Thank you. And my thanks to Her Royal Highness, the Duchess of Cornwall for supporting Barnardo’s today. It is a great pleasure to join you all this morning.
We know that the vast majority of children in the UK grow up safe from harm and lead very happy childhoods.
But this is an important day for the significant number of young people in this country - and their families - who are affected by child sexual exploitation each and every year.
Before the summer, we promised to deliver a robust action plan to protect young people from this horrifying form of abuse. Today, we are delivering on that promise.
In the plan, we set out our commitment to prevent children from becoming victims.
We set out our commitment to rescue young people who are already being exploited.
We set out our commitment to bring the perpetrators of child sexual exploitation to justice.
And we set out our commitment to support survivors and their families in the days, weeks, months and years after abuse has ended.
For too long now, the issue of child sexual exploitation has received too little attention. The system has not done enough to support victims and their families. The courts have not done enough to support traumatised young witnesses. And - perhaps most worryingly - too many local areas have failed to uncover the true extent of sexual exploitation in their communities.
This country has to now wake up to the fact that its children are being sexually abused in far greater numbers than was ever imagined.
People think of this as a problem that affects only certain sections of society. It isn’t.
It could be happening in any community and in any part of the country. In urban areas and in rural communities. And we know the daughter or son of the local businessman is just as vulnerable as the girl or boy living in care.
In the words of one survivor, we know abusers will: ‘…have anybody. Doctors’ children, lawyers’ children, anybody.’
This government is determined to lift the lid on the true nature and extent of child sexual exploitation. And as lead Minister, I am personally determined that everything that can be done, is done to make our children safer.
Today’s action plan is a big step forward.
But we owe its publication to the involvement and ground work that’s been laid by organisations like Barnardos and the Safe and Sound project in Derby. As well as the many parents and victims who endured telling, and re-telling their stories to prevent other families going through what they went through.
I am enormously grateful to each and every one of them. And I’m delighted that the plan has already been so warmly received.
I know Sheila Taylor at the ‘National Working Group for Sexually Exploited Children and Young People’ has provided her backing to the report. As has Hilary Willmer at CROP.
This praise belongs to all those who advised and supported Government over the last 12 months. And to the many dedicated professionals and volunteers around the country who have been working so hard to raise awareness of this terrible abuse - and to help the young people and families who have been affected by it.
Let me begin by outlining the thinking behind the action plan, before going into a little detail about its contents.
When we began work in the Spring, we knew that while there was some truly excellent work going on to support victims and prevent abuse, some three quarters of Local Safeguarding Children Boards were failing to implement the 2009 statutory guidance on tackling the sexual exploitation of children.
Building on existing guidance and our developing understanding of this dreadful crime, we have worked in full partnership with departments like the Home Office, Department of Health and the Ministry of Justice - as well as agencies, LSCBs and directors of children’s services to develop the action plan.
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.
We identified four key stages in the life cycle of an abuse case where we needed to make better interventions:
One, raising awareness of this issue with young people, parents and professionals and preventing it taking place.
Two, taking effective inter-agency action against exploitation. And helping children who are victims to get out of it.
Three, securing robust prosecutions and improving court processes, to reinforce the fact that child sexual exploitation is not just a particularly vicious form of child abuse, but is a serious crime that requires serious punishment.
And four, helping children and families who have been caught up in sexual exploitation to get their lives back on track - which may require support and counselling over a long period of time.
In each of these four areas, the action plan outlines detailed proposals for ensuring the child’s journey is placed at the centre of local planning.
On awareness raising for example, it sets out the need for government to work with ACPO, health professional bodies, and the Social Work Reform Board to ensure child sexual exploitation is properly 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 inter-agency action, we are going to work with LSCBs to help them treat child sexual exploitation as a far greater problem than they have. And we are going to support organisations like Rape Crisis and local sexual assault referral centres, to improve services for young victims.
On bringing abusers to justice, we are working with the police, the CPS, judges and magistrates to ensure that young witnesses and victims are fully supported. And we are working to increase the use of ‘special measures’ in court, to ease the stress and anxiety of criminal proceedings on young people.
Finally, on supporting survivors, the action plan outlines the need for councils to share their knowledge of what works more widely, so that we spread high quality counselling and support services out across the country.
Each of these areas is critical. Each requires more than a single minister, charity or professional banging the drum.
So, I am delighted at the full and active co-operation of organisations like the police, the Ramadan Foundation and the Lucy Faithfull Foundation.
I am particularly grateful to CEOP, and its head Peter Davies, for the thematic assessment they completed earlier this year and to the Children’s Commissioner for launching her inquiry into child sexual exploitation in gangs and groups.
And I am particularly grateful to the parents who stepped forward to support the development of the action plan.
We know that mums and dads have a critically important part to play. And we need their support in three distinct ways.
First, by acting as eyes and ears. Spotting the tell tale signs that suggest a child may be being groomed for exploitation, or is already being exploited.
The coercive nature of exploitative relations often hides and confuses the picture for practitioners, parents and young people alike. And I am anxious that too many parents are sleepwalking into danger by failing to recognise the signals and warning signs. They need to make sure they have a better idea of what those tell tale signs actually are
Second, by playing a more active, educational role. Parents across the country need to help their children understand the dangers around them and support them to take sensible decisions as they become more independent.
And third, by helping their children to become - and remain - survivors if the very worst does happen. I have met many mothers and fathers 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.
The Whitney Dean abuse 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.
I thought Whitney’s story was a powerful reminder to parents that the sexual abuse of children is not always of the obviously violent, stranger danger, variety. It can happen within the family home and it can happen to children of the most caring, capable and careful parents.
I hope this kind of national coverage on prime time TV, and the kind of coverage we saw in The Times yesterday, will serve as a reminder to parents that they must take action.
Many times, I have spoken to mothers, fathers and young people who have been threatened with horrific physical violence because they had the temerity to go to the police.
I have spoken to parents who receive threatening phone calls throughout the day and night.
I have been told about the devastating effect that child sexual exploitation has on family life, destroying relationships.
And I have heard heart rending stories from parents of children as young as 12 who have been kidnapped and abused.
Wherever the offenders come from, and however they operate, let me make this one point very clear: this Government will do everything in its power to marshal public services against child sex abusers.
I don’t care if you operate in a gang or as an individual. It doesn’t matter what community, culture, race or religion you’re from. When we find you, we will prosecute you.
Last month, we announced that anyone convicted of a second very serious sexual or violent offence, including serious child sex offences, will receive a mandatory life sentence.
Going forward, the action plan makes it clear that we need to build on this by improving prosecution procedures, particularly in supporting child victims to act as witnesses.
We don’t want the police to extricate a child from the most horrible circumstances only to have them reliving every detail of the trauma in court.
Personally, I have heard of more than one story of young victims being cross examined by multiple defence barristers. This has to stop.
There are a number of ‘special measures’ which courts can take when vulnerable witnesses are involved, I want to see them used to the full.
To finish, let me just say that I have talked to some very brave survivors of abusers.
Many lost their childhoods to this abuse. Most - like Emma Jackson - were isolated, manipulated, and threatened by their abusers in the most disturbing manner you could imagine.
I have nothing but admiration for the manner in which they stand up, tell their stories and look forward.
The Government’s action plan goes out in their honour and I am personally indebted to them for their advice along the way.
We cannot ever protect every child single child from harm, but this is a vital step forward in the fight against criminals who sexually exploit children.