All of us here will have tremendous sympathy with the victims of sexual exploitation and the challenges, barriers and burdens they face. I want to pay tribute to the bravery, strength and perseverance of the victims of sexual exploitation, who deserve not merely our sympathy but our concrete, committed and long-term support.
Last August, a jury returned guilty verdicts on 17 men and one woman who had committed abhorrent crimes in Newcastle. This was the culmination of Northumbria police’s Operation Sanctuary, a three-year investigation into the sexual exploitation of vulnerable women and girls. No convictions would have been secured without the bravery of the victims in testifying against their attackers, re-living their terrible experiences, in some cases more than once. To be subject to such abuse is more than anyone should have to bear. To then describe it to a court full of strangers shows the sort of courage that the rest of us can only hope to equal.
I feel personally ashamed that the city in which I grew up, and which I now have the privilege to represent, harboured men who groomed, exploited and raped women and young girls. They targeted women and girls because they were vulnerable, turning the vulnerable into victims, but I am also grateful to the victims for their courage, which has made Newcastle a safer city.
At the end of 2013, Northumbria police were contacted by a woman who informed them of sexual exploitation in the west end of Newcastle. Northumbria police responded rapidly. The national charity Changing Lives has worked extensively with the victims, and it told me that the police believed the victims immediately and maintained unconditional positive regard throughout the process, which has not always so in other sexual exploitation cases.
I spoke to the hon. Lady beforehand just to tell her some things that we are doing in Northern Ireland. The Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland said that people who have had up to six adverse childhood experiences—in this case, sexual exploitation—are not only traumatised but, it is estimated, could die some 20 years earlier as a result of their experiences. Does she agree that this clearly underlines the need for more support to be given at an earlier stage, and that the police need to be more active for the victims of sexual exploitation, whose lives are shortened as a result of what they have experienced?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I agree that the impact of such sexual exploitation on the lives, mental health and long-term opportunities of the victims is significant. That is why long-term support is required, and I will touch on that in more detail later.
The police acted upon 1,400 pieces of intelligence, identifying 278 victims and arresting 461 suspects. Eight crime gangs were identified, all of which are now subject to ongoing disruption, and 220 child abduction notices have been issued, warning suspects that they face arrest if they contact children. The professionalism with which Northumbria police conducted Operation Sanctuary has made Newcastle safer. As April’s police and crime panel report put it,
“it is difficult to overstate the positive impact of Sanctuary.”
That was not only because perpetrators were taken off the streets; there was also a recognition that victims would need long-term support provided by various agencies.
I commend my hon. Friend for securing this really important and timely debate, and I join her in commending the actions of Northumbria police and other organisations in Newcastle that have tackled this head-on, but does she share my concern that there appears still to be a lack of understanding among statutory bodies, including Government Departments, about the national strategic response that we need to this horrific crime? More than half the victims in Newcastle were not children but vulnerable adults, and this must be recognised by the Government and on a local level.
I thank my hon. Friend and neighbour for her intervention; that is exactly what I will come on to.
In April 2015, the police, Newcastle City Council, adult and child social care, and key voluntary sector groups, including Changing Lives, Barnardo’s and Bright Futures, came together to establish a multi-agency hub, providing person-centred support to 166 women and girls so far. Newcastle City Council referred to the hub as
“a return to true social work values and innovative practice”.
At the same time, the council commissioned a joint serious case review known as the Spicer report. This report emphasised that the needs of victims are different. Some are children, some are adults, and some experience as children sexual exploitation that continues into adulthood. It pointed out that all of the victims would need ongoing and, in some cases, lifelong support.
The experience of Changing Lives shows that without this support victims are more likely to have contact with homelessness services, domestic abuse services, community rehabilitation companies, the national probation service, the Prison Service, addiction treatment services, children’s social care and others. Basically, without long-term support, these victims of appalling abuse are more likely to have further negative experiences. This is unacceptable and why the hub is so important. The Spicer report praised the hub as an example of good practice and quoted victims as saying:
“The support I have had has been exceptional.”
“The support from the Hub is brilliant.”
“I could not have better support than Sanctuary.”
“Will the Minister be responding directly to the Spicer review’s recommendations?”
I was told:
“The Department is of course aware of that serious case review of the sexual exploitation of children… Like all the agencies involved, we are looking into ways to continuously improve our service.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 637, c. 148.]
He appeared unaware, however, of the point my hon. Friend just made: that the report emphasised that Operation Sanctuary concerned the sexual exploitation of vulnerable females both under and over 18—women and girls—which is key to some of the issues raised.
Since then, I have asked a number of written questions without receiving any useful assurances. Will the current Minister now commit to an official response to the Spicer review, or explain why she is unable to do so? In answers to my questions on
I have also written to the Government about the case of at least one victim denied compensation because of time spent in juvenile detention and have yet to receive a reply. Will the Minister commit to addressing this issue?
I fully support what my hon. Friend is saying. I too have tabled written questions to Ministers and have always been replied to in the context of child sexual exploitation, which completely ignores the fact that many of the victims were adults. Does she also share my concern that Changing Lives’ recent application for tampon tax funding to provide much needed support and adult support services for victims of exploitation has been turned down? Will the Minister commit to reconsidering that application and the work it does to support these very vulnerable victims?
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention.
The Spicer review’s recommendations require funding, but this has been difficult to secure. The sexual exploitation hub previously received £1.7 million through the police innovation fund, but this ran out in March 2017. Since then, funding has been drawn from local sources, with the police, the clinical commissioning group, Newcastle City Council and voluntary organisations enabling its work to continue. The council has provided temporary funding of £250,000, which should last until March 2019, and this includes staffing as well as the council’s contribution to the building and utilities, which is paid for from the social care precept.
It is difficult for the council to plan for the future of the hub when adult social care nationally is chronically underfunded, there is no clarity regarding the long-term funding of adult social care, and there is no information from the Government about what will happen at the end of the current rounds of the adult social care grant, the improved better care fund, and the social care precept. Moreover, the council is under acute pressure because its central Government grant has been slashed in half since 2010. It told me:
“Clearly we are unable to adequately plan for the future when adult social care nationally is chronically underfunded and there is no clarity regarding the long term funding of adult social care”.
Does the Minister expect a council whose budget has already been decimated to fund the hub?
As there is no consensus on whether responsibility for the hub lies with the violence against women and girls agenda, with public health services, or with community safety, police, and police and crime commissioner victim services, there is a risk that it could fall between the cracks. That would be a tragedy, and the Government would rightly be blamed for abandoning vulnerable girls and women. Can the Minister clarify which Department is responsible, and can she commit that Department to working with Newcastle City Council to ensure the long-term survival of the hub? Will she also commit herself to making more funds available, so that the ground-breaking work of the hub can continue to support victims of sexual exploitation in Newcastle?
I always tell people that Newcastle is the best city in the world. For the young women and girls who were victims of terrible sexual exploitation there, it was clearly not the best city in the world, but in their bravery we can see the best of Newcastle, and in the work of the hub that supports them we can see a model that could be successfully transplanted to other cases in other towns and cities. So far in 2018, we have seen further cases of organised groups of men grooming women and girls for the purposes of sexual exploitation in Telford, Stockton and Sheffield. As the Spicer report says, if agencies
“do not recognise sexual exploitation…in their area, it is because they are not looking hard enough.”
However, to bring such support to other areas, and to secure its future in Newcastle, requires money, and it also requires leadership.
Our country can and must be a place of safety and security for girls and young women, and I am immensely saddened that, in my own city, so many did not receive the protection that is their due. We cannot go back in time, but we can change the course of their lives in the future. It would be a betrayal of hideous proportions if we were to fail to do so, given all that they have suffered. Let me ask the Minister my ninth and final question. Will she guarantee to the victims of Operation Sanctuary, and to all my constituents, that in 10 years’ time the same support will be available to them as is available to them today?
I thank Chi Onwurah for securing the debate. She talked not only about the need for support, but about the long-term effects of such disgraceful and unacceptable behaviour to a fellow human being. She has represented her constituency this evening with passion and understanding, but also with a clear determination to ensure that her great city does not see a repetition of these terrible episodes.
I know that this subject is enormously important to Members in all parts of the House. I was glad that Catherine McKinnell intervened on her hon. Friend’s speech, because I have received parliamentary questions from both Members. I will start with an observation that the hon. Lady made, quite properly, about the responses that they had received to questions about the Spicer review and the fact that answers had tended to focus on child sexual exploitation. I very much take that on board, and I apologise. The hon. Lady is right that, sadly, the abuse in Newcastle not only concerned children, which is appalling enough; these defendants appear to have targeted vulnerable people, some of them with learning disabilities. The ruthlessness of the exploitation is almost too much to comprehend. I am therefore grateful to both Members for speaking up tonight.
The details are shocking and we know that vulnerable people were let down by a range of services in Newcastle over many years. I am pleased that the serious case review concluded that local practice has improved tremendously since 2014, but of course the victims and survivors still bear the terrible scars of their abuse.
The Government welcome David Spicer’s comprehensive serious case review. Although it is clear that significant improvements have been made locally, it shows us that Government still have more to do. His recommendations are already informing the way Government work with local commissioners, and we will certainly look at how best to provide advice on supporting vulnerable adult victims of sexual exploitation in addition to child victims. His recommendation that further research be carried out into the perpetrators of this awful abuse will be taken forward through the work of our centre of expertise, which I will discuss in more detail later. It will assess UK and international impacts and evidence for both victims and perpetrators. The report makes many recommendations for central Government action, all of which will be considered as part of our ongoing work.
I will not be able to deal with all of the questions the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central has raised, but I will respond in writing on those I do not respond to tonight. She wishes the Government to respond officially to the report, and I commit to writing to her covering the national recommendations in the review. As she knows, the Government do not usually respond to serious case reviews, but the details of this review are significant enough for me certainly to write to her about it. On the funding of Changing Lives, unfortunately I do not get to make funding decisions, but I will make inquiries about the application that charity made. I am pleased to hear of the work the hub is doing, and I understand that the police and crime commissioner has received £1.56 million plus £116,000 for victims of child sexual abuse. The Ministry of Justice is reviewing long-term funding not just for the hub but for all local and national provision, because we do take on board the point that the victims of these terrible crimes live with the consequences if not forever for very many years and decades.
The Government want to ensure that all victims of sexual exploitation feel that they can come forward to report abuse, and that they can get the support they need. Whether a victim is a child or an adult, the same principle must apply.
This Government have empowered PCCs to deliver services for victims. So in the first instance PCCs must make an assessment of the support needs of all victims in their force area, including children and vulnerable adults alike, and commission services to meet those needs. We are allocating around £68 million to PCCs this year to provide emotional and practical support services for victims of crime, and we have increased the overall victims’ support services budget from around £50 million in 2012-13 to around £96 million in the current financial year.
As I have said, the PCC in Northumbria has been allocated more than £1.5 million of core victim grant to provide support to victims, and additional money to the tune of £116,000 has been allocated to services for victims of child sexual abuse. Of course, the PCC has her own budget from the main grant, and central Government say to PCCs, “You know the needs of your local area and we trust you to make these decisions.” We therefore hope is that if she feels that more funding needs to be allocated, she will be able to do that from the main grant.
We have also provided £250,000 this year to support four rape support centres in Northumbria, including the Grace Project in Newcastle. The Grace Project is one of 15 rape support centres that have opened since 2010 with Government funding. We now support 98 centres directly, helping women, men, boys and girls to begin to recover from the effect of these appalling crimes, and we have committed to maintaining funding for rape support services at the current level until at least 2020.
Our ambition is to support victims and survivors, whoever they are and wherever they are. That is why we have invested £100 million in this spending review period to support our commitment to tackling violence against women and girls, and it is why NHS England has now commissioned 47 sexual assault referral centres in England at a cost of £27 million, including the Teesside SARC, which provides support for victims of sexual violence across the north-east. It is also why we have recently launched the £13 million trusted relationships fund, protecting vulnerable people from sexual exploitation, gang exploitation and peer abuse.
We want to do more, so we are investing £7.5 million in the centre of expertise on child sexual abuse, which will tell us far more about what works, where gaps exist and what more support we can give to professionals and commissioners. It has already published research into local commissioning practice, which will form the basis for a framework for commissioners. The Home Office will publish that framework later this year. It will share good practice and help commissioners to assess need and provide support. We are also piloting the child house model, based on international best practice. In a child house, child victims can receive all the support they need in a single, comfortable environment. We have invested more than £4 million in the first house, which will open its doors in London in the autumn.
Despite all that has been achieved in recent years, we must continue to challenge ourselves to improve the support we provide for victims, not only because the needs of victims change over time but because the nature of crime itself is continually evolving. That is why we are developing a new cross-Government victims strategy, which will comprehensively review how crime has changed and ensure that our response still meets the needs of victims. The strategy will provide a framework for future work and national cross-Government direction. For example, as part of the strategy we are developing a more sustainable funding model for sexual violence support services, so that victims can access the support they need immediately after the crime and throughout every stage of their recovery.
The strategy will consider how we might improve provision of the services that victims are entitled to receive under the victims code. It will also continue to drive improvement in victims’ experience of the criminal justice process. The hon. Lady’s description of the ordeal of victims having to give evidence at trial summed up the need for that very strongly. We must ensure that criminal justice agencies provide victims with a service that is appropriate to their needs and respectful of them as individuals. Victims want cases to be well managed and dealt with swiftly, so that they can deal with the experience and, hopefully, put it behind them. We will consider how the agencies responsible for delivery of those services might be better held to account.
I know the interest of the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North, so I would value a meeting with them and my officials to discuss any thoughts that they may have on how the victims strategy can be improved to cover the points raised in tonight’s debate.
I thank the Minister for giving way, for the tone of her comments and for the way in which she recognises the importance of the issues that I have tried to raise on the behalf of my constituents. I have listened carefully to what she says, and I appreciate the offer of a meeting and the commitment to some sort of response to the Spicer review. However, I get the impression that funding for the hub and the multi-agency approach will come from the police and crime commissioner and potentially the sexual violence support grant as part of any future strategy, or is that something that we can discuss in detail in a meeting?
Could we discuss that in the meeting? We have always tried to ensure that local commissioners are commissioning the services that they feel are needed in their area, but I am happy to hear the hon. Lady’s thoughts on that in the meeting that we will have with my officials.
In conclusion, I thank the hon. Lady once more for securing this important debate. Victims and survivors of the most appalling crimes rely on us, both in government and on both sides of this House, to represent their needs and to ensure that they receive the support to which they are entitled. It will be a privilege to continue to work with colleagues across Government and across the House, and with representatives locally, to ensure that victims in Newcastle and in all areas of England and Wales are heard, are supported and are able to recover.
Question put and agreed to.