Child Sexual Exploitation

13th November 2012

Mr Graham Allen (Nottingham North) (Lab): I have a slightly different take. I will not talk about cases, although we all have them and they are horrendous. I will not talk about picking up the pieces and how we help victims, although it is incumbent on all of us to try to do that. I will talk about something that people do not want to talk much about: the causes. Why do people perpetrate these horrendous crimes? It is important to talk about that, because if we can understand some of the causes, we can take action to alleviate and diminish these horrible episodes.

We here are responsible for making the overarching legal and cultural frameworks that can lead to there being less sexual abuse in our society. It is our responsibility not to hold another debate in five or 10 years’ time when more cases come forward or, as is the case now, to hold a debate some 15 or 20 years after such cases, but to take action now to change the culture that allows such people to proliferate and continue.

I would like to hear a response on that from the Minister of State, Home Department, the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Mr Browne). However, much as I enjoy his company, I am saddened that there are no Ministers present from the Department of Health, the Department for Education or the Cabinet Office, because this is a matter for the whole of Government. I am not making a partisan point, because Governments over the past 20 or 25 years while I have been a Member of this House have not covered themselves in glory in trying to prevent offences in this field.

Mr Andrew Smith: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr Allen: I will make a little progress first. I am conscious that some people have taken a considerable amount of time to make their points, so I will try to be a little more succinct.

It is important that Ministers do not view this matter in relation to celebrities, politicians or the BBC, but that they attempt to get a serious, strategic grip on how we can combat sexual abuse. We can do that in two ways. First, there should be a coherent and precise programme of research on the perpetrators of sexual abuse. Secondly, there should be an inquiry. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) mentioned an overarching inquiry. I would like such an inquiry to transcend the individual cases that we have all been talking about over the past few months.

Mr Andrew Smith: My hon. Friend talked about the ministerial presence or absence in this debate. Is that not symptomatic of an attitude that all too easily characterises Governments—I am not making a party political point—which is that Departments do not take seriously enough matters that are raised in Back-Bench debates or from the Back Benches? They would be well advised to start doing so.

Mr Allen: I will let my right hon. Friend make his own points about that. What is important is that Ministers do not act defensively or in a way that is intended to make tomorrow’s newspapers, but that they look at this matter strategically.

There is a plethora of inquiries that have taken place, are under way or are about to take place. The most important inquiry to have, which needs to be heavyweight and overarching, is one that backs off from specific incidents and looks at the steps that we could take immediately. It should ask why the extreme dysfunction of child sexual abuse takes place at all, how the cycle of sexual abuse can be broken, and what plans all public and private institutions must deploy to intervene pre-emptively to eradicate the sexual abuse of children over a generation and longer. It should be about long-termism and should set out a stall, hopefully on an all-party basis, so that we are not back here in 20 years’ time discussing these things. It should also include how we can change personal and family behaviours and social attitudes.

This matter is as significant as the Victorian elimination of cholera and typhoid through the provision of disease-free water. It is the public health issue of our time, and we need to step up and tackle it in a serious and strategic way. I would therefore go further than the former Minister who has just spoken, the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, and say that something on the scale of a royal commission is needed. Such a commission has just been announced in Australia. It should look not at particular cases or at how other inquiries went wrong, but at how we can combat the development of abusive behaviour within relationships and outside the family.

Mr Graham Stuart: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Allen: If the Chairman of the Education Committee can be brief, I will of course give way.

Mr Stuart: I will be very brief. Royal commissions have famously been used to put things into the long grass. Such an overblown inquiry might just put the issue away until the public focus has moved on and so it might be counter-productive.

Mr Allen: Royal commissions have rarely been used in recent years, when inquiries have been used to put things into the long grass or to deal with specifics rather than the generic problem.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) on being so assiduous on this issue over many years, and the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Margot James) on helping to promote this debate. Perhaps I may also offer some friendly advice to the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood). A long time ago in 1989, when I had been in this House as long as she has—about two years—I asked questions of the then Prime Minister, Mrs Thatcher, and tabled early-day motions on the sexual abuse of children. I suggested—thankfully, this is still on the record—that the Home Office, and the Departments for Education and for Health should work together to figure out a strategic answer to the problem, and undertake serious, long-term research. I also suggested as part of that campaign that we should take video evidence from children in cases of child abuse. Thankfully that tiny bit of progress has been made.

I hope that success comes faster for the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon than any success that I may or may not have enjoyed. We must now look at this issue in the round, rather than at just those cases that affect us as constituency MPs. We must get to the heart of the matter, stop being reactive and start looking at the causes of the problem. There is a continuum. Abuse often begins in quite trivial ways; it escalates through violence; and it can go even further into sexual abuse—and we must start to understand how such relationships occur and how they degenerate, whether in the family or outside.

A tonne of evidence is available. I will not attempt to put it all on the record, although I will refer to a couple of points. Marcus Erooga has done a lot of work on this issue and writes about the

“high rates of convicted child abusers who have been themselves sexually abused as children”.

This is about breaking the cycle of abuse. In a horrendous case that took place 25 years ago in my constituency, children began to accept as normal some of the things that happened to them—I will not put those things on the record in Hansard—and they grew up thinking that that was part of normal sexual relations. As soon as the case was discovered, people went to great lengths to break those children away from the attitude that such things were normal. If they considered such things to be normal, it could happen again in the next generation.

I do not, of course, condemn anyone who has suffered sexual abuse as an offender in their own right—statistics do not bear that out and neither does common sense—but none the less, a very high proportion of people who perform such behaviour have had some experience of its being perpetrated on them by people they know. We can do something about that by helping people and ensuring that they have the social and emotional capability to make choices. As was mentioned earlier, people do not often choose to enter such relationships, and if we gave them the social and emotional armoury that most of us have, they would have a choice. They would be able to say no and to a greater degree resist grooming techniques.

Beckett, another source, states that abusers are

“typically, emotionally isolate individuals, lacking in self-confidence, under-assertive, poor at appreciating the perspective of others—”

in other words, no empathy—

“ill-equipped to deal with emotional distress. They characteristically denied or minimised the full extent of their sexual offending and problems. A significant proportion were found have little empathy for their victims; strong emotional attachments to children; and a range of distorted attitudes and beliefs, where they portrayed children as able to consent to, and hot be harmed by, sexual contact with adults.”

It goes on and on—personality characteristics and psychological well-being; parental histories and the cycle of abuse; substance abuse. Often, abuse is an inter-generational phenomenon that we can tackle by ensuring that people have some of the basic social and emotional capabilities that we all enjoy.

I was saddened that the case of baby P generated into finger-pointing and whether a particular social worker or person was responsible, and there was never a real analysis of why those individuals, who were allegedly care givers, treated baby P as they did. Why was no analysis done of where those people came from, why they acted as they did and why 20 years earlier—when I was new to the House of Commons and in the position that the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon is in now—when those care givers were born, nothing was done to ensure that they were adequately equipped to be decent, rounded human beings, just as we would expect for ourselves and our children?

This is not rocket science; it is about how to promote good parenting and the social and emotional aspects of learning that is provided to primary school children. Every child in Nottingham starts to understand qualities such as empathy, interaction, learning and respecting others, and each time one of those capabilities is built in, the prospect that someone will become abusive, antisocial or treat others in a disrespectful way is diminished. Every teenager in the city of Nottingham studies life skills—it is like personal health and social education but involves talking about relationships and what it is like to have a family or a baby, or to maintain a relationship. By giving people such skills, their parents, care givers or teachers give them not a guarantee but an inoculation against the things that we are discussing today.

This is about the development of empathy and love and about nurturing. If people have social and emotional capability, it is difficult to go wrong. If they do not have that, they might be prone to some of the behaviour that, at its most dysfunctional and extreme, can include the sexual abuse of children. We must think beyond tomorrow’s headlines and constituency casework, and beyond the horrendous things that happen to individuals, and look strategically at how we can start to take steps to eliminate, as far as humanely possible, the sexual abuse of children.

Finally, I congratulate the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon on initiating this debate—it is a great thing to have done. I hope that she, unlike me, will not be here in 20 years’ time listening to Members protest and object to terrible things that have happened in their constituencies, without having seized from the Government an opportunity to help change the culture that allows noxious individuals to grow and thrive in our society. We can do something about this issue, but we need a proper culture in which to develop serious research that the Government can pull together. We also need an overarching inquiry that deals not with individual cases, but tells us how we can combat the development of these predators and reduce sexual abuse of children in our society.