|Moss Side Terrace, Manchester|
Ann Coffey's report says that the recent child sexual exploitation scandal
in Greater Manchester was not an isolated incident. Photograph: Howard Barlow/Alamy
The systematic grooming of boys and girls remains a “real and ongoing problem”, a year after Greater Manchester police (GMP) was forced to admit it had failed abuse victims in Rochdale, said Ann Coffey, a former social worker who is now the Labour MP for Stockport. “My observations will make painful reading for those who hoped that Rochdale was an isolated case,” she writes in a significant report.
She said Britain needed a big change in attitudes towards child sexual exploitation similar to how perceptions of gay rights have changed over recent decades. She believes such exploitation should be declared a priority public health issue, like smoking, obesity, alcohol and drug use, so that a more strategic approach can be developed.
Coffey said police, social workers, prosecutors and juries are often inherently (albeit unconsciously) prejudiced against vulnerable teenagers – perhaps explaining why, out of 13,000 reported cases of major sexual offences against under-16s in the past six years in Greater Manchester, there have been only 1,000 convictions.
The report also suggests there is a significant underestimation of child sexual exploitation in Greater Manchester: GMP figures on recorded sexual offences against under-18s between 1 June 2013 and 31 May 2014 show that only 111 cases out of 1,691 were flagged on the police computer as child exploitation.
During the eight months Coffey spent researching her report, schoolgirls, some prepubescent, told her that being harassed by older men while in their school uniform was simply “part of everyday life”. They also reported online abuse, but said it didn’t bother them. “Big men will stop little girls in the road and the street. In person, it’s real. But you can block it online,” said one girl.
|Ann Coffey - Labour MP for Stockport|
Another said: “If my house got burgled, I would go to the police; but if someone touched me, I would not go to the police because I feel it would be a waste of time.”
Coffey said she was shocked to discover that the Crown Prosecution Service threw out a child sexual exploitation case on the basis that a victim wore cropped tops. Another never went to trial after the girl’s father told a social worker his daughter was a “slag” and only had herself to blame. Initially prosecutors didn’t want to take the 2012 Rochdale grooming case to court because of concerns about the credibility of the witnesses.
Nazir Afzal, chief crown prosecutor for the north-west, said he had written to Coffey to ask her for details of these cases. He said: “We would be extremely concerned if these comments were given as reasons for deciding not to take a case to court, but when setting out decision making it is also the duty of the prosecutor to anticipate likely angles that might be taken by the defence in their cross-examination of the victim, which could include references as it is alleged were made here.”
While welcoming the report, Afzal said it “does not recognise the leading role that the Crown Prosecution Service has played in transforming the criminal justice system’s approach to child sexual abuse cases, in Greater Manchester and across the country.” He said the introduction of specialist prosecutors meant national conviction rates for child abuse are at their highest ever – 76.2%.
Coffey said teenage boys should be educated on how to treat and respect girls. Lads at Factory Zone, a youth group in Harpurhey, north Manchester, said it was becoming increasingly common for boys to “control” girls and keep them “on discipline”. A youth worker, Kemoy Walker, told Coffey: “This involves constant ringing to check what girls are doing and demanding photos to prove their whereabouts, telling them what to wear and often keeping them in the house … I find it scary and it is becoming more and more common. You can see in the girls’ eyes that they are scared and are being controlled.”
But boys are also victims of sexual exploitation. Many of the young people Coffey spoke to often found themselves in risky situations, sometimes without even realising it. One boy said the man at the local chip shop was always offering him vodka, while another had been offered a pair of Vans trainers by a man. Neither initially saw the offers as part of the grooming process.
“I have been concerned about the number of people who have told me that in some neighbourhoods child sexual exploitation had become the new social norm,” said Coffey. “They say there is no respect for girls: gangs of youths pressurising vulnerable young girls (including those with learning disabilities) for sex, and adults allowing their houses to be used for drinking, drug-taking and having sex.”
Chief Constable of Greater Manchester police Sir Peter Fahy said he welcomed the recommendations within the report and insisted specialist CSE training was already being rolled out in the force.
He said: “We want children to know that they will be believed and that we will do absolutely everything in our power to protect and help them. Knowledge and awareness around the issue of CSE has advanced a great deal in recent years but we will never be complacent, there is always more we can do to safeguard and support young people.”
Coffey added: “This social norm has perhaps been fuelled by the increased sexualisation of children and young people, involving an explosion of explicit music videos and the normalisation of quasi-pornographic images. Sexting, selfies, Instagram and the like have given rise to new social norms in changed expectations of sexual entitlement, and with it a confused understanding of what constitutes consent.
“I think we have lost the sense of what a child is. Sexual predators out there are having their quite unacceptable views confirmed through messages in the wider media: that children are just sexualised young adults.”
The report was commissioned by Tony Lloyd, the police and crime commissioner for Greater Manchester, following the Rochdale grooming scandal, which resulted in nine men being jailed in 2012. Last year GMP was forced to accept that some police officers held discriminatory attitudes towards vulnerable victims.
GMP currently has 260 “live” investigations into child sexual exploitation. Of these, 174 are recorded crimes and 18 of those cases involve multiple perpetrators.
On Tuesday, GMP arrested 11 people aged between 19 and 38 in a crackdown called Operation Heliodor on exploitation in the south Manchester area. They were held on suspicion of offences including sexual activity with a child, attempted indecent assault, inciting a child into prostitution, abduction and rape.
The key recommendations of the Coffey report are as follows:
• The removal of all references to “child prostitution” in legislation, because the term carries an implication of choice on the child’s part.
• All responses to child sexual exploitation by statutory agencies in Greater Manchester should explicitly include “boys and young men”, to address concerns of under-reporting.
• All police response officers and community support officers should receive training about child sexual exploitation crimes.
• More information about child sexual exploitation should be given to the public generally and to those who are the “eyes and ears” of the community, including pharmacists, school crossing patrol staff, school nurses, refuse collectors, bus drivers, park attendants, housing officers, and shopkeepers, as well as taxi drivers and hoteliers.
• The building of a multimedia digital network led by young people to spearhead the fightback against sexual exploitation, including a high-profile weekly radio show produced and hosted by young people on exploitation-related issues.
• One girl, F, was born addicted to heroin and was fostered out aged eight. At 12 years old, she started smoking, drinking and taking drugs. She was getting bullied in school and so started to run away frequently, which was when she met an older man. “I lost my virginity to him, and when my foster parent found out, she said ‘Why are you being a slag?’ I was 12 and he was 19. Looking back on things, it should have been the 19-year-old’s behaviour that was being looked at and questioned, not the 12-year-old’s.”
• One young girl with a very troubled background started going missing. She was introduced by a friend to a 44-year-old man who had a makeshift tuck shop in the back of his car and would hang around giving children cigarettes, alcohol and drugs. He sexually assaulted her and she eventually reported him, but the police and social workers were not helpful at first. Her father said he had to fight “tooth and nail” to get the police to take her complaints seriously and believes they only proceeded because his daughter had kept evidence of more than 100 texts sent by the offender.
• A 16-year-old girl who had been put in a secure unit for the fourth time described what happened when she went missing from her children’s home and was approached by a man in the street who said she could go to his house and hide, where he got her drunk. “He got us wrapped round his little finger. Got us drunk and everything. And then I thought to myself, ‘I know what he’s doing, he’s trying to get me in bed.’ I went, ‘I need to go home.’ So I got my friend to ring me. So, I’ve put the phone on loudspeaker and my mate went, ‘Please can you come home?’ I went, ‘All right then, I’ll be down in two minutes.’ But he wouldn’t let us go. So we has to break the window and jump out of the window.”