I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petitions 300239 and 327566 relating to grooming gangs.
I would like to thank the 131,625 people who signed the first of the e-petitions that we will be debating today, calling for the release of the Home Office review into this issue, which of course has now happened. The second, smaller petition, signed by over 30,000 people, is calling for a public inquiry into the issue of grooming gangs. Clearly, this issue is of huge importance, and it has caused immense distress to a huge number of people across the country—the victims themselves who have been victims of this appalling crime, but also their friends and family, and I would add to that the whole communities that I think have been shocked and appalled by what has happened.
I think there is a sense, though, from this Home Office report that it is not quite what many people were intending. When I talk about “many people”, ahead of this debate, being a member of the Petitions Committee, although I do not represent a constituency where this has been a big issue, I found it incumbent upon myself to speak to other hon. and right hon. Members who have knowledge in this area, but also to some of the victims of this appalling crime, to gain a greater understanding of what their views are and also their views on the report. Many of them do feel that the report does not go far enough; they believe it only touches upon the issues. If it is the start of something far more significant, then okay, but if it is the end of it, they will feel very unsatisfied. I would support them in saying that I do believe further action should be taken.
One of the key problems has been the lack of data, which has made it difficult to go into detail regarding the characteristics of the grooming gangs and those involved. That has been problematic. Some hon. Members have raised the point that if the data is just not available, then surely we can just look at those who have been convicted and gain a pretty accurate picture of the kinds of individuals who have been engaged in the matter. That has been raised before.
Of course, those who are most responsible for this appalling crime are those who have been found guilty—those who have carried out the evil act. They are the principal individuals, but there is also a great sense in many of the communities and in towns such as Rotherham and Rochdale—although the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) has done brilliant work on this issue, showing great courage in standing up for and battling for her constituents—that they have been failed over a long period of time by the state, at both local level and national level. They feel like this issue was swept under the carpet because it was seen as being inconvenient and not politically correct to talk about it. That is how they feel; that is the hurt that they feel, and it is incumbent upon all of us in this House to address those concerns and give them a sense that justice has been done, and also that the lessons have been learned, so that we can try to ensure that we do not continue to have these appalling crimes happening within our society.
There is a wider point here, though, about this issue and about whether it was political correctness, for want of a better word, or something else—concern about cultural sensitivities—but does seem in many cases that the majority of those who have engaged in this evil act came from one particular community. Many feel—and I agree with them—that if it is the case that certain crimes are disproportionately committed by members of certain communities, we should be open and honest about that and address it, because actually, by sweeping it under the carpet and not addressing it , it makes tensions and divisions worse down the line.
I would say that, as a society, we have a long way to go when it comes to tackling racism. I do not think we have completed that journey yet, but would it not be great if, as a society, we were mature enough to have these difficult discussions, while never losing sight of the fact that the vast majority in our society stand against racism, and against stigmatising particular communities? This issue does need to be addressed.
We look at the role of racism and how many of the victims of this appalling crime feel as though there is concern from certain individuals that they would be branded a racist or called out for being a racist if they spoke the truths as they know them to be on some of these matters. Actually, the view of a lot of these victims, who more often than not are white working-class girls—our girls—is that they were on occasion specifically targeted because of the fact that they were white, because of their western-ness, and because of the fact that they were not Asian. That is how they feel. I would encourage those who disagree with how they feel to have a discussion with them, because that is how they feel. Therefore, the information and data about the ethnic background of those who have been found guilty of these crimes is necessary if we are to gain a profound understanding of this appalling crime, learn the lessons, and ensure that it never happens again. If we do believe that this kind of racism towards white girls is a driver here—if we do believe that it is the case—and that it is an aggravating factor, then we need to address it, and we need a report that addresses it and gets under the skin of the issue in a way that it has not so far.
I planned not to talk at great length here today. Although I do, as a Member of this place, feel passionately about this issue, as it happens my constituency has not been impacted by it as much as many hon. Members’ constituencies have, so I want to make sure that they have as much time as possible today to talk about some of the stories within their own constituencies, because I think that is very important. I would like to thank the founder of the petition, George MacDonald, and the victims I spoke to as well. I think it is right to say that the abuse of young girls conducted by grooming gangs has shaken society and we should do everything in our power to eradicate it.
I would also like to thank, on behalf of the petitioners, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary for the actions she has taken. Like her predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid), she has been very robust on this issue. I feel that if it had not been for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, there probably would not have been any report all. At the end of day, any report is better than no report, in particular any report that at least promises that in future we will get the right data to be able to look at this issue and come up with solutions. As a member of the Petitions Committee, I support the petitioners in their desire for further action to be taken, so this can be looked at more thoroughly.
I hope that everyone who indicated they wish to speak this afternoon will have the opportunity to do so. I am therefore introducing an immediate time limit of four minutes on Back-Bench speeches.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Tackling violence and sexual exploitation has been one of my priorities since I was first elected in 2011, when during my roundtables with constituents I was made aware of child sexual exploitation concerns following the Rochdale grooming gangs scandal. It is not an easy subject to discuss—I find it incredibly difficult to even think about someone who is knowingly abusing a child for their own pleasure—but we know it happens in every community and in every part of the country. We all have an obligation to do what we can to prevent it and root it out wherever we find it.
I have a clear protocol to immediately escalate any child sexual exploitation case that is brought to me to the appropriate authorities. Unfortunately, my team and I have dealt with a number of cases. Greater Manchester police provide me with regular briefings on activities undertaken by Operation Messenger and now Project Phoenix, which specifically deal with CSE across Greater Manchester. I meet regularly with local groups such as Keep Our Girls Safe and the Women’s CHAI project, which stands for Care Help And Inspire but has a wider remit than supporting girls and women experiencing abuse, as does Inspire Women. Pre-pandemic, when I was visiting at least one school a week, I used this as a platform to promote equality, self-awareness and resilience of all children, whatever their background, sex, ethnicity or religion. I also meet regularly with Oldham’s Interfaith Forum. Together, we have worked to promote human rights for all, including the rights of our children.
In Parliament, I am a member of the CSE cross-party group chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), whom I congratulate on all she has done to expose CSE. We have heard evidence from those who have been abused, and reviewed evidence of good practice among other things. However, as the hon. Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) has just mentioned, I am keenly aware that our understanding of the scale and extent of CSE, and in particular CSE associated with grooming gangs, is lacking. As the House of Commons Library report identified, it only becomes known once cases are identified and victims and offenders are reported.
It is estimated that three out of every four victims of a rape or assault of a person under 16 do not come forward and report it to the police. In a recent Home Office report, about 10,500 cases were flagged by the police as potentially CSE-related. The victims of CSE were said to be mainly young women, predominantly 14 to 15 years old, who had a number of risk factors that made them vulnerable to exploitation. Group-based CSE offenders were said to tend to be male and under 30, younger than those offenders acting alone who were said to be more prolific.
Clearly the data is inadequate and the focus of the Home Office on this important issue needs to sharpen up. Every child matters and their rights, as enshrined in the UN convention to which the UK became a signatory in 1990, need to be actively embodied. I will not let those far-right groups, wherever they may skulk, get away with lying and trying to sow hate, division and blame on this issue. I repeat that child abuse occurs in every community, in every part of the country and in every part of the world, and I am committed to rooting it out, wherever it may be.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams), with whom I serve as co-chair of the all-party group on women in the penal system. It is striking that we are in this debate, because so many women who end up in the criminal justice system are themselves victims of abuse. It is a reminder of how often the state fails these women.
We are talking about victims of serious crime. It disappoints me that although we have been aware of this issue for some time—we have had some high-profile cases that have taken years to bring to justice—we are forced to have this debate by the Petitions Committee, and it is at the fag end of a parliamentary day. Again, girls are at the back of the queue, and victims of sexual crimes are not getting the attention they deserve. We really need to turbo-charge everything that we are doing in this space, so that women and girls will recognise that the state takes sexual abuse seriously. That will make them more prepared to come forward. We know that some of the perpetrators have been getting away with this for years and are still at large, because—we have seen it too often—when people bring it to the attention of the authorities, they look the other way because it is all too difficult.
If we in this place are not seen to be taking these crimes seriously, we cannot expect the rest of society to do so. I am very grateful for the opportunity to debate the subject, but I am very sorry that it has come to this and that we are doing it in these circumstances. I hope that when we can get this place back to normal and we have more parliamentary time, we can give such issues the attention that they deserve.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), who has been champion by name and nature in the way she has taken on this subject. I commend her determination. There are men in every community who view women and girls as objects of sexual gratification. That is something that we should always root out, but we especially need not to let cultural sensitivities get in the way. We have talked about white working-class girls today, but just imagine what happens to girls in communities where we do not tackle it. Take things like forced marriage: we know that children are brought over from other countries to marry their relatives, with horrendous consequences, not just because they are forced into relationships without their consent, but because the children who are the output of such marriages often have huge problems.
For the welfare of everybody involved, we really must be honest about tackling these issues. If we do not, other people will, with a much more sinister motive. We need to be working with these communities, changing attitudes and tackling patriarchal influences that make our women and girls victims of organised criminal activity. We will do that only by engaging with communities, and we certainly will not do it by pretending that such things do not happen.
I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Minister takes the matter very seriously, and I am sure she would prefer the debate to be longer. I say to her sincerely that I look forward very much to working with her to give the subject the attention it deserves. I end with a plea: now that we finally have relationships and sex education as part of the curriculum, can we look properly at the tools for educating girls that consent is theirs to give, and it is not to be expected?
I really appreciate the fact that we are having this debate, because I have spent eight years trying to get justice for survivors of child sexual exploitation and to prevent grooming gangs. I have been vilified, smeared and threatened, by the far right and the far left, who use this crime for their own political agenda. The only impact it has had on me is that I get a taste of the intimidation that survivors have to endure. So their threats just make me more determined to make sure we permanently get rid of any form of child sexual exploitation. But their actions embolden the abusers. They make it more difficult for those in child protection to do their jobs, and they deter victims from coming forward.
I fail to understand why this topic is so emotive, when there is a clear picture of gangs with a similar profile being involved in sexual abuse and exploitation. This should be investigated without fear or favour, as any other gang-related crime would be. We live in a democracy, and the law should be able to be applied in an even-handed way.
We are very fortunate in Rotherham, because the National Crime Agency’s Operation Stovewood is looking at cases of CSE by grooming gangs between 1997 and 2013, a 16-year period. It has already identified 1,569 survivors and 261 designated suspects. To date we have had 20 convictions in court, and four awaiting trial. That is in 16 years. I know survivors who are 70 years old. Think about the scale and length of time of this abuse.
Now some specific suggestions to prevent CSE by grooming gangs and to secure convictions. Each potential victim should have a named person they are comfortable with, and that person should be shared across all stakeholders. The treatment of witnesses and survivors must be constantly reviewed to make sure they are able to give evidence in a safe format and receive the support they deserve.
Mandatory relationship education for all primary schoolchildren should have been in place in September 2020, but we have still not been given an implementation date. The law desperately needs updating on positions of trust and online harms. There should be stricter sentencing. The use of pre-charge bail, particularly where there is a flight risk, must be swiftly cut back.
Serious consideration needs to be given to offender release. Sexual predators do not change their patterns of behaviour, and they return to the same communities where they carried out the abuse. Prevention must be our focus, which means health professionals should be trained to spot and support potential perpetrators.
Trading standards officers should be able to investigate premises where they believe grooming gangs operate. A multi-agency approach is key, but it has to be full and equal across all partners and that should include Government Departments. I am glad the Government are looking to make funding for support services more stable. To succeed, it has to be long-term funding.
Unregulated care homes must be banned for all children under the age of 18. We need to promote closer interaction between the police and the Crown Prosecution Service. We need to use disruption tactics as much as possible which avoid victims having to give evidence. Our adversarial court proceedings further brutalise victims and survivors, and this is unacceptable. We have to change it.
We need to establish a national set of triggers that allow local authorities to provide support for children showing signs of harm, rather than the current postcode lottery. We need to make sure that every toolkit dealing with CSE understands that children have a range of cultural and ethnic backgrounds, as currently there is an assumption that victims of CSE are non-disabled white girls, and that is not true. We need to require every local authority to take urgent steps to improve the accessibility of CSE services.
Order. The hon. Lady is well past her four-minute time limit, I am afraid. I will give her a final sentence.
Fundamentally, the Government need to work in a cross-departmental way to end this crime once and for all.
It is a pleasure and an honour to follow the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion). She has given so much by giving a voice to the voiceless in this Chamber. I pay tribute to her work over eight years. I also pay tribute to her and to my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Imran Ahmad Khan) for the work they have done to help form the Government’s strategy on CSE through the external reference group. I would like to sound a note of caution. This is an excellent first step in getting some measure of justice for the survivors of CSE, but it is not an endpoint in and of itself. We have a lot more work to do.
The other day I had the opportunity to speak to Maggie Oliver and other Greater Manchester police officers as part of the all-party parliamentary group for whistleblowing, chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mary Robinson). Maggie Oliver rightly pointed out, when I talked about historical child abuse, that these crimes are actually still ongoing and are very often unseen, and that is why this new strategy is so important.
Rightly, the first objective of the strategy is to tackle the abuse and bring offenders to justice. I cannot stress enough how important that is. Justice has to be seen to be done. The people who commit these wicked acts and rob young people of their childhoods should be removed from decent society—including those who would seek to abuse the courts and try to frustrate deportation orders and other sanctions used to protect the victims.
As well as robust intelligence sharing and wider improvements to the criminal justice system such as an additional 20,000 police officers, 10,000 prison places and an extra £85 million for the Crown Prosecution Service, we need to send a clear signal that the law is there to protect the innocent and punish the guilty. I welcome the national vulnerability action plan and place-based strategies that respond to threats within communities, such as child sexual exploitation, by making use of a range of data and local stakeholders. Powerlessness has been the sad thread running through all our work on this. Any measure that gives a voice to those communities and individuals dealing with this on a day-to-day basis has to be welcome.
I also put on the record my support for the Home Office’s commitment to educate children and young people about healthy relationships in the digital world, through the roll-out of the relationship, sex and health education and media literacy strategy, along with targeted support that protects children and young people from offenders seeking to exploit their vulnerabilities.
When I think of the victims in my own constituency whose story was so powerfully portrayed in the drama “Three Girls” and the documentary “The Betrayed Girls”, it is not hard to see how the system that should have shielded them from harm let them down so very badly. It took the courage of a few individuals to stand up for those whose voices the system chose not to hear. But not every victim has a Sara Rowbotham or a Maggie Oliver willing to put their own livelihood and reputation on the line just to see justice done. We must make sure that the system itself is reformed.
In the Westminster Hall debate on Operation Augusta part 1, we heard the ways in which power was shirked and responsibility ignored while those in power worked to protect themselves in the face of unspeakable abuse. Although part 2 of Operation Augusta, focusing on Rochdale, has not yet been released, I fear that we already have a strong sense of what it will tell us.
That one child has been abused physically, emotionally or sexually should be a cause for sorrow and anger in equal measure; that these awful crimes should have been permitted on a near-industrial scale, aided and abetted by the practised disinterest of the authorities, should cause horror and serious reflection. I thank those who have dedicated so much of themselves and their time to tackling this hateful behaviour and I stand with them, fully committed to doing whatever it takes to give justice to those so very badly let down.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Chris Clarkson), who gave an incredibly thoughtful speech.
Last year, local authorities recorded nearly 19,000 victims of child exploitation; if we consider the number over the last few decades, the total number of survivors will be staggering. One of the petitions that we are discussing today specifically calls for an inquiry into child sexual exploitation. It is clear that a cross-Government approach is needed to deal with this issue, deliver justice and support survivors. I would like to focus my remarks today on survivors.
Sammy Woodhouse is a survivor of child sexual exploitation. She has bravely spoken publicly about her experiences, and I met her yesterday to discuss Sammy’s law. Sammy’s law is a simple ask of the Government not to criminalise child victims of exploitation. When Sammy was 15, the police raided the property of her abuser, who is now a convicted serial rapist. Sammy was half-naked and hiding under his bed. He was not detained, but Sammy was arrested and charged. She is a survivor of exploitation, but is now forced to disclose her criminal convictions.
Survivors such as Sammy are forced to commit crimes by their adult abusers and are often convicted of their crimes. Those criminal convictions stay with them for life. They are forced to disclose them to their employers and on insurance applications, and they are even prevented from attending their parent-teacher associations. That cannot be right and it must be stopped. Child exploitation is an abuse of power used to coerce and deceive. Survivors should not be punished for crimes they committed because of their exploitation.
I am today asking the Government to introduce Sammy’s law, so that victims of child sexual exploitation can have their criminal records automatically reviewed and the crimes associated with their grooming removed. The High Court has already ruled that it is unfair to force survivors to disclose criminal records linked to their grooming, arguing that the link between past offence and present risk is non-existent or extremely tenuous.
This change in the law should be basic common sense. It would end the unfair victim blaming and re-traumatisation of victims and survivors. I urge the Government to act today.
I appreciate the opportunity to speak in this important debate. In my constituency, this is very much a live issue, and it is causing considerable concern. There are ongoing investigations in my constituency on these issues and a pending trial. I will be very careful with my remarks, so as to protect that crucial work. If we ever hope to see justice, and for communities such as ours to be able to heal, that process must be able to play out in full.
I do not think it is unreasonable to ask the question of how widespread grooming activity is and how and where it links to child sexual exploitation and child sexual abuse cases. I also do not think it is unreasonable when people express a lack of faith in the system, as they have to me in conversations and surgery appointments. There are clear examples of where the system has not worked and victims have been let down time and again. There is a clear appetite for more information and for faith to be restored in the process. I firmly believe that the only way we will get there is through transparency—through making the failings of the past visible and demonstrably learning our lessons from them.
I want to concentrate the remainder of my remarks on a different aspect of this debate: those with vested interests stirring up tensions to suit their own ends. This is not to deny in any way the powerful and awful cases of CSE and CSA that exist and that must be stamped out whenever they occur. In Barrow, we have seen the sharp end of these vested interests. They take the vacuum of information that forms when investigations start or court processes begin, and they exploit people’s fears. They exploit their worst natures, and they fill the void with misinformation and conjecture that serves no one but themselves.
At the height of the first lockdown, in the middle of the pandemic in Barrow, we had the indignity of the far right turning up, stoking up tensions in our town and leading physical protests and convoys of vehicles down the A590, all the while proclaiming that they were doing it in the pursuit of justice. But of course, they were not. Instead of shining a light on injustice, they shone a light very brightly on themselves. They talked up the causes and the division that they promoted, and then they left, leaving people who are sat at home by necessity, spending too much time on Facebook, with questions. Those with books to sell and media reputations to burnish should be ashamed of themselves for exploiting the fears of communities such as mine, who have legitimate worries and concerns.
I hate to say it, but I have no doubt that there is sexual exploitation going on in some of the towns and communities that make up constituencies such as mine. It is a sad fact of modern life. While every single case is reprehensible and requires a proportionate response from the justice system, individual cases do not mean an epidemic or a cover-up, no matter what some of those I mentioned suggest. We have a burning need to restore faith in the processes that surround these investigations and to shine a light on them. The more transparent we can be, the easier that job will be, even if the conversation we must have to get there will be very difficult indeed.
I would like to end by thanking a few of my constituents. During a pandemic, in a lockdown, faced with some shocking headlines that are amplified by social media, the community has pulled together and looked after those most in need. I would especially like to thank Women’s Community Matters in Barrow for all it has done for those who need help most in our community—victims and survivors alike. We have a long way to go to win the public’s trust, and I very much hope that the new tackling child sexual abuse strategy gives us demonstrable results soon, so that that journey can begin.
It will be obvious to those in the Chamber that it is nearly 6 o’clock, and clapping will be taking place throughout the country and in other parts of this building. Obviously, we will not have any clapping in the Chamber. Indeed, we have already paid tribute at noon today with our one minute’s silence to Captain Sir Tom Moore, who has been such a great inspiration to the country over the last year, and in memory of the many thousands of people who have died. As it reaches 6 o’clock, we will just pause for a moment. We do not need to clap, but we do show our appreciation.
Thank you. I call Tracy Brabin.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. That was a very warm and sensitive pause. Thank you for your wisdom. Obviously, this is a sombre debate. I thank all Members who have spoken so well. I look forward to hearing further contributions. I associate myself with Sammy’s Law, which is a brilliant step forward and has support across the House.
The fact that we all want to debate this topic—it is particularly poignant that the debate falls within Sexual Abuse and Sexual Violence Awareness Week—hopefully means that the petitions that brought it to the Chamber are not necessary. The campaign’s hashtag, #ItsNotOk, feels like something of an understatement, as the crimes that we are discussing are among the most heinous imaginable, with so many communities blighted by grooming gangs. The exposing of historical cases will continue to rise as victims find the incredible courage necessary to come forward.
The communities I represent in Batley and Spen have been rocked by announcements and police investigations into grooming gangs far too often. In January 2019, 55 men from the Kirklees local authority area and adjoining areas in West Yorkshire were arrested. A few months later, in June, a further 44 men were arrested. In December last year, 32 men were charged, and they will be in court in October 2022. There are those who believe that court cases should come sooner than 22 months after the arrests were made. I have sympathy with that point of view. However, when it comes, it is important that justice is served, in recognition of the unquantifiable bravery of the victims who have come forward. Kirklees Council has already apologised to victims for its failings in relation to the Huddersfield grooming gang—a case that has been through the courts, with long sentences now being served. That court case and subsequent reports will have been sobering reading for many authorities. It is important that we learn lessons.
We have heard of other cases in other areas from MPs today. I hope that survivors of those crimes, who may not yet have come forward, will hear the message from this Parliament: “We do believe you. You will be listened to, and everything will be done to bring your attackers to justice.” The unavoidable truth is that these long and complex investigations place a significant financial burden on police forces, which are struggling financially. I worked with West Yorkshire police force in making a successful appeal for £1.4 million from the Home Office to investigate historical CSE. I am really glad that that bid was successful, but I was concerned then, and I remain concerned, about what would have happened to that case, and cases like it, if funding had not arrived. Surely the Home Office should put in place a system that does not involve forces going to Ministers, cap in hand.
What brought us to the Chamber today are two public petitions, one requesting a full public inquiry, the other requesting the research for the public inquiry promised by the Home Secretary’s predecessor, the right hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid). In place of that inquiry came a review in the name of the Home Secretary, which I doubt will placate those calling for an inquiry. On the release of that report, the headlines yet again focused on the ethnicity of the abusers, stating that the majority of abusers are white men rather than the promoted myth that this is only British Asian men. Of course demographics and ethnicity are important, but not to the children who find themselves locked into a life of cruel abuse. Children are vulnerable because they are children, and predators will exploit that. We need a system that raises alerts when children are vulnerable, before they fall into crime.
Today’s debate is humbling, and our thoughts are with the young girls, predominantly from troubled or unstable backgrounds, who are failed. However, we will listen to you, and we believe you.
Any debate on grooming gangs must start and end with those who have survived them. They, and their bravery in coming forward, are the reason we even know about this systematic abuse. They are the reason we have secured convictions. They have survived horrors beyond imagination—a drawn-out routine of vicious, violent abuse, sometimes lasting years.
We know from the Home Office report that survivors are most commonly females aged 14 to 17. The main risk factors are being in care, experiencing episodes of going missing, and having a learning disability; others include drug or alcohol dependency, mental health issues, and experience of previous abuse. In other words, the very people that our society should most protect are the ones who are being most let down. To say that we have let them down is an understatement. Like many of us here, I am a parent; I have two young children and lovely nieces and nephews. I could not bear it if one day they too were to become victims. We must prevent these horrors from occurring to any more children.
I welcome the report, albeit dragged out of a hesitant Government, but following its publication the Home Secretary said in a written statement that
“motivations differ between offenders, but…a sexual interest in children is not always the predominant motive. Financial gain and a desire for sexual gratification are common motives, and misogyny and disregard for women and girls may further enable the abuse.
Offenders can come from a range of social backgrounds—some have been stable middle-class professionals, some of whom were married, whilst others have had more chaotic lifestyles.”
The one thing that would hamper efforts to tackle group-based child sexual exploitation is to falsely claim that the criminals belong to only one religion, one ethnicity or one race. We know that is fake news, and official, independent statistics attest to that fact. Those falsehoods are exploited by the far right to create racist divisions in our society, perpetuating myths and stereotypes. People such as the English Defence League and Britain First use the images of survivors against their wishes, organising marches and stirring up hate online.
This is not about conforming to political correctness. If we adopt the language or assumptions of hate groups, we fall into a dangerous trap. The devastating reality is that sexual abuse can happen in any community, be it white British, Sikh, Hindu, Muslim or of any other background. Our priority should be ensuring that victim support and services are accessible and available, not spreading misinformed and prejudiced beliefs.
I know from local communities in Slough that child sexual exploitation, in addition to racist scapegoating, is a real concern, which is why I have raised it with our Slough police commander and the council leader and chief executive to ensure that we are working collaboratively and minimising the risk of this abhorrent crime affecting our community. If we are misdirected and end up looking in the wrong places, we fail to tackle this head-on. The current level of prosecutions is just not good enough, and funding for support organisations is nowhere near enough.
Let us be clear: this is about patriarchy and power. It is about people discounted, dismissed and dehumanised not only by those who rape them but by the authorities they turn to for help. We all have a moral duty to end this abuse and make sure that the evil perpetrators feel the full force of the law.
It is difficult to encapsulate in four minutes something that I have spent many years, as a former children’s Minister, campaigning against. Back in November 2011, we launched the Government’s child sexual exploitation action plan in collaboration with The Times, which had long campaigned on this subject, Barnardo’s and the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, which published its report, “Out of Mind, Out of Sight”.
We worked with police, children’s social care, children’s charities and, importantly, with children and young people—the victims—and parents themselves. That followed the high-profile series of prosecutions and convictions after Derbyshire police’s Operation Retriever, which brought this subject to the newspaper headlines for the first time. It was almost a year before the dramatic Savile revelations, which opened the floodgates for people to be aware of the presence, extent and historical reach of CSE.
The action plan highlighted the fact that CSE can happen anywhere to anyone. It is not exclusive to northern metropolitan boroughs, or to people from estates on the other side of town, or to troubled girls, as some hon. Members have mentioned. I met survivors of CSE from the families of doctors and lawyers and from middle-class backgrounds and heard their deeply harrowing accounts. I mentioned the CEOP’s report “Out of Mind, Out of Sight”, because this and all these reports had uncovered a systemic and systematic culture of neglect, secrecy and, in too many cases, wilful complacency to call out the issue of teenage white girls, in some cases boys, being sexually abused by British Pakistani grooming gangs. It was a taboo subject. It was swept under the carpet. Disgracefully, the victims were often regarded as having asked for it. The insidious tentacles of political correctness often suffocated action, so we set out an action plan. Above all, we called for urgent action based on complete transparency, encouraging survivors to come forward and speak out and to put the whole shameful problem firmly on the nation’s radar.
The following September, the Savile revelations broke. Every day, the media was full of accounts of CSE across celebrities, religious institutions, schools and so on. Virtually nowhere was immune. There was a fear that the original phenomenon of organised CSE of primarily teenage white girls at the hands of these predominantly British Pakistani grooming gangs would be sidelined by the prominence being given to others, despite a catalogue of such cases from Rotherham, Rochdale, Telford, Oxford and well beyond.
It is a real disappointment that, today, we are having to debate an issue based on the lack of transparency about the extent of the systemic activities of these grooming gangs, which are still going on. I appreciate that most of those convicted for CSE are middle-aged white men, many acting alone, but the phenomenon of organised British Pakistani grooming gangs is a specific and dangerous criminal activity, and it needs to be called out for what it is and tackled in a very specific way. So why on earth are we having to debate now why maximum transparency has not been applied to research into how these gangs operate and how they are still getting away with it, because this is not an historic matter but still a contemporary problem?
The problem of secrecy and the culture of denial within certain police forces was again brought to the fore last year, with the new inquiry announced by the Mayor of Greater Manchester into the abandonment of Operation Augusta. If we are really to get to grips with the issue of grooming gangs, surely we need to delineate it as a specific sexual offence distinct from other forms of sexual offence. For that, we need to be open and transparent with all the research already undertaken and to undertake more if it is needed. We have had the Jay report, the Louise Casey report, and the former Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid), commissioned his own report, which seems to have been downgraded and has now morphed into an external reference group consisting of several hon. Members. When the former Home Secretary launched the original inquiry, he intended it as a comprehensive and definitive report on child grooming, published in full, so why has this research and report become a no-go area? We owe it to the victims and the survivors to publish in full.
In beginning my remarks, I pay tribute to the bravery of those survivors who have come forward in their pursuit of justice. Although sexual assault convictions are alarmingly low across the piece, there is a specifically insidious aspect to the group-based child sexual exploitation phenomenon, both in terms of the institutional failings of survivors and in societal prejudices about what a perfect victim looks like. This can mean that survivors are treated as perpetrators of crime, rather than victims of it when they come forward, particularly where their grooming has involved being sexually abused for money or where they may have been involved in the recruitment of other survivors as part of their abuse.
Research shows that perpetrators often gravitate towards children who are perceived to be vulnerable in situations where safeguards around them may be lower. To that end, the tackling child sexual abuse strategy highlights the importance of giving children the best start in life—early-years wellbeing and mental-health provision. It is disappointing that 10 years of Tory austerity has meant cutbacks in all these areas. We need strong leadership and accountability, and a cross-department and multi-agency approach. All Government Departments—the Home Office, the Ministry of Justice, the Department for Education, the Department of Health and Social Care, and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government—have opportunities and responsibilities to stop these appalling crimes, and all Departments must work collectively to that end.
I am particularly concerned about the increased risk of online harms related to child sexual exploitation during lockdowns, with children spending more time online, away from school, and with far-right myths about the ethnicities of offenders in group-based child sexual exploitation being exploited online to fuel divisions between different communities. These are some of the most heinous crimes imaginable, and we should do all we can to ensure not only that the recommendations of the “Group Based Child Sexual Exploitation Characteristics of Offending” report and associated work are implemented, but that we tackle the stigma that stops survivors from coming forward.
This is not by any means a subject that I, or I suspect any of us, find easy to discuss, but the difficult conversations are always the most important to have, and it is our duty, for our constituents, to have them.
It is now more than 20 years since one of my predecessors as MP for Keighley, Ann Cryer, first raised her concerns about grooming gangs and child sexual exploitation within the Pakistani community in West Yorkshire. Ann did a good job; she brought the issue to the forefront of the conversation and did the right thing in raising it. I have been a Member of this House for only just over a year, and I have been taken aback by the amount of correspondence that I have received on this issue. I am afraid to say that more than 20 years have gone by and nothing has really changed. Luckily, I am able to represent one of the best communities we have in this country.
I am incredibly conscious of just how delicate this subject is, but it should not be. My view is that unless we talk about it openly we are failing, so let us call this problem out for what it is: predominantly a small minority of largely Muslim men in West Yorkshire—including, I am sad to say, in Keighley—have been sexually exploiting young children for far too long. The Muslim community are quite rightly outraged at the entire community being branded with the same accusation. It is not fair and it is deeply offensive.
The consequences of not taking action are extremely serious. If we tiptoe around the edges or fail to talk openly about these challenges, we are failing both the victims and the Pakistani community. These victims, mainly young girls, are having their lives ruined at a young age by this vile and disgusting sexual abuse. In 2016, a group of 12 men who committed serious sexual offences against two girls in Keighley and Bradford were jailed for a collective 130 years. One of those girls was raped by five men in succession. Live cases involving grooming gangs are still working their way through the courts. Only last October, 21 men from Keighley and Bradford were arrested for being linked to offences that allegedly occurred against a young female between 2001 and 2009. I know the police are working on many other cases.
If we fail to address all these interlinked social and societal issues, we run the real risk of failing our communities and making them suffer even more, and unfortunately the worst of humanity will exploit it for their own game. This has already happened. In the 2005 general election, on the back of these very issues, the British National party made my constituency of Keighley their No. 1 target seat. It was a campaign that damaged race relations and caused huge upset and hurt. The people of Keighley, quite rightly, rejected the BNP’s nonsense, but if we do not tackle this issue with urgency, we run the risk that others will try to take advantage of it.
These are difficult issues to tackle, but all of us in this House have a responsibility to take action, because if we do not, we will have failed, and the consequences for our communities will be far too great. I say to everyone across Keighley that I will represent them as best I can.
I spoke on this topic in the House in October 2019, when I highlighted the report by Barnardo’s, which I want to speak about again. Its survey showed that one third of children who are sexually exploited are looked after. The 498 children helped in one day by the charity’s specialist sexual exploitation service also revealed marked geographical variations, while 29% of them were looked after, 16% had a disability, and 5% had a statement of special educational needs.
The report is shocking and hard to read and follow. It referred to some 10,500 crimes that were flagged by police as child sexual exploitation-related, with victims mostly commonly being female and aged 14 to 17. The main risk factors were being in care, going missing, having a learning disability, drug and alcohol dependency, mental health issues and experience of previous abuse. The report also suggested that group-based CSE offenders appeared to be predominantly but not exclusively male and generally older than those operating in gangs.
My desire is to work with the Government on this issue and to support them in what they bring forward—it is important that I put that on record—as we see how we can ensure that the statistics are not repeated two years down the line. The stats are very worrying and quite distressing. That work starts not just with the funding designated for non-governmental organisations such as Barnardo’s, which do tremendous work in this realm, but adequate funding for police forces. That will enable police forces to work hand in hand with schools, building up relationships and becoming familiar faces. It will mean not having one social worker with upwards of 50 families to deal with. Social workers are under pressure —indeed, the system is under pressure. The difference is that we are talking about little lives and their futures.
The stats for 2001-02 on the mental health of looked-after young people in Great Britain aged five to 17 were really worrying. Some 45% of looked-after children aged five to 17 had a mental health disorder, as defined by the statistical classification of diseases, compared with 10% of the general population. I want to support the Government as they seek to do better. I just need to know what the plan is, how it is to be funded and when the change will begin—for every child in care, it cannot be soon enough.
I put on record my thanks to every foster parent and every adoptive parent who seeks to sow love in the lives of looked-after children. I also thank every church volunteer, youth-club worker, teacher and classroom assistant—every person who works with young people to instil in them the fact that they are loved, important and of value. We need to do better with our children, to protect them, to protect their self-worth and to ensure that every child knows they have someone to go to for help if they have concerns. A key issue is where they can go to, who looks out for them and who ensures that they are protected. I want to encourage us all—let us do more and sow more into children’s lives. That truly will be the measure of the success of our nation and the way we take things forward.
I am grateful to the Petitions Committee for securing time in the Chamber to discuss the distressing but sadly prevalent issue of child sexual exploitation. I am grateful for the work that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, along with her ministerial team, has been doing in this policy area. I pay particular tribute to the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins) for her outstanding and unwavering work to secure justice for all victims of abuse.
I understand that law enforcement capacity and capability is being strengthened and investment made to increase our ability to stop child sexual abuse. I am grateful that the Government have published a national strategy to protect children from all forms of child sexual abuse and published a paper on the characteristics of group-based child sexual exploitation.
Child exploitation is complex and convoluted. I am concerned that there is currently no provision in legislation to recognise the power imbalance between a child and an adult who targets a child for abuse and exploitation, up until the point that a child is either a victim of sexual abuse or involved in a crime. The lack of recognition of coercive and controlling behaviour in relation to a child prevents successful prosecutions for sexual offences, as well as for modern slavery offences. Although the abuse happens on a persistent and continual basis, prosecutions often focus on separate counts of offences, requiring a child to remember the details of them all rather than the abuse as a whole. In sexual abuse cases, teenagers aged 16 and 17 need to prove that sexual activity was not consensual.
The definition of child sexual exploitation is aligned with the earlier definition of child prostitution in the Sexual Offences Act 2003 and does not reflect the fact that children may be exploited due to the imbalance of power between a child and an adult. Available tools such as sexual risk orders, and modern slavery and trafficking risk orders require criminal-level evidence of proof. They also involve lengthy processes before they are even put in place, which can result in a child remaining in an exploitative situation or the situation escalating to abuse before action can even be taken. Children aged 16 and 17 are not being covered by the provisions of child abduction warning notices or for the purposes of online grooming offences. In the light of these concerns, The Children’s Society is proposing the introduction of a new offence of coercive and controlling behaviours in relation to a child for exploitation purposes. I hope Ministers will consider The Children’s Society’s recommendations.
The sexual exploitation of a child is abhorrent and a serious crime. Working together, we can strengthen the law to hold perpetrators to account and provide their victims with the justice they deserve.
It is impossible to discuss these so-called “grooming gangs” without talking about the most infamous epicentre of abuse; we all recall the widespread atrocities that occurred in the Rotherham region, of which my Rother Valley constituency is a part. What happened there is a mark of shame that we as a nation shall all bear until every perpetrator and enabler faces justice. But let us not just call them grooming gangs; let us call them out for what they are. They are paedophiles, rapists, abusers, deviants, perverts and, above all, monsters. Over two decades, in Rotherham alone, 1,500 children, some as young as 11, were raped. Let that sink in: 1,500 children in one town were raped.
However, it did not have to be that way. What makes this pattern of abuse all the more outrageous is the silent complicity of the local authorities who are supposed to protect us and our children. Time and again, the issue was raised, at all levels. Victims and concerned parties reached out to the council, the police and all relevant bodies. Repeatedly, these victims were not only ignored, but vilified. Unbelievably, in some cases they were even given over to their attackers, and they were arrested for actions they had not freely committed. The signs were there for all to see, yet they were ignored for decades.
So why was there a cover-up—for it was a cover-up? The Jay report stated that the agencies turned a blind eye to the localised grooming of young white girls by hundreds and hundreds of men of Pakistani heritage. A five-year investigation by the Independent Office for Police Conduct found that the Rotherham police ignored the sexual abuse of children for decades for fear of increasing “racial tensions”. Whistleblowers were given the cold shoulder and council employees lived in fear of being called racist for intervening. That raises the question: if the police and local authorities will not stand up for right and wrong, what chance does anyone have—what chance do our children have? Ethnicity concerns should not have made a jot of difference; a monster is a monster, regardless of their background or ethnicity. However, it was that excuse that allowed so many to get away with so much for so long. The authorities’ aversion to offending sensitivities enabled so much suffering. Let me repeat: the aversion to offending sensitivities allowed thousands of girls to be raped.
Nevertheless, we must try to move forward, for the sake of the victims, their families and the people of Rotherham at large. We all need justice and accountability. Operation Stovewood is making great strides and is currently looking at 1,200 recorded crimes, with 261 designated suspects.
We must ensure that we look after the victims. For instance, Sammy Woodhouse, a brave survivor and one of my constituents, has proposed Sammy’s law, which would pardon child sexual abuse victims for crimes they were coerced into committing and would remove the crimes committed by the children from their criminal record. We must support that; this Government must put that proposed law into action. That is just one way in which we must try to right the wrongs of the past, but we must leave no stone unturned when it comes to the victims. We must also look at those who enabled these things and allowed the perpetrators to get away with it—those who covered it up and ignored it for so long. There is no individual crime more horrific than paedophilia and there is no punishment too severe for the perpetrators of these heinous acts. We must never again allow such things to happen to our children, and we must never again allow those who committed and enabled such monstrous acts to hold any authority in our society.
Facts are often inconvenient. They are sometimes disturbing and occasionally alarming. The facts are that in Oxford, 373 children, including 50 boys, may have been targeted over a 16-year period, according to a serious case review. In Rotherham, as we have heard, 1,500 children—most of them white girls between the age of 11 and 15—were sexually abused, predominantly by British Pakistani men. In Rochdale, nine men who abused girls as young as 13 were convicted over a child sex grooming ring, and we know again that the Pakistani community was disproportionately represented among those convicted.
Those are the facts, but the fiction—well illustrated by the Home Office report published last December, which is a study in obfuscation, by the way—is that we cannot draw conclusions about whether certain ethnicities are over-represented in this type of offending. We must not allow concerns about causing offence to leave children vulnerable to sexual exploitation. Of course it is true that all kinds of people do all kinds of wicked things—people from all parts of this country and of all ethnicities—but there is a proven relationship with certain subcultures and a subset of a particular community being engaged in this activity. The former Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid) recognised that, as does the current Home Secretary. The reports and studies into these events recognise all that, so let us deal with facts rather than fiction.
Mindful of that, I must also note that the Jay report and other inquiries show a proven link to taxis. Taxis were used to cruise and pick up young girls from care homes and even schools. As the Minister of State for Transport, I commissioned a report into taxi licensing with a view to putting safety at the top of the agenda. That report, which was conducted by Professor Mohammed Abdel-Haq on my behalf, looked at how taxis could be made safer, partly on the back of the events in Rochdale and Rotherham and elsewhere. It is imperative that the Government now look again at that report and put into law those recommendations, which will guarantee that these things do not happen again. My dear friend—though he is not an hon. Friend in the technical sense—the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) brought forward a private Member’s Bill which would have gone some way to putting those recommendations in place, and I ask the Government to please look at that Bill again.
The Home Office needs to rethink this matter, and I think the Home Secretary knows it. We owe it not only as a matter of respect to previous victims, but as a matter of care to those who might be victims in the future. We owe it to the vast majority of our British Asian community who share our horror at what has occurred. Most of all, we owe it to ourselves as legislators, for if we care enough, and I believe that Ministers and Members of this House do, we must do enough to protect the vulnerable.
I thank the petitioners, and I thank the Petitions Committee for bringing this debate to the Chamber, as well as Members for making some very thoughtful and powerful contributions, many of which are based on years of experience in championing the rights of victims.
As the Home Office research we are debating states:
“Group-based CSE has been the subject of major investigations, attracting significant public concern and highlighting shocking state failures that have caused untold hurt to victims, their families and communities.”
That horrendous untold harm caused by these hideous crimes has been spread right across the towns and cities of the United Kingdom.
In relation to the specific petitions before us today, I will make three short points. First, research designed to provide a greater understanding of different types of offending behaviour is far from unusual. It can help inform policing and the wider Government response. The better we understand crime and criminals, the better, it is hoped, we can prevent these shocking crimes from happening in the first place, and that includes looking at what backgrounds offenders come from. All sorts of lessons can be learned not just for policing and criminal justice policy, but for wider social policy. However, as colleagues have rightly warned, great care must be taken in interpreting results and to prevent their being used by people who are determined to sow division, rather than to help victims.
We must also be careful that such research does not lead to counterproductive stereotypes. As the paper points out in relation to victims:
“Although awareness of vulnerability can be helpful, it can also contribute to stereotypes about what a victim of child sexual exploitation looks like, with the consequence that victims who differ from that picture are overlooked or unwilling to come forward in the belief that they will not be believed.”
In the same way, we should not fall into the trap of creating stereotypes of grooming gangs in case we fail to apprehend the ones that do not conform to it, or make it more difficult for their victims to feel confident about coming forward.
Secondly, on what the publication actually tells us, the review concludes that offenders are overwhelmingly male. There are some patterns for age and some limited patterns for social background. However, despite high-profile cases involving British Pakistani gangs, the fact is that there is no robust evidence on ethnicity:
“Based on the existing evidence…it seems most likely that the ethnicity of group-based CSE offenders is in line with CSA more generally and with the general population, with the majority of offenders being White.”
That is an important point, but as the report goes on to say
“this does not mean that cultural characteristics of offender groups are irrelevant or should be ignored by local agencies.”
Far from it: an approach to deterring, disrupting and preventing offending that recognises, acknowledges and takes account of the communities in which offending occurs is absolutely essential. We need such an approach, for example, to ensure all victims feel able to come forward and speak about what is happening to them, to identify suspicious patterns of behaviour or follow lines of inquiry, and to ask the questions that have to be asked and ask them of the right people. Too often in the past that just has not happened.
Thirdly, I hope the published report has been useful and has informed the new strategy. I do gently query with the Minister what exactly the Home Secretary seeks to achieve by apparently seeking yet more research on whether any particular group is over or under-represented among offenders, and how a more accurate picture can really be expected to emerge given the huge problems about reporting and classification. How will that change anything in Government strategy? Surely the most important point is that we have enough information to take action already, and the focus now must be on scrutiny of the new strategy—a welcome strategy—and of the co-ordinated and properly funded action that must follow in order to deliver justice.
I thank the Petitions Committee for bringing us here today. I, like others, think that this should have more prominence than waiting for the public to raise it; it should be front and centre in our thinking.
I remember the words of the girl who sat in front of me 10 years ago as she described, as if it were completely normal, a line-up of men at a party waiting for her to perform oral sex on them. She said it to me as if it was an everyday thing—no biggie. A year later, I was called to a school where a group of boys had sexually abused, assaulted and exploited over 50 girls at their school. I spent hours and hours interviewing young people and children about their experiences of sexual exploitation and abuse, and I realised how normalised, even in my own childhood, had become the idea that men can pass around girls and women among friends and associates in order to broker power, money and status.
In the last 15 years, thanks to the bravery of victims of sexual exploitation and grooming gangs, and also to the bravery of whistleblowers from police forces, sexual health services, youth workers and brilliant campaigners such as my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), we better understand this heinous crime. Less than a decade ago, terms such as child prostitute were bandied around and children were still considered troublemakers rather than victims. The last decade has taught us many things. This crime should never have been ignored, and these children were failed by pretty much everyone. Anyone who seeks to use this horror as a political tool, rather than having a laser-like focus on saving the victims and bringing to justice the perpetrators, should be ashamed. As the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (Simon Fell) said really eloquently, this issue is not a tool to be further exploited.
The Government have now published the long-awaited review that the petition called for. I am only sorry that the delay meant that further distrust and misdirection on this issue was allowed to gain traction. Transparency, openness and robust external and internal critique of state agencies is the only way that we are going to combat this crime and win back trust.
Let me turn to the Government’s newly released strategy on combating child sexual abuse. The strategy is good in the most part. As other Members have said today, it is a first step in the right direction. I am sure that the Minister will expect nothing less from me than a promise that at every single stage that this strategy is rolled out, I will be there asking exactly how the Government are going to do all the things they say they are going to do. I will keep on at her Department every week and check on progress.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham is usually right about these things and she was right today that unregulated care homes have to be sorted, and that pre-charge bail should be—without question in this area, and in many others when it comes to vulnerable people—sorted immediately. The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) also made very good recommendations, and I could not agree more with the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) with regard to taxi licensing and the effort that needs to be put in there. The Government should do all these things; not one of them is in the strategy currently.
The strategy talks about working together, and we have heard a lot about cross-Government Departments needing to work together. I have spent the last decade, at least, sitting through review after review on this topic, meeting after meeting, homicide review and serious case review after another. In every meeting, I heard the language of “agencies do not work together well enough” and “information sharing is a problem”. In 10 years’ time, I will hear the exact same thing. Saying this and writing it into a strategy will change nothing. We have to make sure now—today—that this is not about what review we want to do; it is about what we want to change and how it can be different this time.
I turn to the proposals for schools in the strategy. There are very few people in this House who would not support the sentiment of a strategy that says, “We will educate children and young people about healthy relationships in a digital world”—noble indeed.
Yet only this week we have seen the publication of school materials being used in some schools in the UK that are teaching, and I quote:
“within a romantic relationship between male and female, masculinity is more about initiating”,
“femininity is more about receiving and responding”.
The Government continually shrug their shoulders about these incidents, but they need to understand that without proper funding, robust safeguards and proper scrutiny, there is a potential that the roll-out of healthy relationships education could be anything but. Telling girls to expect men to initiate sex, and for them to receive it and respond to it, is dangerous. What will the Government do to monitor what is being taught? Saying that prevention will happen in our schools will take much more work than just words written on paper.
If I were to reflect on the whistleblowers in famous cases, including Sara Rowbotham and others from Rochdale mentioned by Members today, I would find that it was youth workers and sexual health workers who tried to speak up for the hundreds of girls that they were seeing being abused and exploited, yet over the past 10 years we have seen huge reductions in the numbers of youth workers and detached sexual health practitioners. Years of cutting back these services as if they were a luxury means that in any strategy the Government write now, they have to build from no base. A decade after these scandals, we should not still be in pilot phase after pilot phase.
The Government’s own strategy outlines that in the year ending March 2020, there were 58,000 police-recorded incidents of contact child sexual abuse—abuse where contact was made, not on the internet. In the year ending December 2019, only around 3,700 defendants were charged and 2,700 were convicted. That suggests that there are tens of thousands of incidents of contact child abuse reported with no further action. The number of convictions has been reducing since 2016. This situation is getting worse; we are convicting fewer people. The Government have been in power for a decade and they have been talking tough on this issue for pretty much all that time, yet numbers show appalling charges and conviction rates, which are getting worse.
I want to close my remarks by paying tribute to the victims of this crime and saying some of the things that they have asked me to say today. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock), I spoke to Sammy Woodhouse just earlier this morning; I speak to her regularly. Sammy, as many have mentioned, was horrendously abused from the age of 14 and had a son born of repeated rape by Arshid Hussain. Sammy wanted me to specifically raise the issue that it is still very much the law in this land that her rapist should be allowed, and in fact in her case was encouraged, to seek access to her son through the family courts—a man who abused her as a child given credence as a father.
Sammy’s case, as the Minister knows, is by no means an exception. We can all stand here and be fire and brimstone about the rapists and child abusers—monsters, as the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Alexander Stafford) said—who perpetrate these crimes; however, here in this building we have repeatedly failed to legislate to prevent these rapists and other perpetrators of child abuse and domestic and sexual violence from continuing the abuse of their victims into adulthood through the family courts. This is on us; it is our failings—it is the law that has been too meek to change and to stop rapists like Sammy’s rapist being able to access her child.
Sammy and other victims have also asked me to raise specifically in this place the fact that we must have better service provision and protection for children born of rape. Currently, the system sees them merely as silent bystanders. Victims have asked that I bring to the Minister’s attention Sammy’s law, which has been mentioned many times, and I fully back the many calls today to implement that immediately.
The crime of child sexual exploitation and child sexual abuse happens across every part of the country; sadly, it happens in every community. The modus operandi of the perpetrators is the same; it is as if there were a manual online about how to target vulnerable people, exploit their weaknesses and then groom them to think it is their fault.
The nation has been shocked and appalled by these crimes for a decade. The victims of high-profile cases have been used as political footballs for the same length of time, when all they ever wanted was for this to never happen again, for victims like them to be heard, and for the crime to be understood. The time for action has long passed; let us do everything we can together, with every lever we can pull, to change this story once and for all.
I would like to start by thanking the members of the public who signed these petitions raising this very important issue and thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) and other hon. Members across the House for being their voices in this debate and representing them powerfully and thoughtfully.
This Government have made it our mission to protect the most vulnerable in our society, including by tackling child sexual abuse. In our work we have listened to victims and survivors about their horrifying experiences—how they were let down by the state and betrayed by those whose job it was to protect them. These injustices were set out eloquently by hon. Members including my hon. Friends the Members for Rother Valley (Alexander Stafford), for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price), for Heywood and Middleton (Chris Clarkson) and for Keighley (Robbie Moore), the hon. Members for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) and for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) and others. This should never have happened and must not happen again.
Political or cultural sensitivities must not deter national and local agencies from investigating and preventing these devastating crimes. Victims of sexual violence deserve justice regardless of the background, the status, the race or any other characteristic of the perpetrator. Abuse is abuse, and everyone is equal under the law.
That is why in May last year the Home Secretary committed to publishing a paper looking at the characteristics of group-based child sexual exploitation, which was published in December. I want to reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich, however, that this paper is by no means the end of our work on this issue; more must be done by Government, law enforcement and partners to better safeguard children and tackle perpetrators of this form of abuse and the many other forms of child sexual abuse that exist both offline and online. That is why we published the tackling child sexual abuse strategy last month to work on all forms of CSA. The strategy sets out how we will work across Government—a point made powerfully by the hon. Member for Rotherham—as well as with law enforcement, safeguarding partners and industry to root out offending, to protect victims and to help them rebuild their lives. It builds on the action plan described by my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton). The paper on group-based sexual exploitation plays an important role in the strategy and its implementation now and in the future.
I will go into a little detail about how the paper was developed, its findings and how we plan to build on this work in the future. The paper was informed by an analysis of published academic research, official statistics and work published by organisations that work with child sexual exploitation victims and survivors. In addition, police officers and safeguarding officers across the country with experience in investigating this type of offending were interviewed. The paper reflects the insights drawn from across all this work.
This is a complex and deeply sensitive issue. To ensure that the paper was robust and scrutinised, we convened an external reference group consisting of independent experts on child sexual exploitation, who reviewed and informed this work throughout. The group included survivors, leading academics and highly experienced professionals from the criminal justice system and the children’s sector, as well as the hon. Member for Rotherham, who has done so much in this area, and my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Imran Ahmad Khan), who is similarly determined to shine a light on this offending. The insight and expertise that the group provided was invaluable, and I thank them all for their diligence and contributions.
Taking all this work together, we saw, for example, that offender networks are often loosely interconnected and based around existing social connections. This means that they are often broadly homogeneous in ethnic background, socioeconomic status and age. Contact with potential victims may take place in locations often visited by offenders and where safeguards around victims are lower. Hon. Members, including my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes), have raised the frequency with which taxis and takeaway restaurants have featured in the highest-profile cases. Studies indicate that motivations differ between offenders, but that a sexual interest is children is not always the predominant motive. Financial gain and a desire for sexual gratification are common motives, and offenders commonly demonstrate attitudes of misogyny and disdain for women and girls, as raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock and the shadow Minister.
Ethnicity has been raised by several Members. The paper refers to a number of studies that have indicated an over-representation of Asian and black offenders in committing this type of offending. It is difficult to draw conclusions about the ethnicity of offenders as existing research is limited and data collection is poor. This is disappointing, and it is something that we are determined to address through the national strategy, because accurate data is clearly vital in developing the right response in local areas.
We have therefore made a number of commitments in the tackling child sexual abuse strategy. The Home Office will work with criminal justice partners, charities, frontline professionals and others on improving the range and quality of data collected, including on the ethnicity of offenders. We will then use this data to help protect children by preventing and detecting offending. Hon. Members have asked whether we can count the defendants who have already been convicted. Officials have looked at this, but because there is no specific category of group-based sexual abuse, such offences cannot be isolated. But, as I say, we want to correct that in the future.
We are investing in the police-led tackling organised exploitation project, which is piloting new ways of investigating organised forms of exploitation through the innovative use of data. We will publish a new and enhanced child exploitation disruption toolkit that promotes the use of the full range of powers available to agencies, such as civil orders, licensing powers and safeguarding interventions, so that they can stop offending with every tool at their disposal.
I listened with great interest to my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken), who supports the work of the Children’s Society. Although I cannot answer all her requests tonight, we will continue to invest in the Children’s Society’s prevention programme, which works with local agencies to prevent exploitation and abuse. Recent examples of the programme’s work include working with the police in Yorkshire to deliver training to taxi drivers, and working with delivery drivers and couriers to support them in identifying CSA in the context of the pandemic. As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) knows, the Ministry of Justice is looking into the issues in the family courts that have arisen out of the expert panel on harm’s review—in particular, contact with parents.
The second petition calls for an independent inquiry. I will touch on that briefly, because I want to give time for my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich to respond to the debate. The Government share the public’s concerns about failures and the need to ensure that they are not repeated in the future. In 2015, the Government established the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse. The inquiry concluded its public hearings in December, after taking evidence from more than 600 witnesses over four years. It held 323 days of public hearings across 15 investigations and has published 14 reports so far, with more than 50 recommendations to better protect children from sexual abuse and exploitation. We expect to receive the final report of the inquiry in 2022.
The inquiry is independent of Government and decides for itself what to investigate and how. It has investigated the nature and extent of, and institutional responses to, the sexual exploitation of children by organised networks, and the public hearing into that strand concluded in October last year. Evidence was heard from a range of witnesses, including victims and survivors of child sexual exploitation, as well as representatives of police forces, local authorities, Government Departments and charities. The inquiry will publish a report of the investigation in autumn this year, setting out its conclusions, and we welcome this scrutiny.
Finally, I would like to thank again the signatories of both petitions, as well as the victims and survivors around the country who find somehow the wherewithal to work with us and the police to help prevent these terrible crimes and support other victims. As has been so well articulated in the debate, these crimes affect not only the immediate victims of the abuse but entire communities. My hon. Friends the Members for Barrow and Furness (Simon Fell) and for Keighley set out some of the impacts in their constituencies and the damage that can be done to trust in the processes, systems and authorities that are there to protect people.
We are determined to ensure that Government, law enforcement and other partners better understand that any community and cultural factors relevant to tackling offending must not and cannot get in the way. As the Home Secretary said:
“What happened to these children remains one of the biggest stains on our country’s conscience.”
That is why we must do everything in our power to safeguard children from abuse, deliver justice for victims and survivors and restore the public’s confidence in the criminal justice system’s ability to confront these devastating crimes.
I would like to thank all the contributors to this very powerful debate. I think there was quite a lot of cross-party agreement on many of the core issues. I am grateful for the Minister’s commitment that this is not the end of the process and that these difficult questions will continue to be asked. My hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Imran Ahmad Khan) was on the review group, and I know that he had significant concerns that, even now, there is significant pushback from certain elements of the establishment to the steps that the Government need to take to get to the root of this, to understand it properly and to make sure that we nip this in the bud and do not continue to have a situation where primarily our girls of this country are suffering this appalling abuse.
As I said at the start, my heart goes out to the victims of this abuse, all their friends and family and the communities. We must not allow political correctness and a concern about sensitivities to get in the way of addressing these issues, because it does not solve the problem. It can often make it worse, and this is much too important an issue to get wrong. I thank everyone who has contributed to the debate.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petitions 300239 and 327566 relating to grooming gangs.