Skip to main content

Child Sexual Exploitation (Rotherham)

Volume 593: debated on Thursday 26 February 2015

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mark Lancaster.)

Exactly six months ago to the day, the report commissioned by Rotherham borough council into child sexual exploitation in the town was published. Professor Alexis Jay’s damning report catalogued failings of both the police and the council over 16 years, which resulted in at least 1,400 victims of child sexual exploitation. Still worse, most of those alleging the crimes received no support, no recognition and in many cases were dismissed, belittled or told that it was basically their fault. There has been only one major prosecution.

I believe that what happened in Rotherham was predominantly the result of a culture that refused to countenance “troublesome” teenagers as victims and one that was prepared to tolerate the existence of sexual abuse—a culture where targets were more important than protecting children. The Jay report stunned me, the country and, to be fair, the world. How could such barbaric abuse occur, let alone go on uninvestigated? I simply do not have the answer to that question, and I doubt that I ever will: it simply should not have happened in a civilised society.

When I managed to get my head around the enormity of the failings, my next thought was to get help from the Government. If there had been a natural disaster in Rotherham that had affected 1,400 people and the council and police had insufficient resources to deal with it, the Government would of course have intervened. I would expect a visit from the Prime Minister, national co-ordination of charities, Government experts to arrive and, as a priority, resources and support for the victims and survivors to be provided. To date, we have had nothing.

In this Chamber on 2 September, I asked the Home Secretary for resources for the victims and survivors. She subsequently met me, and I discussed in detail what was needed nationally and, more specifically, locally—but no cash followed. On the same date, I asked the Chancellor for additional funding, and met a Treasury Minister on 10 September, when I handed over a proposal for emergency funding that I had worked up with my colleagues, the two other MPs representing Rotherham, the police, the council and clinical commissioning groups. To date, I have not had as much as a reply to that request, although after much chasing, I did get a holding letter dated “December”, telling me that the Treasury was looking into it.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful case, so I hope the Minister is listening. To be fair, one small step has been taken today, linked to the announcement by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government of £250,000 for the commissioners for Rotherham council over two years, to reintroduce an outreach youth work project—a Risky Business-style project. Does she recognise, as I do, that that is merely 0.5% of the budget cut that the council must make in April, so it is simply not enough? Should not the Communities Secretary now release the troubled families and transformation award funds that have been withheld from Rotherham, because the council and other agencies need them to deal with the problems highlighted in the Jay and Casey reports?

I agree absolutely with my right hon. Friend about the situation in which Rotherham finds itself. It is unsustainable. Like him, I welcome this donation—[Interruption.]—or drop in the ocean, as my right hon. Friend says. It does not go anywhere near far enough. I shall come on to discuss what resources we need as I progress.

On 3 September and 19 November, I raised the issue of support for the victims and survivors of Rotherham abuse with the Prime Minister. I met him on 4 February, and he subsequently pledged support on “BBC Look North”, for which I am hugely grateful. I am delighted that, as my right hon. Friend has said, the Communities Secretary announced £125,000 a year for two years to reform Risky Business. Without wanting to sound ungrateful, however, it is indeed a drop in the ocean in comparison with the resources we need to allow the young people of my constituency to rebuild their lives.

I ask the Minister to recognise that Rotherham’s police force must pay for the intervention of the National Crime Agency from Rotherham’s policing budget, and that Rotherham council must pay for the Casey report and the commissioners from Rotherham’s resources. That is taking more money away from a town that needs more resources, not less, at a time when the Government have already reduced the police budget by 20% and the local authority budget by 40%. How, realistically, are we meant to cope? Why are the Government compounding the horror that we already endure?

Let me make some suggestions about the sort of support that we need. There are currently only two child sexual exploitation workers dedicated to the victims in Rotherham. One is employed by me, and I am eternally grateful to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority for giving me emergency funding to pay for that worker. However, that funding will run out on 7 May. The other is employed by Barnardo’s. She works only with people under the age of 18, and her work load consists of only 12 people. There are social workers, counsellors and police officers working in the field of child sexual exploitation, but there are only two people who are dedicated to supporting at least 1,400 victims and survivors. It should be borne in mind that 30% of the Rotherham abuse victims covered by the Jay report are over the age of 25, and most are over 18. There is only one worker to deal with the majority, and her role will end in two months.

I want the Government to recognise that Rotherham needs specific intervention to allow us to move forward. We need a fully independent unit whose sole purpose would be to support victims and survivors of child sexual exploitation. It should have charitable status, and a board of trustees that should include representatives of the Crown Prosecution Service, the council, the police, survivors, parents and the voluntary sector. The money that has been pledged today could provide a seed fund.

The unit would work in three ways. First, it would provide early intervention and prevention through a team of youth workers, survivor volunteers, family support workers, parent workers and health workers. They would deliver education and training to professionals and parents, carry out early prevention work with young people in educational and community settings, and provide awareness sessions for the community at large. Secondly, it would provide support and intervention for young people who were at risk and involved in grooming and sexual exploitation. That support and intervention would be delivered by a team of youth workers, social workers, police—police constables, and police and young people’s partnership officers—survivor volunteers and trained counsellors. Thirdly, the unit would offer one-to-one support, help with intelligence sharing and gathering, strategy meetings, and section 47 investigations. There would also need to be interpreters, policy writers and crèche workers. I see that as a model that could be replicated across the country.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on making this case and on all the work that she has done in Rotherham, although I am afraid that the problem of the lack of support for survivors who might come forward is not limited to Rotherham. What does she think about the negotiations which, I gather, are currently taking place between Rotherham council and Ofsted? In its “improvement offer”, Ofsted suggests that it should provide advice and support, although it failed to recognise the problem earlier, and something might have been done about it sooner if Ofsted had been rather better at its job.

It would take a great deal for me to have faith in Ofsted and trust it to investigate and, indeed, support Rotherham council, given the failings that it has demonstrated not just in Rotherham but throughout the country. Ofsted needs to be much more aware when it is assessing councils and individual organisations in the context of child sexual exploitation and child abuse in general.

In the short term, there also needs to be a Rotherham-specific organisation that is dedicated to co-ordinating the witness statements that victims and survivors are asked to give. We currently have a ludicrous arrangement whereby the same young victim is asked to give evidence to the Independent Police Complaints Commission, the National Crime Agency, and South Yorkshire police. That is hugely invasive, logistically demanding, and overwhelming for young people who are still trying to rebuild their lives.

We need a centre that can co-ordinate all of the interviews and questions so the victim needs only to speak to one person in a safe and supportive space. To facilitate this, I ask that the Minister funds a remote video link to enable a victim who is involved in a court hearing to give evidence from a remote location. That would help serve the needs of victims in Rotherham, enabling them to link into court proceedings without the trauma of attending court. This fact was highlighted as an issue for victims in the Jay report. There are challenges associated with delivering the initiative and the provision of defined funding to progress technological solutions would be beneficial.

To state the obvious, if we look after the victims and survivors we will get prosecutions. If we keep being demanding of their time as is happening currently, they will withdraw their good will and the case will be lost.

Another short-term Rotherham specific request is a dedicated Crown Prosecution Service team to provide timely pre-charge advice and progress cases. That would be a team of four or five CPS lawyers plus additional admin support to manage current and future cases effectively. Initial discussions have taken place and the suggested team size and cost has been provided by the CPS.

I also recommend that an additional independent sexual violence adviser, or ISVA, should be recruited, to be co-located with the public protection unit in Rotherham to offer support and advocacy for victims as they are identified. Alternatively, the ISVA could be community-based. The ISVA would need to be trained as a child ISVA and therefore be able to support child victims in both current and historical cases.

My hon. Friend is making a very good case. On her point about the CPS, I dealt with a case in 2003-04 that is still being investigated. It was with the CPS at that time, and they are a distance away from the borough. To echo another point, within the past hour, I spoke to the father of one of the victims who I have been in touch with for many years now who had a meeting this week with the police and crime commissioner, but setting up regular meetings to try to sort something out is hindered by the lack of income because of budget cuts for the PCC and Rotherham borough council. May I tell the Minister that we need help to sort this situation out?

I echo what my right hon. Friend says. In the CPS for South Yorkshire and the Humber, the Sheffield CPS has seven lawyers, each carrying a caseload of at least 100 individuals.

Finally, in Rotherham we have three voluntary counselling services trying to support all our survivors: Apna Haq, GROW and the women’s counselling service. Although it was welcome that Rotherham council gave each organisation £20,000 to fast-track child sexual exploitation cases, that is only until the end of the financial year. What is needed is long-term investment to enable them to work with victims and survivors in an intensive way and at the pace that the victims and survivors want.

In discussions with the police and crime commissioner, he has offered to be the fundholder for all the schemes I have outlined, as I am aware the Prime Minister was nervous about giving additional funding to the police or council.

I would now like to focus on what needs to happen nationally. We know that Rotherham is not an isolated case; it already follows high-profile cases of widespread sexual abuse in other towns and cities. The sexual exploitation of vulnerable teenagers is happening across the country. It is of grave concern that our statutory services are not in a fit position to respond consistently and convincingly. In addition, there is a serious shortfall, and inconsistencies, in the support provided to victims of child sexual abuse and exploitation that must be urgently addressed, from disclosure, through the criminal justice system and into therapeutic support for those who need it.

Research conducted in 2009, currently being updated by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, found there was a shortfall in therapeutic support for victims of sexual abuse of more than 50,000 places a year, a huge gap between need and service provision. Victims are subject to a postcode lottery with only one support programme for every 25,000 children in the UK. The 508 services that are available are so overstretched they are now being forced to stop taking on new cases.

On Monday, the shadow Home Secretary committed a Labour Government to creating a dedicated child protection unit. I urge the Government to do the same. This topic should be not about politics but about doing the best for our children. I would like to propose a five-point plan to tackle child sexual exploitation nationally. The first is the establishment of a national taskforce for organised child sexual exploitation, based on a similar model to the forced marriage unit or the modern day slavery commissioner. That would be a small, dedicated team of experts in policing, prosecuting and psychological support that can be used as a resource by police forces, councils and the voluntary sector if they suspect organised child sexual exploitation. If that taskforce had existed when the Jay report came out six months ago, the police and the council could have immediately had specialist support on how to work with the victims; best practice in securing prosecutions; setting up a dedicated investigation team; and how to manage communications.

In reality, the police and the council have been left to flounder for six months, learning by their mistakes rather than being supported through an intensely difficult time. When the Jay report clearly identified failings with the police and the council, why did the Government not offer immediate support? I welcome the intervention of commissioners now, but why could they not have been brought in much earlier, avoiding some of the mistakes that have been allowed to happen?

My second point is that we should introduce mandatory personal, social, health and economic education for key stage 1 children. This is about teaching children not about sex, but about what is, and is not, a healthy relationship. We need to give our children the tools to arm themselves against abuse, not leave them to discover the horrors of the internet and, in the absence of proper education, be forced to consider what they see there to be normal.

I would also like the Government to make it mandatory for anyone employed to work with children to have training in spotting the signs of child abuse and how to report concerns.

Fourthly, I am tired of professionals being more concerned about protecting data than about protecting the child. The Government need to send out a clear signal that there will be penalties if health and education services, local authorities and the police do not share information to prevent child abuse.

Finally, we need a culture where victims of child abuse are believed. In Rotherham, victims were trying to report their abuse for decades. They repeatedly had doors shut in their faces and were branded prostitutes, worthless or complicit. I say to the Minister that that culture has to change. It is slowly changing in cases of rape and domestic violence; it needs to quickly change in the case of child abuse.

I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) and congratulate her on securing this debate on such an important issue. Her continued dedication to addressing child sexual exploitation, both in Rotherham, alongside the police and local agencies, and nationally, in partnership with Barnardo’s, is to be applauded. As she is aware, I wholeheartedly agree that the failures identified by Professor Jay’s report are grave indeed. What happened in Rotherham was a complete dereliction of duty.

Shockingly, Louise Casey’s report of 4 February shows that, even since the Jay report, the council and its local partners have continued to deny the scale of the problem, highlighting

“past and present failures to accept, understand and combat the issue of Child Sexual Exploitation, resulting in a lack of support for victims and insufficient action against known perpetrators.”

Louise Casey’s report is a disturbing account of “a council in denial”. It concludes that Rotherham council is not fit for purpose and failing to comply with the statutory best value duty, and that it needs a fresh start.

Separately, the Independent Police Complaints Commission announced in November that it is investigating the conduct of South Yorkshire police officers in relation to their handling of reported child sexual exploitation in Rotherham. That is in response to Professor Alexis Jay’s review, and I am pleased that South Yorkshire police have committed to fully co-operate with the investigation.

The hon. Lady has raised a number of issues and I undertake to get back to her on any that I am not able to respond to during the course of this debate. I appreciate many of her suggestions and she will understand if they do not automatically become part of the Government’s programme, but I undertake to report all of them back to the Home Secretary, who is committed to this issue.

In a moment.

The Government have taken immediate action to protect children in Rotherham. We have appointed Malcolm Newsam—one of the country’s most experienced experts in children’s services improvement—to oversee the initial changes needed. In addition, following the publication of Louise Casey’s report, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of Sate for Communities and Local Government announced his intention to appoint a team of commissioners who will exercise functions of the authority and oversee a rigorous programme of improvement to bring about the essential changes in culture and ensure there is effective and accountable political and officer leadership in future. My right hon. Friend has today issued directions in order to exercise those intervention powers in Rotherham.

In parallel, the Secretary of State for Education asked Isabelle Trowler, the chief social worker for children and families, to undertake a swift piece of work drawing out the social work and leadership lessons for local authorities and local safeguarding children boards from the Rotherham report. Isabelle concluded that the social work response in Rotherham was weak.

To address the need for urgent improvements in Rotherham and elsewhere, the Secretary of State for Education has announced a new programme of work focused on practice leadership of child and family social work, and the development of new teaching partnership arrangements to improve the quality of initial education and tie initial training into professional practice.

The National Crime Agency has also launched an independent two-stage investigation into child sexual exploitation and abuse in Rotherham—Operation Stovewood —following a request from South Yorkshire’s chief constable. The Ministry of Justice has provided a 50% increase in the funding provided to the three rape support centres that operate in South Yorkshire. There is undoubtedly more to be done for the victims in Rotherham, and more to be done to minimise the risk of such terrible events occurring in Rotherham or anywhere else in the future.

Unfortunately child sexual exploitation of the extent seen in Rotherham is far from unique. We need to confront these failures at national level, and this Government are committed to doing so. I am sure that the next Government will also be committed to doing so.

When I was a Minister in the Department for Education—and when I occupied the ministerial role that you have also occupied, Madam Deputy Speaker —we would send in officials to make an intervention, and it was crucial that there were civil servants and Ministers in the Department who understood the nature of the problem and could oversee the data that were being brought back to them. Given that this responsibility now rests with the Home Office and that the chief social worker is accountable to the Department for Education, is the Minister confident that she has the necessary officials and time to ensure that the people overseeing what is going on in Rotherham know what they are looking for and can see the job through properly?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. We need that kind of hands-on experience in both Departments as well as co-ordination between them, because we do not want anyone falling through the holes or not recognising what needs to be done.

Louise Casey’s report also describes how a small youth project, Risky Business, had developed a ground-breaking approach to reaching out to victims of sexual exploitation and to collecting evidence about perpetrators. Unfortunately, misguided and inappropriate decisions made by the council resulted in the closure of the service. The report concludes:

“The critical work they undertook is now missing from RMBC.”

That situation should not continue, and the victims of historical child sexual exploitation should be given the help they need. Accordingly, subject to being provided with an appropriate business case demonstrating value for money, I am prepared to make available £250,000 over the next two financial years for a Risky Business-style service to be established.

As I said in my speech, I am extremely grateful for that, but as my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) and I have both pointed out, £125,000 a year is a drop in the ocean. It will pay for four workers and an office. I am really hoping, therefore, that the Minister is about to tell us that she will make available more Government support for the victims and survivors.

I understand the hon. Lady’s anxiety and need. When someone knows a situation as closely as she knows this one, they can see all the answers and they want something right now, and a lot of it—[Interruption.] Indeed, it would be for the victims.

The Home Secretary has led a series of meetings with her Secretary of State colleagues to consider what more we as a Government can do to help to prevent these failures from happening again. Those meetings have focused on the issues highlighted in Rotherham: the complete failure of local leadership; the culture of inaction and denial in the police and the council; the failure of local agencies to work together to protect children; and the lack of support for survivors. A report on the action to address each of those issues will be published shortly. A key part of that response will recognise the need for further support for victims from statutory and non-statutory support services, and for their engagement with the criminal justice system.

Effective, timely support for victims of child sexual abuse is a matter of national importance and it is one that this Government have prioritised. We have put rape support centres on a secure financial footing, by providing more than £4.4 million a year to 86 organisations across England and Wales that provide support to women and girl victims of rape and sexual violence. That funding is targeted at women and teenage girls who have been the victim of rape or sexual abuse; whether as a result of a recent attack or of historical abuse. We have funded a further 15 new rape support centres in areas that were lacking specialised support—13 centres were brought into existence by June 2014, and the final two centres, located in Grantham and Crawley, were commissioned by the Ministry of Justice in September 2014 and will be open during 2015.

I hope that the Minister realises that rape is a completely different crime from child sexual exploitation and grooming.

I do recognise that, but these services all relate to sexual violence. On rape and sexual violence, young women may come to those clinics as a result of what has happened to them, so there is some overlap between child sexual exploitation and sexual violence against teenage girls.

We recognised the gap in services supporting men and boys and, as a result, launched a fund dedicated to supporting male victims of rape and sexual violence of more than £600,000 over two years. We have awarded a further £400,000 over two years to Survivors UK to help it create the first ever national website to provide an online support service for male survivors of rape and sexual abuse. We have funded a network of independent sexual violence advisers at a cost £1.7 million per year to part-fund 87 ISVAs to provide appropriate and independent support for victims. We have funded a network of 13 young people’s advocates, at a cost of £400,000 per year, who provide direct and dedicated support to young people who have been victims of, or are at risk of, sexual and domestic violence and/or sexual exploitation.

We do, however, recognise that there is a need for an uplift to these services. In the past two years a 40% increase in child sexual offences has been recorded by the police, leading to significant increases in the demand for support for survivors. The large increase in the number of victims reporting child sexual abuse and exploitation to the police, and other bodies, has resulted in a significant demand. That is why we agreed in December an immediate uplift in non-statutory sector support to victims of child sexual abuse of £7 million. That fund was split between an immediate uplift of £2.15 million to the 84 existing rape support centres; a £2 million fund to non-statutory organisations, which are reporting an increase in demand as a direct result of the announcement of the child sexual abuse inquiry; and a £2.85 million fund for non-statutory organisations providing support across England and Wales to help meet the increased demand on those services. Tragically, this is happening right across the country, although Rotherham’s is the case that we all know best and that was so shocking. We will ensure that this funding is available to organisations supporting victims and survivors in areas where there is a high prevalence of child sexual abuse and exploitation, such as Rotherham. As the hon. Lady will know, the funds are being administered by the police and crime commissioner for Norfolk, because the chief constable there, Simon Bailey, is the national policing lead for child protection and abuse investigation. The Home Office is also supporting that work, and bidding for both funds will close on 2 March. We would expect successful bidders to be notified by the end of next month.

Let me deal with some of the specific points the hon. Lady raised. On the need for a remote link for vulnerable victims and witnesses to give evidence, the Ministry of Justice has committed to set up at least one remote, non-court video link in each Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service area by the end of next month. Although specific locations cannot yet be confirmed, there will be a site in the north-east region, which covers Rotherham, as well as in other locations in England and Wales. In addition, vulnerable and intimidated witnesses can give evidence using a live link from any other Crown court and most magistrates courts away from the trial court. It is recognised that that has to be available.

I am way off Government message on PSHE, as everyone well knows. I totally agree that it does need to come forward but as we are very near to the ending of this Parliament, I hope that all three parties will come back with a recommendation for that. I have particularly to agree with the hon. Lady on data sharing. Like her, I started with an issue in my area, with baby Peter being the issue in my constituency, and in my experience and in all the serious case reviews I have read since then, the lack of data sharing at every point has allowed a gap for a child to fall through. As I say, I will report all her requests to the Home Secretary.

Child sexual abuse is a despicable crime and this Government are absolutely determined to eradicate it. In the past, all too often these horrific crimes were ignored, but now child sexual abuse is rightly centre stage as an issue and we must work together to tackle it. I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate, and on all the passion and commitment she brings to this issue.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.