By Cathy Newman
The first ever elected female MP in Oxfordshire is launching a campaign to make it easier for the police to keep tabs on child sex offenders, after figures show only five of the 65,000 registered offenders are banned each year on average from travelling abroad. Cathy Newman reports.
It takes all sorts to fill the House of Commons, and while many backbenchers love the business of being a constituency MP, plenty of others toil in the hope they'll soon be marked out for greater things by the whips, and picked for ministerial office.
It seems to me, though, that too many backbenchers overlook the power that they have. In fact, if they're determined, they can potentially get things done just as easily as many of their ministerial colleagues.
One backbencher who's realised this is the Conservative MP Nicola Blackwood. She's a member of the Home Affairs Select Committee, and as I reported on Monday night's Channel 4 News, she's launching a campaign this week to tighten the law on sex offenders. And there's every chance she may succeed.
The crux of her "Childhood Lost" campaign is to reform the current panoply of orders which ban offenders from travelling abroad or, in this country, having contact with children – for example at school gates or playgrounds. Police and lawyers have been arguing for years that the orders are too difficult to apply. There are nearly 65,000 registered sex offenders in the UK, yet just five a year on average are banned from travelling overseas.
Ms Blackwood told me she's going to amend the anti-social behaviour bill to make it far easier for the police to keep tabs on offenders. At the moment, the courts can impose one of three orders only if an offender has been convicted of sex offences. The crucial change is that a new "child sexual abuse prevention order" – replacing the existing orders – could be issued if the defendant hasn't been convicted of anything, providing there is evidence of the danger they pose to children.
It may well get up the noses of civil liberties groups, and, when the bill goes to the Lords, peers. But Ms Blackwood is determined to get this onto the statute book.
She told me she's been working on measures to deal with child sexual exploitation for over a year. An Oxford MP, she got a call from Thames Valley Police the night before 14 men were arrested for child grooming in her constituency in March last year. "Like so many others, I couldn't believe such brutal sexual abuse had been going on in beautiful Oxford for so many years without being stopped," she told me.
Since that shocking case, she's asked parliamentary questions, led a backbench debate, put down an amendment on vulnerable witnesses and got her own select committee to do an 11-month inquiry into child sexual exploitation.
The campaign she's launching this week has the backing of leading charities, police and lawyers. But she knows to get the amended bill onto the statute book will require further efforts, and behind-the-scenes negotiations with the Home Office.
"A legislative reform like amending the Civil Prevention Orders can take years. The evidence is clear that the orders need to be reformed but all departments have shopping lists of priorities and work in their own bureaucratic ways if left to their own devices. If you want to get something done you have to get your issue to the top of the shopping list – that is what this amendment and the Childhood Lost petition is all about," she said.
Even if the amendment secures the support of many of her colleagues from all parties, she knows from bitter experience that it might end up falling foul of Commons bureaucracy.
"My last amendment, calling for Specialist Courts for Very Vulnerable Witnesses, was a response to cases where victims were being blamed in court for their abuse, being kept on the stand for weeks on end, and aggressively cross examined by multiple barristers. Over a hundred MPs from all parties supported my amendment but in the end I only got five minutes to make my case in debate because a Leveson row blew up and hijacked the bill," she recalls.
Ms Blackwood is a determined character though. The first woman ever to be elected as an MP in Oxfordshire, she was seriously ill in her teenage years with ME. As a result she had to study for her A-levels at home. That didn't seem to set her back: she went on to get a first in music at St Anne's College, Oxford.
Having vowed to herself and child abuse victims that she's going to get the law changed, she's intent on keeping her word. And by the way, she's stuck to more inconvenient promises in the past. A classical singer, she promised to sing live on the radio if she won her ultra-marginal seat. She didn't let her constituents down, belting out a polished rendition of Every Time We Say Goodbye. You certainly haven't heard the last of Ms Blackwood.