Thank you so much Ann Marie. It is a very real pleasure to join you all this afternoon.
Before I start, can I offer my sincere thanks to Barnardo’s for organising this event. And of course, my thanks to everyone who has spared their very valuable time to come along today and support it.
Secondly, I have been asked to make an apology on behalf of my good friend and colleague James Brokenshire, who was unable to come along today from the Home Office. He has asked me to pass on his profound regrets. Unfortunately, he is involved in urgent Ministerial business.
Let me begin by saying just how much personal importance I attach to this event. As I hope many of you will know, I am very proud to be Minister for Children and have thoroughly enjoyed doing the job over the last year. But there are certain parts of the portfolio that always bring me back down to earth with a very big bump. This is one of them.
No matter how long you stay in the job it is difficult to credit just how much cruelty children can be subjected to. In fact, issues like violence in the home, neglect, abuse, and sexual exploitation are so cruel, and so degrading, that it’s sometimes difficult for people to believe they even exist in this country. It feels like something you’d find at another place and in another age.
Mercifully, the vast majority of children in this country do grow up safe from any harm. But, as was made so uncomfortably clear in the Barnardo’s report at the start of year, exploitation is happening here and it is happening now. And I think it’s a much bigger problem than it may appear now on our radar. And, it is just that when you read reports like ‘Puppet on a string’ - it is difficult to reconcile the well-lit streets of our cities, with the shadows of the world where some children spend their childhoods.
However, reconcile ourselves to it we must. And I should start by thanking Barnardo’s for producing that report; for their outstanding and groundbreaking work on the ‘Streets and Lanes’ project in Bradford; and its expansion in operations to combat child exploitation to 22 sites across the UK.
When you published ‘Puppet on a string’ - you issued the Secretary of State and myself with a direct challenge to make tackling child exploitation a top priority.
Today, I want to show how we are keen to meet that challenge, and in doing so - I want to pay a very big thank you to my colleagues at the Department for Education, including Jeanette Pugh and her team, who I know have been working hard on this.
The first thing Barnardo’s asked for was a Minister to take charge of the issue across Government. I am now (and indeed always was) that Minister, and I am determined to drive this forward. But I am doing it very much in partnership with the Home Office and the Minister James Brokenshire specifically, who has strong interest in this issue.
The second thing you asked for was an action plan. And I am pleased to say we have begun work on one.
To kick start the process, I chaired a roundtable meeting last month with senior representatives from a range of organisations. At that meeting we identified a wide range of issues to be addressed from awareness raising and understanding - to effective prevention and early detection, and the challenge of securing prosecutions and the need to support victims.
I hope shortly to be in a position to give a full breakdown of what the plan will include, and as those of you who are supporting us in its development will know, it is going to build on existing guidance; it is no small endeavour, and I want to get it right.
It will help to develop our understanding of sexual abuse by looking at effective prevention strategies going on around the country; by identifying those most at risk of exploitation; by supporting victims; and by taking the very strongest, most uncompromising action against the people who perpetrate these appalling crimes.
I have asked Jeanette and her team to work that report up over the summer as a top priority, so I hope to be able to report back to you by the autumn.
Thirdly, we have reviewed the child protection system itself - not something Barnardo’s specifically asked for, but I do believe in going the extra mile.
Last week, Professor Munro published the final report of that review - and I am exceedingly grateful to both her and her team for all their hard work and the recommendations they have come up with.
It has the potential, I think, to be a big step forward in tackling exploitation because it places so much emphasis on supporting the men and women at the sharp end of preventing it - social workers and other agencies who need to work closer and smarter. And I’m pleased that Professor Munro specifically mentions the issue of child sexual exploitation - and the important role of Local Safeguarding Children Boards in tackling it - in her report.
More generally, the report stresses the importance of reducing the amount of unnecessary bureaucracy professionals have to put up with so that they can spend more time where they should be - helping children, young people and families.
And it makes very explicit that Government should place a duty on local authorities to secure sufficient provision of local ‘early help’ services for children, young people and families. Because it’s so important to identify issues early and put preventative action in place.
For our purposes, that may well mean asking them to specify the range of professional help available to children. Specify how authorities will identify children who are suffering - or likely to suffer significant harm. And set out the local resourcing of ‘early help’ services for families, so that they provide an ‘early help offer’, even before individuals of concern reach the threshold for social care services.
We’re giving very careful consideration to the review’s recommendations, and will be working with the sector to develop a response that we will be publishing over the summer.
James has asked me to pass on his personal commitment to tackling child sexual exploitation as a core part of policing. And I know that from top to toe, the Home Office machine is determined to make sure its police force is equipped with the understanding and support they need to tackle what is always a serious crime - and quite often an organised one as well.
As Barnardo’s has said, improving the national picture of evidence and data is a first major step to achieving this. And I know James, like myself, is looking forward to seeing the findings from the CEOP thematic assessment of child sexual exploitation, which is due to be published next month. A point I would certainly echo, particularly after hearing Neil Giles’ update at our roundtable meeting in the House last month. The findings of the assessment will be an important input into our action plan.
The final thing James asked me to say, was a slightly broader point around his determination to work together with the police - through ACPO - to find ways of improving officers’ ability to identify vulnerability, and minimise risk.
Something I know he is deeply committed to.
And that brings me on to my last point, and it is one of collaboration.
One of the big lessons we have learnt over the years, is that public services are at their worst when they don’t talk to each other. And at their best when they do. But more importantly act together as well.
You see it in health, in education, welfare, local government and law enforcement - but nowhere is it more obvious than child protection.
Our services have - I think - got better at talking to each other over the years, but there is still a wide variation in collaboration depending on where you choose to look.
So, as we draw up the action plan, we are determined to make sure it involves the whole range of government departments and agencies. Bringing in local safeguarding children boards in particular. But also other organisations like Barnardo’s, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre and local authority children’s services. Not to mention, of course, all those smaller voluntary and community organisations that can make all the difference - like the Safe and Sound Project in Derby.
One of the first steps we have taken to be more collaborative is to begin work with the Office of the Children’s Commissioner on a two year inquiry into child sexual exploitation, which begins in the autumn.
As the old saying goes, together we are stronger. And we really do need to be stronger than ever if we are going to shine a torch into this murkiest of areas and have the resolve to see through the solutions we need to bring to bear.
To end, let me just thank Barnardo’s once again. It has been a privilege to join you and - as always - it has been an education.
In one way or another, child protection and welfare is at beginning and end of everything I do in the Department.
I look forward to working with you all over the coming months as we do that. And I look forward to hearing a better story from Barnardo’s in the years ahead.