Thanks, David (Simmonds, Chair LGA Children and Young People Programme). I’m glad to be here.
I’d firstly like to say how extremely grateful I am to the LGA, Ann (Coffey) and others here today from many sectors for their efforts to combat child sexual exploitation.
I would echo much of what Ann has just said, especially her emphasis on how pivotal local agencies are to the fight against this most horrific of crimes. I know how deeply Ann cares about this subject - her thoughtful insights on it are always greatly valued.
Now, let’s begin with some good news.
More perpetrators are being prosecuted and jailed; sending out the message, loud and clear, that those who prey on children face stiff punishment.
And there’s also increasingly focused and effective work underway to fight this most horrific of crimes - we’ll be hearing more about this from speakers representing councils in Birmingham and Kent. It’s also good to see Rochdale represented here today, to share lessons learned from when things do go wrong.
But there’s clearly much more to do.
I was very interested to hear what you had to say, David, about doing some further work to raise awareness of child sexual exploitation and producing more resources for councils on this.
I very much welcome this because, as we know, greater recognition of this despicable form of abuse is fundamental to the fight against it.
It’s fair to say that awareness has improved locally, but we know there are still too many areas that haven’t got to grips with the problem, even though it’s become increasingly apparent that it’s a much more widespread than previously thought.
Barnardo’s - which, of course, has done much to highlight this issue and is being represented here by Anne Marie Carrie later today - recently reported an alarming rise in the number of cases known to them, with increasing numbers of children being trafficked around the country and victims getting younger.
So, as a first step, it’s crucial that local areas urgently establish the true scale and nature of the problem.
Key to this, I believe, is the need for a major re-think of our attitudes towards victims and their families.
Understanding that this manipulative and coercive abuse can happen to any family and that the children affected are to always be treated as victims means that this abuse is less likely to go undetected - making it easier to track what is really is going on the ground.
This greater awareness and understanding is also more likely to galavnise the partnership work that’s so vital to tackling this issue.
Because it’s a poor understanding of the issue; particularly disbelieving attitudes towards the young victims, that has largely kept this scourge in the shadows for so long.
Having grown up with many foster children and worked in the care system as a family barrister - including on cases involving sexually abused children - I have some experience of living and working with traumatised and damaged children.
But it’s hard to comprehend the extreme violation and suffering to which these children have been subjected.
They deserve our every support and yet, too often, agencies haven’t listened to them or believed their allegations, meaning more children being abused for longer. It is clearly completely outrageous and unacceptable for the young people affected not to be treated as victims.
I’m absolutely determined that we should do all we can to change this. To make sure we punish and prevent child sexual exploitation wherever and however it occurs. And, crucially, put victims and families first.
Progress so far - national action plan, CSE round table and LSCB meeting
This is why that we’ve made raising awareness of this abuse and promoting partnership work central elements of the national Child Sexual Exploitation Action Plan we launched last year.
Last July, we published a progress report on the plan and followed this up with a roundtable meeting in December, which I chaired, involving other Government Ministers and a range of organisations.
We discussed the progress we were making, but also challenged each other on whether we were all really doing everything we could. I’m keen to hold more of these meetings so we keep up the momentum.
And just a few weeks ago, I chaired a meeting with the Association of Independent Local Safeguarding Children Board Chairs (LSCBs).
I was pleased to hear that they’re taking a number of important steps to prioritise action in this area - for example, making it easier to share the best approaches to tackling child sexual exploitation through the creation of a Practice Development Group. And through regional leads on child sexual exploitation, supporting all Local Safeguarding Children Boards in addressing the issue.
Given their key local role, I’ll be watching the progress made by the Boards with great interest.
There’s much positive work for them to build on.
Over the past year…
- Over 8,000 professionals, from health, social work, the police and other agencies, have benefitted from sessions to raise awareness delivered by the National Working Group (for Sexually Exploited Children and Young People).
- We’ve just re-issued a step-by-step guide for frontline professionals on what to do if they suspect abuse, so they should be better placed to intervene.
- Frontline police officers will also be better equipped to deal with child sexual exploitation thanks to a new training film on the subject issued by the Association of Chief Police Officers. The film is also freely available online for others to use.
- And we’ve also raised awareness among young people by, amongst other things, re-running a Home Office teenage rape prevention campaign in December and January. We will also be re-running a teenage relationship abuse campaign from this month to the end of April.
Partnership work - prosecutions, criminal justice system
Much of what’s being achieved powerfully demonstrates the benefits of partnership working.
An impressive illustration of this is the work of Engage, a multi-agency team from Lancashire. Since it was set up in 2008, the team has secured almost 500 years of custodial sentences and achieved a 98 per cent prosecution success rate. And in working with over 1,500 children experiencing or at risk of sexual exploitation, the team has also driven down school absence and cases of children missing from home or care.
A fantastic example of what can be done, even against a difficult economic backdrop, when agencies come together and are determined to act.
It’s good to know that other Local Safeguarding Children Boards around the country; in Rochdale, Bradford, Sheffield and Oxford, are following Lancashire’s lead and setting up similar multi-agency teams. I want to see others following suit.
An important lesson that local areas would do well to heed from Engage’s experience is the team’s decision to involve parents in developing a “victim and witness care package”. This has not only helped boost conviction rates, but reduced the distress of victims going to court, a significant factor in their chances of recovery.
It’s true that court appearances can heap further trauma onto children who have already been through so much. So I want to see the criminal justice system continuing to strive to make sure victims of child sexual exploitation are treated with much greater understanding.
Work is underway in this area. The Crown Prosecution Service will be publishing new legal guidance on prosecuting child sexual exploitation cases early this year, which will include advice on information sharing and improved support for victims. This complements existing work to make it easier for young victims to navigate the criminal justice system - such as giving child witnesses more choice about how they give evidence.
Action on missing children, NHS database
Engage’s success in reducing the numbers of children going missing is also highly significant.
Because as Ann has said, these absences are one of the key warning signs that a child is being groomed or exploited. It’s a risk factor that’s also been highlighted in checklists issued by several organisations, not least my own Department, and by Sue Berelowitz, as part of her inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Gangs and Groups.
We know from Sue’s inquiry and Ann’s work on the Joint All Party Parliamentary Group Inquiry, that children who go missing from care are at particularly serious risk of being exploited and harmed.
As a first step to keeping them safe, it’s clear we must have robust data on the numbers going missing.
The Working Group we set up last year to look at this has now reported and I announced last week that we will begin piloting a new data collection in the next few months.
This will, for the first time, collect information on all children who go missing from their placement - not just those missing for 24 hours - enabling better analysis and more effective practice to prevent and combat the problem.
In addition, we will shortly issue revised statutory guidance on Children who go Missing from Home or Care based on the best local practice. This will complement guidance issued to police forces by the Association of Chief Police Officers.
Ofsted’s new looked after children inspections and the new multi-agency inspections, which will begin in June, will also shine a powerful light on agencies are working together to protect children.
Sharing information about children at risk is a vital part of this joint work. We can see this happening, for example, with the launch of a new project, in December, that will help the NHS do more to protect vulnerable children.
This initiative will link local authorities’ children’s social care systems with systems in the NHS; making critical child protection information available to healthcare professionals who suspect abuse or neglect when treating children in emergencies and unscheduled care. And making life harder for sexual predators.
Residential care reform
Predators who, as well as benefitting from gaps in information, are also exploiting weaknesses in the residential care system - particularly an “out of sight out of mind” culture, which has seen too many children being placed in children’s home many miles from family and friends.
In March 2011, children’s homes in 15 local authorities were entirely occupied by children from other local authorities.
At the same time, 13 other local authorities, which had children’s homes in their area, made no placements in these homes; instead preferring to send their children to homes in other areas.
Good children’s homes provide young people, for whom other placements aren’t suitable, with just the intensive, caring professional help and stability they need.
But we know that there are some homes where support for children and security are poor. Which are located in parts of the country with meagre facilities and, worse still, where there are disproportionately large numbers of sex offenders often synonymous with organised criminal activity.
We know that these children in these homes, many of whom are already damaged, are especially vulnerable to these dangers. We’re determined to do much more to protect them.
We’re already on track to make it possible for Ofsted to share information on the location of children’s homes with the police and we will be urgently consulting on a number of further changes…
- That require local authorities, at a senior level, to take more responsibility for out of area placements that are a significant distance away.
- That ensure there’s rigorous independent scrutiny of the quality of care in each home.
- And that clarify the roles and responsibilities of the placing authority, the children’s home and the area where the home is located, so there’s a real, shared responsibility for safeguarding the child and promoting their welfare.
We’re also proposing to reform the qualifications framework to address the low level of qualifications among staff in children’s homes.
By this summer, we’ll publish a revised data pack on residential care which will include more detailed information about children’s homes by local authority and region. This should go some way towards helping local authorities make much better choices.
Given the vulnerability of children in care to these and other kinds of dangers, it’s crucial that we do all we can to keep them safe which is why I’m delighted that Sir Martin Narey, the government’s adoption advisor has agreed to expand his role and will advise us more generally on children’s social care. His experience and expertise will, I’m sure, make a significant contribution to progress in this area. As a first step, the Secretary of State has asked Sir Martin to look at the quality of education and training for child and family social workers as part of the on-going reform of social work. Today we have also advertised the Chief Social Worker posts; they will play a pivotal role in driving up quality and the status of the workforce.
In all of this, we will continue to work with you all to find the best way forward.
Because, as the national action plan makes clear, what happens at a local level is absolutely critical. It makes clear that child sexual exploitation must be seen in the context of wider safeguarding responsibilities that cut across sectors and agencies.
So it’s vital…
That local authorities and LSCBs map the extent and nature of the problem in their area as a matter of priority.
That they work together and share information; across children’s social care, health services, education, the police and the courts, to spot the warning signs early, take swift and co-ordinated action and reduce the opportunities for abusers.
And that they transform attitudes, at a senior level and on the frontline, towards victims and their families.
Doing this will not only help save young people and their families from terrible suffering, but, as Ann has said, should help save money in the long run.
I would urge you, wherever possible, to work in partnership with young people and parents - their experience and insights are critical to battling these abhorrent crimes- and, of course, in the long, hard road to recovery.
Statutory agencies and voluntary organisations need to be mindful that those affected may need support to avoid becoming victims again and to pick up their lives for a long time after the abuse has ended.
I recently met a group of parents whose children had, tragically, become victims of this abhorrent abuse. Their heartbreak at this appalling betrayal of childhood innocence was tangible. But I was also deeply moved by their courage and determination - to support their children, but also to make the world a safer place for all our children.
They’re counting on us. To change our mind set and see the child in need of protection. To act and fulfil our first duty to keep them safe.
I know you’re as committed as I am to doing this; to fighting this abuse head-on; ensuring perpetrators pay for their crimes and making sure children and their families get the support they so desperately need and deserve.