Ann Coffey's Speech on Risks of Exploitation facing Looked After Children

  • Ann Coffey
  • 20 December 2019
  • Posted in: Education, Healthcare

Thank you for inviting me here today.

Before I was elected as MP for Stockport in 1992, I worked with children and families in Greater Manchester as a social worker.

My interest in protecting children has been a focus for my work in Parliament.

MPs, as backbenchers, can be influential in helping to change legislation. Often campaigns to change the law are as a result of issues first raised with us by constituents. I can’t remember a time when access to an MP was so direct with emails and social media platforms.

In 1994 an issue was brought to my attention by one of my constituents who had experienced high levels of anti-social behaviour from children living in a neighbouring house. I discovered that it was a children’s home and that homes providing care to fewer than 4 children were not required to register and be inspected.

I introduced a Private Members Bill which called for all children’s homes to be registered which eventually became law in the Care Standards Act 2000.

Many PMBs are introduced as a result of constituency casework.

I would not have known about this if that constituent had not complained to me about noise and nuisance. However, this was actually an issue of safeguarding children.

Whatever else needs fixing in politics the constituency link with an MP works well in identifying problems with legislation through the experience of people.

Having spent 35 years as an elected representative I am very aware of the importance of culture, attitudes and language in shaping public opinion, which can be very powerful in making changes happen.

Media coverage of the Rotherham and Rochdale trials of groups of men who sexually exploited girls, undoubtedly shocked the public and created the basis for making legislative changes. The girls were referred to as ‘child prostitutes’ making ‘lifestyle choices’ and were blamed by the defendant’s barristers for their own sexual abuse.

When the Serious Crime Act was enacted in 2015, the term ‘child prostitute’ was banished from all statutes.

When language is changed, understanding of behaviour is changed and work practices change. A response to a child prostitute will be different to a response to a sexually exploited child. The term child prostitute implies a contract. The term exploitation makes it very clear who is responsible for the abuse of the child.

I wrote a report into child sexual exploitation in 2014 called Real Voices and a follow up report in 2017, which were both commissioned by the Greater Manchester Police and Crime Commissioner.

In writing the 2014 report I was concerned about general attitudes to children highlighted by the Rotherham and Rochdale trials and Serious Case Reviews.

The 2014 report said that child sexual exploitation was becoming a ‘social norm’ in some areas of Greater Manchester with young girls in school uniform being approached and harassed in the street because they were not seen as children and therefore adults did not feel any responsibility to treat them as a child.

This attitude to children has been encouraged by the sexualisation of children and the impact of social media.

Increasing awareness of how children are groomed to take part in sexual acts has meant increased attention on making children more resilient through better relationship education in schools.

But it has also given rise to criticism that the approach implies it is the child’s responsibility to prevent exploitation and more attention should be given to disrupt those who would exploit and sexually abuse children.

There has also been an increasing awareness of the exploitation of children by their peers and the need to have a strong safeguarding culture in schools.

Two and a half years later in the 2017 Real Voices follow up report, we were trying to measure what cultural changes there had been in the agencies responsible for safeguarding children and by the public to sexually exploited children.

It is very difficult to measure cultural change and so we looked at data on reported crime, flagging of children at risk of CSE and increases in intelligence, including anonymous tip offs from the public. These all showed big increases and seemed to indicate a heightened awareness of CSE as a result of strong messaging, training and awareness .

There had also been a ‘social norms’ survey done in Greater Manchester schools which looked at how ‘perceived’ normal behaviour can influence young people’s behaviour. It revealed a difference between reality of behaviour and perception of behaviour. For example, 12 per cent of Year 10s admitted sending a text message or image with a sexual content but one third believed that most of their peers were sending such messages. That obviously helps to normalise particular sexual behaviour.

I think it was a useful reminder how important beliefs are in influencing perception.

The term child sexual exploitation has helped put sexual acts between a child and an adult in a context where it is clear where responsibility lies.

However, the term child abuse is much better understood by the public and there is no consensus about what exploitation means, so for example, people would agree that sexual acts with a 10 year old were morally wrong and criminal but they may not agree that a 15 year old vulnerable girl was being sexually exploited by a 25 year old man with whom she was having a relationship. Public attitudes to exploitation are complex as indeed they are to consent.

That is even more evident in public attitudes to young people groomed and exploited by criminal gangs to carry and supply class ‘A’ drugs. This has become known as county lines. They are viewed as criminals but they are actually both criminals and victims. The safeguarding system has been slow to develop a coherent response.

The public must also take responsibility for the protection of children and it is important that we find ways of continually explaining  what sexual exploitation is and the various forms it can take. Change public attitudes and you change everything

One of the strengths of parliament is that MPs have a wide range of interests. One platform for focusing on specific issues are All Party Parliamentary Groups, made up of MPs and peers of all parties.

I was the chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Runaway and Missing Children and Adults until 2010. We were a group of MPs and peers, from all political parties, who worked together with the public and private sector, charities, practitioners and professionals to improve understanding amongst policy makers and legislators of the issues connected to children and adults who go missing and their vulnerability to exploitation.

We were supported in our work by two excellent charities, Missing People and the Children’s Society.

Since 2012 our APPG has done several inquiries and reports where we have persistently flagged the close link between children going missing as an indicator that they may be being exploited for sex and for criminal exploitation. We have focused on Looked after Children although there is no doubt that all children are potential targets. Part of the reason for this is that the DFE keeps information on LAC and therefore it is easier to identify trends. Another very good reason is that these are children who are in our care because we think it is unsafe for them to be in their own home situation and therefore, we should be providing safe care for these children.

Our APPG inquiries since 2012 have had recurrent themes:

  • First, the problem of collecting and sharing accurate and meaningful data across those agencies responsible for child protection.

Since 2015 the DfE has published more comprehensive data on children who go missing from care and when the new Register of Missing Persons is introduced, hopefully next year, it will make it easier to share date nationally. Of course, the data will only be as good as the data inputted by local police forces.

The data the DFE collects is only a snapshot at one point in time which is why it is important to hear the experiences of children. That is why in all our reports we have tried to use their experiences as lived evidence.

It is a continuing problem in social policy to get the lived experiences of children into the design and provision of services. My 2017 Real Voices report said that co-designing of services with children was the way forward.

Other recurrent themes of our reports were:

  • Response of safeguarding agencies themselves unwittingly making situations worse by placements
  • The need for better partnership work
  • Importance of return home interviews in gathering intelligence to assess risk in the future and sharing that information
  • The failure of the children’s homes market to provide places that were where children need them to be.
  • Using the resources of children, parents and the community

Parents sometimes struggle to get help when they express concern about changes in their child’s behaviour

  • The importance of a trusted adult for a child.

Our latest APPG report published last month ‘No Place at Home,’ followed on from our 2012 report, revisited the risks faced by children who go missing from out of area placements.

Sadly, there has been an increase in children going missing, particularly from distant placements. Two thirds of all children in children’s homes now live out of area and the numbers going missing have more than doubled since 2015.

We have persistently expressed concern that at a time of limited resources it is very difficult for social workers to visit children who might be placed up to 100 miles away.

Behind these statistics is the failure of the market to provide children’s homes places where children need them to be.  

Children and young people are being placed out of area into children’s homes and semi-independent accommodation due to a lack of suitable provision and the uneven distribution of homes across the country. 75 per cent of all children’s homes are now privately owned and are concentrated in three areas - North West, West Midlands and South East.

This has remained unchanged since 2012.

In 2012 the then children’s minister gave a positive response to our first report on children missing from home and care in terms of notifications and promised to reduce the numbers of out of area placements. The police were to be informed of the locations of children’s homes in future.

A digression here – one of the reasons police were not given information on location of homes was it was felt that it might infringe the child’s right to privacy. It was perhaps a case of ‘unintended consequences’ that those who wanted to target children for exploitation knew where the children’s homes were, but police did not!

So, the upshot is that the fundamental changes were not made in the structure of the market itself. The distribution of children’s homes remains unchanged and the numbers going missing are escalating.

We hear that children are being placed out of the area for their own protection but more often the reason is that there are insufficient places.

Anyway why the children should be moved? The criminals simply target another child or follow the child to where they have been moved.

LA’s must make a yearly sufficiency statement but actually they are not in a position to commission children’s home provision unless they enter into partnership arrangements with other authorities or are a direct provider.

28% of local authorities are not direct providers of any children’s homes, and the number rises to 39% when homes that provide short-break care only, are excluded.

I would really be interested into why that is the case, particularly as the cost of places in children’s homes is escalating rapidly.

It is also extremely concerning that more than 70 per cent of the 41 police forces who gave evidence to our inquiry were adamant that placing children out of area increased their risks of exploitation and very often resulted in them going missing.

They become magnets for paedophiles and drugs gangs who ruthlessly target their vulnerability. To them they are just commodities to be used.

Moving children to unknown and unfamiliar placements particularly at short notice causes anxiety, distress fear and anger and causes further trauma to children with both short-and long-term impact.  

Record numbers of children placed out of area are repeatedly going missing. They run back home, often hitching lifts in remote areas, or they are enticed to run away by people seeking to exploit them. And research by Missing People in June, which looked at nearly 600 missing episodes involving more than 200 missing children, found that 1 in 7 of the children had been sexually exploited and nearly half disclosed high risk warning signs of sexual exploitation and one in ten had been a victim of criminal or other forms of exploitation.

We must deal with the underlying causes of children going missing.

One area of increasing concern is the rise in numbers of young people, aged 16 and 17 years old, living in unregulated supported accommodation. Often these are young people with the most complex needs for whom it is difficult to find placements.

Unregulated accommodation does not provide care. If it did, it would have to be registered.

An Ofsted statement in 2019 said that ‘care’ is not defined in law and adds: “It is not just about the age of the child, although that’s a factor. It is about a child’s vulnerability and the level of help that they need. If a child does need care, then the service they are getting is very likely to need registration as a children’s home. Certainly, if children are under constant supervision then this is likely to be ‘care’.”

However, Ofsted said in 2017 that they would no longer register some settings providing care and accommodation including non- static premises such as barges, boats, touring caravans, camper vans and tents. Also they would no longer grant registration to a provider entering into short term arrangements in holiday cottages, static caravans, bunk barns, bothies and lodges.

Although they may be providing care, they are now unregulated. The care that children and young people are receiving is not inspected. Outside those exemptions all accommodation providing care must be registered. It is inevitable that with the shortage of registered places available there will be an increase in children and young people placed in unregulated settings with all the accompanying concerns.

Also, there must be concerns about who is providing this accommodation as it is extremely profitable and gives access to the most vulnerable young people.

A good business for organised crime.

There are of course extremely good providers and very diligent social workers, but unregulated care is open to abuse, and all the evidence is that that abuse is happening.

More than 5,000 looked after children in England are living in unregulated accommodation, up 70 per cent from 2,900 ten years ago, according to a parliamentary answer in March 2019.

This is in addition to the thousands of young people who live in this accommodation who are not looked after but may sought help from councils because they were homeless. They have no diligent social worker to be concerned about their safety.

The 41 police forces who gave evidence to our inquiry gave many specific examples about inappropriate placements in unregulated homes and how young people, who are often housed alongside young people who are offenders are being sexually and criminally exploited.

Just two County Lines examples were - a child bailed for murder being put into the same semi-independent accommodation as a child victim of trafficking, who was immediately recruited to sell drugs across county lines

And a boy sent to live more than 50 miles from his home area where he began drug running and committing crime. He was returned to his home area and he took children from his new area back home to involve them in County Lines because they were unknown to the police in his original area.

Another example was a young girl victim of sexual exploitation who was moved some distance from home where she was then targeted by a local Organised Crime Gang.

We should also not forget the impact that unregulated accommodation, in which young people are not properly supervised and become involved in criminal activity, can have on the surrounding neighbourhood.

After our report was published, I was contacted by a mother in Greater Manchester who said she had had “devastating experience” of the consequences of unregulated accommodation.

Her two daughters were attacked as they walked home by a group of older boys who were living in an unregulated home in their neighbourhood. This was a very serious attack. Local residents had been reporting incidents of anti-social behaviour sexual harassment criminal activity and drug taking in and around the accommodation for about six months. 

If the home had been regulated there would have been a process by which it could have been closed down by Ofsted.

There are some very good providers but equally there are some very poor providers who should not be let anywhere near a vulnerable young person. But because it is unregulated, they can continue to operate.

One police force told us: “Where there are areas of high deprivation these will always present opportunities for potential unscrupulous organisations to set up ‘pop up’ children’s homes with little or no regulation, where the housing market is much cheaper heightening the risk of the most vulnerable of children being exploited.”

Our ‘No Place at Home’ report recommended that unregulated accommodation must be regulated

We also recommended that the Government take responsibility working with commissioners and providers to ensure that there are sufficient places available to meet the needs of looked after children. That means addressing the uneven geographical distribution of children’s homes. It is only the DFE that can lead on that. Maybe more fundamental questions need to be asked about our current model of care, maybe it’s time for a major rethink.

There are, of course, fantastic examples of local leadership and innovative approaches and working together arrangements.

The DFE have supported innovative projects such as Achieving Change Together which I mentioned in the 2017 Real Voices report. All the 25 young people referred to ACT were on the edge of care or at risk of a placement breakdown. For me the interesting aspect of the project was that the services were co-designed by young people; that central was the establishment of a trusted relationship with a social worker and that everybody worked to help the young person to achieve their priorities. Interestingly enough, for some the priority was not their sexual exploitation. The evaluation of the project showed that there was no escalation of placements and no young person had been placed in a secure unit.

So, what I ask myself is – why can’t the DFE make that funding  available to all children’s services who wish to transform the services that they provide to young people. Its evidence based. It works. What a fantastic investment that would be in young people.

We need more funding for local services to help families and young people. The long term impact on the lifes of young people who do not get help when they need it can be devastating for them and for others.

But we also need to understand what works so if the message is that young people need a trusted relationship then services need to be provided on that understanding.

Local authorities have a lot of information about children living in their area from health, school, and social care police data. There is a lot of research in universities on outcomes of particular interventions on children’s lifes. We need to join all that up so that while agreeing early intervention is critical we can all agree what successful early intervention looks like based on evidence and  


We have certainly seen some changes in the way exploited children are viewed but we are still not safeguarding children when we continue to place children away from their home area leaving them vulnerable and exposed. We may have greater understanding and awareness of exploitation but sadly without the right provision we are not solving anything and in fact in many instances we are exacerbating the problem

On the positive side there have been many changes to commend. There is also now a better understanding that children may be subject to multiple forms of exploitation.

Recent DFE guidance: “Working Together to Safeguard Children, July 2018, highlights ‘contextual safeguarding’ and the potential need for early help for children vulnerable to abuse or exploitation outside the family.

It also stresses that assessors should look at the parental capacity to support the child, including helping the parents and carers to understand any risks and support them to keep children safe and assess potential risk to the child.

This should deliver a more holistic approach to the provision of services locally and perhaps enable better working together between adult and children’s services.

This is a very difficult area to work in, stressful and overwhelming.

Thank you for your commitment and the work you do.

I still get contacted periodically by Cheryl who I took into care picking her up as an 11 year old child with her possessions in a black bin liner.

It is a reminder to me how powerfully children’s lives can be touched by social workers and indeed all those who make decisions that affect their lives; big decisions and small decisions; decisions to do something and decisions to do nothing.

Decisions affected by available resources, knowledge and understanding.

I believe there is a desire to make life better for all children and to better discharge our responsibilities as corporate parents to LAC amongst practitioners, policy makers and political parties we just need to agree on resources, knowledge and understanding.

But we also need to include children parents and the wider community in those conversations.

Because without a consensus about what responsibilities we have to children and what they are entitled to expect from us then those to seek to exploit and abuse children  will continue to do so whilst blaming the child for their own  abuse.

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About Ann Coffey

Elected in 1992, Ann Coffey was the Member of Parliament for Stockport until 2019.
Before she was elected, she worked with children and families as a senior social worker.
Ann is the author of Real Voices, an independent report into child sexual exploitation in Greater Manchester published in October 2014. This was followed up with ‘Real Voices – Are…