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Nicola Blackwood MP On The Hidden Menace Of Child Grooming For Sex

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NICOLA BLACKWOOD
Nicola Blackwood Is Leading Calls For Urgent Action On Child Exploitation | PA

The announcement this week that regulations on childrens' care homes will be tightened up served as further confirmation that as a country Britain is failing to protect vulnerable kids. Shocking tales of abuse inside children's homes have prompted widespread outrage but politicians worry that the problem is vast.

In addition to significant problems in care homes, cases of vulnerable children being groomed by gangs have popped up in several areas of England. HuffPost met one of the MPs who has taken a lead on tackling child exploitation.

Nicola Blackwood is the Tory MP for Oxford West, an area which saw arrests and charges in March relating to the alleged grooming and sexual exploitation of young girls. A gang of men in their 20s and 30s are alleged to have carried this out for up to six years. For legal reasons it's difficult to expand further on the case because of pending trials but Blackwood says she was shocked to hear the alleged offences took place in Oxford - "a leafy town," as she quite fairly puts it.

What is clear is that similar cases have started to appear around the country, the most high-profile led to lengthy jail terms for a gang of men in Rochdale in May. Since then MPs on the Home Affairs committee have been warned the cases unearthed so far are just the tip of the iceberg. Blackwood is the MP who has led calls for an urgent investigation by Parliament and for the government to take action immediately.

"The problem with child sexual exploitation is we've become through media coverage used to thinking that it's something that happens to children trafficked in from another country from various different places - somewhere else, some other person's children, that it doesn't happen where we live."

Blackwood also worries that the term "grooming" has lately been understood to be an online activity. "What we're talking about here is localised grooming. A specific term that happens to young vulnerable people, where you have groups of young girls hanging around a shopping centre or in a town centre. You get a gang and they'll send a young member to befriend them.

"They'll latch onto one girl who seems particularly vulnerable, and they'll think this guy is their boyfriend. They'll give the girl gifts like ciagrettes or a mobile phone. The mobile phone is really important because it means they can keep in touch with the girl. They'll take them to a house, and it will be understood that they girl will be made to have sex with the people in the house. No money changes hands at that point, it's all about changing behaviours."

Blackwood says often during these entrapments photos are taken, not to be posted online but to be used as blackmail - silence is bought through threats to show the photos to the childrens' relatives or friends.

"Once you're in that environment, it becomes normalised," she says. "That's when you're learning to be an adult, at that age. The problem is that during the period of grooming the behaviour as seen from the outside - playing truant, drinking, smoking, maybe shoplifting - they just get a reputation for being bad girls. They're not getting a reputation for being victims. Instead of there being some kind of protection they're getting the opposite. I think now the risk factors are starting to be put together."

Of chief concern to Blackwood is that the issue triggers a long-running inquiry, similar to one held after the death of Victoria Climbie.

"A lot of the responses from a lot of people who've come before [the Home Affairs Committee's] inquiry have said, 'We need to start an investigation, we need an inquiry.' Well these things take two years.

"During those two years, you have an eleven year-old who's going to be groomed into that environment. You try turning that eleven, twelve year-old who's been brainwashed into thinking appropriate behaviour is having sex with strangers on a regular basis. It has to be an immediate priority."

In the aftermath of the Rochdale case it became apparent that various authorities and agencies failed to intervene for fear of being seen as racist. It's led to some furious rows, with the historian David Starkey making the explosive claim that those responsible had values "entrenched in the foothills of the Punjab". Politicians disgagree with each other on whether the Rochdale case was an "asian crime".

Blackwood's view? "I think we can all agree that in our confusion about where the lines are, and our fears about stepping on cultural toes, sometimes we fail to draw to those lines appropriately.

"I think it's quite insulting to say some form of treatment of women is culturally normal for another society. I think that's more offensive than to say we can't address that. I think it's offenseive to say we can't deal with domestic violence in a particular community because that's what the community does.

"I certainly have had conversations with different people within different communites who feel they are let down by politicians who agree with some sections of the community and not others. They see community as a bloc. Which is actually a very simplistic way of looking at a minority ethnic community. It's the same as saying all men like football, all women like wearing leopard-skin shoes. It's just a nonsense. The idea that you can't address an issue just because of some ethnic or faith or cultural characteristic is really quite backward, I would say."

I wonder, though, whether Blackwood, as a socially conservative Christian, worries if the problem is wider - that we've become too permissive as a whole? "I think we got confused about whose job it is to say what is right for young girls and young people, and everybody got scared about giving any kind of lines at all.

"I had a grandmother come to my surgery in tears about her granddaughter, saying, 'You have to do something about binge drinking, because my granddaughter came back last week completely drunk from the party'. The girl is sixteen, and the family feel they can't say anything because she's an adult. Well I'm 32, and my mother still says to me not to drink and drive. Why can't her mother say to her, don't drink? It is the role of parents and you do need to have proper leadership about what's right and wrong from the right places.

"I think we need to be clear about where the government's responsibility ends and where parents responsibility begins - or where carers' responsibility begins - and we need to be clear about holding them up to those responsibilities, and we need to say that were government is responsible, we're going to enforce it. Because I don't think we have been enforcing it effectively.

Blackwood is urging ministers to take remedial action on child exploitation, not after an inquiry but at the same time as it. "One of the big problems with child sexual exploitation is it crosses departments. It's Home Office, education, communities, justice. We have to find a way of having some cross-departmental leadership. They need to work out who's leading on it and then work out how they're going to work together. There is not room for anyone to play departmental politics."

Blackwood is also keen for local authorities to look more closely at what she called "co-location" of services. "You have a key person from social services, from the education teams, the police, probation, youth services, all sitting in an office together. Looking at data, working out where the risk factors are, and making sure they get on those people as quickly as possible. They're not relying on someone putting something into a database and then relying on another person, right across town, seeing it, picking it up and acting on it.

"There is going to be a problem with that, of course, which is money."

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