Sexual exploitation of a single child is a despicable crime, but the whole country is in shock at the industrial scale of the abuse that has been revealed in Rotherham and other towns and cities. The tragedy of the abuse is made all the worse by the possibility that—with swift and decisive action—these evil and predatory individuals and gangs could have been brought to justice.

What makes this more devastating is that many people did know: heroic groups acting on behalf of victims such as PACE (Parents Against Child Exploitation, formed in 1996 as the Coalition for the Removal of Pimping) brought to public attention disturbing signs of systematic grooming in towns like Oldham, Blackburn and, of course, Rotherham. Despite the progress made in the explicit criminalisation of abuse in the 2003 Sexual Offences Act, the evidence suggested this appalling trade was growing.

As the then Chair of the Children, Schools and Families Select Committee I became aware of the vulnerability of children to predatory males whilst conducting an inquiry into children in care. My subsequent conversations with the police astonished me. I was repeatedly told this was a ‘difficult’ area as children were reluctant to give evidence against their abusers and other methods of detection, such as surveillance, were ‘too expensive’. To draw attention to this I secured a Westminster Hall Debate on Child Prostitution in 2009. My experience was one that many of my colleagues have found depressingly familiar: supportive words from ministers followed by very little action. But this is nothing compared to what the victims themselves went through. A combination of incompetence and a lack of joined-up public policy allowed far too many to slip through the nets of the services designed to protect them.

In far too many cases victims were simply not believed, as shown in Rotherham where the HM Inspectorate of Constabulary found that the police spent a ‘great deal of time’ trying to ‘disprove’ victims’ testimony instead of giving them the help they desperately needed. Worse still, we can never know how many victims, having seen the callous disregard for others who came forward, will never speak up. The fact remains – the legislative progress made in 2003 notwithstanding – that successive authorities at all levels have failed to protect thousands of children from the most horrific forms of abuse.

The people who have so devastatingly let these children down should rightly be held to account, but a fixation on high-level sackings risks us taking our eye off the real goal: ensuring this kind of horrific abuse cannot happen again. To do so requires us to look beyond legislation and recrimination and into ensuring we seriously tackle the key underlying issues. So, what should we do?

Firstly, we must take an approach that is cross-departmental and across the whole of the UK. Too often, the state has lost track of victims of abuse simply because they have been moved across the country by the gangs that prey on them. In the 21st century, where data can be shared with (or even without) a click of a button, moving across Europe should be no obstacle to justice, let alone moving across the Pennines.

The police are in the unique position of being the authority who take forward charges and report these to the media. They can easily negate their own role and point the finger – however subtly – at others. As we saw with Peter Connelly (‘Baby P’)’s tragic death, when you control the media message it’s easy to claim that it was the social workers who were at fault and therefore ‘it was nothing to do with us, guv’.

The police need to show more leadership—and also help to fund Safeguarding Children’s Boards as a matter of course—right across the country. More senior police officers need to take the time to work with senior local government figures – officers and members – to work consistently to understand the real challenges that are hidden in the statistics.

Finally, we must foster a culture in which victims can seek help with confidence in the knowledge that they will be treated with the dignity and care that they deserve. They cannot be left with the belief that nobody can help them or worse that the blame for their situation lies with themselves that they are somehow at fault.

In this we are, I hope, moving in the right direction, but as a society we have so much further to go.

Barry Sheerman is MP for Huddersfield.

Tags: Child sexual abuse, PACE, Rochdale, Rotherham, Rotherham sexual abuse scandal