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Assistant Commissioner Martin Hewitt speaks about child protection

Blog post   •   Oct 21, 2016 09:30 BST

[Assistant Commissioner Martin Hewitt]

If there’s one thing you can’t accuse the Met of, it’s of lacking ambition.

Making London the safest global city is the demanding goal we set ourselves, our officers and our staff.

Protecting the public in all our communities, keeping safe those who live, work or visit our wonderful city, will continue to be our mission as we enter a new phase of modernisation under a new Mayor. 

We’ve demonstrated our ability to keep the public safe by cutting crime and protecting London from terrorists despite new levels of violence across Europe and the world. And we’ve done so whilst also making savings of £600 million.

I know the Commissioner is incredibly proud of all his officers and staff for this extraordinary achievement.We’re all proud too of their commitment to upholding our values - courage, compassion, integrity and professionalism.

But like the nastiest diseases, crime mutates; it changes its shape and so we need to keep changing to protect the public. 

In my role as an Assistant Commissioner, I’m now responsible for local policing in London, the foundation upon which all of our success is built.But I’ve also worked for some years in the area of sexual offending, including rape.

Today, I’m going to focus on one particular element of that offending; protecting children from sexual exploitation, as well as violence, abuse and radicalisation. It’s something I care deeply about and if you want to know why, let me tell you briefly about one of the first times I had to deal with a case involving an abused child.

That’s why I feel so strongly that we must get this right. You won’t find many officers in the Met who don’t. 

Getting it right can’t mean achieving perfection. We can’t protect every child, and we cannot set all our resources against one type of threat. The reality is that more children are killed or seriously injured on the roads each year than die through abuse or neglect and one of our other responsibilities is helping to keep the highways as safe as possible. 

And we can’t do it by ourselves. Policing is just part of a collaborative effort to protect children, in which social services, schools, the NHS and the Probation Service all play their part. You’ll see, I think, as I go through some of the issues today, how enforcing the law against sexual predators alone – vitally important as it is - does not strike at all the root causes of evil behaviour.

But we - the Met - can do better - so we have put protecting vulnerable children at the heart of some important changes to the way the Met polices London. For those to be understood, and I hope welcomed,I want the public and our partners to hear the reasons why we need to improve the way we protect vulnerable children - and adults too, for that matter - and offer us their support.

I need to put that in the context of the broader issues we face, like changing and new crime threats, terrorism, and the changing population of London. Not to mention the reality of tighter budgets and the public’s legitimate expectation of a service fit for a digital age.

If we‘re going to change our service in one area – like child protection – we have to understand and explain how that affects the rest of what we do. 

Child Protection is an incredibly complex task in a modern world with numerous threats to children; 

- being drawn into gangs or tempted into violence and crime;
- being the first generation of youngsters to have in their hands a digital tree of knowledge - their smartphone - with all the temptations of pornographic and violent content that it offers;
- less visible but more devastating, being groomed for sexual exploitation and abuse by predators who may be in their family, their community or in a position of authority;
- and finally, a different kind of grooming, by terrorists overseas who want to lure them into radicalisation and violence.

It’s a new and a frightening landscape.

Those issues were set out well by the RSA last year in the report the Commissioner launched in this very room. ‘Safer together: policing a global city in 2020’ didn’t just identify the threats, it also made clear that law enforcement could only ever be part of a wider response by the public services. 

Sir Bernard asked us - his senior team – to ensure that our modernisation plans reflected the RSA’s thinking, and I think that will be evident today.

Since that report was published, we’ve talked in detail to many of our partners across London. We held a summit on vulnerability in January and this has all fed into our thinking and our plans.

We have spent some months sharing our ideas with the new Mayor and his team, and their input has been critical in shaping the approach to ensure that we don’t just protect children, but also tackle violence against women and girls and the threat of radicalisation.

More recently, we’ve been challenged through inspection by HMIC, who are inspecting forces’ ability to protect children. We await their report, but I am clear that it will have some tough messages for us, and we’ll respond fully once it’s published. We welcome such scrutiny, though I hope in future that we can see multi-agency inspections into protecting children so that we build a truly comprehensive picture of what is, and isn’t working well.

The Mayor will publish his draft Police and Crime plan in a few weeks, and I certainly don’t want to pre-empt that. But I do want to set out our thinking on protecting children and other vulnerable groups, and ask for your support as we move forward in developing this.

I’m going to cover three areas.

Firstly, what’s the risk to children today in London?

Secondly, how are we the police going to deal with this?

Thirdly, how can we ensure our efforts are joined up with our partners and supported by the public?

We’ll have time for a question and answer session so we can hear your initial response.

The risk to children today:

You may wonder why policing needs to be speaking today, in 2016, about the need to improve the way we protect children from the threat of violence, exploitation and abuse. Haven’t we been here before?

I’m afraid the answer is Yes we have, but also no, we haven’t. We did respond alongside social services, the NHS and the criminal justice system to horrible cases of physical abuse like Victoria Climbie and Baby P. But what happened in Rotherham, Rochdale and Oxford, and what we learned about Jimmy Savile after his death, has exposed some truths about the opportunities that powerful people have to exploit vulnerable youngsters and adults for sex. We also have many forms of offending facilitated by ever increasing technological change.

The government has, of course, commissioned a Public Inquiry. It also made child sexual abuse a national threat, like serious and organised crime. And the Children’s Commissioner has called for urgent action to improve ‘the prevention and early identification of child sex abuse and the support provided for victims’. 

What we have also seen is an extraordinary growth in the confidence of people to report to police, supported by a network of committed charities and agencies, and I hope a change in how we are viewed too. Nevertheless, our country, and the various authorities that care for and protect children, are still on an difficult and challenging journey of discovery, understanding physical abuse and neglect, recognising systematic sexual abuse and exploitation, and working out collectively how to respond to the challenge from government and the Children’s Commissioner.

What, then, do we know about the threats to children in London today? 

I’ve said this is a complex area, so forgive me for starting with some figures that illustrate very starkly the scale and nature of the problems I’m talking about. 

25,000 - that’s the number of missing children we dealt with over the past 12 months, of which 5% were classed as high-risk. Whilst the police do not have a statutory duty to look for missing children, no one else accepts that responsibility, even though many of the children come from local authority care homes. Most are found quickly, but in high-risk cases we commit significant resources analysing phone-data and social media usage to look for signs of exploitation and find that child.

Over 8,000 - that’s roughly the number of children on a protection plan today - which means that a local authority has identified them as being at risk or violence or abuse. These are very young children, generally, and this plan puts them on the radar of our child abuse investigation teams.

5,903 - the number of registered sex offenders whom we currently have responsibility to monitor, according to the risk they pose.Some of this requires some very intrusive supervision (for example….) and the number increases by about 8 per cent each and every year. 

21,056 - the number of children who came into custody last year. We don’t welcome this and our custody sergeants go to great lengths to find local authority places of safety where children can go instead, but very often they simply don’t exist. What’s more, up to half of those children who end up in prison are likely to have been in care or still are according to the Prison Reform Trust.They will have been through our custody suites and this doesn’t feel like a collective success.

Over 63,000 - the number of children who are victims of crime. 

More than 72,000 suspected of a crime. 

1,538 - the number we define as at risk of child sexual exploitation. These tend to be older children than those on a protection plan. 

61 - the number of child deaths we investigated last year, 16 of which were homicides - two of these children were on a Protection Plan.

15,841 - the number of investigations into child abuse we conducted last year, including 2,938 investigations into child sexual abuse. And the Children’s Commissioner believes only 1 in 8 victims of child sexual exploitation will become known to authorities, so the potential to increase the number of cases is huge. 

Every single one of those figures represents a personal and often a family crisis.

Each one is a measure of the risks that the police - in concert with other agencies - are attempting to manage.

I will go through each of them to describe how we assess and manage the risk in each case, and how I think we need to improve

A missing child is obviously at risk whilst they are missing. Less obviously, their decision to go missing is often an indicator that they are risk in some way, whether they’re being bullied or subject to violence or abuse in their normal lives. These risks are harder to identify. We have missing children units on each of our 32 Borough teams, but they’re currently small and lack the resource to follow-up and see what’s caused a child to go missing.

Putting children on a protection plan is a formal recognition of the risks they face and generally leads to an intervention by a range of statutory services. This could include supervision or parenting assistance. We share the information we have and get involved if an investigation is needed. One of the Met’s big challenges is that there is no consistent way of doing this across London’s 32 Boroughs, and we are very worried about the impact of spending cuts on the collective ability to intervene early. 

The police have been given the responsibility to monitor registered sex offenders, whereas the Probation Service fulfil that role for other people coming out of prison. It’s down to police officers, therefore to assess the risk of them reoffending whilst the local commander has to decide whether to take someone off the list, not an easy decision to make. 

I have already given you a strong indication of how we feel about having to keep children in our cells. We assess the risk for every detainee in our care to keep them as safe as possible. But the reality for children is an unpleasant environment where the other cells and booking-in areas are often populated by drunken, violent or mentally unstable adults, so we want to get them out of there as fast as possible. There are a few occasions where custody is appropriate but for most the experience could have a damaging and lasting impact.

Every detainee – child or adult - is risk assessed and a care plan drawn up that lasts as long as they’re in detention. If a child is charged or kept in custody, we let the local authority know so they can find alternative accommodation. 

The next couple of numbers are more self-explanatory and there are processes for managing the risk that a child who commits a crime reoffends, or a child becomes a repeat victim. 

When a child is deemed at risk of sexual exploitation by ourselves, our partners or their family, or where we have intelligence pointing to that risk, we do a full assessment of that child’s circumstances. If it’s a high risk case, our specialists will stay very involved and require lots of resources to deal with that risk. 

The next number represents all children who died in London last year, including accidents. Any homicide will go to one of our specialist murder investigation teams. These are very well-resourced and London, as a consequence, sees most murderers caught and convicted.

No one knows how many child abuse investigations we’ll be doing by 2020, but in each case we must not just follow the evidence and charge where we can, but also decide whether children need to be safe-guarded whilst the investigation is underway. Bail gives an opportunity to impose conditions until we can establish whether a crime has been committed.

I’m going to give you one more number to reflect upon. That is the number of cases in the Met Police area where an individual has accessed indecent images of children online. We are currently identifying about 400 a month or 4,800 a year from one operation alone.

That’s a staggering number that I hope conveys to you why some of my colleagues talk about the sexual abuse of children as an epidemic. Our job as police is, first and foremost, to identify those amongst that enormous group who come into contact with children and may be abusing them. That’s where the greatest risk is. Those for whom the abuse is virtual we have to assess and investigate where we can. We simply shouldn’t take resource away from protecting children we know are under a physical threat to pursue every single last online case. It’s a hideous choice to make for officers but short of putting every single one of our officers on to this, it’s a choice we have to make. 

There’s one more point I want to make about the risks we are managing here. The various channels by which children come to our attention have been created with the threat of familial abuse and violence to the fore, and that’s what these figures largely represent. They’re a legacy of the excellent work done by Lord Laming and others after the Climbie Inquiry and Baby P. 

But children who are vulnerable to these factors are often also vulnerable to gangs and gang violence. And we’re now dealing with the relatively recent phenomenon of children’s vulnerability to radicalisation. So even the figures I’ve just shown you DON’T adequately capture all the threats to our children’s safety.

How the Met is going to deal with this?

I hope you’ll agree that a problem on this scale – especially when you consider those links to gangs and terrorism - demands a systematic response from policing and from the Met. That’s why we have to take into account related issues. Children are not the only vulnerable individuals we need to protect, and there are big social changes going on that demand a better approach from us to protecting vulnerable adults.

I can’t go into the same depth with all the threats to vulnerable people, but let me list a few:

- The reporting of rape to the Met has increased by 60% over the last two years.There are clear linkages between sexual offending against adults and against children - the same offenders can be involved - so our new approach has considered all sexual offending. 

- We’ve seen a significant escalation in the amount of reporting of domestic abuse. The individuals affected may also be at risk of sexual offending, and the children in families where domestic abuse is present are also vulnerable. 

- Hate crime has seen a similar growth, and tackling it also brings in newer partners like social media companies.

- Modern slavery and human trafficking are a specialist focus for the Met, and the Commissioner has worked alongside the Catholic Church and Cardinal Vincent Nichols to raise the profile of these issues and improve our response. 

- Female genital mutilation has presented us and others with a real cultural challenge to win the confidence of communities and provide us with the information we need to enforce the law and prevent this barbaric crime taking place. 

- One final theme running through much of this area is that of mental health.Many of the most vulnerable individuals with whom the police service comes into contact have mental health issues. They can be a risk to themselves and a risk to others. Relying on the police to guard against this risk simply isn’t working.

What the crimes against vulnerable people have in common is that they require significant specialist expertise to understand what are often new, or previously unrecognised phenomena, and develop a way of investigating that's going to bring the real criminals to justice. But at the same time, every single one of our officers needs to have an understanding of those factors and their own role in recognising and safeguarding individuals who are vulnerable. That's an awesome responsibility for our officers to carry, particularly for those with less experience. So we now include, alongside training for traditional vulnerabilities, sessions on how to recognise crimes like modern slavery and FGM in the first few weeks of training for our recruits. 

We know that despite all we do at present to protect against these threats, we must do more.So the Met’s reached the conclusion that we need a new safeguarding service embedded in local policing. 

It will be focused on protecting vulnerable people, adults as well as children, from violence, abuse, sexual offending and radicalisation. It will bring together the best of our specialist expertise, in rape, child protection, domestic violence, FGM and hate crime, but will clearly be part of our local policing service working side-by-side with neighbourhood, response and CID detectives. 

Let me tell you how and why I think it will be better. There are 4 main areas for improvement. 

Firstly, we will join up our approaches to dealing with these risks so there’s a single point of contact with families, a single point of contact for local authorities, and a single point of view for the Met of a child or adult at risk that takes everything we know into account - violence, abuse, exploitation and radicalisation.

In practice, this means that the local detectives who currently investigate domestic abuse and hate crime, will join up with some of the specialist detectives who are currently working to tackle sexual offending against children and adults. 

Secondly, the safeguarding service will work hand-in-hand with neighbourhood officers and PCSO’s. They are the people who best understand local communities, and they must be the frontline for protecting vulnerable people. 

We were pleased when the new Mayor proposed that we increase the number of officers dedicated to particular wards and localities. These officers are the foundation for successful policing in London. And what they do matters as much as how many of them there are. 

They’re problem-solvers for the local community; they’re the eyes and ears that help the Met and others spot issues early; they’re catalysts for community action; they help us, help you, the public, to prevent crime and keep yourself and your family safe. They are frontline safe-guarders.

All our officers have this safe-guarding duty, first responders, detectives, counter-terrorism specialists, and compassion is as important in these roles as is courage.We need to ensure that WHENEVER an officer comes into contact with a child - as a victim, a suspect, a missing person, in a home where criminals or radicals have been present - they always make a proper, thorough and professional consideration of the risks to that child’s safety. And then that they act.

Thirdly, we will increase the number of officers working in schools and with young people. They have a vital role to play in identifying those most at risk, raising awareness, and preventing harm. And they are our bridge into education, which is closer to children day-in, day-out, than any other public service. 

Fourthly, we will strengthen our leadership in this area. The Commissioner has asked me - as the lead for local policing - to take on that role. It’s an important signal to all our local officers that this is their responsibility. It’s not a specialist job for a few.

I recognise that some of the targets that we’ve set our officers to reduce high-volume crime over the past few years may now stand in the way of progress. We had to improve the Met’s poor performance in areas like burglary and theft, but protecting vulnerable people is more complex. We will introduce a vulnerability performance framework that allows us properly to assess risk and deploy resources, and which recognises the input from our partners.

The Met cannot create this new safeguarding service without a change to our model for policing London. We’ve moved beyond the point where we can just throw more officers at a problem, and as you’ve heard, this is an area where we need to mobilise all our resources.

Not only is our budget shrinking - more than 400 million pounds of savings to make on top of the 600 million we have already achieved - what I’ve been describing to you today is not the only increasing threat.The RSA’s Safer Together report was very good at identifying the range of growing demands on policing. Safeguarding vulnerable people is one, but as the past year has demonstrated, the RSA was also right to focus on terrorism and cyber-crime.

The attacks in Paris last November by terrorists armed with automatic weapons and IEDs at multiple targets across the city signalled a new level of threat to our safety and security.We’ve responded by adding 600 more firearms officers. 

The cyber-crime threat was graphically illustrated when fraud was added to the Crime Survey this year.There were nearly 6 million cases across the country, with the public much more likely to be the victim of online crime than being robbed in the street. 

So there are some things we need to do to enable the new safeguarding service to work; some design principles, if you like.

First and most important, it must be part of a broader plan to strengthen local policing. We need to move hundreds of our specialist detectives to local policing teams, bringing them closer to the communities they serve. Most of our detectives investigating sexual offending and child abuse will come under local commanders in future. 

This will be very different from how the Met has operated. Our expertise at investigating sexual offences has grown considerably, and the detectives who do this will focus on crimes against vulnerable people.

Secondly, we need to maximise the number of officers in front-line roles and streamline the number of managers and supervisors. We have done this as part of our savings programme to date but we are doing more. That means bigger teams, fewer units, more efficiently managed.

Thirdly, we need to design our new service around the needs of the public, especially victims, and our partners. Policing is complex, it does need a variety of skills, but that doesn’t mean we have to make the service complex to use. We need to make it easier for our partners too. We’ve learned that from the extensive consultation we’ve done.

Fourthly, each of our local safeguarding teams must have the skills and capabilities it needs to meet the range of demands from the public. If a team is too small, it doesn’t have the range of skills required to tackle the kind of complex crimes I have described.If it’s too small, it doesn’t have the resilience to cope with the peaks and troughs that go with delivering a public service.

There are a number of different ways we could do this, but ultimately, whilst the structures clearly matter, it’s the processes and working practices that change the service. That and the way our people commit to protecting the public, and to putting our values into action.

How can we join up with our partners and the public?

Now you won’t be surprised that I have focused on policing today. That’s our responsibility and it’s for the Met to ensure that our service improves and that we achieve our goal of making this the safest global city.

But you’ll have heard me refer throughout to our partners. Yes, that’s many of you in the room.Some of you took part in the consultation that contributed to the RSA’s Safer Together report. Some of you were at the subsequent summit we held on vulnerability in January, or have been involved in numerous conversations we have had since then. You’ve often been critical of us. We’ve been listening and your input has shaped our thinking. 

It has to. We can’t protect children without you. 

We need your support in creating this new service. The Met has an almost unique perspective that comes from working across all 32 Boroughs. It’s hard for us to manage when there are different ways of doing things, so we’d like to see more consistency in safeguarding activity across London. 

We also need your support, at a time of intense financial pressure on local government, in maintaining the resources you need to intervene successfully and prevent harm coming to children and adults. 

The Met’s key role and key strength is in enforcing the law. Sometimes, that requires intervention before an offence is committed and it certainly needs us to get better at identifying those crimes we’re not currently aware of. But we can’t take the lead in addressing all the social pressures that are driving abuse and violence.

We welcome the commitment the Mayor has made in this area. His priorities of tackling violence against women and girls, on keeping young children safe whilst strengthening neighbourhood policing, are closely aligned to our thinking, and with his support and that of the Deputy Mayor for Policing and Crime , I think we have the opportunity to work even more successfully with our range of partners. 

There is a role for the public too. As we have been looking to improve our services and make them fit for a digital age, we’ve been asking people what they think of policing. Some important messages have come through.

Firstly, the traditional principle set out by the Met’s founder Sir Robert Peel nearly 200 years ago is alive and well. He said ‘the police are the public and the public are the police’, and when you sit down and ask people what they think of us, they nearly all say they want to help. That recognition and acceptance that the public also have a responsibility to make this the safest global city, and have an active desire to help, comes through strongly. 

But we don’t make this easy at times. Our service is opaque at best. People tell us we aren’t clear what they can do to help, how they can get involved in the process of dealing with a crime as a witness or victim, what our expectations are of them. Tell us and we’ll help they say, anxious not be an additional burden on what they know is a hard-pressed emergency service. This feedback has influenced our determination to put prevention first. 

In the area of safeguarding children and vulnerable adults, prevention is a complex challenge involving a variety of agencies and the need to make difficult and intrusive interventions in people’s lives. But in the areas in which there are high volumes of crimes like burglary and theft, there is much that the public can do to make themselves safer. We have been testing out new approaches this year, working with the experts from Cardiff University and are about to trial a new Be Safe campaign, building on the expertise built up in the health sector at encouraging people to change their behaviour, for example, by smoking and drinking less.

The other message that’s come through is a real enthusiasm to contact us and use our services through digital channels. We are in the process of catching up with many other public services here, but we are just about to go live with a new web site designed to be a platform for using our services in a simple and easy way.

Making it easier to do this is a win-win scenario. The public take less time to get the information they need, or get through to the service they want, and they’ll be more satisfied and less frustrated as a result. The Met will be much more efficient at how we deal with the public and their needs, again releasing resources to deal with the risks and threats I’ve focused on today.

None of this is easy. Changing a public service that’s been very traditional in the way it operates will have its moments, for partners and public alike. Please continue to be our critical friends as we move forward together.

I do not want you to leave thinking the Met accepts the landscape for protecting children is bleak and threatening. I am very positive about the opportunities we have to make this global city safer for children and all vulnerable people.

We have great new officers joining us all the time who are fully committed to their new role protecting the public. If any of you wants to come and meet them as they pass out from our new training school at Hendon, you are more than welcome, and I’m sure you will be as impressed as I am. They embody those values of courage and compassion, and as they move into their new roles in local policing, they will help us become more and more effective at what we do.

The new approach I have described will get the best out of the Met’s specialist detectives, leaders in their fields at home and abroad. By embedding them in our local policing teams, all our communities will feel the benefit of a more joined-up and coherent service.

And above all, I feel a real sense that this is a shared mission, between police and partners. As the RSA suggested last year, the Met needs to work more closely with you and our other partners and focus harder on ensuring we have a collective impact on these complex social problems. 

We are learning. We are listening. We are strengthening local relationships. We all have the support of the Mayor and we will be successful.