Child Sexual Exploitation by Organised Networks

– in Westminster Hall at 4:30 pm on 23rd February 2022.

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Photo of Sarah Champion Sarah Champion Chair, International Development Committee, Chair, International Development Committee 4:30 pm, 23rd February 2022

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse report on child sexual exploitation by organised networks.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms McVey, and I know that you take a keen interest in the topic.

“Children are sexually exploited by networks in all parts of England and Wales in the most degrading and destructive ways. Each of these acts is a crime. This investigation has revealed extensive failures by local authorities and police forces to keep pace with the pernicious and changing problem of the sexual exploitation of children by networks.”

Those are not my words, but the conclusion of the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse. The inquiry published its report on child sexual exploitation by organised networks, also known as grooming gangs, on 1 February this year. It followed two years of hearing and evidence gathering, of which I was proud to be a core participant. The report paints a grim picture and describes a culture that forces survivors of child sexual exploitation to fight to be believed. Those who were heard were made to feel as though they had brought the exploitation on themselves.

If the abuse was prosecuted, the victims had to relive their trauma in court, where they were brutalised by an adversarial process that lacked the empathy to support them. I thank the brave survivors and victims who shared their experience with us during the public hearings; I cannot imagine how difficult it must have been. Their experiences were so similar to those of the survivors that I know in Rotherham. It was incredibly powerful to hear about the clear and organised pattern of abuse nationally, but also so frustrating to hear that the same failings by authorities to protect and prosecute occurred all over the country.

Photo of Debbie Abrahams Debbie Abrahams Labour, Oldham East and Saddleworth

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and on all the work she has done on the issue over many years. I wonder if she is as concerned as I am about the online abuse that our children are exposed to? Even today, we are hearing about children having explicit images forwarded to them, and we also hear how social media is used to co-ordinate those gangs. Does she think that the draft Online Safety Bill will deliver and protect our children online?

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

My hon. Friend raises a very pertinent point, and I commend her for the work that she has done to try and prevent this hideous crime. She is right that the initial stages of grooming are now almost exclusively happening online. Today I was with the Minister for School Standards talking about that, because the Department for Education’s teaching around grooming still features someone going up to a child in a park with a bottle of alcohol and does not tackle social media. My hon. Friend is right to raise that and the online harms Bill must reflect it.

The inquiry took thousands of hours, costing millions of pounds and effectively reached the same recommendations that I and others have been raising in Parliament for years—and that relate to what survivors have been saying for decades. However, in that time, little has actually changed. CSE is still flourishing, and abusers still seem to flout the law with impunity. The Government must now take decisive action to empower local authorities and law enforcement to protect children from exploitation.

The report makes six key recommendations that provide clear actions for Government to take. I urge the Minister to act urgently to implement them in full to prevent further horrific abuse. First, the criminal justice system’s response to CSE by organised gangs must be strengthened. The law must recognise the particular nature of sexual offences where a child is exploited by two or more people. The Government must swiftly amend the Sentencing Act 2020 to provide a mandatory aggravating factor in the sentencing of such cases. Secondly, the Minister should publish an enhanced version of the child exploitation disruption toolkit as soon as possible. The Government recognised the need to do that in their tackling child sexual exploitation and abuse strategy over a year ago, but the updated toolkit is yet to be published.

The toolkit needs to make clear that the core element of the definition of child sexual exploitation is that a child was controlled, coerced, manipulated or deceived into sexual activity. Currently, English statutory guidance defines child sexual exploitation as requiring some sort of “exchange” between the perpetrator and the victim. Barnardo’s and the IICSA report agree that exploitation does not necessarily involve exchange, financial advantage or an increase in status, not least because it implies collaboration by that child. The toolkit must reflect the fact that, both to recognise the true nature of the crime and to shift from victim-blaming, the definition must be updated.

The Government must also give agencies clear guidance on building effective problem profiles for CSE that are separate from other forms of exploitation. Problem profiling draws information about child sexual exploitation from different agencies together in one place. That process should enable agencies to understand fully the nature and the extent of CSE, and to commission services, train staff and prioritise action.

Clearer guidance on the types of data that agencies should use, and on how frequently profiles should be updated, will lead to a more accurate picture of the full scale and nature of CSE. That would enable more effective action to be taken to prevent harm and to stop organisations from protecting their data rather than protecting the child.

The third recommendation is that the Department for Education should update its guidance on CSE. It needs to reflect accurately what constitutes exploitation, the significant online threats faced by children today and the prevalence of networks of offenders.

Fourthly, all updated national guidance must make it clear that signs that a child is being sexually exploited must never be treated as an indication that a child is only at risk of experiencing that harm. Local authorities must ensure that assessments of risk and harm clearly differentiate between potential harm and actual harm. Too often, victims are already being sexually exploited, but they are incorrectly categorised as merely being at risk so little action is taken to protect them.

Fifthly, police force and local authorities must collect data on all cases of known or suspected child sexual exploitation. Accurate data about CSE cases, including the sex, ethnicity and disability of both the victims and the perpetrators, will help to identify patterns of CSE offending, particularly where those offences are committed by organised networks. That data also helps police forces to take more offensive action to disrupt and investigate offenders.

Finally, the Department for Education must ban the placement in unregulated care homes of all children who have experienced or who are at heightened risk of experiencing sexual exploitation. The evidence before the inquiry identified grave concerns about the capacity of unregulated care homes to safeguard properly children placed in their care. Sixteen and 17-year-olds should never be left in B&Bs where perpetrators have 24-hour access to them. All children are inherently vulnerable and must be protected from abusers who seek to take advantage.

Although I am pleased that many of my recommendations were included in the final report, it is disappointing to see that some of the key ones were not included.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Conservative, East Worthing and Shoreham

I declare my interest as recorded in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I congratulate the hon. Lady on all the work that she has done over so many years and I am sure that she shares with me a sense of déjà vu that a problem that we were talking about five years ago or 10 years ago persists. I remember launching the child sexual exploitation action plan back in 2011 and many of the things in that plan are things that she repeats now. Why does she think that despite the hugely enhanced awareness of CSE, which went on in the shadows before, and better training for and awareness among the police and other professionals, it is still going on, and that people still think they can get away with it and do get away with it?

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

I am blessed to be in a Chamber with people who have campaigned for decades on the issue and made changes; the hon. Gentleman is certainly one of them. To be quite blunt, I think the reason it still goes on is that it is too expensive to deal with, and too endemic, and people have just washed their hands of it. I cannot express how much it upsets me to say that, but it is the only conclusion that I can draw, namely that it is too expensive to look after these children properly.

I made recommendations that the inquiry did not take up. One was that local authorities must take urgent steps to improve the access to CSE support systems for children from ethnic minority communities. That requires the Government to mandate that institutions dealing with CSE incorporate an understanding of the range of cultural or ethnic backgrounds into the services they offer. It is deeply disappointing that the IICSA report made no recommendations on the specific issue of CSE among ethnic minority communities, despite that and the lack of cultural-specific services being a major and systemic problem.

Next, the Government cannot accept that the court proceedings must, by their nature, further brutalise victims of abuse, by forcing them to relive their trauma in repeated interactions with the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and again in court. Of course, justice must be served, but how is justice served if victims and survivors are too afraid of the legal system to come forward or give evidence? I hope that the upcoming victims Bill will provide the desperately needed changes in those areas. I strongly encourage Ministers to continue to engage with me, MPs and organisations that work in the sector, to finally get this right.

Photo of Rushanara Ali Rushanara Ali Labour, Bethnal Green and Bow

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and for all the work she has done over many years. Does she agree that the pressures on the court system mean that the situation will be even more challenging? It will mean even more problems for victims and those who are trying to support them. Will the Minister address the point about what she is doing with the relevant Ministries to ensure that the legal system is not failing victims of child sexual abuse, after the horrific experiences they have faced?

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

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. Rape figures were recently issued by the CPS and prosecutions are even lower than they were. In a number of cases that have not gone forward to prosecution, the victims have been blamed for disengaging with the process when the process is adversarial and they do not get the support they need to protect them from people who are largely still out in their communities. It shocks me; the whole system is wrong, and I fully support my hon. Friend’s campaign to address it.

Abusers commit horrific crimes, but we will not secure convictions unless victims and survivors are thoroughly supported throughout the criminal process. I know that the Minister is committed to tackling child abuse. I hope she agrees today that the Government will accept and implement the findings of the IICSA report. But, to be blunt, warm words mean nothing when children are still being harmed.

To highlight that, I have two local examples where I need the Minister’s help. For the past four years, Barnardo’s in Rotherham has been working, through the trusted relationships project, to support children who are vulnerable to sexual and criminal exploitation. It provides direct, one-to-one support for children and wider support for their families, and carries out awareness-raising sessions for groups of pupils in schools, as well as providing training and resources across Rotherham. However, its funding from the Home Office is due to end on 31 March. The loss of contract will mean that the four team members will have to close 35 children’s cases, and will not be able to go into schools and community groups to deliver work or do assemblies on CSE, child criminal exploitation and healthy relationships.

Photo of Gill Furniss Gill Furniss Shadow Minister (Transport)

I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate and for all the work she has done over the years. I praise Barnardo’s, which has been doing a fabulous job. That funding cut would be morally reprehensible of the Government, and would leave even more children vulnerable. It would be brilliant if the Minister could reassure our hon. Friend that that funding will remain.

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

I thank my hon. Friend, who I know does a lot of work in her community. Barnardo’s, 25 years before anyone really acknowledged child sexual exploitation was a thing, was trying to prevent it. It is deeply naive to believe it is not a current crime in Rotherham, when there are more than 300 identified abusers on whom the National Crime Agency has enough evidence to take them to court, but there is no court capacity. We need help, Minister, not funding cuts at this point.

The next thing that I want to raise is the case of—and I use this word loosely—Lord Ahmed, who recently received a custodial sentence of five years and six months for two counts of attempted rape of a young girl and one for the serious sexual assault of a boy in Rotherham in the 1970s. This man is not a hereditary peer. He was given the honour in 1998 by the then Labour Government, but we threw him out of the party almost a decade ago. In 2020, the Lords Conduct Committee found that he had breached the code of conduct by sexually assaulting a vulnerable woman and exploiting her both emotionally and sexually. The Committee recommended that he be expelled from the House, but instead—

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Conservative, Tatton

Order. Just in case this is sub judice at the moment—

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

The Lords Committee recommended that he be expelled from the House, but he stepped down to avoid the humiliation. The Government now need to do their duty and introduce legislation to remove his title. It is an insult to his victims, to all survivors and to justice that that does not happen automatically, so I urge the Minister to correct the situation as soon as is practicably possible.

Child sexual exploitation is not inevitable. It must be stopped, and we all must do everything in our power to make that happen.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Conservative, Tatton

Many Members want to speak, and I am looking at time limits. We will get to the Front-Bench speakers at about 5.10 pm, so we will start with a three-minute limit. If need be, I will reduce it to two minutes.

Photo of Pauline Latham Pauline Latham Conservative, Mid Derbyshire 4:46 pm, 23rd February 2022

It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Ms McVey, and I do not intend to detain the House for long.

I congratulate Sarah Champion on all the work she has done over many years to highlight the problem, and on being like a terrier and never letting it go. Her tenacity and determination on child sexual exploitation is completely unparalleled, and I am proud to stand alongside her in raising the issue in the House. I have seen her determination both in relation to the awful cases of child abuse that took place in Rotherham and internationally through our work together on the International Development Committee, which she chairs. She has rightly held the Government’s feet to the fire, and I am sure the Minister will join me in acknowledging that that sort of parliamentary pressure is exactly what is needed to ensure that our national institutions, such as the police and local authorities, perform their functions correctly. I thank the hon. Member for securing the debate and would like to reiterate a few points, as we have very little time.

I welcome the report of the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse, which was published at the beginning of the month. It focuses on the sexual exploitation of children by those networks and is a powerful and important report. Although it focuses on six case study areas, it acknowledges that child sexual exploitation by networks or organised groups takes place all over the country. It is not an issue specific to one area; rather, it is widespread. We must be as much on the lookout for such conduct in Derby as anywhere mentioned in the report. We know that because, before the Rotherham case was discovered, we had Operation Retriever in Derby, which was a very similar situation to all the others throughout the country.

Keeping children safe is one of the most important duties of lawmakers, and it is precisely for that reason that I introduced the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Bill, which will protect children from marriage. I do not want to confuse child marriage with child sexual exploitation, because they are not really connected, but the fact that my Bill is needed shows there is a long way to go on child safeguarding in this country. I have worked closely with both the safeguarding Minister, my hon. Friend Rachel Maclean, and the victims Minister, my hon. Friend Tom Pursglove, during the progress of the Bill. I know that they are deeply committed to the protection of children, particularly vulnerable children, so I know that they will be as concerned as I am about the report’s findings.

Photo of Florence Eshalomi Florence Eshalomi Labour/Co-operative, Vauxhall 4:50 pm, 23rd February 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend Sarah Champion for securing this powerful debate.

The findings of the report are damning and must act as a catalyst for change in our safeguarding procedures. The report finds that children are being exploited by networks in all parts of England and Wales. It also highlights extensive failures of local authorities, police forces and other public bodies as they struggle to keep pace with the changing nature of sexual exploitation of children.

When I read through the report, it struck a chord with me because of the striking similarities with the problems that I encountered in my work on child criminal exploitation. I will use my speech to highlight the need to ensure that the solutions to the problems raised in the inquiry recognise the full spectrum of abuse that vulnerable young people are sadly still at risk of suffering.

This topic is close to my heart and, sadly, features too much in my work as an MP representing an inner-London constituency. Child criminal exploitation is sadly not a new phenomenon. For many years, gangs have exploited, coerced and forced vulnerable young people into their illegal activities. I think it is fair to say that for many years, practitioners, police and local authorities thought that the issue affected only young boys, but the harsh reality is that children from every community and every background can be groomed by criminals for activities such as county lines.

Some vulnerable young people who become victims of criminal exploitation have chaotic backgrounds. That makes them vulnerable to grooming and child sexual exploitation by older men—sometimes family members and peers—who are already involved in county lines. The covid pandemic has shown that those criminals will stop at nothing to continue exploiting our young people, who are often so vulnerable. The role played by girls and young women in such activities often goes below the radar, and the fact that the data is so patchy is really concerning. The invisibility of gang-associated girls has dire consequences. Although I do not have time to go into that today, the sexual exploitation is masked by criminal activities, often at the hands of male perpetrators.

We have to ensure that we tackle and address such exploitation. I hope the Minister and the Government will respond to those clear recommendations, which will help us to address the problem. Will the Minister commit to solutions based on the reality of what we are dealing with and, instead of labelling those young people as “victims”, recognise that they are “victims of crimes”? Will she ensure that my vulnerable constituents do not continue to suffer, end up in prison and, in some cases, tragically lose their lives?

Photo of Robbie Moore Robbie Moore Conservative, Keighley 4:53 pm, 23rd February 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I thank Sarah Champion for securing this important debate following the publishing of the independent report on child sexual exploitation by organised networks, which was released earlier this month.

Although I welcome the report, it absolutely fills me with fear—fear about what our communities are experiencing, and fear that that horrific crime is not being tackled with the severity that it deserves. In my view, the report, which I have read in detail, actually asks more questions than it answers. That illustrates that this issue is not being tackled with the progress and the urgency that it deserves. There is still a real lack of understanding about the complexities of this horrific crime. Victims and their families are still being left with no trust whatever in the organisations that should be there to protect them: the local authorities, our children’s protection service and the police forces.

Six areas were covered by the report—Durham, Swansea, Warwickshire, St Helens, Tower Hamlets and Bristol—but the Bradford district was not included. I have been so vehemently encouraging an independent Rotherham and Jay-style report to be undertaken for the Bradford district. It is nearly 20 years since my predecessor, Ann Cryer, publicly talked about this with such passion, calling out the issue for what it was in the Keighley area, talking about grooming gangs and identifying that it was a minority of Pakistani Muslim men, predominately within my constituency, who were targeting young children. Of course, it is unfair for members of that community to be branded with the same accusation.

I regret to say that in the time since Ann Cryer raised these concerns, nothing has really changed. Last summer, a limited and light review was released in the Bradford district that focused on only five children who had been sexually exploited over the last 20 years, which is just the tip of the iceberg. We all know what is going on: this report concludes what we have all been talking about, yet nothing is being done.

I urge the Government to put pressure on local leaders who have responsibility, such as Susan Hinchcliffe, the leader of Bradford Metropolitan District Council, and our new Mayor of West Yorkshire, to get behind my campaign to have a Rotherham-style inquiry, specifically focused on the child sexual exploitation that has been going on for far too long within the Bradford district, so we can get to grips with this issue once and for all.

Photo of Marie Rimmer Marie Rimmer Labour, St Helens South and Whiston 4:56 pm, 23rd February 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms McVey.

Child sexual abuse is the greatest horror that exists in our country. For too long it has been ignored. There has been report after report, debate after debate—I think they are used for swatting flies, because nothing seems to happen.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend Sarah Champion, not only for securing this debate but for her tireless campaigning for years on this issue.

The perpetrators of these crimes are evil, twisted and pathetic individuals working together in gangs. They target children with disabilities or children in care. Through no fault of their own, such children are more vulnerable, and the report sets out that these are the two indicators of heightened vulnerability to child sexual abuse. The Government should be doing all they can to support such children, not just to save them from the evil abuse discussed today but to give them better life chances.

In my constituency, we have a lot of children in care, not just local children. Many children have been relocated from other areas of the country, and they are sometimes as far as 200 miles away from their homes. These children from other areas often get placed in unregulated homes or exempted properties. It happens because of the cheaper housing available in the north, which is bought for this very purpose. Councils that are having their budgets consistently cut and areas with skyrocketing house prices see that there is no other choice but to place children out of borough, without support, often miles away. All too often, they are unsupported and exploited.

As the report shows, out-of-area persons are most at risk, with these children moved away from any support networks that were previously available to them. Evil perpetrators follow them to their new areas. The Government need to step in and resource the people with responsibility at local level. They need funding and quality accommodation to keep the children in their own locality, if that is the right place for them to be. Councils should always have the necessary funding to place these children in regulated, supported care.

One of the most shocking findings in this report is that a third of child sexual abuse cases involve disability. Predators select such children as their victims, some of whom do not have language skills so they cannot describe what is happening to them. It is calculated, twisted and evil. I support the recommendations in the report, but would go further and say that no child should be placed in unregulated, unsupported accommodation.

The Government need to step their act up on this, and treat the children with the respect and care they should be rightfully afforded. Yes, there are mistakes at local level, but there are not the resources to provide the accommodation that is needed.

Photo of Alexander Stafford Alexander Stafford Conservative, Rother Valley 4:59 pm, 23rd February 2022

I thank Sarah Champion for securing this debate.

Child sexual abuse is an issue of the greatest importance to my constituents in Rother Valley given the atrocities that took place in Rotherham. We must learn the lessons of the past in Rotherham and implement the recommendations of the independent inquiry’s report fully and without delay. One recommendation is that the Government should publish an enhanced version of their child exploitation disruption toolkit, update guidance on child sexual exploitation, including the identification and response to child sexual exploitation perpetrated by networks or groups, and improve the categorisation of risk and harm by local authorities.

It is clear that we need to strengthen the criminal justice system in cases of child sexual abuse, and we need better identification of and response to abuse by local authorities. My courageous constituent Sammy Woodhouse, a survivor of Rotherham CSE, has been campaigning to pass Sammy’s law, which would pardon child sexual abuse victims for crimes they were coerced into committing as a result of their abuse, removing those crimes from their criminal record. I think we should look at that. Furthermore, the Government must introduce a child criminal and sexual exploitation commissioner to address child abuse of a sexual, physical and mental nature, tackling criminal exploitation, trafficking, modern slavery and forced labour by gangs and individuals.

We must also establish a statutory definition of child criminal exploitation, which would send a strong message that children who are forced to commit crimes are victims rather than criminals and empower authorities to tackle child exploitation effectively and decisively. A key part of the recommendations is that police forces and local authorities must collect specific data on sex, ethnicity and disability in all cases of known or suspected child sexual exploitation, including by networks. A key factor of the horror show in Rotherham was that local agencies turned a blind eye to the sexual abuse of young predominantly white girls by hundreds of men of predominantly Pakistani heritage.

An Independent Office for Police Conduct investigation found that in Rotherham, police ignored the sexual abuse of children for decades for fear of increasing “racial tensions”, while council employees and whistleblowers were cowed for revealing the truth by accusations of racism. Time and again the issue was raised with Rotherham Council and South Yorkshire police at all levels. However, the victims and concerned parties were ignored and even vilified. We must collect a breakdown of data on offenders and victims, as ethnic considerations and political sensibilities must never again serve as an excuse to cover up and ignore such hideous crimes.

It is clear to everyone present that the independent inquiry’s report is a vital tool in the fight against child sexual exploitation in our communities, and we must now fully action the recommendations with urgency and great vigour. I urge the Minister to help increase sentencing for perpetrators of these horrific crimes.

Photo of Kim Leadbeater Kim Leadbeater Labour, Batley and Spen 5:02 pm, 23rd February 2022

I welcome the opportunity to take part in this debate on a deeply traumatic but very important subject, which cannot and should not ever be ignored. I thank my hon. Friend Sarah Champion for her ongoing work on CSE and for the bravery and commitment she has shown in tackling the subject over a number of years. I know that it has not been easy.

As the IICSA report states, despite receiving a welcome higher profile in recent years, some of the processes in place to identify and deal with child sexual exploitation have created an institutional hesitancy to intervene and take the necessary action to protect children and catch perpetrators. We cannot be hesitant in addressing the issue, and any denial about the scale of child sexual exploitation either nationally or locally must be challenged.

Sadly, child sexual exploitation is not unique to any part of the country or to any community. West Yorkshire police recently charged 42 people with non-recent offences—many of them from my constituency of Batley and Spen. A further 29 individuals have been arrested. I agree with detectives in Kirklees when they urge victims to come forward, knowing that they will be listened to and that the matters they report will be fully investigated by specialist officers. If we are to treat this issue with the seriousness it demands, we must provide additional resources to the police and to social services to investigate historical cases, so that that does not come at the expense of investigating current cases.

Offenders will go where they think children are most vulnerable and open to manipulation, so more national support is needed to help identify perpetrators and victims of online grooming. Justice delayed is justice denied. Currently victims have to wait too long for cases to come to trial. That adds enormous stress during what is already another hugely challenging time for them and it prevents them from getting on with their lives, so the backlog of cases must be dealt with as a matter of urgency. Once the trial is over, victims and survivors should not be left unsupported. Effective long-term post-trial resources need to be put in place within the health and social care systems.

To help communities that have been affected, and where suspects and perpetrators come from, to understand the issues, we need more education programmes and community projects to support both the survivors of CSE and the families of perpetrators and those who are accused of these crimes—an often overlooked group who face their own traumatic and life-changing experiences, though in a very different way. There have been many failings in cases of CSE, and that is simply not acceptable. Although I do feel reassured by the conversations I have had with West Yorkshire police and Kirklees Council during my relatively short time in office that they will leave no stone unturned in their investigations into CSE, we must all continue to work hard to ensure that we learn from the mistakes of the past, and build on the work of the independent inquiry and the Truth Project to find and prosecute the perpetrators and support all survivors of these heinous crimes.

Photo of Lucy Allan Lucy Allan Conservative, Telford 5:05 pm, 23rd February 2022

It is a pleasure to be called to speak in this very important debate, Ms McVey. I thank Sarah Champion for all she has done, and also Professor Alexis Jay OBE for all her work on this national inquiry. In her words:

“Any denial of the scale of child sexual exploitation—either at national level or locally…must be challenged.”

It is that issue that I want to talk about today.

Seven years ago when I became an MP, victims came to me and said that they wanted to be heard. They said that they wanted people to know what had happened to them, and they wanted a local inquiry into what happened in Telford. The response of the authorities was, “There’s nothing to see here now. It is all in the past; we have learnt the lessons.” In fact, what shocked me at the time and is even more shocking today is that the council leader used his position—his local power—to prioritise protecting the reputation of the council. The council published on its website an open letter to the Home Secretary, setting out why no CSE inquiry was needed in Telford, and arranged for 10 important men to sign that letter. It was signed by the council leader, the chief executive of the council, the director of children’s services, the cabinet member for children’s services, the chair of the safeguarding board, the chief officer of the health board, and even West Mercia’s police and crime commissioner. To be clear, the very people who should have prioritised protecting young women and girls in Telford signed a letter saying, “There is nothing to see here now.”

At that time, those 10 men had not met a victim of CSE. Most of them are no longer in post, and I am grateful for that. The council leader, Councillor Shaun Davies—who will not mind a namecheck, as he has never been averse to self-publicity—was using political power to silence vulnerable, powerless women and girls: my constituents, victims of CSE who wanted their voices heard. I pay tribute to all those who joined Telford victims to campaign for a Telford-specific CSE inquiry, and to the determination and bravery of the victims who made that inquiry happen. We in Telford are very fortunate that the then Minister for local government, my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Rishi Sunak), took up this case and ensured that the campaign for a local inquiry was successful.

Now, almost six years later—six years!—the inquiry into CSE in Telford is about to report. The culture of denial must end, and these women’s voices must be heard. There must be no more obstacles put in the way of transparency, and of bringing this issue into this place and to the attention of those in positions of power. I thank the hon. Member for Rotherham for all she has done to shine a light on those who would rather have institutional denial and institutional blindness. It must end, and this debate helps to achieve that goal.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 5:08 pm, 23rd February 2022

I begin by thanking Sarah Champion. As she knows, I greatly admire her for her determination to make changes to the system, not simply for her own constituents—which she clearly has—but for all the children and young men and women across the United Kingdom. I truly believe that her work and her passion for this topic will result in the changes that are needed to protect our youth from criminal grooming gangs.

I share the grave concern of many Members regarding making the long-term changes that are needed. I am thankful that the report clearly highlighted the need to end unregulated care homes for under-18s: too often over the years, I have had in my office young people who have been used and abused with no oversight and no sign of help. I am a long-standing advocate for a different way of helping these vulnerable young people who are cared for. However, many cared-for children who turn 18 are groomed due to the fact that they are unprotected, and there must be a continuance of care and support for those children. Turning 18 does not mean that a person is no longer a target for sexual exploitation, as the hon. Member for Rotherham said in her introduction—that was one of the things that struck me right away.

I am gratified that colleagues in the Northern Ireland Assembly are currently passing the Justice (Sexual Offences and Trafficking Victims) Bill, which seeks to criminalise masquerading as a child online and strengthen revenge pornography laws, as well as excluding the public from all serious offence hearings and introducing anonymity for defendants before they are charged. I know that is not the Minister’s responsibility, but I wanted to bring what we are doing in Northern Ireland into the conversation.

Ultimately there must be closer interaction between the police and the Crown Prosecution Service. We must provide communities and churches with the training needed to spot child exploitation, as well as the knowledge of how to deal with it. We very much need uniformed, clear steps that leave a network of invested, interested and informed volunteers who know what to look out for, and that takes funding and guidance from Government.

The loss of innocence is one of the saddest things I have ever read in the face of a victim of abuse. Indeed, one lady whom I knew very well in my office—I got to know her over the years—had the most vile trauma inflicted on her as a baby and a young child. For her and many others like her, I support the hon. Member for Rotherham and the calls for this House, our Government and our Minister to do more.

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Conservative, Tatton

I thank all Members for keeping to the time limit, which was imposed because so many people wanted to speak. We will now come to the Front Benchers, who will have eight minutes each, and then Sarah Champion will wind up.

Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Shadow Minister (Home Office) 5:11 pm, 23rd February 2022

Thank you, Ms McVey. It is not just a privilege to serve alongside my hon. Friend Sarah Champion; it is also really inspiring to work alongside her on these issues, and it is no surprise that it is her who has called today’s debate.

From point of view of the Labour party, we would want to see every single recommendation in the report implemented in full. My hon. Friend described many of these reports as being used to swat flies, which is how it feels to somebody who has been working on this for a decade. It feels like lots and lots of words have been written and literally no progress has been made. The Labour party would also support absolutely every single one of my hon. Friend’s recommendations that go further.

One of the things that is absolutely maddening about trying to interact with—I am going to say any part of the Home Office, on anything—is the issue of data, and the complete and utter lack of it. As someone who is very long in the tooth in this area—I worked with Barnardo’s and set up sexual exploitation services across the midlands over a decade ago—the thing that shocked me was the issue around disability that was found in this report: the vast number of children, especially those with autism, found by the report but not borne out by the data. There is no data on that.

We count what we care about in this country. Why on earth are we not counting? Why on earth—to the point made by Alexander Stafford—do we not have a full and complete dataset on both perpetrators and victims in this case? I cannot ring the Home Office today and say, “How many people from this area have come forward about sexual exploitation? How many of them have a disability?” I would be surprised if I could even get the gender data. What I would get is: “Oh, we don’t collect that and it’s going to take us too long.” This is an absolutely fundamental problem. It is a failing that has been raised again and again and again. I ask the Minister: please, please stand up and say that the Government commit to this—it is literally a form that the police have to fill in. It is not that onerous, and the data is so vital to our ability to tackle this.

Another area—where I am afraid to say the similarity with almost every other part of my men’s violence against women brief carries over—is the very shocking findings in the report about the

“difficulties…in identifying networks or groups of abusers,” and the fact that police forces were “not able to provide” evidence of networks. The report states:

The Inquiry was particularly struck by the reporting that there were no known or reported organised networks in two of the case study areas.”

We have spent so much time and we have come a long way, actually. If I were to say one thing has changed in the last 10 years, it is that we are much better at knowing that there are victims everywhere. What we have made no progress on is trying to actually monitor and manage, let alone identify, the offenders for these crimes. It is the same with rape. It is the same with domestic abuse. There is the report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services about domestic abuse. The report that is due to come out on Friday about rape will inevitably say the same thing—as if I do not already know what it is going to say, but one has to make the pretence.

This report says the same thing, which is that there is a fundamental flaw in the monitoring and managing of known and repeat offenders. In looking at serial offenders in crimes by men against women, HMICFRS found that most police force areas had not been monitoring or offender-managing the most serial and violent perpetrators at all, and that is exactly what is happening in these cases.

I say that as somebody who is currently in the middle of supporting the most difficult and complex case that I have ever seen in my life, and I have seen many cases. If the woman were standing here, she would tell us that nothing has changed in the last 10 years. Ten years ago, she was 13, and that was when she started to be abused. That is when the same gang that is currently abusing her started—10 years ago. She is now 23 years old, and I have to see her for hours every week to try to get her to the point of view of trust. It is exactly like when I met with the victims in Telford. This woman says exactly the same thing to me, and it goes exactly to the point that was made about court procedures being too slow. She says, “You can’t keep me safe if I come forward. You might lock up this one person, although you won’t even necessarily put him on remand”—absolutely not with the court process at the moment; he is less likely to be sent on remand—“but what about that one, and what about him, and what about this man, and what about the 50 men who raped me last week?” This is not the movies—there is no witness cabin that they can go to in the woods. What the women in Telford told me was, “You can’t guarantee my safety. I won’t come forward.”

Photo of Lucy Allan Lucy Allan Conservative, Telford

Is the hon. Lady aware that in Telford we have had a series of car fire-bombings related exactly to this, which have put victims in fear? I thank her for raising that point.

Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Shadow Minister (Home Office)

Absolutely. This is the exact same issue as in the cases that I have handled over the years. The offenders know. I have seen messages saying, “We can see you’ve been to the police station.” That should be evidence enough and yet it is not. This is the reality for victims.

I want to stress the point that was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham and others that the Minister could say she was going to go away and stop, literally today, the use of unregulated accommodation for children aged 16 and 17. It feels like we are about five years into that being requested. This situation has come about—the debate in the main Chamber is exactly the same debate as is currently going on here—entirely because of the squeeze on the availability of regulated, well-provided, decent accommodation in this space. I say as somebody who used to run that accommodation that there has been a retraction in it that has made it profitable. Imagine thinking, “I’m going to get a house full of kids who have been sexually exploited, because it’ll be a nice tidy earner.” As a taxpayer, I do not want to be paying for that. The Government should rule it out today. They should say that this will never happen again. When the Minister says that there is enough money in the system for it not to be happening, perhaps she can enlighten us as to why it is happening.

While I have this opportunity, I will just take one second to say that we have to do considerably more to stop the cliff edge that does not even happen at 18 but happens at 16, because for these children, it stays with them forever.

Photo of Rachel Maclean Rachel Maclean The Minister of State, Home Department, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department 5:19 pm, 23rd February 2022

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey, and it is a pleasure to follow all the other hon. Members here, who have championed with great passion and expertise the need to address this horrendous issue.

I will start by echoing other Members in thanking Sarah Champion for securing the debate. I thank everyone else who has participated: my hon. Friends the Members for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) and for Keighley (Robbie Moore); Florence Eshalomi; Ms Rimmer; my hon. Friend Alexander Stafford; Kim Leadbeater; my hon. Friend Lucy Allan; and Jim Shannon.

The hon. Member for Rotherham is a long-standing leader, as others have rightly said, in campaigning for change in how services respond to CSE, both in her constituency and more widely across the country. There was a huge strength of feeling across the Chamber; one cannot speak about this issue without being affected on a very deep level. It disgusts and appals us all. That is why we commissioned the sweeping report back in 2015 and put resources behind it, and it is why we are considering the findings of the report and all the other reports and mechanisms that have shone a light on this issue.

It is right that we pay tribute to victims and survivors. My hon. Friend the Member for Telford said that they wanted to be heard, and we have allowed them to get their voices on the record. I think that is a vital first stage towards seeing the change that we all want to see. We do not want to see other children going through the horrendous ordeals that those victims and survivors have experienced.

We are committed to tackling all forms of child sex abuse. Our approach is underpinned by the strategy that we published just over a year ago, which sets out firm commitments to drive action across every part of Government. We all recognise that this is a cross-cutting issue; it does not just sit with me in the Home Office. That is why we need a whole-system approach. It is not just about central Government; it is also about those local authorities and agencies up and down the country that have been provided with powers, resources and funding to carry out their statutory duty of safeguarding the children in their community. All of us here, including me, have a responsibility to do everything in our power to protect our children.

We set up this inquiry because we recognised that there were failings. There was no institutional denial from the Home Office; my predecessors were willing to have this report to uncover the abuses that were going on. I thank the inquiry team for the work that they are doing to improve the response to CSE.

I turn to the form of offending highlighted in the most recent report from IICSA, which has rightly generated public concern, as seen in Rotherham. The report highlighted that the impact of this vile crime has been exacerbated by organisations’ and agencies’ widespread failures to respond to and tackle exploitation due to misplaced social and cultural sensitivities. We must not shirk our responsibility to address those failures in an open and transparent way. The hon. Member for Rotherham summarised the key recommendations made by IICSA in the report. Let me reassure her and everybody else that we will consider all the inquiry’s findings, and will respond—as required—to the recommendations within six months, which is the timeframe that was set out.

The hon. Member looks unhappy. I understand that—of course she does. I wish I could wave a magic wand, but she knows that these are systemic, complex issues that involve local authorities, policing and the Crown Prosecution Service. It would be trite of me to say, “Yes, I can fix that tomorrow.” How can I possibly do that?

Photo of Rachel Maclean Rachel Maclean The Minister of State, Home Department, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I will, but I do have a lot to get on the record on the specific points that were raised.

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

I winced because, in the six months that it will take the Government to consider the report and decide whether they are going to accept the recommendations, how many more children will be abused? This has been going on for too long.

Photo of Rachel Maclean Rachel Maclean The Minister of State, Home Department, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

We all share the same passion, and none of us wants to see this happening. If we could fix it overnight I am sure that we would all do so. However, I want to reassure the hon. Member, and everybody else listening to the debate, that it is not the case that nothing is happening as we wait for those recommendations. I want to come to the substantive points that she has made; let me provide specific reassurances about all those points.

On sentencing, the hon. Member states that the law must change to recognise exploitation by two or more offenders. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which is already going through the House, will deliver legislative reforms that will ensure that sexual and violent offenders serve sentences that truly reflect the severity of their crimes. I hope that the Bill will command the support of all of her party colleagues. We will, of course, carefully consider the inquiry’s recommendation on this issue, and we will work with Ministry of Justice colleagues to establish whether there is more to be done. I am sure there will be more conversations in that area.

I welcome the recommendation on the disruption toolkit, which was a key commitment in the strategy. We are on track to publish that toolkit later this year, as was set out in the strategy. That will help police and frontline professionals to better assess and tackle offending in their areas, including through the effective use of accurate and up-to-date problem profiles, which the hon. Member referred to.

The hon. Member stated that the Government must change the definition of CSE in statutory guidance. I must stress that the current definition does not require any form of “exchange”; that is only one element that may help to alert professionals to CSE taking place. However, we will of course work with the Department for Education on any changes to the statutory guidance that are needed as we consider the recommendations.

The hon. Member rightly said that the report has shone a light on the need for agencies to be absolutely clear on the difference between children being at risk of exploitation and children already being harmed. That is a crucial distinction. We are working to ensure that frontline professionals are assessing children’s needs appropriately. Only today, the Centre of expertise on child sexual abuse, which is funded by the Home Office, has introduced further guidance on how to talk to children who might have been sexually abused, helping frontline professionals to ensure that all children are effectively safeguarded.

Several Members mentioned data collection. They rightly highlighted that improving data on offenders and how they operate in different local areas is essential for ensuring an effective response to these awful crimes. That is why the Home Office has introduced a requirement for police forces to record the ethnicity of anyone held in custody for suspected involvement in CSE offences, which will become mandatory in March.

On care homes, the Government are clear that semi-independent provision can never meet the needs of children under the age of 16; the Department for Education has already banned the use of those settings. When they are the right option for some older children, high-quality provision must be available. The Government have recently announced the introduction of mandatory national standards, a new regime of robust accountability from Ofsted and over £142 million of investment.

I have noted some other points that the hon. Member for Rotherham made, which I will respond to. She mentioned the issue of victims from ethnic minority communities. The Home Office-funded prevention programme is delivering targeted work in those communities to raise awareness of child exploitation and to support professionals. I have a lot more to say, but I will probably have to write to the hon. Member about the other points she mentioned; I want to address her point about the court system.

On the trusted relationships funding in Rotherham, we are very happy to take that point up with officials and see if there is anything we can do to ensure continuity. I want to be clear that when that funding was launched, it was clear that it was a bespoke four-year fund. We wanted to gather very good evidence to see what we were spending the money on and to test that it was working. That has happened. Many other local areas have commissioned follow-up work, and we very much hope that we can get to that point with Rotherham.

I think that we are all shocked and disgusted by the situation with Lord Ahmed. Although I was not aware of this particular issue until the hon. Member for Rotherham raised it, so I have not had an opportunity to do extensive research on why he is still allowed to use his title, I personally find that disgusting and shocking, and I would like to see that title removed. I do not know what legislative options I have at my disposal, but I will meet Cabinet Office Ministers and make the case for that.

I think that I have used up my time, so I will follow anything else up with the hon. Member.

Photo of Sarah Champion Sarah Champion Chair, International Development Committee, Chair, International Development Committee 5:28 pm, 23rd February 2022

I thank the Minister for her response and I would appreciate a follow-up letter, if that is possible.

Recently, I watched the four-part series on Jeffrey Epstein and I was chilled. The methods that he used were exactly the same as the methods that we are seeing here. This issue is not about class, it is not about race, and it is not about religion. This is about child abusers using their position of power and influence to exploit children, and it must be dealt with wherever it is seen.

The Minister is right—there is, to be honest, a siloed approach, and Departments need to work collaboratively to address that. It is currently a postcode lottery as to whether a child’s local police force or local authority recognise that they are being exploited and have support in place for them. That has to stop, which is why I called on the Minister to ensure that there is a national service rather than it just being down to luck based on someone’s local police and crime commissioner.

For me, the fundamental point is that we should always start by listening to the victims and survivors. They know what the problem is; they know what the solution is. The result that they are actually asking for tends to be quite simple.

I do not know of any other crime where, if someone went to the police and reported it, the police officer would say, “Really?” If I went to the police and reported that my car had been stolen, the officer would not say, “Really? Are you sure? Are you sure you didn’t steal your own car?” Yet that is what happens time and time again with child abuse and with all sexual abuse.

My final point is that someone is still a child up to the age of 18. If the Government recognise that unregulated care is not good enough for children aged from zero to 16, then it is not good enough for children aged from 16 to 18 either, and I urge the Minister to reconsider that situation.

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Conservative, Tatton

I thank all Members for taking part today; it has been a most moving debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse report on child sexual exploitation by organised networks.

Sitting adjourned.