Amendment 104A

Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill - Report (5th Day) – in the House of Lords at 5:00 pm on 12th January 2022.

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Lord Rosser:

Moved by Lord Rosser

104A: After Clause 172, insert the following new Clause—“Child criminal exploitation In section 3 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 (meaning of exploitation), at the end insert—“Child criminal exploitation(7) Another person manipulates, deceives, coerces or controls the person to undertake activity which constitutes a criminal offence and the person is under the age of 18.””Member’s explanatory statementThis new Clause would introduce a statutory definition of child criminal exploitation.

Photo of Lord Rosser Lord Rosser Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport)

My Lords, a similar amendment was debated in Committee as part of a series of amendments relating to ensuring that safeguarding and tackling the criminal exploitation of children are a central part of the duty to reduce serious violence as set out in Part 2, with its duties on specified authorities to collaborate and plan to prevent and reduce serious violence. Children who are groomed and exploited by criminal gangs are the victims and not the criminals. A statutory duty to reduce violence cannot be effective on its own without a statutory duty to safeguard children. This amendment would provide a statutory definition of child criminal exploitation, putting a recognised definition in law for the first time.

The present lack of a single clear statutory definition has contributed to local authorities responding differently to this form of exploitation across the country. The Children’s Society says that just one-third of local authorities have a policy in place for responding to it, yet child criminal exploitation does not stop at local authority boundaries and requires a shared understanding and approach nationally. Barnardo’s has said that it has found that agencies, including police forces, do not routinely collect or record information on this type of exploitation. It reports that a number of reviews have found that children at risk are passed between agencies without meaningful engagement. Indeed, many children are not seen as victims of exploitation and abuse but instead receive punitive criminal justice responses.

A statutory definition, as we now have for domestic abuse, would improve awareness and understanding of child exploitation and its signs, and encourage joined-up working not only across the justice system but across all partners included in the serious violence reduction duty. It would give a common definition of what we are seeking to tackle in response to the abhorrent coercion and manipulation of children and vulnerable young people. This is not a minor issue. More than 25,000 children in the United Kingdom are presently at risk of gang exploitation, according to the Children’s Commissioner.

The response of the Government in Committee to establishing a statutory definition of child criminal exploitation was that they had considered it with a range of operational partners and had concluded that the definitions of exploitation within the Modern Slavery Act were sufficient to respond to a range of child criminal exploitation scenarios. However, the operational partners with whom presumably the Government considered a statutory definition will include the local authorities which according to the Children’s Society do not have a policy in place for responding to child criminal exploitation, the police forces and other agencies which Barnardo’s found are not routinely collecting or recording information on this type of exploitation, and the agencies which pass children at risk between each other without meaningful engagement. The evidence indicates that there is no consistency of approach across the agencies on child criminal exploitation, so it is clear that the existing definitions on which the Government relied when rejecting this amendment in Committee are not assisting in the way they should in responding to abhorrent child criminal exploitation scenarios.

I hope that the Government will be prepared to reflect further on this issue of a much-needed definition of child criminal exploitation as provided for in this amendment, which I move.

Photo of Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Green

I would be remiss if I did not point out to the Benches opposite that this is an issue that I have talked about quite a lot, in the context not of county lines and gangs but of the Met Police. I did not even realise that there was not a statutory definition, so I welcome this amendment. The definition talks about another person who manipulates and so on, and, of course, the Met Police manipulates children. We are assured constantly that it is a very small number, but it happens and does so apparently lawfully because the Government have not stopped it, so the Government are complicit in a crime.

I can see therefore that, sadly, although the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, has brought forward a very good amendment, it is very unlikely to be passed. Obviously it is completely wrong that the police, instead of rescuing children from situations of criminal exploitation, can send them back into dangerous situations to work for them as undercover spies. It is not enough to say that they give loads of good intelligence and so on; I have seen from many years of watching undercover police that they suffer trauma and extremely miserable lives and come out with all sorts of PTSD from those undercover situations. It is very hard to be a different person day after day with some potentially very dangerous people. If it can happen to trained police officers, how much worse is it for young children who have to do that sort of thing? They have to lie to all their compatriots and cover up meetings with their handlers. It is exceptionally nasty and I wish the Met police would understand that it is a wrong, illegal thing to do. They call them juvenile CHISs—covert human intelligence sources—which sort of neutralises the moral outrage because no one really understands what they are. However, it is by definition child criminal exploitation. If we could put the definition on the statute book, we would be one step closer to ending this vile practice undertaken by our own police—and Government.

Photo of The Bishop of Gloucester The Bishop of Gloucester Bishop 5:15 pm, 12th January 2022

My Lords, I speak in place of my right reverend friend the Bishop of Derby, who sadly cannot be here today. She and I support this amendment, to which she has added her name. I declare her interest as vice-chair of the Children’s Society. These are her words.

In Committee, my right reverend friend the Bishop of Durham spoke in the place of my right reverend friend the Bishop of Manchester. I will not repeat all that was said, but I will reiterate a few fundamental points as we consider this amendment. As a Church living and working in every corner of this nation, we support families and children, often in the most vulnerable of contexts. We have seen the devastating consequences when children are coerced and exploited, including through serious violence. Those consequences have ripple effects through not only the life of that child but the wider community. Visiting young offender institutions, I am struck by how many of these children and young people are victims first. Their stories could have been very different if intervention had occurred earlier. They have been groomed and coerced in the same way as children groomed for sexual exploitation; as such, they should be treated as victims. They need support rather than the further trauma of being charged and prosecuted.

I share with noble Lords the story of a young person supported by the Children’s Society which illustrates how many victims of child criminal exploitation are not recognised as such. Bobby—not his real name—aged 15, was picked up with class A drugs in a trap-house raid by the police. Bobby had been groomed, exploited and trafficked across the country to sell drugs. After his arrest, he was driven back to his home by police officers, who had questioned him alone in the car and used that information to submit a referral through the national referral mechanism, which did not highlight Bobby’s vulnerability—instead, it read like a crime report. Bobby had subsequently been to court in Wales and, because his referral to the NRM failed and his barrister did not understand the process, he was advised to plead guilty, which he did.

At this time, he was referred to the Children’s Society’s “Disrupting Exploitation” programme. With its help, Bobby challenged the NRM decision and worked to ensure that he was recognised as a victim instead of an offender, enabling him to retract his plea of guilty. The Children’s Society was able to work with Bobby, his family and the professionals around him to ensure that they recognised the signs of exploitation and how it can manifest.

But for many young people who are criminally exploited, that is not the case. Many will be prosecuted and convicted as offenders, while those who groomed and exploited them walk free. Agencies that come into contact with these children are not working to the same statutory definition of what constitutes child criminal exploitation.

What this amendment hopes to achieve is for statutory services to recognise that these children have not made a choice to get involved in criminal activity. I whole- heartedly agree that local multiagency safeguarding arrangements are key to responding to child exploitation. However, we need a clear, national definition and understanding of the types of child exploitation that they must safeguard against. Front-line agencies all agree: there is no evidence that the system as it stands is working consistently to protect these children from exploitation.

We are committed to the flourishing of all people. That includes children and young people from the most marginalised and disadvantaged circumstances—those for whom real choice is out of their grasp. We must do all within our power to give hope to victims and dare to dream of a different future for these children.

Photo of Lord Paddick Lord Paddick Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

My Lords, in Committee I recalled my own experience of visiting the only young offender institution in Scotland, where the governor told us that every young person in her institution had suffered multiple adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs. These are potentially traumatic events that occur in childhood and include experiencing violence, abuse or neglect, particularly head trauma; witnessing violence in the home or community, something that is becoming all too common; and having a family member attempt or die by suicide. Also included are aspects of the child’s environment that can undermine their sense of safety, stability and bonding, such as growing up in a household with substance use problems, mental health problems or instability due to parental separation or household members being in prison.

ACEs also make children particularly vulnerable to criminal exploitation and it is important that this is recognised in statute to ensure that a trauma-informed approach is taken to child victims of criminal exploitation, rather than a criminalising, punitive approach. This amendment provides that statutory definition and we strongly support it.

Photo of Lord Sharpe of Epsom Lord Sharpe of Epsom Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, for setting out the case for the amendment and to all noble Lords who took part in this short debate. I wholly agree that the targeting, grooming and exploitation of children who are often the most vulnerable in our society for criminal purposes is deplorable. This Government are committed to tackling it.

Before I start, I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, that the Government are not complicit in crime. I remember CHIS being debated quite extensively in your Lordships’ House. They are subject to significant and stringent safeguards, so I think that we can leave that there.

This amendment seeks to establish a statutory definition of child criminal exploitation. As I indicated in Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Field of Birkenhead, the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, and Maria Miller MP undertook an independent review into the Modern Slavery Act 2015, the findings of which were published in May 2019. The definition of exploitation in Section 3 of the Act was explored as part of this review in response to calls that it should be amended to explicitly reflect new and emerging forms of exploitation, such as county lines.

The review heard evidence from the CPS, which warned against expanding the scope of the meaning of exploitation or defining exploitation so precisely that it would lack flexibility when applying the legislation to a changing profile of criminal conduct. The authors of the review agreed and recommended that the definition should not be amended, as it is sufficiently flexible to cover a range of circumstances, including new and emerging forms of modern slavery.

We agree that front-line practitioners need to have a clear understanding of child exploitation; the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, made these points very well. That is why child exploitation is already defined in statutory guidance, including the Keeping Children Safe in Education and Working Together to Safeguard Children statutory guidance. It is also set out in non-statutory practice documents for those working with young people, such as the Home Office Child Exploitation Disruption Toolkit and the county lines guidance.

We recognise that the vast majority of child criminal exploitation cases occur in the context of county lines. That is why the Home Office is providing up to £1 million this financial year to the St Giles Trust to provide specialist support for under-25s and their families who are affected by county lines exploitation. The project is operating in London, the West Midlands and Merseyside, which are the three largest exporting county lines areas. We also continue to fund the Missing People’s SafeCall service. This is a national confidential helpline service for young people, families and carers who are experiencing county lines exploitation.

I listened carefully to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester, who made some powerful points. She mentioned the Children’s Society. I should point out that the Home Office is funding the Children’s Society’s prevention programme, which works to tackle and prevent child criminal exploitation, child sexual abuse and exploitation, modern-day slavery and human trafficking on a regional and national basis. This has included a public awareness campaign called “Look Closer”, which started in September. It focuses on increasing awareness of the signs and indicators of child exploitation and encourages the public and service, retail and transport sector workers to report concerns to the police quickly.

Back to county lines and drugs. They devastate lives, ruin families and damage communities. That is why this Government have recently introduced a 10-year strategy to combat illicit drugs using a whole-system approach to cut off the supply of drugs by criminal gangs and give people with a drug addiction a route to a productive and drug-free life. Through the strategy, we will bolster our flagship county lines programme, investing up to £145 million to tackle the most violent and exploitative distribution model yet seen.

Clearly, we are all in agreement that tackling child criminal exploitation must be a priority. I have set out some of the steps that the Government are taking to do just that. However, the Government remain unpersuaded that defining child criminal exploitation in statute would aid understanding of the issue or help such exploitation. As I have indicated, we should pay heed to the conclusions of the independent review of the Modern Slavery Act, which commended the flexibility afforded by the current definition of exploitation. For these reasons, I ask the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Lord Rosser Lord Rosser Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport)

First, I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby and the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, for adding their names to this amendment. Indeed, I thank all noble Lords who spoke in this debate.

Basically, the Government have repeated what they said in Committee. There is nothing new and no response to the point that a statutory duty to reduce violence cannot be effective without a statutory duty to safeguard children, which is what this amendment would provide by putting a recognised definition in law for the first time. There has not really been a response to that.

I made the point that the evidence indicates that there is no consistency of approach across the agencies on child criminal exploitation. Clearly, the definitions on which the Government relied in Committee, which they have now repeated on Report, are not assisting in the way that they should in responding to child criminal exploitation scenarios. It is a bit depressing to find no movement at all on the Government’s stance and, if I may say so, no attempt to respond to my point that, bearing in mind the inconsistencies, the existing definitions are clearly not doing the job that the Government claim they should be doing and, indeed, claim they are doing. That clearly is not the case.

I do not intend to test the opinion of the House on this. I say only that the issue is not going to going away. If we continue, as I suspect we will, with the inconsistencies of approach that have been identified by Barnardo’s and the Children’s Society and referred to during this debate—that is, if the Government do not address them, which is what this amendment in effect invites them to do—this matter will not go away. I am quite sure that it will be the subject of further discussion and debate if the present highly unsatisfactory situation continues in respect of child criminal exploitation. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 104A withdrawn.