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, and shadow minister for civil society

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

What do Labour's lost voters make of the Labour leadership candidates?

What does Newsnight's focus group make of the Labour leadership candidates?

Tonight on Newsnight, an IpsosMori focus group of former Labour voters talks about the four Labour leadership candidates. What did they make of the four candidates?

On Andy Burnham:

“He’s the old guard, with Yvette Cooper”

“It’s the same message they were trying to portray right up to the election”​

“I thought that he acknowledged the fact that they didn’t say sorry during the time of the election, and how can you expect people to vote for you when you’re not actually acknowledging that you were part of the problem”​

“Strongish leader, and at least he’s acknowledging and saying let’s move on from here as opposed to wishy washy”

“I was surprised how long he’d been in politics if he was talking about Tony Blair years – he doesn’t look old enough”

On Jeremy Corbyn:

"“He’s the older guy with the grey hair who’s got all the policies straight out of the sixties and is a bit of a hippy as well is what he comes across as” 

“I agree with most of what he said, I must admit, but I don’t think as a country we can afford his principles”

“He was just going to be the opposite of Conservatives, but there might be policies on the Conservative side that, y’know, might be good policies”

“I’ve heard in the paper he’s the favourite to win the Labour leadership. Well, if that was him, then I won’t be voting for Labour, put it that way”

“I think he’s a very good politician but he’s unelectable as a Prime Minister”

On Yvette Cooper

“She sounds quite positive doesn’t she – for families and their everyday issues”

“Bedroom tax, working tax credits, mainly mum things as well”

“We had Margaret Thatcher obviously years ago, and then I’ve always thought about it being a man, I wanted a man, thinking they were stronger…  she was very strong and decisive as well”

“She was very clear – more so than the other guy [Burnham]”

“I think she’s trying to play down her economics background to sort of distance herself from her husband… I think she’s dumbing herself down”

On Liz Kendall

“None of it came from the heart”

“She just sounds like someone’s told her to say something, it’s not coming from the heart, she needs passion”

“Rather than saying what she’s going to do, she’s attacking”

“She reminded me of a headteacher when she was standing there, and she was quite boring. She just didn’t seem to have any sort of personality, and you can’t imagine her being a leader of a party”

“With Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham there’s a lot of rhetoric but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of direction behind what they’re saying. There seems to be a lot of words but no action.”

And, finally, a piece of advice for all four candidates, should they win the leadership election:

“Get down on your hands and knees and start praying”

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.