Steve McCabe gives speech at Capita National Conference on Tackling Child Exploitation

Steve gave the keynote speech at the Capita National Conference on Tackling Child Exploitation on Thursday 22 November 2012. This is what he said:



‘I was once a social worker and worked in child protection as well as having experience as a researcher for the British Association of Social Workers and as an Adviser for the Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work. I was also Charles Clarke’s Parliamentary Private Secretary when he commissioned ‘Every Child Matters’, in part as a response to the horrific abuse inflicted on Victoria Climbie. But it’s over 20 years since I worked in Child Protection and I want to make clear today my admiration for the immensely difficult and emotionally draining job which we ask our police, social workers and other professionals to do.

Although the general public’s awareness of what we now call Child Sexual Exploitation is growing and many more professionals are becoming involved, I think the fundamentals of this problem remain constant and the most basic is that too many people don’t want to know what is happening when they should make it their business to know.

In the case of Rochdale, the first terrified victim confided in the police in August 2008, telling them how she’d been plied with drink and raped by a string of men. She even provided her underwear which carried traces of one of her attacker’s DNA but it took the police 11 months to prepare a file for the CPS and then a CPS lawyer ruled that she was not a credible witness and the two men should be released without charge. The abuse of the girls in Rochdale continued until 2010.

 Some of you may be aware of a book by Jeffrey Masson written in the early 1980’s called ‘The Assault on Truth’ It was based on a study of previously unpublished letters belonging to Sigmund Freud. It exposed the idea that Freud’s original seduction theory was based on the notion that emotional disturbances in adults stemmed from actual early traumatic experiences, the knowledge of which had been repressed. As you will know Freud eventually renounced that theory in favour of the idea that his female patients had fantasised about their early memories of rape and seduction – a view on which psychoanalysis was eventually based.

Masson so outraged people with his views that he was sacked from his position as project director at the Freud Archives but was he wrong? Freud was put under enormous pressure from civilised Viennese society to renounce his theories that young women were being abused by their fathers, male relatives and friends. Masson’s research shows that Freud didn’t stumble upon this theory; as well as the testimony of his patients Freud had read the contemporary literature documenting the high incidence of abuse of children and witnessed several autopsies of children who’d been raped and murdered.

The difficulty today for some professionals, many communities, parents and others is the same one of acceptance. Just as it was too hard for the good folk of 19th Century Vienna to conceive that such horrors could be true so the claims of victims today can still be too hard for too many people. Perhaps this more than anything helps explain how a predatory paedophile like Jimmy Savile got away with it for so long. Decent people turning a blind eye or dismissing dubious behaviour as the actions of an eccentric is one way for a paedophile to escape and refusing to believe the claims of the victim is another.

Nature of the problem

In November 2010  a gang of 9 men in Derby were convicted of 70 offences against girls aged 12-18 including rape, false imprisonment, sexual assault, sexual activity with a child, perverting the course of justice, and aiding and abetting rape. 27 girls had come forward to say that they had been victims of the group. The convictions were the result of an undercover operation by Derbyshire Police- Operation Retriever. A Derbyshire police spokesman described it as the ‘most horrendous case of sexual exploitation they had ever faced and said he was shocked by the scale of abuse.

In May 2011 9 men in Rochdale were jailed for 77 years for offences including rape, conspiracy to have sex with a child, aiding and abetting rape, sexual assault and trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation. The gang abused girls at two local takeaways in the Heywood area of Rochdale; they also took the girls to a number of locations in the North West to share them with other men.

As I said earlier this first came to the attentions of the authorities in 2008 but a failure to act or follow the evidence or show sufficient concern for the victims meant a further 3 years passed before the gang was prosecuted. It required the intervention of the Chief Crown Prosecutor for the North West, Nazir Afzal, and renewed efforts from the local authority and South Yorkshire police both of whom now admit significant failings in not properly dealing with the problem of organised child sex grooming.

In March this year Thames Valley police (as part of Operation Bullfinch) arrested 14 people for child sexual exploitation activities in Oxford. There’s probably more than 50 victims aged between 11 and 16 and the exploitation stretches over a period of at least 8 years.

The Deputy Children’s Commissioner who published her interim report yesterday said in evidence to the Select Committee:

‘What I’m uncovering is that the sexual exploitation of children is happening all over the country. As one police officer who was a lead in a very big investigation in a very lovely, leafy, rural part of the country said to me, there’s not a town, village or hamlet in which children are not being sexually exploited’

Following these cases the Home Affairs Select Committee decided to embark on an enquiry into localised grooming.  We couldn’t have known at the time that the Savile scandal was about to burst into the open and take with it a Director General of the BBC or that the sudden focus on Child Sexual Exploitation in the media and elsewhere would lead to a call for multiple enquiries including two ordered by the Home Secretary.


Enquiry still at an early stage but lessons so far

We have learned that it can be hard for the claims of victims to be heard and believed.

There are no reliable numbers for victims in the care of local authorities. There are about 89,000 looked after children in the UK. The All Party Parliamentary Group for Missing Children estimates that 10,000 children in care go missing every year. Official government figures based on local authority returns suggest the figure is less than 1000. This is to do with how ‘missing’ is defined and the ad hoc nature of reporting missing children. So we can’t really identify the scale of the problem but an extrapolation based on Local Authority figures  suggests that maybe about 20% of those children acknowledged to have been sexually abused are in the care system.

Evidence we have heard suggests that a ‘culture of disbelief’ is a major problem even when victims come forward. In the Rochdale Safeguarding Children Board report, they use a case study of a child who spoke to social workers on several occasions about being abused, including giving a detailed account to police. Some officials saw the victims as ‘making their own choices’ and engaging in ‘consensual ‘sex.

We recognise that when agencies do get together and take action that it’s important that we support and don’t them. For example Lancashire Constabulary is rightly gaining recognition for some of their pioneering work. We want to encourage agencies. Too much adverse publicity for brave professionals might only succeed in putting others off.

The NSPCC says there’s a massive shortage in therapeutic support for victims; they estimate a shortfall of between 50,000 and 80,000 places.

Of 31 local authorities interviewed by Barnardo’s only half provided their own special support services.

The voluntary sector has tended to be the main provider of support to children and young people who’ve been sexually exploited. Barnardo’s is the largest supplier. The NSPCC also runs support services for vulnerable children across 18 sites in the UK.

Ensuring that some of the victims will be able to appear in court and withstand the process is a major problem for the Police and the CPS. Some alternative methods are worth considering: DNA testing of the clothes of children whom the authorities believe may be victims and/or who are regularly reported missing from home; Greater Manchester Police have had some success using forensics with supporting, circumstantial evidence; obtaining (with consent) access to Facebook and other social network; forensic examination of mobile phones and computers; issuing Child Abduction Warning Notices and ASBOs with restrictions. Good use of these can help build supporting evidence; finally, working with other agencies e.g. UKBA on deportation or housing bodies for evictions; greater use within local authorities of licensing and regulatory regimes in relation to taxis, licensed premises and takeaways.

CEOP ( Child Exploitation and Online Protection) believes that cuts in local authority budgets have caused social services to prioritise ‘core business’ and that can mean existing child protection cases rather than intervening where children might be judged to be at risk.

Barnado’s has highlighted the danger that local authorities prioritise cases according to age and consequently a 15 year old child may be judged too old to be a priority.

Victims are often slowly lured into exploitation by someone posing as a boyfriend. Technology is used to facilitate and sustain the abuse and control victims. They often believe that they are involved or have been involved in a genuine relationship. This can lead to feelings of guilt which makes them appear as less than credible witnesses and can lead some professionals to interpret their behaviour as evidence of consent.

The Department for Education has recently published ‘What to do if you suspect a child is being sexually exploited’. We think it’s important that this guidance is implemented for all social and health care professionals.

ACPO (Association of Chief Police Officers) supported by CEOP are compiling a toolkit for investigators to help them adopt successful disruption tactics and communicate best practice. It’s intended the information will be available to officers through the Police Online Knowledge Area (POLKA). ACPO are also working with the University of Brighton to produce guidance regarding Risk Assessments.

Of the 31 local authorities interviewed by Barnardo’s 12 were delivering training on child sexual exploitation; 16 had introduced LSCB sub groups to address the issue; 14 had strategies on CSE or were developing them; 4 had strategies that spanned more than one authority providing consistency between neighbouring councils.

The general view of Barnardo’s is that there is improvement in local authorities in terms of recognition and action but from a very low base. There are still major areas of vulnerability e.g. male referrals remain very low in most areas but where Barnardo’s has been working with sexually exploited males, referral rates are higher.

The CEOP Report ‘Out of Mind Out of Sight’ was clear: Local Safeguarding Children Boards are not fulfilling their statutory responsibilities; they need to improve their ability to recognise the risks so that they can intervene early; and develop multi agency working, particularly through co-located units.

The 2011 University of Bedfordshire research indicated that only about a quarter of LSCBs were implementing national guidance and that many had not identified CSE as a priority issue in their area.

In terms of the notification of missing children to the police, this should take place after a Risk Assessment (although social workers appear to treat them as discretionary).

Every missing child who returns should be interviewed by someone other than their direct carer. Earlier this week the local press reported that these ‘return interviews’ are not being automatically completed in Birmingham, my own local authority and the largest in the country.

Indicators such as repeated ‘missing’ episodes, unexplained injuries, sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancies, petty offences and truancy are data which should be shared by agencies.

Key factors for children vulnerable to exploitation include: previous experience of sexual abuse; living in residential care and especially away from the home area; homelessness; abuse of drugs and alcohol; disengagement from education; involvement in gangs.

Other Questions

There has been a focus in some sections of the press about the involvement of British Pakistani men in the abuse of young white girls. There’s no place for political correctness in this debate but the CEOP Thematic Review of Group Associated Child Sexual Exploitation didn’t find any consistent patterns connected to culture or ethnicity in the profile of offenders nor did the Deputy Children’s Commissioner. Of the 2000 odd victims whose data CEOP looked at, the vast majority were female and were from a range of ethnicities although the majority were white. It may be that certain ethnic groups are under-represented due to additional barriers they face in reporting abuse


Likely Conclusions

It’s too early for conclusions from the Home Affairs Committee Enquiry but I feel confident our recommendations will include:

Co-located units are the way forward and the best way of ensuring that data and soft intelligence doesn’t fall between the cracks or foul of overly zealous data protection regimes.

 There needs to be much more systematic reporting of missing children and return interviews should be compulsory with significant consequences when they are not adhered to.

There needs to be more determined effort to catch and prosecute perpetrators but in our zeal to achieve this we mustn’t forget that victims need support, counselling and therapy and we must provide these services.

New guidance on the behaviour of lawyers is required to prevent overly aggressive and intrusive questioning designed to intimidate witnesses.

Special measures to help alleviate the stress of giving evidence for victims under 18 should be automatically available and should include giving witnesses more choice about how they give evidence. CEOP have pointed out the need to monitor the behaviour of judges in relation to such cases.

Sexual Violence Advocates should be provided to support victims through the early stages of questioning and the trauma of the court procedure and Expert witnesses are needed to explain to judges and jurors what grooming is how it works and the kind of difficulties and abuse the victims are likely to have experienced.

More special prosecutors are needed of the kind already envisaged by the Director of Public Prosecutions and finally - those responsible for the protection of our children, especially those in care, should not be allowed to slip off with golden handshakes and early retirement packages where they’ve failed to do the job we pay them for.'


By Steve McCabe MP

Birmingham Selly Oak

Share this
Copyright Steve McCabe MP Click here for a copy of this site's terms and conditions and privacy statement