There were no punches pulled when the hard hitting report into child sexual exploitation in Birmingham was discussed and dissected in Birmingham’s Council Chamber this week.
Too often recently we have heard of various scandals including in Rotherham, Rochdale and the Jimmy Savile case where authorities and decision makers have either turned a blind eye, tried to deflect attention or even actively covered up wrongdoing to protect their reputations hanging poor victims out to dry in the process.
Well, Birmingham city councillors, to a man and woman, said that this has happened in Birmingham, but it would not be allowed to continue – all public agencies, organisations, businesses and individuals must make it their duty to raise alarms and ask challenging questions if, for example, they see older men escorting very young teens on a night out.
The We Need to Get It Right report, tabled by Councillor Anita Ward, was a call to arms for the authorities and citizens to be vigilant and not tolerate any exploitation.
Disturbing cases raised by Longbridge councillor Jess Phillips, who works with the Women’s Aid charity, included a girl who, by the age of 20, had four children by different, much older, fathers, the first at the age of 13, and had never once been asked by the myriad of doctors, midwives, school teachers, health visitors about sexual exploitation. Even social workers had been more interested in dealing with the welfare of the four children, threatening to take them into care, without considering that the mother had been an abused child herself.
The report, called We Need To Get It Right, talked of such girls being written off by officials as ‘highly sexualised’, ‘promiscuous’ as if they had made a legitimate lifestyle choice rather than been abused and exploited. There was praise for the Education and Vulnerable Children Scrutiny Committee which had carried out the inquiry, assisted by members of the social cohesion committee, over the last 18 months or so, often taking harrowing evidence – including a shocking report from the Asian Women’s Network. Committee member Barry Bowles (Lab, Hall Green) said he had been proud to be part of the inquiry. “We judge a society on how well we look after our young people, and looking across the country we are not doing a good job of it. We need to get to the bottom of this evil crime.”
There was mention from Majid Mahmood (Lab, Hodge Hill) that people of all ethnic backgrounds and social classes can be victims and often it is black and minority ethnic (BME) communities where victims are less likely to come forward due to misguided ideas of honour or shame.
While there was much discussion of the issue, including that the 83 known cases are the tip of the iceberg, there is also a recognition that some abuse, particularly that involving wicked step-parents and uncles behind closed doors, may never be revealed.
Coun Anita Ward (Lab, Hodge Hill) said: “It is a hidden crime and in many cases will continue to be so.” But when it involved vulnerable children known to the authorities such as runaways, children in care and those in the criminal justice system the schools, health services, social workers and police should be equipped to recognise the signs and act.
There are practical steps that can be taken - Coun Phillips argues she can identify abuse due to training, so what came to her as an overcrowded house complaint was swiftly identified as a child abuse case. So councillors are to be given training so they too can spot signs.
An army of 7,000 cab drivers will also be trained, as will hotel staff, to look out for street grooming activity.
But while there is much endeavour and a genuine commitment from all present to deal with the scourge there was perhaps a note of caution from Tory councillor Deirdre Alden.
She, like Coun Phillips, had come into politics on the back of campaigns dealing with sexual exploitation – in her case the blight of street prostitution in Edgbaston and Balsall Heath in the late 1990s (before the widespread use of mobile phones took it off street)
She said the stories back then were similar, of vulnerable young girls made to feel special by older men, showered with gifts and plied with drink and drugs before being pimped and abused.
“We heard all this at the time and 15 years on we hear the same story.” She said that this time they have to make sure that the necessary change occurs.
As her colleague Guy Roberts (Cons, Sutton New Hall) pointed out: “If we don’t get it right we will end up being another Rotherham.”
Former Kings Norton councillor Steve Bedser is truly a champagne socialist and has tried to get a few of his Labour colleague on board via a bash at the exclusive Marco Pierre White’s at the Cube recently.
A comrade tells me Mr Bedser, who is the new West Midlands Labour Party press officer, hosted the little soiree to celebrate the relaunch of his company Fairy Dust Consulting – which included a champagne tasting session.
My witness tells me that while most of the Reds were gleefully necking the fizzy stuff by the bottle, Cabinet member for children’s services Brigid Jones was politely tasting and tipping.