I beg to move,
That this House
notes the findings of The Children’s Society’s report entitled Old enough to know better? which looked at the sexual exploitation of 16 and 17 year olds;
further notes the particular vulnerability of that age group as they transition from childhood to adulthood and the role that aggravated offences and harsher sentences have in deterring crimes against 16 and 17 year olds;
calls on the Government to clarify for prosecution and sentencing purposes the role drugs and alcohol, mental health problems, being in care and learning disabilities have in adding to the vulnerability of that age group;
and further calls on the Government to give police the same tools to intervene when a 16 or 17 year old is being targeted and groomed for exploitation as they have for younger children.
Over the past few weeks it has been said a number of times in this House that our success as parliamentarians is measured by how we defend the vulnerable. In recent years we have seen all too clearly that children fall into that category. On the subject of this debate, the horrendous crime of child sexual exploitation, our first instinct is to recoil, and our next is to hide our children away, wrapped up so that no harm could ever come to them. But hiding from the problem because it is too grisly or, even more impossibly, stopping our children growing up would be markers of neither a brave society and brave lawmakers nor good parents.
As well as recognising that children are especially vulnerable, our approach must reflect the fact that they are also fully fledged adults in waiting, steadily gaining the experience, knowledge and mental development they need to take up all their rights and responsibilities. The protection of children and the maintenance of the environment in which they can grow therefore go hand in hand. On the whole, we do that well for most children, even if we need to think hard about how new technologic developments, such as the internet and social media, and cultural issues, such as body image problems and academic pressures, will impact on them.
However, our efforts to protect children and maintain that healthy environment run into the greatest difficulty at the very end of childhood—the transition to adulthood between 16 and 18—and on the issue of sex. It is a time of life that requires nuance, a nuance that does not come easily in laws that must deal in precision and definites. The age of consent for sexual activity is set at 16, and we are not suggesting that should be changed. But we start this debate in the light of the Children’s Society report “Old enough to know better?”, which shows that we still do not get the balance right in the case of the sexual exploitation of 16 and 17-year-olds. The report highlights the particular vulnerability of that age group and the awkwardness that exists between the fact they are children, their position over the age of consent and the expectations that society has of them.
Our motion therefore looks at what we can do in law to better protect 16 and 17-year-olds from being sexually exploited without changing the age of consent. In particular, we look at the role that aggravated offences could have in better deterring sexual exploitation of those children and clarifying in the mind of the public their special vulnerability as they stand on the threshold of adulthood. If we can clarify, for prosecution and sentencing purposes, the guidance for judges and juries on the role that drugs, alcohol, mental health problems, learning disabilities and being in care have in adding to the vulnerability of that already vulnerable age group, I believe we can achieve some progress. The motion also suggests that the powers that the police possess to enable them to intervene when a child under 16 is in danger should be extended to situations in which a child over 16 is under threat. I cannot stress enough how necessary all this is. I suspect that I do not need to do so for those present in the Chamber today.
At that age, abuse and exploitation can cause profound damage that can last a lifetime. It will irrevocably shape how a child grows to see both the world and themselves. They will see the world as forever hostile and threatening. They will cling to any security or affection, no matter how bad it is for them or how malevolent the source—a vulnerability that many predators exploit in the first place. It risks their forever seeing themselves as a victim or as someone who cannot take the risk of trusting anyone. It can stop them ever becoming a healthy, independent adult.
We also know from research conducted by the Children’s Society that those young people can end up feeling that they deserve the abuse, and that on occasion juries have not taken the fact of their vulnerability seriously enough: they have refused to recognise that the fact that the child was over the legal age of consent did not mean that their attacker was not guilty of sexual exploitation. When they did that, they failed and betrayed those young people.
All sexual crimes are extremely serious, but I think we can all agree that those committed against children are doubly cruel. That is why we must achieve some changes in the law. Although the proposed changes would protect all 16 and 17-year-olds, this is particularly pressing in the case of children in care. I expect that all Members of the House will agree that we could and should do better for them. The Prime Minister said as much recently. He noted that children in care today are almost guaranteed to live in poverty, and that 84 % of them leave school without five good GCSEs. He noted in a speech this year that 70% of prostitutes were once in care and that, tragically, care leavers are four times more likely to commit suicide than anyone else. We cannot go on setting those children up for a life on the streets, on welfare because they are unable to find work, or an early grave. Please God, the Prime Minister will make some progress on the issue. I understand that he will make a statement about children in care after the Christmas recess.
The hon. Gentleman’s remarks so far have been music to my ears. When I chaired the Children, Schools and Families Committee we looked at children in care. He is absolutely right about vulnerability. Does he agree that access to therapeutic care for those children at that crucial age is often just not there?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Indeed, progress needs to be made in all manner of policy areas to deal with this issue.
Their vulnerability to child sexual exploitation is one area where we can stop failing those young people now. Their characteristics mean that this particular group of young people are in desperate need of the changes we are proposing today. While most children’s vulnerability is shielded by family, friends and the support networks that come through good communities and good schools, those children are not so fortunate. Their backgrounds are chaotic, frightening or cruel, putting them in a nearly hopeless situation. Combine that fragility with the fact that there is no one actively looking out for them, and it quickly becomes clear that they are easy prey for evil people. We have seen from case notes that that kind of background is so often part of the trajectory of an abused child—a trajectory that sees an abused and vulnerable child become a troubled adult. The Children’s Society report shows that these predators target children systematically and lie in wait near where they live, study or socialise. They stalk them on social media. They offer the child everything they have missed, win their trust, isolate them from the adults who would intervene, ply them with drink and drugs, and then strike. Every time they are successful, they leave a life in tatters; every time they fail, they just move on to the next target.
In the past few years we have seen several sickening cases of hundreds of children targeted by gangs and by predatory individuals. These cases of exploitation sometimes occurred in collusion with, or at least with the knowledge of, those who should have been protecting and caring for them. In some cases, the police or those responsible for the children wanted to intervene but lacked the authority or confidence to do so. Right now, the police, children’s services and the courts look on without the legal teeth or power to stop it.
Some will immediately think of high-profile cases like those in Rotherham or Oxford, but let us be clear: this is not a problem with one demographic, even if divisive and unhelpful groups want to pretend that it is in order to further their own agendas. Child sexual exploitation affects, and is perpetrated by, all races, colours and creeds. The papers focus on the big cases, but there are thousands of individuals whose lives have been turned upside down by these crimes. As I have said, these children do not have parents who can look after them or family to care for them, so it is our collective duty as a society to be those parents and that family. We, us, you and me have to be the arms that catch them if they fall and the voices calling them back when they wander and stray. Now, too often, we fail them just when they need us most.
More broadly, these issues point to a wider problem in the way we protect children. To reflect the importance of ending this national scandal, it is time that we tilted the law and the criminal justice system decisively in favour of children and those who wish to protect them, not just in this instance but across the board. In thinking about protected groups, it seems strange to me that children are not among them. Gay people, minority racial groups and religious groups are all protected specifically in law, and rightly so, but children are not, and they should be. We have to add them as a category for special protection, at least to send a signal to society and the justice system that more effort is required. The upcoming policing and criminal justice Bill that was announced in the Queen’s Speech offers just such an opportunity.
On the distinct matter of child sexual exploitation, the crux is that 16 and 17-year-olds are not protected in the same way because they are over the age of consent. Children under 16 are already protected by the fact that they cannot consent to sex, and the rightly harsher sentencing that exists because of this is a strong deterrent. Sexual crimes against children under 16 are further prevented by the extra powers and tools that the police possess to intervene when someone is targeting and grooming them for exploitation. These include child abduction warning notices, which are used to disrupt an adult’s association with a child under 16. We should take note of this deterrent effect and extend the power to 18. There is already backing for this.
In 2012, the Office of the Children’s Commissioner asked the Government to extend the use of these notices and allow them to be served without parental consent where necessary. There is solid statistical backing for this change too. In 2012-13, 306,118 incidents of missing persons were reported to the police in England, Scotland and Wales. During that year, children accounted for 64% of all missing person incidents, and 15 to 17-year-olds were the most common missing persons, accounting for 36% of all such incidents. This means that in over a third of cases, the police did not have the right powers to intervene to protect a child. That must change.
The fact that 16 and 17-year-olds are still children, and that children are vulnerable and more likely to be targeted, is enough to warrant extending these protections to them.
Does the hon. Gentleman share my misgivings—I make myself very unpopular on the Labour Benches in this regard—about introducing the vote at 16, which would be a move towards adulthood at 16 and therefore reinforce the problem of the shrinking of childhood? We must be very careful about that as the length of time that someone is child, as a percentage of their now very long life, becomes shorter and shorter.
I realise that the House is divided over the issue of votes at 16. My personal view is that we should stay at 18. I am trying to illustrate the fact that the two years between sexual consent and legal majority is a particular zone of childhood which, as I hope the hon. Gentleman agrees, requires particular attention from a legal and a parliamentary point of view.
We also have to consider the psychological impact that the lack of protection has on society. It makes people think that these children should not have this protection, that they are not really vulnerable, and that they are, in the words very deliberately chosen by the Children’s Society, “old enough to know better”. Furthermore, in many cases, because they lack these protections and are above the age of consent, they are all the more likely to be denied justice, and that is why predators are drawn to them. The fact that they are above the legal age of consent has had a big psychological impact on how crimes committed against them have been interpreted. There is evidence that juries have lacked sympathy with their cases when these crimes have come to court. Their vulnerability and the cruel effectiveness of grooming are not well understood across the population, and attackers are aware of the public’s complacency.
On the topic of public attitudes and misperception, is the hon. Gentleman aware of the case of Maria Cahill, who bravely came forward to the authorities, and eventually to the media, with her story of abuse within the republican movement, as a member of that movement, and how her story was suppressed? Ever since the BBC revealed it, she has been subjected to punishment tweeting by Sinn Féin supporters and, indeed, by Sinn Féin politicians, who have cast slurs on what age she was to imply that she did “know better” and was somehow complicit in her own victimhood.
I am sad to say that I do not know of that particular case, but the hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point.
This point is so obvious that it should not need stating, but I will do so anyway, because even when it is intellectually understood, people still do not “get it”: not fighting someone off, not objecting vociferously, or not attempting to take oneself away from a situation does not equal consent. That is even more obvious when we think of common factors in the cases that have come before the courts. We are talking about victims with mental health problems and learning disabilities. We are talking about children recovering from traumas and encouraged to take drugs or drink alcohol so that they would submit. Complacency about this matter is the biggest encouragement that the attackers look for. It needs to be clear in law that these children are to be considered vulnerable and that the targeting of vulnerable people will never be accepted in the United Kingdom.
All this points to the fact that the sudden removal of protections at 16 is not working, and that we can protect children better with our actions in this House. Let me reiterate what we are asking for: the Government must clarify, and put the clarification in statute, that when a victim of sexual assault is aged 16 or 17, it is an aggravated offence. They must make it clear that drugs and alcohol can never be viewed as consent for a sexual act. They must recognise that vulnerable people are deliberately targeted, and that this should be further considered as an aggravating condition. Passing this motion will move us towards doing a better job of helping parents, police and child protective services to look after children, and we must do so.
I do not advocate these reforms as a Conservative but as a father and as a Member of Parliament. I believe that it is in that spirit that other hon. Members joining us today also back this motion. As we do so, we lay claim to the best traditions of social reform that Britons have offered from within and without these walls through the ages. Every party in this House can lay claim to this, the most honourable of political traditions—the tradition that looks the vulnerable in the eye and says to them, “I will use the good fortune and power that society has given me to protect you.” When it comes to this kind of reform, I do not believe that any Member is sitting on a particular side of the House.
I am grateful to have an opportunity to speak in this debate and grateful that it has been secured.
The focus of the debate could not be more serious. Protecting our young people from sexual exploitation as they make the transition from childhood to adulthood must be a priority of this House. It goes to the heart of the kind of values we have—the value we place on our young people, the value we place on protecting the vulnerable, and the values we have around dignity, fairness and consent.
Child sexual exploitation is abhorrent and can have devastating and lifelong consequences for those who are victims of it, not to mention the effects on their families and those closest to them. All children and young people have a fundamental right to be cared for and protected from harm, and to be able to grow and thrive in an environment where they feel safe and where their rights are respected, as outlined by the United Nations convention on the rights of the child, which applies to all young people up to the age of 18.
Yet the report “Old enough to know better?”, which was published in November, makes for truly harrowing reading. The Children’s Society report examined why older teenagers are particularly at risk of child sexual victimisation and the extent to which 16 and 17-year-olds are victims of sexual offences. It also considered why they find it so very difficult to disclose their experiences and to access help and support.
We know that the justice system is not always as kind and supportive as it should be to victims of sexual crimes, and nowhere is that more true than in its treatment of our young and vulnerable. Of course, the law recognises that those in the age range under discussion can legally consent to sexual relationships, but under the Children Act 1989 they are still considered to be children. As such, professionals and, indeed, wider society have a legal duty to safeguard those young people from exploitation.
Although 16 and 17-year-olds continue to be protected from sexual abuse within the family or by those in a position of trust, and from sexual exploitation offences such as child prostitution and pornography offences, they simply, and appallingly, do not receive the same kinds of protections as younger children if they are targeted for sexual abuse by predatory adults. That is shocking and it is put sharply into focus by the Children’s Society report, which shows that 16 and 17-year-olds are more likely to be victims of rape or sexual offences than any other age group. That situation demands our considered response.
Just as we find it appalling and evil when young children are sexually exploited, mistreated and abused, so too we should be outraged when those going through the transition from childhood to adulthood face such exploitation. It is concerning that it seems that professionals are more likely to see those in the age range of 16 and 17 as complicit in their own exploitation. Such a view fails to understand the targeted and intense nature of grooming, and it mistakes consent to drink alcohol or to participate in risky behaviours as consent to having sex. Clearly, professionals need more training so that young people who need support and understanding—not to mention justice—receive it. Pointing to the age of legal sexual consent cannot be the means by which we fail to live up to our collective duty to protect our young people on the threshold of adulthood.
In England and Wales there is no specific offence of child sexual exploitation, and that is worth examining. In Scotland the definition of child sexual exploitation states:
“Any involvement of a child or young person below 18 in sexual activity for which remuneration of cash or in kind is given to the young person or a third person or persons. The perpetrator will have power over the child by virtue of one or more of the following—age, emotional maturity, gender, physical strength, intellect and economic and other resources e.g. access to drugs.”
Under Scots law, there are specific protections for those aged 16 and 17 who are at risk of exploitation, with offences specifically to protect that particular demographic. The offence of sexual abuse of trust makes it a criminal offence in Scotland for a person in a recognised position of authority to engage in sexual activity with anyone under the age of 18 in their care. The Protection of Children and Prevention of Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2009 makes it a criminal offence to involve children in child pornography, extends protection against indecent images to 16 and 17-year-olds, and provides for restrictions to be placed on sex offenders.
The Scottish Government introduced Scotland’s national action plan to tackle child sexual exploitation, which represents a comprehensive and ambitious strategy to address that complex challenge. The “Getting it right for every child” strategy aims to improve outcomes in Scotland’s public services that support the wellbeing of children and young people. It is part of a framework for responding to sexual exploitation and it applies to young people up to the age of 18. That, as well as the sex offender community disclosure scheme, also offers protection for 16 and 17-year-olds. The keeping children safe scheme enables parents, carers and guardians of those under the age of 18 to make a formal request for disclosure of information about a named person who may have contact with their child, if they are concerned that he or she might be a registered sex offender.
The Scottish Government will launch a campaign to raise awareness of child sexual exploitation in the week beginning
We must continue to be vigilant in the protection of our young people, wherever they live in the UK. The Scottish Government have done much good work in this area, but there can be no room for complacency and we must always examine all protections offered with a critical eye, to ensure that they continue to offer robust protections for all our young people, including those in the 16 and 17-year-old age bracket. I am not going to stand here today and argue that in Scotland we think it is job done—absolutely not. We must continue to be vigilant, as are those who would exploit young people. As Kit Malthouse pointed out, those in care are at particular risk. Moreover, the Children’s Society’s call for increasing the age for the application of child abduction warning notices is eminently sensible.
I sincerely hope that Members can learn from the good work and initiatives being undertaken by the Scottish Government, because I know that the Scottish
Government will examine all measures taken by this House, to see what they can learn in turn. We should also be learning lessons from how countries further afield tackle the issue. As technology grows ever more sophisticated and those who would exploit our young people become ever more creative, we must all continue to be vigilant. We must not let our young people down. We must not allow the law to let our young people down.
Young people travelling down the road of transition from childhood to adulthood are not being protected as they should be. They are not telling those in authority when they experience sexual exploitation. The Children’s Society report points out how chronically under-reported such exploitation is to the authorities. We know that young people often feel that it is their fault when they are sexually exploited, and we know that it can have huge consequences for their development into full adulthood. The more we talk about it, and the more we recognise it as a problem that actually exists, the more likely those who are exploited will feel able to report their ordeals.
This is an issue that must be brought out of the shadows. We must talk about it, how it can occur and the ways and means through which these young people may be sexually exploited. We must remember that the onus for what happens to them cannot be placed on the shoulders of young, vulnerable people who can be manipulated by others who are far more worldly wise and cunning than them. Concluding that vulnerable young people of 16 and 17 years of age are complicit in their exploitation lets the exploiters and sexual predators off the hook, and that serves only to heap insult on to injury.
Let us not kid ourselves: child sexual exploitation is as much a reality in Scotland and across the UK as it is anywhere else around the world. That is the reality we cannot ignore, and we must tackle it collectively. No one is saying this will be easy, but it must not and cannot be beyond the wit of politicians to draft laws fully to protect our young people from exploitation. Everything that may help must be explored fully. We need to make sure we create an environment that is as difficult as possible for those who would prey on and sexually exploit our young and vulnerable. We also need to create an environment in which the victims of sexual predators and exploiters feel able to speak up, and are confident about doing so, in order to receive the support that they need. Surely, that it is the least we can do.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. In his point of order, Mr Allen was a little generous in estimating that 10 minutes might be the correct amount of time that hon. Members can take to speak. If everyone who has indicated that they wish to speak is to have an opportunity to do so, I ask hon. Members to take no more than eight minutes each.
I will quickly knock two minutes off my speech, Madam Deputy Speaker.
It is a pleasure to follow Patricia Gibson and to hear about some of the good work going on in Scotland. I congratulate my hon. Friend Kit Malthouse, ably supported by Ann Coffey, on securing this debate.
I also congratulate the Children’s Society on its “Old enough to know better?” report. As a former Minister with responsibility for this area, I did a lot with the Children’s Society, including meeting the victims of child exploitation whom it was taking care of, as well as runaways. I saw at first hand the excellent work that it did, and which it continues to do.
I am delighted that the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend Karen Bradley, has taken over the Government’s cross-cutting role on this whole very important area of child sexual exploitation. I am delighted to say that she is very ably shadowed by Sarah Champion. It is good to see the shadow children Minister, Mrs Hodgson, in the Chamber as well.
This subject is not aired enough in the House, despite the fact that the profile of child sexual exploitation in this country has never been higher, thanks to high-profile celebrity prosecutions and the series of virtually weekly reports of historical sexual abuse coming from the BBC, celebrities, care homes, schools, boarding schools, music schools, churches, church institutions and so on. As my hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire said, the trouble is that the vast majority of child sexual exploitation still taking place in this country is done not by celebrities or people in high-profile positions, but by ordinary people and, in many cases, relatives of the victims.
At long last, the Lowell Goddard inquiry, which many of us called for, is taking place. Its work will take a long time, and it will continue to put a lot of pressure on the police investigating historical cases. Putting the historical sexual abuse cases aside, however, we have a problem—here and now—with contemporary child sex abuse, and specifically for those transitioning from childhood to adulthood.
The age at which one becomes an adult has always been a grey area. Through the all-party group on children, we have done some work on the relationship between children and young people and the police. That work has led to a recognition that, in the eyes of the law, and certainly for young people taken into custody, a 17-year-old is a child and must be treated as such. The Home Secretary has reacted very favourably to that work and has made changes. The status of 16 and 17-year-olds has been problematic since the age of consent was raised to 16 back in 1885.
My hon. Friend mentioned the introduction of child abduction warning notices. When there are concerns, they can be used to disrupt contact between a vulnerable child and an adult. Children under 16 are protected, but 16 and 17-year-olds are covered only if they are in the full care of a local authority under an order under section 31 of the 1989 Act. That leaves an awful lot of children who might be exposed. The recent report by the Children’s Commissioner on child sexual abuse in the family network highlighted the extent and complexities of the problem.
Some 70,000 children are in the care system, and this is still a very big problem, despite the changes to residential children’s homes, through regulations that I instituted some years ago, to prevent children’s homes from being sited in areas where there are a lot of sex offenders as well as other temptations and dangers to young children. Children in care still suffer from huge poverty of achievement, and the Government still need to go a long way towards addressing that.
I have mentioned the Children’s Commissioner’s excellent report, which came out last month. The most shocking finding she came up with is that, between 2012 and 2014, there were between 400,000 and 450,000 victims of child sexual abuse, but only 50,000 of them were known to statutory agencies. That means that only one in eight cases of sexual abuse are actually picked up by the authorities. Some 11.3% of young adults aged between 18 and 24 had experienced contact sexual abuse during their childhood. About two thirds of all child sexual abuse occurs in or around the family—involving relatives or close and trusted family friends—with all the implications that has of cases being swept under the carpet, of victims being afraid of speaking up or bullied into not doing so, and of family discord. It is likely that children from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, and boys in particular, are under-represented in the data. As my hon. Friend mentioned, children with learning disabilities are particularly vulnerable and are particularly unlikely to be able to report, even if they wish to, or to understand that they have been the victims of a crime.
There is a bigger issue in that, in many cases, children do not really appreciate that they are victims, but feel that they have, in some way, brought it on themselves. A few years ago, disgraceful comments were made about how a 14 or 15-year-old girl in care could in some way bring sexual abuse on herself. That is absolutely outrageous, and anybody who agrees with such comments has no place anywhere near child social care. They are children, and if someone old enough to be a girl’s father or grandfather has sexual relations with her, that is a crime. Such people must be treated as criminals, and prosecuted and persecuted as such.
There is also the issue of how children actually tell someone. The report by the Children’s Commissioner revealed that a failure to listen to children and young people has resulted in a failure to identify abuse. Indeed, child sexual abuse often comes to the attention of statutory and non-statutory agencies as a result of a secondary presenting factor that becomes the focus of intervention.
There is a big role for schools in this whole issue. According to the report, the majority of respondents said that they tried to tell their mother, a friend, a peer or a teacher. There is a problem of parents being in denial about the involvement of close relatives in child sexual abuse, or being ill-equipped to detect it or to know exactly what is going on. In schools, we need to get much smarter about how we pick up or detect it. I remember going to a school in Stafford and having the privilege of sitting in on an interview with a full-time social worker employed by the school. A young girl—a 15-year-old—who had come to see the social worker broke down halfway through the interview and revealed that she was being abused by her stepfather. Nobody had had any clue about that, so there was clearly something wrong. We need to be able to pick such things up in schools, and we need better training for teachers and school staff to detect such things.
There is also the hoary old chestnut of sex and relationships education: the Children’s Commissioner’s report showed that not having had any sex education or having had only poor quality sex education undermined the ability of vulnerable youngsters to understand that the abuse was wrong and should be reported. We need to do more to ensure that young girls have the confidence to say no when sex is forced on them, and to understand that they have the right to say no. There is also the issue that about a quarter of cases involve perpetrators who are themselves under the age of 18. There is a real problem of young-on-young sexual abuse.
The Government have a good record in starting to approach this issue. The child sexual exploitation action plan, which I launched back in November 2011, has produced many practical results. The Home Office produced a CSE report earlier this year. Since last year, there have been new sentencing guidelines for courts, enabling courts to give individuals more severe sentences in cases where the victims were particularly vulnerable, such as 16 or 17-year-olds.
Much has happened, but much more needs to happen. The Children’s Commissioner’s report is very relevant to this debate. It highlights the need for the Government to step up their response to this huge problem with a truly cross-Government strategy. In this debate, we have rightly raised serious concerns about 16 or 17-year-olds, but that is only part of a much bigger issue that we are only just beginning to get on top of. However, I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing this matter before the House.
“Old enough to know better?” is, indeed, a thought-provoking report by the Children’s Society, which has long been concerned about the vulnerability of this age group. It should be congratulated on its campaigning work in this area.
The last Parliament saw high-profile child sexual exploitation cases in Rochdale, Rotherham, Oxford and Telford, among other places. The public were shocked as the graphic details of the offences were reported, with children and young people being passed around for sex by groups of men, their plight made worse by the attitude of those working in the agencies charged with protecting them, who regarded them as making a lifestyle choice to exchange sex for gifts.
Those cases led to an increasing awareness of grooming and what constitutes consent, and an examination of the wider issues around child sexual exploitation and vulnerability. They also led to a better understanding of online grooming, sexting, peer-on-peer exploitation, the impact of the digital age on how young people communicate and the pressures that that can place upon them.
The last Government introduced a number of measures, such as the new offence of sexual communication with a child and the reduction in the number of occasions on which the defendant must initially meet or communicate with the child before a prosecution may be brought to only one.
Because of the high-profile cases, child sexual exploitation has been identified predominantly with the exploitation by Asian men of white girls, so some of the more common kinds of sexual exploitation are not well understood, particularly how vulnerable young people can be groomed one-on-one by much older adults, either online or in person, or both, into performing sexual acts in which they feel complicit. Neither is the extent of peer-on-peer sexual exploitation fully appreciated. It is the ruthless exploitation of vulnerability—arising from a craving for love or acceptance, a dependence on drugs or alcohol, a disability or the inexperience and immaturity of childhood—for sex that needs wider understanding if we are really to protect children and young people by holding their exploiters to account.
That brings me to 16 and 17-year-olds. Sixteen is the age of consent to sex in law. A 16-year-old can marry with permission and at 17 a young person can drive. Although children can leave school at 16, they cannot work full time unless they are in part-time education or training. We recently debated in the Houses of Parliament whether 16-year-olds should be able to vote in the European referendum. Those differences reflect our ambivalence in respect of that age group. It is an age at which young people want the right to be respected for the decisions they make on their pathway to independence, but at which they still need protections. That is reflected in the different levels of protection that are offered by the law, which recognises that they are still immature in terms of life experience.
That vulnerability in respect of immaturity and age was recognised in the passing of the amendments by the last Government that consigned the term “child prostitute”, referring to those under 18, to the history books. Those amendment came into force on
That recognition of the vulnerability of this age group needs to be extended and made explicit elsewhere in the law to make it clear that when a sexual offence of any kind is committed against a 16 or 17-year-old, it will always carry a harsher sentence than if the victim had been an adult. The sentencing guidelines for rape, for instance, list a number of factors that determine the category of the offence for sentencing purposes, one of which is that the
“victim is particularly vulnerable due to personal circumstances”.
Along with mental health issues and disabilities, that has been interpreted to include age, but we need to make its inclusion explicit and unambiguous.
No scope should be left for a 16-year-old to be considered not vulnerable, despite their being a child, when we know that there have been significant problems with professionals and the justice system treating people in this age group as adults or as “resilient” or “asking for it”, particularly when the victim is involved or is seen to be involved in criminal activity. The message should go out to perpetrators loud and clear that if they sexually exploit, abuse or rape a 16 or 17-year-old, they will automatically receive a harsher sentence.
Altering the sentencing guidelines in the way I have outlined and in the ways proposed by the report of the Children’s Society, so as to make the vulnerability of this age group clear and consistent across all sexual offences, is an important first step in strengthening their protection in law. I would hope that something could then be done to decrease the disparity in the starting point for sentencing in cases of rape. If the victim is 15, the sentencing range is eight to 13 years, whereas for a child of 16, the range drops to only six to 11 years. There is no reason to make that distinction for offences such as rape, where the age of consent is clearly not relevant, given that rape cannot be consented to. There is every reason to afford 16 and 17-year-olds the same protection we give to children of a slightly younger age.
Last year, I was asked by Tony Lloyd, the Greater Manchester police and crime commissioner, to undertake an independent inquiry into the work that has been done to tackle CSE in Greater Manchester since the shocking Rochdale case. As I said in the report, which was published last October, we cannot prosecute our way out of the problem of CSE. The report highlighted figures for the previous six years in Greater Manchester, which revealed that there were only about 1,000 convictions out of 13,000 reported cases of nine major sexual offences against under-16s.
We know that there is under-reporting of sex crimes against 16 and 17-year-olds because victims are frightened that they will not be believed or because they feel complicit or ashamed. As the “Old enough to know better?” report shows, the police received 4,900 reports of sexual offences against this age group last year, but the crime survey for England and Wales shows that an estimated 50,000 girls alone said that they had been victims. In the last year, Greater Manchester police recorded 311 sexual offence cases against 16 and 17-year-olds, but I believe that there is a much higher level of offending.
Children who are sexually exploited can suffer lifelong harm and everybody agrees that prevention has to be the goal. By the time of prosecution, it is already too late for that particular child, and yet they have to face delays in cases coming to court and challenging and sometimes bullying cross examination, which can add further to their trauma.
Therefore, an important part of the strategy of tackling CSE must be better prevention. To ensure that that happens, we need to listen to children and young people about their experience of the world and support them to inform other young people. We need to build on a new approach to preventing CSE that is spearheaded by young people themselves. One of the things that young people told me again and again was how they valued talking to their peers, because they felt that their peers understood the pressures they faced.
My central proposal was for a multimedia digital network led by young people to spearhead the fightback against CSE, including a high-profile weekly radio show on CSE-related issues produced and hosted by young people. It is a peer mentoring session, writ large. We now have a very successful weekly radio show on CSE on Unity Radio. For two hours on a Thursday evening, this dance and urban music radio station is taken over by 11 to 16-year-olds for the “Next Gen Youths” show, which has serious but accessible discussions on child sexual exploitation, led by young people. The strapline of the NGY show is
“helping young people lead safer and happier lives”.
Its aim is to spread awareness of CSE so that young listeners are better able to understand what a healthy relationship is. The shows have included discussions on what grooming is, how fashion is part of CSE and how pop stars influence the way in which young people dress. Greater Manchester is also developing an app, funded by a Home Office grant, called CTZN, which is a mobile-based digital platform created by and for young people.
Educating young people and effecting a sea change in culture is the only way forward. I believe that all those initiatives show that Greater Manchester is one of the leaders in the fightback against CSE. Public attitudes are fundamental to the protection of children and young people, but the criminal justice system is key in reflecting our attitudes to children and young people. We know that 16 and 17-year-olds are a difficult and challenging age group, but we must understand that during those two years, they often inhabit a dangerous twilight world between childhood and adulthood. Their vulnerability needs to be recognised and the clear message needs to go out to sexual predators that if they commit sexual crimes against people of this age group, they will receive a tougher sentence. That is not the solution, but it is an essential part of a wider strategy to tackle the child sexual exploitation of 16 and 17-year-olds.
Sixteen and 17-year-olds sometimes believe that they are adults, but they are one of our most vulnerable groups. We all remember what those years were like. We were thinking about our futures, making decisions about what to study or where to go on to work, and we all experienced a range of emotions in that period of our lives. Many young people of that age are worrying not only about those decisions, but they may also be in a chaotic home environment. Some may not be able to be at home at all for a number of different reasons, including domestic, emotional or physical abuse, or because of their own behaviour. In particular, looked-after children may have had very traumatic pasts and been exposed to situations that we would never want a young person to experience. The experiences that some of our looked-after children go through, coupled with the feelings and challenges that come with being 16 or 17, make those people an extremely vulnerable group.
In the UK, approximately 8,400 teenagers aged between 16 and 17 are placed in supported accommodation to prepare them for their independence or for a whole host of reasons. Supported accommodation for young people can take many forms, and it is run by a number of different providers, including charities and private businesses.
In many settings, 16 and 17-year-olds can be placed in the same building as people who might be up to nine years older than them. They could be placed with ex- offenders, or with individuals who have other vulnerabilities such as mental health issues, or those suffering from substance misuse.
Supported accommodation is not subject to the same standards and regulations as other settings such as foster placements or children’s homes. Foster carers receive rigorous training and are supported by supervising social workers, as well as the social workers of the children who may be placed with them. There is also a stringent process to get through, prior to being given the green light to become a foster carer. However, the Children’s Society has found that half of providers employ staff with no qualifications.
I have had the privilege over the past eight years to get a small insight into the lives of some of our looked-after children, and to see at first hand some of the challenges that those wonderful young people have had to overcome in their young lives. For example, a young person could have been in care from a young age because of emotional or physical abuse, or because of neglect. That child might have been moved from foster carer to foster carer, and they could also have gone through an adoption failure, or had a period in a children’s home with a number of different social workers over that time. They may have no strong positive relationship with an adult who has been there through all their challenging circumstances. Given the nature of those formative experiences, those young people will often be extremely emotionally vulnerable and will have had few long-term, positive and meaningful relationships with adults, and few—if any—clear role models or mentors.
The Children’s Society found that half of supported accommodation providers are not consulted by children’s services when they plan how a young person’s care package will change as they approach independence. I have seen at first hand how vulnerable that group of young people are and, as we have seen recently in south Yorkshire, they are extremely susceptible to being targeted by predatory individuals who are looking to exploit and abuse our youngsters. I believe that individuals who seek to exploit that age group should be subjected to aggravated offences and harsher sentences. At any age, people can be at risk of abuse and exploitation, but 16 and 17-year-olds are legally still considered to be children. It is naive to believe that because a young girl or boy has reached the age of consent, they will automatically understand if they are being targeted or groomed.
Predatory individuals seek out vulnerable youngsters and pose as people who can be trusted and relied on. Often those individuals were once vulnerable young people themselves. The damage that can be done to young people subjected to those offences has a long-lasting impact on their individual future and on our society as a whole. I therefore call on the Minister to take forward the recommendations in the Children’s Society, “Old enough to know better?” report. I would also welcome particular focus and consideration on the risks of safeguarding children in supported accommodation, to ensure that those settings can effectively protect vulnerable children from harm.
We are about to break for what can be a happy time for many, but one group of young people will be alone and experiencing some of the abuse that we have spoken about today. We must do all we can to ensure that, whatever their circumstances, our young people are supported to thrive and go on to enjoy the best possible future that any young person should expect.
I declare an interest as the founder of the Early Intervention Foundation. It is a great privilege to follow Kelly Tolhurst who made an eloquent speech. Those who see Members of Parliament from the end of 140 characters on Twitter would do well to follow colleagues such as my hon. Friends the Members for Stockport (Ann Coffey) and for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), and the hon. Members for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse), and for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood)—unfortunately she is not with us today. They are exemplars of what Members of Parliament can do when they get their teeth into an issue that they care about, and refuse to let go until something is done. I hope that this debate will be another demonstration of how Members of Parliament from across the House can be effective when we work together as parliamentarians, pushing Governments of all colours in the right direction.
I am not going to talk about 16 to 18-year-olds, because we will help those people by intervening much earlier. If we only help a 16 to 18-year-old, we are firefighting. That has to be done and fires have to be fought, but if we are to get a strategic grip on this issue we must eliminate the causes of child exploitation, as well as tackling the consequences. That, in essence, is the definition of early intervention, and it is important to consider this as an intergenerational problem.
This problem is so big and deep rooted that we must have not merely a set of tactics, but a set of strategies to take us forward. One of the best ways to do that is to consider the example of What Works centres in this country, where people collect together best practice and evidence to discover what kinds of programme work most effectively to help victims, and indeed to help perpetrators from re-offending. We have that all in one place, so that instead of reinventing the wheel, whether in the police, the health service or as a Member of Parliament, there is a place to go where we can rely on other people’s experience and practice that has accumulated over many years. Every instinct in a normal human being to the awful sexual abuse of children and 16 to 18-year-olds is an emotional response, but this is about evidence and science.
I first called for a national institute to consider how to reduce the perpetration of sexual abuse 26 years ago, together with the then right hon. Member for Finchley—the Prime Minister, Mrs Thatcher. I say that only to bring us up to date and to urge us to ensure that our successors are not sitting here in 26 years’ time demanding exactly the same thing. It is now time for us to help the next generation.
In the interests of time, let me put on the record that the Department for
Education has recently announced a new What Works centre for child protection. That will build an evidence base to show us the best practice available to help social workers, health workers, the police and other practitioners, and give better support to children and families—something I know that the hon. Gentleman has been calling for.
I was just about to make that point and the Minister has made it very eloquently for me. I have served in the House with Governments of all political complexions. Ministers are concerned and empathetic. We are fortunate to have her as a Home Office Minister as well as having colleague, the Minister for Children and Families; the Under-Secretary of State for Health, Jane Ellison, who has responsibility for public health, and the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, Mr Vara. All of them have been involved in pulling together the idea that there should finally be a national institute or centre of excellence to look at the sexual abuse of children and how to help them and perpetrators.
I raised that with her colleague the Minister for Children and Families in an Adjournment debate in June—I did it as fast as I could after the general election. The Minister has already said as much, but in that debate, the Minister said that there would be a centre of expertise to identify and share high-quality evidence to tackle child sexual abuse. That must include 16 to 18-year-olds.
I am conscious of the announcement, but I will tee this up for the Minister as the willing smasher of volleys over the net that I know she can be: will she tell the House how that is going and when we can expect it to be established? I hope the centre can be productive before the next general election, producing reports on best practice in particular situations and in the field, and producing reports for the agencies—the police and the health service—Members of Parliament and everyone who has an interest. Above all, I hope it can give Justice Goddard a head start by doing an interim report that calls for and supports the institution, so that, before what could be a Chilcotian length of time before he reports, he can influence the necessary political developments and changes.
I hope the Minister will inform the House that, as well as doing valuable work pulling together departmental interests, such an institution will listen to the voluntary sector, which does so much work in the field, and those out in the individual local authorities. There is a great body of work, but it is all over the place and it is never quite there when we need it. I suspect that many colleagues who have been through the awful experience of raising constituency cases are powerless and frustrated for a fair period because they cannot quite lay their hands on what somebody did earlier that would save them a lot of time and victims a lot of grief.
I should highlight the work of the Early Intervention Foundation. It is working closely with the Home Office, as the Minister knows, and has commissioned a review of the evidence on the indicators that suggest that a child under the age of 18 is at heightened risk of becoming a victim, or even a perpetrator, of sexual abuse or exploitation and many other things. The foundation will undoubtedly do a first-class job on that commission but, in the long term, the answer for us all is to get behind what the Government are doing, which I applaud from the rooftops, in putting together a What Works institution. We should ensure that its work is spread far and wide and that there is a connection with local authorities. From the top of my head, I suggest to the Minister that perhaps there should be 30 champion local authorities—they could be health authorities or police services—that can take forward the best measures that are pulled together in that central place.
The House can have an impact, working closely with the Government. The Government have been very receptive to representations made to them and will do something that will resonate and help children—it will also help perpetrators not to offend—in a way that could last several generations. That is an incredibly worth while thing to do. I congratulate all Members of the House who have led us to the conclusions that the Children’s Society has put before us today, and who have led to the Government introducing a national institute for the study and prevention of the sexual abuse of children, including 16 to 18-year-olds.
I congratulate my hon. Friends who have been involved in securing the debate on this excellent topic.
I want to lend a little of my experience as someone who has been involved in thinking about how to do things better in Somerset. Somerset has had its challenges recently and has tried to improve the standards of care that it provides to children in its care and to children in the county generally. It is right that the Government have raised the Ofsted standards with which councils must comply to ensure that that improvement happens correctly. Although we know of no serious cases in Somerset, the Ofsted inspection found that because of some of the structural arrangements and the way things were happening there, some of what had been happening in other parts of the country could in theory happen somewhere like Somerset.
I am interested in the issue both as the father of young daughters and as a Somerset councillor who has that corporate duty of care to children in care—the council is the corporate parent to them. I have talked to children in that age group about some of the challenges they face and some they could face as they move out of care at that vulnerable age. The risk comes in different ways. In a rural area such as Somerset, young people are very dependent on friends and family for lifts in cars—I am not talking about children in care because there are stricter rules. The problem is hidden in all sorts of ways.
It is right that we are trying to raise standards and to do some of the things that hon. Members have mentioned. In Somerset, there is a potential devolution deal. One aspect proposed in the draft devolution bid is more local control of mental health budgets and services. Somerset is currently under-served by child and adolescent mental health services. The thought is that, if we can control those budgets better and apply them in the local environment, we might be able to help children who currently do not have as much help as we might like.
My hon. Friend refers to the devolution deal that will cover both Devon and
Somerset, including Torbay. One bonus of such a deal would be that it allowed more co-ordinated work across different areas. However, there is still a need to ensure that those budgets are well monitored and accounted for to local people.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. That is one of the things that I am keen to work on with him through the devolution process—ensuring that there are clear lines of accountability and that the governance aspects work well. As MPs, we can be involved in those things in future.
The recommendations in the excellent report—I congratulate the Children’s Society on it—do a good job of making it clear that the fact that children are aged 16 to 18 and have some element of personal responsibility does not absolve the authorities of their responsibility to look after them. One key problem we have seen in what has gone wrong in other parts of the country is that agencies did not talk to one another—the police, healthcare and social services did not always talk to one another—and it will be good to put the onus on them to do so.
We should always be mindful of the people involved—the children. We do not want them to feel like they are young offenders. Given the scale of the problem, it is obvious that young people are victims as often as they are young offenders. We need to be much more sensitive to the realities of the life that some of those young people face and the circumstances they unfortunately find themselves in.
In the light of the restriction on time and a desire to allow everybody to make a contribution, I would like to concentrate my remarks on this very sad subject on the incredible work done by the WISH Centre in helping the victims of sexual exploitation. I was delighted to open its new centre in Merton just a few weeks ago, extending its pre-existing site in Harrow. The centre is already having a wonderful impact on my local community. The centre’s work is made possible by funding from Comic Relief and is supported by its excellent director, Rowena Jaber. I am indebted to my friend Michael Foster for making me aware of the work of the centre and allowing me to work on bringing it to my area.
Having the courage to speak out after sexual abuse is the beginning of a long journey, but there is a terrible shortfall in therapeutic support for children who are victims. We need at least another 55,000 clinical therapeutic support places to make sure that all children who have displayed suicidal or self-harming behaviour receive this vital support. The provision of non-clinical early support is inadequate, even though such early intervention has been proven to be cost-effective, particularly when a child enters the criminal justice system.
That is why institutions like the WISH Centre are so important. The centre has been supporting those who have suffered from sexual abuse on the road to recovery for over 10 years. It specialises in support for those who self-harm, but it works extensively with young people who have experienced sexual abuse. This is because self-harm is a key indicator of sexual violence and abuse, as young victims struggle to cope with the trauma of their experience.
The centre has a tremendous history of success. In the past year, the centre supported over 220 young people on a long-term basis—mainly female and mainly from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities—recording an 89% increase in safety from sexual exploitation and abuse. The emphasis on BAME communities is particularly welcome, given the different problems around the reporting of child sexual abuse in some communities. There are a number of commendable ways in which the WISH Centre supports young people. It has an independent sexual violence advocacy service for young people who have experienced current or historical sexual violence, including rape, sexual exploitation, sexual harassment, gang-related sexual violence and child sexual abuse. This confidential, emotional and practical support helps young people to understand how the criminal justice process works and explains what will happen if they report crimes to the police.
The centre also works very closely with schools, so they are immediately notified on anything they need to act on regarding a vulnerable young person. It builds connections between schools, social services and the police to raise awareness. This is very important because a staggering proportion of young people still believe that if a teenager is too drunk or high to give sexual consent to sex, the sexual act is not rape, according to them.
I will not, just because I want to get on.
The centre’s response strategy is focused on three main points: prevention, identifying early and responding appropriately. An excellent example of this work is its Shield campaign in Harrow. A shocking 44% of teenagers in Harrow know someone who has been stalked, sexually harassed or attacked. Funded by the Mayor’s office of police and crime, the campaign has been raising awareness of the rights of young people and where they can go for help or confidential support in a crisis.
Other fantastic programmes specifically help those who self-harm with their recovery. Safe2Speak and the award-winning Girls Xpress! provide out-of-hours support, mentoring and creative therapies to help young women express themselves in productive and positive ways. The girls can take part in self-defence courses and healthy relationship workshops to discuss concerns surrounding young people, power, choice and safety. Guidance with regard to healthy relationships is particularly important, given that the most serious sexual assaults are usually committed by someone known to the victim, most often a partner or ex-partner.
The girls who attend these groups will have experienced self-harm, but are likely to have also faced issues such as exposure to domestic violence, sexual assault, depression, bullying, rape, neglect and low self-esteem. They are often at risk of sexual exploitation. Furthermore, by assessing and reviewing how well these services are supporting young people, the centre is constantly improving its techniques and provision in the light of the responses of service users. I am sure that this House will want to join me in commending the tremendous work of the
Despite the hard work of groups such as the WISH Centre, however, there are still gaps in the provisions and protections available to 16 and 17-year-olds. Older teenagers, as we have heard, are at the highest risk of being victims of sexual crime. It is clear that they desperately need to receive better protection. I hope this protection will be delivered when the policing and criminal justice Bill is considered in the new year. Sexual offences against children at the age of 16 and 17 should always be treated seriously.
I fully agree that child abduction warning notices should be amended so that they can be used to protect vulnerable children of this age. We also desperately need the law to recognise that 16 and 17-year-olds can be groomed for sexual abuse through coercive and controlling behaviour, such as through the use of drugs and alcohol, and the fear of intimidation. Furthermore, the need for additional safeguards for children with learning disabilities of this age is clear.
I sincerely hope we will hear in due course how the Government plan to develop, revise and implement the legislation, policy and guidance for all children and young people who experience, or are at risk of, child sexual exploitation. It is high time that these victims received our full support and proper protection under the law.
I would like to begin by thanking the Backbench Business Committee for approving this debate, and by expressing my gratitude to the hon. Members for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse) and for Stockport (Ann Coffey) for bringing it forward. We are all indebted to the Children’s Society, which is to be commended for its work that seeks to prevent children suffering heinous abuse and neglect. Child sexual exploitation is a truly reprehensible crime and one that has a lifelong impact on the lives of victims. I am sure Members on all sides of the House can find common cause today and unite behind this important issue.
Child sexual exploitation regrettably remains a problem, one that must be tackled collectively. A report released just this week from the National Crime Agency entitled, “Strategic Assessment of the Nature and Scale of Human Trafficking in 2014” lays bare a persistent problem. Of all the types of exploitation, child potential victims of trafficking aged 16 to 17 most commonly experienced sexual exploitation, with almost 100 cases reported in 2014. One child suffering in this manner is one too many; 100 is a failure that needs to be urgently addressed. That is two young people aged 16 or 17 every week falling through the cracks in the system and being preyed upon by some of the most despicable criminals in the UK. This only scratches the surface: countless more will doubtlessly have gone unreported.
Today’s debate focuses on legislation and research covering England and Wales, but child sexual abuse is not a crime that stops at borders. It is important, imperative even, for jurisdictions to look at one another to share practices. The vast majority of children in Scotland live safe, healthy and happy lives, but child sexual exploitation is as much a reality there as it is in the rest of the UK. The Scottish Government have introduced Scotland’s national action plan to tackle child exploitation, a far-reaching and ambitious strategy to tackle the problem. Embracing the kind of joined-up approach required, the plan was developed with a working group that included Police Scotland, the Care Inspectorate, Barnardo’s, the Crown Office and others. Real progress has been made in implementing the plan in Scotland.
A national summit, which brought together key service providers to share best practice, was held in February. Another such summit is due to be held in a couple of months. Police Scotland’s national child abuse investigation unit is now fully operational, and a programme of work will be developed across child protection to be agreed by February 2016 and presented to the Scottish Parliament. As my hon. Friend Patricia Gibson mentioned, the Scottish Government will also be launching a campaign to raise awareness of child sexual exploitation week. That campaign will involve television and poster campaigns aimed primarily at parents, carers and children. The plan forms part of a wider strategy and legislation aiming to get it right for every child.
Getting it right for most, but not all, children simply is not good enough. No child, at any age, should be able to slip through the net in society. Children who have reached the age of consent are still children, and today’s debate importantly highlights the disparity in how authorities deal with older victims. We have a moral duty to ensure that every child is protected from exploitation. Article 34 of the UN convention on the rights of the child lays clear our responsibilities. We must undertake to protect the child from all forms of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse and to take all appropriate measures to prevent the inducement or coercion of a child to engage in any unlawful sexual activity, the exploitative use of children in prostitution or other unlawful sexual practices and the exploitative use of children in pornographic performances and materials.
Older children cannot be excluded or forgotten. It is arguable that older children are more at risk of grooming. The motion notes the role drugs and alcohol, mental health problems, being in care and learning disabilities can play in adding to the vulnerability of the age group. A true understanding of these complex issues is required in order accurately to target those who prey on vulnerable young people and to protect all those at risk. These issues span social work, policing, justice, the health service and the third sector. That should emphasise the need and importance of a collective and joined-up approach. Interworking between agencies, authorities and stakeholders is vital. It is also crucial that police be able to do their job properly and protect all children, including those who are older. One of the most impactful pages in the Children’s Society’s report is that which contains a single statement in large print:
“The police currently lack the tools they need to intervene early to disrupt sexual exploitation of older teenagers”.
The report contains several recommendations on how police can be better equipped to deal with child sexual exploitation, and I ask that the Government give them serious consideration. Resourcing authorities should be of paramount importance, and I hope the Government will reflect on this debate and the report and come forward with proposals.
Tim Loughton made a good point about this being part of a much wider issue. We hear that the Goddard inquiry could take up to 10 years. Does that mean that victims of child sex abuse have to wait 10 years for justice? No one, no matter what their standing in society, should be shielded from prosecution for sexual abuse crimes. Victims deserve justice. Now is the time to act, and I ask that the Government do not delay. If even one more child is saved through expedient action, it will have been worth while.
Thank you for your indulgence, Madam Deputy Speaker, and a very happy Christmas to you too. I also thank hon. Members for securing this debate and the Backbench Business Committee for allowing it to happen today.
Many Members have mentioned the excellent Children’s Society report, “Old enough to know better?” They have rightly described the situation for already vulnerable children—those in care, suffering mental health difficulties or dangerously exploiting drugs and alcohol, for example—but I shall focus on mobile and online sexual exploitation, to which all young people with smartphones are vulnerable. By not tackling that effectively, we risk setting another set of young people on the path to vulnerability, serious mental health problems and drink and drugs exploitation. We also have to recognise that many young people, while being victims, could also, if we are not careful, be defined as perpetrators. The law has to be right and work in tandem with other approaches.
I thank Kevin Prunty, an experienced headteacher in Hounslow and executive head of the successful Cranford schools partnership, for helping me to prepare for this debate. He has direct experience of this situation and has some solutions I know he wants to share with the Minister.
The Children’s Society report recommendations apply to child sex abuse wherever and however it occurs, but there is justification for further consideration of mobile and online culture and the ways of helping to prevent the abuse, and to reduce the vulnerability to abuse, of 16 and 17-year-olds. In particular, the report does not address aspects of proactive prevention crucial to success in this field. Some important aspects of child online and mobile safety and of the equalities agenda are totally ignored, not just in the report, but seemingly by all the agencies and initiatives that Mr Prunty has come across.
We need to work in key areas, with cross-political support, to help schools and parents to safeguard children much more effectively than is possible merely by amending the law. The guidance says that child sexual exploitation can occur through the use of technology without the child’s immediate recognition. The definition of child sexual exploitation in the Sexual Offences Act 2003 includes merely the recording of an indecent image of a young person. The key findings of “Old enough to know better?” focus on strengthening the law. This age group is particularly vulnerable and inadvertently more vulnerable because of the potential for clumsy, inappropriate or disproportionate use of regulation and legislation.
It is right to strengthen the law to afford these children the same protections as younger children, but it is the continuum with the circumstances prior to the age of 16 that makes them so vulnerable as they mature, particularly online. Tackling offenders and strengthening the law, while important, are only a small part of what needs to be done and are not, on their own, the real solution. Merely strengthening the law will do little good for the majority and will not address those who could become victims. We need to protect children earlier, as my hon. Friend Mr Allen said, and proactively to prevent abuse.
The law in this area is designed primarily to tackle the serious offences committed particularly by adults against young people. The Children’s Society report and the work of most agencies and organisations tasked with online safety, although extremely valuable, focus too narrowly on already vulnerable children and fail to address the context of young people’s lives more widely. The recommendations in the report focus on reaction rather than prevention. I want more resourcing, more strategies and action to provide an appropriate adult presence—not necessarily the police—in the mobile and cyber world, in which many young children spend huge amounts of their time growing up without us.
In this respect, the law must not be used where young people are engaging in unwise activities, which many do, that relate to the expectation and culture of a mobile and cyber environment in which appropriate adults have virtually no presence and where we too often leave the young people abandoned to fend for themselves. Here is a quote from Mr Prunty on the issue:
“In running schools and elsewhere, I always contend that a strong positive culture must dominate any community, including online and mobile, because in its absence there will never be a vacuum and instead street culture will fill the void.”
In strengthening the law for 16 and 17-year-olds, steps must be taken to ensure the system does not end up targeting and criminalising young people who are in fact victims themselves. It will also require significant training and support for the police and others whose response to such crimes appears already to be under-confident and variable. Mr Prunty’s schools subscribe to a restorative justice approach, and this may be appropriate in cases where mitigating factors are considered.
Naïve online activity by 16 and 17-year-olds, which would also be subject to any strengthening of the law, such as online and mobile communication between peers, will be most frequent, is perhaps more detectable and could be easier to prosecute. It is important to remember, however, that in most cases 16 and 17-year-olds will actually remain victims even when they break such laws in the context and environment of the school and the world they occupy.
The vast majority of our young people are already mobile and already online victims in a largely unsupervised cyber world. Although the internet gets considerable attention from safeguarding organisations and in training, mobile activity and mobile-based abuse are, in fact, even more rife yet also more neglected by adults. Parents, teachers and other adults responsible for the routine safety of children are often best placed to supervise and guide young people, but they are largely absent from this dangerous environment. We tend to operate in Facebook, but young people are not on Facebook so much nowadays. The mobile world, and to some extent the dark web, get less attention, yet these are really part of most young people’s experiences—day and night.
I believe that the figures quoted in the Children’s Society report are actually a huge under-representation of the scale of the underlying problem. It is the underlying problem that contributes to a culture and environment that make identified sexual offences more probable and possible. In effect, it normalises them in the minds of young people, especially girls. I contest that a much larger proportion of 16 and 17-year-olds—boys and girls to differing degrees—experiences sexual and other harassment, abuse and pressure, and for many this is regular and unrelenting. Sometimes they take part in it, too. This normalisation, with no appropriate adult presence to challenge it, is what leads to the lack of reporting of sexual and other mobile, online and cyber abuse. I support all the recommendations in the report, but feel that they are insufficient and incomplete without recommendations aimed at establishing a different online, mobile and cyber culture and skilling up children, parents and other adults.
I am short of time, so in conclusion I welcome the Minister’s announcement of the What Works review and hope that she will consider the specific issues of mobile and online sexual exploitation. I hope she will look not only at the already vulnerable children, but at the policies of all those who work with all our children, so that consistent, deliverable and effective solutions can be achieved rather than just punishment under the law.
Let me first congratulate Kit Malthouse and my hon. Friend Ann Coffey on securing this important debate. I would also like to thank everyone who has spoken because they have done so with passion, on the basis of many years of experience and out of a real commitment to using the opportunity we have as parliamentarians to make a difference for the most vulnerable people. I am always most proud when we have debates such as this one.
The clear driver for this debate is improving the lives of the most vulnerable 16 and 17-year-olds. Too often, young people of this age are treated like adults and not afforded the additional protections given in law to younger children. However, teenagers of this age are more predisposed towards risk-taking behaviour. For the most vulnerable—for example, those with earlier experiences of abuse, trauma and neglect—this risk taking can have serious consequences.
Yes, 16 and 17-year-olds can give consent to sexual acts, but is it always informed consent? The law does not recognise that in many cases where children aged 16 and 17 become victims of sexual offences, they are coerced into submission by perpetrators who supply them with drugs and alcohol or of whom the young people are scared. The capacity to consent is impaired through an imbalance of power between a child and a perpetrator, and by the young person’s use and/or dependency on drugs or alcohol prior to the offence.
As far as under-18s are concerned, the law is clear that the sale and consumption of alcohol from licensed premises and from licensed vendors is prohibited, but the law does not specifically address the fact that 16 and 17-year-olds, particularly vulnerable 16 and 17-year-olds, can be coerced to submit to their own sexual abuse through adults supplying them with alcohol on private premises.
It is welcome that the Serious Crime Act 2015 has created an offence of coercive and controlling behaviour in intimate and family relationships, which protects vulnerable individuals, including 16 and 17-year-olds, in cases of domestic abuse. However, similar changes are needed to recognise the fact that 16 and 17-year-olds can be coerced and controlled—either through drugs or alcohol, or through fear—for the purpose of sexual abuse in more transient relationships.
The Sexual Offences Act 2003 defines sex offences against adults and children. In the case of a number of sexual crimes, the Act views young people aged 16 and 17 differently from those under the age of 16, and differently again from adults. For example, young people aged 16 and 17 are recognised as children if they are victims of sexual exploitation. A person who is found guilty of such an offence will incur a shorter prison sentence—up to seven years—than a person whose victim is under 13. That person will be sentenced to life imprisonment, while a person whose victim is between the ages of 13 and 16 will be sentenced to up to 14 years in prison.
Despite the age-related gradation in the length of sentences for sexual exploitation, the sentences for offences of rape and sexual assaults do not reflect the age of the victim in the same way. They do not recognise that young people aged 16 and 17 are children, and are therefore more vulnerable than adults aged over 18. The current legislation provides no guarantee that a sexual assault against a 16 or 17-year-old will incur a more severe sentence than an attack on an adult aged over 18.
Child abduction warning notices are used by the police to disrupt contact between a vulnerable child and an adult when it is feared that the child may be at risk of sexual exploitation or harm. They are primarily used to protect children under the age of 16, with the consent of their parents or guardians. Currently, the law also affords protection to the tiny proportion of vulnerable 16 and 17-year-olds who are in local authority care under section 31 of the Children Act 1989. Police protocols specify that only that group can be protected by child abduction warning notices.
Last year 4,510 teenagers aged 16 or 17 became looked-after children, but only 190 were taken into care formally under section 31. The other 4,320 became looked-after children voluntarily, under section 20. As only those who are formally taken into care under section 31 are protected by child abduction warning notices, the vast majority of 16 and 17-year-olds in care are not protected. That denies the police a critical tool to keep them safe from sexual exploitation. For example, when two children are living in the same supported accommodation and facing the same risks of exploitation, and one is looked after under section 31 while the other is looked after under section 20, the police can protect only the first child; the second is left unprotected. As the Minister knows, there is clear evidence that children in care are more vulnerable to grooming and sexual exploitation. I ask her to look at the position again to see whether that highly vulnerable group of 16 and 17-year-olds could be protected by child abduction warning notices.
We must bear in mind that there are other vulnerable 16 and 17-year-olds who are not looked after by local authorities. They include “children in need” under section 17 of the Children Act, who could be disabled or young carers. Those aged 16 or 17 who are assessed as homeless under the Housing Act 1996 are not eligible either. Both groups are at significant risk, and would benefit from the increased protection provided by child abduction warning notices.
In Rotherham there are 2,360 young people aged 16 and 17, and analysis of Department for Education statistics shows that 160 of them have been assessed as “children in need”. I want those 160 to have the protection of child abduction warning notices, so that if they are being sexually exploited—even if the process of sexual exploitation is just beginning—the police can disrupt the perpetrators rather than sitting on their hands until the abuse happens. The Minister has the perfect opportunity to make amends in the upcoming Policing and Criminal Justice Bill. It is an opportunity to send a strong message that 16 and 17-year-olds are children, and that sexual offences against children will always be treated seriously.
Let me end by asking the Minister some questions. Does she agree that the law should make it very clear that a young person who consents to drink alcohol or take drugs should never be seen as also consenting to a sexual act? Does she also agree that the sexual offences legislation could be strengthened with the introduction of a new offence of coercive and controlling behaviour for the purposes of sexual activity with vulnerable 16 and 17-year-olds?
The definitive sentencing guidelines on sexual offences, specifically on offences of rape or sexual assaults, do not include vulnerability due to the victim being under the age of 18 as the harm factor, the culpability factor, or even the aggravating factor. This means that those convicted of these horrible crimes against children aged 16 and 17 may not get a sentence reflecting the seriousness of their crime due to a victim being a child. Does the Minister agree that the sentencing guidelines on sexual offences should be amended to include a victim aged under 18 being listed as a category 2 harm factor? This would strengthen the message that targeting children for sexual crimes will not be tolerated and raise awareness of the vulnerability of children of this age.
It seems incongruous to do this during this debate, but I would like to start by wishing you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and all hon. Members a very happy Christmas. May I also congratulate my hon. Friend Kit Malthouse and Ann Coffey on securing this important debate and all hon. Members on their very thoughtful contributions? It is clear from the genuine concern expressed that this is an important and challenging issue which deserves our careful consideration.
May I start by reassuring all hon. Members that, as the Minister for preventing abuse and exploitation, I can say that I and this Government share their desire to protect everyone, particularly vulnerable young people, from violence and sexual exploitation? Like my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham
(Tim Loughton), who did such an enormous amount in this field when he was a Minister in the Department for Education, I have met victims and survivors, as, I am sure, others have. As the hon. Member for Stockport said, it is vital that we listen to those children—that we listen to the victims and survivors—and that we hear what they say.
Social media was mentioned. Children feel that they cannot escape from social media. They do not feel they can turn off from it. If somebody is trolling them online, they do not feel they can escape from it. These are important points and we need to listen and to understand so that we can take the right action.
On the need to take young people seriously, has the Minister come across the Barnardo’s service report, which highlighted that when young vulnerable people go to authority figures, they must always be taken seriously, because they may also be engaged in antisocial behaviour? Can we do all we can to ensure that people in authority take our young people seriously?
My hon. Friend, who serves on the Select Committee, makes an incredibly important point. Barnardo’s has just completed a trial of child trafficking advocates for the Government—I have placed a written ministerial statement on that in the Library today—and it does incredible work to make sure children are listened to. My hon. Friend is absolutely right: we need to change the culture and change attitudes. A point was made earlier—by Ruth Cadbury, I think—about victims being perpetrators. It is too often the case that a victim becomes a perpetrator and is seen as a perpetrator, and is not seen for the child that they are. We need to change attitudes. This debate, and the contributions today, will go a long way to doing that, but there is still more to do.
Preventing abuse and exploitation and protecting the vulnerable present complex challenges, particularly when dealing with young people. We know that children are being deliberately targeted, manipulated and coerced, and consequently sexually exploited. In this context, the Government welcome the research and findings presented in the Children’s Society report “Old enough to know better?” The report rightly highlights a number of important areas, including prevention, identification, protection, support and prosecution—areas which absolutely require the co-ordinated focus of Departments across Government, and beyond.
Survivors (Hull and East Riding), which serves victims of CSE with mental health support services in my constituency, has seen a 20% rise in clients over the last three years and its waiting list is now six months. Does the Minister agree that delays in providing mental health services for survivors are unacceptable and increase the risk of suicide and self-harm among CSE victims?
I join the hon. Lady in paying tribute to the work of that organisation. I will talk about mental health services later, if she will bear with me. I am absolutely sure that the organisation does incredibly important work. The length of its waiting list clearly demonstrates the demand for its services and the fact that it is tackling the issue in an effective way.
We need to work across Government, which is why we have established a cross-Government response to child sexual exploitation. I want to assure all hon. Members that this is a top priority for this Government. The Home Secretary launched the report “Tackling Child Sexual Exploitation” in March this year. It sets out a national response to the failures that we saw in Rotherham, which Sarah Champion described, as well as in Manchester, Oxford and elsewhere, where children were let down by the very people who were responsible for protecting them. It sets out how we will continue the urgent work of overhauling the work of our police, social services and other agencies together to protect vulnerable children.
I want to assure all hon. Members that significant work has been and is taking place across Government, but given the time available today, I will not go through all the points that have been raised. My door is always open, however, and all hon. Members are very welcome to come and see me to discuss their concerns and the work that is being done. I will be happy to share in detail the work we are doing across Government.
I want to touch on the issue of terminology in relation to child sexual exploitation. We know that there is an issue with the terminology, so we are reviewing and reissuing the current definition and the statutory guidance on safeguarding children and young people from sexual exploitation. We will make it clear what constitutes sexual exploitation as a form of sexual abuse, and we are working with a number of stakeholders including the Children’s Society to sharpen the definition and strengthen the guidance. We will publish a progress report on all actions taken following the “Tackling Child Sexual Exploitation” report early next year.
We recognise that 16 and 17-year-olds are a diverse group and can be particularly vulnerable. They are children, but they are old enough legally to consent to sexual activity where appropriate. We know that that combination can be exploited and lead to abuse. There is a contradiction between the ever-decreasing age of sexual maturity and the age of emotional maturity, which is not going down. The wider that gap becomes, the harder it is for us to deal with these complex issues.
The court process can clearly present a particular challenge to vulnerable victims and witnesses, and everyone involved has a responsibility to manage that impact. In January 2015, toolkits were launched for the police, prosecutors and advocates, addressing the fact that consent is an issue for vulnerable young victims as well as dealing with the context of drugs, alcohol, mental health and learning disabilities. We have also completed the training of all specialist prosecutors, which will include Crown Court cases of child sexual abuse, and in 2016 we are training in-house advocates as well.
Patricia Gibson talked about the law that applies to the sexual exploitation of children aged 16 and 17. I want to assure her that the law in England and Wales already specifically protects that age group from abuse. For example, sections 47 to 50 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 criminalise payment for the sexual services of a child aged under 18 and provide for the offences of causing, inciting, controlling, arranging or facilitating the sexual exploitation of a child under 18.
The hon. Member for Stockport has campaigned vigorously on this issue. During the passage of the Serious Crime Act 2015, she was a leader in ensuring that the Government removed the terms “child prostitution” and “child pornography” from the law. I know that the guidance has not yet been updated in some areas but we are working incredibly hard to ensure that that happens and to ensure that all agencies with responsibility for that guidance update it as soon as possible. This is the clear message: a child cannot consent to sex. They are forced into sex, they do not consent to it, and there can therefore be no such thing as a child prostitute.
My hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire talked about children in care, as did my hon. Friend Kelly Tolhurst. Children in care are particularly vulnerable, which is why the Children Act 1989 makes it an offence to take any child in care, including a 16 or 17-year-old, away from the person responsible for them without lawful authority or reasonable excuse. We also know that 16 and 17-year-olds can be vulnerable in a variety of ways, some of which may be directly or indirectly linked to their age. That is also reflected in the sentencing guidelines, in which additional aggravating factors include the use of alcohol or drugs on the victim and the targeting of a particularly vulnerable child.
I apologise for interrupting the Minister, but I want to go back to her last point. I do not believe that either the police or people working in care homes are aware of that piece of legislation. If there is anything she can do to make them aware, that would be great. When I speak to these workers, they say, “The child is 16, so I can’t intervene if they want to go off with this person.”
I hope they have been listening to the debate, but we will make sure that even those few people who are not watching the House of Commons on a Thursday afternoon are made aware of that piece of legislation. The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran talked about a young person’s consent after taking drugs or alcohol. Let us be clear: the law is clear that a young person’s consent to take drugs or alcohol can never be viewed as consent to sexual acts.
I am making sure that I deal with the important points, so let me move on to the issue of mental health. Some children who experience the kind of trauma associated with child sexual exploitation will need support from mental health services. The Minister for Community and Social Care has just joined us on the Front Bench. He is a Health Minister, and I am working closely with him on the crisis care concordat to make sure that mental health services are appropriately delivered. It is crucial that we get this right for children, including 16 to 17-year-olds. That is why we have commenced a major transformation programme, backed by additional investment, which will improve the support provided to vulnerable 16 and 17-year-olds who have experienced sexual abuse and are in need of mental health and wellbeing services. The programme will place the emphasis on prevention and early intervention, which I know to be an issue close to the heart of Mr Allen, building care around the needs of children, young people and their families, including the most vulnerable.
We are all grateful for the Minister’s mention of a centre of excellence to look at dealing with sexual exploitation. Will she make it clear that this will deal not only with what people traditionally look at as the sexual abuse of children, but with programmes to help prevent perpetrators from reoffending? Can she confirm that all that best practice will be in one place?
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the work will be done not just in the What Works centre, but in the Home Office and elsewhere, particularly on the perpetrator programme. He is absolutely right in that the academic evidence is patchy in this field and we need to get the right evidence, because we will not be able to deal with this otherwise. We talk about conviction rates, but actually a conviction is a failure, as it means that a crime has occurred. We want to stop those crimes happening. That means dealing with perpetrators, stopping the perpetrators and protecting young people so that they understand and know what abuse looks like and how to avoid being abused. The work he has done in this area for many years is incredibly valuable and has helped us in Government to form our views on this issue.
The Government recognise the terrible scale and impact of these crimes, particularly on vulnerable victims. I am proud of the progress we are making in tackling all aspects of child sexual abuse and exploitation, but there is still much to do. That is why I commend the Children’s Society for its invaluable work in drawing attention to particular vulnerabilities and recommending actions. I acknowledge the helpful contributions that have been made in this debate; hon. Members from all parts of the House have advocated wonderfully on behalf of the vulnerable in society, and I commend them all for doing so.
With the leave of the House, I thank all the Members who have taken part in this thoughtful and important debate, and I thank the Children’s Society for the support it has offered to a number of us in compiling our contributions. I also thank the Minister for her offer of an open door, which I took to mean a meeting to talk about perhaps putting together some clauses in the criminal justice Bill which might close some of these loopholes. More than that, I hope that this can be the start of an examination, before that Bill appears, of what more we can do to protect children, because it is obvious that the evidence is available to us.
As my hon. Friend Tim Loughton said, the 2012 report of the children’s commissioners pointed to things that needed to be done. We now have the Children’s Society report with similar evidence. We also have the appalling cases that we see in the newspapers. Obviously, something needs to change. Much of the legislation around the protection of children is quite old, and has not been looked at since the 1980s, when there was a period of rapid change. I know from my own experience that children have just been through another period of enormously rapid change, and that the legislation has lagged behind. I would welcome working with Members, the Minister, and, hopefully, the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Justice to see what more we can do in the upcoming criminal justice Bill to protect young people.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House notes the findings of The Children’s Society’s report entitled Old enough to know better? which looked at the sexual exploitation of 16 and 17 year olds; further notes the particular vulnerability of that age group as they transition from childhood to adulthood and the role that aggravated offences and harsher sentences have in deterring crimes against 16 and 17 year olds; calls on the Government to clarify for prosecution and sentencing purposes the role drugs and alcohol, mental health problems, being in care and learning disabilities have in adding to the vulnerability of that age group; and further calls on the Government to give police the same tools to intervene when a 16 or 17 year old is being targeted and groomed for exploitation as they have for younger children.
I genuinely thank the hon. Gentleman very much indeed for his excellent point of order. I am pleased to have it noted that the debate ended precisely at 3.15, which is what I intended. The next debate will end at 5pm whether or not I intend it. I do hope that by the same courteous behaviour from Members—
Yes, including those on the Front Bench. I hope to accommodate everyone without the need for a formal limit on speeches.