Q 45 We will now hear evidence from Barnardo’s, the Children’s Society and the NSPCC. We have until 2.45 pm for this part of the session.
I thank the witnesses for coming along and providing us with the benefit of your advice. We really appreciate it. Perhaps you could introduce yourselves, starting with Iryna.
It is really good that the Bill covers child sexual exploitation, although it is a bit of a missed opportunity in that there is only one measure, which relates to the livestreaming of child abuse—that is obviously a very serious matter. In terms of the prevention agenda, there are some things that could be done on child abduction warning notices, which Cassie can talk about in particular. In terms of child sexual exploitation, we are increasingly seeing that so much of this is done online. It is about understanding how children increasingly live their lives. The child sexual exploitation plan brought out last year made no real mention of the online elements. Again, it is about thinking about how we can better integrate the online and offline aspects, particularly with local police forces. We are concerned that, although the capacity of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre has quadrupled recently, and it is doing some great work, local police forces do not necessarily have the skills or expertise to be able to deal with some of these crimes. Making sure that each police force has a dedicated online team that has the skills and capacity to look better at these issues would help to prevent child sexual exploitation. I am happy to talk about that in more detail later if that would be helpful.
I can talk to you about some of the prevention measures that we would like to see. It is not specifically about online abuse. Like the NSPCC, we welcome the fact that the Bill is closing the loophole in relation to online streaming. Child abduction warning notices are used by the police to collect and document evidence in order to dissuade people they suspect of grooming children from contacting those children by saying they have no permission to associate with them. The effectiveness of those notices is limited because breaching them is not a criminal offence. The Government responded to this and created sexual risk orders and sexual harm prevention orders.
The Solicitor General, in the passage of the Serious Crime Act 2015, committed to reviewing the effectiveness of the notices, including how they interact with child abduction warning notices. The process is supposed to be that when child abduction warning notices are breached, things are escalated by the police, who can use one of the legally enforceable orders. However, there is no clear indication at present as to whether that is happening in practice. Some anecdotal evidence we have suggests that that is quite patchy and in some cases no further action is being taken, which is quite concerning. We would like the Government to use the Bill as an opportunity to commit to report publicly on the use of those different measures, and to make sure that they are working effectively to protect children. What we all want is early intervention and prevention of this terrible type of abuse, which we know can have a terrible impact on children.
To add to what Cass has said about child abduction warning notices, we would also like to see provisions in the Bill to enable police to use child abduction warning notices in relation to vulnerable 16 and 17-year-olds, because 16 and 17-year-olds are a separate group. They are very vulnerable to being sexually abused. At the same time, because legally they can consent to sexual relationships, they are often seen and responded to in a different way. Practitioners and police are not always sure how they can best protect them.
We believe that the Bill should address the gap in the law that says that police cannot use child abduction warning notices to disrupt predatory individuals who are targeting vulnerable young people aged 16 and 17. Currently, child abduction warning notices can be used only in relation to a very small group of 16 and 17-year-olds—those who are in the care of the local authorities, but only those who are under care orders under section 31 of the Children Act 1989. The majority of young people aged 16 and 17 who are in care are looked-after children under section 20 of the Children Act, so the majority are not covered and are very vulnerable to being targeted.
In addition, we know that young people seek help from local authorities because they are homeless. We estimate that about 2,800 young people are accommodated by local authorities every year, often under section 20, but not under section 31 or other provisions, because sometimes local authorities do not accommodate them as looked-after children, so for years they live in hostels and other types of accommodation. We know from our practice that they are very vulnerable to being targeted for sexual exploitation and police have very limited powers to disrupt that exploitation.
The sexual risk orders that Cass mentioned are very helpful but they require a high evidential level of proof. The guidance on sexual risk orders says that child abduction warning notices are complementary to sexual risk orders and can be used as speedy early intervention tools, so not being able to use them for vulnerable 16 and 17-year-olds is a big gap that it is to be hoped the Bill will address.
You mentioned in passing the College of Policing, and perhaps the interpretation of how to put this legislation into effect might vary from police force to police force. How serious an issue is thatQ ?
We think that it is worrying. In particular, as I mentioned, in the online space there is a huge variation in how police forces respond to this. The report last year by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary into online child sexual exploitation found that over half of police investigations were either inadequate or required improvement, which we think is not really good enough. It is quite often forgotten that what happens in some of these delays: computers which were seized had not been examined for up to six to 12 months, and in some cases that have been followed up, those delays meant that more children were abused in real time.
There is a serious issue. Particularly with the nature of CSE and online CSE, that whole idea that a victim, the offender and the police force are all in the same area is increasingly untenable. How do we ensure that police forces are not operating as individual businesses, and all have the best technology? Are they procuring that in the best way? How do we ensure that the best technological brains are helping the police to identify and track these children and offenders? The variety in performance across the country, in terms of how the police are dealing with online offences, presents real challenges—we do not underestimate the challenges for the police, who are making a lot of effort, but the pace at which technology is moving and offenders are operating mean that they are always playing catch-up.
We need to be much smarter about how police forces are resourcing each other, and crossing and supporting each other in terms of sharing best practice, technology and tools that identify risk, because we hear from forces that some of the tools are not being used for cost reasons. There is a lot of irregular or, I should say, uneven practice across police forces that needs to be levelled out on online grooming and the way in which online criminals are targeting vulnerable children.
Two related questions. First, Alan, you made reference to the importance of prevention. For example, I have worked closely with the Dot Com Children’s Foundation on prevention strategy and primary schools helping young people to avoid risk and harm. Are there any additional proposals in the Bill that you think we might focus on in terms of the prevention agenda?Q
Secondly, you made reference to the HMIC report and the uneven approach across the police service to tackling the obscenity of child sexual exploitation and abuse—there is now a great national will to do so. Will the three of you say something further about your views on the resource allocated to that? I am aware of the tremendous pressures on the police service, with the West Midlands here today increasing its public protection unit from 300 to 800 to cope, but it is still struggling. Are there points that you would like to make to us about resource and more evenness—your word—of approach in the next stages?
I will take the second question first. One of the issues is that you need specialist staff online, but increasingly front-line officers need to have an understanding of how online permeates every aspect of how children live their lives. A couple of weeks ago, we heard of a case where a girl had taken a picture of herself—she was under 16—and put it on Instagram. There was a boy at the school, and one of his friends got it and started looking at the picture, sharing it from his phone—we know it was not the boy. The phone was then captured. Because no children were deemed at risk, that was then put in a file where he will probably not get it for six to 12 months—this is a 14-year-old boy. At that time in his life, it is massive. The police do not really have any understanding of the impact.
These things need to be dealt with in real time, so, rather than that, how do you deal with that child in that instance? It is not necessarily that we are saying you need thousands more police officers; it is more about how you ensure that police officers, particularly front-line police officers, have the skills for and understanding about online, how young people are living their lives and how those two are enmeshed and embedded. If you are able to deal with some of those things in a quicker, more responsive way, assessing risk properly and dealing with these situations, that could be a way of freeing up police resources.
There are resource issues, but it is not necessarily a case of throwing a huge number more of police officers at it; it is also about ensuring that, as well as having specialist police officers at CEOP and the local level, the front-line police officers understand the online threat and how young people are living their lives, because for them there is no real distinction between the on and offline worlds.
On the prevention agenda, I do not necessarily think that the Bill is the right place for this—I am not sure. There are not necessarily many legislative solutions, other than the ones that my colleagues have talked about. We argue, as a lot of organisations do, that statutory personal, social and health education is a really important preventive measure. It helps children to understand issues such as consent and to talk about topical issues that have been in the press recently such as sexting. That would be helpful, but I am not sure whether it is within the Bill’s remit. Police forces should have a much greater understanding of the nature of this crime. Speaking to and engaging with young people and understanding at a local level what children are worried about and what concerns them is one of the most important ways of preventing CSE.
If I could pick up the points about prevention and resourcing, the police spend a huge amount of money—I understand that it was estimated to be about £1 billion in 2015—investigating allegations of child abuse. If we were more effective in prevention, perhaps we could reroute some of that money and save it in the longer term. Of course, such things are always easier said than done. As Alan said, it is really important for police forces to engage in that kind of early intervention and prevention work.
One of the things that I would like to take the opportunity to raise is harmful sexual behaviour. If prevention is core to tackling CSE—and we all believe that it is—we should look much more closely at how the system deals with children who display sexually harmful behaviour. There has been a recent surge in awareness of that. The internet and technology have played a role in making it more visible and in increasing its prevalence through access to online pornography, for example. Some of that behaviour is not a cause of concern—for example, sexting between teenagers who are in a consensual relationship—but there is a wide spectrum. At the extreme end is peer-on-peer sexual abuse, where children exploit other children and there is an age gap or a power imbalance—for example, in a gang context.
There is a significant overlap of the risk factors and characteristics of the children who display harmful sexual behaviour and those who are victims of child sexual exploitation. They include low self-esteem, learning disabilities and a history of abuse or trauma. It is estimated that about a third of cases of child sexual abuse are committed by young people—children—under 18, which is a significant proportion of that type of abuse. A lack of access to support can work counter to early intervention. We should make sure those children get the support they need so they do not go on to abuse others later in their childhood or as adults. We would really like to see Ministers use this Bill as an opportunity to give that point greater consideration and think about what role the police can play in that.
May I answer that and add to what Alan and Cassandra said about prevention and resources? One of the issues we have seen through our work and the policy work we have done is that there is a lack of data. The police need to know where to target their resources so they are used efficiently. For our latest report—“Old enough to know better?”—we asked police forces through a freedom of information request how many 16 and 17-year-olds they have recorded on their system as at risk of sexual exploitation. In those cases, they are able to intervene early, and they have intelligence about how children can be targeted.
The responses we received were very diverse; there was no consistency. Only six police forces could give us real numbers, and some refused. Some of the numbers we were given were in three digits and other were just two-digit numbers. The discrepancy in the systems for flagging and assessing children is an issue that can perhaps be addressed by giving better guidance to police forces about how those young people should be flagged on their systems and how those cases should be followed up from identification and early intervention through all the stages to sentencing. When those young people turn 18, there is an issue of how they are passed on to services for vulnerable adults and supported appropriately in a way that meets their needs. That is one of the issues that can help the police to allocate their resources and know how much they need to target different areas.
Again, I think it is a question of how resources are allocated and prioritised. There is an issue we have come across, again, with registered sex offenders, where there was a company providing monitoring software for registered sex offenders, called Securus Software, which had to withdraw from the market because police forces were not prepared to pay the £40 a go that it costs to monitor a registered sex offender. We would say £40 is pretty small beer; if someone is a registered sex offender that money would go to monitoring the websites they are on. It can look at patterns of words, to see if they are moving back into reoffending behaviour. That is one prevention piece that is very important: how do we ensure that people who have already offended, who are serving community sentences and suspended sentences, do not continue to reoffend?
We do hear of some cases where there is a bit of a false economy going on: to save a small amount of money and not to monitor sex offenders—the risks that that is storing up are vast. We know the police are under pressure; but how do we make smart choices so that such technology is shared across police forces, and so that they know what is most effective, what is working well and what is good at managing risk? Those are the sort of things that we hear quite a lot of. It is about how to make sure that those decisions are being made in a sensible way, across the country.
Do you welcome the additional support, or the additional provision of the super-complaints system detailed within the Bill; and is it a system where you could see yourself triggering a complaint against a force or a police officerQ ?
I think it is welcome that the Bill aims to ensure that the complaints system is transparent, and that when you make complaints against the police you are informed of all the different stages that your complaint is at. I think it is a welcome focus. I think it would also be helpful to ensure the same thing in relation to victims of crimes. Currently there are huge discrepancies between different police forces and from case to case—for example in how much the victims of sexual offences are informed about the investigation of their case. It would be good if the changes made for complaints could be mirrored in relation to victims.
I have to say I am not familiar with all the detail of what is being proposed, but, as Iryna said, there should be greater transparency, and if third party organisations like mine had the ability to trigger complaints where we thought it appropriate, when we were working with young people and we felt they were not properly served, we would welcome that.
Q Basically the idea is that if you take things like, for example, the outrage that we saw in Rotherham around the CSE, where there were lots of individuals who were treated very badly, it would enable a third party with an overview to speak to all the victims and trigger a complaint on their behalf, rather than having not to. Is that something you would be keen to be involved in?
Q I have a specific point for Iryna, but I want to say welcome to all three of you, whom I work with lots on a daily basis. Your work, Iryna, with the Children’s Society, particularly on missing children, is incredibly valuable; I thank you for all you have done on that.
I wanted to ask something specific about something that struck me as you were talking about child abduction notices. Obviously, the Children’s Society has had a big campaign about 16 and 17-year-olds, and you will know that section 2 of the Child Abduction Act 1984 is clear about the fact that it applies to 16-year-olds and under, not to anyone older, and that is the reason for the current position. I take the point that you make, but I wonder whether you can envisage any situations—I am thinking particularly of honour-based situations—where a child abduction notice issued about a 16 or 17-year-old who had left home of their own volition, perhaps because of honour-based problems, might end up being detrimental to the child. Do you have any thoughts on that?
I think the child abduction warning notices will be informed by intelligence from all the different people who are involved in the safeguarding of young persons, so the police will be able to decide whether they will issue such warning notices if they also know that there are concerns around someone who maybe left home because of an honour issue. But we are talking about some of the vulnerable young people who will have a range of different agencies involved in their lives, and those agencies would know about different safeguarding concerns around young persons. So, hopefully, when a child—a 16 or 17-year-old—left, fleeing from home because of particular issues, the police would know those concerns and would not disrupt things. It depends on where the young person will go and they should be able to provide protection to that young person.
Q With honour-based violence, though, the evidence I hear—the testimony from those people who have escaped that honour-based violence—is that often the police did not understand the threat they were under. We know from the HMIC reports that there is a lack of understanding by the police of honour-based violence, and it needs to be addressed. We know of some of the most tragic cases, where the police made the child go back to the parents, even though the child had made the decision to leave and was legally able to do so. I have concerns around that, so perhaps we should talk outside the room about how such notices operate.
It might be useful to have guidance in that particular case, where we are talking about vulnerable young people, where there are safeguarding concerns and concerns about how police and local authorities can work together to provide the best response, including when and how they can use child abduction warning notices.
Q Two of you touched on this issue earlier on. Sara Thornton, who will give evidence later this afternoon, spoke last year of the two new challenges to the police of vulnerability and information, and, crucially, information sharing to spot vulnerability and protect the vulnerable.
It has been raised with us that there are problems about co-operation. For example, sometimes the NHS is not always what it should be in terms of co-operation on data sharing. What is your view on that, because it is a key issue? And might this Bill be an appropriate vehicle to take further steps on that?
Yes. That is a very important point. Identifying the number of children who have been sexually exploited has been challenging, and it is difficult to do so from the way that police statistics are collected, which will not identify children who have been sexually exploited. One of the things that we do know is the impact that grooming and sexual exploitation can have on the lives of young people and children. You will have seen the impact on young girls primarily in places such as Rotherham, but so few of those children get any support to help them to recover from that abuse.
Actually, there is the link from that to the health service. How can we ensure that the police have duties to ensure that information about who those young people are is shared with local clinical commissioning groups, for instance, because we would argue that all children who have been groomed should get the therapeutic support to help them to recover from that abuse? Most people think that those girls who had been groomed automatically get therapy counselling; very few of them do, which is shocking, frankly, given what they have been through.
We think that better data collection and data sharing about these children across the public services, to ensure that they are identified and better supported to help them to recover from the trauma they have been through, is absolutely vital.
Q There is a duty to co-operate in the Bill, in another context. That is something you might want to give consideration to, in terms of further representations to us.
I wasQ just wondering about the data sharing and the duty to co-operate, and about what is appropriate and how children end up being exploited in a particular situation. Is schooling an area where you feel there should be better information about what is appropriate and where data should be shared when inappropriate behaviour has been found, perhaps within the school community in lessons?
Absolutely. Schools have a really vital role to play in protecting children from sexual exploitation. We know that they are the one universal service that sees pretty much all children, apart from those outside mainstream education.
It is really important that they can understand what is appropriate for them to share and for their role—it is schools, but also police and the health service, which has also been mentioned. In addition to any legislative proposals that would help to strengthen information sharing, which I would really welcome, we should not underestimate some of the cultural challenges, which are some of the hardest ones to get over. There already are certain duties, but making sure that those are really enacted in practice and giving people the understanding and confidence to be able to know when to do something is a really important part of that.
Q Do think this is a mainstream issue, with inappropriate behaviour coming into mainstream, and schools, charities and people such as you—and the police at the extreme end—are picking up the pieces? Do you think in the Bill we can make a real change on that and get action earlier?
Certain stereotypes about victims of child sexual exploitation and who is affected have been quite prevalent, whereas actually we know from our work on the ground—last year, over 3,000 young people were affected by sexual exploitation—that this happens to children from all different kinds of backgrounds and communities, so we need to be careful to make sure we understand that, in your words, it is a mainstream issue, particularly, as Alan said, with the increase of online abuse. We carried out some research with our services recently that showed that this is now really affecting all children, because all children use the internet as part of their daily lives.
In terms of what might be able to be done, I think some of what you are hinting at is around sexting and things like that, which schools are increasingly seeing but perhaps they are not sure how to deal with it. I have already talked a bit about harmful sexual behaviour and making sure we have an appropriate response to those children, and I think providing greater clarity to schools—I think some work is already underway—to help them to be really confident about what kind of situation is concerning, and whether they need to take action in terms of the police or whether they can just deal with it in the school environment in an appropriate way, with the involvement of parents as appropriate, is important.
The sharing of that information is key so that schools do have that. Cassie is right that on the one hand it is an issue that affects children from all sorts of communities, but we do know that children who are particularly vulnerable are often targeted, whether that is within the school and whether with adults and whether those are children in care or perhaps, as we often see in places like Rotherham, girls who are going off the tracks a little bit at a certain stage in their life.
So how do schools, GPs and so on identify those children who are most at risk and then share that information and communicate that across the public services so that there is a joined-up response in local areas? Local areas need to see what types of behaviours are worrying them—is it grooming by certain groups or communities, or are there particular issues with peer-to-peer abuse within schools?—and make sure there is a tailored response to each of those. But actually one of the key things is making sure that information is shared across to ensure that we are seeking to best protect those children at an early stage rather than waiting for it to escalate to some of the problems we have seen in other places.
My understanding is that where children themselves have displayed harmful sexual behaviour but they are under 10 years old, because they are under the age of criminal responsibility that information is not necessarily shared, so if an incident happens when they are teenagers, the fact that there were incidents at an earlier age might not be picked up. That is something that might want to be considered.
Q You mentioned schooling and medical services, but do you think that providers of digital platforms have a greater role to play in prevention and in sharing data?
Yes, as a short way of saying that. A lot of the tech companies are doing a lot of good work, particularly around ensuring that, for instance, a proliferation of illegal images of children is not able to be sent through their networks and so on. However, we do think that more can be done. There are some technologies that are available: anti-grooming technology, for instance, which some social network sites have.
There is a real lack of transparency among some of the big tech companies about how they moderate their sites, how many people have been groomed, how many images are being shared and how long it takes to respond to these things. So we know that they are doing things, but there is a lack of transparency. Again, openness about that data and sharing that data would be very helpful so that we would be better able to respond from a policy perspective to what is going on online, because that is where most children are. A lot of the big players—the Facebooks and the like—are the good guys. They are the ones who are around the table, having the conversation. More of the problems are with the unregulated sites in places such as eastern Europe, where it is very difficult for law enforcement to get to, and with ensuring that we get information about them and help parents and children to know what is going on so that they are better able to protect themselves.
I wanted to raise an issue that is not currently in the Bill but is something I would like to be considered. It is in relation to taxi licensing. The Bill clarifies and streamlines the system for the licensing of alcohol premises, and under the Licensing Act 2003 authorities that carry out licensing for premises that sell alcohol are under a duty, when carrying out their functions, to promote objectives that include protecting children from harm. We think there is a strong case for creating an equivalent duty for authorities that license taxis and minicabs.
We know from our direct work with children and young people that taxis often feature in CSE cases, that they are sometimes used to traffic children around towns and around the country. In some cases, taxi drivers have been perpetrators of CSE; the vast majority have not, of course, but they might have seen something. Taxi drivers have real potential to be our eyes and ears in the community but they often do not know exactly what to look for or might not feel that it is their role to intervene.
A lot of taxi licensing is very much down to local discretion, and placing a duty equivalent to the existing one for premises that sell alcohol could drive CSE prevention within taxi licensing, to drive some of the good practice that already exists. For example, in cities such as Oxford they have information when people apply for a taxi licence. When taxi drivers have to sit their local knowledge test they are asked about CSE issues and are given information and procedures. That would really drive that, and hopefully make it much more consistent across the country. It could have real benefit.
It seems to me that with all the issues concerning children and young people—CSE and some of the other things you have spoken about—to help to prevent some of the horrific things that happen there is a plethora of things that will form a package. We obviously have the Policing and Crime Bill, which you are here to talk about today, but there is also the Investigatory Powers Bill going through. Do you think that as a package that is good thing, or notQ ?
I should say that Ministers Bradley and Penning are both hugely committed to the issue and a huge amount of work has been going on. One of the challenges is that the pace at which things are happening, at which children are living their lives, at which technology is moving and at which some of these horrific things are being uncovered, means that it is a real challenge for Ministers, for law enforcement and for everyone to try to keep up with what is going on. So I suppose I should contextualise what I said earlier with that recognition.
One thing about the Investigatory Powers Bill about which we expressed concerns before but which, I think, has been rectified, is that from our perspective what is vital—putting aside the counter-terrorism aspects and the serious organised crime aspects—is that the police have the capacity fully to investigate the cases and take them where the evidence leads them. Whether it is grooming gangs or people who are trading illegal images of children, we know that they are very complex crimes, most of which are committed online. Blocking off avenues for the police to pursue will have a hugely detrimental effect on vulnerable children.
I would commend the way the Bill is set up at the moment, having gone through pre-legislative scrutiny from the serious organised crime aspect, particularly provisions looking at internet connection records. I think it is vital that that can be done. The NSPCC runs ChildLine and has to protect, on average, about 10 children a day whose lives are in immediate danger. So, selfishly from our perspective, we need to ensure that the police have the capacity to trace IP addresses for children whose lives are in immediate danger.
We think the Bill is fit for purpose to do that. In order to keep children safe it is important not to undermine the police’s ability to investigate fully these crimes that are very complex and often perpetrated by organised criminals.