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Indeed—the hon. Lady makes an excellent point. She and I would both have reached that conclusion and many members of the public would, too, which is why I am glad that it has now been placed on the record.
It is difficult for me to understand why it was the victim’s behaviour that was in question and not the behaviour of the men. It is almost as if it is an accepted norm that predatory grooming and exploitation of young girls will happen, and that it is the victim who must be controlled and not the perpetrators. That is not a world that any of us want a young person to grow up in. We all to want to see vulnerable young people being protected, but does that really mean that young girls should be prevented from going out after school? In this case, the known perpetrators were released without charge and without any monitoring of their behaviour. That is more than just victim-blaming; it is a failure even to see that there is a victim.
That suggests that something is very wrong, because how is it that the police could fail to see an abused child when an ordinary member of the public would see one? The police acted as if this was a young woman freely entering into multiple relationships with multiple older men, each of whom—the police thought—did not realise they were doing anything wrong, as they thought she was over 16. In fact, one of the men suggested that he thought this 13-year-old was 18.
Are the police undervaluing or not even accepting the testimony of victims while accepting the testimony of the perpetrators, or is it just that they do not understand what grooming is and the impact that it can have on the way a child behaves? What is apparent is that there is no requirement to consider the impact of grooming and coercion, or the power that a perpetrator can have over a child victim, when the decision is made about whether to ask the Crown Prosecution Service to press charges.
Under sections 9 to 11 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, sex with a child under 16 is an offence irrespective of consent, and I am sure that the Minister will confirm that. Given that law, therefore, most of us would assume that in a case such as this, there is no need for the victim to prove that she did not consent or that the perpetrators knew her true age. In reality and in practice, however, when a child is 13 or over, certain defences can be used, and indeed are used, that are readily accepted by the police without the defendant having to do anything more than simply tell the police their account of events. It must be wrong that individual police officers can, in effect, act as judge and jury and decide not to ask the CPS to charge, particularly in a case such as this one where some very serious offences have been committed.
Grooming is the means by which someone is forced to do something against their will. How could anyone believe that a child who is being groomed has free will to decide whether to have sex with their abusers? That is why we need to have an investigation in Telford and why I am delighted that there will now be such an investigation. Otherwise, how are we going to work out what needs to be done, so that the police and the authorities in general can respond differently in the future? I am glad that the local council has finally agreed to commission such an investigation, although it is due to the work of journalists, who brought some of these issues to light, that the investigation is now happening. I am very pleased that the press has the freedom to report on these issues and bring them out into the open.
I was going to ask the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle, to review the specific case that I have referred to today. I took details of the case to the Home Secretary in March, delivering them in person to the Home Office. I have not yet had a response, and I should be most grateful to receive one, if not from the Solicitor General then from the Home Office in due course. I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, who is also Minister for Women, will take the time to read the details of the case, which I have given to the Home Office, and indeed the report today’s debate.
In a case where it is clear that a child is the victim of multiple acts of abuse by multiple perpetrators, there should be no reason for that child to show that the abusers knew she was 13 years old. Why should she have to show them that she did not consent to sexual activity, and why, in this particular case, was no evidence of grooming given to the CPS? I know that it is for the prosecution to prove guilt, but in a case such as this the prosecution is not even being given the opportunity to prove guilt, because no charges were brought. The victim and her family were dismissed by the authorities, more or less on the say-so of the male perpetrators.
In light of what we now know about grooming and child sexual exploitation, I ask the Solicitor General to consider whether it is time to update both the guidance to the police and perhaps the Sexual Offences Act 2003, particularly when it comes to the definition of consent. As I have said, consent cannot be implied by the absence of a refusal or the absence of physical force. Coercion and force can and do take many non-physical forms.
As more such cases come to light and we find out more about what is happening—the case that I have referred to is a recent case, not a historic one—it is essential that the police actively look for evidence of grooming that can they can then pass on to the CPS, which has to make the decision about charging. However, if the CPS does not have the evidence of grooming, then it cannot take it into consideration.
Most children in such circumstances will be unlikely to know that what has happened to them is grooming or coercion, and they certainly cannot be expected to volunteer that information if all they are asked is, “Did you make it clear to the suspect that you did not want to have sex?”
We have come a long way in our response to this crime, but we must now consider whether the law is protecting children and young people from grooming and exploitation. As each case comes to light, we cannot just go on wringing our hands and saying how horrific it is that different cases are emerging up and down the country. If the law does not protect our children from being groomed and targeted for sex, we must update it.
I thank the Solicitor General for listening to what I have had to say today. It is only by listening to the experiences of MPs in their constituencies that the voices of victims are properly heard, and that is why I am disappointed that the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department is not here today. The full picture can emerge only by our listening to the voices of the victims, and we need to understand how the law operates in practice, not just how it is written on the statute book. Only by understanding that can we take the necessary action to prevent this abuse happening to more victims. I would be most grateful if the Secretary General could set out what action can be taken in cases such as the one I have described.