It gives me great pleasure to introduce this discussion on the important subject of the grooming of children for prostitution. Little did I know that there would be two significant events today: the inauguration of a new American President and my debate on an issue that has emerged in my constituency—something that goes to the heart of every politician’s life. I find that the biggest national issues come from the grass-roots experiences in the communities that we represent. That is not a bad rule.
I chair the Children, Schools and Families Committee so this is an important issue for me. However, long before I chaired that Select Committee, I ran an important campaign about the remarkable situation that the penalty for bringing a child into prostitution was lower than that for running a disorderly house. Many good colleagues in the House at that time campaigned for a change in the law. Since 2003 there have been more significant penalties for people who draw young people into prostitution.
I raise this matter today because it is an issue in west Yorkshire and in my constituency. I believe that it is also a national issue. The Coalition for the Removal of Pimping, known by the interesting acronym CROP, has a very active branch in west Yorkshire, based in Leeds. It has accompanied two or three of my constituents who have faced the traumatic experience of having a daughter as young as twelve taken into a way of life that leads to sexual manipulation and in some cases prostitution.
I will not go into too much detail, but the Children Act 2004 places specific responsibility on social services to safeguard and promote the welfare of children in the area. Sexual exploitation has been a critical challenge to safeguarding children with long-term implications for children and families. That legislation and the five outcomes for children outlined in Every Child Matters show how important the welfare of children is to this Government, to all parties and to all parliamentarians. I celebrate the introduction of a Department for Children, Schools and Families with a remit that runs across any Department if the concerns of children are involved. The Sexual Offences Act 2003 introduced many new offences to protect children from sexual exploitation including meeting a child following sexual grooming, paying for the sexual services of a child, causing or inciting child prostitution or pornography, arranging or facilitating child prostitution or pornography and controlling a child prostitute.
This is not a pleasant subject to discuss, but we must discuss it. There have been high-profile “Panorama”-style exposés on these problems. However, I listen more to the parents who find themselves and their children victims to this kind of exploitation. Families are also exploited. I want to put it on the record that even 12 years ago, during my research for the original campaign, I was horrified to find unscrupulous men—always men—in every town and city with a sophisticated methodology and technique for grooming children into prostitution.
The more I talked to experts in the field, the more convinced I became that there was no dominant ethnicity among the perpetrators. They came from different ethnic backgrounds in different towns and could be white, black or Asian. Some, such as the British National party, have tried to make this a racial issue. I do not believe that it is.
There are unscrupulous men in every town and city using this sophisticated technique. The more I considered it, the more I found it akin to the sophisticated psychological techniques used by sects in America and to a lesser extent in this country to get vulnerable people into their organisations by brainwashing them, changing their personalities and entrapping them.
The entrapment of a young girl often follows that process. A young man in a flashy car—perhaps an old-fashioned expression—will drive around a school looking at and talking to young women. In the end, one girl will accept a lift in the fancy car. There follows a process of giving presents, taking the young person out without their parents’ consent to venues that they would not usually go to at their age, meeting with friends in the local park and introductions to alcohol and drugs. The next stage is a sexual relationship, usually with a person the young girl assumes to be her boyfriend. Sadly, that introduction leads to the young man passing the girl on to an older generation or a wider circle of men. The road to drug addiction, alcohol dependency and prostitution at an early age follows. This is not unusual or a one-off, but something we know about.
In introducing her Safeguarding Runaway and Missing Children Bill, my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South (Helen Southworth) was concerned that a significant number of runaway and missing children were vulnerable to the sort of treatment that I have described.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and on giving hon. Members another chance to discuss this important issue. Does he agree that children without family support are particularly vulnerable to predatory adults? Does he also agree that those in the care of children’s services are often targeted by predators who think that they can be exploited because their families are not immediately available? How does he think the police and children’s services can win the confidence of such young people so that they can be safeguarded, while gaining the intelligence and information that is needed to identify and tackle the predators?
My hon. Friend knows that I agree with her point. The Children, Schools and Families Committee is just concluding a major inquiry into looked-after children or children in care. The report will be out in about a month. We have found that the perpetrators actively try to find out where vulnerable young people are placed, especially if they are in institutional care or just coming out of care at 16 and going into relatively unsupervised accommodation. She is absolutely right that that is a significant element.
Many young people in care are more vulnerable, but I want to put on the record something that has been brought to my attention by the Coalition for the Removal of Pimping and other charities. Many cases involve girls from what one would normally call conventional homes: homes with good, supportive parents, with both parents at home, and with brothers and sisters who have successfully got through this difficult age and stage. The men who prey on children have great skill in identifying vulnerable children, whatever their background. However, I absolutely agree that some children are more vulnerable than others.
My colleagues in the House will know that I would not ask for a debate of this kind to say that children’s services and social services are awful, or that the police do nothing. That is not why I have raised the subject today. A large amount of good guidance have been provided by the Association of Chief Police Officers, and for several years—certainly the past 10 years—valuable pilot projects have been done in places such as Sheffield, Nottingham and Oldham. I believe that I am leaving one out; perhaps someone might correct me. Oh, I forgot Blackburn. I apologise for missing out such an important town.
Where such projects work, they work very well indeed. I cannot help comparing them with my hon. Friend’s campaign for runaway children, which develops sophisticated networks of people who are concerned about the issue. The local authority, the police and everyone in the circle network and do the job well. They understand the problem and the need to work in a co-ordinated and meaningful way, and the network works very well indeed. What is needed to deal with the child prostitution problem is absolutely the same.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. I am not clear on whether he is saying that the problem is getting worse, or simply that we are more aware of it, that there is better reporting, that we know more about it, and that therefore we might conclude that the problem occurs more often and affects more children.
I am delighted that my hon. Friend made that point, because I was just coming to it. The problem is getting worse, and it is getting worse because of technology. There is no doubt—all the research shows this—that children are now more vulnerable through the internet, through mobile phones, and through greater mobility in every sense: communications, transportation, IT and so on. In a strange way, the new technologies make a child more vulnerable; for example, in respect of bullying, as we know from the research that the Select Committee did. Technology is not always helpful.
Furthermore, technology helps the men to keep in constant communication with young girls, and constantly to badger them, push them and remind them about meetings. They are able to talk to them when they are in the bosom of their family, in their own home, in their bedroom or with their parents. One hears stories from parents about men who are constantly phoning, pushing, and trying to stimulate some kind of reaction, often oblivious to the feelings of the parents. The violence that is threatened to parents who get between such a man and a child is also a problem. The situation is getting worse in a very real way.
What I am calling for today is not some silver bullet or magic wand. I am asking the Government to take the matter more seriously, and to ensure that the good practice in Blackburn, Sheffield and other places is rolled out in every police authority area. I do not think that my police force in west Yorkshire takes the matter as seriously as does the police force in south Yorkshire and other areas, but that is my particular worry.
In every place where the problem is taken seriously, the work of the children’s services and the police is co-ordinated, and a network is set up. Some of our wonderful children’s charities are good partners in such work, as they have knowledge and expertise. It is not always a matter of saying that the problem is down to the Home Office, the police or the local children’s services agency. The team is important, and if it works sensitively with parents and schools, and brings teachers and parents into the coalition and network, there can be great success. I know that there has been success because effective prosecutions have taken place and men have received long sentences.
In a bit of the world out there, one hears people say that the girls are asking for it, that it is their own fault, or that there must be something lacking in their background. I reject all of that. A child is a child, and one of the great dangers in our country today is that there are pressures from technology and much else to shorten childhood. For example, some rather silly colleagues of all parties want to bring the voting age down to 16. I would fight to maintain the position that a person is a child until 18 because it gives enormous protection to them.
The ambivalence in our society, which says that someone is a child until 16 in some areas but until 18 in other areas, is dangerous. Girls are pushed or inveigled into prostitution, then become criminalised before they are even 18. I know that the police are reluctant to proceed: a young woman in such a position will get two cautions and so on. That is all very well, and I know that some charitable foundations have recommended that the age of criminality for prostitution should be raised to 18. I am not sure about that, but I would like a good discussion about it. It seems strange that children who are manipulated, coerced, and inveigled into a life of prostitution through drugs, drink and all the psychological tricks that are played on them can then find themselves criminalised as prostitutes before they are 18.
I do not want to prolong the debate, except to say that we must protect children. A small voice out there says that it is not a great priority, but I believe that someone who grooms a child, whether a teacher in a classroom, someone on the internet, or a man in a flash car outside the school, is a groomer. I do not like them. They are criminals and should be treated as such.
I thank and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) on securing this debate. I welcome the opportunity to discuss the important issue of safeguarding children from sexual abuse and exploitation. We are all aware of how important it is to him, and I commend his work in this area. He is not only an assiduous constituency Member of Parliament but has considerable experience as Chairman of the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families.
I completely agree that safeguarding children is an absolute priority and that the exploitation of children is completely unacceptable in today’s society. My hon. Friend is right to raise attention to the problem, whether it occurs locally, nationally or, indeed, internationally. I hope that I can give assurances in my remarks that the Government take the matter seriously and give it the highest priority. Whatever community it occurs in or comes from, exploitation of children is simply wrong.
My hon. Friend has raised concerns about problems in his constituency and has mentioned the success that Blackburn and other cities have had in tackling a similar situation. He asked whether the success in those cities can be rolled out across the country. In relation to the events in Huddersfield, I am aware that a number of police operations are still ongoing. I am sure that my hon. Friend appreciates that I am not able to go into the details of any of these ongoing operations, because I do not want to put them at risk. However, let me be clear that police forces work closely with social care services departments throughout the country in relation to sharing information and intelligence on this problem. Such joint working is critical in supporting vulnerable children and young people at risk of exploitation and stopping abuse.
Local safeguarding children boards are responsible for ensuring that local procedures are in place to safeguard and promote the welfare of all children in the area and for monitoring and evaluating the effectiveness of local partners in implementing those procedures. “Working Together to Safeguard Children”, the main inter-agency guidance on safeguarding, highlights sexual exploitation as a key area of concern that should be covered by local safeguarding children board procedures.
Does my hon. Friend have the figures now, or could he provide them at a later date, on how many successful prosecutions there have been in each policy authority area? That would be helpful, because it would be an indicator of how serious and sophisticated the police effort is. The sophisticated groups and gangs that perpetrate such crimes need sophisticated techniques to catch them.
I shall certainly seek that information and will perhaps send it to my hon. Friend later. But let me say that it is important that we have a sophisticated response to this matter. I hope that I can illustrate that the response ought to be sophisticated, locally and across the country.
We are very concerned about the issue of trafficking—it is a form of trafficking—of children within the borders of the United Kingdom. We know, as my hon. Friend has highlighted, that it is often teenage girls who are targeted for exploitation and then trafficked between and within towns and cities. This is completely unacceptable in this day and age. Some girls are lured away from their families and are subjected to horrific violence and abuse. Often the girls often have no idea where they are in the UK at the end of the process.
The Government are committed to tackling this problem and, through the national action plan on human trafficking, we will improve the way in which professionals identify and deal with problem of human trafficking both between countries and within our own borders. To help with this, the United Kingdom Human Trafficking Centre has established a multi-agency group to co-ordinate this work and assess the scale and nature of the problem across police forces. Operation Glover in 2007 was an example of successful operation against the organised criminal sexual exploitation of 33 children aged between 12 and 15 in the midlands. The ringleader received a total of 10 years for multiple rapes. This was a good example of co-operation and intelligence sharing between children’s services, the local police and the UKHTC.
The United Kingdom Human Trafficking Centre is continuing its work to highlight this crime among potential victims. For example, in conjunction with the Home Office, the UKTHC has produced a DVD to alert teenage girls to risk of sexual exploitation and trafficking. We hope that the video will soon be available with a learning and resource pack for teachers and youth workers.
As my hon. Friend knows, the Government have done a great deal over the last few years to improve child protection. We have introduced dedicated child abuse investigation units into all police forces and rolled out specialist sexual offences officers and rape prosecutors in every area. We are working with the Association of Chief Police Officers on building a suite of performance indicators for the police in their role as child abuse investigators and we hope to incorporate those into the assessment of policing and community safety next year.
We established the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre in April 2006. This law enforcement agency brings together police officers, child protection experts and IT specialists from across the public, private and voluntary sectors. Its national remit includes gathering and co-ordinating intelligence on high-risk child sex offenders and helping to track them, both in the UK and overseas.
As my hon. Friend said, the Sexual Offences Act 2003 introduced new offences to protect children from exploitation, including the specific offence of meeting a child forsexual grooming and causing or inciting child prostitution or pornography. In addition to this, the Home Office continues to work closely with the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the Ministry of Justice on child protection and issues. In September 2008, Bedfordshire university published a report commissioned by the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice that scoped the current criminal justice response to child sexual exploitation.
Another illustration of how Departments are working together and joining up the issues to protect children from this form of abuse is guidance published by the DCSF with the Home Office on consultation on children missing from home and care. My hon. Friend rightly paid tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South (Helen Southworth) and I am pleased to join him in praising the work that she has been doing. The consultation and guidance published by the DSCF and the Home Office will alert practitioners to the fact that, often, sexual exploitation is the reason for some children going missing. The draft guidance has just been launched for consultation and the final version will be available in the spring. It will be critical that those working with children can read the signs and know how and when to intervene.
The Government guidance “Working together to Safeguard Children”, published in 2006, sets out how organisations in England should work together to safeguard and promote the welfare of all children. Later this year, we will be publishing new guidance on safeguarding children and young people from sexual exploitation, supplementary to “Working Together”, following extensive consultation in autumn last year.
This is all music to our ears. However, there is a real point to be made. First, consultation and guidance is all very well, but the resources must be there on the ground for the police to find things out. Good policing is expensive. Many of the girls involved think these men are their friends and will not give evidence against them, so we need quite sophisticated techniques. These are children and they are easily intimidated.
Secondly, families need children’s services quickly to get into the home and give them support. In a case in my constituency, a 14-year-old child was pinpointed by these men and, by the time social services or children’s services came in, the child was 16 and pregnant and prone to alcoholism. That is seriously slow movement, is it not?
We do want to intervene early and effectively. Of course, as my hon. Friend says, there is inevitably a resource issue in respect of such matters, but it is also about making it a priority for police forces and local authorities and making them aware of their responsibilities. In making it a priority, the resources that they have—as well as those that they request—should be put to best effect. Therefore it is important that we give them guidance. My hon. Friend will also accept that police forces and local authorities to some extent are local and independent in their response. We can get them to the place that he and I want them to be at by working with them, rather than by making a dictate from on high, which I know he is not asking for.
The issue of grooming of children for sexual exploitation is a real one that we take seriously. A lot has been done over the past few years to give the agencies the power and resources to tackle all forms of sexual abuse and exploitation. We will continue to work hard in partnership with children’s services, the police and non-governmental organisations to do all that we can to support children and families to protect some of the most vulnerable people in our society, because that is what it is about. At this point, I draw attention to the wider debate about prostitution, which focuses on vulnerability. We should also, at all times, ensure that we are in a position to enforce the law and punish those responsible.