13.11.2012: Can I congratulate the Hon member for Oxford West on her excellent speech today and on the major part she is playing in the Home Affairs Select Committee’s on-going inquiry into Localised Child Grooming. A very important inquiry and I look forward to its recommendations.
This debate takes place following unprecedented publicity about child sexual exploitation and an abundance of high profile and shocking cases.
One of the most shocking facts is that we still do not know the extent of child sexual exploitation in this country.
But in Greater Manchester we have a very proactive police force.
We currently have more than 50 police officers dedicated solely to working full time on child sexual grooming investigations; we have 72 more dedicated to rape, including child rape and 60 more on “inter-familial” abuse, which includes sexual offences against children.
Detectives are investigating three more major alleged incidents involving young girls after doubling the number of officers investigating claims of abuse. It brings the total number of recently completed or on-going investigations into the abuse of teenage girls to six.
Nine more men from Rochdale are due to appear in court in the coming weeks followed the conviction of nine others in May and there is a trial due to start at Manchester Crown Court in January involving a similar investigation which involves girls from my constituency of Stockport.
I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate Greater Manchester Police for their dedication in bringing to justice the perpetrators of these horrendous crimes. But I also want to point out to the Minister that these investigations take a lot of resources and more resources will be needed in the future if we are serious about tackling child sexual exploitation.
So this debate is very timely and takes place against a series of fast moving events. More than a dozen inquiries of various types have been announced recently into allegations of child sex abuse, amid ongoing concerns that authorities have not taken the claims of victims seriously enough. These include inquiries covering the BBC and NHS institutions following the Jimmy Saville affair and an investigation into the North Wales child abuse allegations.
Over the last twenty years we have seen more than 32 public inquiries in all aspects of public life and, in relation to children, these included, the Soham murders, Victoria Climbie and the inquiry into North Wales care homes.
From of all of these inquiries we are awash with a sea of recommendations, some have been implemented such as improved safeguarding measures to protect children including enhanced criminal record checks.
Other recommendations have not.
I was recently struck by the comments of Lord Levy who chaired the Staffordshire Pindown Enquiry, reporting in 1991 - which looked into the practice of keeping children in pindown rooms for weeks and months. Lord Levy was reflecting on what had happened to his recommendations at a later date and he said – and I quote -:
“The recommendations resulting from the Pindown Inquiry were variously acted upon, watered down, or ignored.
I was also interested to read Lord Lammings Report 2009 into progress since the Climbie inquiry in 2001 which made over a 100 recommendations.
On inter –agency working,
He said: ‘It is evident that the challenges of working across organisational boundaries continue to pose barriers in practice.....”
I think that means it’s not getting much better
Better inter-agency working has been among the recommendations of many inquiries, including the parliamentary inquiry into children missing from care which was conducted by the All Party Group for Care leavers and the All Party Group for Runaway and Missing Children and Adults, which I chair. We found that the police and the DFE were not even collecting the same data on children missing from care. So that repeated missing episodes, one of the key indicators that sexual abuse might be taking place, was not being acted upon and children were being placed at risk of sexual exploitation.
Local Safeguarding Children’s Boards are key to preventing sexual exploitation. They should be ensuring that local agencies are working effectively together, sharing information from health, police, schools and youth services to identify children who may be at risk and developing interventions to keep children safe and to stop them becoming victims of sexual exploitation.
But we are a long way from that in many parts of the country so children are facing a postcode lottery in protection from sexual exploitation.
I am pleased that the government accepted our recommendations and I look forward to the actions proposed by the DFE and the Home Office in response so that in future data on missing children will be collected in such a way that it is a useful tool in identifying children at risk of sexual exploitation.
I have to say that one of the concerns however is the new definition of missing. It is important that the new ACPO guidance has enough safeguarding procedures so that that the significance of repeated absences, that are not recorded as missing, are not overlooked and under played. We all know that repeated absences are an indicator that a child may be being sexually exploited on a regular basis.
I also think it is important that Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary makes the inspection of police forces performance in this area, a priority.
I know this is a difficult and complex area and that procedures or statutory guidance are by themselves not enough although it is not acceptable that they are ignored .
There is a statutory obligation for police forces to return missing statistics to the Missing Person’s Bureau and yet it was only last year that all police forces returned their missing stats to the Bureau. So the minister can appreciate our concern to ensure that all police forces take this seriously.
Looking back again at Lord Levy he said:
“We really need to bolster the procedures for ensuring that the lessons and recommendations from often expensive inquiries are carried through and actually acted upon.
I agree and I think before any more new enquiries are announced we should certainly find a way of reviewing recommendations of past enquiries
I think that the Children’s Commissioner - in her new, strengthened role of being a voice and advocate for children - should be given the responsibility for ensuring that recommendations of any future public enquiries in relation to children are implemented and report regularly to Parliament on progress .
This might have the additional benefit of stopping public inquiries being announced by governments to deal with an immediate pressure to solve a difficult problem. It is one thing to announce an enquiry when you know you can kick any recommendations into the long grass and another when you might be held to account for the recommendations.
Serious Case Reviews
Since 2007 there have been 557 serious case reviews, of course not all have been as a result of child sexual exploitation. However it is not clear to me what actually happens to the recommendations of those reviews, besides sitting with the Local Safeguarding Children’s Board. Recommendations in relation to sexually exploited children in one area need to be learnt by LSCB’s everywhere. They serve after all as local enquiries.
So in the same way that the implementation of recommendations from public inquiries should be monitored I believe that recommendations from Serious Case Reviews should also be monitored and perhaps this could be done by the Children’s Improvement Board, for which safeguarding is a priority.
I also believe that it a Serious Case Review should always be undertaken if a child has been harmed by sexual exploitation. This is not the case at the moment.
Throughout all the enquiries and investigations into child sexual exploitation we hear that children feel they are not listened to and I believe that above all else we must strengthen their voice.
This was the main message of the young people from one of the Children’s Society’s local projects who gave evidence to our APPG parliamentary inquiry into children who go missing from care. It is depressingly familiar story in most sexual abuse cases. The victims felt powerless and one or our findings was that the professionals there to help them treated them as “troublesome”, a “nuisance” and a “drain on resources” rather than victims.
This theme ran through the hugely important Barnardos “Puppet on a String” report in January 2011, which said that too often the “tell-tale” signs that a child was being abused were overlooked.
Children feel their voice is not being heard but often it is also those with the responsibility for
protecting them don’t want to listen. It is hard to listen because that means having to act and that may make life uncomfortable.
We must strengthen the voice of children themselves. In our society as adults we talk a lot about our rights, which in many cases do not exist, but we mean the right to a voice – our voice. I welcome the proposals to strengthen the role of The Children’s Commissioner but she cannot be the voice of all children at all times in all situations. Children used to be seen and not heard now they are sometimes heard and somehow we have to move on to when they are always heard.
That’s why I support compulsory Sex and Relationship Education in schools. Because to speak out, first children need to feel confident that what is happening to them is wrong, and that is why Sex and Relationship Education in schools is so important.
They need to know, indeed they are entitled to know, about issues such as sexual consent, what sexual coercion and exploitation is and how to shape healthy relationships and respect for each other as well as alerting them to the signs that they are being sexually groomed.
This will give them the confidence to reject inappropriate relationships . This is important in relation to grooming by older men for sexual exploitation but also important in relation to sexually coercive relationships by their peers.
We know that harmful attitudes and behaviours are developed at a young age and there is growing evidence about the impact of pornography on boys attitudes to girls. It is a problem that boys are accessing adult websites which give them a distorted attitude about what is appropriate in terms of their relationships with girls.
It gives them a sense of entitlement .........which means they may touch a girl inappropriately and use bullying or coercive behaviour. This may explain the recent Yougov poll conducted by the Schools Safe 4 Girls campaign which showed that a third of all 16 to 18 year old girls said they had been touch inappropriately at school.
Peer on peer exploitation is a very difficult issue and we are awaiting the report by the Deputy Children’s Commissioner on gang and peer on peer sexual exploitation due later this month.
The perpetrators themselves are children and indeed this is even more of a powerful reason for compulsory Sex and Relationship Education in schools to balance what many boys see on the internet and adult websites.
Boys need to be supported to form positive and respectful attitudes to girls and women. They need to understand that abuse can have a long lasting impact, not just in terms of physical, mental and emotional harm but also damage to girl’s education and future career prospects.
Of course we need better inter agency working, and a better job to be done by LSCBs but we also need to give children the knowledge to protect themselves.
There is good practice around and I am delighted about the way that Sex and Relationship Education is being delivered in Stockport primary and secondary schools.
Workshops - funded by Stockport Council and Comic Relief - on sexual bullying and unhealthy relationships are being delivered in all local secondary schools by Stockport without Abuse, the former Stockport Women’s Aid group.
The workshops are now being extended to Year 6 pupils in primary schools in the borough.
And a new project will start at the end of this month, which involves training young people to become “Peer Educators” to raise awareness of sexual harassment in the classroom. This project involves Stockport’s Council’s Safeguarding Unit, the Brinnington Education Achievement Partnership and Stockport Without Abuse.
After my parliamentary debate on “sexting” last year, I was invited to see a film produced by two pupils at Harrytown High School. It was based on real life situations and showed the consequences of uploading or texting indecent images. It is very important that we involve young people in this kind of work as young people will listen to other young people better than they will listen to adults.
So we can see that constructive and important work is already being done in schools. The more information children and young people receive in schools to prepare them for the world they will face the better. But it is not being done everywhere. We all know Knowledge is Power and power is what victims of sexual abuse throughout the ages have sadly lacked. Well informed confident children with a strong voice are less likely to become victims.
In conclusion, I would like to say that I really do feel it is important that we learn the lessons from the past and understand the risk that children will be exposed to in the future. It is only then that we will be able to make significant headway in protecting children from sexual exploitation.