As an Oxford MP, Nicola has seen the appalling devastation caused by child sexual exploitation as it emerged that a violent gang had been grooming and sexually abusing children in Oxford for at least eight years. The victims spoke of being plied with hard drugs, beaten and repeatedly raped by strangers. On Tuesday 3rd March, the Oxfordshire Safeguarding Children Board (OSCB) published its Serious Case Review (SCR) into Operation Bullfinch in Oxford.
The SCR has found that over 300 young people were groomed and sexually exploited by organised gangs of men between 1999 and 2014 in Oxfordshire. The report details how key agencies in Oxfordshire, including Thames Valley Police, Oxfordshire County Council, Oxford City Council, local NHS services, and voluntary services systematically failed to identify, let alone respond to, serious and widespread child sexual exploitation (CSE) in Oxford until late 2010, despite the fact that ‘the level of information known by 2007 was not dissimilar to that which was sufficient in 2011 to trigger… Bullfinch’.
Although few formal disclosures were made, disturbing indications of serious sexual abuse were neither recognised nor investigated. On the few occasions front line staff raised the alarm, their concerns were neither taken seriously nor raised with senior managers who could make a strategic decision to intervene and stop the abuse. The Review does recognise, however, that since Operation Bullfinch there have been further successful CSE prosecutions, a Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub and the Kingfisher Team set up demonstrating Oxfordshire has worked to improve its response to CSE. However, in the light of the SCR’s findings, Thames Valley Police have referred themselves to the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) and Oxfordshire County Council has referred itself to the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) for further investigation.
Nicola has met with the OSCB and has spoken with the report’s author to discuss the details of the SCR process and its findings. They informed her that all agencies had cooperated fully with the Review.Nicola also attended a summit at Downing Street held by the Prime Minister on 3rd March to further discuss these measures with the relevant Secretaries of State, leaders from local authorities, children’s services, health professionals, Chief Constables and experts in child protection.
The Government has published a report into the action being taken to tackle CSE, in which measures have been announced such as a national whistle-blowing helpline, new duties on the police to co-operate across force boundaries, and more support for victims of CSE. The revised ‘Working Together’ guidance will also introduce an expectation that Local Safeguarding Children Boards undertake regular assessments of local responses to CSE. Please click here to read the report in full: Tackling Child Sexual Exploitation.
In a joint letter to Maggie Blythe, Chair of OSCB, Ministers from the Home Office, Department of Health and Department for Education propose that the Local Safeguarding Children Board leads a specific piece of work to assess the impact of the current multi-agency approach to tackling CSE in Oxfordshire, to ensure it is robust. This will include the appointment of Sophie Humphreys to work alongside them, to offer the Government and the public in Oxfordshire additional reassurance. Sophie headed the City and Hackney Safeguarding Children’s Board and child protection service for Hackney for a number of years. She has led on Serious Case reviews into incidents of child abuse and is qualified as systemic reviewer.
Nicola fully supports this inspection lead by Sophie Humphreys, however she wants to make sure that it is as comprehensive as it can be and has written directly to the Secretary of State for Education, Rt Hon Nicky Morgan MP, who announced the independent expert review, to ask for the remit to be expanded so that it can address the questions which remain unanswered by the SCR.
Amongst other things, Nicola has called for the review to look into whether the Oxfordshire Safeguarding Children Board (OSCB) is sufficiently independent and challenging where it finds failure; whether child protection agencies took and continue to take appropriate action against staff guilty of misconduct, and whether these agencies are now taking steps to address effectively past and current weaknesses or shortcomings in the exercise of its functions, and has the capacity to continue to do so.
To read Nicola’s letter in full click here: Nicola Blackwood letter to Nicky Morgan 04.03.15
Nicola says: No Oxford resident can read this Review without being both deeply shocked by the depths of depravity that flourished for too many years on our streets, and angered that, with all the meetings and minutes and hours of work put in, our local services failed to recognise or put a stop to the terrible abuse these girls were suffering.
It is right that these agencies have apologised and, given the seriousness of the findings, that the County Council and Thames Valley Police have referred themselves to their regulatory bodies for further investigation. But victims and their families have rightly said that apologies are not enough. They want action. They want to know nothing like this can ever happen again.
The appointment of Sophie Humphreys to conduct an independent assessment of Oxfordshire’s progress since 2010 in tackling CSE, reporting directly to the Department for Education, is a welcome step. I am calling for it to be expanded further still so that victims, their families, and local people get the answers they so desperately need. We must make sure that from now on victims can have the confidence that if they come forward they will be believed and protected.
I also welcome the Government’s announcements including new criminal sanctions for those who fail to protect children from sexual exploitation, a duty for police forces to cooperate across borders and prioritising CSE as a national threat, like serious organised crime and terrorism.