DAVID BLUNKETT: We should all avoid judgment about sex allegations
Ex-Education Secretary DAVID BLUNKETT: We should all, especially the police, avoid rushing to judgment about the sex allegations sweeping our schools
When one of Britain’s top police officers last week described the outpouring of allegations in schools and colleges as the ‘next big child sexual abuse scandal to hit the country’, he left us in no doubt where he stands.
Simon Bailey, who is the National Police Chiefs Council’s lead on child protection and Chief Constable of Norfolk, said this sudden surge of complaints was our education system’s ‘MeToo moment’ – a powerful reference to the campaign that has been galvanised worldwide and has seen survivors of sexual harassment or violence speak out about their experiences so as to expose and combat sexual misconduct.
Every police force in the country, Mr Bailey said, should launch investigations, including into those allegations dating back many years. In fact, he suggested that the 8,000 allegations that have been made to the Everyone’s Invited website are probably just the tip of an iceberg.
‘There’s got to be an inquiry and it has got to get going very fast. This is serious,’ he urged, calling for victims to come forward and for parents to turn in their sons to the authorities if they knew they had been guilty of sexual assault.
Considering the failures by police to tackle child sexual exploitation, Mr Bailey’s reaction might seem reasonable.
Simon Bailey, the National Police Chiefs Council’s lead on child protection and Chief Constable of Norfolk, said the surge of complaints was the education system’s ‘MeToo moment
But is it wise for a chief constable to judge as fact the anonymous, as yet unproven, accounts of teenagers? Also, in effect, to endorse the shocking view of the website’s founder that there is a ‘rape culture’ in British schools and colleges?
I believe that it takes only a moment’s reflection to realise this might trigger unforeseen and dangerous consequences.
The fact is there is a huge amount at stake with such allegations –including the wellbeing of any children and teenagers who might subsequently be involved in police inquiries, with the emotional and mental damage that this could cause.
We have already experienced similar issues, of course, with Operation Midland, the Metropolitan Police Service’s mishandled inquiry into what were baseless sex allegations against several prominent men, which cost £2.5 million of taxpayers’ money.
Without a shred of evidence, the police had initially described claims of this ‘VIP paedophile abuse ring’ as ‘credible and true’.
In the end, the fantasist behind all the allegations, a man called Carl Beech, was jailed for 18 years for his ‘hideous and repugnant’ lies. But his imprisonment came too late for men such as Lords Bramall and Brittan, whose reputations were disgracefully and wrongly smeared.
Meanwhile, diverting or wasting resources can, sadly, lead to the truly guilty escaping scot-free.
As a trained teacher and having been both Home Secretary and Education Secretary, I know that children’s development is complicated and that society and the justice system must treat it with the utmost care.
For a proper response to these new claims of sexual abuse, it is vital to understand how society has changed over recent decades.
We should look at the corrosive impact of online pornography on early-teenage boys. Research suggests that it leads some young men to become confused about their masculinity and about how to treat women and that normal adolescent development can be detrimentally affected.
We should understand, too, that boys and girls grow up at different speeds. Some young men, through inadequacy or simply a lack of confidence, are clumsy, inept and – in some cases, it would appear – can behave offensively.
Laddishness, in all its ugly forms, is nothing new.
Coarse behaviour – verbal or physical – is deeply unpleasant and can lead to something much worse. But it doesn’t automatically follow that it will.
Role models are crucial in young men’s development, particularly during adolescence. Indeed, it is a challenge for many to come to terms with masculinity in a world where traditional ‘male’ jobs have diminished. It is crucial that parents and teachers make sure they spot the signs if something starts to go wrong.
Of course, this issue is not just about boys. Female rappers, whose language and imagery is sexually provocative are complicit.
And, yes, youngsters must be taught how to behave. Personal, social, health and economic education, together with citizenship classes, when taught effectively in schools and colleges, should provide the opportunity to explore these issues sensitively. Disturbing as the abuse claims are, it is not right that police chiefs pronounce guilt without the evidence – suggesting that sexual abuse is rampant and endemic in our education system.
The implication that boys in general are guilty – and should be made to confess to their inadequacy – borders on the absurd.
Such an approach shows just how far we have to go in understanding what is needed to help young people through what is, undoubtedly, the most difficult time of their lives.
I had already been thinking a lot about these issues, particularly when taking part in Lords debates on the Domestic Abuse Bill, which aims to protect victims – principally women – from the violence, coercion or controlling behaviour of their partners.
This vital piece of legislation offers, for example, some protection to women from men who have used ‘non-fatal strangulation’ as a means of exerting power.
So, yes, the protection of the vulnerable must be at the very forefront of our thoughts.
That is why we need a genuine effort to ensure that the most serious allegations, including rape, are investigated thoroughly. It is also, though, the reason why an examination of lower-level, crass behaviour should be accompanied by a proper analysis of what we do about it, rather than just railing against it.
We need a world where inappropriate touching, or ugly, suggestive language, is dealt with swiftly and effectively. A world where young men and women can explore, together, how best to relate to each other.
There is no shortage of fuel for the fires we are fighting. The emergence of ‘identity politics’ based on race, disability or gender is pushing us into an all-or-nothing, in-or-out, for-you-or-against-you world of easy answers and quick solutions.
This propels people into taking sides and adopting a ‘stand’. It also allows others to exploit the bewilderment, bemusement and sense of alienation which is so often felt in our fast-moving world.
George Bernard Shaw famously once said to a friend: ‘I wish I was as certain about anything, as you are about everything!’
Not being able to see, I know the challenge of dealing with uncertainty. Remembering back, I was all too aware of the fact that I couldn’t catch the eye of a girl who I found attractive. So I had to take other signals as to whether an approach would be welcome. An appreciation that flirting and sensuality weren’t always meant as a come-on.
I often got it wrong – and so do young men today.
No one should excuse boorish, let alone criminal, behaviour. But there are better ways of tackling this challenge than rushing to judgment.
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