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Operation Augusta — [Sir Christopher Chope in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:54 am on 5th February 2020.

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Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Conservative, East Worthing and Shoreham 9:54 am, 5th February 2020

My hon. Friend is absolutely right; there are still serious shortcomings in this case, but I am trying to draw a picture of why things changed nationally and why there are grounds for optimism, although one would not believe it to look at this report.

The report needs to lead to further investigation into the culpability of the perpetrators and the people who failed to identify and do something about them. Back in 2011, the Government produced the first comprehensive child sexual exploitation plan. I launched it, together with Barnardo’s, and worked with other agencies. It made it clear that that sort of CSE was going on in all parts of society and all parts of our country; it is not just a preserve of northern metropolitan cities such as Manchester. It happens in all parts of town; it is not something that just happens to those sorts of people in a different part of town. It happened to the children of doctors, lawyers and other professionals from all walks of life. The shocking images of gang members started to appear in the newspaper, and people started to wake up to it.

What really caused that sea change was the Jimmy Savile scandal the following year. It became a different world. From October 2012, most people in this country came to realise what child sexual exploitation actually was, and that it was happening. Awareness rose hugely. It was widespread throughout all sorts of society: in the health service, in education, in children’s homes, in the Church of England—I refer to the recent exposure about Bishop Peter Ball. Again, the police just shoved it under the carpet and did not properly pursue it. It happened in politics, with Cyril Smith and Operation Midland, where there were serious shortcomings—that will be the subject of further debate in this House in due course. It was happening in Rotherham, Oxford, Cornwall, Rochdale, Telford and so on. That led to the historic child abuse inquiry, which is still undertaking its huge job of work.

The question is: have things changed? Have the police, and all agencies, got wiser to detecting and taking seriously allegations of child sexual abuse? Have mindsets changed since 2004? The people who should have been looking after vulnerable children were just not; they were questioning whether anything serious was happening to them. Back in 2004 we were focused on cases such as that of Victoria Climbié. We had just had the Laming review. Abuse of children was largely down to carers inflicting violence on vulnerable children. The whole business of gangs and sexual exploitation was not on the radar. Some seven or eight years later, that very much came on to the radar.

What has changed—I saw this in my time as Children’s Minister and subsequently—is that now every single police officer is trained to identify child sexual exploitation. We have better joint working between agencies, although it is still not nearly good enough—I have serious concerns about the successors to the local safeguarding children boards properly joining up all the local interested parties. More cases are coming to court. Indeed, some 50% of cases going through the courts at the moment are to do with historical and contemporary sexual abuse. The problem is that far too little is ending up in prosecutions, particularly for contemporary sexual abuse and rape. It is still a big problem in this country.

I would like to finish with some of the statistics. Last year something like 104,000 children went through the care system in this country. It was estimated by an all-party group led by our former colleague Ann Coffey, who did a lot of very good work, that 11,500, or 11%, went missing at some stage. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children estimates that a child is abused in this country every seven minutes. There were some 76,000 reported sexual offences—a record level and a big rise over recent years—and 20% of those relate to children under the age of 10. That is down to better reporting and better police recording, but also to the fact that it is still a problem and we are not doing enough about it. It is also to do with children in the care system not being properly looked after.

Too many children are excluded from school— 42 children a day are permanently excluded from school and 410 are on fixed-term exclusions. They end up in gang and knife culture and become vulnerable to predators. Back in 2011-12 we produced heat maps of where children should be placed. Senior police officers and heads of schools from Kent, where a disproportionate number of children in care are placed—largely from London boroughs—came to see me. They told me that they were seriously worried about being overwhelmed by children in the care system who were not properly looked after and were placed in wholly inappropriate areas. We had cases of children being placed in children’s homes on the same streets as sex offender hostels.

We changed the regulations so that where children are placed out of the area of the local authority responsible for them, the director of children’s services will be responsible for a risk assessment of whether the place is appropriate and safe—not just whether the house was okay, but whether the area was okay. Still, 41% of children across the care system are placed out of area. In the case of going to children’s homes, that is over two thirds. Those heat maps are still not being properly enforced. That is part of the reason why too many of our children are still vulnerable.

My plea is that we learn the lessons. We need to know why people were not brought to account, and they still need to be brought to account. Are perpetrators still out there who could be prosecuted? What are we doing for the victims—those children who are still suffering the trauma of having gone through their experiences, which have been brought up again by the publication of this report? Are we properly looking after their interests? What are we doing now to ensure that those vulnerable children are properly looked after by agencies who get it? Agencies must know the extent of the problem, know what they have to do and act together in the best interests of the welfare of those children, so that tragic cases such as Victoria’s never happen again.