warmly congratulate Nicola Blackwood on securing this debate and on the way she introduced it.
I want to address the issue from a slightly different point of view. I speak as someone who worked with survivors of incest and child sexual abuse for a number of years, so I am speaking mainly from the perspective of adult survivors of child sexual abuse. I am concerned that their voices are being drowned out by this whole stramash, which I am afraid yet again illustrates only too clearly a pattern that is often repeated when child sexual abuse is highlighted. All of a sudden people who do not know the first thing about it feel qualified to be judge and jury, going from outrage to denying the very nature and extent of the problem, saying things such as, “I don’t believe this could happen today, as attitudes have changed. Attitudes were different back then.” Perhaps things are better in the care system now, as Tim Loughton said, but personally I would not be the least bit surprised to hear that the whole thing had happened again.
What is people’s evidence for thinking that things are so different today? I was astonished to hear Lord Steel on “Any Questions?” last week suggesting that the extent of the problem could be greatly exaggerated. He also said that in all his years as an MP, no one had ever come to him about sexual abuse. Well, they have certainly come to me, and I have been an MP for far fewer years than he ever was. I am quite sure that that is also the experience of many of my colleagues. In any case, what Lord Steel said is to miss the whole point: that people do not find it easy to come forward, and certainly not to MPs.
Of course, that pattern is always followed by a “blame the victim” mentality, which we have already seen surfacing in the last few days. Victims have often been discredited in the past, accused of false memory syndrome, with a collective denial that such a thing as satanic abuse may actually exist, or, because they do not come from respectable backgrounds, are frankly written off by the whole system. When that has happened, I have been acutely aware of the effect on those who have come forward. Sometimes their confidence is so shattered that they even wish they had never said a word. We will never know how many others are deterred from coming forward at all, feeling that they will not be believed and certainly not expecting justice to be done.
Many years ago, I, like my hon. Friend, was involved with a rape crisis centre. As a result of that work, I became involved in setting up incest survivors groups. Does she agree that we should not allow child sexual abuse to become a fashionable moral panic for a few brief weeks, only to be ignored afterwards, as has often happened with other issues? We should take a responsible attitude to the way in which we discuss these things and ensure that there is a proper investigation.
I could not agree more.
All the agencies that deal with child sexual abuse on a daily basis say that the incidence is much higher than people think, and that they are dealing with increasing numbers of survivors. As other Members have said, more people might be coming forward to name their abuser from the past because there are more resources available, but it certainly does not mean that it is a problem only of the past and not of the present. It certainly does not mean that it could not happen again. There has been scandal after scandal in the Catholic Church, involving children in care who are already vulnerable, so why are people so surprised? There are few areas in which criminal investigations have not taken place into institutional abuse. Every time, we say that we must learn the lessons to ensure that it does not happen again, but it always does.
The opportunities for grooming on the internet make today’s children even more vulnerable than they were in the past, but it is vital to remember that the majority of abuse takes place in the home and is perpetrated by a trusted adult, often the child’s father. There is a huge danger that that will be forgotten while the present debate rages on. Let us face it: it is far easier to believe that sexual abusers are an aberration, some kind of monster, rather than people like ourselves. Even when it turns out to have been a much-loved celebrity, we simply react with moral outrage, saying that he has let us all down as well as his victims, rather than face the fact that children are subjected to sexual abuse day in, day out in what is lauded as the safe refuge of the family. We also hear the myth that incest happens only in particular communities.
The reality is that, more often than not, the abusers are so-called respectable upstanding members of the community in positions of responsibility, trust and power—family men who portray to the outside world the image of a loving husband, father or close family member while using that as cover for the gross abuse of power which they believe entitles them to abuse their own children. The recent high-profile cases of child sexual exploitation show many similarities, such as the abuse of power, children not being believed, and adults with concerns not coming forward.
That is the unpalatable truth, as was the case with domestic violence in the past, when Women’s Aid was accused of being anti-male and anti-family. The same is true of tackling the taboo of child sexual abuse. Blaming the messenger for stating the obvious—that not all families provide the safe, loving and nurturing environment that every child deserves—is just another form of denial. All of this results in children being abandoned and remaining unheard, and not expecting to be heard, which suits the abuser just fine.
The media might fulminate against political correctness and describe Criminal Records Bureau checks as “bureaucracy gone mad”, but perhaps they should think again. Inquiries should of course be held to identify failings in the system, but the media should think again before they damn social workers if they do and damn them if they don’t. Or perhaps they should just try doing a social worker’s job for a week and seeing how they get on. We all know about social workers’ desperate lack of resources and huge case loads.
The air is thick with institutions desperately trying to cover their tracks, including the NHS, the BBC and the police. Inquiries, as we have heard, have been set up all over the place, and those with their own agenda are taking great pleasure in kicking the BBC. As far as I am concerned, those involved are big enough and able enough to defend themselves—children are not.
Many survivors, as I have said, will not disclose their abuse until adulthood. There is an assumption that people who have suffered childhood sexual abuse are damaged and incapable of living a normal life. On the contrary, it is testament to the strength and courage of many that they manage to have successful lives in a wide range of professions, achieving important goals in life, careers and relationships. This may apply even to MPs, if I may say so. Many survivors of abuse develop incredible coping mechanisms and carry them into adulthood. It is possible to recover from the many effects of abuse and to come to terms with what has happened by people realising that the abuse was not their fault. Some survivors find that difficulties remain with them for the rest of their lives. That is true, but it is not a hard and fast rule. Some people manage to push abuse to the back of their minds only for it to re-emerge unexpectedly like post-traumatic stress disorder later in life.
Some survivors—it has been my privilege to work alongside them—channel negative feelings into campaigning to improve awareness of abuse, and they find that helpful and life affirming. We should thank them for the work they did when they were not heard for many years but tried to raise the issue.
Thankfully, yes, there are now numerous charities and agencies providing support and treatment, but they do not have enough resources. Barnardo’s has said that
“local areas in all four nations” of the UK
“will be best placed to respond if they acknowledge that this abuse could be occurring and adopt a collaborative approach to identify and tackle the problem.”
Again, some progress has been made in that respect over the last few decades. In Scotland, we have the children’s panel system—an example that has been praised in many different countries. But when it comes to adult survivors of sexual abuse, in Ayrshire, for example, our three local authorities and our health services have failed to provide a co-ordinated or coherent approach or adequate funding for services.
In conclusion, this whole sorry mess has provided us with an opportunity, and I agree with my hon. Friend Mr Allen. As a society and as a Parliament, we have a chance to look at why this phenomenon occurs across races and creeds and in every country in the world, particularly our own. If we do not take that chance, we will have missed out on an opportunity, and children will suffer even more for decades to come.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Nicola Blackwood on securing this excellent debate, not least because it gives me the opportunity to tell the House about a dreadful case affecting the young daughter of a family that lives in my constituency that came to see me in my surgery last week. I am delighted to say that they are sitting up in the Gallery, listening to our debate.
At the age of 14, the daughter started being texted by the husband of a great friend of her mother’s. The texts apparently moved quickly from being simply manipulative to becoming more and more explicitly sexual. He was grooming and exploiting her for his own pleasure. Before long, these texts began to take a toll on her mental health. Her school work started slipping, and she developed anxieties about things like leaving the house unaccompanied. Her parents noticed this and wondered whether she might need the help of a psychologist; indeed, their daughter started going to see one. This young girl was trying to bear the burden of this appalling ongoing situation on her shoulders alone, because she thought she would be upsetting her mother by telling her about her friend’s husband. I have no doubt at all that this might well have been one of the reasons why he thought he would get away with it.
Eventually, early this year, when the texts started again after a break over Christmas, she broke down and explained what was really happening. Her parents rushed to report it to the police, and the man, in his late 20s, was immediately arrested. According to the parents, the police were absolutely brilliant and very supportive. They saw some of the texts and said they were indeed manipulative and completely inappropriate for sending to a young girl. However, there was a problem. Rather unsurprisingly, the young girl had deleted the vast majority of the texts, particularly the worst ones—and who could blame her? They were, as she told her parents, truly awful. Those that she still had, however, were enough to trigger the bringing of a case by the Crown Prosecution Service.
The most significant development was that the accused man admitted everything of which the girl had accused him. He admitted having sent her all those texts, perhaps because he did not know that she had deleted them. He admitted everything in a written statement, including the fact that he had asked her to meet up in some of the texts. It is reckoned that he had sent her more than 2,000 texts over 18 months or so, most of them of a horrific nature. According to the girl’s mother, he had even texted her across the table on occasions when the family went to visit him and his wife for a meal. How obsessive and frightening must that have been for a young girl who felt that the whole situation was something that she was completely unable to control?
The CPS certainly found what the young girl had to say sufficiently compelling to press the charge of intending to meet up with a minor for the purpose of rape. The man pleaded not guilty. While on bail before the trial—this shows how seriously the case was being taken—he was subject to extremely severe restrictions, including electronic tagging, a curfew and the confiscation of his passport. Meanwhile, the young girl was still understandably traumatised by it all. She almost entirely stopped attending school, and needed the support of her mother—who had to leave her own job—private tutors, the school and a psychologist in order to get through her GCSEs.
The trial finally took place last month. The charge was changed to intending to meet up with a minor for the purposes of sexual activity. The police advised the parents not to attend because the content of the messages was so distressing, so another family member stepped in. The young girl was grilled by the defendant’s QC via a video link. As I said earlier, the defendant himself had admitted everything in a written statement, including fantasising about her and “falling for her”. This, however, was the actual result of the trial: because no meeting had actually taken place, although the man had asked the young girl to meet him many times in texts, the judge was compelled to instruct the jury to find him not guilty. However, he certainly registered his utter contempt for the defendant, saying that he did not like him and refusing to grant him costs although he was to walk out of the court free.
The family are, of course, absolutely devastated. They feel that no justice has been done. The young girl is obviously very angry as well as upset, and is still badly affected by it all. Matters were made worse when the family heard that the man and his own family had held a large celebration party just down the road.
I am no expert on legal matters, but if that case reveals a gap in our legal system, surely it needs attention. The family have made it clear that they fully recognise that the judge was undoubtedly left with no choice on the issue of intentions not being turned into actions, namely meeting. They also understand that the CPS was trying to go for the bigger sentence, and therefore pressed more serious charges rather than concentrating on the texts themselves. However, the family have now run out of time in which to take the man to court over the texts in a separate case, and in any event they have been told that there would be a much less serious charge that would only attract a fine.
Surely this is most unsatisfactory. A young girl of 14 has been verbally raped, and a man twice her age has been forcing his unwanted attentions on her, which she could not resist. Surely it is likely that if his texts had been racist or homophobic, he would be behind bars by now. What protection are we offering young girls in circumstances like my young constituent? We must do better, and, if necessary, we must have new legal sanctions.
I congratulate Nicola Blackwood, and the hon. Members for Stockport (Ann Coffey) and for Stourbridge (Margot James), on raising an issue that concerns each and every one of us as elected representatives. That concern can be measured by the number of Members who are present today.
When I was preparing for the debate, my heart broke as I read about some of the experiences of children and young people in our country. The unfortunate fact is that evil knows no borders, and therefore there are many examples of exploitation of children throughout the United Kingdom. When I look at my wee grandchild, I wonder how anyone could ever intentionally harm any child, but we live in a society where it happens. We must do all in our power, in this place and elsewhere, to ensure that we are addressing it, and that it is no longer kept behind closed doors.
The children’s charity Barnardo’s has given its definition of child sexual exploitation:
“a form of sexual abuse in which a young person is manipulated, or forced into taking part in a sexual act.”
Many abusers groom the young person into believing they can be trusted, and then exploit that trust to use the young person for their own ends. They are evil, manipulative people, using drugs, alcohol, attention, money, food or offers of accommodation to persuade their victims.
A key difference between sexual exploitation and sexual abuse is that young people who are exploited are groomed to believe, at least at the beginning, that they are involved in a genuine relationship with their exploiter. Young people who are sexually exploited are old enough to understand, and be attracted to, the concept of having a romantic relationship with the person who then abuses them. They might be vulnerable and come from a family that is devoid of love and affection, and as a result be searching for a relationship.
A National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children report stated the belief that the sexual exploitation of children is part of the larger problem of child sexual abuse, the vast majority of which goes unreported and untreated and takes place in the family home or among the extended family, and is perpetrated by people—in most cases men—who are related or known to the victim. I have come across terrible cases where the abuser was the mother or the uncles or a cousin. It can be claimed that the many recent high-profile cases of child sexual exploitation and abuse show many similar patterns, such as the abuse of power, children not being believed and adults with concerns not coming forward. Those are some of the main reasons why people are able to get away with abuse for years, and even today might not have been prosecuted.
There must be accountability in some form in every institution. I sit in my church and listen to the announcements regarding child protection seminars and rules and regulations for all people who deal with children, from the bus driver to the cleaner, and regardless of whether they have been working with children for one year or the past 15 years. It makes me happy that we have checks and measures in place even in non-governmental bodies. They are essential and must carry on.
No one is above the law of the land, no one deserves absolution for crimes unless it is through the courts, and no one should ever again suffer in silence and not know where to go for help. Yet that is clearly not enough; we also need to look at how we can ensure that the measures to be taken are workable and the aims are achievable.
Before entering Parliament, I was a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly, and I was tasked with reading, and responding to, the Ryan report into the systematic abuse of children in the Republic of Ireland by those tasked with caring for them—by those who were supposed to have a supportive relationship with the children, but who abused that privilege. I have to say that I was left with chills after having read select parts of the Ryan report. I found it extremely difficult to read of the systematic abuse of up to 30,000 vulnerable children, and the subsequent cover-up, in the Republic of Ireland through the institution of the Catholic Church. I felt anger first, followed by sorrow at the thought of so many adults now struggling to deal with hateful childhood memories after being put into so-called “care” and at the thought of how that had affected their relationships even up to 50 years later.
When I hear about individual abuse cases during the course of my constituency work—including some horrendous and very difficult cases—I am chilled and hot at the same time. I am chilled as I cannot comprehend the evil that allows men and women to abuse the vulnerable in any way, and hot with anger that this kind of thing happens at all. For that reason, I have been working closely with the National Association for People Abused in Childhood, which helps victims of abuse receive the support and help they need to make it through daily life. It has made it clear to me that we need to improve public perceptions about the way things are being handled. Victims—and, indeed, the concerned public as a whole—must be assured that the latest Savile revelations and other allegations will not result in endless, and ultimately useless, investigations, but that they will instead result in real and meaningful changes, as well as justice for those victims.
Many organisations have been almost overwhelmed by the number of calls to their helplines. When the Savile story broke, NAPAC received hundreds of calls from people who needed help because they had been abused by a monster—there is no other way of describing him. ChildLine has released statistics that break down the number of callers where age was known. The highest number of counselling interactions was with 12 to 15-year-olds—62%. The second highest number was with 16 to 18-year-olds—32%. Last came the interactions with 11-year-olds and under, at 6%. That indicates to me that there should perhaps be more education in the lower age groups, so that children know in school that they can talk to ChildLine about not only physical abuse, but inappropriate behaviour. I know that teachers do a great job, and I am always greatly indebted to them for what they do in teaching children, but more must be done to actively highlight this point to children of a young age. We in this House must do that and help to promote it. It is certainly difficult to explain to a child the difference between someone who is genuinely caring and someone who is perhaps grooming them for later abuse. We should have a concerted strategy in place, and I ask the Minister to outline, either at the end of this debate or in writing, the strategy and the co-operation that goes on between governmental and charitable bodies in this area. The charitable organisations want to help and to be involved, and their doors are open for any suggestions that can come from government.
There is an estimated shortfall in provision of between 51,000 and 88,000 therapeutic support places. That is a huge gap between the need and the service provision for children who have been sexually abused, including those who have been sexually exploited. The NSPCC, which does tremendous work with children and whose helplines are also overwhelmed by those who have been trying to get in contact, has stated that although there has been a gradual improvement in awareness within front-line agencies, more focus and drive is needed from central Government to disseminate and implement good practice effectively. The NSPCC believes it should be a statutory requirement that all pre-qualifying and post-qualifying training for professionals working with young people includes dealing with child sexual exploitation, and I agree. There are steps we can take. The organisations in this area can take them and the Government can suggest ways of taking them, and it is important that that happens. As other hon. Members have said in passionate speeches that showed a real understanding of what it means to be groomed and abused, where we can see a method whereby things can be improved and the Government can be involved in that, we hope that the measures will be in place.
This is a delicate issue. It is hard to hear what is happening behind closed doors in our so-called “modern society”, but the fact is that it is happening. So our duty, in this House and elsewhere, is to stop it happening and provide adequate support for victims. That is a huge undertaking, but if we cannot defend and help the most vulnerable in our society, as we are tasked with doing, we are not doing our job. Public confidence must be boosted but, more importantly, security and safety for those who have a story to tell and wounds to heal must be paramount. That is what we in this House are asking for today and what we are tasked with delivering. I support the thoughts that have been put forward, and I am sure that the House will also endorse them, but we need the changes in place that make a difference for the young people in our society.
It is a pleasure to take part in this debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend Nicola Blackwood on securing it, and I pay tribute to the powerful and often authoritative speeches we have heard this afternoon from people with a real understanding, in different ways, of the issues that come into play when we examine child sexual exploitation. I suppose that, rather like the poor, child sexual exploitation will always be with us. There is no way of eradicating it entirely; there will always be the combination of power and predilection which means that children can be sexually exploited. We need to ensure—I hope this debate will contribute towards this—greater public awareness of the issue and a greater willingness among authorities in so many different agencies to prioritise the issue and to recognise that the prevalence of child sexual exploitation is greater than people have perhaps been willing to admit in the past, not least because they find it so repellent.
I am disappointed that no representative from the Department for Education is here today, as it leads on this issue. Although the Minister of State, Home Department, Mr Browne, spoke from his departmental point of view, we need the Department for Education to provide that leadership, that ability to have the overview and that commitment always to seeing the child—not the criminal and not the trafficked person, but the child within—in all conditions.
One issue that the Select Committee found in our investigation into child protection in England, which did not focus on this area in particular, was a tendency among many authorities, such as the UK Border Agency in some cases and the police in or health workers in others, to see the condition—perhaps seeing someone in a criminal environment as a criminal or someone in an immigration environment as an immigration issue—rather than a vulnerable child.
Another theme of our report was that older children are poorly served by social services compared with younger children. As many Members have powerfully said this afternoon, there is a tendency not to believe those children and not to see past their behaviour, which can be pretty awful. A troubled teenager who has been abused will not always present in the most sympathetic way. They might be involved in criminal or other antisocial behaviour and people tend not to see past that to the child who has been exploited and abused in various ways, so they do not ensure that the child gets what they need.
We all want to see a more effective system. It will never be perfect and will certainly never eradicate child sexual exploitation and we should recognise that, but we want a system that is as attuned as it possibly can be to identifying people at risk, protecting them and taking action against perpetrators who seek to exploit children.
I made inquiries of East Riding of Yorkshire council, in which my constituency sits, and I was pleased to find that it is taking child sexual exploitation seriously and has set up a child sexual exploitation strategic group. I read through the terms of reference. In some respects, it is rather a dull, dry document, but it is important that it contains stipulations such as:
“This is a strategic group during which those attending will be expected to have decision making responsibility”.
It is important to ensure that the right people turn up in such circumstances, as it is no good for someone with no authority from an organisation to turn up to tick a box. The group is absolutely right to identify that its members must have decision-making authority for their organisation on child sexual exploitation. It lists the agencies whose attendance is required, makes provisions so that anything less than 75% attendance must be questioned and expects people to attend consecutive meetings.
That is all about the nuts and bolts and quite a long way away from the more emotive issues we have discussed this afternoon, but ensuring we have the right people in the right place, taking responsibility and ensuring that the issue does not drop down the agenda, as can so easily happen, is very important. All strength to the arm of those involved across the agencies in the East Riding of Yorkshire and elsewhere in recognising the severity and prevalence of child sexual exploitation.
Let me run quickly through some of the relevant recommendations in the Select Committee’s report on child protection, which came out last week. Older children were a major theme and we wish to see
“the College of Social Work, in outlining curricula, and individual institutions delivering social work training must ensure that teaching delivers an understanding of the effect of maltreatment on older children” and
“their ability to cope”.
The tendency is to believe that they are more resilient, but all too often they are not and the effect of abuse in the teenage years can be just as traumatic as in early life. It is just as long-lasting and just as likely to lead to unemployment, drug abuse and, in some cases, a cycle that leads to their becoming abusers in due course if they are not given appropriate support.
We were particularly concerned about care leavers and the accommodation and range of support provided for them. We visited care homes in Barnsley and were struck by the commitment of the staff and, after talking to the young people, by the quality of the support they felt they were getting. We must never be complacent in believing that our children’s homes are all safe and that we do not have abuse in our care system. However, we must also recognise that if, as John Hemming suggested, as many as one in seven children in care are subject to some form of abuse, seven out of seven of those children were subject to some form of abuse before they came into the care system. That in no way excuses failings in our care system, but we must recognise that problems in the past must not be read into problems today, although we should never be complacent. Whatever the problems in our care system, it does offer a place of safety; it does provide a haven and hope for young people. When we met children from around the country who came to a seminar with us behind closed doors, and in our visits to care homes, children told us so again and again.
I, perhaps philosophically, would have a predisposition to worry about taking children away from poor parents in the community and into the even worse parenting of the state. What we found, and the evidence we saw, was that in fact the care of the state for those children, although it is not all perfect—anything but—was, for most of the time, far better than what happened before. It is important that young people hear that, especially before they seek help. Why will they seek help if they think the help provided will make them more of a victim than they already feel? We must build up the quality of the service that our care system offers, but we must also ensure that people out there in the community, and children themselves, realise that care can be a really positive step for them.
Does my hon. Friend agree that where there is best practice—whether it be in Barnsley or elsewhere, whether provided within the public or private sector—municipal and council boundaries should not get in the way of the sharing of that best practice, or even of good local authorities taking over child care facilities in bad local authority areas, and that there should be no ideological barrier stopping the private sector delivering the best care?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who makes a powerful point. Obviously, again talking philosophically, I have no problem with that. Where we can split commissioning from provision, it is possible to create a better tension. The ability to challenge the service is increased if it is not directly provided by one’s department. My hon. Friend was right to make that point.
Such is my loquacity that I have used up most of the time without covering most of the issues that I wanted to talk about. As a Committee we recognised in our report that abuse between teenagers is an overlooked issue in the child protection system. That was mentioned in today’s debate. There is a need for that issue to be recognised, and for strategies to be developed to deal with the complications involved in assisting victims and perpetrators out of that abusive situation. We agreed that the primary aim within Government must be effectiveness, but we are not convinced that the system at the moment enables vulnerable children to be treated as children first. Earlier I spoke about the way in which other agencies tend to view young people.
We recommended that Childline be assisted and enabled by the Government to market its existence and services more widely, especially to older children. When we visited Childline, we were surprised to learn the number of older children who already use it. While people who do not use it might think Childline would be seen as only for younger children, children themselves seem to be using it; but we felt that more could be done to make it possible for Childline, which has a brand that people know, to be promoted more effectively. It was said earlier that for someone in the care system, the only person it is possible to complain to is someone else who works for the local authority. Well, Childline provides a third party to go to, and the NSPCC is behind it; so the more we can promote Childline, the more likely we are to make children safe.
We must do everything we possibly can to make children safer, while accepting that child sexual exploitation will go on. The one thing we have not touched on this afternoon, because we are all rightly focused on ensuring that we get better systems in place, is how we strike a balance so that children are not taught to view all adults and all men as a form of sexual predator until they are found to be otherwise. In my childhood, my best friend and I, wandering around, spent a lot of time with men in our community, none of whom sought to abuse or exploit us in any way. My life would have been very much less rich if that had not been possible. I think, frankly, today it is not possible, so some boys in single-parent households have little or no contact with men. That is enormously to be regretted.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in this important debate. I commend Nicola Blackwood for securing the debate and all Members who have participated in an extremely measured and well-informed debate for showing this House’s many good attributes when we approach serious subjects together. It is right that we focus on various aspects of child sexual exploitation, but I want to start with a disclaimer. All these experiences are anecdotal and based on our own angles on child sexual exploitation, but we must not forget that exploitation is prevalent in as many different types of communities as there are different types of communities in the first place.
I will talk a little about the relationship between child sexual exploitation and prostitution. It is easy, by way of shorthand, to talk about the abuse of women by men, but I appreciate that abuse can happen across different genders and ages. My hon. Friend Simon Danczuk eloquently made the point that one of the most egregious failures in the Rochdale case was the casual way in which various adults who had responsibility discounted victims’ claims or did not take them with the seriousness they should have done. They referred to life choices and prostitution when talking about the behaviour of the young girls being abused.
There is indisputably a relationship between child sexual exploitation and prostitution, between the systematic exploitation of children by adults and the systematic abuse, largely of women and largely by men, through the purchase of sex. The Home Office’s 2004 consultation paper, “Paying the price”, said that around 50% of men and women in prostitution entered prostitution before they were 18. Some studies put the figures closer to 75%. In my experience, as chair of the all-party group on prostitution and the global sex trade, I have met organisations that are helping women to exit prostitution, and they put the figure at between 70% and 90%. Whatever figures we choose to use, it is clear that a real problem is the crossover between child sexual exploitation and the perpetuation of prostitution on the streets and behind doors in Britain. Barnardo’s has gathered significant evidence showing that children’s homes are regularly targeted by those trying to coerce young people into prostitution and that 70% of people in prostitution have spent some time in care.
Let us be clear, because the law is. The Sexual Offences Act 2003 clarified that it is an offence to pay for the sexual services of a child under 18. The maximum penalty, depending on the child’s age, could be 14 years imprisonment or life imprisonment. The law is incredibly clear and strong on that. When prostitution is talked about in relation to a child—the guidance on the language to be used has changed, quite rightly, in recent years—it is not the child who is at fault, but the perpetuator of the violence or the pimp who controls the young person. As 50% of people in prostitution are likely to have been abused or to have entered prostitution before the age of 18, it is highly likely that in each of our constituencies tonight, or over the course of today, people under the age of 18 are being abused in that way.
I want to ask three basic questions about why we rarely focus on prostitution in debates on child sexual exploitation. The first question relates to political leadership, and I am not making a party political point. I know from the work the all-party group has done on the implementation of section 14 of the Policing and Crime Act 2009, which relates to sex with a coerced person, that, even though the law is quite clear, the agencies will struggle to implement it because they feel that there is not clear political leadership or direction on how to do so. If we look at the evidence that has been gathered since that offence was introduced, largely in relation to trafficked women, which is the clearest place where a prosecution could be brought, we see that the penalties that have been imposed have been minor, including cautions. This sends completely the wrong signals about how serious the offence is. If one talks to the Crown Prosecution Service, to the Association of Chief Police Officers or to chief constables, they will say, “If we have a clear political steer to go after an issue we will put the resources in, but we are incredibly stretched and for that reason we put our officers elsewhere.” There is a clear case for political leadership on this issue.
Secondly, there is the fact that so-called problematic behaviour is used as shorthand to get to a position whereby various workers in our social services and other places end up focusing on the behaviour of the child and not the behaviour of the adults around them. In the Rochdale case, there was an escalating cycle of sexual violence that started with alcohol and drugs but ended up with money being swapped for sex as people were pimped out. That needs to be challenged as well.
The third issue, which might be of most importance to us in this House in the coming years, is the mixed messages that are sent out on the legal settlement around prostitution. It would be possible for me today to walk out of this Chamber and to purchase sex and in doing so never once commit a crime, but I could be purchasing sex from someone who is extremely vulnerable and obviously comes from a background where they have had little choice about the route they have taken. Is that appropriate when many countries around the world such as Sweden and, even closer to home, the Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly are looking at changes in the legal settlement around prostitution?
Child sexual exploitation requires us to have a challenging mindset that says that it is not about the supply of children but the demand of adults. I believe very strongly that in our broader society we must challenge the demand of people who want to abuse and take from others. The argument against this, of course, is choice, but I simply ask this question: with 50% of those people working on our streets tonight likely to have been sexually abused as a child and to have entered prostitution at an age below one where they could consent, what choice do they have, especially with the many complex issues surrounding the situation? If today’s debate forces us to ask whether we take this issue seriously enough to resource it sufficiently to tackle child sexual exploitation for money, and to ask the deeper questions about how we handle sex in our society, it will have been a good thing.
This is my first speech as a Back Bencher for 10 years, so I hope that the House will permit me to place on the record my enormous sense of honour and privilege at having served as a Government Minister and having had some responsibility for the stewardship of our armed forces—unquestionably one of the finest institutions in our land, and revered throughout the world. While the Minister of State, Home Department, Mr Browne, is here, let me say that
I had great pleasure in working with him when he was a Foreign Office Minister; that is evidence that the coalition was working well at least in one respect. I pay tribute to him for the contribution that he made.
So here I am on the Back Benches. I am delighted that my first contribution will be in this important debate, which has been engineered by three magnificent musketeers to whom I pay tribute, as has everyone else, for drawing attention to a matter of huge importance to our country and to the people of this country. The Press Gallery is largely empty, but I hope that it will be noted that for the entire afternoon this House has been constantly engaged with people making very important contributions on a serious matter of concern, and that this demonstrates Parliament’s interest in ensuring the protection of our young people. It is with pleasure that I take part. I will be brief for I have, in essence, one point to make.
The debate has been overwhelmingly, and understandably, dominated by the recent shocking experiences and the memory of earlier shocking experiences, and the sense of frustration we all share that this pattern of behaviour does not seem to have ended. My hon. Friend Tim Loughton, who was an outstanding Minister who made a fantastic contribution to supporting young people, has said that it was incredible that children were being accused by officials of exercising a lifestyle choice. I think that that goes to the heart of the matter. It is shocking that these officials, who were paid by the state and acting on behalf of the rest of us, asserted such a thing. The all-party groups on runaway and missing children and adults and on looked-after children and care leavers produced a report, sponsored by the Children’s Society, which notes in its briefing for today’s debate:
“The Inquiry heard that some professionals, including police and social services, perceive these children as ‘troublesome’, ‘promiscuous’, or indeed ‘slags who knew what they were getting themselves into’”.
That is an indictment on those charged with responsibility for acting on behalf of the rest of us, and that is what we need to address.
Mr Allen put his finger on the point when he said that we need to look at the root causes. We need to understand why officials paid by the state took that view of these vulnerable young people.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we need to consider prevention and that we need to create an environment in which our children feel safe enough to be able to tell us when something is wrong and in which they are heard when they tell us?
The hon. Lady makes a valid point. It is important that young people should have that confidence, which perhaps plays into the one observation that I want to make: an assault on childhood innocence, particularly that of young girls, is widespread in our country. It can be found on television, advertising and, overwhelmingly, in magazines that are on sale at eye level—not our eye level, but children’s eye level—in every supermarket in the land.
In 1996, my hon. Friend Peter Luff promoted a private Member’s Bill to require these girly magazines to place on their front page their target age audience. Unfortunately, the
Bill fell, but I salute my hon. Friend for his work. I tried to follow it up when I came back to the House in 1997. I had a meeting with the editors of magazines such as
More! and various others. Some of those magazines had features such as “position of the month”. It was sexually mechanical and devoid of moral content. I told the editors, who were overwhelmingly female, that I had a young daughter—she was young at the time but is rather older now, although I do have a young granddaughter—and when I asked them whether they would like their daughters to see such things, they all shuffled uncomfortably in their seats.
I will pay them this tribute: they have improved. I had a look around Sainsbury’s in Farnborough to check out what the magazines were up to and I think that they have got better, but they are still overwhelmingly sex-obsessed. What are young girls to think—what are young men supposed to think—except that this is the way of life and that if they are not behaving like that or like celebrities, they are old-fashioned, fuddy-duddies, not cool and behind the times?
Even this week’s OK! magazine has a headline with somebody called Harry Styles—I am afraid that he has passed my attention, but he seems a reasonably good-looking young lad—saying, “I jumped into bed with my mate’s mum”. The story is not what one might imagine it to be—it is rather more boring and less dramatic than it might appear—but it is on the front page and designed to titillate. The obsession with exploiting the vulnerability of young people—predominantly young girls—leads to situations, examples of which have been provided by so many hon. Members today, whereby they can be exploited by men. We all know—certainly us blokes here—what men are like. That is the atmosphere in which the kind of events that were happening in Keighley go on. I salute my hon. Friend Kris Hopkins for being so bold in what he said—I am sure that Ann Cryer would have approved thoroughly.
I submit—this is the essence of the argument that I am putting to the House—that one cannot look at the things that have gone on in north Wales and Rochdale without putting them in the wider national context. We must not just blame those whom we pay to look after these young people or the leaders of the local authorities, but must look at ourselves, the adults who buy this lurid dross and the people who produce it. We must ask ourselves what sort of society we are creating for our young people. It is hardly surprising that in our society young people, and young girls in particular, are vulnerable.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the problem goes beyond the magazine racks of supermarkets and other shops on our high streets? Anyone can see the early sexualisation of young people in the sort of clothes that are on sale. It is possible to find bras and bikini sets for young girls of seven or eight. That is equally inappropriate.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I do not think that I will find many opportunities to agree with her, but I am delighted to have done so on our first encounter. Of course, mothers are under pressure and may not themselves have had the benefit of being brought up in loving families.
Family life is important in this debate. Mention has been made of the abuse that goes on in families. When I was chairman of the Lords and Commons family and child protection group, we produced an excellent report on the cost of family breakdown entitled, “Does your mother know?” The evidence shows overwhelmingly that children who are brought up in loving families and married households tend to thrive more than those who are brought up in other family units.
In conclusion, I have been delighted to listen to so many Members from all parts of the House make common cause on a matter of great importance to the people of our country. I hope that Parliament will continue to do whatever it can to protect young people. However, let us be absolutely clear that criticising state agents in the form of local authority employees and others is not sufficient; the root cause of this problem lies at the heart of our society and the way in which we behave as a nation, and it must be tackled.
May I begin by congratulating Nicola Blackwood and others on securing this valuable debate? I apologise for missing the start of it. I was taking evidence in the Home Affairs Committee for the child sexual abuse inquiry that we are conducting.
It is nearly 25 years since I worked in child protection. Whatever has happened and whatever progress has been made, some familiar problems persist. There will always be scandals in departments and agencies, and individuals who fall short of what we expect. However, the real concern must be over the doubts that continue to be fostered about the claims of those who have been abused. As others have said, that is not new.
When thinking about this debate, I was reminded of a book written by Jeffrey Masson in the early ’80s called “The Assault on Truth”. It was based on a study of previously unpublished letters belonging to Sigmund Freud. It exposed the idea that Freud’s original seduction theory was based on the notion that emotional disturbances in adults stemmed from actual early traumatic experiences, the knowledge of which had been repressed. As Members will know, Freud eventually renounced that theory in favour of the view that his woman patients had “fantasised” their early memories of rape and seduction—a view on which psychoanalysis was eventually based.
Masson was sacked from his position as project director at the Freud archives for his views, but it is clear that Freud had the gravest doubts about abandoning his seduction theory, despite being under enormous pressure from civilised Viennese society who could not tolerate the idea. Masson discovered, however, that not only had Freud read contemporary literature documenting the high incidence of sexual abuse of children, but he had witnessed autopsies of children who had been raped and murdered. Denial of the victims’ claims remains the problem, just as it was in Rochdale or with Savile.
We must try to move from denial to the acceptance that such awful things happen in our society—on our streets, in our homes with those polite respectable parents, and in children’s homes where children in particular ought to be safe. The problem, however, is that people do not think that they will be believed. “Nobody else would have believed me; he was a judge”, said one adult survivor talking to ChildLine. Another said, “My father was a policeman and a mason.” We need to listen to children and young people, and take their disclosures seriously.
With all due respect to Sir Gerald Howarth whose point I take seriously, as well as the problem of not listening there is the problem of dereliction of duty. I was stunned to hear the former chief executive of Rochdale council say that he had no knowledge of what happened there. He had never asked or heard any rumours, and none of the well-paid senior managers had brought the matter to his attention.
More than ever in this day and age there must be a duty for those in charge—those paid the grand salaries—to ask and provide evidence of when and how they regularly take a proactive role in seeking out information on such matters. It is a disgrace that someone can preside over a scandal and receive an enormous pay-off or early retirement settlement just as the scandal breaks; they are being rewarded for not protecting children. We need services that ensure that when young people find the courage to report abuse, they will be believed. Most importantly, we need to know that the cycle of abuse will be brought to an end.
We need to believe the victims. Sure, their stories might not always tally; they might get things wrong or misremember events and dates—how good would any of us be after years of abuse? We need to try to avoid confusing believing a victim and assessing how good a witness they might be. Those two things are not identical.
As I say, people get confused. When reading a Sunday newspaper this weekend, I was struck by a report about Steve Messham and how easy it was to conclude that various events in his life pointed to his being a liar and an unreliable witnesses. If that man is not traumatised by his experiences, who is? There may be an argument for smarter journalism at the BBC, but there is not one for ignoring what happened to Steve Messham.
Does my hon. Friend agree that part of our problem is that people who deal with such vulnerable children do not have the training to enable them to understand the veracity of the child, and to differentiate telling the truth and being a good witness in court?
I accept that entirely. I shall make a point on that before I conclude my speech, but I wanted to come back to how victims are left feeling.
Victims describe themselves in a cycle of fear and shame. They think no one will believe what is happening, and that they are to blame for the exploitation they are suffering. Barnardo’s points out that a key difference between sexual exploitation and sexual abuse is that exploitation often starts with grooming. In the beginning, the young people believe they are involved in a genuine relationship. It is therefore not that surprising that feelings of guilt accompany the problems when they try to deal with them.
As my hon. Friend Sandra Osborne said, it is true that survivors can move on, but they can do so only if they get the right help and support. We need to separate the search for evidence to convict the guilty from the support that victims need. When I was involved in this work nearly 25 years ago, I worked closely with the police to try to find evidence to convict. I must confess that I am not sure that enough of my attention was focused on the needs of victims.
As my hon. Friend Lyn Brown has said, we need people in all the key agencies who have absolute understanding. We need a twin track. When someone comes forward and discloses, they need help, support and counselling to get them through, but they also need specialised help to get them through the court process, such as independent sexual violence advocates, and expert witnesses to advise the judge and jurors on what has really happened. More than anything, lawyers need to be guided to avoid inappropriate language and behaviour in the court that seeks further to victimise people.
I add my congratulations to the three musketeers. If we had had this debate 15 or 20 years ago, the number of Members in the Chamber would be half what it is today. There is now an interest and understanding that we did not have previously.
My interest in child sexual exploitation began when I did the police parliamentary course 10 or 12 years ago. I spent a day with the paedophile unit at Scotland Yard and came out feeling very shaky. I did not realise such people existed or that they did such things. I occasionally go back there to be topped up. I have put together a series of changes to the law that the Metropolitan police paedophile unit felt were necessary. With the help of Ministers of both this Government and the previous one, I have introduced half a dozen or a dozen changes that have strengthened the police’s opportunity to put some of those people away, and their ability to find and help victims. We must remember that they have that double role.
Much of the subject has been covered, so I will not go on about it, but when I was first at Scotland Yard, I asked the head of the paedophile unit whether it had done a guesstimate of how many predatory paedophiles there are in the country. Like Yasmin Qureshi, who is no longer in her place, he said that most paedophile activity or sexual abuse of children happens in the home. Most of it is dealt with by hard-working, overworked, busy social workers. We must applaud them. They have been plodding away at the problem for centuries—it must feel like that to them—and making a difference.
The paedophile unit looked particularly at predatory paedophiles. The head of the unit gave me a guesstimate that there were broadly enough of those for there to be one active paedophile for every street in the country. He told me that 20% of those were women, and that half of them—10% of the total—were women who actively took part. That shook me, and we need to think about it. We have obvious examples such as Myra Hindley and Rose West, but there have been recent cases in which women running or working in day nurseries have been predatory paedophiles.
The waking up for many of us came when a programme was broadcast by BBC 2, which was very brave to put it on, called “Hunting Britain’s Paedophiles”. I mention that because hon. Members have spoken about cases going back to the ’60s and ’70s. The first two programmes focused on how the paedophile unit trapped, caught and eventually helped to convict, thanks to the courts, a group of paedophiles whose job was paedophilia. They lived on money that they gained through their system and all they did was chase children. They put together a grooming manual on how to make a predatory attack on children. They started, I think in Tooting, in 1957, and they were not put away until about 2001. How many children they touched in a bad way is beyond fathoming. They got away with it because the kids were not believed. One of the things I tell people when I talk about this issue is that paedophiles, like these individuals, are nice people, because if they were not nice the kids would not like them, but underneath they are appalling. That case woke me up as well, and I think it woke up an awful lot of people. I remember someone saying to me, “I remember, when I was kid, the man with the box Brownie camera down at Tooting lido taking photographs.”
There have been huge changes since then. The law is very much stronger. We are starting to recognise the importance of helping victims, and there are a large number of organisations helping them, including the police. The Metropolitan police’s Sapphire unit helps people who have been victimised—and by “people” I mean women and men. Another point that the paedophile unit made to me was that more boys are abused than girls. Why? I do not know and neither did it.
There is help for paedophiles. The Lucy Faithfull Foundation has a good success rate for those it takes on board and tries to help. It works a little like Alcoholics Anonymous. To be blunt, the reason for its success is that it cherry-picks—it picks the ones it thinks it can help. To my mind, that is best value for the money available. Scores of organisations help victims. We need every single one of them, and we need their expertise. Child Victims of Crime was set up by the police to help child victims, particularly victims of paedophiles, because we as a nation—I find this distressing—did not have a decent organisation to do that. It is still going, is very successful and does an awful lot of good work.
As the Minister is here, and if he will listen for two minutes, I ask him to go through tomorrow’s Hansard with his highlighter pen, as some very good suggestions have been made. Will he assess them and act on them? I will throw in two suggestions. First, having looked at the change to the legislation and the increase in penalties, will he set up a small study to look at the actual sentences and those that are available, and have a think about having a little discussion with the judges? A lot of people have been convicted, sentenced and, to my mind, not gone away for long enough.
Secondly, we are looking for some way of creating the opportunity for victims to come forward. As I said, many are little children. I listened to my hon. Friend Sir Gerald Howarth. It is not the magazines on the shelves that paedophiles use, but the internet—it is the muck that is available on the internet and the way in which kids are groomed on the internet. I saw on an internet site—I was just too shocked by this—a Polish gentleman abusing a baby with the umbilical chord still attached. The Metropolitan police acted very quickly, and I understand that he has gone away for a long time, because they made a phone call to Poland.
Finally, I would like to make a suggestion. The Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims (Amendment) Act 2012, which I introduced to the House, extended this area of law to cover violent abuse. It was the Act under which the baby P case was prosecuted. Perhaps we should consider making a tiny change to that legislation to include sexual abuse, so that those who observe and stand by, or know and stand by, are duty bound by law to speak up for the victims.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Nicola Blackwood. She is a first-class MP, and her constituents have every right to be proud of her, particularly for bringing forward this important and timely debate.
A lot of this discussion has centred on care facilities, orphanages and children’s homes, and rightly so, not least because of recent headlines. We have also heard about the exploitation and sexual abuse of children within nuclear or orthodox families, in private homes, and within public schools. The problem is widespread, and I, too, support those who have called on the Government to launch a wide-ranging inquiry into this issue.
Children do not choose their parents or the family circumstances into which they are born, but the tone of many comments made in this place, not today—this debate has been very measured—but in the recent past, have fundamentally misunderstood the problem. When talking about children in care, some people talk about vulnerable children, but it is the environment in which they often find themselves that is vulnerable. It is an environment not of their choosing, an environment that, in a way, can be directed and changed by the state. Despite some bad examples, as we have seen in recent weeks, the majority of people working in care homes, orphanages and child care facilities do so with due diligence, professionalism, and love, care and affection.
I speak with some authority, because I spent the first six years of my life in an orphanage. Having been to the orphanage reunion last week, I can tell hon. Members that every person there spoke highly of all the carers. I do not have one single bad memory. Perhaps I am lucky. Perhaps I am blessed. But it is important to put that on the record. The majority of people providing care do it with love, professionalism and dedication. I pay tribute to those who showed me love for the first six years of my life. There are those who, in the first six years of their life in a so-called orthodox family, do not enjoy the same level of care and love. So, although there are bad apples, the majority are doing a good job every hour of every day of every week. I pay tribute to them.
There is a wider issue about exploitation: what the state is doing and not doing. We have rightly focused on sexual exploitation, but the fact is that the taxpayer spends £250,000 for each of the 5,000 children in care facilities today. There are a total of 90,000 in care each year, and 60,000 in care right now—it ebbs and flows over the year—but 5,000 are currently in full-time care. Someone mentioned Oliver Twist. I think I am the only member of the Oliver Twist club. I remember being in the Dining Room, and somebody said, “Oh what’s that tie, Pritchard? What club is that?” I said, “It’s the Oliver Twist club,” and he said, “I’ve never heard of that.”
Perhaps today, more people have heard about it. It is for those people who I believe all have a God-given skill or ability. Some will end up as fantastic mechanics, artists or scientists, so it is absolutely correct that the state gets this right. It is absolutely wrong that too many children in care leave with no qualifications. It does not mean that they do not have brains, intelligence or an intellect. Too many children leaving care end up homeless, in prostitution or on the wrong side of the law. Not only is it wrong and bad value for money for the taxpayer to spend nearly £1 billion a year for the 5,000 children in full-time care, it is also morally wrong that we are sending them out to a life often locked into poverty or crime because the state has failed to monitor their educational achievement or lack of it.
My hon. Friend is making a compelling personal speech. Will he join me in paying tribute to the unsung heroes of family life and the care system, the grandparents and extended kin? They do an heroic job, often taking care of the children of their children who are afflicted with drug and alcohol problems or other family issues.
I am very happy to do that. I would like the Government to be more imaginative and innovative in the tax system—as I think the Conservative Opposition said before the election—in recognising the work of grandparents and rewarding them for it, because where the family works well, it is obviously the best place for children to grow up.
I have huge respect for the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend Mr Timpson, the new children’s Minister, as I did for his predecessor. I am excited about his promotion, because I know that he has great personal knowledge of fostering and adoption. This is an opportunity for him as an individual Minister and for the Government. As I said in a speech last week in the Chamber—albeit a speech on Europe—if we are not making a difference in this place, what is the point of being here? While there is strategic focus in the media, the Government and the nation as a whole, this is perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the coalition Government to make a real difference by changing the way children are fostered, making changes to the adoption system and fundamentally changing the way we look after children in full-time care.
As I mentioned, my view is that everybody has something to contribute—everybody has a God-given ability or talent. Therefore I hope the Government will bring forward definitive and precise measures to tackle the issues arising from the mistakes made in the past—to be fair, under successive Governments—where children left care with the list of problems that I outlined earlier, costing the taxpayer even more money, by the way, as the homelessness bill, the criminal justice bill and the bill for getting people off drugs and alcohol rises.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important that the profile of children’s issues is not lowered in the Department for Education? Does he support the Select Committee on Education recommendation that, as has happened with schools, a non-executive board member with expertise in this area should be appointed to the board of the Department?
I am grateful for the Chairman of the Education Committee’s intervention. I note the excellent report and work that his Committee has done, and I commend that report to the House and for wider reading. To be honest, I have not really thought about that issue, but I am guided by his wisdom and expertise, and I am happy to discuss it with him.
Briefly, I note that Lyn Brown and my hon. Friend Margot James mentioned training. That is absolutely right. Although the majority of social workers do a great job, my experience was pretty mixed, frankly. That is sometimes down to resources—fair enough—but it is also down to training. I would like to see root-and-branch reform of the way in which we train our social workers, so that they are not driven only by targets or political correctness, but are freed up to use their common sense. I want to see a bit more licence in the system for people of experience, not just graduates fresh out of university—although that is important as well—so that we have a mix and a range of people, perhaps from other professions, attracted as mature social workers, with their own family experiences, to ensure that the provision of care and the quality of care is improving all the time.
There can also sometimes be institutional inertia when we talk about care packages and care groups looking at individual cases, with multiple agencies perhaps taking too long to take decisions on individual children’s lives. Perhaps we could streamline the way in which agencies take such decisions. As my hon. Friend Mr Stuart suggested, it is important that all the relevant groups have people in them who can take decisions quickly, efficiently and effectively.
As we move towards the elections for police and crime commissioners, I hope that we can focus the minds of our new commissioners, whether they are from the left or the right, because we need police forces to take a fresh look at this matter. I note that West Mercia police has placed a particular emphasis on transgender crime. All crime is wrong, and transgender crime is wrong, but I suspect that it is not as widespread as child abuse and child exploitation. I would hope that a more strategic focus can be adopted as a result of this debate and of some of the headlines that we have seen over the past few days. We as a Government have a responsibility to care for every child in the care system, and I hope that this debate will move that forward.
I congratulate the hon. Members for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood) and for Stourbridge (Margot James) and my hon. Friend Ann Coffey on securing this debate on child sexual exploitation. However, I have to say at the outset that, like the Chair of the Education Select Committee, Mr Stuart, and the former Children’s Minister, Tim Loughton, I am disappointed that the present Children’s Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Education, Mr Timpson, has not been on the Treasury Bench throughout the debate. I appreciate that he has been here for the past hour.
I was also surprised to be told that I would be responding to the debate as shadow Minister on behalf of the Opposition, as the lead on this matter is obviously with the Department for Education. However, I am pleased to have had the opportunity to listen to the whole debate and to the contributions from Members on both sides of the House on this important subject. I also recognise the special role of Back-Bench debates.
This is a timely debate, and I am pleased that it has consistently focused on the victims of exploitation, on what we can and should do to support them and on what needs to be done to learn from current cases to prevent abuse in the future. As we have heard today, sexual exploitation takes many forms and needs to be understood within the wider context of physical and sexual abuse. It is important to recognise the different situations in which children are exploited, because abuse is often not recognised for what it is.
This has been a good debate, and I want to respond to some of the contributions that have been made. The experience and knowledge that Members have demonstrated has been first class. My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport spoke about her long engagement with these issues. The ex-Minister, the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, brought his experience of the past few years to the debate. My hon. Friend Mr Allen spoke of his own experience in Nottingham, and of the need for a cultural change.
The Chair of the Select Committee and my near neighbour, the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness, went through some of the recommendations in his Committee’s report. My hon. Friend Gavin Shuker is the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on prostitution and the global sex trade. He provided the House with his particular focus on the matter. Sir Paul Beresford described his experience of working with the police. Mark Pritchard told the House of his first-hand experience of being in care.
Many Members described constituency issues, including Kris Hopkins, and my right hon. Friend Ann Clwyd, who talked about issues in Wales and about the power that insurance companies have commanded in recent inquiries. My hon. Friend Simon Danczuk spoke powerfully on behalf of his constituents, and talked about some of the shocking revelations in his constituency. The hon. Members for Stourbridge, for Ealing Central and Acton (Angie Bray), for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) also described what was happening in their constituencies.
I want to comment on the contributions of other Members who brought their specialist knowledge to the debate. My hon. Friend Sandra Osborne talked about her work with incest survivors and paid tribute to those who were strong enough to get their voices heard. We should of course thank them for that. My hon. Friend Yasmin Qureshi talked about her experience as a prosecutor of sexual offences, while my hon. Friend Steve McCabe talked about what was happening in Birmingham.
We have encountered a great wealth of experience in the many hours of our discussion this afternoon. We need to remember that neither perpetrators nor victims are easily defined, although we know that certain groups are particularly vulnerable and that the reality is that young women from all different social groups are exposed to sexual violence and are vulnerable to exploitation. It is equally unwise to generalise about the perpetrators. In the media—the hon. Member for Keighley raised the issue, too—much has been made of the prevalence of grooming within certain Asian communities, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East said, in reporting what the Children’s Commissioner had said, sexual exploitation extends far beyond any particular community or ethnicity. By trying to identify typical perpetrators, we risk missing many others.
Indeed, we need to remember that most child sexual exploitation is done either by a child’s peer or by a young adult. A National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children study found that 65% of sexual abuse was conducted by the under-18s, while a Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre sample of 1,200 known perpetrators found that where the age was known, over half were under 24.
Over the last year, we have seen a number of high-profile cases of abuse and exploitation. Obviously, there has been the Jimmy Savile case, and also the fresh allegations of abuse at the north Wales care homes. We have seen the practice of grooming and sexual exploitation occurring in several towns, most notably Rochdale and Derby, where vulnerable young women were abused by networks of men and then used to recruit new victims. These cases are themselves shocking and the public interest that they have provoked is entirely understandable. However, it is important that this debate goes beyond these high-profile examples.
The really shocking truth is that child abuse and exploitation is far too common. We have already heard in this debate the comments of the Deputy Children’s Commissioner that
“sexual exploitation of children is happening all over the country.”
The NSPCC’s 2009 survey on the prevalence and impact of child maltreatment found that 5% of under-16s reported coerced sexual acts. That is one in 20 of our young people. A YouGov poll commissioned by the End Violence Against Women coalition found that 29% of 16 to 18-year-old girls have experienced unwanted sexual touching at school.
We know that a number of inquiries and pieces of research have either already been conducted or are now under way. There are the investigations into Jimmy Savile’s conduct at the BBC and other institutions, and the inquiry into the Waterhouse inquiry, while the Deputy Children’s Commissioner is in the process of conducting an inquiry into the culture of grooming. The Home Affairs Committee is conducting an inquiry into localised grooming, and the Education Committee has just completed an inquiry into child protection. The NSPCC has conducted a number of excellent pieces of research. I would also like to acknowledge two pieces of research from Barnardo’s: “Puppet on a String” and “Cutting them free: How is the UK progressing in protecting its children from sexual exploitation?” Then there is the excellent work done by CEOP, “Out of Sight, Out of Mind”, which has already been mentioned. My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport referred to the joint inquiry of all-party parliamentary group for runaway and missing children and adults and the all-party parliamentary group for looked-after children and care leavers. A joint report into children who go missing from care has been produced under my hon. Friend’s able chairing.
Now that we actually have both Ministers in their places on the Front Bench—they have seen half the debate each—perhaps I could ask the Minister of State, Home Department, Mr Browne, even though he has already spoken, to provide a response in writing to the following issues. First, in evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee, the Department for Education claimed to have accepted all 11 recommendations contained in the Children’s Commissioner’s preliminary report, so it would be helpful to know how far the Government have got in implementing those recommendations.
Secondly, support and treatment for victims is a key issue, which the hon. Member for Strangford raised. The NSPCC has identified an estimated shortfall in the provision of therapeutic services of between 51,000 and 88,000. Is either Minister aware of that shortfall, and can either of them tell us what is being done to deal with it?
Thirdly, given that the NHS is currently being reorganised, can either Minister tell us which organisation will be responsible for giving care and support to abused children within the new structures? Where will statutory responsibility for child protection lie following the demise of the primary care trusts?
Fourthly, local safeguarding children boards are key structures, and when they fail children are left particularly vulnerable. The CEOP inquiry, to which Members have referred today, found that
“Most LsCBs do not fulfil the pivotal role prescribed for them in statutory guidance in respect of child sexual exploitation.”
Can one of the Ministers explain what the Government have done to improve the performance of those boards? Thursday’s elections for police and crime commissioners have been mentioned; how will the role of the new PCCs support the boards, and what work has been done to encourage PCCs to promote and engage with them?
No. I am very short of time.
Although children’s services are another key component of the process of keeping our children safe, many councils are being forced to slash the budgets of those services. In my home city of Hull, the council’s budget has been cut by 20% during the current Parliament. What assessment have the Government made of the effects of those cuts on the performance of local safeguarding children boards?
The Government have scaled down the child protection regime to what they call a common-sense level, although organisations such as the NSPCC and experts including Lord Bichard challenged them on some of their plans. I hope that Ministers will take a moment to consider the number of children who have not been protected by common sense in some of the cases that have been discussed today. I hope that they will also have a look at the changes in the criminal records regime, which will restrict information sharing.
No. I am going to continue my speech.
Let us take the example of a schoolteacher who has been barred from working with children by the Independent Safeguarding Authority following a series of corroborated allegations at different schools, none of which has been reported to the police. Let us imagine that that man volunteers to help with drama at another school in a different local authority area, where he works with the same group of children each week under the day-to-day supervision of a teacher. As he is under day-to-day supervision, he will no longer be considered to be in regulated activity. Will a Minister confirm that the school will no longer be required to obtain a CRB check, and that even if it obtains an enhanced CRB check, it will still be explicitly forbidden to be told about the man’s barred status, as he will not be taking part in regulated activity? Would not most parents be horrified to learn about that? I hope that Ministers will reflect on it.
I also hope that the Government will think again about their reluctance to allow a single inquiry to collate information from the many inquiries that I have already mentioned. We have 11 recommendations from the Children’s Commissioner, five from CEOP, 40 from the Education Committee and 31 from the joint APPG inquiry, and a host of inquiries are yet to report. I hope that as the Government receive that further series of reports in the coming months, they will be prepared to consider the Opposition’s call for a single overarching report. Today the Care Leavers’ Association called for a comprehensive national investigation of past abuse in the care system, adding its voice to many others.
In the meantime, there are real questions to be answered about what mechanisms exist to co-ordinate cross-departmental work and understanding of child exploitation. The confusion over who would be on the Government Front Bench today probably highlighted that. Cross-departmental work is never more important than when it challenges the culture that allows abuse and sexual exploitation to go unrecognised, unchallenged and unreported.
Grooming and sexual exploitation are facilitated by a culture in which sexual violence is normalised. The YouGov poll that I mentioned earlier found that 71% of young people regularly witnessed sexualised name-calling, and the findings of studies have suggested that up to 40% have been exposed to sexual content on phones, known as “sexting”. We need to appreciate the link between the prevalence of that sexual culture and an acceptance of abuse. An NSPCC study found that one in three girls and 16% of boys had reported some form of sexual partner violence.
The cases referred to ChildLine showed that time and again young people did not realise they were in an abusive relationship, and when they did, they blamed themselves for the situation. Good work is being done to support young people in making good choices and empowered decisions about their relationships, but we need to do more. I commend to the Children’s Minister, the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich, the excellent work of the End Violence Against Women coalition campaign project, Schools Safe 4 Girls. I hope the Minister will think about meeting that group to discuss the excellent work it is doing. I know that there are individual Government programmes, and I applaud them, but there is no sense of this work being brought together. We need to look at the issue of personal, social, health and economic education, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport mentioned. It is a vital issue that needs to be addressed in schools.
Finally, will the Children’s Minister confirm today that the Department for Education has disbanded its expert working group on sexual exploitation and has no lead person on violence against women and girls?
I thank everybody who has contributed so expertly and powerfully to today’s debate. While not wanting in any way to imply having favourites, I would particularly like to mention my co-sponsors, my hon. Friend Margot James and Ann Coffey, as well as my hon. Friends the Members for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford), for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart) and for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard), and the hon. Members for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk), for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) and for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) for their powerful contributions not only today, but outside this place. Although the majority of children grow up safe from harm, victims of child sexual exploitation experience the most terrible abuses, and this issue will remain firmly at the top of our agenda for the foreseeable future as more victims come forward and more perpetrators are prosecuted.
We need to see strong leadership from our Government. I hope that Ministers have listened carefully to the serious concerns raised by Members on both sides of the House. I will not hide the fact that I had expected to be addressing the Children’s Minister, my hon. Friend Mr Timpson, throughout the debate, but I will not despair. I will put my trust in his ministerial colleague, Mr Browne, to take up, with urgency and vigour, the issues of victim identification, data, local provision of multi-agency hubs and the need better to support victims through the court process, as well as the other important issues raised in the debate, and to bring the Children’s Minister completely up to speed on all the matters raised today. I am certain that our trust in him will not prove to have been misplaced.
I hope that, if just one message comes out of today’s debate, it is that perpetrators who prey on vulnerable children will be prosecuted, that victims who come forward will be believed and protected, and that we, their representatives, are doing everything we can to make that happen. We have heard today that that is not happening in all our constituencies, and that not every area feels it can trust in its local authorities and representatives. The Government can be proud that they have done much through their child sexual exploitation strategy, but not all local areas are implementing that yet, and we need to have strong leadership from the Department for Education and the other Departments in order to drive that through. Local people need to see that happening, so they can have faith that action is being taken.
The issue of child sexual exploitation will be in our newspapers for some time to come as people are prosecuted through the court process. We need to see a sense of urgency among our Ministers and in every Department. I hope the proposal for an inter-ministerial group will be considered. It is backed by Barnardo’s and would help to ensure reforms are driven through across every Department area.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the matter of child sexual exploitation.