Simon Fell (Barrow and Furness) (Con) [V]
I appreciate the opportunity to speak in this important debate. In my constituency, this is very much a live issue, and it is causing considerable concern. There are ongoing investigations in my constituency on these issues and a pending trial. I will be very careful with my remarks, so as to protect that crucial work. If we ever hope to see justice, and for communities such as ours to be able to heal, that process must be able to play out in full.
I do not think it is unreasonable to ask the question of how widespread grooming activity is and how and where it links to child sexual exploitation and child sexual abuse cases. I also do not think it is unreasonable when people express a lack of faith in the system, as they have to me in conversations and surgery appointments. There are clear examples of where the system has not worked and victims have been let down time and again. There is a clear appetite for more information and for faith to be restored in the process. I firmly believe that the only way we will get there is through transparency—through making the failings of the past visible and demonstrably learning our lessons from them.
I want to concentrate the remainder of my remarks on a different aspect of this debate: those with vested interests stirring up tensions to suit their own ends. This is not to deny in any way the powerful and awful cases of CSE and CSA that exist and that must be stamped out whenever they occur. In Barrow, we have seen the sharp end of these vested interests. They take the vacuum of information that forms when investigations start or court processes begin, and they exploit people’s fears. They exploit their worst natures, and they fill the void with misinformation and conjecture that serves no one but themselves.
At the height of the first lockdown, in the middle of the pandemic in Barrow, we had the indignity of the far right turning up, stoking up tensions in our town and leading physical protests and convoys of vehicles down the A590, all the while proclaiming that they were doing it in the pursuit of justice. But of course, they were not. Instead of shining a light on injustice, they shone a light very brightly on themselves. They talked up the causes and the division that they promoted, and then they left, leaving people who are sat at home by necessity, spending too much time on Facebook, with questions. Those with books to sell and media reputations to burnish should be ashamed of themselves for exploiting the fears of communities such as mine, who have legitimate worries and concerns.
I hate to say it, but I have no doubt that there is sexual exploitation going on in some of the towns and communities that make up constituencies such as mine. It is a sad fact of modern life. While every single case is reprehensible and requires a proportionate response from the justice system, individual cases do not mean an epidemic or a cover-up, no matter what some of those I mentioned suggest. We have a burning need to restore faith in the processes that surround these investigations and to shine a light on them. The more transparent we can be, the easier that job will be, even if the conversation we must have to get there will be very difficult indeed.
I would like to end by thanking a few of my constituents. During a pandemic, in a lockdown, faced with some shocking headlines that are amplified by social media, the community has pulled together and looked after those most in need. I would especially like to thank Women’s Community Matters in Barrow for all it has done for those who need help most in our community—victims and survivors alike. We have a long way to go to win the public’s trust, and I very much hope that the new tackling child sexual abuse strategy gives us demonstrable results soon, so that that journey can begin.