And yet as Alexis Jay pointed out when interviewed on the Today programme this week, we know what’s happened in Oxford and Rotherham isn’t really about a handful of cities and towns. The focus on a small number of places has been because that’s where men have been caught. And as Mark Easton says in his analysis this isn’t new either. We’ve known about it for a long time.
So why is the first resort of national political leaders to chastise local leaders and professionals? This week it was Cameron on Oxford. Previously it was Hodge on Rotherham. The list goes on. It’s fine (and right) to hold people to account, but where’s the admission of shared neglect and liability? The truth is that, save a few, we were all ‘walking on by’. In my experience it is those who have done most to bring these experiences to our attention who are most likely to stand back and ask, couldn’t we have done more?
Organisations like Barnardo’s have been telling us for the best part of two decades that sexual exploitation of the type found in Oxford and Rotherham is not endemic to particular areas or spheres of society. Feminist academics like Liz Kelly have been doing the same. There’s an often used phrase about this kind of phenomenon, hidden in plain sight. Never was a phrase more apt.
But there was something else troubling about this week’s response from the Prime Minister. And that was the language and the tone of his outburst. This was abuse on an ‘industrial scale’. It was to be considered a ‘national threat’. Those who have the most difficult job of protecting children on the ground are not, in the first instance, to be supported, enabled, even resourced. They are to be blamed, sanctioned, even criminalised.
This is big boy’s language. It’s the language of war, of terror, of masters. In standing back, as Cameron claimed to be doing, his best response wasn’t in fact to be measured and reflective, even contrite. It was to resort to the language of machismo, of the generalissimo. And in finally acknowledging the scale of what’s been under our noses, his best response wasn’t to focus on the victims and those who have worked so hard to keep them safe, it was to scapegoat those who haven’t, starting at the bottom.
This is not to say there haven’t been failings or that people haven’t been negligent. It’s not to say that children and young people haven’t been let down. And lest we think this one is in the bag now, it’s not to say that those things aren’t still happening. Failures have been multiple, manifest and profoundly serious. Professionals have colluded with failure. And it’s still happening.
But let’s consider the context in which those failures have taken place. This has been a failure of policy from the top. As Beatrix Campbell has reminded us more than once, in the space of just a few years after Louis Blom Cooper’s ‘though shalt not not intervene’ ultimatum in the wake of Jasmine Beckford, policy retreated and eschewed interventionism. Since the 1980s ‘health, welfare and criminal justice professionals, together with society in general, have been obliged to suspend belief.’
And there’s something else that such language does. It ‘others’ the perpetrators. It makes them monsters. We can be appalled but we can sleep easily in our beds because they are not us. And yet just as we like to applaud ordinary people who do extraordinary things, here we have repeated and widespread examples of ordinary men doing monstrous things.
Cameron’s talk of the industrial scale isn’t wrong in terms of the order of magnitude, but it misses the point because what’s been happening is a huge proliferation of crime on a local and domestic scale. This has been organised, conspired for sure. But it’s happened on the ground, in local buildings and communities, carried out in places that people knew about by men who people knew.
But because they are apparently other than us, it seems we just need to round them up and string them up and blame some folk who didn’t do that earlier. Yet the response we need is so much more than that. Finally recognising that the problem of child sexual abuse and exploitation is widespread is just a start.
It’s time to listen to those who have been telling us about this problem for a long time including people who have been working with the victims to try and protect them against all the odds. Including people whose testimony and analysis we’ve ignored, rebutted and even trashed. It’s time to stand back and acknowledge where policy has failed and take collective responsibility for it.
It’s time for a complete change of mind set. There’s a world of difference between a national threat and a local threat that’s happening everywhere. Politicians at the top would do well to understand that. When they do, we might get somewhere.