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Child Sexual Exploitation: Telford

Volume 616: debated on Tuesday 25 October 2016

[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered child sexual exploitation in Telford.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Hollobone. I take this opportunity to congratulate the Minister on her appointment. I know that she will be a great champion of the vulnerable.

Child sexual exploitation is a sensitive and difficult subject, and I am grateful for the opportunity to speak for the victims in my constituency. Telford has the highest recorded rate of child sex offences in the country, a rate that has continued to increase. House of Commons Library documentation shows that child sex offences in Telford are now at a rate of 18.4 per 10,000 heads of population. That rate is greater than in higher-profile places such as Rotherham, Rochdale and Middlesbrough, and compares with a national average of 7.9 cases per 10,000 heads of population. We know that the crime has gone on in Telford for more than 20 years and is still going on. I raise the matter today so that we can better understand the causes and break the silence that surrounds the issue, giving victims the chance to be heard. We need to find out what went wrong and what could have been done to prevent the exploitation, and ensure that we learn the lessons of the past.

In recent weeks, I have met with bright, articulate, young women who have come to tell me about their experiences, in some cases stretching back over many years. What has come across powerfully for me is that victims want to be reassured that they will not be brushed aside. They want recognition, and they want acceptance that something went wrong. We all want to have confidence in the authorities in Telford, which are tasked with the difficult responsibility of protecting our young people, and that is why I have asked for an independent review. We need to be sure that we have put mistakes right and that the culture has changed. It is not about blame, but about acknowledgement that victims were failed. Pretending otherwise intensifies the sense some victims and their families have that what happened to them was somehow their fault.

There needs to be a much better understanding of social and cultural attitudes towards women, because it was, in part, the attitudes to the victims that led to the crime being unidentified or unaddressed for so long. We must move away from victim blaming and shaming and recognise that these were children who were victims of a crime. We must change our perception of the victims. Too often, assumptions were made that the young girls were making choices to have regular underage sex. We see, for example, GPs handing out morning-after pills to the same young girls week after week, without asking questions, simply assuming that it is a choice the girls are making. It is wrong to blame children as young as 12 for “indulging in risky behaviour” or label them as sexually promiscuous. That is completely wrong.

In Telford we have seen the recent phenomenon of shaming videos, in which derogatory terms are used to describe young girls. The girls are “outed” for allegedly promiscuous behaviour. That attitude to women and girls promotes a culture in which it ultimately ends up being acceptable to trade women like commodities and then blame the women themselves. There has been an emphasis on educating girls and their families about the risks of grooming, but it is equally important that our boys are educated so they do not think it is normal to treat young girls in that way.

One particularly poignant aspect of child sexual exploitation is that the young victims often believe themselves to be in relationships with the men who groom them. I have had victims tell of their conflicting emotions of loyalty and attachment to men who befriended them and gained their trust but then went on to trade them for sex with other men and trap them in fear of being exposed or shamed, or of their friends and families finding out. It is essential, therefore, to do more to encourage victims and their families to come forward, and to ensure that they are properly supported and helped to overcome their experience. Too many of them fear being stigmatised and blamed, and for that reason keep quiet. In many cases, young women who are now adults are only just starting to make sense of what happened to them when they were as young as 12, and they may have parents, partners and children who know nothing about it. Shaming leads to a culture of silence around the issue, and we should therefore speak out so that victims feel more confident about telling their own stories themselves.

We have to be honest: this is a crime in which 95% of perpetrators are men and most victims are young girls. We do no one any favours to ignore that fact or to avoid the conclusion that historical child sexual exploitation, like many sex crimes, is a consequence of social and cultural attitudes towards women and negative gender stereotyping.

I commend the Government’s commitment to dealing with child sexual abuse. Their setting up of the independent inquiry led by Professor Jay is a testament to that commitment. Authorities in Telford have said that no independent review of what happened there is necessary, because the overarching national investigation into child sexual abuse will look at that. The Jay inquiry is tasked with investigating child sexual abuse in institutions, and in cases where abuse was reported but no action was taken, but for victims in Telford the abuse happened in cars, in the streets, in betting shops, in takeaways and in taxis, and we know that many of the victims not only did not report it but to this day remain afraid to tell anyone what happened. I have looked at the terms of the truth project, which is how the Jay inquiry will take evidence, and they clearly set out three different scenarios in which evidence will be taken from young people. They all relate to institutional settings or to institutions failing to act on reports of abuse.

On the face of it, it therefore appears that the Jay inquiry does not cover child exploitation, and I should be very grateful if the Minister could clarify that, either in her response today or after the debate. Can a victim of grooming and child sexual exploitation in Telford come forward and tell their story to the Jay inquiry, and have their experience inform the inquiry and its findings? Even if the Jay inquiry is to cover child sexual exploitation in Telford, we do not expect the report to be finalised until 2020, given the many competing strands and areasof investigation. How likely is it that we will get to understand fully the causes of what happened in Telford if we can rely only on the Jay investigation?

A Select Committee on Communities and Local Government report on lessons learned from Rotherham, produced in the 2014-15 parliamentary session, stated:

“We would be seriously concerned if other local authorities…were to hold off…investigations”

pending the outcome of the Jay inquiry. It also noted that “the stimulus for action” in getting the Rotherham inquiry to take place was the press and not any council processes or external inspections. It is important to challenge those in authority so as to avoid any complacency creeping in, and we should all, as Members of Parliament, challenge attitudes towards the powerless and the voiceless.

I know that good work is going on in Telford and that progress is being made. However, even if we accept that everything is as it should be—and that very well might be the case—there still needs to be recognition that this happened. There are those who would rather we did not talk about the issue. I understand that it is difficult, but we should not shy away from it just because it is difficult. If we brush it off and say, “It’s all okay now”, that is not much comfort to victims.

I invite those who would rather we did not speak about the issue to think about how that makes victims feel. I urge them to realise what a sensitive, complex issue it is. Not talking about it does not make it go away; it diminishes the experiences of victims. It is almost to dismiss the experience as though it never happened. When people in authority say, “Well, it’s all okay now”, it feels like no one is listening. We do not want any young woman feeling that there is no point in saying anything because nothing will be done or that she will be blamed, shamed or in some way made to feel culpable. In any event, there is a natural reluctance to go to social workers or the police, and we should do all we can to give the victims the confidence to come forward.

I want to say to those girls in Telford who have not yet spoken out that they are not to blame. This was a crime. It was something that happened to them that should never have happened. It takes huge courage for them to see their MP and talk about it, and I pay tribute to all the bright and articulate young women who have told me their stories.

I also want to touch on the distress caused to parents. There is a sense of self-blame, with parents asking, “Did I fail my child? I do not know how to make it better. How could I not have known this was happening?” Support for families is a vital part of the healing.

I pay tribute to the street pastors in Telford for their fantastic work. I have been out with them at night and seen the work they do with young people leaving clubs, sometimes the worse for wear. People in Telford feel a huge sense of trust and warmth towards them, and they must be congratulated for being such an important part of our community.

In conclusion, there needs to be more work on challenging cultural and social attitudes towards women and girls, or this crime will keep on happening. We need to recognise the social and cultural prejudice—albeit unconscious—that exists. Much can be done to focus on the perpetrators: the men who buy and sell young girls for sex. We should also be mindful of those who turn a blind eye or who see these girls through a negative gender stereotype. It is not the victims who are to blame.

I take this opportunity to thank the Home Secretary for a very full and thorough response to my recent correspondence on the issue. I am most grateful to her for taking these concerns so seriously and for making the issue a priority. I am pleased to learn that she is sending her officials to Telford to discuss the issue with the authorities. I know that the authorities in Telford are committed to getting it right. I know they want to build the confidence of the people they are there to protect and the public. An independent review will find out why this crime happened and will give reassurance to victims that they will be heard and will not be ignored, and it will ensure that all is being done to stop it happening in the future. I have been a councillor, and I know how difficult it is for even the best councils to find fault with themselves and to cast a critical eye. It is easy to drift into complacency or close down challenge by seeing complainants as a nuisance or those who speak out as somehow vexatious. Respectful challenge is to be encouraged and is part of a healthy transparent process that enables victims to come forward and get the help and support they need.

Finally, I pay a special tribute to one young woman who motivated me to ask for the review and this debate, and who is here today. She has been incredibly courageous and has fought hard to make things better for others. She has been willing to challenge the system, question authority and put forward solutions to ensure that this crime is tackled. She has already made a huge difference to the debate on this issue, and I thank her for that. She can be assured that as her MP, I will continue to speak for her and for others who have suffered, to ensure that their voices are always heard.

I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) on securing this vital debate, which is of huge importance to her constituents. She has shown herself to be a doughty champion of them. I am grateful to her constituent for being so brave. It could not have been easy for her to speak her MP, even though my hon. Friend is so lovely and so nice. Her constituent would not have known that. She had the courage to speak to a Member of Parliament and share intimate, personal and difficult issues in her life. She was so brave, and she motivated my hon. Friend to take up this cause. Whoever she is, I pay great tribute to her for doing that. I can absolutely assure her that her voice has been heard today, and I have no doubt that her Member of Parliament will continue to champion such causes to make things much better for everyone in Telford.

Rightly, we all understand that child sexual abuse and exploitation is a despicable crime, and we must do everything in our power to prevent it from happening. I am clear that where abuse has occurred, it must be thoroughly and properly investigated and those responsible brought to justice. Anyone who has suffered child sexual abuse, however long ago, should feel confident to report what has happened to them to the police in the knowledge that they will be supported and their abusers will be brought to justice. Abuse should be reported to the local police force, but if victims feel more comfortable telling someone they trust who can then support them to make the disclosure to the police when they are ready, that is also welcomed.

As a result of a lot of training, police attitudes have improved. My hon. Friend may have constituents who were frightened to go to the police, but they should have the confidence to go to the police now. Wherever and however long ago the incidents happened, they will be listened to carefully. I am sure they will find it is a different experience today than it perhaps was in the past. The police will gather evidence so that they can press charges and secure a conviction through the Crown Prosecution Service. If there are any remaining concerns that allegations are not being investigated thoroughly, that can be escalated, first through a complaint to the local force. Any complaint against the local police force on allegations of child sexual exploitation is automatically referred to the Independent Police Complaints Commission. There is a more rapid and serious escalation of those concerns.

As my hon. Friend mentioned, the Government are undertaking an ambitious programme of work to tackle child sexual abuse nationally, as we clearly set out in the “Tackling Child Sexual Exploitation” report. That report includes a lot of the issues that she raised, including education and challenging stereotypes about women, as well as looking at working with perpetrators and the attitudes of young people. We have urgently tackled the culture of denial within professions about the scale and nature of this crime, and we have strengthened local accountability. More victims and survivors of abuse are now being identified and are getting the protection and support they need.

The issues that my hon. Friend raised relating to historical failings in Telford are of great concern to me and to the Secretary of State. That is why we asked officials, ahead of this debate and their visit, to speak with us. We spoke to police leaders, the director of children’s services and the Local Government Association. Likewise, council leaders have written to the Home Secretary to provide reassurances that they are taking action to address past failures and are better able to protect children from abuse. Service leaders have separately told my officials that they acknowledge the scale of the problem and the past failures in Telford, as well as the remaining problems. They are prioritising tackling child sexual exploitation and are working together to address the issues.

I know that my hon. Friend recognises that steps have been taken in this area. Although overall children’s services were judged still to require improvement in Ofsted’s July report, it found that:

“Work with children and young people at risk of sexual exploitation is very strong. The local authority has been a champion for tackling this issue. It provides leadership to partner agencies, with who this work is well-coordinated.”

Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary’s 2015 vulnerability inspection said that the police are

“demonstrating a strong desire to improve outcomes for children who are at risk of harm.”

The council and others must now focus on implementing the recommendations made by Ofsted, the council’s scrutiny committee and HMIC, so they can continue to improve their response to young people in Telford. A wide range of support is available to services in Telford and elsewhere through both the Local Government Association and the recently launched child sexual exploitation response unit, which is backed by £1.24 million of Government funding. The unit operates independently of the Government and will ensure specialist support is made available to people working in children’s safeguarding across the country, enabling them to develop and deliver a strong and robust first response to children and families who are the victims of child sexual exploitation.

It is for the authorities in Telford to decide whether they want to access that additional support, and whether they think an independent inquiry would help them make the further improvements they clearly need. I suggest that, if my hon. Friend has not already done so, she should encourage them to take up those offers of help, to look at the resources available in the child sexual exploitation response unit and to ensure they are doing absolutely everything to address her constituents’ legitimate concerns and to give the whole community of Telford the confidence and assurances that she seeks. She is absolutely right that the victims in Telford, to whom dreadful things have happened, must feel, first, that they have been listened to and, secondly, that those in power and with responsibility have learned lessons from the past. I hope she and the council can agree on the mechanisms by which that can be addressed locally.

My hon. Friend rightly commented on the national Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, which has announced 13 strands of work. It is possible for her constituents to share their experiences with the inquiry. One of the strands of work allows people who have been affected to come to the inquiry independently and have their concerns listened to—they do not have to do so via an institution. Part of the inquiry’s work is to look at what more the BBC and other institutions could have done, but individuals can come forward with their experiences to shape our understanding and lead to better services in the future. I assure my hon. Friend that we are not waiting for the end of the inquiry. It is a huge inquiry, and it will take many years to hear all the evidence. It will report at least annually on lessons it has learned so people in the Home Office, the health service, local government and the police—the whole of society—can take on board that learning and start to change their actions. Again, I encourage her constituents to talk to the inquiry.

Ultimately, if my hon. Friend is not satisfied that the council and its leadership are really listening to the victims and the community at large, she has the opportunity to give evidence to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. If there is good evidence that the council is failing, section 15 of the Local Government Act 1999 enables the Secretary of States to intervene directly but, as I am sure my hon. Friend understands, that is very much an action of last resort. We respect local government, but we expect them to conduct themselves in an open, transparent and good way, and they should be wholly accountable to the local people they represent. We will intervene, but it has to be based on a lot of hard evidence. From the independent inspections of Ofsted and the constabulary, we have not seen enough evidence to warrant intervention, but if my hon. Friend or councillors have evidence of a systematic failure of leadership, and if they feel they are not making progress, they should share that information with me and we will take it up.

I hope I have reassured my hon. Friend, her constituents who are here today and the wider community that we take this issue extremely seriously. My hon. Friend has done a very good job in raising those concerns. She should use some of the tools I highlighted, and she should not hesitate to meet with me and officials if she feels there is anything more we can do collectively or individually. We want to leave no stone unturned in stamping out the vile and despicable crime of child sexual exploitation.

Question put and agreed to.