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Real Voices: Child sexual exploitation in Greater Manchester

Our society is currently undergoing a profound shock as it learns about the huge number of children who have been victims of child sexual exploitation.

The Rochdale case, in which nine men were jailed in May 2012 for grooming girls with alcohol, drugs and gifts before forcing them to have sex with multiple men, stands out as deeply disturbing. It exposed the systematic rape of children and levels of depravity that shocked the nation. Rochdale, along with children and young people who have been sexually abused in Rotherham, Derby, Oldham and Oxford and later in Stockport and Peterborough, was a deafening wake-up call that pricked our collective conscience.

There has been, quite rightly, a demand for action to safeguard young people from such revolting crimes in the future.

Tony Lloyd, the Police and Crime Commissioner for Greater Manchester, asked me for my observations on what changes have taken place in attitudes and culture among the police and other agencies in Greater Manchester since Rochdale, and also what more I think needs to be done to better protect children.

I have approached this report by talking to everyone who works in this difficult area, but most importantly I wanted to know from young people about how the world feels to them. That is why I have put their voices up front in this report. They have greatly influenced my recommendations. My observations will make painful reading for those who hoped that Rochdale was an isolated case. This is a real and ongoing problem.

Figures obtained from Greater Manchester Police, as part of this inquiry, reveal that many children are still being preyed on each day and there are currently 260 ‘live’ investigations into child sexual exploitation. Of these, 174 are recorded crimes and 18 of those cases involve multiple perpetrators.

The majority of cases of children and young people who have been sexually abused involve single offenders, and there are big variations across police divisions.Schoolgirls have told me of being regularly approached and harassed by older men urging them to get into cars or go into shops on their way home from school. One schoolgirl yelled:

“ Leave me alone, Can you not see I am a little girl. I am in my uniform.”

The shocking thing is that the girls felt powerless and that they had to accept these approaches as part of everyday life. Many did not report it because they felt the police looked down on them.

This inevitably raises questions about wider attitudes and culture, which we must tackle and change if we are going to protect children and young people from sexual exploitation. We have seen how the culture at the time protected very well-known high-profile people, including celebrities like Jimmy Savile.

We have all seen the sea change in attitudes towards gay rights and we have to understand how those attitudes were changed. There was a strong message, reinforced in the media, relayed through culture and art and repeated again and again and reinforced in communities. This can be done again in changing attitudes to CSE. Police, social workers, prosecutors and juries, made up of ordinary people, all carry attitudes around with them. This could go some way to explain why in the past six years in Greater Manchester there have only been about 1,000 convictions out of 13,000 reported cases of nine major sexual offences against under-16-year-olds.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. 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. 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.The more people I have spoken to, the more I realised that although we can come up with more effective ways of working for agencies, the most important thing we can do to protect children is to tackle the cultural attitudes that cocoon sex exploiters and enable them to get away with what they are doing under our noses.An important part of that protection is to enable young people to take the lead in the fight against sexual exploitation.CSE has a massive effect on the physical and mental health of children and should be declared a public health priority issue, in much the same way as alcohol, drug taking and obesity.Young people are still too often being blamed for being a victim of a crime. I was shocked that the Crown Prosecution Service highlighted the fact that a victim wore cropped tops as a reason for throwing out a case. We have unearthed a very high number of children still going missing and absent from home and care in Greater Manchester, with over 14,712 episodes from January to September 17 this year alone. Missing children are at risk of sexual exploitation and children go missing because they are being sexually exploited.We also have obtained evidence that some children’s homes are flaunting government rules by not informing the police and local authorities when a child vulnerable to CSE moves into their home from miles away.This report is not an inspection of services, a task best left to HMIC and Ofsted.