“(1) The chief officer of each police force in England and Wales must ensure that within their force there is a unit that specialises in analysing and investigating allegations of online offences against children and young people.
(2) The chief officer must ensure that such a unit has access to sufficient digital forensic science resource to enable it to perform this function effectively and efficiently.”—
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 20—Child sexual abuse: specialist unit—
“(1) The chief officer of each police force in England and Wales must ensure that within their force there is a unit responsible for working with local agencies to coordinate early identification of children at risk of child sexual abuse, including child sexual exploitation, and early identification of children and adults at risk of sexual offending.”
Diolch yn fawr iawn. Everyone will know how to say “thank you” in Welsh by the end of the afternoon.
New clauses 19 and 20 relate to offences against children. New clause 19 relates to online offences against children and calls for modern technology specialist digital units for child abuse. Again, these are probing amendments and are pertinent to what we have just been discussing. New clause 19 would ensure that every local police force has a specialist digital child abuse unit with the latest equipment and expertise to analyse, investigate and take action in relation to online offences against children, including children being groomed and forced to commit sexual acts online, and the making and sharing of sexual images and videos involving children.
We have talked about the explosion of online crime, so I will not go through it again, but I echo the concerns that the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, the Children’s Society and Barnardo’s raised during oral evidence to the Committee about the lack of capacity and expertise within local police forces to tackle these crimes. Beyond the cases that reach the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre threshold, local forces are left with a huge volume of other cases where children are at risk, which they do not have the expertise or capacity to deal with adequately.
Emerging findings from research by the NSPCC show that the scale of this type of offending is far greater than previously thought. The sheer volume of offenders, devices and images relating to online offences against children has left the police swamped and unable to protect children to the best of their ability. In one sense, the increase in recording and reporting is to be welcomed, as these crimes are now being recorded. None the less, they are increasing, which is an issue that we should be addressing.
Recent reports by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary on the responses of individual police forces to child protection cases have revealed significant delays—in some cases of up to 12 months—in the forensic analysis of the devices of suspected offenders. We are talking about children here. Some of those delays can pose serious risks to the safeguarding of children, leaving offenders free to continue abusing or exploiting other victims, not to mention the impact on the child victim. While the expertise and capacity of high-tech and cybercrime units are crucial, it is child protection and offender management knowledge and skills that are vital to ensuring that children are best protected.
The Prime Minster gave child sexual abuse the status of a “national threat” in the strategic policing requirement, but what assessment has been made of the increased policing capacity and expertise needed to deal with this issue, given the rise of online offences, and what reassurances can the Minister give that those will be made available? What steps are Ministers taking to ensure that police forces are trained and have the necessary technical capacity to investigate such offences using the newest technology available?
New clause 20 is concerned with preventing child sexual exploitation and with the establishment of specialist units for child sexual abuse. It would help to ensure that all police forces had the resource and support that they needed to work with other local agencies to prevent child abuse, including child sexual exploitation. This subject is particularly pertinent to me because I work with North Wales police. Of course, the Macur review, which discusses this area, was published recently. That review was based on the Waterhouse inquiry, one of the recommendations of which was that there should be a children’s commissioner for Wales. How forces operate in respect of these issues is very significant. I am glad to say that my force, North Wales police, has a child sexual exploitation unit.
In the current economic climate, the police and others face a significant challenge in focusing on prevention. By the time incidents of grooming or sexual abuse come to the attention of the police, it is too late. The Government need to send a clear message that the early identification of children at risk, and of adults and children at risk of offending, is vital. Improving identification of children at risk means confronting difficult issues. Around a third of sexual offences are committed by children under the age of 18. That is often called peer-on-peer abuse. Barnardo’s is currently running a cross-party inquiry into how we can improve our responses to such young people, many of whom have themselves been the victims of abuse or trauma. Police and local agencies must have the resources that they need to work together, and in partnership with charities and others, to prevent horrific crimes such as child sexual exploitation. Will the Minister commit to ensuring that that will happen?
I support new clauses 19 and 20. New clause 19 would ensure that there was a unit specialising in analysing and investigating allegations of online offences against children within each police force, and new clause 20 would ensure that there was a unit responsible for working with local agencies to co-ordinate early identification of children at risk of sexual abuse. This is important preventive work.
A report by the Children’s Commissioner in November last year showed that only one in eight children who are sexually abused are identified by professionals. I really do not think that that is good enough. Early identification is incredibly important. The National Police Chiefs Council lead for child protection and abuse investigation, Chief Constable Simon Bailey, has said that
“by the time a child reports sexual abuse the damage has been done and we must do more to stop the abuse occurring in the first place.”
I could not agree more.
We need to do better on early identification, and the specialist units provided for in new clause 20 would help towards that end. The provision for a specialist unit within each police force would mean that both the police and the Crown Prosecution Service had a specialist or specialists working exclusively on child sexual exploitation, just as now happens with domestic violence. Many police forces already have specialist units dealing with child sexual exploitation and that is to be welcomed, but it would be good to see this replicated across the country if possible. Making the provision of specialist units statutory will help to give vulnerable children in all areas of the country a much greater chance of having their abuse recognised before it is too late.
The last decade has seen a huge increase in the number of children with access to the internet, particularly using smartphones and tablets. Current data shows that 65% of 12 to 15-year-olds, and 20% of eight to 11-year-olds own their own smartphone. In 2004, Barnardo’s identified 83 children as victims of some kind of online abuse, but today that number is in the thousands. Clearly, the way in which perpetrators of child sexual abuse contact and groom vulnerable children is changing, and those of us who wish to prevent these awful life-damaging crimes must change the way that we work too.
Barnardo’s 2015 report states that
“young people at risk of harm online may not have any previous vulnerabilities that are often associated with being victims of sexual abuse and exploitation”.
As a result, these victims are less likely to be known to the authorities and the police may only identify cases of exploitation when it is really rather too late. Encouragingly, in July 2014, initial outcomes of Operation Notarise showed that 660 people suspected of sharing illegal images of children had been arrested and around 500 children had been safeguarded. I welcome the good work that the police and charities like Barnardo’s are doing to combat online child sexual exploitation, but this is not the time to be complacent. I am very interested in hearing the Minister’s response to the suggestions in these new clauses.
I fully understand why the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd has tabled these new clauses. I believe that they have been prompted at least in part by concerns about significant digital forensics backlogs in some forces, which were highlighted by the recent Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary national child protection investigations. I thank HMIC for the work that it did. It is very important that we all understand what is happening on the ground and that there is an honest appraisal of the work that local police forces are doing, so that police and crime commissioners and others can take the necessary steps to ensure that those issues are addressed.
It almost does not need saying, but I will say it anyway: we can all agree that child sexual exploitation, whether on or offline, is an abhorrent crime and that the police and other relevant agencies must up their game to effectively respond to such crimes and safeguard vulnerable children. The shadow Minister and others have made reference to last year’s report by the Children’s Commissioner. It is worth setting out the context in which we are operating.
The Children’s Commissioner estimated that there are about 225,000 cases of child abuse a year. Of course, the vast majority of that was intra-familial abuse and, as the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd mentioned, peer-on-peer abuse—children-to-children, or young people to children abuse. Child sexual exploitation online is part of the problem, but intra-familial abuse is an enormous part of it. The national policing lead, Simon Bailey, is very clear on the work that needs to be done in schools, with social services and others, working in multi-agency safeguarding hubs, to ensure that children are protected and that we have places for people to go. For example, the Government launched the child sexual abuse whistleblowing helpline, which was one of the recommendations in the Louise Casey and Alexis Jay report on Rotherham. The report said that there needed to be a safe place for professionals to report concerns that child sexual abuse that had been reported had not been dealt with. The NSPCC runs that helpline for the Home Office, and will help to make sure that children can be protected.
I want to repeat the point I made earlier about access to online pornography. It is terrifying to me. I have met many young victims and survivors of sexual abuse and I have not yet met a single one who has not asked for access to online pornography to be dealt with. We are dealing with young people who are sexually maturing ever younger, but whose emotional maturity is the same as it always was. We are dealing with young people who may look sexually mature and believe themselves to be sexually mature, but who emotionally are not. The impact of seeing these unreal and horrendous images online on young men is quite terrifying. The NSPCC in North Staffordshire told me that it is dealing with children as young as seven who are addicted to pornography online. We absolutely have to tackle that, and I am determined that we will.
The point made by the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd was specifically about digital forensics teams across forces in England and Wales. I want to assure her that there are digital forensics teams, and forces are working to increase their capacity and ability to examine digital devices and reduce backlogs. They are achieving this through a variety of approaches, including a combination of triage, increased resourcing, outsourcing and structural reform. Although there is still much work to do, the priority that forces have given to this issue has led to tangible successes in reducing backlogs of devices for examination.
The hon. Lady may be interested to know that all forces are now connected to the new child abuse image database—CAID—which is a national policing system that supports law enforcement agencies in pursuing child sexual exploitation offenders and seeks to safeguard the victims. I visited the Child Exploitation and Online Protection centre a few months ago and I have seen some of the work that they can do with the CAID database. It is absolutely astonishing. From an image of a child in a bathroom they are able to identify the town it might have been taken in. They are able to look at, for example, a Coke can in the background—other cola products are available—and look for the date and serial number to determine where it may have been sold. They can look for the style of electrical plugs in the background of the room. The abilities that they have at CEOP are absolutely staggering, and CAID is undoubtedly transforming the way police forces and the NCA tackle online child sexual exploitation.
CAID has contributed to the identification of more than 410 victims in the first 10 months of 2015-16, which is more than double the number in any previous year. I have been told anecdotally that this national database with millions of horrendous images on it has reduced local forces’ workload in dealing with this problem by about 80%. I pay great tribute to the incredible professionals who work on it.
CAID can be used more widely to help drive improvements in how the police investigate child sexual exploitation. For example, it is being used as part of a risk-based triage process at the scene of an arrest at a suspect’s home or other premises to determine which devices need to be seized for further investigation. This reduces the number of devices seized, and is based on a model pioneered by Cheshire police and championed by the National Police Chiefs Council lead for child abuse investigation.
Moving to new clause 20, the hon. Lady will appreciate that it is an operational matter for chief officers to determine the size, composition and deployment of their workforce. The police already have a key role and statutory duty in safeguarding children and preventing and investigating crime. Under sections 11 and 28 of the Children Act 2004, PCCs and the chief officer of each police force in England and Wales must ensure that they have regard for the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children while discharging their functions.
“The police and crime commissioner must, in particular, hold the chief constable to account for the exercise of duties in relation to the safeguarding of children and the promotion of child welfare that are imposed on the chief constable by sections 10 and 11 of the Children Act 2004.”
In fulfilling these statutory duties, the chief officer and the PCC will need to work closely with local partners and agencies, but, again, I am not persuaded that we need further legislation to achieve that. Moreover, safeguarding and partnership working should be the responsibility of all police officers and civilian staff, not confined to one unit within a police force.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for affording us the opportunity to debate this important issue. Having done so, I hope I have been able to reassure her that progress is being made on tackling online child sexual abuse.
May I probe the Minister a little on the idea that we do not need specialist units? We now have specialist units within our police forces for domestic violence, which are provided for across the country. They seem to me to have had a massive impact on the safety of women in our communities; they have raised the issue locally and have meant that we are tackling domestic violence so much better than we were. Since those units have had such an impact on domestic violence, may I ask her gently to go away and think about them a bit more, rather than rejecting them out of hand, because they may be the answer to child exploitation and child abuse within our localities.
I understand exactly the hon. Lady’s point, but I think we need to differentiate between online and offline exploitation of children. Policing online exploitation is a detailed, technical job that requires great skill and depth. CEOP, which is part of the National Crime Agency, leads on that nationally, with the child abuse image database that is rolled out to all forces, and with their expertise. The Prime Minister committed £10 million to CEOP at the first WePROTECT summit at Downing Street in December 2014; my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Crime and Criminal Justice was there. We have the specialist capability sitting within CEOP to give all local police forces access to data on online grooming and exploitation.
However, dealing with child sexual abuse in a wider context—not necessarily online—has to be part of every police officer’s work: working with the multi-agency safeguarding hub, with social services, with health professionals and others to ensure that we identify the victim. It is not as easy as finding a victim online—although that is not easy either—because these are very hidden crimes. We need to ensure that they are the business of every police officer, that all officers are aware of what is involved, and that we work within the multi-agency safeguarding hub.
Frankly, it is far too often the police who end up leading on this matter. When a crime is committed, the police absolutely have a role to play. But if there is an allegation of abuse within a family context, two big burly coppers turning up at the front door may not be as successful as a social worker or a health professional. We need to get the right professionals and it needs to be an operational local matter; it is not something that we should be mandating nationally. With that in mind, I hope I have persuaded the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd to withdraw her new clause.
I reiterate the point that the hon. Member for West Ham made: there is a risk, when making something everybody’s responsibility—particularly children and safeguarding—that it becomes nobody’s responsibility. It was felt that the particular focus required for the police to deal with domestic abuse would not have come about without units present in every police force; that prompts similar questions for child sexual exploitation, which is very much in the same area.
I do not intend to press the matter to a Division, but I hope we will be able to discuss it further. We are all aware of incidents such as those in Rotherham—we can all list them—and the ongoing cases within Operation Pallial; we know that we have not solved the problem, in any shape or form.
May I make an analogy with mental health, which we were debating earlier? I think the difficulty there was that the police stepped into a void that no other agency was stepping into. We have the opportunity here to have multi-agency and cross-agency working, to really help children. My fear is that, if we mandate the police to be the agency that deals with the problem, it will all be police-driven. I am not sure that that is in the best interest of the victims or that it is the best way to tackle this issue. I think that there has to be a multi-agency response, which is what we are working towards through the work that all multi-agency safeguarding hubs and others are doing.
I thank the Minister for her comments, which I appreciate, but none the less it strikes me that in my own area North Wales police, evidently as a result of the Waterhouse inquiry and Operation Pallial, which is, of course, ongoing, felt it needed a child sexual exploitation unit. We know that child sexual abuse is not restricted to certain areas of the country. Yes, many cases—the majority of cases, possibly—are intra-familial and we have talked about peer-on-peer, but if it was felt to be significant and necessary in north Wales, and wherever the other units are, I feel strongly that it is necessary throughout all police forces. I ask the Minister to consider this again on Report. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
Clause, by leave, withdrawn.
New Clause 21
“Offence of abduction of a vulnerable child aged 16 or 17
‘(1) A person shall be guilty of an offence if, knowingly and without lawful authority or reasonable excuse, he—
(a) takes a child to whom this section applies away from the responsible person; or
(b) keeps such a child away from the responsible person; or
(c) induces, assists or incites such a child to run away or stay away from the responsible person or from a child’s place of residence;
(2) This section applies in relation to a child who is—
(a) a child in need as defined in Section 17 of the Children Act 1989;
(b) a child looked after under Section 20 of the Children Act 1989;
(c) a child housed alone under part 7 of the Housing Act 1996;
(d) a child who is suffering or is likely to suffer significant harm subject to Section 47 1(b) of the Children Act 1989.
(3) In this section “The responsible person” is—
(a) a person with a parental responsibility as defined in the Children Act 1989; or
(b) a person who for the time being has care of a vulnerable child aged 16 and 17 by virtue of the care order, the emergency protection order, or section 46, as the case may be; or
(c) any other person as defined in regulations for the purposes of this section.
(4) A person guilty of an offence under this section shall be liable—
(a) on summary conviction, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months or to a fine not exceeding the statutory maximum or to both such imprisonment and fine; or
(b) on conviction on indictment, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding seven years.
(5) No prosecution for an offence above shall be instituted except by or with the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions.”—
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
Diolch yn fawr iawn eto byth. You may be glad to hear that this is the last time you will be hearing my voice on another aspect of children’s safeguarding in relation to abduction. Again, I shall not be pushing new clause 21 to a Division. This probing measure concerning child abduction warning notices, or CAWNs, would ensure that police can protect vulnerable 16 and 17 year- olds by the same method they use to protect younger children.
Child abduction warning notices are used by the police to disrupt inappropriate relationships between children and people who seek to groom them. We mentioned earlier that children are maturing sexually earlier, but not emotionally. There are, of course, people who are very vulnerable although they have reached the age of 16 or 17. These notices are civil orders stemming from the Child Abduction Act 1984. In addition to their use with under-16s, they can currently be used to protect very limited groups of vulnerable 16 and 17 year- olds—those children who have been formally taken into care under section 31 of the Children Act 1989, those subject to an emergency protection order and those in police protection. This, as you can imagine, accounts for a very small number of vulnerable 16 and 17 year-olds. Latest statistics for England show that just 190 16 and 17 year-olds were taken into care under section 31 last year. This left a further 4,320 young people of that age who became looked-after in the same year who would not have the same protections if they were at risk of sexual exploitation.
This is particularly concerning when reported sexual offences are on the rise. In Wales alone there was an increase from 1,545 incidents in 2013-14 to 1,903 in 2014-15. Anything we can do to prevent these offences, including using child abduction warning notices, is vital, as I am sure we would all agree. Professionals working with vulnerable young people and charities such as the Children’s Society and Barnardo’s have consistently argued that CAWNs should be available for police to use in the protection of all vulnerable 16 and 17-year olds. Will the Minister therefore consider closing this loophole in the law?
I do not want to repeat everything the hon. Lady has said, but I agree with much of it. Child abduction warning notices can only currently be issued with regard to children under the age of 16, or to 16 and 17 year-olds formally taken into social care under a section 31 notice. We believe that, when it comes to sexual exploitation, this is simply too narrow a definition of a child and that there are very vulnerable 16 and 17 year-olds who could be protected by a child abduction warning notice. The most recent annual statistics available show that only 190 children aged between 16 and 17 were taken into care by their local authorities under a section 31 notice and would thus be able to be protected by a child abduction warning notice. However, a further 4,320 young people of that age are looked after by their local authorities and, as the law currently stands, they are not able to receive that form of protection. The Children’s Society report, “Old enough to know better?”, calculated that the number of 16 and 17-year-olds who live outside the family and are vulnerable to sexual exploitation is actually as high as 7,200. Whatever the exact number, there is clearly a substantial gap between the number of vulnerable 16 and 17-year-old children and the number eligible to be protected by a child abduction warning notice.
New clause 21 would deal with the problem by increasing the number of 16 and 17-year-olds who are protected by laws against child abduction and thus can be named on a child abduction warning notice. For example, subsection (2)(a) would protect those children with severe disabilities and health difficulties and subsection (2)(b) would protect those children who do not have a legal guardian or parent to care for them.
This amendment would be a really important strengthening of the law. I do not want to go into the details of individual cases, but with the Oxford, Rochdale and Rotherham grooming rings, there were allegations that 16 and 17-year-old girls were raped, among a litany of other crimes that were committed against children under the age of consent. My first job when I left university was as a residential social worker for children between the ages of 13 and 18. I saw those children moving in and out of care. They did not become suddenly less vulnerable at the age of 16 or 17. We are their guardians. We are their corporate parent and we need to ensure that we provide them with as many safeguards as we possibly can. These children need our protection and agreeing to the new clause would go some way to doing that.
As with other amendments that the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd has tabled, I understand and have great sympathy for the intention behind the new clause, but there are problems, as I hope she and the shadow Minister would acknowledge. Sixteen and 17-year-olds are adults. They are lawfully able to get married. They are generally deemed capable of living independently of their parents and are otherwise able to make decisions affecting their way of life, not least in sexual matters. Extending the offence of abducting a child who is capable of exercising his or her own free will could therefore raise difficult issues. We therefore need to think very carefully about and debate this matter. I would be delighted to meet the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd and the shadow Minister to discuss it, and I have talked to the Children’s Society about it.
We have a very difficult balance to strike here. We discussed this issue—and will be discussing it shortly—in connection with the coercive control offence when we debated the Serious Crime Bill last year. The difficulties we have—of recognising and ensuring that we respect the rights of somebody who is legally able to leave home and legally able to engage in sexual intercourse, while recognising their need for protection and their vulnerabilities —are considerable, and there is a very fine line. The fact is that there are many 21 and 22-year-olds who are incredibly vulnerable people. It is about the nuance and where we draw the line on these matters.
I appreciate that the Minister is doing her best here and I appreciate having the opportunity to talk about this issue, but my colleague on the team—my hon. Friend Sarah Champion—who is not here today is probably the better person to talk to about it. However, I just say to the Minister that the children who have been in and out of care are so vulnerable. They are desperate for love, affection and to be able to put down roots. They are so vulnerable. We really should be able to find a way through the difficulties with the law with regard to 16 and 17-year-olds to provide protection for this small number of very vulnerable young people.
I understand the hon. Lady’s point. I am working closely with my colleagues in the Department for Education to ensure that children in care have special treatment. To be clear, children in care do get different treatment from those who are otherwise vulnerable.
I will give an example, which I raised with the Children’s Society when it gave evidence, of where that could create problems. In an honour-based violence situation, a young person may have chosen to leave home because they fear what might happen to them there. I have heard horrendous examples of 16 and 17-year-old girls who left home and were forced to go back to their parents because they were vulnerable and that was the best place for them. In some cases, that led to the most horrendous outcomes. We have to be very careful and mindful of the fact that we confer rights on 16 and 17-year-olds over and above the rights that are conferred on 14 and 15-year-olds.
I appreciate fully the hon. Lady’s point about ensuring that children in care have special protections and, as I say, I am working closely with the Department for Education to ensure that we deal with that. I hope that she will recognise that the Government have legislated to introduce new civil orders, sexual risk orders, and slavery and trafficking risk orders, which provide the police with powers to tackle predators of 16 and 17-year-olds. We need to use those orders and civil powers, not make a blanket decision at this stage without having thought very carefully about the consequences.
That is why I would appreciate having a discussion. I understand that the hon. Lady referred to the hon. Member for Rotherham. I would be happy to meet them both to discuss this issue further, but we need to be careful. Before making a blanket decision on a matter such as this, we need to think about all the risks and consequences for all young people, on whom, as I say, at 16 and 17 we confer rights of adulthood in many ways. We need to respect those rights. For that reason, although the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd said that she would not press the new clause to a Division, I would be happy to discuss this issue further.
I thank the Minister for her full response and I appreciate that she is endeavouring to address this issue. I am particularly concerned that, as we are very much aware, vulnerable 16 and 17-year-olds can be targeted and are more open to abuse because they have reached an age at which some people perceive that it is legal to act so. The 1984 Act gives some precedent for us to look at those groups of people. If three categories of young people are already defined in that Act, are there other categories that we could look at pushing ahead with? However, I appreciate what the Minister said about being cautious about taking a blanket approach and I would very much like to take her up on her offer to meet her and the hon. Member for Rotherham. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.