Report (1st Day)

Part of Modern Slavery Bill – in the House of Lords at 3:45 pm on 23rd February 2015.

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Photo of Baroness Doocey Baroness Doocey Liberal Democrat 3:45 pm, 23rd February 2015

My Lords, the amendment would introduce a separate offence of child exploitation. I acknowledge that the amendment that the Government have just moved goes some way to meeting the concerns expressed in Committee by noble Lords across the Chamber and by the large number of voluntary organisations that work with exploited children. I very much welcome the government amendment as a major step forward; however, I still have two key concerns that I ask the Minister to address.

First, the Bill is not clear enough on the issue of children who are exploited but where the child is not forced to commit a crime. I know that the Government are seeking to ensure that the offence of,

“Slavery, servitude and forced or compulsory labour”,

in Clause 1 reflects the fact that children can be influenced in subtle ways. However, for Clause 1 to have the same effect as a separate child exploitation offence, the Government need to make explicit their intention that it shall be an offence, even if there is no evidence of force. The Minister, in his letter of 16 February to the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, said that the Bill makes clear that:

“Where a person deliberately targets a vulnerable person, such as a child, there is no requirement for any force, threats or deception to be used to induce the child into being exploited”.

If the Government were willing to include this wording in guidance, that would go a long way to meeting my concerns in this area. Children who are groomed into criminality or begging often become very attached to their exploiters, identifying with them so closely that they do not understand that they are being exploited. This presents a problem for prosecutors when deciding whether a case has a realistic prospect of a conviction. Because of this uncertainty, many of these cases never get to court. Perhaps the Minister will deal with this point when he responds.

My second area of concern is to ensure that the definition of “exploitation” is crystal clear to everyone. Criminality is ever-changing, as are the ways people find to abuse and exploit the vulnerable. Children are being specifically targeted for use as domestic slaves, to guard cannabis factories, for harbouring guns, for serial theft and increasingly for use as drug mules. However, the evidence available to police in these cases often does not reach the threshold required to prove slavery, servitude or forced or compulsory labour. That is why it is so important to ensure certainty over what constitutes exploitation, so that people who exploit children can and will be brought to justice.

I was interested to hear the list that the Minister read out of all the really important people who do not think a child exploitation clause is necessary, such as the Director of Public Prosecutions and the national policing lead. However, the myriad offences that the Government and these people say can currently be used to prosecute child exploitation are simply not being used. This is reflected in the pitifully low number of convictions. Charities and other organisations working in this area on a daily basis are encountering cases of exploited children slipping through the net time after time. In the past two years, the police have identified more than 1,000 child victims of human trafficking, but the Government have been unable to indicate a single prosecution of forced labour involving a child victim. In total, there were just 41 prosecutions for human trafficking offences last year.

I very much welcome the Minister’s statement that the Director of Public Prosecutions and the national policing lead will now work together to raise awareness on how to prosecute child exploitation, but I hope that there will also be appropriate recognition by police and crime commissioners to prioritise child exploitation and to provide training for front-line police officers. This training must make use of face-to-face lectures by recognised experts in this field. Too often, so-called training involves nothing more than giving police officers a CD and asking them to sit in front of a computer screen and listen to it when they get time.

I shall keep a very close eye on how this new legislation is implemented. If expectations are not fulfilled, there will be clear demands to reopen the legislation all over again to enable more effective prosecutions, because we must protect the most vulnerable in our society: our children. I beg to move.