Let's give all school children the skills they need to protect themselves from potential abusers

By giving children a sense of self-worth, we can help them to help themselves. Making personal, social and health education compulsory would be a good start

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The Independent Online

I don’t have children, but I find the steady stream of historic child sex abuse stories as disturbing as anyone else.

It reveals what we all probably suspected (that abuse was always far more prevalent than anyone was prepared to admit) and because it hints at something even darker: the phenomenal abuse of personal, religious, financial and often political power.

How could it be? Well, for centuries, and until very recently, every stratum of society was based on deference and authority. In the home, the paterfamilias commanded and was deferred to. The parishioner submitted to the priest and the vicar to the bishop. Everyone respected the police and they, in turn, knew their place in the hierarchy.

A father could demand secrecy from a child and she or he would obey, and a minister (of religion or of the crown) could mount a cover-up with little fear of invasive detection. So, the alleged involvement of senior politicians may in particular explain why previous investigations into child abuse at the Elm Guest House in Barnes foundered and are only now being reopened under Operation Fernbridge. Thank God those days of deference are gone.

But now we have another problem. The latest figures show that barely a quarter of primary school children make their own way to school, compared with nine out of 10 in the 1970s and three-quarters today in Germany. Of course parents want to do everything to protect their children, but leaving aside the health problems of a generation of young people being ferried everywhere by the mum and dad taxi firm, such mollycoddling may not work, as child abuse is often perpetrated by a family member or a friend, not a stranger.

That’s why some of us, including Labour friends Barbara Keeley, Diana Johnson and Ann Coffey, plus some Tories (Amber Rudd and Caroline Nokes) are pushing the Government to improve personal, social and health education in schools by making it compulsory. The Government has been stalling, with a review that has lasted longer than an elephant’s gestation, but if we could give every child a sense of self-worth, plus the skills to protect themselves against inappropriate relationships and the confidence to speak out, we might make a long-term difference to children’s safety.

Gove’s nemesis won’t let go

Some ex-ministers don’t go gentle into that dark night. I mentioned before that Tim Loughton wasn’t happy about being sacked, but he and Michael Gove have been sniping at each other with increasingly deadly accuracy.So, in addition to accusing Gove of behaving like Mr Grace in Are You Being Served? and running his department like Upstairs Downstairs, Loughton has now tabled 66 hostile questions to the Government, mostly to Gove. Stung, for instance, by whispered rumours that he was sacked for being lazy, Loughton tabled a written question to his replacement, Edward Timpson, asking how many times ministers had visited youth projects last year. The reply? Loughton 37, Timpson one, Gove nil. I’m not sure what this proves, but I suspect this warfare has a long way to run.

A farming minister like Pontius Pilate

No carnivorous Briton will ever again be able to say the proud words “I’ve never eaten horse meat” again without adding the word “knowingly”, but when the great horseburger scandal came to the Commons on Thursday, we were treated to every pun imaginable. When the minister for agriculture and food, who had been accused of making up policy on the hoof and having the blinkers on, said he was going to make sure this never happened again, we shouted “the horse has already bolted” and a whip wondered whether a Gallup poll had been conducted. The minister, David Heath, might have expected such a reception, as when the Prime Minister was asked about the matter on Wednesday he faced constant cries of “did you ride the horse?”, “ask Rebekah” and “there’s too much Shergar”. Instead, he turned in one of the worst performances of the year.The bearded Lib Dem looked to all the world like a bear in a cave, roused early from his hibernation. He rolled his eyes, he looked exasperated, he snapped back, he looked down his nose at us and even tried the old scoundrel’s trick, accusing the Opposition of “talking down the British food industry”. So when he passed the buck by blaming the Food Standards Agency and arguing that it was a matter for Health and not his department, we had little sympathy for the whole Pontius Pilate act. A little emollience would have gone a long way to persuade us that the Government was on top of this and not relying on Ireland to protect consumers.

Gentlemen and their creases

I’ve noticed something strange that male Tory MPs do that I can’t explain. Christopher Pincher did it repeatedly on Thursday. So did Philip Hollobone, and when I asked the almost royal grandees Ian Liddell-Grainger and Keith Simpson, they both admitted that they always do it. Not all Tories do, though. It’s normally the dapper types in a well-made suit, the kind of man who knows the name of his tailor (and I’m guessing it’s neither Mr Marks nor Mr Spencer). I can only call it the “pinch and lift”, whereby a gentleman pinches the creases of his trousers and lifts them an inch or two before he sits down. Liddell-Grainger says it’s to stop the back of one’s trousers from creasing.Simpson says he’s just copying his father. But considering that MPs have to bob up and down to get noticed and may have to do so 30 times before they are called, that’s a lot of pinching and lifting.

Twitter: @ChrisBryantMP