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Child Sexual Exploitation Victims: Criminal Records

Volume 656: debated on Tuesday 19 March 2019

Before I call the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) to ask her urgent question and the Minister to respond, I must advise right hon. and hon. Members that under the terms of the House’s resolution on matters sub judice, they should not refer to specific cases that are currently before the courts. It should not be beyond the ingenuity of right hon. and hon. Members to find ways of airing the issue without mentioning the specifics in a way that could threaten the legal process.

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department to make a statement on criminal records disclosure for victims of child sexual exploitation.

I am conscious that, as you outlined, Mr Speaker, this question relates to an ongoing legal case, and that as such it would not be appropriate to comment on the specific case or cases. I assure you that the Government want all victims and survivors of sexual abuse and exploitation to feel that they can come forward to report abuse, and get the support they need when they do so. We are committed to working across Government to ensure that victims can move on from the abuse they have suffered, and that professionals, including the police, who come into contact with a victim recognise exploitation when they see it and respond appropriately.

The Government are committed to acting to protect the public and help employers make safe recruitment decisions. The disclosure and barring regime plays an important part in supporting employers to make informed recruitment decisions about roles that involve working with children or vulnerable adults, and in a limited range of other circumstances. The criminal record disclosure regime seeks to strike a balance between safeguarding children and enabling individuals to put their offending behind them.

The House will be aware that the Supreme Court recently handed down a judgment in the case of P and others that affects certain rules governing the disclosure regime. We are still waiting for the order from the Supreme Court, but we are considering the implications of the judgment and will respond in due course. It is important to note, however, that the Supreme Court recognises that the regime balances public protection with individuals’ right to a private life. It applies only to certain protected jobs, and it is for employers to decide someone’s suitability for a role once they are armed with the facts.

Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker. Just before Christmas, you welcomed Sammy Woodhouse to this Parliament. You, the Leader of the Opposition, the Prime Minister and the leader of the SNP all praised her bravery in speaking out and waiving her anonymity in order to protect other victims and survivors of child sexual exploitation. In that instance, we discussed CSE survivors’ experience in the family courts. It is good to see the Justice Minister in his place. I hope we can make progress on that issue.

Everyone in this House owes it to Sammy and all victims of child sexual exploitation to do everything in our power to reward her bravery and ensure that no one has to endure the appalling, unimaginable abuse that she experienced. We must all ensure that the state in all its forms no longer fails CSE survivors. They are forced to confront their past every day of their lives through the painful trauma that never leaves them, which many simply cannot escape. Their bravery in the face of all that has happened to them is humbling.

The victims are forced to live not only with their trauma but with convictions linked to their sexual exploitation in childhood. They are blighted by an obligation to disclose criminal convictions linked to past abuse. They are forced to tell employers and even local parent teacher associations about their past convictions. That punitive rule means that they simply cannot escape a past in which they were victims.

I understand your ruling that we are unable to refer to sub judice cases, Mr Speaker, but Sammy will not mind me referring to her record, which includes possession of an offensive weapon and affray. Both are explicitly linked to her grooming. When she was 15, the police raided the property of now-convicted serial rapist Arshid Hussain. Sammy was half-naked and hiding under his bed. Hussain was not detained, but Sammy was arrested and charged. She was a victim of exploitation and is now forced to disclose her criminal convictions—crimes she committed only through her exploitation.

Judges in the High Court have already ruled that forcing victims of CSE to disclose past convictions linked to CSE is unjust. They argued that

“any link between the past offending, and the assessment of present risk in a particular employment, is either non-existent or at best extremely tenuous.”

I ask the Minister, what is the Government’s position on record disclosure of CSE survivors?

One of the single biggest tasks of this Parliament and society is to create an environment in which victims of child sexual exploitation are given the best possible chance not to allow their past abuse to define them. Will the Minister consider bringing forward what is known as Sammy’s law, which would give CSE victims the right to have their criminal records automatically reviewed, and crimes associated with their grooming removed? At present, anyone has the right to apply to the chief constable of their force area to have their records reviewed, but it is little known. Surely there must be a specific case in those circumstances.

Child sexual exploitation is fundamentally about an imbalance of power that is used to coerce, manipulate and deceive. It leads many victims to commit crimes relating to their exploitation. I know the Minister will agree that it cannot be right that victims are forced to live with the consequences of their exploitation for the rest of their lives.

I thank the hon. Lady for her urgent question. She knows, because we have discussed the issue behind the scenes on many occasions, the concerns, feelings and sympathy that the Home Secretary and I have for victims of child sexual exploitation and abuse, and that this Government have done more than any other to tackle it. By setting up institutions such as the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse, the Prime Minister, when she was Home Secretary, sought to uncover these terrible hidden crimes. We know of the experience in Rotherham, of course, and I note that the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) is in her place. I have seen for myself the vital local work to support victims and bring the perpetrators of these terrible crimes to justice.

I am afraid that I am not able to comment on individual cases at this moment—it is a matter of timing—but the Government are considering the Supreme Court judgment very carefully. Sadly, I am not in a position to comment on other aspects of the urgent question, but we have, I think, acknowledged as a society that when children initially present as suspects, the police and others must ask questions to see whether there is more to the picture. I am sure that we all agree on that, and I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to reiterate it.

This case, the details of which we are very carefully not discussing today, is particularly horrific. Does the Minister agree that the issue with child criminal records goes much wider than CSE? I urge her to read, if she has not already, the Justice Committee’s excellent report on the subject, and to meet me and a group of cross-party colleagues, as well as the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), in the near future to discuss how we can deal with these issues as a matter of urgency.

My hon. Friend feels—and, in fairness, has campaigned—strongly on this subject. I have read the report. She will appreciate that given the timing, I am constrained in what I can say, but I would be very happy to meet her. I should have said in my initial answer that I had the privilege of meeting Ms Woodhouse last year; she described to me in great detail her experiences as a child, and their impact on her as an adult. I very much valued the time she gave for that meeting. I look forward to meeting my hon. Friend and others to discuss their views on the disclosure regime, and any submissions that they wish to make to Ministers.

Sammy Woodhouse is to be commended for her courage and fortitude. Her campaign reminds us of the complex nature of child sexual abuse and its long-lasting consequences. She makes a very important point when she says that fear of being prosecuted may prevent victims from coming forward, and that criminal records may prevent survivors from moving on with their life.

Conscious of your warning, Mr Speaker, I will not say anything about the case in hand, but I point out that my colleagues in the Scottish Government are committed to preventing and tackling child sex abuse through a range of actions. Of course, grooming is a major issue; Police Scotland has emphasised that it is important that children should not be deterred from coming forward by a fear of having broken the law, and I know that the Minister will agree. In Scotland yesterday, Police Scotland launched the Stop it Now! campaign, which aims to drive home the message that the online grooming of children and young people is illegal and causes huge harm. This is one of the many areas where we really need to drive home the message that it is illegal for adults to have sexual conversations, online or offline, with young people. Does the Minister agree with the aims of the campaign to stop online and offline grooming in Scotland, and will she pledge her support for it?

I thank the hon. and learned Lady for her question. As she knows, we are very keen to work with colleagues across the United Kingdom, and to learn from best practice. I am pleased to hear of that campaign. With the help of the Mayor of London, we recently invested in a child house in London. I visited it recently; it is an amazing facility. Anyone who has worked with child victims—I know that several colleagues in the House have—will agree that the child house is a real step forward in making children feel comfortable in giving evidence, and in achieving the best evidence on behalf of those children. I am keen to see what more can be done in that area.

I am conscious that what is illegal online is just as important as what is illegal offline. The hon. and learned Lady will know the Home Secretary’s personal commitment to ensuring that industry’s response matches our expectations. That response should include a range of actions, such as stopping child grooming from taking place on companies’ platforms, building artificial intelligence to stop this material getting on to the web, and having much greater openness and transparency about how they are clearing out their backyard. Of course, the online harms White Paper is coming up as well, and I am sure that many colleagues will take a great interest in it.

Huge progress has been made since the Government’s CSE action plan, introduced back in 2011—even before the Savile revelations. It was based on encouraging victims to come forward and not regard CSE as being in some way their fault, and also on making sure that agencies did not try to sweep it under the carpet and were not in denial about cultural sensitivities—and even on making sure that they did not feel that children had brought this on themselves. What ongoing links does the Department have with survivors and victims of CSE? Are there facilities for those victims to meet and help educate judges, so that we can make sure that victims continue to be recognised as such, and not as being perpetrators in some way, and get the ongoing recognition and support that they desperately need?

I thank my hon. Friend. I note the work that he did as children’s Minister to bring about justice for these victims. The Home Office and I personally meet victims of historical and more recent child sexual abuse; I see it as an absolute privilege, and it is an essential part of my role. He is absolutely right that this is about not just law enforcement, but multi-agency working. There have been steps forward in improving that. For example, one of the reasons why we amended the Data Protection Act 1998 last year was to include a clause making it clear that professionals can share data to safeguard vulnerable people, including children, so that if they are worried about a child or vulnerable person, they can be confident that they absolutely must share data with other agencies that may have a role to play.

As for our ongoing work, we continue to fund targeted support for victims of child sexual exploitation and abuse. The police transformation fund, which helped to fund the child house, is another source of support for innovative projects that can help improve our response to this terrible crime.

Can the Minister tell the House what analysis has been done on the impact that police cuts have had on bringing the perpetrators of CSE to justice?

The hon. Lady may be aware that we have set up the centre of expertise on child sexual abuse, which is undertaking groundbreaking work on the various typologies of child sexual offending—online, as much as offline, offending. We anticipate that that work will help police forces to address the many challenges that they face in investigating recent and historical examples of child sexual exploitation. We know that the criminal justice system has faced a particular challenge in bringing historical offenders to justice. I am very proud of the work that the police do to investigate historical child sexual abuse, and of the work that the criminal justice system does as a whole to give justice to those victims, but of course I accept that there is always more that can be done.

There should be no place for child sexual exploitation in our society. Will the Minister give us an update on how the police transformation fund is effecting real change in the way that police investigate crimes involving vulnerable young people?

The police transformation fund helps to fund innovative projects such as the child house, but also wider work across policing. The College of Policing has updated its guidance to make the point that children who, at first glance, appear to be suspects must be looked into to ensure that they themselves are not in fact victims.

With children’s services having faced a 49% cut in their early intervention funding, will the Minister explain how she thinks we will be able to intervene at an early stage to spot and rescue young people at risk?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. As I have said, we are investing in innovative projects through the police transformation fund, which will help. The point of the child house is that it brings together all the agencies that may be able to help to look after a child. There is also a great deal of work going on in policing to ensure that children are intervened on before harm happens, and this includes helping to fund regional organised crime units to increase the undercover online capability, which we know is being used to target the online grooming of children.

The victims of child sexual exploitation have the ability to choose taken away from them in so many aspects of their lives, including with regard to behaviour that can potentially lead to them picking up offences. Does the Minister agree that it is important to promote the ways in which such situations can currently be reviewed, pending the introduction of a system that could help take away the lifetime legacy of offences that those victims did not really have freedom of choice about committing?

My hon. Friend puts it most eloquently. This is, of course, something that we will be very much taking into account as we look at the judgment of the Supreme Court and any other ongoing judgments as well.

Unfortunately, once again, the Minister’s response is the same as the one that we get from the Home Office, which is that it is for the employer to decide, and frankly that is just not good enough. It shows a failure in the Home Office to recognise the fundamental flaws both in the policy and implementation of the disclosure and barring scheme. We must allow people, particularly victims of CSE, to rebuild their lives. Why will she not dump the dogma and sort out the faulty DBS before it blights even more lives?

I know that the right hon. Gentleman has a long history of campaigning on this matter, and he asked me about the system recently in Home Office questions. I remind him gently that the Supreme Court found that it was a coherent scheme of legislation. We are considering that judgment very carefully, because, of course, we must balance the rights of the individual against the rights of wider society in safeguarding the most vulnerable people in our communities.

It is clearly evident that, as part of their grooming, children are coerced into getting criminal records, whether through child sexual exploitation or drugs and gangs. That has the desired effect in that it prevents the children from going to the police, but it also damages for life their employment and, most perversely, their likelihood of getting compensation from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority. Will the Minister please give guidance to the police, the judges and the Crown Prosecution Service to consider holistically that, when a child is presented with a criminal activity, it could be part of grooming?

I remember being incredibly moved, but also impressed, by the work of the hon. Lady’s local police and safeguarding teams when I visited her constituency last year. The fact that the College of Policing guidance has been updated and improved to reflect the situation that she has described will have an impact on law enforcement, but of course, yet again, we ask all agencies to work together to ensure that these children are intervened on before real harm is committed.

Given that the High Court judges have already ruled that CSE victims’ convictions are unjust, and that any link between past offending and current risk is either non-existent or tenuous, does the Minister think that we should ask some form of independent commission to advise the House on whether there needs to be a change in the law or regulations?

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman was in his seat when Mr Speaker said that this case is sub judice, so I cannot comment at this point. On the wider point about an inquiry, he will know that the independent inquiry on child sexual abuse was set up precisely to lift the stones on this terrifying and terrible subset of crime. There are all sorts of strands of work going on through that inquiry at the moment. We are considering with great care the reports that have been submitted already, with a view to not just Government but the whole of society looking at where these problems exist.

Only a month ago, 55 men were arrested in Batley and Spen for historical child sexual exploitation. The women who came forward are, of course, absolutely amazing. They are spectacular people with great courage. My concern is that this case is in the papers and in the House. Will that be a block to other young women in Kirklees and more widely across the country coming forward, as they will be scared about being treated like criminals? They are scared that, when they have their own children and want to contribute to society and join charities, parent-teachers associations or whatever, they will be treated like criminals. That cannot be fair.

I cannot comment on the specific case that the hon. Lady has raised. She makes an important general point about the way that we treat victims as they come forward. The criminal justice system has improved in the way that it looks after victims in the course of giving their evidence. Special measures can also be put in place, but, as always, if colleagues are aware of cases where the court system is not applying the rules as carefully as it should, they should please let me or Justice Ministers know. We are very keen that when victims are giving evidence, we do right by them and treat them fairly in the court process.

Girls and vulnerable young women in Newcastle suffered horrendous sexual abuse, rape and exploitation and yet found the courage to work with the police and social services to bring perpetrators to justice. As we have heard, the consequences can last a lifetime, and the support that we offer them should last a lifetime, too—I am talking about the kind of support that is provided by the sexual exploitation hub in Newcastle, for example. I know that the Minister recognises that and knows that we are talking about decades, not simply months, of support. What funding is available to provide support so that these victims can rebuild their lives and have the futures that they deserve?

The hon. Lady has raised this with me, and the project that she mentions is doing great work in the north-east. We do have a stream of funding mechanisms, which I am very happy to discuss with her afterwards, but she is right to say that historic child sexual abuse has not just an impact in the immediate term, but emotional, mental and physical consequences for many, many years afterwards. We must find a way of supporting victims in the longer term as well as in the short term.

There is a handful of people whose views should be forgotten, and that is that increasing number of commentators and politicians who suggest that this is a waste of money. I have dealt pretty much every week, and certainly every month over the past five years, with those who have survived this abuse, and that includes this week. I can tell the Minister that this question of criminality, with its impact in respect of custody, housing and employment, but also in respect of ongoing reputation for those who have managed to move on in their lives, is fundamental to why the vast majority of people affected have not come forward, despite the fact that I represented more than 30 during the three weeks of the Nottinghamshire inquiry. As all these issues have been aired during the inquiry in huge detail, will the Minister give a guarantee that the recommendations, when they come forward from this inquiry, will be implemented lock, stock and barrel by the Government?

The hon. Gentleman has put his finger on the fact that what is important is not only how the criminal justice system and other agencies react to this issue, but how we in this place react to it. The choice of language that we use is vital, and I want to make it absolutely clear that it is the policy of this Government that we will always be on the side of the victims of child sexual abuse, and we will always seek to secure justice for them.