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.

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Donald Trump ushers in a new era of kakistocracy: government by the worst people

Trump will lead the whitest, most male cabinet in memory – a bizarre melange of the unqualified and the unhinged.

“What fills me with doubt and dismay is the degradation of the moral tone,” wrote the American poet James Russell Lowell in 1876, in a letter to his fellow poet Joel Benton. “Is it or is it not a result of democracy? Is ours a ‘government of the people by the people for the people’, or a kakistocracy rather, for the benefit of knaves at the cost of fools?”

Is there a better, more apt description of the incoming Trump administration than “kakistocracy”, which translates from the Greek literally as government by the worst people? The new US president, as Barack Obama remarked on the campaign trail, is “uniquely unqualified” to be commander-in-chief. There is no historical analogy for a President Trump. He combines in a single person some of the worst qualities of some of the worst US presidents: the Donald makes Nixon look honest, Clinton look chaste, Bush look smart.

Trump began his tenure as president-elect in November by agreeing to pay out $25m to settle fraud claims brought against the now defunct Trump University by dozens of former students; he began the new year being deposed as part of his lawsuit against a celebrity chef. On 10 January, the Federal Election Commission sent the Trump campaign a 250-page letter outlining a series of potentially illegal campaign contributions. A day later, the head of the non-partisan US Office of Government Ethics slammed Trump’s plan to step back from running his businesses as “meaningless from a conflict-of-interest perspective”.

It cannot be repeated often enough: none of this is normal. There is no precedent for such behaviour, and while kakistocracy may be a term unfamiliar to most of us, this is what it looks like. Forget 1876: be prepared for four years of epic misgovernance and brazen corruption. Despite claiming in his convention speech, “I alone can fix it,” the former reality TV star won’t be governing on his own. He will be in charge of the richest, whitest, most male cabinet in living memory; a bizarre melange of the unqualified and the unhinged.

There has been much discussion about the lack of experience of many of Trump’s appointees (think of the incoming secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, who has no background in diplomacy or foreign affairs) and their alleged bigotry (the Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, denied a role as a federal judge in the 1980s following claims of racial discrimination, is on course to be confirmed as attorney general). Yet what should equally worry the average American is that Trump has picked people who, in the words of the historian Meg Jacobs, “are downright hostile to the mission of the agency they are appointed to run”. With their new Republican president’s blessing, they want to roll back support for the poorest, most vulnerable members of society and don’t give a damn how much damage they do in the process.

Take Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general selected to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Pruitt describes himself on his LinkedIn page as “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda” and has claimed that the debate over climate change is “far from settled”.

The former neurosurgeon Ben Carson is Trump’s pick for housing and urban development, a department with a $49bn budget that helps low-income families own homes and pay the rent. Carson has no background in housing policy, is an anti-welfare ideologue and ruled himself out of a cabinet job shortly after the election. “Dr Carson feels he has no government experience,” his spokesman said at the time. “He’s never run a federal agency. The last thing he would want to do was take a position that could cripple the presidency.”

The fast-food mogul Andrew Puzder, who was tapped to run the department of labour, doesn’t like . . . well . . . labour. He prefers robots, telling Business Insider in March 2016: “They’re always polite . . . They never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex or race discrimination case.”

The billionaire Republican donor Betsy DeVos, nominated to run the department of education, did not attend state school and neither did any of her four children. She has never been a teacher, has no background in education and is a champion of school vouchers and privatisation. To quote the education historian Diane Ravitch: “If confirmed, DeVos will be the first education secretary who is actively hostile to public education.”

The former Texas governor Rick Perry, nominated for the role of energy secretary by Trump, promised to abolish the department that he has been asked to run while trying to secure his party’s presidential nomination in 2011. Compare and contrast Perry, who has an undergraduate degree in animal science but failed a chemistry course in college, with his two predecessors under President Obama: Dr Ernest Moniz, the former head of MIT’s physics department, and Dr Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist from Berkeley. In many ways, Perry, who spent the latter half of 2016 as a contestant on Dancing with the Stars, is the ultimate kakistocratic appointment.

“Do Trump’s cabinet picks want to run the government – or dismantle it?” asked a headline in the Chicago Tribune in December. That’s one rather polite way of putting it. Another would be to note, as the Online Etymology Dictionary does, that kakistocracy comes from kakistos, the Greek word for “worst”, which is a superlative of kakos, or “bad”, which “is related to the general Indo-European word for ‘defecate’”.

Mehdi Hasan has rejoined the New Statesman as a contributing editor and will write a fortnightly column on US politics

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era