Monday was a big day! The Maggie Oliver Foundation was invited to take along some survivors of child sexual abuse and exploitation by “grooming gangs” to attend a private meeting with the Prime Minister and Home Secretary. The meeting was to discuss their new initiative to tackle “grooming gangs”, announced on Monday.
Maggie, our CEO Jennie and three survivors from Rochdale, Oldham and Rotherham attended the meeting. All three women were fantastic advocates for the survivor community, bravely sharing their own experiences and eloquently explaining their thoughts on what would and wouldn’t work in the new proposals. Thank you ladies. The PM and Home Secretary certainly left the meeting with no ambiguity that our main collective message was that promises are fine, but we’ll not be impressed until we see real action!
Rishi Sunak opened the meeting by explaining his plans for a national “grooming gang” taskforce of specialist officers supported by the National Crime Agency, for tougher sentencing for these crimes along with making being part of a grooming gang an aggravating factor in sentencing, and for recording of ethnicity data of offenders and victims in all cases. One survivor explained that her rapist was given a sentence of eighteen years, he served only four and a half, with just two and half of these in a closed prison and the rest in an open prison. Another raised the important point that sentencing only works if the right charges are brought in the first place. One of her abusers, a man in his forties at the time, was not charged with rape but with sexual activity with a minor, a lesser charge with less severe sentencing. This was despite police having DNA evidence from a pregnancy which resulted from the abuse when she was 12-years-old. The charge also suggests that she consented to sex. How can a 12-year-old child ever consent to sex? It is always rape. Others that had abused her were not charged with any sexual offences at all but stood trial for offences linked to trafficking with meagre sentences served.
Maggie highlighted very strongly that tougher sentencing is great in theory but, with less than 2% of reported rapes on adults AND children currently even making it to court, are really a blunt tool unless significant improvements are made in police investigations and the Crown Prosecution Service’s high threshold for charging offenders with these crimes is addressed. She also questioned where the additional officers and resources would come from for this new task force, pointing out that Baroness Casey’s review into the Met showed that policing is already in crisis, and that our work nationally shows similar problems across all police forces. Each of the survivors shared experiences of failings by police in their cases. One survivor, devastatingly, will now never get justice because during her police interview an officer revealed the names of her abusers. We discussed how we still see a culture of victim blaming, attitudes that the victims are somehow making lifestyle choices in allowing their abuse to continue and how oftentimes vulnerable victims themselves are criminalized. The Prime Minister was visibly shocked to hear that 40% of the women on our database have been arrested or threatened with arrest after reporting their abuse to the police. The Home Secretary was keen to understand the basis for these arrests and we would welcome the chance to share more detailed information with her.
We discussed what happens to rapists and paedophiles once they are released from prison. One survivor told of how traumatized she was bumping into the man who raped her at twelve in the local supermarket. She had no idea he had been released early from prison back into their community, a fact the probation team should have informed her of. This Pakistani man was told on sentencing that he would be deported on release from prison. Over a decade later, he is still in the country and has received millions of pounds in legal aid to fight the deportation ruling. Another survivor raped by a Pakistani man questioned why her abuser had not been deported. The Home Secretary explained that it was difficult when men have dual British-Pakistani citizenship. In both of these cases, the men had only Pakistani citizenship when they committed their terrible crimes, but applied for dual citizenship after getting caught in an effort to play the system. Suella Braverman acknowledged the need to “plug the gaps” in the system.
Everyone welcomed the recording of ethnicity data of victims and offenders, which should already be happening. Without this data it is impossible to have an open and honest discussion around the issue of “grooming gangs”, to explore why there is an over-representation of British-Pakistani men amongst perpetrators and how this might be addressed and stopped for future generations by working with the communities from which the offenders come. While the Prime Minister and Home Secretary have focused their rhetoric on this specific type of child sexual abuse and exploitation, and have undoubtedly tried to grab headlines with the ethnicity angle, we know that child sexual abuse happens across society and hope that the new mandatory reporting measures help to identify these criminals wherever they try to hide. We need a criminal justice system that is fit for purpose for all victims and survivors.
The Home Secretary’s announcement about mandatory reporting by anyone working with a child who suspects sexual abuse, led to a wider discussion of the weaponization of social services against survivors of child sexual abuse and exploitation. All three survivors knew of women who were scared to report their abuse for fear of losing their children, having seen this happen to themselves and other victims and survivors. One told of a family she has tried to support who reported online grooming of their 13-year-old daughter to the police. The police failed to investigate the grooming but involved social services and the child is now on the child protection register because of the family’s efforts to safeguard her. Another suggested body-worn cameras be worn by social workers, like they are by police officers, to ensure that information being shared by them within any court proceedings is accurate.
Jennie couldn’t resist pointing out that it’s clear with local elections looming and a general election coming soon, the Government are very much in campaigning mode and that while we are grateful for a spotlight being shone on this issue, it’s impossible for us to cheerlead these announcements without a fully costed timeline and plan, to which all three survivors asked “yes, what are you going to do right now?”. A question to which the answer still remains to be seen.
Real change can only come through listening and taking on board the opinions of those who have real experience of our broken criminal justice system, and with a bucketload of investment and determination. We certainly have the latter and will not give up fighting for those who would otherwise be silenced. Promises have been made, now we need to see action.
In addition to our meeting, Maggie had a busy day of media interviews summarizing our thoughts on the proposals. Thanks to those media outlets who keep this issue in the public domain, especially those who also give a platform to victims and survivors.
It was a monumental day for her too with so much of what she has been saying for a decade finally being acknowledged. Thank you Maggie for all you have done and continue to do for victims and survivors and to try to safeguard future generations.
You can catch up with some of the coverage here:
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