We’re all to blame for child sexual exploitation

Instead of protecting our young from the evils of sexual exploitation, we are blaming them for it. No wonder an MP's campaign to remove the term 'child prostitution' from the statute book is struggling to gain traction.

Ann Coffey is trying hard. She's the Labour MP for Stockport whose report on child sexual exploitation, Real Voices, shone a light on the depths of the problem. Removing 'child prostitution' from legislation was just one of its many recommendations; she'll be pushing for it in amendments to the serious crime bill going through parliament this winter.

"There is no such thing as a child prostitute," she told MPs earlier this week. "Only a sexually abused or exploited child." The term 'prostitute' implies an element of complicity, a consensual contract between two equal parties. Coffey doesn't like it one bit. Neither does the minister, Karen Bradley, who said in her response:

"I want to be absolutely clear that children who are sexually exploited, whether for commercial or other reasons, should not be referred to as prostitutes. They should be recognised as victims and we will certainly consider references in older legislation and guidance as opportunities arise, as well as considering carefully the wording used in any new legislation or guidance."

The 16 pieces of legislation containing the phrase are not actually going to be amended any time soon, though. Ministers, while committed to fighting child sexual exploitation, feel like they have run out of options. The level of failure now emerging in far too many local authorities across England is comprehensive and nearly absolute. Prosecutors and police, children's services and blasé politicians, have all been letting down children with "basic practice failures," children's minister Edward Timpson says. He insists the rules are already in place, and there's not much more Whitehall can do.

But there's a lot that can be done, as Coffey's report looking at the problem in Greater Manchester last autumn confirmed. She wants to know why there were over 13,000 recorded crimes in the city and just 1,000 convictions. She wants to know why only a fifth of police are being given training on the issue – and that police community support officers aren't getting any at all. Coffey wants to train the 'eyes and ears' of the community. It all passes the 'why wasn't this already happening?' test.

Ministers are mistaking the absence of a catch-all solution for a complete lack of options. This may be because what they can do is what they are worst at: speaking to the public.

It's the attitudes of all of us which have to slowly change in order to make a difference. Every one of us is responsible for this. Coffey compares it to the slow liberalising of views towards same-sex relationships in the 20th century. It took decades, but eventually society's outlook was transformed. It's why language matters – and 'child prostitution' has to go. We can either decide to call children 'young people', which implies that they are miniature adults, or say that everyone under 18 is not responsible and deserves protection.

The Home Office has pursued public information campaigns in the past – time for another?

Not everyone agrees with that, though. If police officers see alcohol is involved in a case, some say the young are bringing it on themselves. If juries discover the 14-year-old was wearing a low-cut top, it influences their thinking. Even parents are guilty of writing off their own children. 'F', a heroin addict from birth thanks to her mother, was smoking, drinking and taking drugs by the age of 12 after being raised in a foster home. Then she met an older man.

"I lost my virginity to him, and when my foster parent found out she said 'Why are you being a slag?' I was 12 and he was 19. Looking back on things, it should have been the 19-year-old's behaviour that was being looked at and questioned, not the 12-year-old's."

The defence barristers protecting the adults in court often don't hold back, either. As one witness put it:

"There is not a word to describe how bad it was. I have never experienced anything like that in my life, and I never want to experience anything like that ever again… One of the barristers was not even asking me questions; he was just shouting at me, and the judge kept having to tell him to stop shouting and move on, and he kept asking me questions that he was not supposed to ask."

Persuading everyone in Britain that young people need protecting, not blaming, is going to be a tough job, though. It requires more education about what child sexual exploitation actually looks like: we know what it means when it comes to the stereotypes of gang culture, Coffey says, but we're a bit fuzzy about defining it when it comes to exploitation by a single person, or by young people against other young people. The digital age is creating new forms for it to take place, too. "We need to be willing to intervene at a very early stage and we're not there yet," she adds. "We don't have that public understanding of what sexual exploitation means."

The system isn't working not because of the rules but because of the people in them, she believes. That's why at least 1,200 young people were sexually exploited in Rotherham in recent years. That's why there are 188 more children at risk of being exploited for their bodies in Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Wiltshire; over 150 in Bradford alone; and 60 in Solihull, a number which has doubled in the last year alone.

"Parliament, children's services, police, the CPS – we're just not good at involving the public, we don't always understand how to use the public resource." Coffey says. "But we're going to have to understand it because we can't change things without it.

"There's a lot of self-interest in keeping control within the institutions themselves. But this leads to a situation where institutions promise things they can't deliver and then people get disappointed with the institutions themselves – which is where we are in politics, of course."

But this matters far more than Britain's political culture. It is the same problem, at root – a failure of communication and a breakdown of responsibility. We hate our politicians for it, but rarely do we see the consequences of it in such stark terms.

Coffey's bid to erase the phrase 'child prostitution' from the statute book highlights the biggest scandal in Britain today: the grown-ups' failure to protect our young.