The late MP Cyril Smith was a serial abuser of young boys, some of whom only now feel they can open up about it. Photo: Getty
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Child sex abuse victims are starting to feel empowered – this is bad news for the establishment

The Labour MP who has been working on uncovering alleged historic child sex abuse crimes in Westminster writes about the new-found hope victims have found of having their voices heard.

Watershed political moments usually require an indelible image to register change on a large scale. The collapse of the Berlin Wall or the sight of Nelson Mandela leaving prison are images that immediately convey a sense that society was making a quantum social leap.  I had my own watershed moment last week, but it wasn’t a moment eminently framed by news cameras for posterity that made me realise I was witnessing social change. It was the sight of a man in his 50s, his hands visibly trembling and tears welling in his eyes, sat before me talking about child abuse.

I’ve met many victims of sexual abuse now, and it wasn’t his experience of abuse that affected me most – although it was extremely distressing, – it was how he explained why he’d come to see me. “I would not have been able to talk about this ten years ago,” he began. “It would have been too embarrassing and no one would have believed me. But the environment’s changed. It feels safe to talk about it now.”

I won’t forget his face – or the ever so slight gleam of hope in his eyes, reflecting a sense that something good may come out of sharing a terrible burden that’s held him back all his life.

He’s not alone in this view. Many more people are now willing to open up about terrible things they’ve never spoken about before. I’ve long felt that child abuse was a voiceless crime, forever silenced by a feeling that the authorities didn’t want to know about it, but it’s slowly beginning to find its voice and it’s getting louder by the day.

The events of the last few weeks show that we’ve well and truly crossed the Rubicon and this change cannot be contained. First the government caved in to demands for a national inquiry looking at historic child abuse then attempts to appoint a safe establishment figure to chair the inquiry in Baroness Butler-Sloss well and truly backfired as she was forced to step down before she’d even started. In her statement Butler-Sloss acknowledged that she did not have the confidence of victims and survivor groups.

As a measure of how far we’ve come it’s worth recalling that little over 10-years ago the Children’s Minister, Margaret Hodge, was able to keep her job after calling a victim of child abuse “deeply disturbed”. She ended up settling out of court with this victim but nowadays it wouldn’t just cost ministers financially. They would have to resign. Victims of child abuse cannot be so easily rubbished or ignored. And the establishment cannot continue to lord it over us and dictate how investigations are conducted.

This week the Economist said historians will look back on Britain’s public life at the turn of the 21st century as being mired in an “age of disillusionment”. They are most probably right. But for some people, it may well be remembered as a golden age when the most vulnerable people in society were finally given a voice and powerful abusers were brought to justice.

There are, of course, those who don’t believe anything good will come out of this at all. "Paedomania", "hysteria" and "witch-hunt" have become the common language of certain members of the commentariat. I wonder if any of them have ever met with victims of child abuse. The fact that 660 suspected paedophiles have been arrested this week suggests that far from over-hyped hysteria we’re finally confronting a massive crime.

The man in his 50s who I spoke to last week had been abused by the former MP for Rochdale, Sir Cyril Smith. He was one of many in a long line of poor, vulnerable people that have been treated as disposable goods by powerful figures like Smith. Back then the abuse of young boys didn’t matter and it was easily hushed up. Not so anymore. And as long as the gradual empowerment of victims continues then plenty of people across the establishment will continue to have sleepless nights and be forever looking over their shoulder.

 

Simon Danczuk is Labour MP for Rochdale and his book, Smile for the Camera: The Double Life of Cyril Smith, came out earlier this year, published by Biteback Publishing

Simon Danczuk is MP for Rochdale.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.