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.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.