What do Torbay, Liverpool, Rochdale, Thurrock, Oxfordshire, Hampshire, Bristol and Somerset have in common? All have been the subject of serious case reviews published within the past five years in connection with child sexual exploitation. That’s without mentioning Professor Alexis Jay’s independent inquiry into child sexual exploitation in Rotherham.
In all nine regions, a clear picture emerges of a culture in which underage sexual activity is viewed as relatively harmless so long as it is perceived to be consensual.
To that growing hall of shame, we must now add Telford. According to an 18-month Sunday Mirror investigation, an estimated 1,000 girls suffered sexual exploitation and abuse in the Shropshire district over a period of 40 years.
As yet, there has been no formal investigation into child sexual exploitation in Telford and no full published report, but from the limited information already available we see the reappearance of several features found in reports from other regions.
First of all, we find the same complacent attitudes towards underage sex. The Sunday Mirror reveals that “Council files show social services, teachers and mental health workers were fully aware of what was happening but did little. They also failed to tell police.”
Why? Because, like their counterparts in Rochdale, Rotherham and Bristol, education and welfare professionals in Telford assumed that the girls were making what are sometimes called “lifestyle choices”. “Instead of seeing them as exploited victims, some council staff viewed them as prostitutes,” we are told.
And so “case histories reveal many were ignored after reporting rapes to the police”. On the basis of prior assumptions that had been made about the girls, their reports were not taken seriously. The Rotherham Inquiry similarly found that “children as young as 11 were deemed to be having consensual sexual intercourse when in fact they were being raped and abused by adults”.
A second common feature is the ready and confidential provision of contraception and the morning-after pill to underage girls. One 14 year-old Telford victim said, “I must have been getting the morning-after pill from a local clinic at least twice a week but no one asked any questions.”
In spite of her frequent use of the morning-after pill, the girl fell pregnant twice and had two abortions. But presumably, still no questions were asked.
By virtue of the fact that they were seeking contraception and “sexual health services”, the girls were deemed to be making mature and responsible choices, and assumed to be freely exercising their sexual rights, even though many of them were under the age of 16 and in some cases were as young as 11.
Thirdly, we see in Telford a failure to enforce the law on the age of consent. Taxi-driver Azhar Ali Mehmood began targeting Lucy Lowe in 1997 and she was only 14 when she gave birth to his daughter. He was later jailed for murdering Lucy and her mother and sister when he set fire to their house, and yet we are told, “he was never arrested nor charged in connection with any child sex crimes over his illegal relationship with the schoolgirl”.
An indifference to breaches of the law on the age of consent is widespread. For example, in connection with cases of child sexual exploitation on her patch, the Independent Chair of the Oxfordshire Safeguarding Children Board referred to “misguided interpretations of the law around consent, and an apparent tolerance of (or failure to be alarmed by) unlawful sexual activity”.
There is a remarkable consistency emerging from cases of child sexual exploitation in different parts of the country. Put very simply, complacency about underage sex – evidenced by a failure to enforce the age of consent and policies encouraging the confidential provision of contraception to minors – is putting children at risk.
In response to the Sunday Mirror revelations, Telford and Wrekin Council insists that it has learned a lot of lessons and that its approach to child sexual exploitation is now very different from what it was 10-20 years ago.
However, there is no indication that Telford and Wrekin is addressing the elephant in the room. Nor, for that matter, that any other local authority is getting to grips with the fact that it is a casual attitude towards underage sex that is exposing children and young people to the risk of sexual exploitation.
We desperately need to stop turning a blind eye to underage sex and restore to young people the protection that the age of consent is intended to give. The confidential provision of contraception to under-16s sends out all the wrong messages and should cease, and all policies and professional protocols should pay due regard to the age of consent.
Such reforms go against the grain of the current orthodoxies in the realms of education, health and policing. But the alternative is yet more cases of child sexual exploitation going undetected. Central and local government need to grasp the nettle and pluck up the courage to act. They certainly cannot say they do not have enough evidence.
Norman Wells is director of the Family Education Trust and author of Unprotected.