Collective responsibility on child sex abuse

It requires the community as much as the police to respond to the shocking findings in Manchester

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The Independent Online

Chairing the inquiry into child sex abuse in Manchester had a profound effect on Ann Coffey. The MP for Stockport said that what she uncovered “completely horrified” her. The report should have that effect on anyone who reads it who is not familiar with social-work caseloads or magistrates’ court proceedings in poorer parts of the country.

Ms Coffey’s observations are clear and shocking. The “normalisation of quasi-pornographic images... has given rise to new social norms and changed expectations of sexual entitlement,” she says. The most striking image from the report is perhaps that of girls in school uniform being stopped on the street by men so often that even the girls say, “What can the police do?” Ms Coffey comments: “That indicates they are living in an environment where it is felt to be OK to go and touch, and harass, and pester girls in uniforms. That is what I mean by it being a new social norm.”

The most difficult part of this, in common with the problems in Rochdale and Rotherham, is the assumption of so many in authority that the girls are to blame. So what is to be done? The first thing is to praise Tony Lloyd, the police and crime commissioner for Manchester, who commissioned the report. The coalition policy of elected commissioners has been much criticised, especially for the poor turnout in the first elections two years ago, but here is an instance in which accountability has injected some reforming zeal into the system.

Ms Coffey summarised her recommendations by saying: “The biggest changes needed are in culture and attitudes of us all.” There is always a danger with such findings of wishy-washy hoping that people would be nicer and more responsible. In this case, simply commissioning and publishing the report – finding out what is happening – has had an effect in raising awareness, but the report itself has sensible proposals for shifting attitudes in the police force, the criminal justice system and other responsible citizens.

One recommendation is that all police officers should receive training in how to recognise and respond to child sexual exploitation. This is already under way. Currently 21 per cent have been trained, and Mr Lloyd is pushing for complete coverage. More innovative is Ms Coffey’s suggestion that pharmacists, park attendants, bus drivers and hoteliers should also be trained to spot signs of abuse. This, rather than appointing “champions” to “work with police, councils and young people”, is likely to have a real effect on changing the social norm. She also wants more unannounced spot checks at children’s homes, which seems obvious but ought to be given more importance and more funding.

Inevitably, some of Ms Coffey’s recommendations are for further investigations. She wants to know more about why, out of 13,000 recorded sexual offences, only 2,300 were taken to court and just 1,100 led to convictions. And she would like a “review” of the questioning and tone of defence barristers in child abuse cases.

Those things are fine, provided they don’t divert attention and resources from the main objective, which is to try to disrupt the social norm. In this, Ms Coffey is to be congratulated on avoiding the easy conclusion of simply blaming the police. The best form of community policing is social stigma. In Rotherham, the cultural norms of the Asian community have to be challenged and changed. In Greater Manchester, questions of ethnicity should not be ignored, but “culture” means more than just the assumptions and values of people of a particular ethnic origin. We should be grateful to Mr Lloyd and Ms Coffey for drawing attention to the wider question of social norms.

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