Thank you for inviting me to speak today on this important topic.
As you will all know, tackling child sexual exploitation is an issue that has been at the very top of the Government agenda over the last 12 months.
For far too long, child sexual exploitation was a taboo issue in this country. It was little spoken about, little appreciated, little acknowledged or dealt with. If you were to ask local councils two years ago how prevalent child sexual exploitation was in their communities, many would not have been able to hazard a guess.
As a result, there was a real and tragic failure to grasp the scale of the problem - with awful consequences for hundreds, if not thousands, of children and young people.
The high profile verdicts in the recent Rochdale case shows, I hope, that this is changing. The country is waking up to the fact that child sexual exploitation is a real problem.
However ugly the details of this case, I believe we can take some comfort in the fact that it has, at long last, been brought out into the daylight. The perpetrators have been apprehended, prosecuted and have now been found guilty of dreadful crimes. They have been sentenced to a total of 77 years between them. The issue has been discussed and debated at length in our national press and on the airwaves.
Nothing can undo the wrong that has been done to the victims, but this at least is a clear signal that we have made progress. For many years local agencies have failed to look for this issue, by default allowing abusers to continue offending even as their victims suffered appallingly. Now, we can say with confidence that firm action is being taken and that those who perpetrate this kind of abuse will face justice - and tough justice at that.
As you will all know, much of the coverage of the case in Rochdale has focused on the fact that the perpetrators were British Asian men and the victims white teenage girls. Clearly, it is important that we do not shy away from difficult issues around culture. This case raises very troubling questions about the attitude of the perpetrators, all but one of whom were from Pakistani backgrounds, towards white girls. Nothing is gained by shying away from that.
But I would like to stress that the uncomfortable questions about abuse should not be directed only at the Pakistani community. This case asks all of us to take a long, hard look at the society in which these crimes occurred, and kept occurring.
Where were the support networks which should have protected these young girls from abuse? Where were the people and institutions - from parents to police, friends to core professionals - which should have provided them with stability and guidance, and stopped them falling prey to men who lured them with fast food and cheap vodka?
These are questions which the whole of society needs to confront. If we want to address child sexual exploitation, our analysis must be clear-sighted. It would be too easy to let ourselves off the hook by pointing the finger at particular ethnic or social groups. The fact is that these crimes are happening right across society. This is what the evidence tells us.
In the words of one young victim, Emma Jackson, who wrote an article for The Independent about her experience of abusers: ‘they’ll have anybody - doctors’ children, lawyers’ children - anybody’.
The message I have on this issue is quite simple. Whether the perpetrators of these crimes are white, Asian, Somali, or Turkish, we will hunt them down, and they will pay a heavy price.
Thanks to those who put this issue on the map
There are several organisations and individuals to whom we owe a real debt of gratitude for putting this issue on the map. Firstly, I want to pay tribute to the work of Sheila Taylor of the National Working Group for Sexually Exploited Children and Young People, and Safe and Sound Derby. If they had not raised the alarm, Derby’s Operation Retriever, the first major anti-exploitation operation to come to the public’s attention, may never have happened and many abusers would not be behind bars now.
Others who have done much to raise awareness include Barnardo’s, who released their excellent Puppet on a String report last year, and the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, who carried out a major assessment in 2011 and reported practitioners telling them: ‘if you lift the stone, you’ll find it.’
Andrew Norfolk, at The Times, has done much to raise the profile of this issue.
And the University of Bedfordshire, with funding from Comic Relief, completed important research into the way in which child sexual exploitation was being tackled - or, in too many cases, not tackled - on the ground.
The action plan
Thanks to all these organisations, we have a much firmer grasp on the scale of this issue: as our action plan states, ‘this appalling form of child abuse is more prevalent than most people could ever imagine’.
In November, of course, we launched the plan and I said at the time that we were, and I quote: ‘determined to lift the lid on the true nature and extent of child sexual exploitation’. Thanks to the constructive support of many partners, this is exactly what is happening, with the last six months spent working with those partners to make sure we see real change in the years ahead.
This conference is looking at ‘practical responses to child exploitation’, and that is what we were always determined that the action plan should be. We wanted it to lay the groundwork for real solutions, rather than being yet another document filled with good intentions which sits on a shelf gathering dust.
In the action plan, we identified four key stages where we needed better intervention on child sexual exploitation:
First, raising awareness of this issue with young people, parents and professionals.
Second, taking effective multi-agency action against exploitation and helping children who are victims to get out of it.
Third, securing robust prosecutions and improving court processes to ensure support for victims and their families.
And fourth, helping children and families who are caught up in sexual exploitation to get their lives back on track.
Progress so far
Over the coming weeks, we will be reporting back on full progress against the action plan but already we are seeing positive steps being taken in each of these four areas identified.
On raising awareness, we have worked with organisations like the Association of Chief Police Officers and health professional bodies to make sure sexual exploitation is being built into training and guidance for professionals.
Government campaigns, such as the Home Office’s teenage rape prevention campaign, are helping to raise public awareness and prevent teenagers from becoming victims and perpetrators of sexual violence and abuse.
The action plan referred particularly to the strong links between children going missing and being sexually exploited. I am pleased that the progress report records a number of important actions in that area - not least the Government’s new missing children and adults strategy, published in December.
Encouragingly, the progress report will contain some initiatives which were not specifically included in the action plan. For example, the National Working Group for Sexually Exploited Children and Young People and The Children’s Society have worked together to develop a national ‘Say Something If You See Something’ campaign, addressing the problem of hotels unwittingly being used as a venue for the sexual exploitation of young people. You will hear more about this initiative later today.
I think this shows that the momentum behind this issue is growing.
The second theme in the action plan is promoting multi-agency action to stop exploitation. Here, too, there has been real progress. Key to this is our work with local safeguarding children boards (LSCBs).
To help LSCBs get properly to grips with the extent of the problem in their areas, the national working group has set up discussion fora aimed at disseminating best practice. I have encouraged all LSCB chairs to ensure that their coordinators and business managers are participating in these.
The special interest group established by the independent LSCB chairs’ network will also help spread best practice. I thank Sue Woolmore for her efforts on this. She has helped coordinate the efforts of individual LSCBs across the country more than ever before.
The third theme in the action plan is improving how child sexual exploitation is dealt with by the justice system. A lot of work is going on here. To take just one example, the Ministry of Justice is currently reviewing victims’ services to ensure that those affected by crime - including young victims - are supported in the best way possible.
Proposals include offering particular assistance to young or vulnerable victims in coping with the criminal justice system, for example by making sure they can access special measures in court. This might involve giving evidence via videolink, as six of the young witnesses did in the Rochdale case.
I am also particularly pleased to say that this Government has made changes to the law so that anyone convicted of a second serious sexual or violent offence, including serious child sex offences, will now receive a mandatory life sentence. A long overdue amendment to the law in my opinion.
Finally, we are doing more to help victims rebuild their lives after abuse. The Department of Health is developing sexual assault referral centre services, and is improving education and training for doctors dealing with victims of violence and sexual assault.
Our challenge in the months and years ahead is to keep up the pace of progress. Child sexual exploitation is not an issue which will be dealt with overnight. The work set out in the action plan is far from completed, not least because we know that there are still areas where the existence of child sexual exploitation is not properly acknowledged or addressed.
In particular, we are absolutely determined to get a grip on the completely unacceptable failure of some children’s homes to protect young people from sexual exploitation.
Over the course of many years, children in care have been repeatedly and disproportionately targeted by abusers and it is an issue that we need to tackle urgently.
I am very grateful to Sue Berelowitz and her team for agreeing to provide an early report on issues arising from her inquiry into child sexual exploitation in gangs and groups, which includes her findings on how children in care homes are particularly vulnerable to abuse.
In the meantime I want to make it absolutely clear that we expect local authorities to take action immediately, and decisively, if there is any suggestion that children in care are being abused. Similarly, I expect Ofsted to use all its enforcement powers where it finds evidence of failure.
I can confirm today that Ofsted has completed an unannounced inspection of the home in question in the Rochdale case, and is reviewing its inspection plans for other homes owned by the same company.
Our task now is to ensure that all homes meet the same high standards as the best (of which there are many) and to ensure that these most vulnerable children are not only protected, but are able to thrive and succeed.
What is clear at this moment in time, is that the experience of young people who engage with the child protection system and the courts is still too mixed. We need to make it easier for young people to come forward and talk about their experience of abuse. Around 7 out of 10 children do not tell anyone about their ordeal at the time it happens and almost one third do not reveal their secret until adulthood.
We must make it easier for children to come forward; we must make it easier for professionals and parents to spot the danger signals; and we must equip families with the information and guidance they need.
This brings me on to the critical contribution we can make as parents. It may sound obvious, but mothers and fathers have a big role to play in helping youngsters make healthy, informed choices about relationships and sexual health - equipping them, in turn, to avoid situations that put them at risk of exploitation.
All the evidence indicates that child sexual exploitation can affect any family. One of the points I made at the launch of the action plan was that many professionals and experts are anxious that too many mothers and fathers are sleepwalking into danger: failing to recognise the tell tale signals of abuse.
Parents are becoming more aware of this as an issue. Only recently, I was asked to speak at a public meeting in a school in Derby, where parents were concerned that their children had been approached by groomers. They all wanted to receive practical advice and guidance.
We don’t want to stoke paranoia. The vast majority of children grow up safe from harm and lead very happy childhoods. Nevertheless, we need to encourage mums and dads to play a critically important preventative role.
There is some helpful advice for parents out there, for example the Spot the signs leaflet which is available on the Barnado’s website.
This is important, as we need parents to act as eyes and ears, and to be aware of the signals that suggest a child may be being groomed for exploitation, or is already being exploited.
We need them to help their children understand the dangers around them and support them to take sensible decisions as they become more independent.
And we need to support parents to help their children if the very worst does happen. I have met many parents who have lived through the trauma of their son or daughter being sexually exploited, and who have shown immense courage and determination in supporting them through the experience.
One of the key areas of concern to many parents is the growth of the internet. I am a great fan of social media, but I also know, as a parent, that it is a difficult area to monitor, particularly when our children are more clued-up than we are.
Many children are using social media in inappropriate and risky ways - and often parents lack the confidence or knowledge to intervene. As a Government, we need to help parents take control of this issue and ensure that their children are using social media safely, and only when they are ready.
Research from the charity Beatbullying, has shown that some 38 per cent of 11- to 17-year-olds have received a sexually explicit or distressing email or text, with 70 per cent admitting they knew the sender.
12 per cent of 8- to 11-year-olds, and 24 per cent of 12- to 15-year-olds, say that they use social networking to talk to people they don’t know.
Finally, we know around 11 per cent of children in the UK have come across sexual images online, and around the same number of 11- to 16-year-olds have received them.
We are working closely with parents’ groups, the Home Office, charities and many others to tackle this and we are very aware there is more to do.
I co-chair, with Lynne Featherstone at the Home Office, the UK Council for Child Internet Safety. We are making good progress with everyone involved on how to make the internet and technology safer for children using it. There will be lots more progress announced on this over the coming months.
We are determined that child sexual exploitation should never, ever again be a problem that is treated as a guilty secret or swept under the carpet.
The tackling child sexual exploitation action plan remains - and was always intended to be - a ‘live’ document. We will continue to monitor progress and make sure that all the relevant authorities have stepped up to the mark and intervene robustly where this is not happening.
The vast majority of children in this country grow up happy and well, but there is nothing is more important than keeping young people safe from harm. As with all the most pressing dangers confronting young people, we can only tackle this if we work together and face up to the full extent of this problem.