Telford Child Sexual Exploitation: Inquiry

– in the House of Commons at 6:53 pm on 5 September 2022.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Andrea Jenkyns.)

Photo of Lucy Allan Lucy Allan Conservative, Telford 6:56, 5 September 2022

It is a privilege to have secured the first Adjournment debate after the summer recess, and I am grateful for this opportunity.

The independent inquiry into child sexual exploitation in Telford reported on its findings on 12 July this year, at a time when Parliament was in some turmoil, so I am particularly grateful to now be able to put on record the findings of that important inquiry and the response of the authorities to those findings.

This inquiry has relevance for every council and every police force, and it marks a turning point in the fight against CSE and the organisational culture and attitudes that for so long have allowed this horrendous crime to pass unnoticed. I am very glad that the Minister is on the Treasury Bench to hear and respond to the debate. I urge her and her officials to read the report, because this is a landmark inquiry and a turning point in this ongoing battle. The Telford inquiry is a testament to the victims and survivors and their families—to their determination and bravery—because it will improve safeguarding across the country, and there are many good people to thank for the role they played.

The inquiry was chaired by Mr Tom Crowther QC. He makes it clear at the outset of his report that inquiries of this kind can drive change only if organisations that are subject to criticism accept the spirit in which the comments are made and view the findings in a way that is self-critical and reflective. It is not enough to say, “Well, this happened a long time ago” or “Our practices have substantially improved.” As Mr Crowther says in his report, in child welfare and safeguarding there is no place for corporate pride; there is no place for reflexive denial, deflection of blame or excessively optimistic statements.

Tom Crowther conducted his work sensitively and thoroughly. His report is measured and balanced, his recommendations constructive and clear. He shows insight into the silence around CSE and the way that authorities, not just in Telford, too often respond when questioned. He tackles, too, the key issues of institutional blindness and complacency and the failure to take CSE seriously.

It was back in the summer recess of 2016 when I first met with CSE campaigners, victims and survivors. I listened to their experiences and offered to help them secure this inquiry, which they felt would give them a voice and would mean that their experience was not just brushed aside and forgotten about so that people could move quietly on to other things. To them, it was an important part of their recovery. These meetings came after a high profile police investigation and successful prosecution known as Operation Chalice. A group of seven men in Telford were jailed for serious sexual offences against young girls, some as young as 13. It was apparent from the work of Operation Chalice that this was not a one-off, and that there were serious underlying problems.

When something has gone wrong, it is understandable that any organisation will feel uncomfortable when practices and procedures are challenged and scrutinised and shortcomings are identified. However, child sexual exploitation is a horrendous crime that affects whole communities and damages young lives. No one in authority charged with responsibility for young people should shy away from improving practice when something has gone horribly wrong, and those that do embrace an inquiry such as this as if it were an opportunity—which, indeed, it is—are to be commended. That is why I welcomed the response of West Mercia police to the inquiry’s findings. Speaking on behalf of West Mercia police on the day the report was published, 12 July, Assistant Chief Constable Richard Cooper said:

“I would like to say sorry. Sorry to the survivors and all those affected by child sexual exploitation in Telford…our actions fell far short of the help and protection you should have had from us, it was unacceptable, we let you down.”

That acknowledgement that mistakes were made is exactly the right way to respond. It is the first step towards accepting that things went wrong. It also makes a huge difference to victims, and provides reassurance that culture and attitudes have changed and new ways of working can be adopted for the future.

Photo of Scott Benton Scott Benton Conservative, Blackpool South

The scale of the abuse suffered by young, vulnerable women in my hon. Friend’s constituency over a number of decades is truly shocking and repugnant, as are the failings on the part of the authorities to which she has alluded, going back years and years. In Telford, Rotherham, Rochdale, Huddersfield, Halifax and countless other places, those vulnerable young women were failed by the authorities because they were too politically correct to call out what was going on. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is high time we had a new approach to dealing with this abhorrent crime, and that all police forces should be required to prioritise its investigation?

Photo of Lucy Allan Lucy Allan Conservative, Telford

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making two important points: first that this happens throughout the country, and secondly that there is much more work to be done. He is also right to emphasise that the role of the police is vital. They can and should view the report by Tom Crowther—the Telford report—as a model to be followed, and note the way in which West Mercia police responded to its findings. That, too, can be a significant learning for many police forces throughout the country.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I commend the hon. Lady. It is hard to listen to stories such as this because they are so heart-rending and personal. I think we all accept that these issues are real for the hon. Lady and her constituency, but, as she has said, they are also real throughout the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Every police force, every authority, every public body can learn from this report. Is it the hon. Lady’s hope that this report will be dispersed across the United Kingdom by the Minister, if that is at all possible, so that all of us, everywhere, can learn for the betterment of the children?

Photo of Lucy Allan Lucy Allan Conservative, Telford

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman—I call him my hon. Friend—who makes exactly the point that I would like the Minister to take away from today’s debate. There is so much learning in the Crowther report that could be disseminated throughout the country.

In his report, Mr Crowther urges all stakeholders to commit to a reflective response, and refers specifically to Telford and Wrekin Council. He observes that the council has shown a reluctance to accept criticism, and goes on to say that its approach has been essentially defensive. He stresses that to foster a culture of openness and learning it is necessary to recognise and admit mistakes; but he found, instead, a long-standing culture of resistance to ever admitting that provision was imperfect. Disappointingly, that is what we saw when the council came to respond to this important report on its publication.

In a very brief statement, which was issued on the date of publication and which no one put their name to, the council did not acknowledge or recognise that any mistakes had been made, and the press release claimed that the inquiry had in fact found that the council had made significant improvements and that, in any event, the council was already carrying out many of the recommendations. The press release did say that it was sorry for the pain and suffering of the victims, but it very specifically did not make any apology for or any mention of the mistakes the council had made. There was no acknowledgement that it could have done things differently and no suggestion that the council had a responsibility for what went wrong. There was repeated reference to the fact that child sexual exploitation was a problem that dates back many years—as long as 30 years in this case—as if to create some kind of distance between what had happened and the people responsible.

Photo of Robbie Moore Robbie Moore Conservative, Keighley

That is infuriating. We must never forget who is at the heart of this: it is the victims and their families who have had these traumatic experiences, and situations have been imposed on them for many years. The report referred to institutional blindness as a key point. Does my hon. Friend share my frustration? In order for us to reinstall trust in those organisations that have failed many of our constituents for a long time, we have to get those authorities to recognise and realise where mistakes have been made. That is why I am frustrated at the council’s response. Does she agree that in order to get to the position of being able to reinstall that trust, we must get our local authorities, including Bradford Council in my constituency, to trigger an inquiry to get to the bottom of the issues to do with child sexual exploitation that have been going on in Keighley and my constituency?

Photo of Lucy Allan Lucy Allan Conservative, Telford

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. He is absolutely right that it is essential that councils not only acknowledge but know what has gone wrong. This happens in lots of institutions, not just councils. Too often it is easy for them to say, “Nothing happened here really,” and to see it through their own eyes rather than view the reality through the eyes of an outsider or, indeed, the victim. My hon. Friend makes a powerful point about the suffering of victims. I do not think that any one of us who has ever spoken to a victim will forget what they have told us. It is an extraordinarily hideous crime—its deviousness, its manipulation and its way of making people do something they do not want to do without even realising that it is happening. It is the most hideous of crimes. I recognise how difficult it is to identify it, but that means that it is all the more important that inquiries such as this happen. It is such a healthy exercise to actually look at what has gone on, examine responses and challenge oneself. It is very difficult to do that on the inside. I think that having an outside, independent person asking these questions in the same balanced, measured and blame-free way as Tom Crowther is vital, and there is scope for many more such learning opportunities in many other areas.

The response of Telford and Wrekin Council was not just a missed opportunity to learn lessons or reassure the community that it knew that things had gone wrong, but a clear indication and evidence of the resistance, the reluctance to accept criticism, the defensiveness and the corporate pride that Mr Crowther references in the inquiry report. It is that same reluctance to be open about shortcomings that created roadblocks to the inquiry taking place in the first place. Although I would not expect any organisation to be enthusiastic about such an inquiry, the resistance to it in this case was clear for all to see.

For two long years, the council gave various reasons why this inquiry was simply not necessary. First, it hid behind the national child abuse inquiry, which it claimed would cover Telford when it did not do so. Then, it said that it was going to cost too much, then that it had a good Ofsted report, and then that there was nothing to see anyway. When the council did finally agree to it, it took another year to appoint a chair, and when it did that, it produced 1.2 million pages of evidence for the inquiry to sift through. That shows that it was not taking seriously its duties to improve its procedures and practices, and that was extremely frustrating. My hon. Friend Robbie Moore mentioned being frustrated. Don’t block it, don’t stop it; just accept it as a learning opportunity and as an opportunity to do things better, because these are children and young people, and this is about lives being ruined. No one should stand in the way of making sure that best practice is in place.

For me, most disheartening of all was the formal response to the inquiry by the leader of Telford and Wrekin Council. The report had said,

“It is…the responsibility of the elected members, particularly the cabinet members, to give direction and to assert priorities;
to determine what is essential and what may be foregone. I have seen…no indication that before 2016, a CSE response was ever regarded as an essential service. I consider that a glaring failure on the part of a generation of Telford’s politicians.”

Having read that in black and white on the printed page, the council leader who joined the cabinet in 2011, far from accepting responsibility and being humble about the shortcomings, in his response talked defensively about how proud he was of Telford, as if there had been criticism of our town—of course, there had not. He talked about the significant improvements, despite the report saying that such progress as there had been was “unconscionably slow”, and he made repeated reference to the way that CSE dated back 30 years. He went on to say that he was only three years old at the time.

CSE is not all in the past. CSE is not something that happened 30 years ago. Forgive my frustration, but we had the same approach—the same institutional denial—with the maternity death scandal at Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital. Before the Ockenden inquiry into maternity negligence, we saw the great and the good reassuring anyone who asked that there was nothing to see here, and that it was all in the past. But it was still happening at that very time, because there was a refusal to accept shortcomings or have any insight into the problems that the organisation faced.

The leader of the council is the corporate parent, the person ultimately responsible for young people in our borough. Instead of saying, “Yes we got it wrong, yes we made mistakes, and yes people suffered as a consequence,” he says, “Well, I was only three years old at the time.”

I am heartened that all stakeholders have committed to implementing all the findings of this important report, and it is my job as Telford’s MP, as the representative of victims and their families and all young people in Telford, to ensure that the recommendations are implemented, and to seek updates on their progress. We all know that it is the perpetrators who are to blame for horrific crimes. It is impossible, however, not to feel a deep sense of sadness and anger about the entrenched culture and attitudes that allowed CSE to go unchecked for so long. I invite the council to do as West Mercia police have done and acknowledge the shortcomings identified in the report, and apologise to victims, families and the community for those failings. I ask all stakeholders in Telford and Wrekin to work together with our community to implement all the inquiry’s recommendations promptly.

I thank Mr Crowther for his excellent work and steadfast determination to get the job done, and all the victims who have worked with me on this issue and who were able to give their evidence to the inquiry. I hope that CSE victims and survivors in Telford and elsewhere feel confident that they are now being taken seriously and together have shone a light on this issue, and that no one anywhere will be complacent about CSE in the future. I know that the Minister will confirm that in her response.

I want to take this chance to thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Rishi Sunak), who at the time we were battling for this inquiry was the local government Minister. Without his help, I wonder whether the inquiry would ever have taken place. I am very grateful to him.

I doubt any of us would have been able to speak out on this issue but for the pioneering work of the inspirational hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion). It was her support that enabled me to keep going to make this inquiry happen, and I commend her on her bravery on holding those responsible to account. It is not an easy job, as I can now say from experience.

I am privileged to be Telford’s MP and to have the platform to speak up for victims. I am grateful that other hon. Members have taken the same opportunity. Together, slowly and bit by bit, standing on the shoulders of those who have gone before us, we will make change really happen.

Photo of Amanda Solloway Amanda Solloway Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) (Minister for Equalities), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department 7:14, 5 September 2022

I thank my hon. Friend Lucy Allan for securing this incredibly important and moving debate. She has worked tirelessly on these issues. Her perseverance has helped to ensure that the report has been published and that the horrendous way in which more than 1,000 children in Telford were failed has been exposed. I am sure that hon. Members will join me in commending her efforts, alongside those of other hon. Members present who are driving change on behalf of victims in constituencies across the country, including my hon. Friends the Members for Keighley (Robbie Moore) and for Blackpool South (Scott Benton). I acknowledge the work of Sarah Champion as well.

The abuse suffered by the many victims in Telford is truly sickening. My thoughts are with them. As has been so shockingly detailed, children were failed over and over again by those who should have protected them. I pay tribute to the victims and survivors in Telford and to all those who have shared their experiences. They have suffered unthinkable ordeals. Sadly, we cannot undo what happened in the past, but what we can and must do is take every possible step to ensure that others are not let down as they were.

The independent inquiry into child sexual exploitation in Telford has produced a thorough and measured assessment of how local services responded to child sexual exploitation as far back as the 1970s. I am grateful to the inquiry for its comprehensive and hard-hitting exposure of the scale of the failures in that response. The inquiry acknowledges that the frontline response of services in Telford has improved in recent years, and it is right that the 47 recommendations made for local frontline services in Telford have been accepted. The mode of offending and the failures of police and other services that are detailed in the report are all too familiar. Shocking though it is, the fact is that what happened in Telford has happened in many other places.

Photo of Sarah Champion Sarah Champion Chair, International Development Committee, Chair, International Development Committee

May I say how much I admire Lucy Allan? She has really battled to get this inquiry, and I know she will keep on battling to get its recommendations imparted.

I ask the Minister about two very specific things. First, I am very glad that pre-charge bail has come back into statute, but it has not really been implemented, which is really hampering ongoing investigations into perpetrators—not least because many have dual nationality, so we do not have the ability to take their passports away.

The other thing is that we are very fortunate in Rotherham because we have the National Crime Agency, but as I realised only very recently, perpetrators who have been brought in for questioning have to come in voluntarily to be charged. I wonder whether the Minister could look into charging powers, particularly in these very challenging cases.

Photo of Amanda Solloway Amanda Solloway Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) (Minister for Equalities), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I thank the hon. Member for her intervention. If I may, given our current situation, I will get back to her on that point.

As the public rightly expect, there have been significant changes in how local authorities and the police safeguard children since the appalling abuse that took place in Rotherham, Oldham and elsewhere across the country was first exposed a decade ago. Recognition of child sexual exploitation has increased significantly in recent years, with individual police forces taking action to improve their responses. The National Police Chiefs’ Council’s lead on the issue, Deputy Chief Constable Ian Critchley, is working to drive up performance nationally. As with any issue relating to public protection and particularly the protection of children, the pursuit of improvement needs to be relentless. We are supporting the police in that effort through investment and thorough strategic impetus.

We are already addressing, at a national level, many of the issues highlighted for the local frontline services in Telford. We are driving up data quality by funding child sexual abuse analysts in every policing region, as well as having made it mandatory since March for police forces to record the ethnicity of those arrested and held in custody because of their suspected involvement in grooming groups.

In July, we published an updated version of our child exploitation disruption toolkit, which highlights the need for police and local agencies to work together to gather and scrutinise data so that they can identify and disrupt offending. In addition, we fund the vulnerability, knowledge and practice programme, which identifies best practice and shares it with all forces. We are ensuring that the complexity and sensitivities of child sexual abuse investigations are understood by policing leaders through the College of Policing’s training for senior officers on issues of safeguarding and public protection.

We are taking steps forward all the time, but we must not lose sight of the fact that things went terribly wrong in the past. Complacency must never be allowed to set in. It has been made abundantly clear to the police that protecting children must always be a top priority. There should be absolutely no doubt that we will keep shining a light on these issues, and where shortcomings are identified, we will take action to address them. That is why Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services has been commissioned to investigate how police forces across England and Wales handle cases of group-based child sexual exploitation. Unlike reviews of historical issues, it will give an up-to-date picture of the quality and effectiveness of forces’ efforts to support victims and bring offenders to justice. We expect the inspection to report by the end of this year.

The failings uncovered in Telford and elsewhere undoubtedly demand a swift and strong local response. The Government are ensuring those lessons are learned right across England and Wales through our strategic national approach. We are working across central and local government, law enforcement and the wider criminal justice system, and we continue to be recognised as a global leader in addressing the threat.

Last year we published the “Tackling Child Sexual Abuse Strategy”, which highlights the vital importance of a joined-up approach and sets out firm commitments to drive action across every part of Government and across all agencies, including education, health, social care, industry, and civil society. More broadly, the “Beating Crime Plan” reaffirms our enduring determination to root out hidden harms and secure justice for victims in these cases. We are delivering on our commitments. We are putting victims and survivors at the centre of our approach, while relentlessly pursuing the perpetrators of these despicable crimes.

Of course, it is not for the police alone to tackle child sexual exploitation and keep children safe from harm. All statutory partners must play their crucial roles. While the inspection into group-based child sexual exploitation is primarily a policing one, we want to include local authorities in the response. The events in Telford have highlighted the importance of an effective multi-agency response. Ensuring close collaboration between key partners is a key part of our strategy.

The Children and Social Work Act 2017 introduced the most significant reforms in a generation, requiring local authorities, clinical commissioning groups and chief officers of police to form multi-agency safeguarding partnerships. All the new partnerships were in place by September 2019. The partnerships have been supported by a Home Office- funded police facilitator, who has engaged with every force in England and Wales to ensure they understand their new responsibilities and are making the most of this opportunity to improve outcomes for children and young people.

In May we welcomed the publication of the independent review of children’s social care, and the national review of the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel. Both reviews make recommendations on improving multi-agency working to strengthen child protection, with a sharp focus on professional expertise.

Victims and survivors have been failed in the past. That is utterly unacceptable. Through increased investment in specialised services, we are determined to ensure that victims and survivors get the help and support they need to rebuild their lives. Services protecting vulnerable children in Telford and Wrekin have been transformed since 2016, thanks to the work of committed social workers and senior leaders. They are now rated “outstanding” by Ofsted and are helping to bring about improvements in other underperforming local authorities to help to protect more families, as sector-led improvement partners.

Nationally, services include the rape and sexual abuse support fund and funding for police and crime commissioners to locally commission vital emotional and practical support services. The support for victims and survivors of child sexual abuse fund also supports voluntary sector organisations to deliver a range of vital national services, such as support lines and counselling, to children, adult survivors and families affected by sexual abuse.

It is also essential that we send a clear and unequivocal message to all victims and survivors that they should come forward and report abuse. All agencies involved in tackling these crimes have a role to play in making that happen. They must strive every day to secure the trust of victims and command the confidence of the wider public.

Photo of Amanda Solloway Amanda Solloway Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) (Minister for Equalities), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

Jess Phillips knows how much respect I have for her, but I will continue, if that is okay.

Across the country, there are many amazing charities doing brilliant work to help victims to rebuild their lives. In my own constituency I have seen at first hand how the charity Safe and Sound transforms lives by providing one-to-one support to victims. I pay tribute to all involved with Safe and Sound and the work they do to support victims, and to other charities that do the same.

In closing, I would like to thank all hon. Members who have contributed to this debate for reminding us who is at the heart of this for all of us. The abuse perpetrated in Telford was sickening. The failings that occurred were shocking. We owe it to the victims there and in every part of the country to ensure that nothing like that ever happens again.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.