On Friday, I was in the New York Stadium, Rotherham, for the launch of a new campaign designed to raise awareness about child exploitation. The launch was led by speakers from South Yorkshire police and Rotherham Borough Council. The audience were professionals working in the statutory and voluntary sectors whose work brings them into contact with vulnerable children.
Inevitably it called to mind that day in 2014 when Professor Alexis Jay published her report into child sexual exploitation (CSE) in the town, followed shortly afterwards by Dame Louise Casey’s report into the council. I now look back over the past eight years and see just how much has been learnt in South Yorkshire, not only by the police and the local authority, but by all those organisations and agencies that have the care of children as part of their remit. I realised that what I was hearing from the speakers was what Professor Jay reported in reverse.
Jay showed our ignorance about what was happening to vulnerable children, principally girls. We did not understand the nature of grooming, what it was, how it worked, who was vulnerable, why these children were victims and not criminals, and so on. Jay exposed the failure of organisations to talk to one another, to share intelligence and information, to work together. Jay revealed how we failed to hear the voice of the child.
In contrast, those who spoke at the launch of this new campaign talked about the close working relationships between police, social workers and other professionals. They had learnt from Jay and Casey, they shared information, they talked to one another, they were often co-located, they listened to children, but above all they had recognised that the exploitation of children is something that is not defeated once and for all – because criminals are constantly changing their ways of operating and we must be aware of that and, where possible, keep ahead of it. And it is not just about exploitation for sex. Child exploitation also includes exploitation for criminal purposes. One of the detectives, for example, spoke about the way drug dealers use children to transport drugs to other places (county lines) and the way they use girls who are already part of their gang, to lure their peers into the gang.
I was impressed by the level of knowledge and understanding in the room, the determination to be pro-active, and the recognition that as the nature of exploitation evolved, so must the response to it.
At the launch the speakers showed five posters designed to raise awareness of some of the critical ways in which child exploitation is changing. The overall theme was:
Even the happiest childhood can be destroyed by exploitation
Each poster had two photographs – one showing a happy childhood and a second illustrating how that could quickly change as a child or young person became ensnared by those intent on using them for their own criminal or sexual purposes. Each poster also suggested how we might spot the signs that something was going wrong for a young person.
I will take one as an example. This poster had a photograph of a boy, sitting on his bed, mobile in hand, looking relaxed and happy. The one beneath it showed the same boy, sitting on his bed, mobile in hand, but no longer looking either relaxed or happy. The poster explained: Are they spending a lot of time online? Criminals use technology and social media to groom, manipulate and threaten children. Since the lock-downs, children have spent more time than ever online.
The launch challenged professionals to think about the changing nature of exploitation and what to look out for. But it will only succeed if that raised awareness is passed on to others. Look out for the posters and talk to your family and friends about what they are telling us. We need to be vigilant while not frightening ourselves silly.
Right Care, Right Person
For some time, South Yorkshire Police has been preparing for a major change in the way they respond to certain types of vulnerable person.
I have written before about the amount of time police officers are having to devote to looking after people who are having some sort of medical or mental health crisis or need psychological help or treatment. This is something that has grown considerably and remorselessly over the last few years, in part because other, more appropriate organisations and agencies were starved of resources during the times of austerity, but also because the police themselves did not at first realise just how far they were being drawn into these areas of non-crime activity.
But officers became increasingly anxious. They were being sent to deal with matters for which they were not qualified or trained. This posed a risk to the vulnerable person and a risk to the officer who assumed responsibility for them. Sometimes, if they were called to deal with someone in crisis, they might spend the best part of their shift being with them until an ambulance came, or, if it didn’t come. taking them, and staying with them in A&E, until they were seen. And there were also times when for the person in crisis, the sight of a police uniform raised anxiety levels, leaving them feeling criminalised or stigmatised.
This was a national problem but now forces will gradually be resisting and reversing this, using an approach called Right Care, Right Person, first developed by Humberside police.
Briefly, it means that incidents will in future be responded to by the appropriate agency and not the police. Staff who answer calls in the force control room have been trained to point callers to those other agencies. Of course, if someone is at risk of serious harm, the police will attend. But otherwise they should be able to step back from many of the types of call they have previously been dealing with.
But this will only work if those other organisations are prepared to play their part. So one of the Assistant Chief Constables, Dan Thorpe, has been preparing to phase in this new approach by ensuring that partners are ready: mental health care providers, social care, Yorkshire Ambulance Service, and so on.
Right Care, Right Person will be phased in. If it works, it could see non-crime demand reduce considerably, and that will free up officers to deal with the incidents they have been trained for and not the medical and social issues for which they have not.
Everyone, everywhere, all at once
Each year, when I consider the funding needed to support policing and services to victims through council tax (the precept), I am required to consult the public. All police and crime commissioners do this, using online surveys.
This year, long after the event, I have been criticised in a social media posting by a Rotherham councillor, who is also a member of the Police and Crime Panel, on the grounds that my survey was ‘not representative’. (He did not raise these issues at the Panel either before or after the consultation or say what would count as representative.) The survey was sent, he writes, to 55,000 people and 2,358 responded with most being willing to pay a little more. Taking his calculator, he worked out that this was ‘statistically insignificant’ because it represented only 0.18% of the population of South Yorkshire – though the 1.3m population of South Yorkshire presumably includes babies, children and others in a household who are not the ones’ directly paying the council tax bill.
It troubles me that an elected member can write in this way.
It is true that the survey was not conducted by a polling agency such as YouGov or Ipsos. To employ them would have cost many thousands of pounds, and had I done so, I dare say I would have been accused of wasting tax payers’ money.
Their samples – usually just over 1,000 – are much smaller than the numbers we contacted, but they are carefully, ‘scientifically’, selected to be a representative sample. If they were helping me with the council tax proposal they would select householders of different social groups, living in different parts of the county, of different ages, and so on – a representative sample. All polling is done this way. The overall numbers polled are quite small relative to the size of the population; the key thing is that those selected are representative of the make up of the whole and no type of person is left out.
Those who responded to my consultation were not selected in this way, but we did look carefully at who did respond. We knew where in South Yorkshire they lived. We also knew which council tax band they were in – because they told us. As far as we could tell, they were a fairly representative group of people – they came from each council tax band and from each district in South Yorkshire.
But in any case, a consultation of this kind is not some sort of binding referendum. It takes the temperature. And it is only one thing that I have to take into account, albeit an important one. I must also take a view about the funding needed to keep the police an effective force, not just in the coming financial year but over the next few years – the medium term.
And I cannot propose the budget and precept unless the chief finance officer says the budget balances and the finances are sound – which she did.