Who’s Watching Her?

Sexual predators stretch detectives to the limit in Joan Smith’s round-up

Sunday Times, 12 February 2017

In real life, the police are still catching up with new oppor­tunities for crime provided by the internet. Sexual predators are now able to target their ­victims online, a development that plays a key role in Stav Sherez’s chilling new novel, The Intrusions (Faber £12.99). The plot goes way beyond online harassment, opening up a nightmare world where young women can be observed at home by teenage boys and men via their computers.

Sherez’s likeable detectives, DI Carrigan and Sgt Geneva Miller, have no idea that such com­munities of voyeurs even exist. Carrigan is facing an internal inquiry into a case that featured in an earlier novel, and he’s ­distracted when a young woman reports the abduction of her friend from a bar in West London. Both girls suddenly felt unwell and staggered outside into an alley, where the witness saw her friend being helped into   the backof a van by a man she initially thought was a paramedic. That was three days ago and she’s heard nothing since.
The best crime novels are often at the cutting edge of rapid social change. The Intrusions forces Carrigan and Miller to catch up with sinister developments in internet surveillance, leading them to a sadistic killer. But it also demonstrates how easy it is for girls to disappear in a milieu where violence against women isn’t always taken as seriously as it should be. Sympathy for victims is one of Sherez’s trademarks, and he is becoming one of the most humane and original voices in crime fiction.
Nuala Ellwood’s memor­able first novel, My Sister’s Bones (Viking £12.99), is about damaged people who fail to see what’s in front of them. The story is set largely on the Kent coast, where a war reporter, Kate, has returned to her childhood home following her mother’s death. Kate is suffering flashbacks to her dreadful experiences in Syria but she gets no respite in England, finding an alcoholic sister who has no contact with her grown-up daughter. Her brother-in-law seems to be at his wits’ end, offering support but revealing a neediness that makes Kate uncomfortable.
Sorting her mother’s effects brings back painful childhood memories of Kate’s father’s violence. As she takes pills to deal with insomnia and PTSD, she glimpses a child in the next-door garden where no children are said to live. No one believes her but Kate persists in asking questions, with jaw-dropping consequences. This is harrowing fiction that skilfully draws parallels between the effects of civil war and domestic violence.
The long-term impact of conflict is central to A Thousand Cuts (Bloomsbury £12.99), the latest in Thomas Mogford’s fine series of crime novels set in Gibraltar. His protagonist, Spike Sanguinetti, is an introspective lawyer whose habit of helping waifs and strays means his practice isn’t exactly thriving. In the new book, he takes on a particularly unappealing client, an alcoholic accused of harassing a local GP, and is reluctantly drawn into investigating the man’s troubled history. It seems to be connected with an incident in 1940, when a bomb was planted in the Rock’s naval dockyard and two British ­servicemen died in the blast.
A young Spaniard, who was known to have connections with supporters of Franco and Hitler, was tried and hanged. Sanguinetti begins to think the man was framed but his inquiries are interrupted by a series of brutal murders, one of them targeting the owner of his favourite ­restaurant. Gibraltar is a small place and Sanguinetti finds ­himself with a number of elderly suspects, including a close friend of his family. This is a traditional and ­thoroughly satisfying crime novel.
E O Chirovici is a journalist, originally from Romania, who lives in Brussels. The Book of Mirrors (Century £12.99) is his first novel written in English and it has been snapped up in almost 40 countries. The book is teasing and artfully constructed, telling the story of an unsolved murder from different perspectives. The victim, a preening psychology professor at Princeton, was blud­geoned to death in his isolated home back in 1987. Now a literary agent has been sent early chapters of a book, written by one
of the people most closely involved and promising to reveal the identity of the killer. But this is only the beginning in a twisty novel full of unexpected developments and untrust­worthy characters.

By ignoring sex education, ministers are risking children’s safety

Lessons at school can protect children from online threats, but politicians would rather bury their heads in the sand

The Guardian, Friday 27 January 2017

It’s a long time since Theresa May and most of her cabinet were at school. When she was doing her O-levels, no one was sexting and teenage boys weren’t goggling at violent porn on smartphones. I think it’s unlikely that the future prime minister had to wear shorts under her school skirt to protect herself from being groped, as some teenage girls have taken to doing. But that doesn’t mean May and her colleagues have any excuse for ignoring what’s going on in schools today, from sexual harassment to homophobic bullying.

They’ve been warned by MPs on the women and equalities committee, in an excoriating report that revealed the “shocking scale” of sexual harassment in schools. They’ve been told by the campaigning organisation Stonewall, which published a survey three years ago in which 86% of secondary teachers said they had encountered bullying of gay pupils. They follow the news, like the rest of us, and they must know about dreadful cases in which girls and boys have been tricked into meeting paedophiles who disguised themselves as teenagers online.

They have also been told by just about everyone that the best way to keep children safe is to insist that every school in the country teaches high-quality sex and relationships education (SRE) and the broader subject of personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) education – no ifs, no buts, and no exemptions for faith schools. Teachers’ or parents’ embarrassment is not a reason to deny children absolutely essential information about how to avoid sexual predators, online or in real life.

After the “grooming” scandals in Rotherham, Rochdale, Oxford and other cities, you might think this was a no-brainer. Yet ministers have done everything but stand on their heads to avoid it. Last week Conservatives in the House of Commons were accused of filibustering a bill sponsored by Green co-leader Caroline Lucas, calling for PSHE to be made compulsory in all state-funded schools, by making lengthy speeches about the bill that preceded it. A change in the law isn’t necessary, ministers have claimed, because Ofsted is checking that the subject is being covered and will pick up any inadequacies during inspections. Just over a year ago a Home Office minister, Lord Bates, said: “We expect sex and relationships education to be taught in all schools. In fact, it is inspected by Ofsted as such.” A similar point was made last year by Lady Evans, then a government whip and now leader of the House of Lords.

Presumably they had in mind Ofsted’s latest inspection framework, introduced in 2015, which made considering the effectiveness of PSHE “more crucial than ever” to the judgments made by inspectors. Now, though, that argument (like all previous ones) has been blown out of the water. It turns out that Ofsted is barely looking at SRE when it inspects schools, according to a detailed analysis by the British Humanist Association.

The headline finding, from a study of more than 2,000 primary and secondary school inspection reports for 2015-16, is that sexual health, safe sex and related subjects were almost entirely absent. Sexual harassment and sexual violence were not mentioned at all, while sexting appeared in just 17 reports, despite having been identified as an area of major concern by the government. Porn was mentioned in a single report, as was HIV/Aids, which appeared in relation to “emerging economies” in a geography lesson. Only one in seven reports referred to LGBT issues.

Back in 2013, Ofsted said that the provision of PSHE was “not yet good enough” in 40% of schools. It is hard to believe there has been a massive improvement in the meantime, yet fewer than 1% of the inspection reports examined by the BHA made any criticism of schools’ coverage of the subject. To be fair to Ofsted, it should never have been given the job of making up for the government’s failure in this area. If SRE isn’t compulsory, some schools will say they don’t want to divert scarce resources from other subjects or that they can’t find room in the timetable. Others will use it as an excuse to avoid topics, such as homosexuality and safe sex, that they find uncomfortable for religious or ideological reasons.

What all this means, in blunt terms, is that the government is coming up with one excuse after another to avoid doing one of its most basic jobs: protecting the next generation. We know girls are being sexually harassed at school, pressured into posing for photos that may be used to threaten or humiliate them, and suffering abuse from boyfriends whose expectations have been warped by online porn. We know that gay kids are being bullied, and children of both sexes are vulnerable to predatory sex offenders.

For several years now, senior police officers in London have been telling me that compulsory sex education is vital to keep children safe. A few months ago, I heard a senior civil servant talk about the staggering number of crimes against children that are being facilitated by the internet. This is not the cosy world May grew up in, when sex and reproduction were covered in biology lessons and mobile phones didn’t exist.

It is not even the world of 17 years ago, when the government published its outdated official guidance on SRE. Children are encountering sex at a much younger age than in earlier generations, but a head-in-the-sand government is refusing to make sure they are well-informed and safe.