Home Secretary Speech – Blog by Phil Ashford

I was lucky enough to be invited to attend the Home Secretary’s speech on child sexual exploitation this week. Billed as Sajid Javid’s personal stance towards CSE, as well as the government’s current response, much of the headlines and indeed much of the speech focused on online exploitation. Whilst speeches like this always have the air of a well-choreographed event, I did feel that the Home Secretary spoke from the heart in elements of his speech and grasped the scale of the human tragedy of childhood sexual abuse. Several interesting areas for consideration arose from the event, which I’ll outline in this blog.

Whilst focussing on the risk posed to children by online sexual abuse and exploitation, the Home Secretary reiterated his interest in understanding if there is a cultural component to CSE in light of cases involving groups of predominantly British-Pakistani men. Whilst absolutely supporting any work to better understand the motivations of perpetrators, I would urge continued caution around the focus on the British-Pakistani community to the exclusion of others. The media-generated terminology of ‘grooming gangs’ – which is not applied to groups of men from other backgrounds who have abused children through institutions, means this is as much a study of linguistics as it is offender typology.

It was interesting that Mr Javid stressed culture or religion would not be used as an excuse to prevent investigation and the bringing of offenders to justice, whilst referencing government plans to introduce mandatory relationships and sex education for children – unless your parents opt you out for religious or cultural reasons. If, and that’s a big if for me, there are cultural components to motivations of CSE perpetrators, then what is the sense in denying children from some communities’ access to education which should provide them with the foundations of what relationships should be like and what constitutes abuse?

However, much of the Home Secretary’s speech focused on technology and online abuse, with recent figures suggesting there are 80,000 adults accessing online images of abuse in the UK. Mr Javid is right to point out the steps ‘tech-giants’ have taken to address content of a nature likely to support or promote terrorism and ask if they can do it for terrorism, why can’t they do it for child abuse. Anyone who has uploaded a video to YouTube with unlicensed music on will attest to how quickly the algorithms detect those videos and take them down – the technology is there. However, as the Home Secretary pointed out, much of the online abuse and image sharing is taking place on the dark web, throwing up additional challenges to law enforcement agencies.

There are some who have responded to the Home Secretary’s speech by suggesting it is an unwarranted and unnecessary attack on technology and the internet and that the focus should be on perpetrators who have targeted children long before the internet was a twinkle in some American academics’ eyes. The internet is neither a force for good or bad, it is however an environment where grooming and abuse takes place. As such it is no different than any other location or environment and may benefit from current thinking around contextual safeguarding.

It remains to be seen whether the Home Secretary’s speech and subsequent plans will bring ‘tech-giants’ to the table and usher in a new era of cross-industry collaboration and improved partnership with law enforcement and safeguarding agencies, but the tone of the message was the right one. Watch this space.