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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Who is the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier?

The former French foreign minister has shown signs that he will play hardball in negotiations.

The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator today set an October 2018 deadline for the terms of Britain’s divorce from the European Union to be agreed. Michel Barnier gave his first press conference since being appointed to head up what will be tough talks between the EU and UK.

Speaking in Brussels, he warned that UK-EU relations had entered “uncharted waters”. He used the conference to effectively shorten the time period for negotiations under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the legal process to take Britain out of the EU. The article sets out a two year period for a country to leave the bloc.

But Barnier, 65, warned that the period of actual negotiations would be shorter than two years and there would be less than 18 months to agree Brexit.  If the terms were set in October 2018, there would be five months for the European Parliament, European Council and UK Parliament to approve the deal before a March 2019 Brexit.

But who is the urbane Frenchman who was handpicked by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to steer the talks?

A centre-right career politician, Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A committed European and architect of closer eurozone banking integration, Barnier rose to prominence after being elected aged just 27 to the French National Assembly.  He is notorious in Brussels for his repeated references to the 1992 Winter Olympics he organised in Albertville with triple Olympic ski champion Jean-Claude Killy.

He first joined the French cabinet in 1993 as minister of the environment. In 1995, Jacques Chirac made him Secretary of State for European Affairs, teeing up a long and close relationship with Brussels.

Barnier has twice served as France’s European Commissioner, under the administrations of Romano Prodi and José Manuel BarrosoMost recently he was serving as an unpaid special advisor on European Defence Policy to Juncker until the former prime minister of Luxembourg made him Brexit boss.“I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job,” Juncker said at the time of Barnier, who has supported moves towards an EU army.

 

Barnier and the Brits

Barnier’s appointment was controversial. Under Barroso, he was Internal Market commissioner. Responsible for financial services legislation at the height of the crisis, he clashed with the City of London.

During this period he was memorably described as a man who, in a hall of mirrors, would stop and check his reflection in every one.

Although his battles with London’s bankers were often exaggerated, the choice of Barnier was described as an “act of war” by some British journalists and was greeted with undisguised glee by Brussels europhiles.

Barnier moved to calm those fears today. At the press conference, he said, “I was 20 years old, a very long time ago, when I voted for the first time and it was in the French referendum on the accession of the UK to the EU.

“That time I campaigned for a yes vote. And I still think today that I made right choice.”

But Barnier, seen by some as aloof and arrogant, also showed a mischievous side.  It was reported during Theresa May’s first visit to Brussels as prime minister that he was demanding that all the Brexit talks be conducted in French.

While Barnier does speak English, he is far more comfortable talking in his native French. But the story, since denied, was seen as a snub to the notoriously monolingual Brits.

The long lens photo of a British Brexit strategy note that warned the EU team was “very French” may also have been on his mind as he took the podium in Brussels today.

Barnier asked, “In French or in English?” to laughter from the press.

He switched between English and French in his opening remarks but only answered questions in French, using translation to ensure he understood the questions.

Since his appointment Barnier has posted a series of tweets which could be seen as poking fun at Brexit. On a tour of Croatia to discuss the negotiations, he posed outside Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships asking, “Guess where we are today?”

 

 

He also tweeted a picture of himself drinking prosecco after Boris Johnson sparked ridicule by telling an Italian economics minister his country would have to offer the UK tariff-free trade to sell the drink in Britain.

But Barnier can also be tough. He forced through laws to regulate every financial sector, 40 pieces of legislation in four years, when he was internal market commissioner, in the face of sustained opposition from industry and some governments.

He warned today, "Being a member of the EU comes with rights and benefits. Third countries [the UK] can never have the same rights and benefits since they are not subject to same obligations.”

On the possibility of Britain curbing free movement of EU citizens and keeping access to the single market, he was unequivocal.

“The single market and four freedoms are indivisible. Cherry-picking is not an option,” he said.

He stressed that his priority in the Brexit negotiations would be the interests of the remaining 27 member states of the European Union, not Britain.

“Unity is the strength of the EU and President Juncker and I are determined to preserve the unity and interest of the EU-27 in the Brexit negotiations.”

In a thinly veiled swipe at the British, again greeted with laughter in the press room, he told reporters, “It is much better to show solidarity than stand alone. I repeat, it is much better to show solidarity than stand alone”.

Referring to the iconic British poster that urged Brits to "Keep Calm and Carry On” during World War Two, he today told reporters, “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

But Barnier’s calm in the face of the unprecedented challenge to the EU posed by Brexit masks a cold determination to defend the European project at any cost.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.