Cyril Smith, the MP for Rochdale, whose genial public persona hid a dark secret.
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Child abuse at Westminster: We haven't even begun to awaken from the nightmare

Some politicians are finally beginning to realise that they can't bury these scandals under the carpet. But real action is needed, and fast.

“The history of childhood is a nightmare from which we have only recently begun to awaken,” warned the eminent social thinker Lloyd Demause back in 1974. Over forty years later this nightmare is not only still with us but is arguably more vivid. Barely a week passes these days without further revelations about endemic child abuse.

Demause’s seminal essay on the evolution of childhood is a reminder that children have always been cruelly exploited. In ancient Greece boy brothels flourished and men kept slave boys for abuse. In the literature of the time, Petronius describes the rape of a seven-year-old girl with women clapping in a long line around the bed. And infants in imperial Rome were castrated in the cradle to be used in brothels by men who liked buggering young castrated boys.

These horrors quite rightly sound like chilling tales from centuries ago. But like the heads of the Hydra, once one monstrous horror is cut off at the source another springs up, manifesting itself differently throughout the ages. What remains constant over the centuries is a kind of droit de seigneur; the right of powerful people to sexually exploit vulnerable children from lower social classes.  Historians of the future will undoubtedly look back at our age as a time when MPs like Cyril Smith and other powerful figures abused children in care. When paedophile gangs in Rotherham, Rochdale and Oxfordshire abused poor working class children on an industrial level. And when famous personalities like Gary Glitter, Rolf Harris and Jimmy Savile used their celebrity to cruelly trap and abuse vulnerable young fans.

Despite huge amounts of media coverage and outraged social commentary around these crimes, politicians have shown a remarkable tin ear to growing public concern over child abuse. Political leaders don’t tend to make speeches on tackling this problem. It still feels as though the political will to get to grips with this crime is lagging a long way behind the public view. There’s far too much unease and discomfort about approaching the subject. There is simply no appetite to grasp the nettle. Or as one MP put it to me: “The people running the show here did not come into politics to deal with a subject like this.” But deal with it they must, because it’s not going away and the more the public sees indecision and a lack of action on such a serious crime the more likely they will conclude that MPs don’t care about protecting children from rape. In which case the expenses nadir will be considered respectable compared to the depths to which the reputation of politicians will suddenly plummet.

That consequence is starting to sink in and recently there’s been a sense that Westminster is beginning to grasp the seriousness of the problem. One such moment took place last week at a Downing Street summit I attended on child sexual exploitation.

As politicians, chief constables, leaders from local authorities and child protection experts filed into Number 10, a sense of united purpose filled the room. The Prime Minister reflected this, talking about making the first step to dealing with this problem much better than the past. “We are going to produce better policies,” he promised, and everyone from local government, the police and child protection services agreed. We all know there have been too many failings and the social cost is extremely high. Things have to change. Fast. We can’t keep letting children down.

What followed was a lively and extremely encouraging policy discussion where ideas were shared to create a more protective environment. A hard-hitting Government information campaign was suggested, aiming to change attitudes like drink-driving adverts did. So too was the idea that police could get the location of children vulnerable to child sexual exploitation by sharing information from phone companies. A glossy brochure entitled ‘Tackling child sexual exploitation’ was handed out. It was impressive stuff.

But until such meetings translate into real frontline action there’s a danger they represent little more than public relations exercises. That danger was brought home to me a few days later when the latest development in a long running battle with the Cabinet Office over disclosure of files relating to historic abuse in Westminster was revealed. After officials spent a year trying to prevent files become public, it now emerges that Margaret Thatcher was warned about Cyril Smith’s child abusing past before she awarded him a knighthood.

The Cabinet Office has form here. They’ve tried to prevent the publication of previous documents on the British diplomat and intelligence operative Sir Peter Hayman being known to government for being a member of the Paedophile Information Exchange. And they tried to prevent it being made public that David Steel nominated Cyril Smith for a knighthood too. As I write they are currently refusing to reveal the titles of four more files relating to child abuse.

This combines to give the impression of officials frantically trying to cover up any evidence that implicates politicians. It suggests there’s a reason why the government’s inquiry into child abuse has only just managed to finally find a chair and still hasn’t got out of the starting blocks. Because too many people in Parliament don’t want to see the day of reckoning that inevitably lies ahead for parliamentarians who abused children with impunity.

And as long as this battle to keep hidden any evidence of parliamentary wrong-doing continues, it presents politicians with a major headache as we face up to the challenges of successive scandals like Rochdale, Rotherham and Oxfordshire. Unless Parliament can get its own house in order and tackle child abusing law makers, how can the public possibly trust us to deal with a growing child abuse problem in the country?

Confronted with a growing child abuse epidemic politicians have a once in a lifetime opportunity to change the culture of complacency that allowed this crime to flourish. It’s no exaggeration to say we stand at a crossroads where child protection is concerned. But politicians won’t be able to embark on the path of reforming child protection services until we’ve faced up to Westminster’s shameful secrets first.

 

Simon Danczuk is MP for Rochdale.

Photo: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.