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Child Exploitation in Oxfordshire

Volume 760: debated on Tuesday 3 March 2015


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat, in the form of a Statement, the Answer given by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education to an Urgent Question in another place earlier today concerning a serious case review of child sexual exploitation in Oxfordshire. The Statement is as follows:

“No child should have to suffer what the victims of child sexual exploitation in Oxfordshire have suffered. The serious case review published today by Oxfordshire Safeguarding Children Board is an indictment of the failure of front-line workers to protect extremely vulnerable young people over a number of years. Reading the details of what happened to them has been truly sickening. The serious case review makes clear that numerous opportunities to intervene to protect these girls were missed, as police and social workers failed to look beyond what they saw as troubled teenagers, to the frightened child within.

I welcome the publication of the serious case review. It is only by publishing such in-depth accounts of what happened, what went wrong and why, that children’s social care systems locally and nationally can address the failings that have betrayed some of our most vulnerable children. That is why the Government have insisted that serious case reviews be published and in full. The Minister for Children and Families has also written today, with Ministers from the Home Office and the Department of Health, to request from Oxfordshire Safeguarding Children Board a further assessment of the progress being made, and we will send an expert in CSE to support it in this month.

Sadly, Oxfordshire was not alone in failing to address the dangers of CSE. We now know from the report of Professor Alexis Jay and Louise Casey on Rotherham, and Ann Coffey’s report on Manchester, that child sexual exploitation has been a scourge in many communities around the country.

This Government have been determined to do everything in their power to tackle CSE. That is why, today, we are publishing an action plan setting out the action we have already taken to strengthen our approach to safeguarding children from sexual exploitation, and the further steps we think are necessary to address the culture of denial, improve joint working, stop offenders, support victims and strengthen accountability and leadership. We are setting up a national centre of expertise in tackling CSE to support local areas around the country. There will be a new whistleblowing portal so that anyone can report concerns about CSE. We have prioritised CSE as a national threat so that police forces will now be under a duty to collaborate across force boundaries. We will consult on extending the criminal offence of wilful neglect to children’s social care, education professionals and elected members.

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

That concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I welcome the Government’s decision to view child sexual abuse as a national threat—clearly it is one. No one can be unmoved by the horrific sexual sadism inflicted on vulnerable young girls and boys, or, for example, the case of the 12 year-old girl who had to have a back-room abortion after being raped. In one of the trials, a social worker gave evidence that nine out of the 10 professionals responsible for one young girl’s safety knew what was happening but did nothing.

On this side of the House, we believe that stronger laws are needed to protect children. Does the Minister find it strange that just last week his colleagues voted against a new specific offence of child exploitation? Does the Minister feel the Government’s definition of wilful neglect does enough to ensure that individuals report signs of sexual abuse? Lastly but possibly most fundamentally, does the Minister recognise that if we want to stop dealing in disaster we desperately need age-appropriate and compulsory sex and relationship education in schools? Why will not the Government join the cross-party consensus of the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, the Education Select Committee and all the professionals in the field, and agree to introduce this immediately?

As I have already said, we will consult on widening the offence of wilful neglect. I am sure that, as a result of that consultation, we will look again at all possible legislation and offences that we could bring into the piece. As no doubt the noble Baroness heard me say, sex and relationship education must be taught in all maintained schools and is taught in virtually all academies. We welcome the supplementary advice, Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) For The 21st Century, issued by the PSHE Association, the Sex Education Forum and Brook. They produce some excellent resources, which are available to all schools.

My Lords, this is yet another thoroughly dispiriting report. Many of these young people were in the care of the local authority for their protection and safety. Will the noble Lord assure the House that he will continue to do everything that he can to persuade local authorities that when they assume parental responsibility for a child or young person, they have not only a legal duty but a moral duty to be a good parent to those vulnerable children?

I entirely agree with the noble Lord. In the course of this Parliament, we have sadly intervened already in 50 local authorities. Doncaster’s facilities are going to a trust, as are Slough’s.

My Lords, my question is about the proposal to extend the offence of wilful neglect because there is evidence to suggest that that will not work. The BBC’s “Panorama” reported a case from the 1990s where a member of staff had sexually assaulted several boys. That was reported to the headmaster but the member of staff left and found another job, where he carried on abusing children. The police officer investigating the case, Alec Love, tried to bring a case of wilful neglect against the headmaster of the first school, but the judge threw it out. Mr Love said it was very hard,

“to prove the person wilfully set about to neglect the child or young person”.

Today, the serious case review report found that the authorities made mistakes and could have acted sooner but it found no evidence of wilful neglect or that the signs of exploitation were ignored. In the light of both these findings, why do the Government think that simply extending the offence of wilful neglect beyond the health service and adult social care will be effective?

I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her comments. The Government do not think that simply extending this offence of wilful neglect will be effective in and of itself. It is obviously a high bar and, as a result of consultation, I am sure we will be taking advice on whether there is something else that we should do, in addition or instead. We have already committed to consult on the introduction of mandatory reporting.

My Lords, in Rotherham and in Birmingham the Government instituted an independent inquiry into the local authority and have gone further in Birmingham’s case by requiring all-out elections. Will the Government now institute such an inquiry in Oxfordshire?

The events and the serious case review took place some years ago, in 2011. Last year, Ofsted found that Oxfordshire was good, but the Children and Families Minister has today written to the Oxfordshire LSCB, asking it to carry out a further assessment of its work on CSE, specifically of work with the police and the health services, and will be sending in an expert on CSE, Sophie Humphreys, to help it.

I am the vice-chair of the Lucy Faithfull Foundation, an organisation that has worked in this area for many years. Of course, Lucy Faithfull was a well respected Member of the noble Lord’s Benches. I want to ask about local authority social work departments. How many vacancies are there in these departments? What are the Government doing to encourage social workers, who are feeling extraordinarily oppressed and dispirited at the moment? What do the Government know about the current level of case loads for social workers? How can we encourage local authorities to have the right resource to meet the programme? I have one more small question: what are the Government doing to work with voluntary organisations? The Lucy Faithfull Foundation had a prevent programme, which now runs in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland but was cut in England. Those sorts of programmes are essential to prevention.

The noble Baroness makes some very good points, as one would expect from someone with her vast experience in this area. This Government are determined to try to raise the status of social workers and improve the practice of social work. We have had Sir Martin Narey’s report, as a result of which we introduced the knowledge and skills statement for social workers. We have an outstanding chief social worker in Isabelle Trowler and we are investing heavily in new training methods, such as Frontline, Step Up to Social Work and master’s qualifications for social work. I do not think we can do enough in this area.

My Lords, the Minister referred to local authority councillors and how they should be at the forefront of making sure that this sort of practice is mitigated and investigated properly. Is he satisfied that local authority councillors are given proper training and made to understand that they have the responsibilities as corporate parents? I was a councillor in two London boroughs, and had approaches from staff and individuals when they were worried about cases of sexual abuse, and the staff were not doing enough about it, so they came directly to me. I took on the role to make sure that this went straight to the chief executive and that it was investigated properly. But I encountered time and again that a lot of local authority councillors do not understand that they are corporate parents and have responsibilities that they should take very seriously.

I am sure that the noble Baroness makes some very good points. Sadly, in my job I meet a lot of local authority councillors in very difficult situations, so I may not have a particularly good cross-section. Her point about proper training for councillors is a very good one, and I will take it back and look at it.

My Lords, I have a small but telling point. Is the Minister aware of how he diminishes this issue by using the acronym, CSE? It is child sexual exploitation and it would be wise if the Minister said that in full, so that we may realise the real horror of what we are talking about.

My Lords, will the Minister pick up two points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, about vacancies among social workers and resources? Vacancies and a lack of resources are major problems for social workers dealing with child sexual exploitation.

I will have to write to the noble and learned Baroness on vacancies. On resources, through the innovation fund, we have funded a number of new methods of social work experiment, and we are investing heavily in terms of money, but I will write on that point, too.

My Lords, will the Minister reassure the House that, as a result of this further appalling tragedy, we will not just be placing the blame at the door of a local authority, local authorities or social workers but that government departments and Governments will examine their own conscience, look at their own practices and policies, and play their part in ensuring that, so far as possible, these things do not happen in future?

My Lords, we all agree that we have to protect vulnerable children and young people. The UK is a signatory to the Lanzarote convention. Why has it not ratified it in legislation when 38 other countries, including most European countries, have done so and have brought forward legislation?