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I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the matter of child sexual exploitation and consent to sexual intercourse.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I am delighted to see that the Solicitor General is here to respond to the debate. I put on record, however, that I am disappointed that no one from the Home Office is here to discuss the issue. It was intended that the Crime, Safeguarding and Vulnerability Minister, my hon. Friend Victoria Atkins, would be here, but she is not. However unintentional that may be, I find it suggestive of a lack of interest in this topic—it is not the first time that I have had difficulty in engaging the Home Office on the issue.
Recent press coverage of child sexual exploitation and grooming gangs in Telford has enabled many victims to come forward. Some speak about historical crimes that they have not previously reported; others speak of the enormous challenges that they have faced in getting justice. I will focus on the latter point.
Anyone listening to the debate will be astonished, as I was, to learn that a child as young as 13 can be targeted and groomed for sex with multiple men, and that those men can say to police, by way of defence, “I had no reason to believe that she did not consent. I had no reason to believe that she was under 16.” In such circumstances, unless the victim can show otherwise, the police may not have the perpetrator charged with any offence at all. All the perpetrators have to do is say, “The victim willingly met for sex and did not tell me her age.”
It is worth pointing out that, under the Sexual Offences Act 2003, under-age sex is an offence and consent should not be a factor, but in practice, the police can take a different approach. That suggests that they may not fully understand grooming and the power that a perpetrator can exert over a victim who has been groomed. A child who is groomed into acquiescence is not willingly and voluntarily consenting to sex, but they may not get justice unless they can show that they made the perpetrators aware of their age and that they were unwilling.
Grooming is coercion, and it brings about a sense of control over the victim. It can be subtle or indirect, or it may be direct, by way of a threat to shame a child by exposing their sexual activity to their parent, school or friends. Either way, it is a process of psychological manipulation to force a vulnerable child to do something that they do not want to do and would not otherwise have done. That cannot be equated with consent. Just because physical force is not present, that cannot be grounds for the police to infer that a groomed child is consenting.
How can the authorities assume that a child as young as 13 would willingly consent to sex with multiple men? Let us be honest: in the cases I am talking about, the men are not in the child’s social network—they are not young teenagers from the child’s school, or known to the child’s parents or older siblings. They are groups of adult men targeting young girls through street grooming or in takeaways and restaurants. How can the police possibly assume with good reason that the targeted child consents simply because she did not refuse sexual intercourse? Consent must be freely given without duress or coercion. Consent is a voluntary act.
A young girl in Telford was groomed for sex with a group of men. The grooming began while she was celebrating her 13th birthday in a local restaurant. While she was still 13, she became pregnant by one of those men, and her parents realised what was going on and went to the police. The identity of the perpetrators was not an issue and arrests were quickly made. Two things went wrong, however: the police failed to identify that the men were connected to each other, or that the child had been groomed. The police treated the men as if each one was in a separate relationship with the child. She was treated as willingly engaging in sexual activity with men she had voluntarily chosen to have a relationship with.
The offences the police were to consider in the case were rape and engaging in sexual activity with a child under 16. The police accepted that the perpetrators could not have known from the victim’s actions that she did not consent and, further, that the perpetrators reasonably believed that she was over 16, as she had not disclosed her true age to them until after she became pregnant.
It is clear in this case that the child could not articulate in the testimony that she gave to the police the psychological impact of grooming and coercion. When it was put to her by the police, she accepted that she had not told the perpetrators her age and that she had not refused sexual intercourse. Despite not wanting to have sex with any of the men, she accepted that they would not have known that she did not want to have sex, so the police did not ask the Crown Prosecution Service to bring charges. The grooming was ignored: she had not said no, she had not been physically forced and she was over 12, so it could not be rape, and as she had not revealed her true age, the perpetrators had a reasonable belief that she was over 16, so it could not be sex with a minor.
The destruction and damage to the girl’s life and to her family is impossible to communicate. The family exhausted every avenue in their battle to get justice. One perpetrator, who had sex with the child again while on bail, received three and a half years for sex with a minor, but all the agencies upheld the police’s position when complaints were brought. The family were told that it was right that no charges had been brought against the other perpetrators in the case. How do the parents explain that to their daughter? What message does it send to perpetrators if no charges are brought in such a case?
I want to believe that that is a one-off, isolated case, because under the law consent should not come into it at all. However, the family wrote to the Independent Police Complaints Commission, the CPS, the professional standards board, the Home Office and the Prime Minister, and all the parties that responded took the view that the police’s course of action was correct.