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Child Sexual Exploitation (Oxfordshire)

Volume 593: debated on Tuesday 3 March 2015

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State if she will make a statement on the serious case review into child sexual exploitation in Oxfordshire.

I thank the right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) for his question. No child should have to suffer what the victims of child sexual exploitation in Oxfordshire have suffered. The serious case review published today by Oxfordshire’s local safeguarding children board is an indictment of the failure of front-line workers to protect extremely vulnerable young people over a number of years. Reading the details of what happened to them has been truly sickening.

The serious case review makes it clear that numerous opportunities to intervene to protect those girls were missed, as police and social workers failed to look beyond what they saw as troubled teenagers to the frightened child within. I welcome the publication of the serious case review. It is only by publishing such in-depth accounts of what happened, and what went wrong and why, that children’s social care systems locally and nationally can address the failings that have betrayed some of our most vulnerable children. That is why this Government have insisted that serious case reviews be published, and in full.

The children’s Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson), has also written today, with Ministers from the Home Office and the Department of Health, to the Oxfordshire safeguarding children board requesting a further assessment of the progress being made, and we will send an expert in child sexual exploitation to support the board this month.

Sadly, Oxfordshire was not alone in failing to address the dangers of child sexual exploitation. We now know from Professor Alexis Jay’s and Louise Casey’s  reports into Rotherham and the report by the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) in Manchester that child sexual exploitation has been a scourge in many communities around the country. This Government have been determined to do everything within their power to tackle child sexual exploitation, and that is why we are today publishing an action plan setting out the action we have already taken to strengthen our approach to safeguarding children from sexual exploitation, along with the further steps that we think are necessary to address the culture of denial; improve joint working; stop offenders; support victims; and strengthen accountability and leadership.

We are setting up a national centre of expertise into tackling child sexual exploitation, to support local areas around the country, and there will be a new whistleblowing portal so that anyone can report their concerns. We have also prioritised child sexual exploitation as a national threat, so that police forces will now be under a duty to collaborate across force boundaries, and we will consult on extending the criminal offence of wilful neglect to children’s social care, education professionals and elected members.

This afternoon, I will be joining the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary and other Secretaries of State in Downing street to discuss with local and police leaders how we will collectively take forward the actions set out in today’s plan. The experiences of the children set out in this serious case review should never have happened. We are determined to do everything in our power to stamp out this horrific abuse and to bring the perpetrators to justice.

I thank the Secretary of State for her response. Does she agree that the victims, the 370 other children identified as at risk, their families and the public, who are horrified that these sickening crimes were allowed to continue for so many years, are owed answers to crucial questions which the serious case review could not address? How was it that there was a culture in the county council and the police whereby such serious incidents were not escalated to senior officers? How was it that a professional tolerance of under-age sexual activity developed, as the report says, to the extent that it contributed to the failure to stop the abuse?

Who takes responsibility for the catastrophic failings? The chief constable and the council chief executive have apologised, but they did not know what was happening. The chief constable is moving on; the former directors of social services and of children and families have left; the former leader of the council retired; the lead member for children’s services was reshuffled; and the chief executive of Oxfordshire council saw her position made redundant at the end of January, only for the council leader last week to admit that they had made a hash of it and so the situation has to be reviewed.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the highly commendable work done by the council, the police and other agencies to improve protection and prosecution since Operation Bullfinch cannot distract from the horrors of what went wrong? We saw failure to act on clear evidence of organised sexual exploitation; failure to provide protection to children; failure to draw serious issues to the attention of senior management; failure to heed the concerns of junior staff; chaotic arrangements for child protection; unminuted meetings; and a professional disregard for the illegality of young girls being forced to have sex with older men.

Should there not be wider, independent scrutiny of the internal management reviews which underpinned this serious case review? Do the public interest and redress for victims not dictate that those responsible for these failings should be fully held to account? Will the Government set up an independent inquiry into what went wrong and who made the mistakes that enabled this depraved exploitation of vulnerable girls to go on for so long, so that the lessons are learned from these awful crimes and from the failure of public bodies to provide the protection that it was their duty to provide to children who were suffering such unspeakable abuse?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman very much for his questions, and I fully respect the emotion and passion with which he and other Members will be discussing these matters—these very serious matters, as he has set out. He talks about failures and he is right to do so. He is also absolutely right to say that at the heart of this are the young people who have been utterly let down by the system and whose lives have been blighted. It is important that we think about all the victims and their families, and I am pleased to confirm that part of today’s summit and the announcements thereof is a £7 million fund to support those who have been victims. Clearly, however, there is much more that we all need to do.

The right hon. Gentleman asks how the culture arose and why things were not escalated. He also mentions the so-called professional tolerance of these crimes and asked who takes responsibility. On accountability, he set out the position of various people working within Oxfordshire, some of whom are still in their positions and some of whom have moved on. It is not for me to apportion blame—that is a matter for Oxfordshire county council, the police and the health agencies locally—and the purpose of this serious case review is to understand what went wrong and why, and to ensure that we learn the lessons for the future. He is absolutely right to highlight another point, which Maggie Blyth, the independent reviewer, talked about this morning when she said that although

“there was no disregard of clear warnings at top level and no denial by those in charge, their lack of understanding of what was happening on the front line caused unacceptable delays. This allowed offenders to get away with their crimes. The review describes a culture in Oxfordshire where the value of escalation to the top was not understood.”

The review also contains some heart-rending comments from the victims. One that particularly stands out was:

“If a perpetrator can spot the vulnerable children, why can’t professionals?”

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that many more questions will need to be answered.

The right hon. Gentleman asks about future reviews and inquiries, and the letter signed today by Ministers from my Department, the Home Office and the Department of Health makes it clear that we are proposing that the local safeguarding children board leads a specific piece of work on the impact of the multi-agency approach to tackling child sexual exploitation in Oxfordshire. We have appointed Sophie Humphreys to work alongside Oxfordshire county council to gather the evidence on the effect of its reforms to front-line practice.

The right hon. Gentleman correctly highlights the fact that the council has taken action since these allegations all first came to light. As has been recognised by the serious case review, there has been tremendous investment in services to support children at risk of sexual exploitation, including the establishment of the specialist Kingfisher team, a multi-agency front-line service for victims of child sexual exploitation; the training of thousands of front-line staff in raising awareness; and an increase in the number of front-line staff as a whole. The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to highlight the fact that lives have been blighted by these crimes. Questions need to be answered, some of which will be addressed this afternoon in the Prime Minister’s summit in Downing street.

The right hon. Gentleman says that lessons need to be learned, which is a phrase that is often used in these sorts of cases. But that is not enough. We want action. It was very clear that those who came across this information, not just in Oxfordshire but in other authorities, did not act on it—and that is unacceptable.

Nothing more distressingly demonstrates how completely local agencies failed in this area than the words of survivors. One victim said, “I turned up at a police station at 2 am or 3 am with blood all over me, soaked through my trousers to the crotch. They dismissed me as being naughty and a nuisance. I was bruised and bloody.” Another victim said, “Social services washed their hands. ‘It is your choice’, I was told.”

We must not only pay tribute to the victims for their bravery in coming forward, but recognise that such serious abuse has long-term and complex consequences. I ask the Education Secretary today to make it a personal priority to ensure that these survivors get the long-term and sustainable support that they need.

I thank my hon. Friend for her remarks. I know that she, as an Oxfordshire MP, has been deeply involved in these matters, and I pay tribute to her for her work. I can assure her that my Department and all relevant Departments will do all we can to help and support the victims of these crimes. She is absolutely right to talk about the culture of denial, and the unwillingness to look at the signs of physical and mental abuse inflicted on the victims, which will undoubtedly affect them for the long term. That is why dealing with these issues and ensuring that the front-line professionals take action is so important.

After Rochdale and Rotherham comes an account of the horrific events in Oxford. Let us be clear that it is the heinous crimes and the callous wickedness of Mohammed and Bassam Karrar, Akhtar and Anjum Dogar, Kamar Jamil, Assad Hussain and Zeeshan Ahmed that needs to be condemned again today. They are the ones responsible for the sadism, the grooming, the abuse and the torture that was inflicted on vulnerable girls in Oxford, robbing them of their adolescence, their health and their sense of worth. The serious case review report also reveals that both Thames Valley police and Oxfordshire county council completely let down those victims. In the words of one victim,

“The police never asked me why”

I went missing;

“I made a complaint about a man who trafficked me from a children’s home. He was arrested, released and trafficked me again.”

As we saw in Rochdale, the voice of victims was not listened to and prejudicial thinking around lifestyle choices blocked detailed investigation. These were young girls, exploited teenagers, suffering terrible abuse. Once again, we need to ensure that care homes, the police, social workers and health workers eradicate any cultural tolerance of the abuse of young girls. As Maggie Blyth from the Oxfordshire safeguarding children board said, there were “repeated missed opportunities” that could have been “identified or prevented earlier.”

Government have a role to play, so let me put these questions to the Secretary of State. Is she satisfied that the safeguarding arrangements in place for children in Oxfordshire today are right and proper and will prevent more children from being vulnerable to child sexual exploitation? Do the Government now intend to establish an independent inquiry into Oxfordshire county council to see whether it has the capacity to safeguard its children? We know that the work of Alexis Jay and Louise Casey in Rotherham was instrumental in sorting out that council in its approach to child sexual exploitation. Will the same approach be taken with Oxfordshire? Will further action be taken against those agencies and individuals who are found to have failed these children?

The Prime Minister is today setting out new measures to end “wilful neglect”. What is the Government’s definition of “wilful neglect”? Is the Secretary of State satisfied that the definition places sufficient onus on individuals who come into contact with children to report signs of abuse? Will she and the Home Secretary now support stronger laws on child exploitation and abduction? Will she look again at child abduction warning orders and the specific offence of child exploitation?

Finally, will the Secretary of State now join the cross-party consensus—the Labour party, the Liberal Democrats, the Education Committee and all professionals in the field—and support age-appropriate statutory sex and relationship education to teach young people about consent and healthy relationships? We need to give young people the armoury and the education to know that this kind of sexual abuse is wrong and needs to be stripped out of British society?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his statement and his questions. I agree with his analysis that voices were not listened to. He points out that prosecutions have already taken place for crimes that have been committed. He is right to say that there should be no holding back on prosecutions because of the perpetrators’ background. As the Prime Minister rightly said this morning, that relates not just to Oxfordshire. There have been other terrible cases, as we have seen in the past few months, if not years. The Prime Minister said that a warped sense of political correctness had potentially prevented some investigations from taking place.

The hon. Gentleman asks about inspections. Ofsted inspected Oxfordshire children’s services last year and highlighted, as he did, the steps that had been taken in relation to Oxfordshire children’s services. I have already mentioned the letter sent by my right hon. Friends this morning in relation to the appointment of a senior children’s services expert to go back into Oxfordshire to look into the points raised in the serious case review.

The hon. Gentleman mentions the Louise Casey report. That was a wider report on council governance in Rotherham, in particular. In Oxfordshire we are looking specifically at the children’s services departments, but clearly this is an ongoing issue. He mentions the offence of wilful neglect, which we have said we will consult on. That concept is set out in the Mental Capacity Act 2005 and has been proposed by my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary in relation to the lessons and the consequences of the Mid Staffs issues. It is a failure to act by a person who has a duty of care, in this case to children and young people.

The hon. Gentleman refers to the offence of child sexual exploitation. There are already many offences under which the perpetrators have been prosecuted, including, clearly, sexual relations with children and child rape. He mentions the education of young people in schools. I am fully in favour of excellent PSHE, sex and relationship education and education on consent, but it must be excellent. It cannot just be about ticking boxes. He talks about young people perhaps not knowing that what was happening to them was wrong. I think he knows that that is not the case, given the quotes from the victims in the serious case review. They knew that what was happening to them was wrong. They asked for help but they did not get it.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that every police officer, council official and social worker should consider whether a youngster is a child, and if they may be a child, they should be regarded as a child, listened to as a child and protected as a child, and that any professional who fails to provide that protection should risk disciplinary and criminal proceedings?

My right hon. Friend is right. The offences in this case and in many others were committed against children. There can be no doubt that children of the age involved cannot give their consent to what was perpetrated against them. That should have made it much clearer to those who received reports or should have taken action that they needed to do so, and they were professionally incompetent for not doing so.

Does the Secretary of State agree that these ghastly crimes against children are a blight on any civilised society and that we must stop them occurring? Does she further agree that it is too often too easy to provide a fast knee-jerk response and get it wrong? Let us look very carefully at the evidence and consider how to respond. Let us look also at the way in which we are shrinking childhood in this country. Personally, I would like to see the age of consent raised. I oppose votes at 16 because that will bring the end of childhood closer. There is too much pressure on childhood and we as a society must look carefully at the preciousness of the childhood years.

The hon. Gentleman is right that what we have seen in Oxfordshire and elsewhere are abhorrent, sickening crimes, and they are crimes. He is right to say that any of us in any position of authority feels that those are a stain on our society and must be eradicated. He is right to say that we do not want to rush into responding, but where immediate action must be taken, it is important that it is taken. That is what we have seen in Rotherham, for example, with the appointment of the commissioners. The Secretaries of State have been meeting since last autumn to discuss the Government’s response to Rotherham in particular, which will be announced at Downing street this afternoon. We have taken time and there will be further consultations coming out of the response. We have already announced reforms to children’s social work practice, and that is a long-term response about improving training. He will understand that there needs to be a mixture of responses to something as sickening as this.

We must do everything we can to reduce the vulnerability of the young people we have heard about today. Further to the question from the Opposition spokesman and the Secretary of State’s response, my Committee agrees about the need for excellent sex and relationship education in schools precisely to give resilience to young people, to enable them to talk about consent in a meaningful way, as one witness put it, and to tell them about age gaps and predatory behaviours so that they start to recognise those. We wrestled with how we would get the curriculum time and the investment in teacher quality if we do not make such education statutory—reluctantly, because we do not want to impose further duties on schools. We came to the conclusion that that had to be made statutory if we are to deliver it. If the Secretary of State thinks it should not be statutory, will she tell us why, or tell us what else could be done in lieu of what we suggested to make these things happen?

I thank my hon. Friend the Chairman of the Select Committee for his remarks. The Committee produced an interesting report and I know that the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb), gave evidence to the Committee. We will consider the conclusions carefully. In relation to consent, it is important to know that the victims in these cases knew that they had not given consent. There was no question about consent being given. They knew that what was happening to them was absolutely wrong. Sex and relationship education is already compulsory in secondary maintained schools. Most academies and free schools also teach it, and I suspect that many primaries do so in an age-appropriate way. I was at Eastbourne academy last week talking to the students there about what they call SPHERE, which is like PSHE. The academy taught it in a fantastic way. It did not need to be told to do so; it did not need such teaching to be statutory. It was doing it because, exactly as the Chairman of the Select Committee said, it was preparing young people to be resilient.

The whole House will be appalled at what has happened in Oxfordshire, but does the Secretary of State understand that we are appalled also that individuals who preside over these failing systems are not held to account? If there was a council where junior social workers have not referred these things up the system, where senior officers and senior councillors were unaware of them, that is a sign of a failing system within a council, and a proper independent outside inquiry is needed to get to the heart of why that system failed and to put it right, as was rightly done in Rotherham. Will the right hon. Lady explain to us why that is not happening now?

The serious case review is an important step in what the hon. Lady calls for. It identifies the fact that, as she said, in Oxfordshire’s case there were junior people who were producing reports but those did not reach a senior enough level. There are other councils, as we know, one of which is Rotherham, where junior people did put in reports which were raised at a senior level, and the people at a senior level chose not to act on them. I have sympathy for the hon. Lady’s point about accountability and people taking responsibility. It will clearly be a matter for Oxfordshire county council, the police and others to think about who needs to take responsibility for these matters. We have already seen that in Rotherham my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has appointed a whole new set of commissioners to run that council. There are other councils where those in charge have taken responsibility and have resigned.

I welcome the measures announced today and the Secretary of State’s indication that child sexual exploitation is now seen as a national threat, which shows the scale of abuse that I think is suspected. Thames Valley police suffered from many failings, but they have made some progress since 2013—I believe that 47 offenders have been successfully charged with 201 child sexual exploitation offences. What can she say at this stage about the support that she and her colleague in the Home Office, the Minister for Policing, Criminal Justice and Victims, will give to police officers and those on the front line who have to deal with these terrible offences?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that child sexual abuse will now be prioritised by every police force in England and Wales as a national threat, just like serious and organised crime, which means forces will now have a duty to collaborate to safeguard children, including through more efficient sharing of resources, intelligence and best practice. They will also be supported by specialist regional CSE police co-ordinators. I think that the national policing lead will be at this afternoon’s summit, where I expect to hear about much better training for all police officers.

Sadly, this report echoes many of the examples of child abuse we have heard about in my own borough of Rotherham and elsewhere. I have two things to say to the Secretary of State. First, Ofsted also carried out an inspection in Rotherham and gave it a clean bill of health when that clearly was not the case. Secondly, she is right to say that Louise Casey’s report on governance went wider than child protection, but it was set up specifically because of the child abuse taking place in Rotherham. Is the Secretary of State satisfied that the scrutiny by elected members in Oxfordshire is up to the standard necessary to protect our young children? It clearly was not in my borough, and people are rightly having to take responsibility for that. Is she happy that that is being done in the elected Oxfordshire county council as well?

The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that Ofsted inspected Rotherham before the issues came to light. The Ofsted framework has since changed, so the inspection carried out in Rotherham was based on a different framework and asked different questions from those of the inspection that we see today and the one that was carried out in Oxfordshire last summer. He is right to raise the issue of elected members, which is one of the questions that we will continue to go back to in Oxfordshire. He will be aware that the proposals on wilful neglect that the Prime Minister announced this morning will also apply to elected members.

I, too, pay tribute to the victims of these appalling crimes. Has the Secretary of State taken into account the fact that Operation Bullfinch, which brought the perpetrators to justice, has transformed the legal landscape in which cases can be heard? Have the good points that were brought out from Operation Bullfinch been taken into account across the country?

I thank my hon. Friend, who is absolutely right to put support for the victims at the heart of all this. He is right that things have moved on as a result partly of Operation Bullfinch and partly of other operations and lessons learned from other cases. It is a different landscape but, as he will appreciate, that does not take away from the harm done to the victims.

I called for the immediate removal and resignation of the Labour leadership of Rotherham council. Will the Secretary of State join me in calling for the resignation of the political leadership of Oxfordshire county council?

I think that is a matter for the leaders and elected members of Oxfordshire county council to consider. The serious case review obviously covers failings from 2004 to 2011. We have today asked for a further locally led assessment of child sexual exploitation in Oxfordshire and for Sophie Humphreys to continue that work. Let me say to the hon. Gentleman that this work is ongoing.

Two weeks ago I was with the Metropolitan police jigsaw unit and paedophile unit, and they will be delighted to a degree to hear her statement on education, because they feel that that is the answer, but they want it to be slanted more towards prevention. Teach what is normally taught, but also teach children about prevention, particularly on the internet. The Metropolitan police used to have a very good scheme that certainly worked for children and teachers, but it seems to have disappeared.

My hon. Friend is right about the importance of education. It is all about the quality of the teaching materials and of the teaching that goes on in schools. There is no point having some sort of lip service paid to lessons about consent or anything else if the lessons do not sink in. The Government have invested in the PSHE Association, supporting improved teaching materials and improved guidance on consent.

May I press the Secretary of State on the need for an independent inquiry? If the cultural issues that led to complaints and concerns not being escalated have not been addressed, why should there not be an independent inquiry?

As I said earlier, the serious case review is an independent inquiry and, under this Government, it will be published in full so that we can all see what has been said. As I have said, we propose that there should be a specific piece of work led by Oxfordshire’s safeguarding children board on the impact of the multi-agency approach to tackling CSE, and we are appointing a children’s services expert to work alongside the council and gather evidence of the reforms it has already made to front-line practice.

I know that many police officers at all levels of the service are appalled at the policing failures that led to the wider failures in this terrible set of cases. I appreciate that this does not fall within the Secretary of State’s ministerial responsibility, but does she share my view that the key thing in the training of police officers now is to change the culture of disbelief so that they treat vulnerable young women no longer as a problem but as victims of crime?

My right hon. Friend is right to point to the culture of denial and disbelief. As we heard from the right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith), there was sometimes a reluctance to believe allegations, even when victims presented themselves in a state at a police station. The Minister for Policing, Criminal Justice and Victims is sitting alongside me, and I know that he is as appalled as we all are about this. As we have learned, there are lessons for the police that will be picked up at today’s summit.

The Secretary of State earlier said, “We on this side of the House are concerned”. May I take this opportunity to remind her that all Members on both sides of the House are united in their determination to drive out child sexual exploitation? I ask her to look at two particular proposals to increase resilience to such exploitation among children: first, to feed into the Home Office review of child advocates the lessons from this review; and secondly, to take up a suggestion made by worried mums in my constituency for parents’ PSHE so that they can better protect their children.

The hon. Lady will appreciate that I cannot speak for Opposition Members, but I think that the tone of remarks from the shadow Education Secretary and others has shown that Members on both sides of the House are appalled by what has happened to the victims, and sadly not only in Oxfordshire, but in other local authorities. She will be well aware of what has happened to Slough’s children’s services and of the work that has been done there to set up the trust over the years. I understand her point about child advocates, which has already been taken up, and what she says about parents, whether in relation to PSHE or anything else. In this case, however, looking again at the serious case review, there were parents of victims also saying that they needed help, but they were not believed. That makes this case even more appalling.

As my right hon. Friend has said, child sexual exploitation has been a scourge in many communities across the UK. I am pleased that Lancashire police have taken a lead on those issues for a number of years now and regularly update me on local prosecutions. Will she say more about the level of support she can provide for the charities and non-statutory bodies that are doing such fantastic work to support victims but find themselves under increasing pressure at this time?

Although many statutory agencies will be responsible for dealing with these issues in supporting victims and their families, my hon. Friend is absolutely right to pay tribute to the charities and the voluntary and community sector, which provide that support as well. This afternoon, for example, representatives from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Barnardo’s and Rape Crisis are attending a summit on this. I know from my role as Minister for Women and Equalities—the policing Minister will appreciate this too—that smaller organisations often find very valuable support in communities. We absolutely want to help them to do their job.

When the Education Committee carried out a year-long inquiry into child protection, we found that more needed to be done to support professionals in responding effectively and consistently to the early signs of neglect. Neglect causes long-term damage to thousands of young people every year. Therefore, should not prevention of neglect be as much of a priority as finding the perpetrators and supporting the victims, which the Secretary of State has talked about, and should that not include support for professionals, as recommended by the Committee and accepted by the Government two years ago in their response to our report?

The hon. Gentleman talks about the need to deal with neglect, and I entirely agree. Sadly, there are many vulnerable children across our country. I am sure that we see them in our role as constituency Members of Parliament and work with them and their families. I mention to him the work that this Government have undertaken through the troubled families programme, which is turning round the lives of thousands of children. We also have the new knowledge and skills statement for children’s social workers that has been prepared by the chief children’s social worker, Isabelle Trowler, who does a fantastic job in my Department, and the wider reforms that I have announced in training for children’s social work. It all very well to have lots of children’s social workers, but it is also very important to ensure the quality of their training and of the work that they do in supporting vulnerable children and families.