Sarah Champion: “Abuse is always about power”
Sarah Champion has been a relentless advocate for victims of child sexual abuse since entering parliament six years ago. But the Labour MP for Rotherham is concerned the issue is ‘dropping off’ the government’s radar. She talks to Elizabeth Bates
When Sarah Champion was first elected as the MP for Rotherham in 2012 she was plunged into the middle of an unfolding child abuse scandal. An exposé by The Times had, two years earlier, revealed widespread grooming and sexual exploitation of young women and girls in the northern town, compounded by wilful ignorance and neglect among those in authority.
Champion’s task was formidable with victims starting to pour forward and local services in crisis.
Since that time there has been a fundamental shift in awareness of child sexual exploitation (CSE) within the police, social services and the wider public and she has been instrumental in driving the change.
Sitting in her Westminster office, she talks predominately about that period through the prism of her interactions with victims.
“I am most proud of listening to the women that came to me at the beginning around the CSE that they had experienced when they were children, because no one else had,” she says. “I am proud of how helping them has enabled them to move forward with their lives. It’s more an honour than a pride thing.”
She has been a relentless advocate for those women in Westminster, securing a change to the law to make it easier for the police to intervene in grooming cases and more recently working cross-party to improve relationship education in schools.
However, after six years fighting CSE from the Opposition benches, the Labour MP is concerned that for the current Prime Minister the issue has “dropped off the radar”.
When Champion met David Cameron she was impressed with his dedication to the cause following a visit to her constituency to see up close the scars the abuse had left on the community. But she does not believe that Theresa May shares his commitment.
“I do not feel with this government that it is a priority at all,” she says.
“David Cameron got it and I think he got it because I went to him as a dad rather than going to him as a politician. And I got him to meet some of the survivors of Rotherham and one of the mums whose child went through it. So, we engaged with him on that level, which is why he then crusaded as a dad, wanting it for other people’s children.
“Theresa May was great when she was Home Secretary and then as soon as she shifted to PM it’s dropped off the radar. It’s clearly not a priority for them.”
Her concern is that the government’s inattention will let down Rotherham’s victims yet again. In the aftermath of the scandal the National Crime Agency (NCA) was drafted in to bring perpetrators to justice but without funding for wider support, she says, it will falter.
“If you’re spending millions on the NCA they can’t go anywhere unless they have got victims or witnesses. So, unless you support those women it is just wasting money. And because I don’t feel that there is a will at the very top, I am anxious.
“We reckon we have got about another three or four months that the council and the PCC [Police and Crime Commissioner] can support those girls without additional resources and we reckon the investigation could go on for another ten years.”
Despite this, Champion is determined to keep supporting victims and preventing further exploitation, with or without the help of national government.
She wants to apply the lessons from Rotherham to create resources that will help keep children safe across the country. With that in mind, Champion launched Dare2Care, an initiative that brought together charities, campaigners, academics, parents and survivors to develop a strategy to prevent child abuse. The campaign resulted in the government committing to introduce mandatory age-appropriate relationships and sex education for all children in the 2017 Children and Social Work Act.
Building on this success, a new Dare2Care website, set to go live later this month, will bring together the latest information and advice for parents and people working with children. The online resource will cover all forms of abuse from CSE, to violence in teen relationships, to the hidden epidemic of female genital mutilation (FGM).
FGM is an issue that the government has committed to eradicating by 2030, but with not a single conviction secured in the 30 years since it was criminalised, Champion is sceptical.
She argues that until it is viewed as child abuse and “not a cultural practice,” it will never be prevented and she urges those in power not to repeat the mistakes that were made around CSE.
“Until we start viewing it in terms of child abuse and gendered violence we always give people a get out, or we always find that we turn the other cheek,” she says. “It’s the same as Rotherham. We don’t want to be seen as being culturally insensitive.”
The irony, she continues, is that the UK government is successfully working with communities around the world to tackle the problem, but fear of offending particular groups is preventing ministers doing the same thing at home.
“That’s the hypocrisy of it, because through DfID we actually do a lot of work, particularly with the African nations, empowering women in the communities and working specifically with the heads of communities to have an outcry about the practice going on and saying it’s so retrospective and we don’t want that here.
“But we are not doing that with the communities in the UK. It’s crazy, isn’t it?”
Her indignation at the government’s ineffectiveness in protecting victims of exploitation also extends to the historic sex abuse inquiry, launched in 2014 in the wake of a series of scandals involving high-profile figures, including some Westminster politicians.
The news that the probe will not rule on whether old allegations brought against public figures are valid has left her worried about its scope.
“I’m very concerned that when they categorically rule out following the evidence in one direction or another that immediately means that justice for certain people is dead in the water, because they have been trying for decades to get their cases heard,” she says.
“It makes me nervous. I still think that they could do an inquiry, even if only a brief one, and then make recommendations to the CPS or the relevant police force.”
She is also critical of the decision by the inquiry’s judges to refer to those making accusations of abuse as ‘complainant’ rather than ‘victims’.
“It’s horrible because I don’t think people understand the stigma the sloppy use of English puts on people,” she says. “To call someone a complainant, I get that legally it might be the right term, but it’s the message that you’re sending these people. You’re just causing trouble for the sake of it. It’s not right.”
But despite the public outcry over historic child sexual abuse allegations, Champion says she fears a similar scandal at Westminster today would not necessarily be handled any better.
“What would be the outcome now? I have to say that I look at the adult sexual harassment that is going on and I would like to be seeing very strong statements from both parties about zero tolerance and it’s not going anywhere near as far as I want to see,” she says.
“Would a child sex abuse scandal be dealt with differently now? I don’t know that it would.”
Abuse, she adds, is fundamentally about power – and the ability of Establishment figures to take advantage of that power remains unchecked.
She explains: “One in 20 children will have a sexual assault against them. When you look at something inappropriate happening to them that drops dramatically to one in four girls and one in eight boys. So, that might be inappropriate language or made to feel uncomfortable or in a compromising situation – not necessarily being physically groped.
“So there is no way that there aren’t people who are sitting MPs who aren’t involved in some way or another, or a member of their family is. I mean, that’s just the reality and I know that’s very uncomfortable and no one wants to think about it.
“Abuse is always about power. So, for example take me. I have got the mobile number of the head of South Yorkshire police, the head of Rotherham police, the head of the council. If I chose to I could call them on a Sunday night and ask them to act – I don’t think that they would – but my alleged victim wouldn’t have that same access. So you have inherently got a power imbalance.
“It doesn’t take a big leap of faith or a conspiracy theorist to come up with that you could abuse your power.”
Sarah Champion's Dare2Care website will launch on Tuesday 27th February. It will be available at https://www.dare2care.org.uk/