Child protection not a priority?

There is a saying speed is of the essence, but that certainly has not been the case with a Cheshire East Council’s Task and Finish Group, which has taken nearly three years to produce a report on child sexual exploitation.

The group was set up in 2014 in the wake of the well-publicised scandal in Rotherham, South Yorkshire, to “seek assurances about its (the council’s) safeguarding arrangements and advise on further measures”.

Given the gravity of what it was investigating, taking until the second quarter of 2017 to publish its findings seems a little slow.

The 2014 inquiry into child sexual exploitation in Rotherham concluded 1,400 children had been victims of abuse and noted that taxi drivers had played a prominent role.

Subsequently there have been other cases, notably Rochdale, that again demonstrated Rotherham was certainly not a one-off.

True, there are possibly not the same numbers of at-risk children in the old Congleton borough, but there are some, and — as can be seen by the increasing number of court cases we report — there are men locally who take an illegal interest in sex with children.

In the light of the national cases, one would have thought producing the report was a priority, particularly given the regular complaints from local, licensed drivers about rogue drivers illegally picking up fares in Congleton and other towns.

Imagine for one moment had there been a child sexual exploitation scandal within the Cheshire East Council boundaries. The Press reports would have said that vulnerable children had been left exposed to predators while councillors took three years investigating what ought to be done.

Admittedly, the group’s work was halted in March 2015 when its chairman Coun Phil Hoyland, who represented Poynton West and Adlington, died. It restarted the following June with Coun Rhoda Bailey, representing Odd Rode, as its new chairman.

But the fact its report was only discussed at Cheshire East’s Cabinet meeting on Tuesday for the first time would appear to be an unreasonable length of time from the group’s inception to delivering its findings.

And after all that time, what did the report conclude?

It called for a review of taxi licensing arrangements within the borough, not a finding that should take nearly three years to reach.

Coun Dorothy Flude, a group member who represents Crewe South, admitted there were issues across the country, again not rocket science in the wake of a number of child sexual exploitation cases nationally.

She called for a national database so councils could look at a driver’s previous experience in other boroughs.

The group’s report stated: “Many of the individuals we met raised genuine concerns about the taxi/private hire licensing arrangements. This had become a recurring theme during our investigation.

“The group believes that consideration should be given to the introduction of measures to require authorities to share/publish information relating to applications that have been refused to prevent the continuation of the situation, which allows an applicant, who may have had an application for a licence refused by one authority, to subsequently obtain a licence elsewhere.”

Again, reiterating it was a national issue, the report added it was something only Government could address, but Cheshire East could at least start the ball rolling by taking the lead at regional level, hoping enough impetus could be generated to start a national database.

That database would presumably address the issue of taxi drivers from Stoke-on-Trent who have been caught operating illegally in Congleton.

The issue of taxi licensing is clearly a minefield in terms of problems identified and how to tackle them. That is something the task and finish group cannot provide answers to, but that’s why it was set up. It has, therefore, failed in its objectives.

In a nutshell, after almost three years the group has concluded there is a problem with taxi licensing, something everybody already knew, but only the Government can resolve this by setting up a national database of drivers. This is the conclusion a group of experts down the pub could have arrived at over a pint.

The only difference is they would have done so in one evening and certainly not nearly three years, and at far less expense to the taxpayer.
** This column was written by Chronicle staff member Tony Bugby.

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