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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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Safeguarding against grooming for sexual exploitation

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The following speech was given by Meg at a conference organised by Yorkshire Soroptimists.

Thank you for inviting me to speak at this event.

I understand that you have been working on relationship issues for some time and I am delighted to provide my perspective on the theme of ‘safeguarding against grooming for sexual exploitation’.  

You have my biography in your pack so you know that before entering parliament I spent 20 years in social work, including as Assistant Director of Children’s Services in York. I have extensive experience of working with children who have been abused. In parliament I used this experience to influence government policy and have established, and chair, the Child Protection All-Party Parliamentary Group.

Background

The topic today - sexual exploitation of children attracts a great deal of media interest, particularly given the high profile cases where groups of men have abused young girls. But we should not forget that throughout history and in every location, girls and boys have been sexually abused. The particular way in which this happens may change, but the motivation of the abusers is the same. They simply seek to gratify themselves, without a care for the child.

Children who suffer serious and sustained abuse may never recover.  They may take to drugs or alcohol to take away the mental pain and anguish. Suicide may seem to be the only way out. Forming healthy relationships can be hard, others as adults find themselves drawn toward abusive relationships and thus complete the cycle.

One of the most devastating impacts is on the ability to trust. Most abuse involves a betrayal of trust: often it is this that makes it hard for the victim to tell anyone about it. This is one of the important aspects to the sexual exploitation of young people.

Sexual exploitation of children does not take place in isolation from other abuse. The Child Protection All-Party Parliamentary Group has recently concluded a seminar series on child sexual abuse. We examined the areas which have tended to receive less attention over recent years intra-familial abuse; peer to peer sexual abuse and young people’s harmful sexual behaviour; and prevention of sexual abuse within institutions.

Many of the young people suffering in these contexts are also those likely to be most at risk of being groomed for sexually exploitation, although not exclusively.

The importance of safeguarding

The child sexual exploitation in Rotherham, Rochdale and Oxford show a worrying trend the grooming of children for sexual exploitation is becoming more sophisticated. We see children and young people exploited in the most pernicious way, often transported between towns and cities to be subjected to multiple acts of abuse.

A recent assessment by the Child Exploitation and Protection Centre has identified that in most areas of the United Kingdom there has not been a proactive approach to tackling sexual exploitation. This needs to change.

Early intervention and prevention are essential and all agencies need to improve their ability to recognise exploitation to enable them to intervene early. This is not the responsibility of any single organisation. A commitment to multi-agency working is essential to tackling grooming.

Local Safeguarding Children Boards are the key body in each area with the responsibility for setting out policy and procedures. With all the relevant agencies having a seat at the table, it is here that the proactive approach needs to start.  Set up by the Children Act 2004, they have to ensure that government guidance, such as Working Together to Safeguard Children, is understood and complied with.

They need to ensure training of staff in all relevant settings and monitor incidence of abuse. There are good examples of Local Safeguarding Children’s Boards setting up Multi Agency Support Hubs. These ensure better co-ordination across social care, local police, health professionals, education, youth offending teams and voluntary organisations.

Schools have a vital role in early identification, as outside of home they have most contact with children. Staff are well placed to spot changes in behaviour. Their statutory duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of children is set out in the Education Act 2002. All staff need to be trained to identify the signs of sexual exploitation and know how to respond in accordance with local protocols.

Healthcare professionals are likely to be alerted to signs of sexual exploitation, such as sexually-transmitted infections, physical injuries, changes in appearance and self-harm. Information which indicates a child might be at risk from sexual exploitation should be shared with children’s services to enable a proper investigation to take place.

It is also important that parents know that they can seek help and they will be listened to. I have met parents who knew very early on that something was happening but they couldn’t get agencies to take their concerns seriously. Social workers and police officers may too easily dismiss the concerns of parents, particularly if there is no history of previous involvement with statutory agencies. This needs to change as the longer a young person is subjected to exploitation the greater impact on their overall well being and the more difficult it can be to extract them from the situation.

Police forces and the Crown Prosecution Service should not take an inappropriately cautious approach to accusations of child sexual exploitation. Just because convictions are often difficult to achieve, we should not downplay their importance in stopping sexual exploitation. To do so risks fuelling offenders’ sense of impunity, with the possibility for abuse to escalate to a horrific scale, with dozens, if not hundreds of victims.

The current situation

We know that a number of areas are still a long way from having effective policies and procedures in place. Last year’s report from the Office of the Children’s Commissioner gives a number of examples.

Supplementary statutory guidance to Working Together to Safeguard Children was issued in 2009.  A comparison of the current practise of Local Safeguarding Children Boards against this guidance showed that only 6% were meeting the requirements in full, with around one third not even meeting half of them. Substantial gaps, therefore, remain in the availability of specialist provision for victims of sexual exploitation.

The Office of the Children’s Commissioner’s report also uncovered a significant difference between children and young people’s views of their needs and what would help them, and professionals understanding of what would help.

Earlier I referred to the importance of multi-agency working. But today in too many areas professionals still work in their own silos. Almost one third of Local Safeguarding Children Boards have no plans to appoint a child sexual exploitation coordinator. Nearly half of all child sexual exploitation sub groups have no specific representative from sexual health services.

Information sharing also remains an issue, with some agencies holding on to information on sexual exploitation, not sharing with police, children’s services and others. Although some agencies do engage in collaborative or partnership work, they still do not communicate effectively.

There are issues with the criminal justice system. There are shockingly low conviction rates, sometimes because victims are treated as collaborators, and insufficient attention is given to the needs of young people in giving evidence.

I find it staggering that the provisions allowing for video recorded cross-examination or re-examination in the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 are still not in force. There can be no argument for continuing to subject highly vulnerable victims to cross examination in court given the highly publicised risks this clearly carries.

Improvements

The appointment of the Children’s Minister as the government lead for child sexual exploitation has given greater prominence to the issue, highlighting it as a national responsibility in England. Likewise, the publication of the National Action Plan on Tackling Child Sexual Exploitation has set out in broad terms how the responsibility is to be shared across central government and by local authorities, police forces and other agencies.

We are already seeing improvements at the local level as most Local Safeguarding Children Boards have now committed resources to tackle child sexual exploitation. Activities such as running awareness-raising programmes and appointing a child sexual exploitation coordinator is now thought to have been completed in 63% of instances. This is promising.

There is also work to rebalance the criminal justice system away from a structure skewed in the favour of defendants. The Crown Prosecution Service has introduced specialist coordinators for child sexual assault cases. They have produced new guidelines on prosecuting cases, which include a list of stereotypical behaviour previously thought to undermine the credibility of young people in order to dispel the associated myths when bringing a prosecution. This is coupled with a joint protocol on information sharing between local government and the family courts.

I hope that such measures will avoid a repeat of the events in the Rochdale where in 2009 the Crown Prosecution Service originally declined to prosecute because they did not find the witness ‘reliable’.

Despite these improvements, serious gaps remain in the knowledge, practice and services required. There are pockets of good practice, but much more still needs to be done to prevent thousands more children falling victim.

Better prevention

I believe we require a much more comprehensive approach in teaching our children and young people about relationships, including sexual relationships. Of course many children will learn from their parents about what is a good relationship. But this is not the experience for every child, and even children from very supportive homes can put themselves in risky situations during their rebellious adolescent years.

A comprehensive approach is also required for sex and relationship education. This has long been an area of difficulty for politicians who raise this, with the inevitable appearance of stories in the newspapers about children being told or shown things that parents felt were inappropriate for their age.

The statutory guidance on sex and relationship education dates back to the year 2000. Although it is in my view a good framework, it could clearly benefit from updating to take account of the increased knowledge about the incidence of sexual exploitation.

The legal situation in schools is also muddled with no requirement for academies to provide sex and relationship education although if they do they must have regard to the 2000 guidance. Ofsted recently found that Personal Social Health and Economic education (usually shortened to PHSE) is not good enough in a "substantial proportion of schools" and that this leaves young people vulnerable.

There has been a campaign to make sex and relationship education compulsory in all schools with an amendment to the Children and Families Bill moved in the House of Lords. However this was defeated.

Funding

In a report last year, the Home Affairs Select Committee recommended that all local authorities ensure there is sufficient funding for prevention within the budget of any team tasked with tackling sexual exploitation. Its aims are laudable, but difficult to achieve when most local authorities are making deep cuts.

However not all inaction can or should be put down to finance. At a meeting of the Child Protection All-Party Group earlier this week, one MP described how her police force had told her that they didn’t go looking for child sexual exploitation but would act if it was brought to their attention. Fortunately not all take this view.

Two years ago a joint unit was set up in Rotherham between the police and social services to take forward the lessons learnt from the cases of sexual exploitation that had occurred in the area. They take a proactive approach, and for example, cases of young people, particularly girls, hanging around various premises such as local shops are investigated. These can be the early signs of attempts to lure girls into relationships that become exploitative. By becoming involved early, and assessing the situation together, the police and social services have been able to prevent the situation getting worse.

This proactive approach is needed. Good practice must be better shared around the country if we are to make a difference.

Conclusions

The government must promote a clear and consistent approach to protecting children and young people, in the context of better joint working from ministers downwards. We need action plans for all areas of child sexual abuse to prevent exploitation, and to ensure that all children who have experienced child sexual abuse get the support they need. It is also only in this context that a truly preventative model can be developed.

No words I can say here today will ever truly reflect the impact of sexual exploitation on a child. The Deputy Children’s Commissioner, Sue Berelowitz, describes the harrowing reality for many children “each year thousands are raped or abused by people seeking to humiliate, violate and control them. The impact on their lives is devastating. These children have been abducted, trafficked, beaten and threatened after being drawn into a web of sexual violence sometimes by promises of love and sometime simply because they know there is no alternative.

However this dreadful truth should not blind us to the fact that most children are loved, treasured and protected by the adults around them. But we should not be complacent. I’m sure all here want to live in a society that continually improves its protection of children. 

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