Monthly Archives: November 2012

Time to Act

Maggie Atkinson, Children’s Commissioner for England, speaks about the interim findings of her Office’s nationwide inquiry into the scope, scale and prevalence of child sexual exploitation in gangs and groups in England

 I thought I was the only one.  The Only one in the worldis my Office’s report on the prevalence and patterns of child sexual exploitation in the two contexts of gangs and groups in England, published on November 21st.  100% of police forces, 88% of English Local Authorities with relevant responsibilities, and 66% of relevant and contacted health bodies, submitted evidence to the first year of a two year inquiry into this difficult and troubling subject.  Deputy Commissioner Sue Berelowitz is leading on this work for the Office, supported by a small staff team and a panel of recognised national experts in the field including eminent researchers.

For the first time we are presenting thoroughly collated and analysed data on, in headline terms, who is doing what, to whom, where.  The conclusions are a wakeup call to all in the system.  Sexual abuse in gangs (closely aligned, often young, largely male alliances based on geographical territory, criminal intent, loyalty, codes of dress and behaviour) is visited usually on girls who are gang-associated or living in gang-affected neighbourhoods.  It is closely associated with fear, intimidation, and threats of violence against the victim or her family.

Victims are used as part of the gang culture.  Sexual abuse perpetrated by groups is associated with looser associations of adults, usually male, from every ethnic, religious and cultural group and of every age.  Such abuse may or may not be associated with money changing hands between perpetrators who access and abuse the victims.  The latter may be boys but are more usually girls.  They include young people who are already very vulnerable, but these groups are not exclusively targeted.

Many victims have suffered abuse in family circumstances before they are abused by outsiders, and much abuse begins in the home, or in close associations and friendship groups.

Sexual exploitation and abuse are not the sole preserve of difficult, downtrodden or otherwise challenged areas, and they are certainly not confined to rundown parts of our towns and cities.  It is no exaggeration, from what police forces are telling us across England, to say that it is happening across the country.  It is blind to class and socio-economic circumstances.

Children and young people who are themselves abused may be used to help groom and “hook in” others to the abuse they have themselves suffered.  They find it hard to disclose what is happening, and in too many places in the country many young witnesses said it is harder still to be listened to when they do say something.

The panel visited 14 English localities as part of the evidence gathering process and were saddened to hear seasoned and specialist professionals referring to sexual exploitation and abuse victims as “prostitutes” when at under 16 years old they are of course, by law, not able to consent to sex with anybody, let alone an abuser.  The panel also heard specialists speak of abused children “liking the glamour” of a “chosen lifestyle” and “engaging in risky behaviours” as if they were, or could be, held responsible for the abuse they were suffering.  They were equally saddened to witness specialists who seemed blind to some patterns of abuse because the media has somehow decided that only some ethic and cultural groups of men abuse, and only some ethnic and cultural groups of girls are abused.

This report calls on everybody in the system to begin to see the warning signs:  children who go missing, who suddenly have a ready supply of cash, gifts, new phones and new friends, children who display over-sexualised behaviours in school, who turn up at A&E with particular injuries, or repeatedly present at sexual health clinics with STIs.

Year two’s Inquiry will go further into good practice in many English localities, and what we can all learn, in policy and practice, to do to stop the outrages we report on in year one.  It is not easy reading, but it is necessary that consciousness is raised and action follows.  These are our children, all of them, and all of us.  Time to act.



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“We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars.”

Oscar Wilde’s famous words might well describe the world of local government today and could be the motto of some chief executives. As council budgets are cut, there is a band of people who see an opportunity to change the status quo when it comes to partnerships with the private sector in their local area.

And that local area, as the participants in the Your Local Future workstream at this year’s SOLACE Summit discovered, is not the local authority.

So, if the council is not the place – obvious to many but difficult for some to accept – how do we define what is, and who should be involved in the change process?

Economic progress, which underpins so much of what councils wish to achieve, will necessarily involve the private sector. However, this needs to be true involvement in ways businesses understand. This can become an uncomfortable situation for all sides.

Neither likes ceding control – not the private sector leaders who respond and deal with issues swiftly, nor the politicians correctly claiming democratic legitimacy. Adhering to the usual comfortable stand-off between the two is not suitable for places of the present never mind of the future. Something has to give.

There is some idea of where that movement will come from in the phrase “the council is not the place”.

The chief executives in the workstream were confident in being able to share responsibility for place-shaping with the private sector. Private sector representatives, from developers to car manufacturers, revealed their readiness to engage on this agenda – reinforced by real-world experience in the Midlands where this approach is taking hold.

The elephant in the room was, perhaps predictably, elected members. There is a real challenge in marrying democratic accountability, local representation and the needs of a place.

What are seen as bureaucratic procedures – the drawn-out scrutiny process, the inability to make snap decisions – need to change to match the expectation of a business community wanting to grasp the nettle.

Similarly, the private sector needs to marry its myriad corporate social responsibility agendas to fit in with local areas and help define the place.

Those who manage to pull off this trick will be the ones seeing their names written among the stars. Those who don’t will remain in the gutter.

James Noakes, sustainability and climate change manager, Wigan MBC; Anisa Patel, policy projects officer, Blackburn with Darwen BC; Participants in the Solace Springboard Future Leaders Programme

This article first feature in the Local Government Chronicle on 15 November 2012

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A provocation for local government

Simon Fanshawe, consultant, broadcaster, non-exec director and co-founder of the ground-breaking consultancy astar-fanshawe, addressed local authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers at this year’s SOLACE Summit. Below Simon highlights his key challenges to the sector; you can read his speech in full here.

At the recent SOLACE summit I was asked to listen to the discussions, reflect on them and then draw out some provocative themes.


My first question is about the words “community” and “place”. I have heard them used in the last few days as if they coherently summed whole populations or towns. Yet we all know they don’t. Communities are conflicted, diverse, undecided, self-interested. You can’t meaningfully “consult with the community”. You need to have a more complicated conversation with the populations you serve.


You need accuracy in your analysis of who they are. In a report I co-wrote for the ippr two years ago, called You Can’t Put Me in A Box, I suggested that we might start with a three-part analysis of equalities and diversity which would help us understand (i) when  ‘group identity’ has a coherence (when it is about either persistent bias or genuinely shared cultural characteristics), (ii) when it is the aspirations of the individual that the council is trying to meet or harness and, in some ways the most tricky, (iii) when we need to understand who is the most disadvantaged in any population.

So, accuracy of analysis by your staff of who they are talking to and why – understanding the focus and purpose of consultation – will make it meaningful and helpful.

Also it’s worth remembering that, with many issues on which you consult you can either be right or popular. Particularly with transport. So be clear about only asking people questions that you can answer. Don’t ask them if they want a residents parking scheme, rather ask them how to design it. Consultation has to lead towards an understanding of a common interest in the name of which you can reasonably and effectively act.


The second question that I wanted to raise was about the notion of “service delivery”. Discussions often focus on the service rather than on the challenge it is designed to meet.

But Local Authorities are not there just to deliver services. Services are a result of their purpose not the purpose itself. The core mission of Councils is to harness energies and assets to create a better quality of life.

If the conversation is about the service, we will remain stuck in the paradigm of more money equals better services. And that cuts are always bad.

We are doing some work in Lewisham, where we brought together the Cabinet and the Senior Management to discuss the fundamental purpose of what Lewisham Council was for, in order to guide a budget setting process that didn’t use their last budget as the baseline. This approach, according to the Chief Exec, is helping Lewisham to recognize that in order to “start to consider our budget afresh we first needed to reconsider our priorities anew….. Governing and managing change of this budget scale requires deep engagement on local priorities and not shallow consultation on specific budget cuts proposals.”

This raises important questions about how you develop your staff. You don’t have to be Eileen Munro to have a severe critique of how reliance on process doesn’t do the job. But we don’t need to blame social workers and other local authority staff, we need to empower them. We need to give them the confidence to make judgments. We need to develop our staff differently.


My final observation is that there seems to be a distinctly different attitude amongst you all in relation to services than there is about economic growth. There is far more inventiveness and ingenious thinking about the latter. It may be that, with statutory requirements and the habit of service delivery, it’s just not as easy to get into a new framework, perhaps the new model is just far harder to create.

In the discussion about economic growth you are playing a hand that has both visible assets and income streams. With services that focus on the most disadvantaged, there appear to be less assets.


However I think the Terrence Higgins Trust, gives us an interesting three-cornered model, from which we can learn.

When gay men started to die of AIDS, no one really cared. We had to do something ourselves. So we started to look after those affected – we started buddying. But that wasn’t enough. We needed treatment, or even a cure. So we made an alliance with NHS medics and other researchers. And we funded that with a combination of state and private sector investment together with private philanthropy.

That model tells us that the human interaction of buddying (of caring) was crucial in meeting the challenge, not with procedure but with kindness and humanity. Secondly, beyond that, we do need expertise. The Big Society is a dangerous myth if it thinks that volunteering can replace entirely experience and skill. And thirdly it teaches us to learn how to deploy our assets – here, volunteering, private gifts, and public and private investment.


Can we apply this to perhaps the most poignant, urgent and highest priority we have: looked after kids? Well we can re-introduce humanity into how we look after those kids – not be frightened by all the noise around abuse – and release our staff (and volunteers) to feel able to give them love. Secondly we have much expertise in Councils. So we mustn’t drown it in process. We need to value their expertise and free staff to use their knowledge and skill to exercise judgment.

And the assets are surely the kids themselves and their carers. What do they want? What can they contribute, How can we meet their aspirations rather than subject them to the tyranny of low expectations? And there are investment models, which could combine private investment with a return on social goals.

This is a far higher challenge. But it is the coming challenge.


So in conclusion, I am suggesting that:

we develop our capacity to have intelligent conversations with our populations that speak to them where and how they live and we recognize their diversity;

we ask realistic questions;

we consult with a purpose, not for the sake of it;

we go back to first principles and see Local Authorities as organisations that harness assets and energy to improve quality of life rather than “delivering services”;

we sever the link between money spent and the quality of what we do;

we develop our staff to empower them to use judgment above process;

we develop models, which engage our assets, human and physical, that are as imaginative on the service side of the ledger as they are on the growth side.

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