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Teenagers (Safety and Wellbeing)

Volume 722: debated on Wednesday 16 November 2022

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to place a duty on the Secretary of State to promote the safety and wellbeing of teenagers; to make provision to prevent crime against teenagers; and for connected purposes.

There is nothing more important than ensuring that our young people have the best opportunities to thrive and that all are able to access such opportunities. Every instance where we fail to do this, we let those young people down and often start a spiral of wasted potential and greater societal need down the road.

Recent reports warn that social care, education, family support and children’s mental health services are not working for thousands of vulnerable teenagers, diminishing their life chances, putting some teenagers at risk of grooming, exploitation and serious violence, and costing taxpayers billions. For the young people we fail the most, the implications are stark.

Government statistics reveal that, in 2021-22, more than 16,000 cases of child sexual exploitation were identified in social care assessments, as were 11,600 cases involving gangs and more than 10,000 cases of child criminal exploitation. Sadly, these numbers are likely to be the tip of the iceberg, because those involved in gang activity and criminal exploitation are disproportionately young, vulnerable and, crucially, unknown to services. This leads to estimates that as many as 200,000 children in England aged 11 to 17 could be vulnerable to serious violence.

Let us be clear that the blame for this lies at the feet of those cowards who seek to exploit children for their own individual gain, but the responsibility for tackling and preventing it is with us in this place, with our devolved Assemblies, with our elected Mayors and combined authorities and with our town halls. We must collectively find the answer.

There is significant concern that the pressures on overstretched services and on the public purse due to a lack of early intervention and a combination of the pandemic and the cost of living crisis are increasing the risks to teenagers. It has been reported that many of these problems have become more extreme since the pandemic, including the ages of those running gangs becoming even younger. This creates a great challenge for the system, one mirrored in slavery cases more broadly, where the boundary between the exploiter and the exploited is blurred and, in many cases, exists in the same person.

We must recognise that what we are talking about in many cases is slavery. The Government were right to introduce anti-slavery legislation, but we must make sure it keeps pace with the challenges we face. According to the Children’s Society, 22,000 children have entered the national referral mechanism since the Modern Slavery Act 2015 was introduced. That is a staggering scale, but it has led to just 186 prosecutions where children were the victims, and only half of those led to a conviction.

This is part of an overwhelming body of evidence, including the final report of the Commission on Young Lives, published earlier this month and from which I drew earlier in my speech. Just last Friday, the National Audit Office added the stark findings that the number of nine to 17-year-olds in care has jumped by more than a quarter since 2014, that there has been a 142% increase in referrals to secondary mental health services over the last five years and that 81% of children who are cautioned or sentenced have been persistently absent from school. We know what creates vulnerability but, at the moment, we are not doing enough to tackle that vulnerability.

The impact on young people is not only borne out by the crime statistics. It also affects how safe our young people feel, and not feeling safe has an impact on them and the decisions they make. Girlguiding does the largest survey of girls and young women, and the most recent iteration of its annual girls’ attitudes survey found that more than half of 11 to 21-year-old girls and young women do not feel safe when they are outside on their own, that nearly one in five does not feel safe at school, and that more than a quarter do not feel safe online.

The Government-funded organisation that identifies what works in tackling violence, the Youth Endowment Fund, published its first annual report on children, violence and vulnerability this week, and it showed that 39% of 13 to 17-year-olds have been a victim or a witness of violence, increasing to 46% of those in receipt of free school meals and to 60% of those with a social worker. We are failing our young people if we allow such a situation to persist unchecked. Behind each of those statistics is a young person, their family, their hopes and dreams, and a huge societal failing.

Unfortunately, the Government’s response on the safety and wellbeing of teenagers is often unfocused and lacks co-ordination. No Department has a lead responsibility for promoting the safety and wellbeing of teenagers, and although several Departments have welcome funded programmes of activity that relate to teenagers, they are not co-ordinated and do not tackle the needs of vulnerable teenagers in a holistic and systemic way. This lack of focus and co-ordination nationally is reflected locally, with many teenagers falling through the gaps between school, children’s services, the NHS and the police. We know that there is a paucity of preventive help in most communities, meaning that teenagers will often need to fall into crisis before they can access help.

So the system is not working as it ought to, it needs fixing and this Bill is an attempt to kick-start that process. A Bill such as this could do that in four areas: by identifying a lead Department for vulnerable teenagers with clear accountability; by placing a duty on the Secretary of State to promote the safety of teenagers across government; by placing a duty on the Secretary of State to prevent crime against teenagers; and by placing a duty to promote wellbeing. The Bill would therefore ensure that there is clear responsibility and accountability in government for the welfare, safety and wellbeing of teenagers, rather than the unco-ordinated approach that has characterised the response so far. This need for national-level strategic intervention is called for by the National Audit Office and the Children’s Society. It really ought to be a fundamental requirement of government, but it currently is not. So let us put that right and ensure that, in future, essential action is being taken.

I am pleased to say that this Bill has the support of the former Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield. Anne is a relentless campaigner for young people and I know she is widely respected across this House. She is chairing the Commission on Young Lives, which is seeking to find solutions for our system to protect and support young people at risk of violence, exploitation and crime, and it has been a privilege to work with her closely on this. I urge the Government to take heed of the provisions in this Bill and the spirit in which I raise them today. When the system is not working, we must fix it and deliver better outcomes for our young people. I believe we can achieve that with this Bill and finally bring to our public policy a clear, laser-like focus on the safety of teenagers and the prevention of crime against them.

Question put and agreed to.


That Alex Norris, Karen Bradley, Ms Lyn Brown, Vicky Foxcroft, Sarah Owen, Lloyd Russell-Moyle, Jim Shannon, Cat Smith and Nadia Whittome present the Bill.

Alex Norris accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the first time; to be read a Second time on Friday 20 January 2023, and to be printed (Bill 192).