Today, the Lord Mayor of the City of London, Fiona Woolf, has been named as the chair of the independent inquiry commissioned by the government into historical child sexual abuse. She will replace Lady Butler-Sloss, who stood down following a raft of criticism at her appointment, as her brother was attorney general during the 1980’s and a conflict of interest could arise. Fiona Woolf is not the most obvious candidate, being a city lawyer whose experience seems to be mostly within financial services and the energy sector. However, Simon Danczuk, the MP for Rochester who has been calling for an overarching inquiry into abuse, said that Woolf is “a smart and capable woman and she has my support.”

The inquiry will address public concern over the numerous child abuse scandals of late, and will consider whether public organisations have fulfilled their duty of care to protect children from sexual abuse. The most recent controversy to hit the headlines is, of course, in Rotherham, where there have been scathing criticisms of the way the local authority and the police have dealt with allegations of child abuse. It is no coincidence that Professor Alexis Jay, author of the recent report into abuse in Rotherham, is to act as an expert adviser to the independent inquiry headed by Woolf into historical child sexual abuse.

It is hard to fathom the scale of the abuse in Rotherham, given that the number of children abused is believed to exceed 1,400. The local authority and police need to accept their failings and quickly learn from them. Rotherham Borough Council have set up a scrutiny committee on child protection to help rebuild public confidence in the council, although this is likely to take time. Oxford, Oldham and Rochdale have all had similar publicity about abuse, although not to the same scale as Rotherham. Other local authorities must ensure that they are not complacent; the sexual exploitation of vulnerable young people is a threat which hangs over every town and city in this country.

The first lesson we must learn from Rotherham is that if someone has the inclination and opportunity to do so, they can quickly gain sufficient leverage to sexually manipulate a vulnerable young person. We need to re-think the way we view the risk of harm from this starting point. In circumstances where a young person satisfies certain risk factors, social services should presume that sexual predators will be targeting them and act accordingly. Parents and children can then be educated on the dangers posed to them.

A few years ago I attended a conference on sexual exploitation and human trafficking, which included a screening of the promotional video called ‘My Dangerous Loverboy’. This targeted the risks posed by men grooming young females by showering them with gifts under the auspices of being in love with them. Educational tools such as this would be an effective starting point for getting the message across to both parents and children. Support can then be co-ordinated between schools, social services, medical practitioners and the family to protect the young person.

Part of the reason the abuse in Rotherham is so poignant is that even when children and parents did seek help, they were routinely let down by the police and social services. In 2002, a report had already criticised the police and local council for failing to treat allegations of child sexual abuse with the appropriate level of seriousness. The report of Professor Alexis Jay recounts a witness who worked for the local authority talking of “systemic failures” and missed opportunities. There are reports of a police detective labeling the rape of a 12 year old girl by several men as “entirely consensual”. Even when the police did show interest it was difficult to get the victims to follow through with their allegations for fear of reprisal.

The point has been made that Rotherham’s social care service for children was acutely understaffed and overstretched. As a result, they were unable to cope with demand, which was compounded by a target driven approach. When the number of referrals to social services was too high for them to cope with, social workers were reportedly told to take vulnerable young people off their registers. Without more resources being allocated to these areas, the problems will continue.

It is likely that the survivors of abuse in Rotherham will be bringing legal action against the local authority and police for failing to protect them. For instance, civil proceedings could be brought for the failure of the police to investigate the allegations properly. This could be in breach of the victims’ rights to freedom from inhumane or degrading treatment under article 3 of the Human Rights Act. A civil case could also be brought against the local authority where social workers had failed to protect the young people who were being abused. To do so they would need to establish that the actions of social services fell below the standard expected of a reasonably competent social work department. Given the reported failings of the local authorities, it is highly likely that there will be some successful civil actions brought by survivors of abuse. Bolt Burdon Kemp has a specialist team dedicated to pursuing such claims and you can read about our client’s stories here.

Theresa May, when announcing Fiona Woolf’s appointment, said:

“we are absolutely clear that we must learn the lessons of past failures and the panel will be instrumental in helping us to do this.”

In politics such wholesale admissions of failure are not commonplace. It is encouraging, at least, that there appears to be a genuine desire to stop the faults from the past happening again. It will be up to the government in power to see this through when Fiona Woolf’s inquiry concludes before the general election in around May 2015.

The challenge for Rotherham is how to move forward. The abuse has been used by some as a political device, and the English Defence League have been protesting outside the police station in the town. It is vital, of course, that the failings of the police and local authority are brought to the surface so there can be meaningful change. But it is equally important that the survivors of abuse have the chance to heal, away from the gaze of the media and public speculation.