‘(1) Section 76 of the Serious Crime Act is amended as follows.
(2) After Section 76, insert—
(1) A person (A) commits an offence if—
(a) A repeatedly or continuously engages in behaviour towards a child (B) aged 16 or 17 that is controlling or coercive,
(b) at the time of the behaviour A and B are not in an intimate or family relationship which each other,
(c) the behaviour has a serious effect on B, and
(d) A knows or ought to know that the behaviour will have a serious effect on B.
(2) A’s behaviour has a ‘serious effect’ on B if—
(a) it causes B to fear, on at least two occasions, that violence will be used against B, or
(b) it causes B serious alarm or distress which has a substantial adverse effect on B’s usual day-to-day activities, or
(c) it inhibits B’s ability to withhold consent to activities proposed by A through A supplying B with drugs or alcohol.
(3) In this section the ‘non intimate or family relationships’ are relationship other than those defined in Section 76.
(4) A person guilty of an offence under this section is liable—
(a) on conviction on indictment, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years, or a fine, or both;
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd—I can say it—on the excellent way in which she presented her arguments on the measures tabled in both her name and mine. I support everything that she said.
New clause 44 would make controlling and coercive behaviour towards 16 and 17-year-olds a criminal offence. I cannot accept the argument that 16 and 17-year-olds are that capable of knowing their own minds; there seems to be a contradiction if they are capable of making decisions about their sexual behaviour but are not permitted to vote. That aside, this behaviour—child sexual exploitation—is happening every day in our constituencies and communities and in the homes of many young people. That behaviour takes many forms, and it is our job to ensure that the law is able to address them all.
Through the Serious Crime Act 2015, the Government introduced a new offence of coercive and controlling behaviour. That rightly seeks to prevent vulnerable individuals in intimate and family relationships from suffering abuse. It recognises that domestic abuse is wrong and illegal, and that individuals do not need to prove specific instances of sexual or physical violence. The 2015 Act focuses on habitual arrangements, but there are parallels to be drawn in other contexts. In the case of child sexual exploitation, police often struggle to prove specific instances of sexual or physical violence. Supplementary documents to the Government’s guidance, “Working Together to Safeguard Children”, acknowledged that
“Violence, coercion and intimidation are common, involvement in exploitative relationships being characterised in the main by the child or young person’s limited availability of choice resulting from their social/economic and/or emotional vulnerability.”
However, the current offence of child sexual exploitation is much more narrowly defined in legislation. It mentions power and coercion, but it must go further. In particular, we must recognise the role of drugs and alcohol in coercing a child into sexual activity in a private residence. Will the Minister commit to reviewing the offence in the 2015 Act, and will she consider what more can be done to ensure that those who are grooming children using drugs and alcohol receive appropriate sentences?
I speak in support of my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East. As the Minister rightly said, children aged 16 and 17 are over the age of consent, but there is no doubt that they can still be victims of child sexual exploitation. Often without financial means and the life experience necessary for complete independence, children can be manipulated and pressured into complying with the wishes of those who have power over them. They may find themselves in a situation where they are frightened of saying no to someone, or stressed that if they say no they will lose the financial support and assistance that that person provides them with. However, under current legislation, it is very difficult for the police to prosecute in those situations, as they are required to prove specific instances of sexual or physical violence. The new clause would make it easier to protect that vulnerable group of people from grooming and sexual exploitation.
The Serious Crime Act 2015 introduced a new offence of coercive and controlling behaviour in the home and I welcomed that move, as it rightly seeks to protect those individuals in intimate and family relationships who suffer the agony of domestic abuse. It recognises that domestic abuse is wrong and illegal, and for the first time it established that individuals do not need to prove specific instances of sexual or physical violence in order to demonstrate they have been the victim of the crime of domestic abuse. A partner who manipulates, bullies and emotionally torments is an abuser and the law finally recognises that.
The new clause would extend the provisions on manipulative and controlling behaviour to protect 16 and 17-year-olds in non-habitual arrangements with their abuser. It would make any behaviour that has a serious effect on a child, such as increasing their levels of stress or creating the fear of violence, controlling and coercive. It would, for example, have applied to the girls in Rotherham who were described by the Jay report as fearing the violent tendencies of their abusers, even if the men had not directly and physically attacked them. I would be grateful if the Minister would seriously consider the new clause.
I want to speak briefly to the new clause to say that I hope the Minister will listen to the arguments being made. It is a hugely important issue. I pay tribute to the work that she has done on violent and coercive behaviour.
This is not an issue that I was particularly aware of, though I was aware that the Government had taken action. If anyone is a fan of “The Archers”, they will have heard, I am sure, the sensitive and good way that the issue is being covered in a relationship on that programme, which has made huge steps in raising awareness. I have been deeply shocked by this form of abuse, to the point of being unable to listen to a programme that I have listened to for the last 15 years.
I am extremely proud of the Minister and our own Government for all that we have done so far, but I hope that she will listen to Opposition voices and perhaps take this away to review. Protecting 16 and 17-year-olds, in the way that we have already done, is something that we should investigate, even if just for the future.
We had this debate when we introduced the coercive control offence in the Serious Crime Bill in 2015. It goes back to the points that we discussed during debate on previous clauses about the need to respect individuals’ right at 16 or 17 to leave home, marry legally and make decisions, and how best to respect that in law. I am a great believer in legislating where there is a true gap in the law—where new legislation is needed because at the moment prosecution cannot be brought.
On the offence of coercive control, my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen mentioned “The Archers”. He may well have spotted me on “Countryfile” on Sunday night, discussing exactly that point. It was very difficult; we knew that there was a problem. When I was talking about the issue at a meeting recently, I met a lady who grabbed me afterwards with tears in her eyes—a well-to-do lady, somebody whom one would perhaps not expect it to have happened to—and said, “That was me 30 years ago. All the police told me was that they had to hope he kicked my door in, because then they could get him for criminal damage.” There was no offence available that the police could use.
That is the point. Is there an offence available, and is it possible to get a prosecution? The answer goes back to the point that we were discussing earlier about digital offences. Where an offence exists, it is not a case of re-legislating or creating new offences; we should ensure that the offence is used. It will be understood by the courts and the legal system, and we need to ensure that the police understand it and use it appropriately. However, where there is no offence and protection cannot be offered, the Government want to take note and listen. I fear that on this issue, there are offences already in place. A suite of powers are available to the police and others. Therefore, although I am happy to discuss the point, I am not persuaded that at this stage, the amendment is the right approach.
The new coercive control offence, which we commenced on
One question that we faced when considering the coercive control offence was how to get evidence. Much of what the hon. Member for Swansea East and the shadow Minister discussed involves gathering evidence. We have seen from stalking offences that it is perfectly possible for the police to gather evidence of persistent or repetitive behaviour to ensure prosecutions, which is what we all want.
The hon. Member for Swansea East mentioned child sexual exploitation. I hope that she has seen that we have recently consulted on the definition of child sexual exploitation, making it clear that the term applies to children under 18 and thus includes 16 and 17-year-olds. As I said, stalking and harassment also apply to 16 and 17-year-olds. The new domestic abuse offence enacted in the Serious Crime Act 2015 means that 16 or 17-year-olds in intimate partner relationships who are coerced or controlled are covered by the new criminal law. Equally, if a 16 or 17-year-old is living with a parent or other family member who seeks to control them in a way that causes them to fear violence or feel alarmed or distressed, the domestic abuse offence offers protection. For the sake of completeness, I should say that if a young person does not live with the family member or parent concerned, existing harassment legislation will offer the same protection.
The hon. Lady discussed gangs and the approaches that they might take in terms of drug trafficking and so on. That is precisely the reason why the Government’s new ending gang violence and exploitation programme, which has replaced our ending gang and youth violence programme, is there.
The point that the hon. Lady makes about vulnerable young people being exploited by gangs, under what is known as the county line phenomenon, is something that we are determined to tackle, but it is possible to tackle it using existing legislation and offences; it does not require a new offence. For example, the Policing and Crime Act 2009 introduced a new civil tool that allows the police or a local authority to apply for an injunction against an individual to prevent gang-related violence and, from
A wide range of powers are available. I would be very happy to sit down and thrash out whether there really is a gap in the law, or whether it is merely that the existing powers are not being properly used; we need to be clear on that. I hope at this stage that the hon. Lady will withdraw her new clause.
We believe that there is still a gap in the existing harassment legislation that is not covered, as was recently proven in Rotherham. I thank the hon. Lady for her comments and I am delighted that she has offered further conversation on this important matter. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.