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.

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.