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Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation: Telford

Volume 654: debated on Wednesday 6 February 2019

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the progress on the independent inquiry into child sexual exploitation in Telford.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. Almost a year ago, local campaigners in Telford finally succeeded in persuading the local council to hold a Rotherham-style inquiry into child sexual exploitation in the town. The survivor-led campaign began in 2016. The issue was raised in questions and debates in Parliament, but the local authority rejected all requests. Together with all local safeguarding partners, it told the Home Secretary and the Home Office, who sent officials to Telford to see what was going on, that no inquiry was necessary. Ten men in positions of power in safeguarding signed a letter to say that there was nothing to see here.

The campaign for an inquiry was eventually successful, because courageous victims were willing to speak out and come forward. I salute their bravery. They spoke to a determined female journalist, Geraldine McKelvie, who carried out a tireless 18-month investigation. In February 2018, she finally put the shocking scale of the problem in Telford into the public domain.

The purpose of the inquiry was to hold those in authority to account, to give answers to survivors and their families, and to give our community reassurance that lessons have been learned and that everything possible is being done to ensure that our young people are not at risk. Victims and families wanted to understand what had happened and to know that their experiences would not be brushed aside and forgotten. The inquiry was supposed to restore trust in the system, to reassure people that it would be on the side of the victim, to acknowledge the fears and anxieties of our community, and to restore confidence that the authorities would protect vulnerable young people. It is hard to understand how that could not be a matter of urgency.

Child sexual exploitation is not just any crime. It has a lifelong impact on victims and their families and it affects the whole community. It is about control, manipulation and fear, and it creates long-term psychological trauma for victims and families, from which survivors struggle to recover. It is also about the failure of those in authority to act and to recognise what was happening. Let us be clear: the victims in Telford were predominantly young vulnerable women, and those in power, who had responsibility but who so often looked the other way, were predominantly men.

When the media attention moved to other towns with similar problems, I did not want victims to feel let down because, after all their courage in speaking out, nothing had really changed. I have worked with survivors, more recent victims and their families, and I want my community to know that I have an absolute sense of duty to ensure that the inquiry happens and that it delivers accountability and change.

Once the council had agreed that such an inquiry would be held, everyone expected a chair to be appointed to lead it. One senior councillor said that the appointment was to take place before the end of summer 2018. The council would then step back and let the chairman get on with it, because of course the council’s actions would be subject to scrutiny by the inquiry, hence the need for independence.

I kept a close eye on that to make sure that matters were progressing, but when I looked, I found a shocking lack of urgency. A PR executive has been appointed to position the council more favourably, along with a top firm of solicitors who are experts in dispute resolution. As to the inquiry, however, there is not even a job specification for the chair yet, no advert has been placed and no terms of reference have been drafted.

The experts in dispute resolution say that they are “designing a recruitment process” and

“looking to share their thoughts on this at future meetings with the council.”

They also say that they are,

“mindful to build in sufficient time for each of the steps involved in the recruitment process, and may add in additional steps at a later stage.”

Once the recruitment process has been completed, they will begin “designing terms of reference”.

We are one year on from when the council finally agreed that it would commission an inquiry—one year—and that battle had been fought since 2016. What progress has there been? A partner in that top firm of solicitors can now share a logo for the inquiry and is concerning themselves with typeface and colour. In that year, they have also come up with an inquiry name. I mean no disrespect to the solicitors involved, but we have to ask who is taking responsibility for this extraordinary situation.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. She has been almost uniquely at the sharp end of holding those responsible for overseeing the appalling state of affairs in Telford to account. She was quite right to call this debate to highlight the complete lack of action that she has just illustrated from those who were due to appoint the chair and get the inquiry under way. I sincerely hope that when the Minister responds, he will reassure her that he will take as keen an interest as she does in ensuring that people are held to account for the failures of local authority supervision as soon as possible.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his kind words, and for his support on this issue and many others that I deal with as the Member of Parliament for Telford.

The inquiry was meant to be for the survivors and our community. It was meant to provide assurances to our young people, and to heal and restore. It was also about accountability for those in authority. Instead, we see a slow-motion gravy train for solicitors—expensive people fussing over logos and letterheads—which sends the message that getting to the bottom of what happened in Telford is not a matter of urgency.

That is set against a history of the men in authority not taking the issue seriously. The chief inspector claimed that the female journalist sensationalised the number of victims. The chair of the safeguarding board stated that the number of victims was made up on the back of a fag packet. A male cabinet member for children’s services attacked the journalist on social media and described her and her sources as “despicable”. Others said that those who raised the issue were doing it for political gain or were responsible for Britain First and the English Defence League protesting in the town.

Those men resisted and struggled and came up with multiple reasons why no inquiry could be held. They used their positions of power to shut it down. “It will cost millions and millions,” they threatened. Well, they seem to be working hard to make that happen. Rather than getting to the bottom of the history of child sexual exploitation in the town, they are creating a tangled bureaucracy that benefits no one. People want fresh air, daylight and transparency on the issue; they do not want the inquiry to be tied up in knots for five years and to cost millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money.

When it has been gently suggested—by far more subtle means than a debate in this place—that the delays must stop, the authority’s reaction has been furious. “This is what survivors want,” it claims, which shows how completely out of touch it is. The survivors do not want multimillion-pound bureaucracy with logos and letterheads that stretches out potentially for five years. They want access to counselling; they want help to rebuild their lives; they want their experience to be acknowledged; they want answers; and they want to know that lessons have been learned, processes are in place and attitudes have changed. Why would any responsible council claim that a long, expensive, bureaucratic inquiry must be better than an efficient inquiry that delivers results?

The council could have copied the style of the Rotherham inquiry. That was what survivors asked for. The inquiry took three months to set up, it took nine months to deliver and it cost £120,000, but most importantly of all from the survivors’ perspective, it delivered real accountability. Those in authority who had failed young people were held to account. The chief executive, the director of children’s services, and the police and crime commissioner all resigned. That is not going to happen in Telford—this inquiry makes quite sure of that.

In the end, this is about accountability. Those in authority are accountable to local people, and it is the job of MPs to ensure that they hold those in power to account. It is now time for the authorities in Telford to be open with the public about the cost of this inquiry, the envisaged timescale, the objectives and the possible outcomes, and then we can let local people be the judge. It is time to see this issue from the outside looking in, and I am grateful to the media for doing just that. Can those in authority really not see how the situation looks from the outside? Can they really not see how it appears to the hundreds of survivors and to our wider community?

Child sexual exploitation is a horrendous crime and of course blame lies with the perpetrators, but we cannot and must not ignore the fact that attitudes towards vulnerable young women in communities up and down the country played their part in allowing this crime to continue unchecked. In every case of child sexual exploitation, there is a sense that the system was just not on the victims’ side; that their experience was minimised; that somehow they were to blame; and that the authorities and those in positions of power just did not work for them.

Although much has changed and we see great improvements in Telford and elsewhere, I urge the Minister, who I hold in the highest regard, to do all he can to ensure that this inquiry does not become one more example of the way in which authorities so often fail the very people they are meant to serve.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Stringer.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) on securing this important debate. I know how much she has campaigned for the victims and survivors of child sexual exploitation in her constituency, and she absolutely must be credited for keeping this important issue front and centre, both in Telford and here in Westminster. I also thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr Dunne) for being with us today, because of his interest in a neighbouring constituency.

It goes without saying that child sexual exploitation is a heinous crime. It is one of the most difficult things that we as a society have to deal with. As this issue is not my day-to-day policy responsibility, just preparing for this debate and reading through some of the material about it was difficult for me to do. It is therefore right that, at all levels of Government, we work together to provide a strong response to this crime. Together we can ensure that victims find justice, and collectively we can better understand the failings of the past, ensuring that we not only help victims but protect future generations of children.

I will start by setting out what the Government are doing, and have been doing, on this issue. I am pleased to say that the Government’s ambitious “Tackling child sexual exploitation” work has created a step change in the national response to sexual exploitation and violence against children and young people. The Home Office has established a new investigative team in the National Crime Agency. We have invested in new frontline response for victims and services, for example by recruiting an extra 100 specialist rape and child sexual abuse prosecutors.

The Department for Education has funded an independent response unit to boost capacity and expertise in local areas, which has supported over 20,000 professionals. The Home Office has also provided significant extra investment to the law enforcement response, through the police transformation fund. This has led to an increasing number of cases being prosecuted in the courts and heavy sentences being handed down.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary also recognises the grooming threats that our children face online. In September, he announced a £21 million investment to improve how law enforcement agencies reduce the volume of offending and pursue the most prolific offenders. There is much more to be done to help to combat this global threat, including by the digital industry, but I believe that the Home Office continues to galvanise global action, and it presses for a co-ordinated industry-wide response.

The Government want victims to have the confidence to report crimes, knowing that they will get the support they need, and that everything will be done to bring offenders to justice. That why in each of the last three years the Ministry of Justice has provided £7 million of funding for non-statutory organisations that support victims and survivors of sexual abuse, including child sexual abuse.

Finally, inquiries are an important way of shedding light on the causes and circumstances of events that have given rise to public concern. That is why in 2015 the Home Office launched the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse to get to the truth, expose what has gone wrong and learn lessons for the future.

I turn to Telford specifically. First of all, I am glad that both Telford and Wrekin Council and West Mercia police are committed to tackling child sexual exploitation in their area. Of course, that must be their priority. I have seen that over the last decade they have forged a model of partnership working, established a taskforce to tackle this issue together, and have been noted by Ofsted for their work. In 2012, they brought seven perpetrators to justice, making their area the second place in the country to do so.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Telford mentioned, counselling and support are of course of paramount importance for survivors—in her words, they need such support to help them to rebuild their lives—so I was glad to see that the council is focused on that. It is responsible for commissioning services. I understand that very soon, a new support contract will start. It has the approval of the Telford Survivors Committee and was rightly conceived by a partnership of the local council, the police and the clinical commissioning group. I hope that all involved focus on what my hon. Friend has said and work together constructively to help all victims and survivors to rebuild their lives.

I am also glad that the council finally agreed to hold an independent inquiry into child sexual exploitation, which many people, including my hon. Friend, had called for. Ultimately, that was the council’s decision; it is the council’s inquiry. I welcome its openness to additional scrutiny through this process.

It is in the interests of all concerned in Telford that the inquiry be set up in a transparent manner that meets the needs of survivors. The council has rightly commissioned an independent body to oversee this process. Appointing the right chair will be key to the inquiry’s success; I agree with my hon. Friend that that should now be prioritised. I also understand her concern that costs associated with the inquiry appear to be rising, and the council should be held to account for that, as is appropriate. The final thing to say is that the council has committed to this independent inquiry, so it must deliver on it, properly and expeditiously, to provide answers and justice for the survivors.

In conclusion, as I said at the outset, we must all learn from mistakes. I again thank my hon. Friend for her tireless commitment to this cause. Only by learning from and tackling the failings of the past, both locally and nationally, can we ensure that we not only help victims and survivors in a better way but, vitally, protect future generations of children from this insidious crime.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.