In the Media

Cabinet row over child abuse report as Nick Clegg condemns 'idiotic' critics

PUBLISHED November 21, 2012

The deputy Prime Minister said a new report from the Children's Commissioner "needs be taken seriously" after senior Government sources briefed that it was "hysterical" and "half-baked".

His comments are a sign of Coalition tensions over the sensitive subject of sex abuse. It is understood that at least one Conservative minister believes some of the report's statistics were not suitably robust and has raised concerns that the issue risks being "sensationalised".

Mr Clegg yesterday hit back at the "absurd" criticism, praising the report for "lifting the lid on something that has been brushed under the carpet for far far too long."

"There has been some idiotic response from someone within Government, an absurd response," he said at a Westminster school. "This is obviously a serious and credible report that needs to be taken seriously and taken seriously by the Government."

David Cameron also backed the interim report, prepared by deputy Children's Commissioner Sue Berelowitz, saying its "extremely disturbing findings" need to be investigated.

"This is a very serious issue that is being examined," the Prime Minister told the House of Commons. "It is an interim report that has been produced which we need to study very carefully."

The interim report warned that social networking sites and mobile phone services are used to "groom, bully and pursue" teenagers.

The study said gangs are responsible for raping thousands of teenage girls and that urgent action is needed to curb what is seen as a growing problem.

The report also warns that it has been "rare to identify cases of child sexual exploitation where the use of technology has not been a factor". Pornography is also regularly seen as a factor contributing to abuse, the commissioner says.

The report is published amid growing public concern over the extent of child sexual abuse after the accusations surrounding Jimmy Savile. David Cameron recently agreed to establish several reviews into sexual abuse at a children's home in North Wales after Lord McAlpine, the former Conservative Treasurer, was wrongly accused of being a paedophile.

Ministers are understood to be growing increasingly alarmed that today's official report, which follows a lengthy inquiry by the Children's Commissioner, risks adding to unnecessary concern by using questionable statistics.

The Children's Commissioner highlights the "conspiracy of silence" which allowed Savile to "rape children with impunity". However, it adds that it is "too easy to simply blame the BBC" as the problem was far more widespread.

In 2010, the Children's Commissioner, a government body, started an inquiry into child sexual exploitation in gangs and groups following growing concerns over the extent of the problem.

Its interim report, published today, studied abuse of children over 11, or those who had reached puberty. A survey of police forces and local authorities found that in the past 14 months, 2,409 children were victims of sexual exploitation. There were 1,514 perpetrators.

However, the official criminal records were judged to be an "undercounting". The Children's Commissioner estimated that "at least 16,500 children were identified as being at risk of child sexual exploitation during one year".

The report details how abusers are using social networking websites to contact children. Teenagers being abused are also threatened that images of them will be distributed online if they stop cooperating. In other cases, phone numbers or pin numbers of girls labelled as "easy" were shared by perpetrators.

The report concludes: "The use of mobile phones, social networking sites and other forms of technology are highlighted in the report as channels through which perpetrators groom, bully and pursue victims."

It also contains figures showing that about a third of men convicted of sexually exploiting children were of "Asian" origin.

The Deputy Children's Commissioner insisted the "model" of Asian men abusing white teenage girls was only one among a wide range of unacceptable behaviour.

She added: "When people focus on that one model they are unfortunately not identifying all victims because they think that all victims are white girls." The Deputy Children's Commissioner, supported by a panel of experts, is due to make her final recommendations in the autumn of 2013.