Please note these words may not reflect exactly those given by the speaker.
Thanks, Hilary (Chair of the Trustees, PACE), I’m very glad to be here. I’m very much looking forward to listening to and learning from your experiences.
As your new name emphasises, parents have a vital role to play in combating child sexual exploitation - both in terms of prevention and supporting their children if, tragically, they do become victims.
As Hilary said, PACE has been battling this most horrific of crimes for over 17 years. It must, at times, have seemed a lonely fight.
For decades, child sexual exploitation has largely remained in the shadows and victims and their families have been let down - by a range of agencies who failed to act, who subjected young people to disbelieving attitudes and who forgot the needs of families.
Having grown up with many foster children and worked in the care system as a family barrister, 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 you and your children have been subjected.
You deserve every support and it’s shameful that, too often, it just hasn’t been there.
It is right to say that awareness of this type of abuse has improved locally, but we know there are still too many areas that haven’t got to grips with it, even though it’s become increasingly apparent that it’s a much bigger problem than previously thought.
Barnardo’s - which, of course, has done much to raise awareness of this issue - 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.
Recent trials, laying bare the ordeals of victims as young as 11, also remind us just how despicable these crimes can be - and how undeterred many of the criminals often appeared.
So it’s clear that there’s absolutely no excuse for failing to act and failing to protect some of the most vulnerable children in our society.
I want you to know that I’m committed to building on the work already underway across Government to prevent and punish child sexual exploitation wherever and however it occurs. And, crucially, to put victims and families first.
After all, it’s thanks to organisations like yours - helping 160 families across England in the last year alone - and thanks to the courageous contribution of victims and parents themselves, that we’re gaining a much better understanding of the problem.
I also hugely value PACE’s input into the national Child Sexual Exploitation Action Plan - a plan that presents a great opportunity to, at last, make some really significant changes - changes that will see more responsive, more co-ordinated action by agencies to support and involve parents.
Looking around the room, it’s good to see it’s no longer such a lonely fight - with so many organisations who are working in this area; Barnado’s, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection centre (CEOP), Engage from Lancashire and others in the audience today.
I’m glad to see that Sue Berelowitz, from the Office of the Children’s Commissioner, is with us. As many of you will know, Sue is looking into Child Sexual Exploitation in Gangs and Groups and recently produced an interim report as part of her inquiry.
I recently wrote to Sue with an update on what the Government is doing on the report’s recommendations. This included the action we’re taking so all professionals are aware of the warning signs and know what to do if they suspect a child is being sexually exploited.
My parliamentary colleagues, Keith Vaz and Ann Coffey, who are also in the audience, also deserve our thanks for all they’ve done to raise the profile of this issue.
Progress on national plan
Now, as many of you know, it’s been a year since we launched the national (Child Sexual Exploitation) Action Plan.
Last July, we published a progress report which showed that, while we’ve still got more to do, there’s a lot of positive work underway.
We 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 want us to hold more of these meetings and very much hope that transport difficulties won’t prevent Hilary from joining us, as they, unfortunately, did last month.
And last week I chaired a meeting with the Association of Independent Local Safeguarding Children Boards (LSCB) Chairs. They recognised that more needs to be done to deal with this abuse.
I was pleased to hear that they’re taking steps to do this in a number of ways - by making it easier to share the best approaches to tackling child sexual exploitation (CSE) through the creation of a Practice Development Group and through regional leads on CSE to support 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 from them to build on.
Over the past year, work has been underway to raise awareness, to help prosecute and jail abusers, to protect young people at risk and to help victims get their lives back on track. I want to thank everyone in the room for their invaluable contribution.
- It’s resulted in over 7,000 professionals, from health, social work, the police and other agencies, benefitting from sessions to raise awareness delivered by the National Working Group (for Sexually Exploited Children and Young People).
- We’ve 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 video on the subject issued by the Association of Chief Police Officers. The video is also freely available online for others to use.
- We’ve also raised awareness among young people by, amongst other things, rerunning a Home Office teenage rape prevention campaign in December.
Looking ahead, 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 - like giving child witnesses more choice about how they give evidence.
Much of what’s being achieved demonstrates the powerful benefits of making parents a fundamental part of the solution.
An impressive illustration of this is PACE’s collaboration with Engage, a multi-agency team from Blackburn, Lancashire - who are represented here today. Your work together, to develop a “victim and witness care package”, has not only reduced the trauma of victims going to court, but also helped boost conviction rates. I understand that, since Engage was set up in 2008, the team has secured almost 500 years of custodial sentences and achieved a 98 per cent prosecution success rate.
A fantastic example to local areas of what can be achieved by agencies working in partnership.
Local Safeguarding Children Boards in Bradford, Sheffield and Oxford are following Lancashire’s lead and setting up similar multi-agency teams. So, in future, we should see more parents being involved and more perpetrators brought to justice.
Spotting the warning signs
Of course, one of the biggest barriers to tackling this manipulative and coercive crime is actually spotting it’s happening. We know that, too often, agencies haven’t listened to children 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. This has to change.
As I’ve already said, there’s considerable work going on to raise awareness. Several organisations - not least my own Department - and Sue’s interim report have provided checklists of warning signs for parents and carers which we should - if not already - become familiar with.
As children grow up and become more independent, there continues to be an active, educational role for parents in helping young people understand the dangers around them, so they can make sensible decisions, not least about friendship groups and first relationships.
In all of this, it’s worth reminding ourselves that child sexual exploitation can affect any family. That its incidence in a particular family does not mean that the family is “bad” or that the parents have failed.
Statutory agencies and voluntary organisations also need to be mindful that victims and families may need support to avoid becoming victims again and to pick up their lives for a long time after the abuse has ended.
In the months ahead, I want to make sure we do much more to help you and your children move on and rebuild your lives. In doing so, we’ll be counting on the expertise of organisations like PACE.
I’m conscious that PACE’s theme for this year is focused on encouraging agencies to support and work in active partnership with parents. I whole-heartedly endorse this approach and urge local areas to tap into your invaluable experience of helping victims and families. Not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s proven to work.
It only remains for me to say how extremely grateful I am for the way in which you’ve been there for families in their darkest hour; for your work to bring perpetrators to justice and for your on-going efforts to make the national action plan a reality.
Child sexual exploitation is a particularly abhorrent crime. An appalling betrayal of what is supposed to be the most innocent and happy period in your daughters’ and sons’ lives.
But your incredible determination, as parents, to make a difference in the face of unimaginable heartbreak, makes me feel optimistic that we can beat this abuse and make the world a safer place for all our children.