Thank you for coming this morning.
And thank you to the NSPCC for hosting this event.
The NSPCC was created in 1884 by pioneering proponents of child welfare, at a time when children were forced to work long hours in dangerous factories, still flogged, caned and beaten at home, in school, at work, justified by the old mantra, “spare the rod and spoil the child.”
And the Parliamentarians of the day didn’t just turn a blind eye, they defended the violence and abuse.
When Lord Shaftesbury, one of the founders of the NSPCC, tried to persuade Parliament to ban the use of children to climb up chimneys to clean them, he was told that ‘an Englishman’s Home is his Castle’ and how he cleans his chimneys is no business of the state, and that hard work for children was beneficial to their development.
Today’s challenges for the NSPCC are very different from 120 years ago.
But they are still immensely important.
Although the majority of our children enjoy safe and happy childhoods, too many young people’s lives are still blighted by abuse and harm.
In Parliament, and across the country, everyone agrees that children should be protected, that abuse of our young people is immoral, that there must be robust laws and proper punishment for offenders. And we have agencies and institutions pledged to protect them.
But there still is a terrible gap between what we all believe, and the reality of the protection provided.
There is a terrible gap between the scale of abuse that is emerging and the strength of our collective response.
We know as parents, we know as adults thinking back to our own childhood, how much it matters for those early years to be happy and healthy, filled with love, nurture and encouragement.
Like many of you, I know that as a parent I take the greatest joy in loving and hugging my children, watching them develop and grow, from their first steps, to their first day at school and beyond.
So we can find it almost impossible to comprehend why anyone would want to harm a child. But they do. And they do immense damage not just to those children, but to their future, and to society too.
As one teenager told me, “I thought I deserved the punishment, that I had done something wrong… I’ve never been able to work through the abuse. It’s always sort of been the elephant in the room. Seen but not talked about.”
We have seen awful evidence of the scale of hidden crime against children.
Neglect, physical abuse, cyberbullying.
And over the last few years awful cases of sexual abuse and exploitation.
Hidden from sight. Often hidden in plain sight.
The exploitation of young girls in Rotherham or Oxfordshire – the scale of manipulation, abuse, violation by gangs of men.
The abuse of over at least 500 young people by Jimmy Savile – the prosecutions and imprisonments of trusted celebrities and childhood heroes after Operation Yewtree.
The abuse of children within North Wales or Nottinghamshire children’s homes that were supposed to protect them.
The excuses, failures and cover ups by institutions who knew about abuse but failed to act.
Even allegations that networks of abuse in Westminster were covered up at the highest level.
But this isn’t just about historic abuse. Or historic failure to act.
The abuse continues today.
And the failure continues today as well.
And that is what I want to talk about today.
The scale of the challenge, which gets bigger with every disclosure, demands an entirely new approach.
We need a sea-change in our attitudes, and a revolution in our systems of protecting children.
No more drift, no more fudge, no more excuses.
This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity.
As demanding of our attention and resources as the great causes of tackling cancer, or creating full employment or building the NHS.
SCALE OF THE PROBLEM
First, we need to face the facts, no matter how uncomfortable.
According to the NSPCC’s estimate, over half a million children are abused each year.
Many are victims of neglect or malnourishment – denied the love and sustenance they need to grow and develop. Children suffer physical abuse, cyberbullying, online exploitation, sexual abuse within the family, exploitation by gangs or trafficking.
Many of the examples I will talk about today are around sexual abuse and exploitation as those are the hidden crimes where we have seen some of the worst failings emerge in the last couple of years. But of course abuse is much wider – and different kinds of abuse are often linked. The child neglected in the early years is much more vulnerable later on – to exploitation or sexual abuse. Most exploitation or bullying nowadays involves online abuse too. And a significant proportion of those downloading abusive images of children are also engaged in contact abuse.
One in 20 children in the UK have been sexually abused according to the NSPCC.
2,409 children were sexually exploited by gangs over 18-months according to the Children’s Commission.
16,500 more children from across England were identified as being at high risk.
Last year 18,600 children and young people contacted Childline to discuss child sex abuse.
1400 children exploited in Rotherham alone over 16 years – according to Professor Jay and Louise Casey’s reviews.
We do not know the full picture. We simply don’t know how widespread abuse of children is, because of the nature of the abuse, the secrecy and the stigma that surrounds it. And because too often abused children who become disruptive as a result of their abuse are labelled as a problem, while the underlying cause of their behaviour – the abuse they are suffering – goes undetected.
The scars run deep, both for those young people throughout their lives and for our whole society.
Serious case reviews show how damaging abuse is for children’s education and truancy.
Half of those suffering serious mental health problems and using adult mental health services disclose abuse in childhood
Almost a third of prisoners had been abused in the home as a child. And the figures are higher for women prisoners
NSPCC research suggests the cost of child sex abuse are £3.2 billion a year.
In mental health, social services, alcohol and drug misuse, police investigations and lost productivity.
And the emotional cost and moral stain on our society is impossible to quantify.
Child abuse can rob children of not only their childhood, but also the fulfilled and happy adulthood they could have enjoyed.
It wrecks lives and blights our society.
ABUSE OF POWER
Ultimately child abuse is abuse of power.
The abuse takes different forms, but each form rests on the same imbalance of power: those with power neglecting, harming, exploiting, violating those without.
Abusing positions of trust.
Using their power to silence their victims and cover their tracks.
Destroying those children’s confidence and trust in others.
Creating a terrible sense of powerlessness and hopelessness among victims as they grow and develop.
Responsibility for these awful crimes against children and against childhood lies with the abusers who perpetrate them.
But those who turn a blind eye are abusing their power too. The power to ignore victims because they are children. The power to put the reputation of the institution above the safety of a child. The power to silence others because the issue is taboo, or too difficult or destabilising to tackle.
And that abuse of power, that failure of institutions and our whole society to respond is laced with misogyny, sexism, homophobia, racism and class prejudice too.
- the misogyny and contempt shown towards teenage girls by gangs who groom them, pass them round and treat them as chattel.
- the sexism and class prejudice of the criminal justice system who treated those same teenage girls as prostitutes, girls from the wrong side of the tracks.
- the homophobia and stigmatisation that prevents sexually abused boys from speaking out.
- the racism involved for example in the exploitation of girls in Rotherham, and the community and cultural excuses used not to pursue exploitation and crime.
But most common of all, it is about the failure of adults to fully value or understand children and teenagers – the abuse of adult power towards children.
We cannot stand for this any longer. We have a moral duty to act
The scale of the response to this crime is inadequate.
Don’t get me wrong. An immense amount of remarkable work is being done.
I’ve spoken to police officers who work patiently with vulnerable teenagers to build their confidence and bring a prosecution.
I’ve talked to social workers working all hours to keep children safe.
Sure Start workers trying to build strong families from the start.
Headteachers who take immensely seriously the safeguarding work they do.
And to charity and community leaders providing counselling, help and support.
The 2003 Every Child Matters report was a landmark in improving support and protection for children – focussing on helping all children enjoy a happy, healthy, safe and fulfilling childhood, and bringing agencies together to work on child protection like never before.
The Children’s Act enshrined the importance of early intervention. The 2008, Children’s Plan went further, bringing together schools and social services.
The Family Intervention Projects started in 2006 have been extended into the Troubled Families programme.
Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hubs are being introduced in many areas bringing police officers, social workers, health and education officers all together.
And the statutory guidance Working Together to Safeguard Children has recently been updated.
Following Savile, the police now have major investigations underway – Operation Yewtree, Operation Fernbridge, and others.
Following Rotherham, many police forces and local councils have done a major review of child sexual exploitation issues in their area, and major operations are underway
And the overarching inquiry into child abuse that I first called for over two years ago is now finally up and running after a couple of false starts.
I welcome Justice Lowell Goddard as the chair of the inquiry into cases of child sex abuse.
I also welcome that she has indicated that her inquiry will take a long view over many decades, and also include a ‘truth and reconciliation’ element to allow victims of abuse to be properly heard, often for the first time. It is vital that it works to build the trust of survivors who have been ignored for too long. It needs to explain how and why institutions failed, provide us with long term recommendations on improving child protection, and it will need to make sure we can get to the truth about some of the most appalling allegations of cover ups at the very highest level.
BUT RESPONSE IS NOT ENOUGH
At first sight it looks like a lot.
But the problem is it just doesn’t match the scale of the problem.
The child abuse inquiry is vital but won’t report for several years – and it cannot be an excuse for everyone else’s inaction in the meantime.
Because there is a serious problem right now.
For a start, not enough is still being done to change culture and attitudes and ensure children are heard.
As we saw from Louise Casey’s report into Rotherham, even after abuse is identified, some institutions are still resistant to change.
Training still isn’t in place for too many frontline staff – especially police officers – who end up dealing with abuse.
Services still aren’t centred around the child’s needs – for example the courts are still too hostile making it harder for child and teenage victims or witnesses to cope.
Partnerships are still too patchy, information sharing about vulnerable children still too limited.
And in several areas, the Government has made matters worse.
Contact point was cancelled soon after the election – and there has still been nothing put in its place. So vulnerable children are still let down because time and again different agencies can’t see the whole picture.
The vetting and barring system has been shrunk back. Astonishing as it is to believe, most child sex offenders – convicted child sex offenders – are no longer barred from working with children.
Theresa May changed the rules against warnings from children’s charities and us and others in Parliament, and the result is that 10,000 fewer convicted sex offenders have been placed on the barring list.
Support for young people to identify abuse or give them safe places to speak out has been undermined. Youth services have been decimated
Child Adolescent Mental Health Services have growing delays and have been deprioritised, as Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham recently highlighted.
Police officers have been pulled out of schools.
Sure Starts have closed.
And the Government has refused repeatedly to bring in the compulsory sex and relationship education we need.
The response to crimes against children is simply not on the scale we need.
We are simply not reaching huge numbers of children who need support and help.
As more cases emerge, the number of child protection cases conferences have gone up.
Some areas told us they’ve increased by a quarter in the last two years, others that they had increased threefold.
Yet the police are attending fewer of the conferences – over 20 per cent fewer than before.
33 per cent more incidents of child abuse are being reported to police than in 2010/11.
But 13 per cent fewer cases are reaching the courtroom and convictions are down by 11 per cent.
There are growing demands on police and social workers – yet at the same time these services are having to cope with some of the biggest cuts.
Many councils are now concentrating only on the highest risk child protection cases, and they are cutting right back on the prevention and early intervention work that stopped cases getting that far.
One force told me a quarter of their neighbourhood policing was now focused on child sexual exploitation, but they still aren’t reaching most of the perpetrators or safeguarding all the victims.
Another said the police have had to double the resources going into child protection investigations even though they are losing thousands of officers every year and they are struggling to cope.
Meanwhile the Government wants to cut police numbers by the same scale all over again, with ACPO warning that a further 16,000 officers will go.
The Government will tell us that crime is falling so we need far fewer police.
But the truth is that crime is changing, hidden crimes are emerging, new online crimes are increasing and they are far more difficult to deal with.
And unless we recognise that, the gap between our ambition for children and the reality of our response will simply grow.
But perhaps the clearest example of the gap between the scale of the problem and our response is over online child abuse.
And it’s a good example of how this is not just about resources, it’s about priorities and determination. It’s about whether we are prepared to change the way we work, move fast enough to keep up with new problems.
New technology is an amazing opportunity for our young people and they embrace it. As well as the fantastic gateway to knowledge, creativity and science it creates, it also helps young people who may be isolated or neglected at home reach friends or find support such as Childline.
But like any technology it can be abused as well as used. For bullying, grooming and abuse. For circulating and downloading vile sexual images of children. For committing crimes.
Abusers increasingly use the Darknet, and new technology to both hide and perpetrate their crimes. And that creates new challenges for the police who need to be able to keep up with new technology.
But too often even when the technology helps them identify suspects, the police are failing to act.
The National Crime Agency get 1600 reports a months of online abuse.
But there are long delays in investigations.
Even longer delays in individual police forces.
It is reported that between 20,000 and 30,000 cases have been identified by Operation Notarise of people downloading vile images of children.
That was over 12 months ago. A year on, only around 1,000 of them have been fully investigated or arrested.
Over 20,000 have not.
One force told me that they have a year-long wait to get computers examined
One senior officer said, the scale is too great to deal with, it would clog up the criminal justice system
But the police stop and search over a million young people on the streets, arrest 233,000 people for theft and 111,000 people for drug offences every year.
Why isn’t it possible to investigate 20,000 people suspected of child abuse?
According to CEOP anything between 5 per cent and 50 per cent of those downloading images will also become involved in contact abuse.
Year long delays in passing on information between forces about paediatrician Myles Bradbury meant he was able to continue to abuse children.
The NCA apologised. But the trouble is that there are far more cases where the same delays are happening. Where the authorities have the information. Action isn’t being taken, not even barring them from working with children. And the abuse continues. I fear that Myles Bradbury is the tip of the iceberg.
And the Government is withholding information about the scale of the problem. Repeatedly I have asked the Home Secretary to provide the facts about the length of delays and the number of cases not investigated. She hasn’t done so.
The HMIC have done an investigation into forces’ work on online cases. But there are long delays in publishing it.
No one is quite admitting to the scale of the problem because no one knows how to solve it.
Yet the truth is that unless we recognise the scale of the problem and the scale of the harm how on earth we will ever solve it?
And we are making the same mistakes all over again too.
We look back at past failures and wonder how people could have turned a blind eye to the scale of the problem, or thought it was too difficult to act when children’s safety was at risk.
Yet the same thing is happening now.
The form and pattern of abuse may be changing with growing abuse online. But the form and pattern of society’s failure to move fast enough to protect our children looks remarkably similar.
And there’s a wider and deeper problem that runs through all of this.
We are simply not giving enough priority to child well being and safety.
And that has got worse.
We’ve not seen the leadership we need in dealing with these problems.
Since 2010 Ministers have moved away from the ethos and practice of Every Child Matters.
The Department for Children, Schools and Families has retreated into being a Department for Education, abandoning any leadership on wider children’s safety or wellbeing.
Abuse revelations of the last few years shown up a hidden crisis in the wellbeing of so many of our children – yet the Education Secretary and her predecessor have been silent, leaving the Home Office to pick up the pieces instead.
WHAT WOULD LABOUR DO
So here’s what I believe the Government should do now. Here’s what Labour would do.
First, this needs to become a new crusade for all of us to ensure children get the support and the protection they need for a happy, healthy and safe child hood.
As Tristram Hunt has said, we need to return to and reinvigorate the principles of Every Child Matters.
Every child does matter.
Every child must be seen.
Every child must be heard.
But we need to go further. Challenging the sexism and class prejudice, the homophobia, the racism, the cultural prejudice. Challenging the tendency to ignore what children say.
It has to become a major priority with leadership from across government.
We must make sure reforms are child centred – listening to and supporting children, and adults abused as children.
Action against child abuse only works if it is part of a wider positive vision of the childhood we want the next generation to enjoy.
We will set up a new child protection unit between the Home Office and Department for Education also drawing on the Health, Communities and Justice Departments to provide leadership in government to drive the changes needed. To ensure what the guidance says happens on the ground.
I will make sure child safety and wellbeing is a priority for the Home Office, as well as for the Department for Education and the whole of Government too.
We need a new framework for prevention, including work to build strong foundations to prevent neglect of physical abuse. And we need compulsory sex and relationship education in all our schools. It needs to teach respect and consent, resilience against online abuse, grooming or pornography, and zero tolerance of violence in relationships. We need to build our children’s confidence to speak out against abuse, to know what isn’t normal, and to learn how to respect each other as they grow.
It is a travesty that Michael Gove blocked compulsory SRE before the last election and this Government has refused repeatedly to bring it in since. We are letting our children down.
We need a new framework for protection. Ensuring children have safe places to report or to speak out. Partnerships between schools, mental health, youth services, community and voluntary organisations and the police.
We need to bring in mandatory reporting – so that professionals are never tempted to cover up abuse because it is too hard to handle or threatens the reputation of the institution, as the NSPCC has called for.
We need far better child and adolescent mental health support, as Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham has made clear.
And to make the criminal justice system more focused on children’s needs.
We need to roll out the successful MASH approach so agencies work together in the same room, acting fast to keep children safe – because what matters is what works.
When the child abuse inquiry reports, we will need to be able to implement its recommendations about child protection in institutions. But there are obvious changes and improvements we can get on and make now.
And we need new powers.
This afternoon MPs from all Parties have an opportunity to introduce new powers to help protect children that can be brought into force now – through strengthening Child Abduction Notices or Sexual Risk Orders.
Powers that would make it easier for police who suspect abuse, police who know children are in danger, to stop adults who are putting them at risk.
I’m calling on the Home Secretary to urgently audit and publish information on the scale of the problem and the extent of delays. We need to review the whole structure of working between the NCA, police forces and wider authorities because the system isn’t doing enough. We need children’s safety to be at the heart of what they do – be it online, be it exploitation, be it trafficking, where more needs to be done. And we need more partnership working – with a role for companies, the voluntary sector, special constables – to deal with the new challenges we face.
We have to face up to the problem of resources and priorities
Now is not the time to cut another 1000 officers next year. We’ve set out in detail ways to make the savings we need to protect the frontline next year.
And we need more research into how to prevent people becoming abusive, or how to prevent them reoffending. Some of this work has been done elsewhere in Europe, but in the UK central government is relatively uninformed.
This means international action too – we must work with other governments and multilaterally to prioritise ending violence against children.
The NSPCC will be a hugely important organisation in helping develop this knowledge.
We will all have to work together in new and imaginative ways to end the abuse of children.
And we cannot wait.
Every child matters, every child heard, every child safe, every child valued.
We have the chance to shine a light into the dark corners where abuse went undetected for decades. The chance to bring perpetrators to justice. And the chance to safeguard our children.
But to do so we have to accept this isn’t just historic. There are children suffering terrible abuse today, in this city, and others around the UK. It is still being ignored.
The scandals of the future are happening right now.
Government and all of us need to wake up to it.
Childhood should be a special time, for children and for the adults who love them. It should be a time when we learn who we are, how we fit into the world, what we’re good at, and how to behave as children, and then as adults.
It should be a time when we’re surrounded by encouragement, praise, guidance, instruction and love.
Yet for millions of children, generation after generation, childhood is blighted by fear and pain. As a politician and as a parent, I think we have to do more.
Loving, stable families, of whatever size and shape, are the foundations for a decent society.
Unless we tackle widespread, endemic abuse and violence towards children, the rest of our endeavours to create a decent society will fail.
As James A Mercy, from the US centre for disease control and prevention, said:
“Imagine a childhood disease that effects one in five girls and one in seven boys before they reach the age of eighteen; a disease that can cause erratic behaviour and even severe conduct disorder among those exposed; a disease that can have profound implications for an individual’s future health by increasing the risk of substance abuse, sexually transmitted diseases and suicidal behaviour, a disease that replicates itself by causing some of its victims to expose future generations to its debilitating effects. Imagine what we, as a society would do if such a disease existed. We would spare no expense. We would invest heavily in basic and applied research. We would devise systems to identify those affected and provide services to treat them. We would develop and broadly implement prevention campaigns to protect our children. Wouldn’t we? Such a disease does exist – it is called child sexual abuse.”
We look back with revulsion with our twenty-first century eyes at the Victorians’ abuse of their children: beaten, starved of love, regimented and denied a childhood in the modern sense.
Don’t let future generations look back at us with contempt because we failed to act.