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Operation Augusta — [Sir Christopher Chope in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:48 am on 5th February 2020.

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Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department 10:48 am, 5th February 2020

I thank the hon. Member for her intervention. I am sure that my ministerial colleague will be happy to hear her response and discuss it, perhaps at greater length, if there are specific concerns. Obviously the independent review is independent and will scope its own research as it sees fit and appropriate, so the Government are loth to potentially duplicate that. Moreover, the point of having an independent review is to hear the view of an independent source, rather than its being the Home Office as such that is commissioning research. Certainly we would be more than happy to engage perhaps a little bit further than we will be able to do in the remaining six minutes of this debate, if she has particular concerns.

The victims and survivors of these crimes demonstrate enormous courage and strength in coming forward, reporting what is happening to them and sharing their experiences. In some cases, they have to relive those experiences to share them. For too long, the police and other agencies treated vulnerable children and young people as a problem. As my hon. Friend Tim Loughton said, they referred to them as “child prostitutes”, when there is no such thing—there is a child being seriously abused.

The victims’ voices were not heard, children were left unprotected and predators were left to continue to abuse those most vulnerable in our society. I want to make it clear that we will not accept that now. Children and young people rely on both Government and local partners for safeguarding and support. It is therefore our duty to protect them from these appalling crimes. Their voices must be heard. We must recognise abuse for what it is and treat victims with empathy and respect, not doubt and suspicion.

The Government have driven change in the way that these crimes are responded to, and it is right that child sexual abuse is now prioritised as a national threat. We are clear that, when victims come forward to report abuse, they should expect every effort to be made to bring offenders to justice. One point I share with the shadow Minister relates to the idea that resources were reprioritised or investigations ended; it is almost impossible to think what could be more important than preventing children from suffering serious sexual offences. What could be more important than that?

The Home Office has therefore provided support through its police special grant fund for investigations relating to child sexual exploitation in Rotherham, north Wales, west Yorkshire and other areas. In response to the shadow Minister’s point, we would of course consider any application that came forward from Greater Manchester as well. We are changing the way police respond to crimes against vulnerable people, including child sexual abuse. As part of this, we have worked with the College of Policing to draw up a comprehensive package of training to ensure the police are better placed to respond to child protection issues. We are also funding the Vulnerability Knowledge and Practice programme to develop policing best practice in response to vulnerability as a whole.

Yet, as has been touched on, keeping children safe is not just the job of the police. We have also changed the way police and other agencies work together to ensure an effective response in safeguarding children. The Children and Social Work Act 2017 introduced the most significant reforms in a generation, ensuring that police, health and local authority partners within an area work together to protect vulnerable children. We have also introduced joint targeted inspections of local agencies’ performance in protecting children from threats such as child exploitation. Effective multi-agency working is recognised as the foundation for success.

In 2019, the Government launched a new tackling child exploitation support programme to help safeguarding partners in local areas to tackle a range of threats to children from gangs, sexual and criminal exploitation, online grooming, trafficking and modern slavery. We have already seen some effective multi-agency working, such as the Home Office-funded Lighthouse in London. This ground-breaking service is based on international best practice and under one roof provides child-friendly, victim-centred, multi-agency support to child victims of sexual abuse.

However, we must go further and deprive predators of the opportunity to abuse and exploit our children in the first place. That is why, as part of our efforts to prevent abuse and exploitation, we have launched the Trusted Relationships fund. The fund supports local authority-led projects across England, working with 10 to 17-year-olds identified as being at risk of child sexual abuse or exploitation, criminal exploitation or peer-on-peer abuse, to build their resilience and strengthen their relationships with the trusted adults in their lives. As part of that, more than £1 million will be awarded to Greater Manchester for the four-year programme. The Home Office has also provided funding support for a regional network of exploitation prevention officers, who are helping local partners to join up, spot the signs of abuse and intervene early to safeguard vulnerable children. It is our priority to ensure that all victims and survivors believe they can come forward to report abuse and get the assistance they need.

That is why we have increased grant funding for victim support services across the country: in this financial year, the Government are providing more than £7 million of funding for non-statutory organisations supporting victims and survivors of child sexual abuse, and in September the Government announced an additional £5 million of funding for separate specialist sexual violence support services, including £1 million towards recruiting more independent sexual violence advisers, who play such a critical part in supporting victims through the criminal justice process. The Government have also increased spending from £31 million in 2018 to a planned £39 million in 2020-21 to improve services and pathways for survivors and victims of sexual violence and abuse who seek support from sexual assault referral centres.

While we can and must do more, it is important that we acknowledge how far we have come in the years since the closure of Operation Augusta and recognise the improvements in how police forces and other agencies deal with these crimes. Inspection reports tell us that professionals’ understanding of vulnerability has improved and there is now a real emphasis on the safeguarding and protection of vulnerable children across England and Wales.

On 4 September 2019, the Government announced an additional £30 million to safeguard children from child sexual exploitation and abuse, increasing funding for cutting-edge technology and making available the best intelligence and law enforcement capabilities, which will enable police officers to target offenders and provide more support to victims. Later this year, the Government will publish a national strategy, the first of its kind, to tackle all forms of child sexual abuse. Our new strategy will set out our whole-system response and how we will work across Government, law enforcement, safeguarding partners and industry to root out offending.

I thank the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton once more for securing this debate. Vulnerable children, victims and survivors of these appalling crimes, rely on us, both in Parliament and in local communities, to represent their needs and ensure they receive the support to which they are entitled. As a Government, we will continue to work tirelessly across all Departments to tackle child sexual abuse in all its forms.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered Operation Augusta.