To protect children from abuse, ministers need to challenge those who blame the victims

The crashing silence from those in government responsible for keeping children safe leaves a dangerous vacuum.

Barely a week has gone by without new, horrific revelations of child sex abuse. These stretch from previously unreported historical cases on a breathtaking scale, to the recent, systematic grooming of young girls and boys in Rochdale, Bradford, Oxfordshire and in other communities across the UK.

In response, the Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, declared this a watershed moment, where processes would be overhauled and victims would finally be taken seriously, giving more people the confidence to come forward. But these revelations have revealed more than just poor practice. It’s becoming increasingly clear that there is a disturbing undercurrent of misogyny and moral relativism among a minority of people, some of them powerful, highly influential individuals. 

We saw it when a 13-year-old child was labelled "predatory in all her actions" and "sexually experienced" by lawyer Robert Colover after she was sexually abused by a 41-year-old man, and again as the judge took into account that she looked older than her age when sentencing. We saw it last week when a former newspaper owner, Eddie Shah, blamed underage girls for "throwing themselves" at adult men. Several months before that, individual police officers and social workers in Rochdale dismissed young girls who asked for help as making "lifestyle choices", while some media columnists defended a 31-year-old teacher’s sexual involvement with a child in his care because she was "just a few months away" from turning 16. 

It is bad enough that children should be judged capable of consenting to their own exploitation but it’s a significant leap from there to hold them responsible for it. Yet as these voices have become louder in the public debate, young girls are increasingly portrayed as the perpetrators, while the adult men who exploited them become the victims. While not all victims of child abuse are girls, and not all adult perpetrators are men, there is an undertone of misogyny in this debate that is abhorrent, pernicious and immensely damaging.

Taking on these attitudes is at the heart of protecting children. It’s one of the defining features of child abuse that children are often, wrongly, made to feel responsible for their abuse by the perpetrator. For child victims, finding these deplorable attitudes reflected in wider society is immeasurably damaging. At least one teenager - in the Oxfordshire trial - recently attempted suicide, while such attitudes deter other young people from coming forward. Worse still, they allow paedophiles to find justification for their actions. There have been some notable children’s charities making this case. But they are not enough.

Keeping children safe from harm is one of the first duties of any government. Instead recently we’ve seen representatives of the state - police officers, legal professionals, social workers – judging, condemning and ignoring young victims when they are the very people tasked with protecting them. And in the face of a misogynistic chorus of voices blaming young victims, we have heard a deafening roar of silence from so many of the politicians whose job it is to defend these brave young girls and boys who found the courage to come forward.

I don’t believe that people like Eddie Shah or Robert Colover speak for the majority. But there are clearly still far too many adults who believe that children can consent to their own exploitation, who think that young girls who are raped and sexually exploited are 'asking for it' and who believe that young teenagers have sufficient maturity to take up relationships with adults who are much, much older than them - even when they’re in a position of trust.

So while the NSPCC is right to call for better training for the legal profession and much more support for young victims, we also need to draw a clear moral line in the sand. Just as racism, homophobia and other unacceptable attitudes should not go unchallenged, neither should these. Politicians don’t just respond to public attitudes. Our job is also to lead them. The crashing silence from ministers responsible for keeping children safe leaves a dangerous vacuum which is not going unfilled.

Lisa Nandy is Labour MP for Wigan and shadow children's minister

A broadcast journalist holds a copy of the report entitled 'Giving Victims a Voice' outside New Scotland Yard in central London on January 11, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

Lisa Nandy is the MP for Wigan. She was formerly Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change.

Paul McMillan
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"We're an easy target": how a Tory manifesto pledge will tear families apart

Under current rules, bringing your foreign spouse to the UK is a luxury reserved for those earning £18,600 a year or more. The Tories want to make it even more exclusive. 

Carolyn Matthew met her partner, George, in South Africa sixteen years ago. She settled down with him, had kids, and lived like a normal family until last year, when they made the fateful decision to move to her hometown in Scotland. Matthew, 55, had elderly parents, and after 30 years away from home she wanted to be close to them. 

But Carolyn nor George - despite consulting a South African immigration lawyer – did not anticipate one huge stumbling block. That is the rule, introduced in 2012, that a British citizen must earn £18,600 a year before a foreign spouse may join them in the UK. 

“It is very dispiriting,” Carolyn said to me on the telephone from Bo’ness, a small town on the Firth of Forth, near Falkirk. “In two weeks, George has got to go back to South Africa.” Carolyn, who worked in corporate complaints, has struggled to find the same kind of work in her hometown. Jobs at the biggest local employer tend to be minimum wage. George, on the other hand, is an engineer – yet cannot work because of his holiday visa. 

To its critics, the minimum income threshold seems nonsensical. It splits up families – including children from parents – and discriminates against those likely to earn lower wages, such as women, ethnic minorities and anyone living outside London and the South East. The Migration Observatory has calculated that roughly half Britain’s working population would not meet the requirement. 

Yet the Conservative party not only wishes to maintain the policy, but hike the threshold. The manifesto stated:  “We will increase the earnings thresholds for people wishing to sponsor migrants for family visas.” 

Initially, the threshold was justified as a means of preventing foreign spouses from relying on the state. But tellingly, the Tory manifesto pledge comes under the heading of “Controlling Immigration”. 

Carolyn points out that because George cannot work while he is visiting her, she must support the two of them for months at a time without turning to state aid. “I don’t claim benefits,” she told me. “That is the last thing I want to do.” If both of them could work “life would be easy”. She believes that if the minimum income threshold is raised any further "it is going to make it a nightmare for everyone".

Stuart McDonald, the SNP MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, co-sponsored a Westminster Hall debate on the subject earlier this year. While the Tory manifesto pledge is vague, McDonald warns that one option is the highest income threshold suggested in 2012 - £25,700, or more than the median yearly wage in the East Midlands. 

He described the current scheme as “just about the most draconian family visa rules in the world”, and believes a hike could affect more than half of British citizens. 

"Theresa May is forcing people to choose between their families and their homes in the UK - a choice which most people will think utterly unfair and unacceptable,” he said.  

For those a pay rise away from the current threshold, a hike will be demoralising. For Paul McMillan, 25, it is a sign that it’s time to emigrate.

McMillan, a graduate, met his American girlfriend Megan while travelling in 2012 (the couple are pictured above). He could find a job that will allow him to meet the minimum income threshold – if he were not now studying for a medical degree.  Like Matthew, McMillan’s partner has no intention of claiming benefits – in fact, he expects her visa would specifically ban her from doing so. 

Fed up with the hostile attitude to immigrants, and confident of his options elsewhere, McMillan is already planning a career abroad. “I am going to take off in four years,” he told me. 

As for why the Tories want to raise the minimum income threshold, he thinks it’s obvious – to force down immigration numbers. “None of this is about the amount of money we need to earn,” he said. “We’re an easy target for the government.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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