Victoria AtkinsMain Page: Victoria Atkins (Conservative - Louth and Horncastle)
Department Debates - View all Victoria Atkins's debates with the Home Office
I thank the Petitions Committee for bringing us here today. I, like others, think that this should have more prominence than waiting for the public to raise it; it should be front and centre in our thinking.
I remember the words of the girl who sat in front of me 10 years ago as she described, as if it were completely normal, a line-up of men at a party waiting for her to perform oral sex on them. She said it to me as if it was an everyday thing—no biggie. A year later, I was called to a school where a group of boys had sexually abused, assaulted and exploited over 50 girls at their school. I spent hours and hours interviewing young people and children about their experiences of sexual exploitation and abuse, and I realised how normalised, even in my own childhood, had become the idea that men can pass around girls and women among friends and associates in order to broker power, money and status.
In the last 15 years, thanks to the bravery of victims of sexual exploitation and grooming gangs, and also to the bravery of whistleblowers from police forces, sexual health services, youth workers and brilliant campaigners such as my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), we better understand this heinous crime. Less than a decade ago, terms such as child prostitute were bandied around and children were still considered troublemakers rather than victims. The last decade has taught us many things. This crime should never have been ignored, and these children were failed by pretty much everyone. Anyone who seeks to use this horror as a political tool, rather than having a laser-like focus on saving the victims and bringing to justice the perpetrators, should be ashamed. As the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (Simon Fell) said really eloquently, this issue is not a tool to be further exploited.
The Government have now published the long-awaited review that the petition called for. I am only sorry that the delay meant that further distrust and misdirection on this issue was allowed to gain traction. Transparency, openness and robust external and internal critique of state agencies is the only way that we are going to combat this crime and win back trust.
Let me turn to the Government’s newly released strategy on combating child sexual abuse. The strategy is good in the most part. As other Members have said today, it is a first step in the right direction. I am sure that the Minister will expect nothing less from me than a promise that at every single stage that this strategy is rolled out, I will be there asking exactly how the Government are going to do all the things they say they are going to do. I will keep on at her Department every week and check on progress.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham is usually right about these things and she was right today that unregulated care homes have to be sorted, and that pre-charge bail should be—without question in this area, and in many others when it comes to vulnerable people—sorted immediately. The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) also made very good recommendations, and I could not agree more with the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) with regard to taxi licensing and the effort that needs to be put in there. The Government should do all these things; not one of them is in the strategy currently.
The strategy talks about working together, and we have heard a lot about cross-Government Departments needing to work together. I have spent the last decade, at least, sitting through review after review on this topic, meeting after meeting, homicide review and serious case review after another. In every meeting, I heard the language of “agencies do not work together well enough” and “information sharing is a problem”. In 10 years’ time, I will hear the exact same thing. Saying this and writing it into a strategy will change nothing. We have to make sure now—today—that this is not about what review we want to do; it is about what we want to change and how it can be different this time.
I turn to the proposals for schools in the strategy. There are very few people in this House who would not support the sentiment of a strategy that says, “We will educate children and young people about healthy relationships in a digital world”—noble indeed.
Yet only this week we have seen the publication of school materials being used in some schools in the UK that are teaching, and I quote:
“within a romantic relationship between male and female, masculinity is more about initiating”,
“femininity is more about receiving and responding”.
The Government continually shrug their shoulders about these incidents, but they need to understand that without proper funding, robust safeguards and proper scrutiny, there is a potential that the roll-out of healthy relationships education could be anything but. Telling girls to expect men to initiate sex, and for them to receive it and respond to it, is dangerous. What will the Government do to monitor what is being taught? Saying that prevention will happen in our schools will take much more work than just words written on paper.
If I were to reflect on the whistleblowers in famous cases, including Sara Rowbotham and others from Rochdale mentioned by Members today, I would find that it was youth workers and sexual health workers who tried to speak up for the hundreds of girls that they were seeing being abused and exploited, yet over the past 10 years we have seen huge reductions in the numbers of youth workers and detached sexual health practitioners. Years of cutting back these services as if they were a luxury means that in any strategy the Government write now, they have to build from no base. A decade after these scandals, we should not still be in pilot phase after pilot phase.
The Government’s own strategy outlines that in the year ending March 2020, there were 58,000 police-recorded incidents of contact child sexual abuse—abuse where contact was made, not on the internet. In the year ending December 2019, only around 3,700 defendants were charged and 2,700 were convicted. That suggests that there are tens of thousands of incidents of contact child abuse reported with no further action. The number of convictions has been reducing since 2016. This situation is getting worse; we are convicting fewer people. The Government have been in power for a decade and they have been talking tough on this issue for pretty much all that time, yet numbers show appalling charges and conviction rates, which are getting worse.
I want to close my remarks by paying tribute to the victims of this crime and saying some of the things that they have asked me to say today. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock), I spoke to Sammy Woodhouse just earlier this morning; I speak to her regularly. Sammy, as many have mentioned, was horrendously abused from the age of 14 and had a son born of repeated rape by Arshid Hussain. Sammy wanted me to specifically raise the issue that it is still very much the law in this land that her rapist should be allowed, and in fact in her case was encouraged, to seek access to her son through the family courts—a man who abused her as a child given credence as a father.
Sammy’s case, as the Minister knows, is by no means an exception. We can all stand here and be fire and brimstone about the rapists and child abusers—monsters, as the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Alexander Stafford) said—who perpetrate these crimes; however, here in this building we have repeatedly failed to legislate to prevent these rapists and other perpetrators of child abuse and domestic and sexual violence from continuing the abuse of their victims into adulthood through the family courts. This is on us; it is our failings—it is the law that has been too meek to change and to stop rapists like Sammy’s rapist being able to access her child.
Sammy and other victims have also asked me to raise specifically in this place the fact that we must have better service provision and protection for children born of rape. Currently, the system sees them merely as silent bystanders. Victims have asked that I bring to the Minister’s attention Sammy’s law, which has been mentioned many times, and I fully back the many calls today to implement that immediately.
The crime of child sexual exploitation and child sexual abuse happens across every part of the country; sadly, it happens in every community. The modus operandi of the perpetrators is the same; it is as if there were a manual online about how to target vulnerable people, exploit their weaknesses and then groom them to think it is their fault.
The nation has been shocked and appalled by these crimes for a decade. The victims of high-profile cases have been used as political footballs for the same length of time, when all they ever wanted was for this to never happen again, for victims like them to be heard, and for the crime to be understood. The time for action has long passed; let us do everything we can together, with every lever we can pull, to change this story once and for all.
I would like to thank all the contributors to this very powerful debate. I think there was quite a lot of cross-party agreement on many of the core issues. I am grateful for the Minister’s commitment that this is not the end of the process and that these difficult questions will continue to be asked. My hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Imran Ahmad Khan) was on the review group, and I know that he had significant concerns that, even now, there is significant pushback from certain elements of the establishment to the steps that the Government need to take to get to the root of this, to understand it properly and to make sure that we nip this in the bud and do not continue to have a situation where primarily our girls of this country are suffering this appalling abuse.
As I said at the start, my heart goes out to the victims of this abuse, all their friends and family and the communities. We must not allow political correctness and a concern about sensitivities to get in the way of addressing these issues, because it does not solve the problem. It can often make it worse, and this is much too important an issue to get wrong. I thank everyone who has contributed to the debate.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petitions 300239 and 327566 relating to grooming gangs.