15.3.2013 in Preston. Thank you very much for inviting me to make a contribution to your seminar on child sexual exploitation today.
Often when I visit schools I ask children what they think MPs do and they say – “Shout at Each Other!”
That is because the image the public have of Parliament is of two opposing leaders yelling at each other in the noisy Commons chamber during Prime Minister’s Question Time.
But behind the scenes we have a very different kind of parliament with coalitions of MPs working with interest groups, charities and academics to get things done on specific issues that matter to them.
Often this takes place through All Party Parliamentary Groups, which are informal cross-party coalitions that are run by and for Members of the Commons and Lords and involve many different outside organisations.
I am the Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Runaway and Missing Children and Adults. We are a group of MPs and peers, from all political parties, who work together to try to raise awareness of issues connected to children and adults who go missing.
We are supported in our work by Missing People and the Children’s Society, who have campaigned for many years to raise public awareness of the risks facing runaway children who often face hostile attitudes and are seen as “troublesome” for their often anti-social behaviour.
Last year our APPG launched an inquiry into children who go missing from care.
We decided to do this following a number of other reports, including Barnado’s “Puppet on a String,” which highlighted children going missing as a key indicator of child sexual exploitation.
Our inquiry heard how a significant minority of young people coming into the care system are targeted for sexual exploitation. These perpetrators target children’s homes specifically because of the high vulnerability of the children in them.
We heard harrowing stories from children about the abuse they had suffered often exacerbated by an attitude among some professionals that they were “troublesome”, “promiscuous,” “criminals” or “slags who knew they they were getting themselves into” rather than extremely vulnerable young people in need of support.
The children said they were not listened to and felt powerless.
We published our report last June and the Government responded positively to its recommendations for change and set up three expert working groups into children’s homes; out of borough placements and the woeful inadequacies of current missing data.
This is not a party political issue and I was pleased to be included in the working group looking into children’s homes and that the government has now announced that it is planning to consult on a number of measures including independent scrutiny of the quality of care in children’s homes.
Our inquiry exposed a worrying discrepancy in data collected on children missing from care, with police data recording an estimated 10,000 incidents in 2011 but the Department for Education recording only 930 children going missing for the same year. Because of this one of our main recommendations was that police and local authorities should collect the same data. So I am also pleased that the government is to begin piloting a new data system in the next few months.
These ministerial responses show how through all party pressure and the extra pressure from groups, organisations and charities outside parliament using the All Party Group system, that government’s can be moved into action.
Our Inquiry took place against the backdrop of the shocking Rochdale sexual grooming case and in the same week that nine men were jailed for the gruesome sexual exploitation of vulnerable young girls.
I think that the reporting of that case, in all its harrowing detail, changed the climate of the debate. I think that for the first time there was a huge public awareness that what was done to these children and the way in which it was done in no way constituted a consensual contract.
There is no doubt that the string of sexual exploitation trials has highlighted the serious harm being done to children during missing episodes.
Children in care are three times more likely to run away than children living at home.
We took evidence on children going missing from care because there is an obligation to report them missing, whilst there is no such obligation to report a child missing from a family home.
At the time of our inquiry, on the latest available figures, there were just over 65,000 children in care in England, of whom around 7 per cent were living in one of the 1,810 children’s homes, of which 76 per cent were in the private or independent sector. The North West for example has 25 per cent of all children’s homes housing a lot of children who are placed from other areas.
A study by the University of Bedfordshire into child sexual exploitation showed that over half of all young people using child sexual exploitation services on one day in 2011 were known to have gone missing, a quarter over ten times, and 22 per cent were in care.
I recently visited the amazing St Mary’s Sexual Assault Referral Centre in Manchester which had 1000 referrals last year, of whom just under half were children.
The dedicated team working with sexually exploited children, often brought in by the police, offer a holistic approach.
They told me that children were often reluctant to talk to them as they did not see themselves as being sexually exploited. These children often had had sad, lonely, miserable childhoods, they are the kind of neglected children that Action for Children talked about in their recent report.
Richard Haigh, of the Children’s Society, told me: “We need to understand that a lot of young people have such low self esteem that their approach is that bad drama is better than no drama, so given the choice of staying in yet again by themselves, or going to that flat, although they know some dodgy things happen there, they are going to go to the flat, because at least someone wants them to be there”
Children, whose parents neglect them emotionally, have low self esteem. So you can see how welcome that nice man is who gives them gifts and attention.
You can see why they are vulnerable to sexual grooming.
You can see how important it is to identify these children not only at an early stage of sexual grooming but in their early childhood.
It is also vitally important to support them to have the courage to come forward in the first place and through their experience in court.
I have great concerns about how inappropriately very vulnerable victims of child sexual abuse are often dealt with in court when they have to endure aggressive cross examination from multiple lawyers in intimidating court settings.
I have joined forces with Nicola Blackwood the Conservative MP for Oxford West and Abingdon to put some amendments down to the Crime and Courts Bill to be discussed on Monday. This is yet another example of a coalition of MPs from different political parties joining together to press for change.
We are calling for very vulnerable witnesses in sexual exploitation cases to be allowed to give evidence in new specialist courts in the wake of the Rochdale and Jimmy Savile scandals. They would be modelled on specialist domestic violence courts.
The huge volume of unreported allegations against Jimmy Savile demonstrated the importance of better support for witnesses to give victims the courage to come forward.
And the recent suicide of the musician Frances Andrade is a stark reminder of just how vulnerable some victims who give evidence against abusers in court can be.
We also want each child victim to be provided with the support of a Registered Intermediary who would look after them throughout the court process and facilitate two-way communication between the witness and the other participants in the criminal justice process.
NSPCC figures show that only 2 per cent of young witnesses receive support from Registered Intermediaries.
Our amendment also stresses that cases involving very vulnerable witnesses should only be heard by specially trained judges. And each witness should be assigned a specific court usher for the duration of their time in court, who has taken part in appropriate training.
If the witness is a victim of sexual abuse they should also be offered an Independent Sexual Violence Advisor to support them throughout the court process.
Obviously evidence has to be properly tested in court, but all too often there is aggressive cross examination which seeks to cast the witness as a “liar”, or “promiscuous”, of “asking for it” and therefore responsible for her own abuse.
But it doesn't have to be like that.
Specialist courts can offer wrap-around support for witnesses while still delivering fairness to defendants. If the court process is less traumatising more victims will come forward, fewer investigations will collapse and more prosecutions will be successful.
Justice is served by making sure that the best quality of evidence is heard in court.
Earlier this week Sir Peter Fahy, the Chief Constable of Greater Manchester, echoed our concerns about the treatment of vulnerable witnesses. He said the Jimmy Savile case highlighted how many young people are nervous to come forward and talk of their experiences.
Sir Peter said – and I am quoting -:
“Police forces have significantly improved the way that victims are treated but thf acet is many. Many victims to do not come forward or it they do are reluctant to support a prosecution. This highlights another issue in the way our adversarial court system treats victims
“Whatever other evidence is collected prosecutions for sexual offences rely hugely on the evidence of the victim. In a case of burglary the victim will not be blamed for leaving the front door unlocked.
“In sexual offences the behaviour of the victim, whether they had been drinking, any weaknesses of character how they were dressed may well be picked over at great length in the court room”
I must say - at the moment if really feels like things are happening in |Parliament. There are many MPs of all parties who are really interested in these issues and in protecting children from sexual exploitation.
We recently had a debate to mark the “one billion rising” campaign highlighting violence against women and girls throughout the world. MPs from all parties again joined forces and there were some very powerful contributions arguing for compulsory sex and relationship education in schools that I was pleased to support.
I believe that children need knowledge to protect themselves against inappropriate relationships, whether from their peers or adults and the confidence to speak out about it.
We currently have an opportunity for great change because, as I said, I think that the reporting of the shocking Rochdale trial and the Jimmy Savile scandal have changed the climate of the debate.
Things are changing slowly and this has been shown by the amount of people who s have come forward and spoken out about what has happened to them after Rochdale and Savile - whether it be in the church, the BBC or political parties.
What we must all do is to encourage the children who are – at this moment in time – being abused and exploited - to speak out.
But they will only do that if they feel that they will be listened to and also supported throughout any court process.
Sometimes we have seminal or “sea change” moments in public mood, such as the Rochdale and Savile cases, and it is up to us all to seize on that and push for the changes we need to protect more children and vulnerable adults from coming to harm.
I believe that we can make this happen.
Soroptomist vision : We are committed to a world where women and girls together achieve their individual and collective potential, realise aspirations and have an equal voice in creating strong, peaceful communities worldwide.