It's a year since Professor Alexis Jay presented her horrifying report into the true scale of child sexual exploitation in Rotherham. The findings made headlines around the world, and still do.
I want to tell you that nationally the changes since the report came out have been considerable, and failings of that scale could never happen again. I can't do that. The reality is that in every city, town and village across the UK, children are being groomed, and many are being sexually exploited. Worryingly, the scale of the abuse has escalated due to social media, with perpetrators sending messages to thousands of children at a time, hoping to lure the unsuspected.
With the high media profile this crime has generated, you would expect that statutory agencies would know the signs to look for, but they are still failing to protect the vulnerable. Why? Partly because agencies still rarely collaborate and share information, partly because the nature of the crime means the victims are 'trained' to hide it, partly because this is 'Rotherham's problem and couldn't happen here' and partly, sadly, because is it expensive and time consuming to investigate, prosecute and prevent.
Since becoming an MP in November 2012 I had worked hard to understand child sexual exploitation. Before the Jay report came out I had collaborated with Barnardo's to run a cross-party inquiry into the crime and managed to change both the law and practice to try and counter it. Through all this, I thought I was an expert. In reality, I knew nothing! The scale of abuse in my constituency, 1,400 victims over 16 years, totally floored me. The seemingly wilful ignorance of the crime by police and social workers is still unfathomable to me. The fact that, still now, those 1,400 victims have barely received any help or recognition to rebuild their lives is beyond shameful - it is letting people down on a catastrophic scale.
Let me focus on the positives. South Yorkshire Police have invested a huge amount in trying to understand the crime and train officers to dealing with it, but progress is glacial while the crime is still escalating. Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council (RMBC) has worked really hard on awareness campaigns and funding existing charities to offer counselling, but it really is too little, too late. I am delighted that Barnardo's will be working in partnership with RMBC to employ 15 workers to help try and prevent the crime, but how does this help existing victims and survivors? I don't want to be negative and I know everyone is trying but, to be honest, everyone must try harder!
I have learned two things over this year that I really think could make a difference:
1. Believe victims.
2. Prevent the abuse occurring in the first place, rather than dealing with the outcome of the crime.
Unfortunately, until the statutory agencies recognise these two seemingly common sense positions, child sexual exploitation will continue to escalate. We simply can't allow this to happen.