Home Office rewrites definition of child sexual exploitation

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Home Office: trying to define child sexual exploitation Pic credit: gov.uk

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This week  the Home Office quietly announced a new definition of child sexual exploitation which will be used by all practitioners in the field – from the police and social workers to voluntary organisations and charities.

The decision was overshadowed by an announcement that the Government was spending an extra £40m tackling child sex abuse.

It included the launch of a new Centre of Expertise on child sexual abuse, an extra £20 million for the National Crime Agency to tackle online child sexual exploitation, £2.2 million for organisations working to protect children at risk of trafficking and the launch of Independent Child Trafficking Advocates (ICTAs) in 3 early-adopter sites across the UK.

The latter service will initially be provided by Barnardo’s in Wales, Hampshire and Greater Manchester ahead of a full national roll out.

However the change in the wording of what constitutes child sexual exploitation had been a minefield for the ministry. The consultation paper admitted the existing definition of child sexual exploitation adopted since 2009 had not worked and had hampered investigations.

It described  current rules as ” unclear and out of date.”

“Voluntary organisations, devolved administrations and local agencies have responded over time by developing a number of alternative definitions. Partners have told us that this has led to local agencies using different definitions or using the terms ‘child sexual abuse’ and ‘child sexual exploitation’ interchangeably, resulting in ineffective multi-agency working, inconsistent risk assessments and poor data collection.”

But changing the definition has not been easy. The first draft proposed a year ago has been attacked as both being too broad – and threatening to include all sexual relations between 16 and 17 year olds – and too narrow in its definition of exploitation over the internet.

The original proposed draft said:

“Child sexual exploitation is a form of child abuse. It occurs where anyone under the age of 18 is persuaded, coerced or forced into sexual activity in exchange for, amongst other things, money, drugs/alcohol, gifts, affection or status. Consent is irrelevant, even where a child may believe they are voluntarily engaging in sexual activity with the person who is exploiting them. Child sexual exploitation does not always involve physical contact and may occur online.”

The Home Office received criticism from organisations over under 18 year olds being ” persuaded, coerced or forced into sexual activity”.

” There were concerns that the definition was too broad and had the potential to be interpreted as covering age-appropriate sexual experimentation as well as cases of child sexual exploitation. In particular, a number of respondents felt that the inclusion of the word ‘persuaded [into sexual activity]’ could cover a range of ‘normal’ behaviours within the relationships of 16 and 17 year olds that would not fit the coercive nature of child sexual exploitation.”

Persuaded has now being dropped in favour of ‘coerce, manipulate or deceive’..

The Home Office was also thought to have too narrowly defined exploitation using the internet.

“Respondents thought the phrase ‘may occur online’ in the proposed definition did not adequately capture exploitation that might occur through the use of mobile phone applications and other forms of technology.
We have amended the definition to refer to ‘the use of technology’.

The new revised definition which comes into force next month now reads:

“Child sexual exploitation is a form of child sexual abuse. It occurs where an individual or group takes advantage of an imbalance of power to coerce, manipulate or deceive a child or young person under the age of 18 into sexual activity (a) in exchange for something the victim needs or wants, and/or (b) for the financial advantage or increased status of the perpetrator or facilitator. The victim may have been sexually exploited even if the sexual activity appears consensual. Child sexual exploitation does not always involve physical contact; it can also occur through the use of technology.”

The full results of the consultation can be read here.

It goes to show how difficult it can be to define what people might think is a simple issue – and also if you get it wrong it may explain while child sexual exploitation has not always been properly tackled by the police and social services if no-one agrees what it is.

Exclusive: How the equality watchdog sacked a disabled army veteran and IRA bomb survivor by email

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Rebecca Hilsenrath: chief executive of the Equality and Human Rights Commission and leading the programme of staff cuts Pic credit: Douglas-Scott co.uK

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Donald Trump : You’re fired. Credit Giphy

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Late last year this blog featured the case of  57 year old Markus Caruana,  who works in corporate communications at the Birmingham office of the Equality and Human Rights Commission.To recap

He is a former flute player in the Corps of Drums with the Grenadier Guards.

Markus Caruana was unfortunate enough to have been both at the Guildford pub bombings in 1974 and the Chelsea Barracks bombing in 1981 which seriously injured regimental bandsmen from the Irish Guards.

He escaped unscathed in both instances but saw three of his friends killed in an IRA attack in Crossmaglen in Northern Ireland.

He left the army in 1985 to become a landscape gardener and then took advantage of a Unison sponsored education scheme to learn to read and write.

He had been a school refuser after being bullied and could hardly read or write or read music but was able to play his  flute because he had a natural memory for tunes.

In 2002 he secured a job with the Disability Rights Commission which later became part of the EHRC.

Sadly he lost his 75 per cent of his hearing and got  an incurable muscle wasting disease called Marie-Tooth disease (CMT) which affects the nervous system that supports muscles, often weakening the legs and feet.

The EHRC had enabled him to have a support worker so he could do his job there – but she is also facing redundancy now he has failed to retain his job.

Yesterday he  and five other disabled people was sacked by email by the EHRC and given 24 hours notice to clear his desk. He was one of ten people made compulsorily redundant by emails from executives from the Commission.

The decision led to a furious reaction from one of the main union representing staff,the PCS.

EHRC says the staff will receive pay in lieu of notice (PILON), but workers did not agree to this because it closes off the opportunity to seek redeployment at the commission or elsewhere in the civil service.

In a letter back to EHRC, the union states: “By imposing PILON you are cutting off this option and effectively consigning BME, disabled, women and trade union members to unemployment. There should only be PILON in cases where the individual concerned has agreed to it.”

Commenting on the cases, PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said: “It’s absolutely reprehensible that dedicated staff have been sacked and told to clear their desks with a day’s notice.

“That this has happened at the government body charged with upholding human rights and fair treatment in our society is an absolute scandal and we will continue to fight it.”

My own take on it is this. It is quite clear that the head of the EHRC, Rebecca Hilsenrath, is a particularly vindictive person to take action like this – by making it difficult for these people to get other jobs in the civil service.

Her action reminds me a bit of the attitude taken by Donald Trump towards disabled people. I am sure she would make an excellent addition to his staff in Washington though I don’t know whether she would share his locker room talk or not.

I have also written an article for Tribune about the sackings and the future strikes.

Hidden:The secret influencers bankrolling centre right think tanks to change your mind

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Policy Exchange – direct line to government but secret about donors. Here Theresa May address a seminar as home secretary Pic Credit: Flickr

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An important report was published today by  Transparify , examining British think tanks whose reports and proceedings influence government policy on anything from education to health, and attitudes to smoking and climate change.

What it reveals is that while a number of British think tanks are open about who funds them – including the Institute for Government, Transparency International and the Overseas Development Institute- and some like RUSI ( the Royal United Services Institute )have improved their transparency – some of the most influential think tanks which impact on current Tory government policy are extremely secretive.

Nearly all of the secretive think tanks are on the Right of the spectrum. They are the Adam Smith Institute,Policy Exchange, the Centre for Policy Studies,Policy Network, Civitas,the Institute of Economic Affairs, and the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

What the report reveals is that the largely US financed Adam Smith Institute – a firm advocate of privatisation and libertarian thinking particularly over smoking- does not disclose ANY details of its donors or where it gets its money . It is dominated by a sister organisation Adam Smith International (UK) ltd, which receives British taxpayers money and World Bank cash  for advising foreign governments and has a turnover £130m. Adam Smith International has its own website  which does provide details of its projects and staff- and shows its projects vary from assisting privatisation to good governance. It only has one project in Jordan tackling climate change.

ASI’s American equivalent, according to the report, has filed a tax return showing it has received $1.2 million in donations but only spent just over $5000 in the US.

The Centre for Policy Studies, according to the report, has been active in fighting further regulation of the tobacco industry. It does not disclose its donors.

The Institute of Economic Affairs, according to the report, also has had backing from tobacco companies. It also claims it managed to change Government policy over the funding of charities financed by a ” mystery ” donor.

The report says : “In early 2016, The Independent reported that the IEA had “secured [a] change in government policy” on the back of a £15,000 donation from a “mystery donor” whose identity the IEA refused to reveal. The IEA told the newspaper that it had met with ministers or officials “as often as we were able” to discuss the proposal with them.”

Policy Exchange – which is a very active think tank with frequent debates involving MPs from all parties – and  very influential.  It was forced to withdraw large sections of one study The hijacking of  British Islam which controversially named mosques up and down Britain of spreading hate speech – which turned out to be untrue. Again we do not know all the donors to Policy Exchange but we do know it has strong links with ministers, including Lord Maude, a former civil service minister.

According to the Sunday Times, Policy Network was initially bankrolled by Sir Evelyn de Rothschild, a banker who by 2002 had reportedly donated £250,000 to the organisation. It is had not published details of donors for two years and is dominated by prominent Labour right wingers. Its president is Lord Mandelson who runs his own lobbying consultancy Global Counsel.

Finally there is the case of  the International Institute for Strategic Studies which appear to be transparent but missed out donations totalling £25m from one big donor, Bahrain.

Leaked papers revealed that secret memorandum of understanding had been drawn up between the think tank and Bahrain’s ruler to fund the organisation. The report says:

The Guardian reported a figure of £25 million, noting that this would account for “more than a quarter of IISS’s income“. Compiling data from multiple sources, pro-democracy group Bahrain Watch arrived at a figure of £30 million, corresponding to just over a third of IISS‟ overall income. The Middle East Eye published calculations according to which Bahraini funds may add up to nearly half of total IISS income.”

Given Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, as reported on this blog, launched his new ” East of Suez” policy in Bahrain – it appears that Britain will be driven to defending Bahrain should a new wave of Arab unrest spread. It now appears in return that Bahrain will be in a strong position to influence the British government to present itself as a modern liberal society when it is obviously not the full picture.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not against the Adam Smith Institute, Policy Exchange or the Institute for Economic Affairs campaigning on any issue they want in a democratic society – including if they want to take up issues raised by tobacco companies or climate change.

But I am against secret backers using think tanks to try and influence government – and  public debate from  behind the scenes – and creating the illusion that these bodies are simply independent researchers with no agenda.

Transparify have done an invaluable job in drawing attention to this. The full report which has not been funded from external sources is here.

 

 

 

 

 

Standards at the tax office: A damning indictment from professional people who should know

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HMRC offices. pic credit: gov.uk

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This blog has covered serious complaints about the way Her Majesty’s Customs and  Excise is being managed – the latest being the revelations from the National Audit Office on plans to make 38,000 staff commute for hours to 13 new regional offices and close 170 existing ones.

Some of the strongest complaints have come from the staff and the main union, the Public and Commercial Services Union, which has been highly critical of government cuts. People might say, well, unions would complain, as they have duty to save jobs and how much notice should we take of this.

So it is extremely interesting  that the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, which represents some 147,000 professional people, has produced such a damning survey on what they think about HMRC’s services.

Far from having confidence in the government’s latest tax strategies or services they provide to business and the public, their findings in this year’s services are damning.

To summarise  from their report:

8 in 10 agents think that HMRC service standards have not improved over the past year.

 Half of agents say that services over the past 12 months have not changed.

Nearly a third (32%) think that they have deteriorated.

Nearly a fifth (18%) think that they have improved

The results are fairly consistent over the different taxes.

Agents appear to have similar frustrations with HMRC’s service quality as last year, specifically around ‘getting it right first time’ and getting information they require.

 Just a fifth of agents (20%) trust HMRC to ‘get it right first time’, while over a half do not (55%). Employer payroll is perceived particularly negatively, with two thirds (67%) not seeing HMRC staff in this area getting it right first time.

Similarly, less than a third (29%) of agents find it easy to get information they need from HMRC, while many (41%) do not.

And they are scathing about the government’s plans to digitalise the tax services – part of the plan to close 170 offices – and have 13 regional centres.

Agents’ views on moving to digital

 Only 3 in 10 (29%) of agents are positive about HMRC moving more of its services online.

Over half (53%) of agents are negative about moving services online.

Furthermore, only 15% of agents think that HMRC is supporting the role of tax agents in this move, while over half (54%) do not.

Frankly if I was in charge of HMRC ( and I am glad I am not) I would be rather worried by this survey. Since it came out it appears they have offered some talks about some of the problems,

But they are mainly very complacent. As the report itself notes :

This result is all the more surprising given that HMRC’s own performance statistics to September 2016 show a steadily improving performance in the previous 12 months.

The difference, it suggests  may be explained by a number of factors, including:

“That although HMRC’s telephone service for the public is much improved, for agents the telephone response time is not the real problem. The service standard on the agent dedicated line is already good and usually agents using the line have not had a problem getting through to HMRC.

Agents by their nature deal with clients who have more complicated affairs, and for them the expectations of service quality are different to those of the wider taxpayer population. So, as in previous years, agents again highlighted the problems in ‘getting it right first time’, coupled with the ability to get through to speak to the right person quickly to resolve complex queries. We know that HMRC is working to improve performance in these areas, for example through the ‘once and done’ initiative, and the survey results suggest that HMRC should seek to build on this initiative.

There is also a perception effect: it can take years to change a perception even though standards may have improved in the interim. We believe that HMRC’s own research in earlier years would also appear to point to this effect.”

However all in all this is a pretty resounding vote of no confidence in the tax service from a body  whose members deal with them everyday.

 

Exclusive: Southern Railway contract to be investigated by National Audit Office

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A Southern Railway train: often overcrowded even if it runs. Pic Credit:BBC

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The badly managed and strike prone Southern Railway contract is to be investigated by Parliament’s financial watchdog, the National Audit Office.

After months if not a years of misery for commuters caused by failing services and strike action over safety  the NAO has quietly decided to investigate the Department of Transport’s  handling of the contract alongside another investigation into the modernisation of Thameslink services. Both are major commuter services  into the capital and both are owner by Govia, the country’s biggest privatised train operator.

The decision by the NAO has been quietly slipped out on its website as an update to the Thameslink investigation without an official announcement. Such a move is bound to cause some consternation for transport secretary, Chris Grayling, and his officials.

Publication of the report due this summer will trigger an investigation by MPs on the Commons Public Accounts Committee where officials will be called to account depending on the NAO’s findings.

Southern is one a series of franchises owned by Govia, a consortium set up by the British  Go Ahead bus company and the French state owned railways, SNCF, whose international arm trades as Keolis.

The NAO investigation comes after the disclosure that Peter Wilkinson , a senior civil servant who is paid £265,000 a year, as director of rail passenger services at the Department for Transport, has been exposed by an investigation in The Guardian for an apparent conflict of interest.

He awarded Govia both contracts but it was revealed that he was, at the time, a
director and the main shareholder of First Class Partnerships, a consultancy which had Govia as a longstanding client.  He has declined to comment about the internal inquiry which is said to have decided that this was a conflict of interest.

Since then Govia’s Southern Railway has been involved in a long dispute with unions over plans to abolish guards on trains. The company has been backed by Chris Grayling, the transport secretary, and unions fear safety is at risk and the plan will be extended to other franchises they run like London Midland.

Southern also decline to provide a comprehensive service to disabled passengers.

The NAO statement on its site announcing the extension said :

“The Department for Transport is sponsoring a £7 billion programme to increase passenger capacity on the Thameslink route through central London. The programme involves the improvement of tracks, signalling and stations, a new fleet of trains and new franchise arrangements for running the passenger service on the Thameslink route.

“Since 2015, train services on the Thameslink Southern Great Northern (TSGN) franchise have been subject to significant disruption, particularly on the Southern services. Alongside our work on the Thameslink Programme, we also plan to report on the Department’s management of the TSGN franchise.”

Rail unions are welcoming the investigation with ASLEF, the train drivers union, keen that such an inquiry will bring transparency to how the contract was monitored by the ministry and also how it was awarded.

Meanwhile  government spin operators have indicated that perhaps the line might be taken back into public ownership if it continues to fail. While this story is officially denied ministers do not like being wrong footed by a detailed National Audit Office investigation and often plan some diversionary tactics when a report is about to be published.

It is question of watch this space. I have also written about this in Tribune.

 

Coming soon: Chaos for your tax bill

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Tax return: pic Ccedit: BBC

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Do you  find it difficult enough to fill in your tax form to meet the  revenue’s deadline of Jan 31?

Perhaps you don’t sympathise  with tax  officials anyway but you would want an efficient, accessible service – both on line and if necessary, in person.

A damning report from Whitehall’s watchdog body, the National Audit Office, reveals you are going to be very lucky to get either in future.

For the government latest economies are going to mean ” a slash and burn ” strategy for the way the Inland Revenue collects your money – with a prime aim of saving money rather than providing a service.

At the moment they are 170 local tax offices – whose buildings are already outsourced to a tax haven based company which grabbed them in 2001 without government ministers even realising who the “tax avoiding ” owners were..

There are all going to close and be replaced with 13 super regional offices. Some 38,000 officials are going to have move job location and  HMRC ( Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs) admits that 5000 of them -probably the most experienced – will quit their jobs rather than put up with the hassle.

Vast swathes of the UK are going to be without any local tax offices. In Scotland there will be just two – Edinburgh and Glasgow – because the cost cutters believe Dundee and Aberdeen are too small fry cities to need tax offices. Staff will be expected to commute daily by rail or  car from those two cities to Edinburgh.

The whole of London and the South East will have one tax office in Croydon – with the South Coast staff expected to commute daily by that wonderful reliable (ha,ha) and strike prone Southern railway – boosting its profits and making sure trains are even more crowded.

East Anglia will have no tax offices at all – with staff from Norwich expected to commute to Canary Wharf everyday and then possibly change trains for Croydon.

The West Country will also be denuded with one new regional tax office left in Bristol – so anyone now working in Cornwall’s tax office in Redruth would face, according to the NAO, a 174 mile commute every day.

Wales, the Midlands and the North West are not so badly affected – as new regional offices will be nearer old ones.

The government predicts that it will make savings of £212m by 2025-26  with all this upheaval  but this  is a staggering £287m LOWER than predicted two years ago when it thought it would save £499m. So much for effective Whitehall predictions.

Nor is the NAO impressed with its present planning. The report says.

“HMRC has signed the contract for its first regional centre in Croydon, but faces a demanding timetable to occupy the site as it plans in 2017. HMRC’s move to regional centres will require good coordination across HMRC to ensure that everyone involved in the moves understands what is expected of them. It must therefore clarify what changes in working practices are necessary to support digital services and its future compliance model, and coordinate its design of regional centres to achieve these outcomes.”

HMRC has also signed 25 year non negotiable leases (with no break points). on buildings for both the Croydon and Bristol offices.

I am sure taxpayers will be delighted to know that if the scheme goes belly up HMRC has put itself in a situation where it can be blackmailed by property developers to pay the full whack whether it uses the building or not.

You can read the full report here  and  I have written a piece for Tribune.

Mind you I may have missed a trick. With Philip Hammond, the Chancellor announcing Britain could become a tax haven if the EU does not agree to our Brexit terms, we may not need any tax offices by then as nobody will pay any tax. So it could be a clever piece of advance planning. Pity we won’t have any public services either as tax havens don’t provide them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Brian Altman: The scuba diving prosecutor who “speared” Milly Dowler’s killer

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Brian Altman – new lead counsel for the independent child sexual abuse inquiry. Pic credit: 2 Bedford Chambers

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The announcement this week that former Treasury counsel Brian Altman has been appointed lead counsel  from March to the much troubled Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse should be  good news for survivors.

The man has a formidable reputation as a forensic prosecutor and a particularly strong line in bringing criminals to justice in  ” cold case ” murders.  For once the phrase ” highly experienced”  used by the inquiry chair, Alexis Jay, is no exaggeration.

He has yet to get a cameo role as a lawyer  in ” Silent Witness” – though he did appear in a BBC 4 Real Crime and Punishment series ( sadly no longer available on BBC i-Player.).He has received much praise from journalists who regularly cover Old Bailey trials for the way he ensnares defendants who hope to escape justice for unspeakable crimes.

His case list of successful prosecutions is impressive. They include the notorious serial killer and rapist Levi Bellfield who murdered  teenager Milly Dowler and  killer Colin Ash-Smith convicted 21 years after he murdered 19 year old Claire Tiltman.

He has also prosecuted in a joint British and Dutch investigation  of canal murderer John Sweeney who killed and dismembered former American model and photographer, Melissa Halstead, in Holland in 1990, and disposed of her remains in a Rotterdam canal, and Paula Fields in London in 2000, whose dismembered body parts were found in the Regent’s Canal in 2001.

He has a string of other murder cases – where he both defended and prosecuted killers – and successfully prosecuted terrorists-including  those involved in a disrupted Islamic state terror plot and Syrian trained terrorists planning attacks in the UK.

He is familiar with the workings of the security services  and bad behaviour by MPs – he once advised on whether to prosecute one for expenses fraud – and his client list include members of a Middle  East Royal Family – though not disclosing whether it is the Saudi Arabian one or not. For a full list see his entry on his  chambers website here.

All this should bode well  for those who want forensic examinations of some of the most highly contentious cases that will be looked at by the child sexual abuse inquiry. This will in time include the Westminster paedophile ring, Greville Janner and the Leicestershire institutions involved in child sexual abuse and some of the more contentious child sex abuse scandals in London.

Historic child sexual abuse is also a ” cold case ”  issue – so this quote should comfort the sceptics.

“For cold case murders, he is the go-to barrister because he is able to draw together all the small pieces to provide a coherent analysis, and he knows these cases so well that there is nothing the defence can come up with to outfox him. He is completely relentless, extremely personable and a great team player”; “He is a master of detail who never makes a mistake.” Chambers & Partners 2016 (Crime)

Frankly  the inquiry after all the row surrounding the departure of his predecessor, Ben Emmerson, could do with a boost. Given there is also outside pressure – thankfully resisted by Theresa May who set it up – to try and get the government to close the inquiry down because of its scope and cost, this is doubly important.

Brian Altman in his Linked In profile also lists two hobbies – scuba diving and travel. I can well understand  he will sometimes want to get away from it all after all this work pressure.

He is  coy about where he has travelled and where he has scuba dived. He tells me one of the places he has not yet visited is Australia’s Great Barrier Reef – the largest scuba diving place in the world.

Given he is probably lead counsel for the largest child sex abuse inquiry in the world- perhaps he also should also get some time off to relax there as well soon.