Turning a blind eye to child abuse is simply not an option

The Deputy Children’s Commissioner report should be a wake-up call to government.

The report by the Deputy Children’s Commissioner has rightly been described as a wakeup call - not just because the numbers of children who are at risk of abuse runs to over 16,000 according to the report, but because it challenges some of the myths about child abuse that have been repeated across the media in recent weeks and months.

The first is the importance of not being alarmist. The fact that child exploitation happens at all is a serious concern, but the point made by this report is not that child sexual exploitation is happening everywhere – simply that it can happen anywhere - and as a consequence we need to be proactive in recognising and tackling it.

This begs the question, who is "we"? In response to tragic cases of child abuse it is common to focus on the failure of frontline professionals who are supposed to protect them but the report, with its helpful checklist of warning signs, lays the responsibility to keep children safe not just at their door, but with the public as well.

It is clear from recent high profile cases, in Rochdale or involving Jimmy Savile, that collectively we are not good enough at responding to children, particularly older teenagers, who are often labelled as promiscuous or troublesome rather than vulnerable young people. This produces a culture in which some children are blamed for their own abuse. As the report shows clearly, children cannot consent to their own exploitation.

But nobody could read this report without wanting to know how to prevent such appalling abuse from happening in the first place. That is why the role of the public is so crucially important. The NSPCC, which deals with calls to its adult helpline, makes the point that often the general public does not understand what constitutes abuse. That is why the Government should build on the report with a public awareness campaign to help parents, friends, and young people themselves, to identify sexual exploitation and know how and where to report it.

It is a common feature of exploitation to present abusive behaviour as loving and supportive. The report shows that children who are groomed or sexually exploited do not necessarily recognise their treatment as abuse and have little understanding of what sexual exploitation looks like. It is devastating that so many young people do not know the difference between good relationships and exploitative ones. The report also highlights child-on-child exploitation, so we must urgently equip children with the tools they need to recognise abusive behaviour. Labour’s pledge to introduce compulsory sex and relationship education is part of the solution - an essential plank of a coherent strategy to tackle child sexual exploitation, focused on prevention.

Finally the report makes an important and powerful point about the danger of focusing on ethnicity, age or gender. Despite recent high profile cases featuring Pakistani men, we know that child exploitation happens in all communities. Around 10 per cent of the victims identified by the Children’s Commissioner were boys. The majority of the perpetrators were white, and some were children themselves. While we should not shy away from investigating child abuse in any community, if we look at child exploitation as anything other than an appalling abuse of power we risk overlooking child victims who do not fit a preconceived stereotypical image.

A Government source was reported as saying that it was "difficult to overstate the contempt" with which ministers viewed the report’s conclusions. The report has also been called "hysterical" and "highly emotional" by senior Whitehall figures in this morning’s press. Yet it sets out the complex reality of child sexual exploitation - often extremely violent, lasting over months and years, involving victims who are moved across boundaries and overlooked by the public and professionals that come into contact with them. The devastating and enduring impact on victims and their families deserves a co-ordinated national response that gives children, the public and professionals the knowledge and confidence to take action. In this context perhaps the biggest wakeup call is to government. This report shows that turning a blind eye to child abuse is simply not an option.

Lisa Nandy is Labour MP for Wigan

Rochdale where nine men were arrested for child sexual exploitation in 2011. Photograph: Getty Images

Lisa Nandy is the MP for Wigan. She was formerly Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change.

Show Hide image

Forget sniffer dogs. To stop drug abuse in prison, fight the real enemy – boredom

Since I left prison in 2011, the system has had £900m sucked out of it. No wonder officers are struggling to control drug use.

It’s rare to go a day in prison without someone offering you drugs. When I was sentenced to 16 months in 2011, I was shocked by the sheer variety on offer. It wasn’t just cannabis, heroin, and prescription pills. If you wanted something special, you could get that too: ecstasy for an in-cell rave, cocaine for the boxing, and, in one case, LSD for someone who presumably wanted to turn the waking nightmare of incarceration up to eleven.

Those were sober times, compared to how things are today. New synthetic drugs – powerful, undetectable, and cheap – have since flooded the market. As the Ministry of Justice itself admitted in its recent White Paper, they’ve lost control: “The motivation and ability of prisoners and organised crime groups to use and traffic illegal drugs has outstripped our ability to prevent this trade.”

The upshot is that, rather than emerging from prison with a useful new trade or skill, inmates are simply picking up new drug habits. According to a report released on 8 December by drug policy experts Volteface, on average 8 per cent of people who did not have a previous drug problem come out of prison with one. In some of the worst institutions, the figure is as high as 16 per cent.

Why are people with no history of drug abuse being driven to it in prison?

There’s the jailbreak factor, of course. All prisoners dream of escape, and drugs are the easiest way out. But, according the report, the most common reason given by inmates is simply boredom.

Life when I was inside was relatively benign. On most days, for instance, there were enough members of staff on duty to let inmates out of their cells to shower, use a telephone, post a letter, or clean their clothes. Sometimes an emergency would mean that there might not be enough hands on deck to escort people off the wing to education, worship, drug therapy, healthcare, family visits, work, or other purposeful activities; but those occasions were mercifully rare.

Since then, the system has had £900m sucked out of it, and the number of operational staff has been reduced by 7,000. All such a skeleton crew can do is rush from one situation to the next. An assault or a suicide in one part of the prison (which have increased by 64 per cent and 75 per cent respectively since 2012) often results in the rest being locked down. The 2,100 new officers the MoJ has promised to recruit don’t come anywhere close to making up the shortfall. Purposeful activity – the cornerstone of effective rehabilitation – has suffered. Inmates are being forced to make their own fun.

Enter ‘synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists’, or SCRAs, often more simply referred to by brand names such as ‘Spice’ or ‘Black Mamba’. Over 200 of them are available on the international market and they are, today, the most popular drugs in British prisons. A third of inmates admitted to having used ‘Spice’ within the last month, according to a recent survey conducted by User Voice, and the true figure is probably even higher.

As one serving prisoner recently told me: "It's the perfect drug. You can smoke it right under the governor's nose and they won't be able to tell. Not even the dogs can sniff it out."

The combination of extreme boredom and experimental drugs has given birth to scenes both brutal and bizarre. Mobile phone footage recently emerged from Forest Bank prison showing naked, muzzled prisoners – apparently under the influence of such drugs – being made to take part in human dog fights. At the same establishment, another naked prisoner introduces himself to the camera as an ‘Islamic Turkey Vulture’ before squatting over another inmate and excreting ‘golden eggs’, believed to be packets of drugs, into his mouth. It sounds more like a scene from Salò than the prison culture I recall.

The solution to this diabolical situation might seem obvious: but not to Justice Secretary Liz Truss. Her answers are more prison time (up to ten years) for visitors caught smuggling ‘spice’, and new technology to detect the use of these drugs, which will inevitably fail to keep up with the constantly changing experimental drugs market. Earlier this week, she even suggested that drug-delivery drones could be deterred using barking dogs.

Trying to solve prison problems with more prison seems the very definition of madness. Indeed, according to the Howard League for Penal Reform, over the last six years, inmates have received over a million days of extra punishment for breaking prison rules – which includes drug use – with no obvious positive effects.

Extra security measures – the training of ‘spice dogs’, for example – are also doomed to fail. After all, it’s not like prison drug dealers are hard to sniff out. They have the best trainers, the newest tracksuits, their cells are Aladdin’s Caves of contraband - and yet they rarely seem to get caught. Why? The image of a prison officer at HMP Wayland politely informing our wing dealer that his cell was scheduled for a search later that day comes to mind. Unless the huge demand for drugs in prison is dealt with, more security will only result in more corruption.

It might be a bitter pill for a Tory minister to swallow but it’s time to pay attention to prisoners’ needs. If the prodigious quantities of dangerous experimental drugs they are consuming are anything to go by, it’s stimulation they really crave. As diverting as extra drug tests, cell searches, and the sight of prison dogs trying to woof drones out of the sky might momentarily be, it’s not going to be enough.

That’s not to say that prisons should become funfairs, or the dreaded holiday camps of tabloid fantasy, but at the very last they should be safe, stable environments that give inmates the opportunity to improve their lives. Achieving that will require a degree of bravery, imagination, and compassion possibly beyond the reach of this government. But, for now, we live in hope. The prisoners, in dope.