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Child Grooming

Volume 594: debated on Tuesday 17 March 2015

We have taken action to enable the police to intervene earlier to protect children where there is a suspicion that grooming has taken place. As a result of the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015, which amended section 15 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, we have reduced from two to one the number of initial occasions on which the defendant meets or communicates with a child considered at risk before prosecution can take place. I hope the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) believes that the Government are absolutely committed to making sure the law is as tough as it needs be to deal with this very serious evil.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. I am not sure if he has had a chance to study the report published today by the Communities and Local Government Committee on child sexual exploitation in Rotherham. What is clear from that report is the catastrophic failure of all public services to protect vulnerable young girls. It is also clear that Rotherham is not an isolated case. What is apparent is that the victims have not been provided with the support they require and they were not believed by the authorities and were not protected when issues came to court. What further action can my right hon. Friend propose that will ensure that the victims are given support and protection through the justice system?

I am very clear that the point the hon. Gentleman raises is centrally important. I am aware of the report that has come out today, but I have not read it in full. The failing in the past has been that the young people have not been listened to and heard and, when they have spoken out, people have not believed them. Public authorities, the Crown Prosecution Service and the rest of the prosecuting authorities must work on the presumption that when young people say something, it is true and not false, and we should work on that basis.

In 2011 the child sexual exploitation plan issued by the Government tasked the Ministry of Justice to do certain things in respect of child sexual exploitation, including having a more practical and effective response to witness intimidation, supporting witnesses throughout the criminal justice process, for the CPS to promote within its organisation examples of good practice in relation to child sexual exploitation and work to increase the use of special measures in appropriate cases. Will the Minister give us an update on what progress has been made against those specific measures?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his continuing interest in this issue. As well as the working group he mentioned, which found that there were gaps in the availability of services and commissioning, the Government have strengthened the non-statutory services and put more money in to make sure they are able more competently to deal with this. The figure I have is £7 million—that was an announcement we made in December—which includes increased funds for the existing female rape support centres and greater support for organisations supporting victims in areas where there is a high prevalence of child abuse, such as Rotherham. Secondly, as well as the new offence of sexual communication with a child, we are legislating to remove references to child prostitution and child pornography from the Sexual Offences Act and making sure that the offence of loitering or soliciting for the purpose of prostitution applies only to adults. We have to protect children.

The right hon. Gentleman will know that many of the victims in these cases have been profoundly damaged by their experiences and need a great deal of support, including mental health support. Will he ensure that prosecutors do not deter them from accessing that support, as has often happened in the past, but work to ensure that they are supported through the ordeal of going to trial, because that is not only beneficial to them, but ensures that more cases can be prosecuted?

There are two points. First, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and all Ministers are very clear that when vulnerable individuals go into the criminal justice system we must identify whether in fact the issue that needs to be addressed is a mental health issue or is a drugs issue or something else. So we try to prevent people from going through the criminal justice system because it is not user-friendly, particularly for young people. If there is no alternative, we need to make sure that steps are taken, for example that youngsters do not have to come to court but can appear from a distance, such as by video-link, and that they are supported through the whole of that process, not just through the court case but a considerable time thereafter.

Has the Minister considered closer co-operation with the Department for Education to make this matter a staple subject in the curriculum? Would he further consider training for voluntary groups so that they can be aware of the telltale signs of grooming?

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise that issue. NSPCC research has shown that six in 10 teenagers have been asked for sexual images or videos online. That is an extraordinary figure, and many of them feel compelled to provide those images as a result of peer group pressure. We are absolutely convinced across the Government, including in the Department for Education, that personal, social, health and economic education—of which sex education is a part—is an important strategy. We need such an education process in the curriculum in every school to warn youngsters of the dangers, so that they know how to deal with them.