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Child Sexual Exploitation and Consent to Sexual Intercourse

Volume 641: debated on Tuesday 22 May 2018

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 the Member for Louth and Horncastle (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.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate on an important local and national issue, and on attracting to the debate the Solicitor General, who is probably the most qualified person in Parliament to respond. The police can always learn lessons, but charging decisions are often a joint exercise with the Crown Prosecution Service. Some of the cases she refers to are of vulnerable young adults who are known to the local authority. Telford and Wrekin Council, which is a key stakeholder in the issue, needs to get on with conducting the independent inquiry, appointing an independent chairman, restoring public confidence in the local council and ensuring that victims get the justice they deserve.

I fully agree with my hon. Friend that the Solicitor General is an eminent and learned colleague. I also agree with his point about Telford and Wrekin Council. Now that it has decided that it will have an investigation into child sexual exploitation in Telford, it is imperative that it gets on and appoints a chairman. We have already waited two months, and I cannot see that anything has happened yet. I hope it will take the opportunity to delay no longer on that. I thank my hon. Friend for making that point.

To return to the case that I was raising, the family wrote to all those different parties and the answer was that the case had been correctly handled. The CPS sent a letter to the family about the perpetrator who was responsible for the victim’s pregnancy, which said:

“It was right that no charges have been brought in this case.”

It explained why it came to that conclusion by saying that

“the prosecution must prove that a victim was not consenting to the sexual intercourse and...that the person accused did not reasonably believe that the victim was consenting.”

It went on to say that the victim

“was clear that although she may not have wanted sexual intercourse…the suspect would not have been aware from her actions at the time that she did not want to have sexual intercourse…As such a charge of rape is not appropriate and indeed the police did not seek a charging decision from the CPS for an offence of rape.”

It then addressed the possibility of bringing a charge of sexual activity with a child under 16, and said:

“The prosecution must prove beyond reasonable doubt that the suspect did not reasonably believe the victim was over 16. We could not prove this to the required standard. The victim agreed that she had not told the suspect her age until after she discovered that she was pregnant. I believe a jury may have doubts as to whether the suspect is guilty. For these reasons, it was right that no charges were brought against this suspect.”

I repeat that it was judged

“right that no charges were brought against this suspect”.

The authorities were telling the father of a child victim of abuse that there was no good reason to prosecute the men responsible.

Anyone else looking at the facts of this case would see grotesque and traumatic abuse and exploitation of a child by multiple perpetrators; anyone else would understand the lifelong impact that this horrendous crime would have on this child and her family. But the police did not see that. When I discussed this case with them, it was almost as if they thought that it had been the child seeking out the perpetrators and not the other way round. They did not value the account given by the victim. They did not see an abused child; they saw a young woman who had failed to reveal her true age willingly engaging in sexual activity with multiple men.

Social services became involved in the case after the event and held multi-agency meetings; in fact, they held a number of them. At every one of those meetings, what was discussed was a behavioural contract for the child—a code of conduct for the victim. It was the victim who was placed on a curfew and not allowed out after school. I am sure that everyone in the extensive cast list at those multi-agency meetings meant well and wanted to protect the child from further harm, but why was it her behaviour that was in question and not the behaviour of the men who had committed the crime?

The hon. Lady is making a very powerful speech, and what I am hearing is really concerning. The thought occurs to me that when an older man seeks to have sex—consensual sex, as he may think it is—with an obviously young girl, surely it is up to him to find out the girl’s age, so that he can be confident that she is old enough to engage in sexual activity, rather than his just being blithely able to say, “I thought she was old enough”. I assume that the girl in this case looked young; surely the onus is on the adult to ensure that she is of the age of consent.

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 Solicitor General could set out what action can be taken in cases such as the one I have described.

I had been expecting, as Chairman, that a Home Office Minister would be here, but we have an excellent substitute: the Solicitor General.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone.

May I put on the record the reason for my presence at this debate, bearing in mind my ministerial responsibility as superintendent of the Crown Prosecution Service of England and Wales? As this debate has been quite rightly focused by my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) upon questions of law and the prosecution of these offences, it is entirely appropriate that I am appearing in Westminster Hall today.

May I assure my hon. Friend that I have already had an important conversation with the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, who is the Home Office Minister with responsibility for safeguarding? Indeed, Home Office officials are here today with me.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Telford on securing this debate. I know how much she has campaigned for the victims of child sexual exploitation in her constituency and how she has been a tireless champion of securing an independent inquiry into systematic issues that have resulted in a whole cohort of young people in her local area being failed by the authorities after having to suffer appalling abuse.

I speak not only as a Minister; I have many years’ experience in prosecuting just this type of offence. Having taken what is now the Serious Crime Act 2015 through Parliament as a Minister, I am proud that in that Act we updated the law to remove old-fashioned references to child prostitution in acknowledgement of the fact that when it comes to consent we are dealing with children. These are children who deserve the protection of the law, and to apply to them the standards that can be applied to fully mature adults is a betrayal of their vulnerability and a failure to safeguard them. Over and above everything, the issue must be one of safeguarding. Underlying some of the issues that my hon. Friend raised is perhaps a failure, at times, by the respective agencies and their representatives to understand that safeguarding must come first and therefore that the point of view of the child—the victim—is paramount, rather than considerations of another kind. If people understand that, we will make even further progress.

I have been part of a number of inter-ministerial groups on child sexual exploitation, from my time as a member of the coalition Government right through to this year, and I have been impressed by the sense of purpose the Government have shown in seeking to co-ordinate and improve the work that needs to be done to safeguard children. We have had new legislation on safeguarding and a robust response to the appalling incidents in Rotherham, Rochdale and other local areas that shone a light on the problem often encountered by young people in getting their story regarding child sexual exploitation heard and believed.

My hon. Friend raised a specific case, of which I am aware, and I know that she has written to colleagues in the Home Office. She will get a response; I will undertake to ensure that by writing to her. It would perhaps be invidious for me to make detailed comment on the merits of the case, as a further inquiry investigation is under way, but I take on board her points. She drew the important distinction between consent and knowledge of age, both of which issues I will deal with now, in general terms.

When a case meets the threshold, the police should refer it to the Crown Prosecution Service for a charging decision. That decision is then made by an independent prosecutor in accordance with the code for Crown prosecutors and CPS legal guidelines. On consent, it is important to draw a distinction between consent in fact and consent in law. In fact, the threshold for absence of consent in law is somewhat more rigorous. A child under the age of 16 cannot in law consent to a sexual act. Therefore, a person is guilty of a child sexual offence such as sexual activity with a child contrary to the 2003 Act if sexual activity takes place and the child is either under 13 or is under 16 and the perpetrator does not reasonably believe them to be 16 or over.

My hon. Friend referred to the question of reasonable belief and I assure her that the test is rigorous and takes into account all the evidence in the case. Proof of the age of a child is of course a simple, straightforward matter—date of birth can easily be proved. The question of reasonable belief often depends on the circumstances, but I can assure my hon. Friend that the old chestnut of, “I didn’t know her age. She didn’t tell me,” does not mean that the police and the prosecution are suddenly discharged of any responsibility to bring the case. Wider circumstances need to be considered and assessed. Each case must stand or fall on its facts, and the perception that somehow at all times the burden should be on the child to prove their position is not correct. It is important that we as Ministers and parliamentarians get that message out there, so that young people know that if they come forward they will be taken seriously and treated properly.

The hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) knows well from experience—we have worked together on such issues and I am grateful for her presence and her intervention today—that it is vital that young people know that we have moved on from the appalling response we saw in Rotherham and other local authorities and that that approach is no longer acceptable. The courts themselves, in sentencing, now readily acknowledge that. The idea that somehow a child can consent in any way to sexual activity, where consent is not an element of the offence, is no longer relevant in sentencing. Indeed, the courts no longer give defendants any mitigation or concession for so-called implied consent on the part of a victim who is a child. That has been an important development as well.

In the context of offences of rape, other than the rape of a child under 13 for which consent is not necessary, the absence of consent must be proved regardless of age. The definition of consent is that a person agrees by choice and has the freedom and capacity to do so—and there comes the issue. Again, it is important that we send the message out clearly that the age and circumstances of the complainant—the victim—must be taken into account in understanding age and capacity.

Acquiescence is not consent, and that message is vital, particularly in the context of some of the child sexual abuse of which we are all aware. The fact that a vulnerable or young person has been groomed starkly raises the reality that he or she may have been placed in a position in which they have merely acceded to sexual activity, rather than having given real, meaningful consent. The despicable actions of those who prey upon such young people should, and have, come under scrutiny when considering the issue of genuine consent. Even in the absence of clear evidence of grooming, a victim under the age of 16 is likely to be considered vulnerable, regardless of whether the defendant believes them to be older. Evidence that a victim has been drugged or is so intoxicated that they no longer have capacity to consent may also support the absence of consent per se.

I am not privy to all the facts of the case, but in the light of what the Solicitor General said about the age of consent being 16, I really struggle to understand why the men are at large and not behind bars. I am curious about that.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to reiterate the point that has been made. I cannot comment on the specific case, but it is clear to me that we have moved a million light years from perpetrators being able to get away with such things with impunity.

Did my hon. and learned Friend say that there will be a review into the case I have put before the Home Office?

There is indeed a further investigation as a result of my hon. Friend’s letter and I have committed to writing to her about the outcome.

The tools that the prosecution now has are considerable. We even have tools relating to sending sexual communications to a child ahead of any grooming, which came into force last year, and for young people between the ages of 16 and 18 we also have preventive measures, such as sexual risk prevention orders. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the matter. I undertake to respond to her more fully in relation to the specific offence and I reassure her that this Government, and this Solicitor General, take child sexual abuse extremely seriously.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.