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Child Protection

Volume 672: debated on Thursday 27 February 2020

With permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a statement on Her Majesty’s inspectorate of police, fire and rescue services’ thematic report on its national child protection inspection programme. This important report was published today and summarises the findings of 64 inspections and re-inspections of police forces’ approaches to child protection since the programme began in 2014.

Keeping our children safe is an absolute priority for this Government, and we welcome Her Majesty’s inspectorate’s work in this area. Protecting vulnerable people should be of utmost importance to the police, and we are committed to ensuring that police forces demonstrate continued improvement in this regard. The activity of our independent inspectorates is critical to our ability to monitor progress and drive change. In the five years since it began, the national child protection inspection programme has been a vital source of independent scrutiny and challenge, and it has been instrumental in driving improvements in the way the police work with vulnerable children. As we know too well, this is an area of police work in which we have seen some of the worst failures in the past.

The report notes that

“we have continued to see an unambiguous commitment from police leaders, officers and staff to the protection of children.”

The report recognises improvements—in some cases, significant improvements—in the service received by children at risk. In every case, when inspectors returned to a police force that had previously been inspected, they saw progress being made and better outcomes for children. They saw examples of good, innovative work, such as the programme in Wales to provide early support to children exposed to adverse childhood experiences. Officers are better at understanding the signs of vulnerability and recognising children who are at risk. We welcome the positive findings in today’s report.

The report is clear, however, that more needs to be done. Although the police have a better understanding of risk, their resources are too often focused on areas of acute risk. Not enough is being done to spot the earliest signs of risk and prevent those risks from escalating. There are concerning findings around the detention of vulnerable children. Children are too often being detained in custody when they should not be, and they are not being appropriately safeguarded in those situations. There are inconsistencies in how forces manage dangerous offenders, and the escalation in the prevalence of digital technology in offending is a significant challenge, meaning that it is taking too long to identify and safeguard children who have been the victims of sexual abuse online.

These are serious matters, and I want to set out the steps the Government are taking to address them. As the Home Secretary stated yesterday, we are an ambitious and dynamic new Government with law and order at our heart. Our mission is clear. It is to deliver on the people’s priorities: to cut crime and to protect the public. We have recognised the huge demands placed on our police forces, and we are addressing these pressures with the recruitment of an unprecedented 20,000 additional officers over three years. We are investing a further £1.1 billion in policing next year—taking the total up to £15.2 billion—with the help of police and crime commissioners using their precepts. The Prime Minister and the Home Secretary are driving a united Government response with a new cross-Whitehall crime and justice taskforce to ensure that we use every lever at our disposal to fight crime. However, as today’s report makes clear, the rise in high-harm crimes such as serious violence and child sexual abuse is having a particular impact on the most vulnerable, requiring more from our police officers. They need to be able to look beyond the obvious and to develop a deeper understanding of risk.

We have worked with the College of Policing and are providing £1.9 million of funding to develop a more comprehensive package of training for first responders, so that they are better able to identify signs of vulnerability and provide support to victims. We have also funded the police’s own vulnerability, knowledge and practice programme to develop policing best practice in response to vulnerability as a whole. The programme is recognised in today’s report for its work to evaluate best practice in early intervention. We have introduced stronger multi-agency child safeguarding arrangements with shared responsibility between local authorities, police and health partners for the local strategic response to safeguarding, including harms such as child sexual exploitation. Again, these reforms, which were implemented in every local area in England last September, are recognised in today’s report as a key opportunity to deliver the kind of systemic change we need to see.

In relation to the inappropriate detention of children, we will look carefully at the recommendation and do what we can to ensure that vulnerable children receive an appropriate service from the police. We will continue to monitor the effectiveness of the 2017 concordat on children in custody, which sets out the statutory duties of the police and local authorities and provides a protocol for how transfers should work in practice.

Today’s report also recognises that the nature of risk is changing, and investment in officers and changing police culture are only part of the solution. That is why we are investing in new capabilities to tackle the exploitation of vulnerable children through crimes such as child sexual exploitation, child criminal exploitation and county lines. Last year we announced a £30 million investment in funding for work to tackle child sexual abuse and exploitation in 2020-21. The new funding will include investment in the child abuse image database—CAID—which the Home Office has developed in collaboration with UK law enforcement. CAID is a single database of indecent images of children which enables UK law enforcement to work collaboratively to safeguard children and bring people to justice. The new funding will allow us to deliver upgrades to CAID, including a fast, forensic tool to rapidly analyse seized devices and find images already known to law enforcement; an image categorisation algorithm to assist officers to identify and categorise the severity of illegal imagery; and a capability to detect images with matching scenes to help to identify children in indecent images in order to safeguard victims.

We have announced £25 million of targeted investment across 2019-20 and 2020-21 to strengthen the law enforcement response to county lines and increase the support available to the children, young people and families who are affected. This is in addition to establishing the national county lines co-ordination centre, with £3.6 million of Home Office funding, and providing a range of support for county lines victims. We also recognise that by the time children experience these forms of exploitation, the harm has been done. Police and other services need to spot the signs of risk and intervene earlier. Through our £13 million four-year trusted relationships programme, we are trialling 11 innovative projects in England working to protect vulnerable 10 to 17-year-olds who are at high risk of sexual exploitation and other forms of harm. We want to do more, however, which is why this year we will be publishing a first-of-its-kind national strategy to tackle child sexual abuse and exploitation.

We welcome today’s report. The protection of vulnerable children from harm is of the highest priority to this Government, as it should be to our police forces, and the inspectorate’s work in this area is vital in shaping our work in the future. The Home Secretary intends to meet inspectors to discuss today’s report and understand what more we and the police can do to ensure that children receive the highest levels of protection in the future. I commend this statement to the House.

This report is utterly damning and should shame us. It finds that the current system of protecting the most vulnerable children in our country is unsustainable, that the approach of police forces is not proactive enough, and that vulnerable children are simply not being identified or protected, with resources and the failures and variability of partnership working being identified as key concerns. The report comes on the same day as a leaked Government report into the drug trade, which shows that vulnerable children are falling into the grip of gangs at an unprecedented rate. Those are two sides of the same crisis that is reaching into every town and community across the country.

The Children’s Commissioner has been sounding the alarm for several years now. She found that 2.3 million children are living with risk because of their vulnerable backgrounds, and as many as 1.6 million of those children have patchy or no statutory support whatsoever. After a decade in which the safety net that vulnerable children rely on—Sure Start, family support services, speech and language therapy, behavioural support, social services and probation—has been picked away, it is becoming far too easy for the most vulnerable to be preyed upon by serious organised criminals.

It is thoroughly unacceptable that the police are not recognising or evaluating risks to children well enough, as the report has found. Children living in care are not being properly protected. Schools are becoming too eager to expel and off roll. Pupil referral units are becoming recruiting grounds for vicious criminals. The total lack of both mental health and residential care beds has led to too many children being inappropriately detained or being ferried around the country in the backs of police cars. This is a whole-system failure, and the consequences for children and families are stark.

Over £880 million has already been lost from children’s and youth services since 2010. The flagship early intervention fund announced by the former Home Secretary last spring was supposed to make funding available for critical support to steer young people away from serious violence, but answers to parliamentary questions have revealed that more than 60% of bids from police and crime commissioners for these projects, including 24 in London alone and one to tackle the vicious exploitation known as county lines, have been rejected. The former Home Secretary had previously promised to do everything in his power to tackle county lines exploitation and the vulnerable children swept up in it, but he then quietly rejected a £1.3 million bid from West Mercia, Staffordshire and Warwickshire to fund a project designed to tackle exactly that. In total, the Government are funding only 29 diversion projects nationwide.

If this report is not the catalyst for the Government to get serious, nothing will be. We know from the Prime Minister’s short time in office that he goes missing when things get tough and there are difficult questions to be answered. When it comes to protecting the most vulnerable children, we simply cannot afford for him to do so again.

Turning specifically to the report’s findings, the Minister knows as well as I do that data sharing comes up repeatedly in serious case reviews and in response to child protection. Despite specific amendments to the Data Protection Act 2018 that allow the sharing of data for safeguarding purposes, it remains an issue. What more can we do to break down the organisational and cultural silos that are preventing data sharing and stopping organisations working together to protect children?

With police forces and services facing unsustainable demand, what resources will the Government put in place to tackle that need and properly fund local authority children’s services after £880 million was taken from their budgets? Given that the report praises the approach in Wales to adverse childhood experiences and the collaboration of the four forces there with local services to provide targeted early support, what plans do the Government have to replicate such an approach in England? We have consistently said that implementing a public health approach to meeting that crisis will require leadership from the Prime Minister down. That can be done, but it requires political will to bring together and co-ordinate the agencies, Departments and police forces that can make a difference in identifying and protecting children earlier. Clearly that is happening in some local authority and force areas, but it is far too inconsistent, so will the Prime Minister now convene a taskforce, led from central Government and chaired by him, to bring together the services and identify the support that will have a tangible effect and ensure that the national strategy on child abuse is led from the heart of No. 10?

I thank the hon. Lady for her response and questions. She knows, I hope, about the early intervention work that we have been investing in. There is enormous agreement across the House and in all the agencies we work with—those that work on the frontline with young people who are at risk of serious violence or sexual exploitation or both, or other forms of risk—that early intervention is absolutely key to this, because we want to prevent harm in the first place.

Over the past few years, we have invested £22 million in the early intervention youth fund, which is supporting 40 projects endorsed by police and crime commissioners across England and Wales. The projects include work with children and young people at risk of criminal involvement, and organisations safeguarding those at risk of gang exploitation and county lines, or those who have already offended to help divert them into positive life chances. At least 60,000 children and young people will be reached through the fund by the end of March.

The £200 million youth endowment fund is targeted at funding and developing early intervention projects over 10 years, and it undertook its first grant round last year. Twenty-three successful applicants were identified, and the interventions range from intensive family therapy to street-based and school mentoring programmes. The 23 projects are located across England and Wales and will share £17.1 million over two years, and of course the fund has a further eight years to go.

I am pleased that the hon. Lady mentioned the adverse childhood experiences work in Wales. The Home Office helped to fund that work, because we want to test and pilot to see what works, so that other agencies and local authorities can learn from best practice.

The hon. Lady rightly raised data sharing. All of us involved in the arena of preventing and trying to prevent child exploitation will agree with me when I say that if I had a pound for every time people talked to me about collaboration and data sharing, believe you me we would be able to spend even more money than we already are on intervention projects. She rightly and kindly referenced the fact that we included a specific section in the 2018 Act to give professionals the certainty that if they are sharing information for the purpose of safeguarding vulnerable people, they are perfectly entitled to do so and, indeed, should do so. We are beginning to see culture changes in some of the agencies we are working with, but she is right that far more needs to be done. Reports such as this one will hopefully drive that change.

The hon. Lady knows that we are helping to invest in violence reduction units in police forces across the country. That will also encourage the use of data sharing, and the forthcoming serious violence Bill will put in statute the duty of various agencies to work collaboratively to prevent serious violence. I have always been clear that that will have a trickle-down effect on other types of criminality, violence and sexual violence.

In conclusion, the report sets out some real challenges for policing, as we have said, but it also shows that there have been improvements. I am keen to emphasise that, so that we have a fair debate about the issues that have been raised.

I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I welcome these inspections, but the results are alarming. According to the NSPCC, a child is abused in this country every seven minutes. The report includes comments such as

“The police do not recognise or evaluate risk to children well enough… the police often carry out more complex investigations badly… Too often, the focus is on the incident, missing the bigger picture.”

This is not about better police investigation; this is about a change of mindset. The situation is particularly disappointing given the first comprehensive child sexual exploitation action plan was launched back in 2011. What the Minister is proposing is not the first plan, and we also had the recent Operation Augusta review into the failings of Greater Manchester Police.

When the report refers to the

“opportunity to use new statutory local safeguarding arrangements”

as a successor to local safeguarding children’s boards, what opportunities does she think the police will take?

Finally, the primary recommendation of the report is that the Home Office should consider

“the development of a new national early help and prevention strategy”

but that was key a recommendation of the Munro review, which I commissioned in 2011. Why is that still just a recommendation?

I thank my hon. Friend for his questions, and I know he has great expertise and interest in this area. With this early intervention we are not just setting strategies but implementing work across the country through the targeted funds we have set up, including the youth endowment fund, which is deliberately designed to take place over a 10-year period so that the investment rolls through various spending reviews. It has been protected so that we can invest to learn and discover which projects work and which do not. It is fair to say that there have previously been misunderstandings about what works, and we want to learn more so that local authorities and other commissioners invest wisely.

I take my hon. Friend’s point and thank him for his information about an earlier iteration of the child sexual abuse strategy. We are looking across all the typologies of child sexual abuse. There are many typologies, particularly nowadays, sadly, with the prevalence of online abuse and exploitation, which I am afraid can take place with just an ordinary mobile phone and can have devastating consequences for the child who is targeted, not just in the immediate circumstances of the photo or video being taken but, of course, for many years thereafter, as we are discovering through our work with WePROTECT.

I am very conscious of my hon. Friend’s observations, and I am happy to meet him to discuss them further, because we want to get this right.

The Minister has referred to the stronger multi-agency child safeguarding arrangements that were introduced in September 2019. She says it is recognised that they are a key opportunity to deliver the kind of systemic change we need to see.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) has said that police forces are not active enough. As a constituency Member of Parliament, I am concerned about children’s services in Hull. Humberside police is responsible for ensuring the safeguarding of children in Hull, so what should I ask its chief officers to deliver to make sure children are kept safe?

The police and crime commissioner obviously sets the priorities for the force, so I would go to them before going to the chief constable. Police and crime commissioners play a vital role in commissioning local services, and we have seen some excellent commissioning decisions in relation to exploitation more widely than simply sexual exploitation and, of course, in their work to hold the police to account on this issue.

The hon. Lady should ask the chief constable whether he or she has confidence that the force is working in accordance with the vulnerability knowledge and practice programme that we have funded to enable policing best practice to develop in response to vulnerability. Vulnerability is key to many of the crime types we see nowadays, and it should be at the front of every chief constable’s mind.

Order. We have a very well subscribed debate after this. I would like to finish this statement by 1.20 pm, so I ask for brief questions and replies, please.

Does the Minister agree that tackling child exploitation, whether it happened yesterday or 20 years ago and wherever the crime took place, is a vital aspect of our civil and decent society?

Of course I agree, and my hon. Friend will know about the work of the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse on historical allegations of institutional abuse and, indeed, about the work of police forces up and down the country to investigate not just current allegations but historical allegations, too.

I thank the Minister for her statement. One of the most challenging aspects of child sexual exploitation is that vulnerable victims find it very difficult to work with the police. All too often, the police attitude towards these vulnerable children is that they brought it on themselves or even that they consented to the crimes against them. What is she doing to challenge those attitudes and to ensure that, no matter how vulnerable the child or what their background, they are taken seriously and that these crimes are prosecuted?

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend, who does so much to represent the interests of her constituents in this regard. Some of the reports we have seen from, say, Operation Augusta—there are other examples—have been absolutely shocking in the allegations of what police officers may or may not have said to young people reporting very serious crimes. Let me be clear at the Dispatch Box that no child should be subjected to sexual exploitation or abuse. No child should be dismissed in the way they sadly have been historically. We should all see what we can do, not just as constituency MPs but as friends, neighbours and family members, to ensure every child feels safe to report incidents of abuse and that those reports are taken seriously and are listened to.

Along with other colleagues, I was with the Children’s Commissioner yesterday at the early years advisory board. What repeatedly came up was the importance of cohesion in our response during those early stages. What is my hon. Friend doing to ensure the Home Office works with other Departments to have a joined-up response?

The Home Office works with other Departments because these crimes draw on so many facets of public life. The Prime Minister and the Home Secretary are leading from the very top with their cross-Whitehall taskforce, and getting agencies across the country to work together will be critical to these considerations.

Will the Minister commit to a discussion with local authorities about their reflections on the implementation of the Wood review? She mentioned in her statement that the review is strengthening local accountability arrangements. In particular, will she have discussions with colleagues in the Department for Education about how schools, which are often a crucial part of effective safeguarding but are currently completely absent from these arrangements, can be brought into an element of rigorous local accountability?

My hon. Friend raises an interesting point about schools and accountability. As part of the taskforce led by the Prime Minister, we will be looking at greater departmental working across Whitehall. My expectation is that local government will play its role in all our work to tackle these abuses. With his expertise, I am, of course, very happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss how we can take this further.

I welcome the £30 million funding boost that the Home Secretary has delivered to protect children from abuse online and to track down offenders. Will my hon. Friend outline how this money will help to better protect children from these terrible crimes?

This is an emerging crime type. The evilness of the people who conduct abuse online is truly shocking to behold. I recently visited the CAID operation centre, and I pay tribute to the officers who work extremely hard in, frankly, pretty harrowing circumstances —I saw some of the images they have to sort and classify. We have invested this extra money to help officers digitally and technologically, because there is so much that the development of artificial intelligence and other things can do in this space to help ensure that we get the perpetrators of these terrible crimes and also protect and safeguard victims.

The Minister’s answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Ruth Edwards) is helpful.

I was disturbed to learn from the Internet Watch Foundation a couple of weeks ago that online child sexual exploitation is increasing internationally, particularly in certain countries. Will my hon. Friend the Minister outline what the Government are doing with countries around the world to ensure we are tackling this globally?

That is an area in which this country genuinely leads the world. Under Prime Minister David Cameron, we set up an organisation called the WePROTECT Global Alliance. It draws countries together so that we can act internationally, because perpetrators often film the images in one country and it is open to people throughout the world then to see whether they have access to that website, database or WhatsApp group. Through WePROTECT, we are working with countries, getting them to sign up to the principles—some of these countries perhaps do not have the same legislation that we have in place—and encouraging best practice, so that we can help protect children in not only this country, but across the world.

I welcome the investment in the county lines co-ordination centre, but I am concerned that looked-after children can be in facilities that are not registered and not regulated. I urge my hon. Friend to ensure that our looked-after children are really looked after.

I very much agree on that. My hon. Friend has identified a salient point about how these manipulative perpetrators target children precisely because of their vulnerability in their family or other circumstances. That is one reason why we have launched the trusted relationships fund, which I believe is now in its second year. It has been set up to help children who have been let down by almost every adult in their life. It helps these children to build a trusted relationship with an adult, be they a social worker, a youth worker or somebody different. It helps those children to have an adult they can trust and confide in.