Child protection systems in Britain must be reviewed following alarming evidence that organised abuse is widespread in England in the wake of the Rotherham scandal, MPs have said.
In a damning report, they condemned a watchdog for failing to lift the lid on the South Yorkshire council’s inability to tackle the exploitation of children and warned it faces serious questions about its ineffective regime.
Council officers must also be held to account for the “systemic” failings in Rotherham even if they have moved on to other areas, the Communities and Local Government Committee said.
But the town is “not an outlier” for abuse and all councils must review their systems for protecting children while government must look again at its guidance, it added.
Around 1,400 children are estimated to have been victims of abuse in Rotherham between 1997 and 2013, a report by Professor Alexis Jay published earlier this year found.
Ofsted carried out a number of inspections of the council over the period but failed to protect children in the town and will now be called to give evidence to the committee, MPs said.
Although Rotherham council had many child protection policies they were “divorced from reality”, according to the child sexual exploitation in Rotherham: some issues for local government report.
The committee also called for an investigation into why key documents from between 1999 to 2003 have gone missing.
Shaun Wright, who had been the elected councillor with responsibility for children’s services in Rotherham between 2005 and 2010, quit as South Yorkshire’s police and crime commissioner in September after weeks of intense pressure following the publication of the Jay report.
Martin Kimber, council chief executive, and former strategic director of children’s services Joyce Thacker also quit.
Committee chairman Clive Betts said: “As a committee, we heard alarming evidence that the organised child sexual exploitation at Rotherham is prevalent across England. Rotherham is not an outlier.
“It’s important to note that it was the press which stimulated action in Rotherham, not the council’s own system of challenge or scrutiny, nor external inspections. It’s vital local authorities across the country now ensure their scrutiny, governance, and leadership is fit and ready to identify and combat child sexual exploitation in their communities.
“Serious questions also need to be asked of Ofsted. Repeated Ofsted inspections in Rotherham failed to lift the lid on the council’s shameful inability to tackle child sexual exploitation. As a committee, we will want to question Ofsted about their inspection regime and ask why their inspections were so ineffective in Rotherham.”
He added: “It is an important matter of public policy that senior council staff be held accountable for their actions. Arrangements should be put in place to bring to account not just council officers still in post but those who have moved on from an authority before serious questions about their performance emerge.”
An Ofsted spokesman said: “Ofsted welcomes the opportunity to give evidence to the committee. In common with a number of organisations, we accept that past inspections may not have given child sexual exploitation the forensic focus it needed and deserved.
“That’s why last year we introduced a new and much more rigorous inspection framework for inspecting children’s services, which places a stronger emphasis on the issue.
“Inspectors now look closely at the experiences of children, focusing sharply on whether the risks of sexual exploitation are understood and acted upon by frontline agencies.
“This week we will be publishing the first in-depth nationwide survey into local authority practice and responses to child sexual exploitation.
“In recent years Ofsted gave Rotherham Council a range of judgments, finding it inadequate in 2009 on a number of safeguarding and child protection issues.”
Local Government Minister Kris Hopkins said: “The shocking scale of child sexual exploitation showed there were catastrophic failures at all levels of public services in Rotherham.
“That is why the Government appointed Louise Casey to conduct an independent inspection of the local authority and also to report on what wider lessons there are for all councils and other services such as the police.
“This is part of a wide range of actions the Government is taking into what went so wrong in Rotherham and how society can prevent such appalling crimes from happening again anywhere in the country.
“The Government has also already stepped in to address the failings in Rotherham by appointing a commissioner for children’s services, while the Home Secretary is leading a group of cabinet ministers to ensure we are taking the right action at all levels right across the country.
“This Government will not hesitate to take any action necessary to protect every child in this country and ensure such failings never occur again.”
David Simmonds, chairman of the Local Government Association’s children and young people board, said: “Nothing councils do is more important than keeping children safe and local authorities up and down the country will be reflecting on the implications of this report and asking questions of their staff to ensure we are doing everything possible to protect each and every child.
“We must collectively tackle the issue of child sexual exploitation head on. This means working locally with the police and NHS to proactively review the processes used every day to keep children and young people safe. Schools, GPs’ surgeries and community groups also have a vital role in identifying and reporting any cases where children could be at risk.
“In addition, councils, communities and parents need to have confidence in the Ofsted inspection regime and its role in protecting children. The LGA has called for an independent review to discover what has gone wrong with the inspectorate.
“Perpetrators of sexual exploitation should never be allowed to think that they are untouchable. There are lessons in this report for every community and we must all work together to stamp out this awful crime.”