Before I answer the question, may I say that later this afternoon I shall of course make a statement on the Paris terrorist attacks? I am sure that the thoughts of the whole House are with the people of France, particularly with the victims—and their friends and families—of those terrible and horrific attacks.
Tackling child sexual exploitation is a top priority for this Government. We have already prioritised child sexual abuse as a national threat in the strategic policing requirement, and made significant progress since the “Tackling Child Sexual Exploitation” report in March 2015.
I am sure that all of us in this House want to concur with the sentiments expressed by the Home Secretary and send our condolences and very best wishes to the families and friends of all of those who were killed or injured in the dreadful terrorist attacks on Friday night.
I hear what the Home Secretary says about sexual exploitation, but, according to the Children’s Society, more than three quarters of reported sexual crimes against 16 and 17 year olds result in no police action against the perpetrator. How does the Home Secretary feel that her proposed cuts to policing will impact on those figures?
We should all welcome the fact that more people, including young people and children, now feel able to come forward and report when abuse or exploitation has taken place, but, as the hon. Lady will be aware, the question of how the reports are then dealt with is not to do with police numbers. We saw that in the Rotherham report. Sadly, reports came through that police and others had been aware of the child exploitation that was taking place, yet appropriate action was not taken. Following the “Tackling Child Sexual Exploitation” report in March this year, there will be a requirement that all police officers are trained in raising their response to child sexual exploitation. We have also revised the guidance, so that we provide clear information about how to identify child abuse and neglect and what action to take.
May I also associate myself with the comments made earlier by my right hon. Friend?
The recent report “Old Enough to Know Better?” by the Children’s Society has recommended that, when the victim of a sexual offence is 16 or 17 years old, it should be considered an aggravating factor for sentencing purposes. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that would send a very strong message to perpetrators and build on the work already done by this Government to protect the victims of sexual exploitation?
I agree that we always need to send very clear messages to the perpetrators about how seriously we take this crime and the intent to deal with it. The courts will always consider a case more seriously when the victim is a child, and that includes 16 or 17 year olds. The Sentencing Council’s definitive guidance on sexual offences came into effect in April last year, and it provides for the courts to sentence more severely individuals in cases where victims are particularly vulnerable, as will often be the case with sexual exploitation involving 16 or 17 year olds.
The Secretary of State will be aware that a really quite frightening proportion of the 16 and 17-year-old girls who are victims of sexual exploitation have been in the care of the local state. What action is she taking to prevent the grooming of such vulnerable young women into sexual exploitation?
Sadly, the right hon. Lady is absolutely right to say that a shocking number of those who find themselves being exploited and subjected to child sexual abuse will have been in the care of the state. That is an appalling record for the state, and it has gone on for many years. It is one reason why the Justice Goddard inquiry will look at how institutions have, or have not, undertaken their duty of care. As part of the work that we did following the Rotherham report, we are working with my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and the Secretary of State for Education to see exactly what approach should be taken at local authority level with those in care and others who report abuse to the local authority.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that, if 16 and 17 year olds are given the vote, it increases the likelihood that they will be regarded and treated as adults and that they will therefore become the victims of sexual exploitation?
I would not link the voting age with child sexual exploitation. In the Home Office, we have included 16 and 17-year-olds in our consideration of a number of areas, including this issue and domestic violence. We recognise the vulnerability of those who are 16 and 17, who are sometimes treated as and considered as adults but are equally as vulnerable as younger people and need the protection and care we should be giving them when we deal with these difficult issues.