As you all know, tackling child sexual exploitation is an issue we have put at the very top of the Government agenda - and I am grateful to St Mary’s for the invitation to come along and speak about our plans for the year ahead.
From the Prime Minister down, we are absolutely committed to reducing the number of young people who fall victim to abuse, and we are working closely with the sector to progress last November’s child sexual exploitation plan.
Thanks to the thoughtful and expert contributions of organisations like St Mary’s, we’ve managed to create and implement real reforms. So let me begin by offering my thanks to Bernie and Catherine, as well as Gail, Claire and Naomi for the invaluable work they do as independent sexual violence advisors. I must also thank Lynne for her work as child advocate and, of course, the wider team for their support. I know thousands of victims each year are grateful beyond words for the belief, support and respect they find in St Mary’s - and I thank you for the work you are doing to raise awareness around sexual violence.
For too long, child sexual exploitation has been a hidden issue, with many local areas completely failing to collate any information, facts or figures on the extent of the problem in their communities. We are now gathering better intelligence on the scale of abuse and it’s clear there are no grounds for complacency. CEOP did a major assessment in 2011 and reported practitioners telling them: “If you lift the stone, you’ll find it.”
A young victim quoted in Sue Jago’s University of Bedfordshire paper said, heartbreakingly: “It’s not hidden - you just aren’t looking.” And Barnardo’s released its excellent ‘Puppet on a String’ report last year, after which Anne Marie Carrie, the charity’s chief executive, described sexual violence against children over 10 as “the most pressing child protection issue”.
My strong sense is that this country is waking up to the fact young people are being sexually exploited not in the dozens or the hundreds, but very probably the thousands - and at this point, I must pay thanks to all the Local Safeguarding Children Board chairs who are now knocking at our doors to help tackle this challenge. Slowly but surely, we are making real progress. But there is there is always room, and reason, for improvement and as lead minister, I am personally determined that everything that can be done, is done, to make our children safer.
We took a big step forward by releasing the action plan in November with the close support of the sector - and I want to pay particular thanks to organisations like the Safe and Sound Project in Derby, CEOP, the Home Office, the Department for Health, Barnardo’s, CROP and many others for sharing their expertise with our department.
As many here will know, the plan looks at different aspects of sexual exploitation from the perspective of the young person and their journey, analysing what can go wrong and what should happen at every step.
Together, we identified four key stages where we needed better intervention.
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 reinforce the fact this is a serious crime that demands serious punishment.
And fourth, helping children and families who are caught up in sexual exploitation to get their lives back on track.
On awareness raising, the plan sets out the need for government to work with ACPO, health professional bodies and the Social Work Reform Board to make sure exploitation is covered in training and guidance for professionals. And we are going to see how we can improve the way young people are taught about sexual consent and relationships.
On multi-agency action, we are working with LSCBs to help them treat child sexual exploitation as a far greater problem than it has been seen in the past. And we are going to continue to help organisations like St Mary’s, with funding already committed to support 87 independent sexual violence advisor posts over the next four years.
On bringing abusers to justice, we are working with police, the CPS, judges and magistrates to ensure young witnesses and victims are fully supported through the legal process. And we are working hard to increase the use of special measures in courts so we can ease the stress and anxiety of criminal proceedings on young people.
Finally, on supporting survivors, (a function St Mary’s performs so expertly) the action plan outlines the need for councils to share their knowledge of what works more widely, so we can spread high quality counselling and support services out across the country.
The big challenge we face this year is to turn the action plan into action, and we will be working to make sure all the different work strands in child protection are brought together cohesively.
In particular, we want to make sure Professor Munro’s review of child protection, our work on adoption and fostering and the child sexual exploitation plan are properly synchronised. There are already some very positive signs that we are on the right track - and we had an encouraging meeting last month with sector representatives to talk about progress so far.
Amongst other things, we are talking to Ofsted about the best way of supporting their inspectors so they can check local authorities are responding appropriately in cases where sexual exploitation has been identified. We have set up a task and finish group, which includes several LSCB chairs among its membership. The group is identifying the barriers facing LSCBs in tackling sexual abuse involving young people, and it is also looking at what can be done to get high quality advice and guidance circulating around the country, as well as best practice.
On top of all this, we are working hard to raise awareness among young people of the potential dangers. Children must be able to make informed choices. They must be able to recognise and manage risk, and they must have the awareness to make safe decisions. This is why sex and relationship education is a key constituent of the wider personal, social, health and economic education review we are undertaking.
At the same time, we are working to raise awareness among practitioners - and I have asked both the Social Work Reform Board, and the College of Social Work, to think about how child sexual exploitation can best be addressed in social work training. We expect to be able to say more about all this in the Spring in the implementation update report we will be publishing.
Finally, I must mention the progress we are making with Sheila Taylor, chair of the National Working Group for Sexually Exploited Children and Young People, to share best practice more effectively. The working group, for those not in the know, is a charity that provides advice and support to 500 members. Sheila has a direct line into 37 different police forces and advises a number of LSCB chairs on how they can tackle exploitation effectively.
There are some authorities out there doing robust and reliable risk assessments of the nature and extent of the issue in their areas - with some examples of good practice in working together to identify abuse and respond to it. But we need every LSCB to treat exploitation as a top priority - not just some. The 2009 statutory guidance contained many valuable lessons yet all too often they have not been acted on. It’s good guidance, it should be used, and every LSCB should be proactively talking about it.
I do not, however, want anyone to leave here under the impression that tackling child sexual exploitation ‘belongs’ to the Department for Education alone. A huge amount of work is underway right across government and it is vital that this is seen for what it is: a complete package of wraparound support for vulnerable young people - not a series of individual, disparate or disconnected offers.
At the Home Office, Lynne Featherstone and her team have set up a working group to address the very specific issues around violence against women and girls in gangs. At the Department for Health, Anne Milton hosted a summit in November with colleagues from the Royal Colleges, NHS and the voluntary sector to discuss the role of health professionals in supporting young victims of sexual exploitation. This group is set to meet a further three times over the coming months. Topics on the table will include how to help health professionals recognise the indicators of sexual abuse in children; how to make sure staff are in a position to ask questions sensitively; and how to help them make the right referrals to local services.
Last but definitely not least, there is substantial progress being made at the Attorney General’s Office and the Ministry of Justice. At the end of last year, we announced that anyone convicted of a second serious sexual or violent offence, including serious child sex offences, will receive a mandatory life sentence - a long overdue, and long awaited amendment to the law I think you’ll agree.
On top of this, we are very clear that courts must improve prosecution procedures, particularly in supporting child victims to act as witnesses. I have heard horror stories of survivors being cross-examined by multiple defence barristers, and this must stop. There are a number of special measures courts can take when vulnerable witnesses are involved - we want to see them used to the full.
Our challenge in the months ahead, is to bring all this work together and make sure it is focused, completely, on the perspective of the victim and their families. The experience of young people who engage with the child protection system and, as I just mentioned, the courts, is still too mixed. Survivors complain about the unsympathetic, grey culture of ticking boxes. They worry they will not be believed; and they are anxious about a system that can describe a 13-year-old girl having sex with a 35-year-old man as ‘consensual’.
Ultimately, this is why so many young people are scared of talking about their experience of abuse. According to figures from St Mary’s, 72 per cent of children do not tell anyone about their ordeal at the time it happens. 31 per cent do not reveal their secret until adulthood.
We must make it easier for children to come forward. We must make it easier for professionals to spot the danger signals. And we must equip parents with the information and guidance they need.
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.
I am anxious that too many parents are sleepwalking into danger by failing to recognise the signals or warning signs, and I was chilled by the words of Emma Jackson in the Independent about her experience of abusers, saying (and I quote), that “they’ll have anybody - doctors’ children, lawyers’ children - anybody”.
This is an important point. All the evidence indicates that child sexual exploitation can affect any family - and I can’t over emphasise that the fact it takes place in a particular family does not mean that the family is a ‘bad’ one, or that the parents have failed. Before coming here today, I watched a sobering video in which a father from St Mary’s likened the shock of discovering that his child had been abused to “having your own heart ripped out” - and we should never forget that victims, and their families, often require long term support and counselling.
The Whitney Dean case in East Enders touched on many of these issues and I applaud the BBC for its sensible, sensitive and insightful treatment of the storyline. On top of this, I know St Mary’s has worked with the producers of Hollyoaks to provide expert advice on the presentation of issues around sexual violence - and I commend you for it. We cannot do too much to raise awareness of child exploitation or to educate those involved of its dangers.
Let me finish with a final thank you to St Mary’s and its staff for hosting today’s conference. I labour this point in every speech I make because it is an important one. But I must repeat my message that the vast majority of children in this country grow up safe from harm. The work you are doing is vital to ensuring this remains the case and I hope our action plan shows we are heading in the right direction.