Grooming Gangs Debate

Full Debate: Read Full Debate
Department: Home Office

Grooming Gangs

Victoria Atkins Excerpts
Wednesday 3rd February 2021

(8 months, 3 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber

Read Full debate Read Hansard Text
Home Office
Jess Phillips Portrait Jess Phillips (Birmingham, Yardley) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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”,

whereas,

“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.

Victoria Atkins Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Victoria Atkins) [V]
- Hansard - -

I would like to start by thanking the members of the public who signed these petitions raising this very important issue and thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) and other hon. Members across the House for being their voices in this debate and representing them powerfully and thoughtfully.

This Government have made it our mission to protect the most vulnerable in our society, including by tackling child sexual abuse. In our work we have listened to victims and survivors about their horrifying experiences—how they were let down by the state and betrayed by those whose job it was to protect them. These injustices were set out eloquently by hon. Members including my hon. Friends the Members for Rother Valley (Alexander Stafford), for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price), for Heywood and Middleton (Chris Clarkson) and for Keighley (Robbie Moore), the hon. Members for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) and for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) and others. This should never have happened and must not happen again.

Political or cultural sensitivities must not deter national and local agencies from investigating and preventing these devastating crimes. Victims of sexual violence deserve justice regardless of the background, the status, the race or any other characteristic of the perpetrator. Abuse is abuse, and everyone is equal under the law.

That is why in May last year the Home Secretary committed to publishing a paper looking at the characteristics of group-based child sexual exploitation, which was published in December. I want to reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich, however, that this paper is by no means the end of our work on this issue; more must be done by Government, law enforcement and partners to better safeguard children and tackle perpetrators of this form of abuse and the many other forms of child sexual abuse that exist both offline and online. That is why we published the tackling child sexual abuse strategy last month to work on all forms of CSA. The strategy sets out how we will work across Government—a point made powerfully by the hon. Member for Rotherham—as well as with law enforcement, safeguarding partners and industry to root out offending, to protect victims and to help them rebuild their lives. It builds on the action plan described by my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton). The paper on group-based sexual exploitation plays an important role in the strategy and its implementation now and in the future.

I will go into a little detail about how the paper was developed, its findings and how we plan to build on this work in the future. The paper was informed by an analysis of published academic research, official statistics and work published by organisations that work with child sexual exploitation victims and survivors. In addition, police officers and safeguarding officers across the country with experience in investigating this type of offending were interviewed. The paper reflects the insights drawn from across all this work.

This is a complex and deeply sensitive issue. To ensure that the paper was robust and scrutinised, we convened an external reference group consisting of independent experts on child sexual exploitation, who reviewed and informed this work throughout. The group included survivors, leading academics and highly experienced professionals from the criminal justice system and the children’s sector, as well as the hon. Member for Rotherham, who has done so much in this area, and my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Imran Ahmad Khan), who is similarly determined to shine a light on this offending. The insight and expertise that the group provided was invaluable, and I thank them all for their diligence and contributions.

Taking all this work together, we saw, for example, that offender networks are often loosely interconnected and based around existing social connections. This means that they are often broadly homogeneous in ethnic background, socioeconomic status and age. Contact with potential victims may take place in locations often visited by offenders and where safeguards around victims are lower. Hon. Members, including my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes), have raised the frequency with which taxis and takeaway restaurants have featured in the highest-profile cases. Studies indicate that motivations differ between offenders, but that a sexual interest is children is not always the predominant motive. Financial gain and a desire for sexual gratification are common motives, and offenders commonly demonstrate attitudes of misogyny and disdain for women and girls, as raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock and the shadow Minister.

Ethnicity has been raised by several Members. The paper refers to a number of studies that have indicated an over-representation of Asian and black offenders in committing this type of offending. It is difficult to draw conclusions about the ethnicity of offenders as existing research is limited and data collection is poor. This is disappointing, and it is something that we are determined to address through the national strategy, because accurate data is clearly vital in developing the right response in local areas.

We have therefore made a number of commitments in the tackling child sexual abuse strategy. The Home Office will work with criminal justice partners, charities, frontline professionals and others on improving the range and quality of data collected, including on the ethnicity of offenders. We will then use this data to help protect children by preventing and detecting offending. Hon. Members have asked whether we can count the defendants who have already been convicted. Officials have looked at this, but because there is no specific category of group-based sexual abuse, such offences cannot be isolated. But, as I say, we want to correct that in the future.

We are investing in the police-led tackling organised exploitation project, which is piloting new ways of investigating organised forms of exploitation through the innovative use of data. We will publish a new and enhanced child exploitation disruption toolkit that promotes the use of the full range of powers available to agencies, such as civil orders, licensing powers and safeguarding interventions, so that they can stop offending with every tool at their disposal.

I listened with great interest to my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken), who supports the work of the Children’s Society. Although I cannot answer all her requests tonight, we will continue to invest in the Children’s Society’s prevention programme, which works with local agencies to prevent exploitation and abuse. Recent examples of the programme’s work include working with the police in Yorkshire to deliver training to taxi drivers, and working with delivery drivers and couriers to support them in identifying CSA in the context of the pandemic. As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) knows, the Ministry of Justice is looking into the issues in the family courts that have arisen out of the expert panel on harm’s review—in particular, contact with parents.

The second petition calls for an independent inquiry. I will touch on that briefly, because I want to give time for my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich to respond to the debate. The Government share the public’s concerns about failures and the need to ensure that they are not repeated in the future. In 2015, the Government established the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse. The inquiry concluded its public hearings in December, after taking evidence from more than 600 witnesses over four years. It held 323 days of public hearings across 15 investigations and has published 14 reports so far, with more than 50 recommendations to better protect children from sexual abuse and exploitation. We expect to receive the final report of the inquiry in 2022.

The inquiry is independent of Government and decides for itself what to investigate and how. It has investigated the nature and extent of, and institutional responses to, the sexual exploitation of children by organised networks, and the public hearing into that strand concluded in October last year. Evidence was heard from a range of witnesses, including victims and survivors of child sexual exploitation, as well as representatives of police forces, local authorities, Government Departments and charities. The inquiry will publish a report of the investigation in autumn this year, setting out its conclusions, and we welcome this scrutiny.

Finally, I would like to thank again the signatories of both petitions, as well as the victims and survivors around the country who find somehow the wherewithal to work with us and the police to help prevent these terrible crimes and support other victims. As has been so well articulated in the debate, these crimes affect not only the immediate victims of the abuse but entire communities. My hon. Friends the Members for Barrow and Furness (Simon Fell) and for Keighley set out some of the impacts in their constituencies and the damage that can be done to trust in the processes, systems and authorities that are there to protect people.

We are determined to ensure that Government, law enforcement and other partners better understand that any community and cultural factors relevant to tackling offending must not and cannot get in the way. As the Home Secretary said:

“What happened to these children remains one of the biggest stains on our country’s conscience.”

That is why we must do everything in our power to safeguard children from abuse, deliver justice for victims and survivors and restore the public’s confidence in the criminal justice system’s ability to confront these devastating crimes.

Tom Hunt Portrait Tom Hunt
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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.

Resolved,

That this House has considered e-petitions 300239 and 327566 relating to grooming gangs.