My Lords, following the recent cases of child sexual exploitation that we have seen in the media, I am glad to have this opportunity to raise this important topic today. I very much look forward to hearing contributions from all those who are here. What I have to say arises partly from my own pastoral experience as a parish priest and a bishop and partly from my more recent experience as the chair of the trustees of the Children’s Society.
As noble Lords will be aware, child sexual exploitation, as defined by the Department for Children, Schools and Families in 2009, is sexual exploitation of children or young people under the age of 18 that involves putting the child or young person in exploitative situations, contexts or relationships in which they receive something, whether it is food, accommodation, money or drugs, in return for performing and/or having others perform on them some form of sexual activity.
Sexual exploitation can occur through the use of technology without the child’s immediate recognition of the exploitation, such as being asked to post sexual images on the internet or on mobile phones without immediate payment or gain. Recent reports by the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre and Barnardo’s have indicated the use of the internet in child exploitation as a growing issue. The Barnardo’s report, Puppet on a String, which I commend to your Lordships, has highlighted that a number of primary school children have admitted to meeting someone whom they previously met only online.
In all these cases, the person doing the exploiting exercises some form of power over the child or young person by means of their age, gender, intellect or other factors. Violence, coercion and intimidation are common and can involve the child or young person being plied with gifts, alcohol and drugs, which often form part of the grooming process. This all helps to explain why it is often very difficult for some children or young people to accept the true nature of their relationship and to take the risk of exposing the perpetrator.
Any child or young person may be at risk of sexual exploitation, regardless of their gender, race or social background. However, we unfortunately know that factors such as living in care or being runaways or having mental health problems all increase a young person’s vulnerability to sexual exploitation. In particular, we know that the link with running away or going missing is an extremely strong indicator of risk. I shall return to that point later.
As we know, child exploitation has devastating consequences for the individual being exploited. It has an extremely damaging effect on a child’s or young person’s self-esteem, mental health and, indeed, lifelong ability to form secure relationships, yet, in spite of this, there are no national statistics to map the prevalence of child sexual exploitation. This lack of data works against the children of our country, as it keeps a vital child protection issue somewhat obscured.
I want to draw attention to five issues in particular. First, children of course have a right to be protected from sexual exploitation. This is enshrined in law at national, European and international levels. In this country, local safeguarding children boards are responsible for co-ordinating local responses to child sexual exploitation, yet initial research from the University of Bedfordshire has demonstrated that many local safeguarding children boards still do not consider child sexual exploitation as a priority and have failed to identify resources or plans to address this, with less than a quarter of the boards even having a protocol for child sexual exploitation. This leads to a group of very vulnerable young people being left without adequate and timely services and the support that they so desperately need. I urge the Minister to look into this issue seriously and to let us know what measures he can put in place to rectify this situation.
Secondly, I want to mention the inadequate training for professionals across the front line. Many professionals who work with young people remain unfamiliar with the risks or indicators of sexual exploitation and show little understanding of the issue. Indeed, they often do not know how to support a young person in an exploitative situation who is going through the courts with a case against their abusers. This situation is often exacerbated by the fact that many young people are not willing to identify themselves as being exploited or even to recognise that they are at risk of harm. In keeping with this lack of understanding, the behaviour of children and young people affected is often identified as disruptive rather than indicative of need and they are often met with punitive rather than welfare responses. Research from the Children’s Society has shown that victims aged 16 and 17 are particularly unlikely to receive a safeguarding response. These are the young people who are often seen as a low priority, despite the law stating explicitly that they should be responded to and safeguarded as children until they are aged 18. The lack of data and awareness of the issue of child sexual exploitation has led to a significant lack of resources for specialist support services for children and their families.
Thirdly, I take this opportunity to raise the issue of the inadequacies of current law enforcement and police responses to child sexual exploitation cases. These remain primarily reactive rather than proactive. The prosecution relies heavily on the young person to make a complaint and to give evidence in the court against their exploiter. The process of grooming to which children are subjected and the use of threats and coercion make it extremely difficult for them to go through the criminal justice process. The sexual exploitation of children is, of course, a form of child abuse and should be seen as a child protection issue. It is extremely important that investigations are carried out by officers who are trained in child protection procedures with families showing risk indicators for child sexual exploitation. It is vital that the police work closely with partner agencies to develop a co-ordinated response to ensuring that the welfare and safety of the child is paramount. What is most ironic is that children aged 10 years or over still remain criminally liable for the commission of a prostitution offence such as loitering or soliciting. This is clearly at odds with the intention to make it clear that sexually exploiting children is a form of child abuse. Often it is the fear of being prosecuted under this legislation that prevents children from coming forward to seek help to get out of exploitative situations. I urge the Minister to ensure that it is explicitly clear that any child who has been sexually exploited is supported through the justice system, which is meant to protect them, and that their exploiters are dealt with accordingly.
Fourthly, I want to make a point about the importance of co-ordination and joint working between local authorities and police forces to tackle child sexual exploitation across boundaries. Effective cross-department and multidisciplinary working can make a huge impact on safeguarding children, especially those in care, who are often failed due to a breakdown in communication between different agencies or who get lost in the gaps between them. The Government and local authorities have a duty, of course, to protect all children, especially those who rely on them as corporate parents.
Finally, I urge the Government to respond to the needs of these vulnerable children. I call on the Minister to take the necessary steps to ensure the safety of children, especially those in the care of local authorities, from being groomed for sexual exploitation. In particular, I hope that the Minister will pay close attention to the link between running away and sexual exploitation. I fear that, despite great efforts in recent years to develop statutory guidance and an action plan on runaways, this issue has fallen down the list of political priorities at the DfE. I hope that the Minister will reassure us that this is not the case and that action is being taken to prevent children from being exposed to such horrific abuse, which is happening in far too many of our towns and cities today.
My Lords, I congratulate the right reverend Prelate on securing this debate on this important topic and at the same time congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Hughes, on making her debut as opposition spokesman today.
Like other noble Lords, I have received the briefings from the Children’s Society and Barnardo’s on what they rightly describe as a horrendous crime. The reference in the Barnardo’s report to the special challenges posed by out-of-area residential care strikes a particular chord with me, yet I find myself impelled to sound a note of caution, lest in our efforts to reduce child exploitation we have the unintended consequence of discouraging individuals from working with children and so impoverish the physical and intellectual lives of the very children whom we are seeking to protect.
I am chairing a task force looking into the regulatory and other burdens that impede the growth of small charities and other groups. We have had a good deal of evidence that well meaning efforts are discouraging people from volunteering to work with children. In my three minutes, I cannot develop my argument at length, so I shall read four paragraphs of a letter that I received from a lady in Manchester. She said:
“About 8 years ago, I decided to get involved in a local Manchester Drama group … whose members range from seven years to 80 years old. A number of us assumed responsibility for teaching the children and preparing them for the annual pantomime and other productions. Naturally we were CRB checked—a process I had no issue with and wholeheartedly support ... However—having been CRB approved, we were invited to a session of the local Child Protection Officer. I came away from that meeting with a number of very serious questions as to whether I should in fact get involved with this sort of group. The talk left me feeling I would potentially be placing myself in situations of real risk ... The Child Protection Officer focused the session on ensuring no adult put themselves into a vulnerable position i.e. if a child requests to go to the toilet—in no circumstance should an adult accompany them. If a child (with particular reference to girls) falls and cuts her knee, whilst wearing tights—under no circumstances should any adult remove the girl’s tights and help stem the bleed ... No adult, whatever sex, should ever be alone with either one or more children … I came away from the session questioning the sense in many of the messages conveyed. As a caring, responsible adult (who as an adoptive mum … has the highest level of CRB clearance) I did not feel at all comfortable with the prospect of not being able to help an injured child”.
I would like to tell the Committee that this was an isolated example, but we have had many letters along these lines. Of course, child protection is an important issue, but thousands of our fellow citizens find it enjoyable and rewarding to work with children. We have to avoid a situation in which, if someone says that they enjoy working with children, they are immediately treated with grave suspicion.
My Lords, I am very pleased that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester has brought this topic of sexual exploitation to our notice. His interest in child welfare is well known. I want to focus on trafficking, an issue that many noble Lords have raised recently in your Lordships’ House. It is a horrific practice and one that we should do all in our power to tackle. Local authorities and safeguarding are important and essential.
We have some figures on trafficking and sexual exploitation of children, but they are likely to be severe underestimates. Nevertheless, some things are clear. Childline reports that 8 per cent of all calls are about sexual abuse—an increase of 42 per cent in two years. The reason for the increase may be that children are becoming more confident in speaking out about such abuse. I hope that they are and that they feel supported to do so. The Barnardo’s report, Puppet on a String, has been referred to already. I want to underline the fact that children who are particularly vulnerable are those in care, those excluded from mainstream education and those using drugs or alcohol. Such children need a great deal of co-ordinated support, as the right reverend Prelate said.
I shall now focus on trafficking. It is estimated that at any time more than 140,000 persons are victims of trafficking; 84 per cent of them are trafficked for sexual exploitation and most are women and girls. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime shows that trafficking in persons is one of the most lucrative illicit businesses in Europe, generating €2.5 billion a year. Some of these children go into care but are recycled into exploitation. Some are not discovered. That is another example of where local authority protection services should intervene.
ECPAT, the umbrella organisation fighting trafficking, recommends that central government should provide funding to local authorities to ensure that child victims of trafficking are provided with safe accommodation, such as foster care, and that social workers should be trained to identify and support children who may have been trafficked. It is vital to address gaps in provision, such as the lack of co-ordination and the lack of someone who can understand the wishes and feelings of children.
What can we in the UK do? First, I hope that the UK Government will take note of the Barnardo’s report, Puppet on a String, and the ECPAT recommendations. It is difficult to see how cuts to local services can engender more funding to do this and to focus on child trafficking and sexual abuse, but I hope that the Minister will reassure us. I hope that the Government will eventually sign the European directive on human trafficking. I know that progress has been made but, if the Government signed up to this directive, that would be an important symbol of our commitment as a country to fighting this modern-day slavery. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, child sexual exploitation has devastating consequences, despite the fact that children’s right to be protected from sexual abuse is enshrined in national, European and international law. We have heard that only 20 per cent of local authorities have access to specialist services, even though it has clearly been shown that cases are more easily identified when specialist services are available. This was emphasised recently in an article in the Guardian by Carlene Firmin, who pointed out that, if local authorities do not take proactive steps to identify cases, they think that there is no problem to address and, if they do not think that there is a problem, they do not identify the resources and put them in place to address it.
This debate follows the recent notorious Derby case where many young girls were abused, two of whom were in public care. In order to find out what lessons had been learnt, I looked at the serious case review. These reviews have been patchy in quality in the past, but since Ofsted has been looking at them they have improved and are well worth looking at. I understand that the Munro review, published this morning, suggests that Ofsted inspection should now cease, so I hope that the raised quality and value of these reviews continues. I am concerned about how safeguarding will be enshrined in the new slimmed-down Ofsted inspections of schools. Can the Minister tell us something about that?
I turn to the Derby case. The serious case review reveals that concerns about the welfare of the two young women in care, who were among those abused, emerged at a very early stage—one from birth and the other from primary school age. From 2008, they were engaged in disturbed and risky behaviour, including criminal activity, absconding and drug and alcohol misuse. Practitioners in health and education and in children’s social care all failed to recognise the significance of these behaviours in terms of abuse and they failed to intervene effectively.
Often when I am faced with speaking about issues such as this, I turn to the coal face. The coal face in this case is my friend Carol Runciman, who is the lead member on children’s services in York. I asked her what she thought about these issues. She said:
“It doesn’t take a lot more money—what it takes is training and understanding of how things happen and how both young people and carers and parents can be alerted to the dangers … getting warnings out via social networking sites and sites, like school networks, that the young people use. Having a clearly identified point of contact is important—a designated teacher or teaching assistant in school who is trained to know what to do … having information in drop in centres for young people—youth clubs, young people’s drop in centres, even health centres—that all helps”.
We should listen to the coal face.
My Lords, I am most grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester for raising this topic today. Coming from the north, as I do, I know that there is great concern about children being sexually exploited. A short time ago, a group of predators, all of whom seemed to be of Asian origin, were sent to prison. They came from West Yorkshire, Derby and Blackburn. They had groomed young people with drugs and alcohol and then threatened them so that they obeyed these evil men. The young people were driven to prostitution.
If the Minister can find out, it would be interesting to know how many of these children had come from care. Will there be a cross-departmental inquiry on grooming vulnerable children for the purpose of sexual exploitation? I assume that there was cross-departmental working when the predators were found guilty and sent to prison. That is what is needed, as well as cross-boundary co-operation and cross-country co-ordination.
West Yorkshire used to abound with industry. People were brought in with their skills to work in the mills. Now this work has mainly gone to China, which has left many people unemployed years later. Some of them have preyed on children to make money out of sex. I also hear that Asian men may not be satisfied with forced marriages and so look elsewhere for sex.
Many children from care seem to have low esteem and become vulnerable, as do young teenage girls, who rebel and leave home for various reasons. They all become easy prey. Will the Minister give an assurance that the cutting of so many police will not affect child protection? How much child awareness is taught in schools to make all children aware of sexual exploitation, so that when they are at risk they can spot the dangers? I know that this awareness is taught in schools in Australia.
All professionals working with children and within the criminal justice system should be trained to understand issues relating to child sexual exploitation. Some of the children are very young. They are at risk of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. Surely it is time to stop being complacent and to act now to protect these very vulnerable children.
My Lords, there are nine working days in your Lordships’ House in the first 15 days in February. On two-thirds of those nine days, the first Oral Question is in the name of one of the right reverend Prelates on the Bishops’ Bench. I do not know whether it is a convention of your Lordships’ House that the Bench of Bishops always takes the top of the Order Paper if a right reverend Prelate has a Question to ask or whether that is an index of the enthusiasm of right reverend Prelates straining like greyhounds in the slips to be the first away. On top of that, on Thursday the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester has the first two-and-a-half-hour debate, which is on the role of marriage and marriage support.
This episcopal procession is led today by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester, with his Question for Short Debate, which is itself a harbinger of the similar top Oral Question to be posed on 10 February by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds. We are all in the debt of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester for having triggered all this activity and for the skill with which he has launched it. Having used more than a third of my allotted span with this willing obeisance to the Bishops’ Bench, I shall use the final strait to make one observation and to ask one question.
My observation is that, when these matters were brought dramatically to public attention and general concern by a series of articles in the Times, the thought was aired that the police had been inhibited from raising the profile of these matters for fear that they would be liable to charges of racism. I can understand that inhibition. I had to ponder a similar dilemma more than 50 years ago, although in a different context and to a different degree. I chose then to make indiscretion the better part of valour. However, I hope that the climate will have been so changed by recent developments that this inhibition will be lifted. I share the views of my noble friend Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, as a consequence of eight years as president of St Andrew’s Youth Club, half a mile from this Palace, whose reputation is that oxymoron, “the oldest youth club in the world”.
There are lots of questions that one could ask, but, in a debate of short speeches, my noble friend the Minister is liable to be reduced to a St Sebastianic barrage of questions and one must not be self-indulgent. Mine relates to trafficked girls, an issue that has already been mentioned. I am aware of the Christian organisation thus concerned that goes under the name of Chaste—for the benefit of the Hansard writer, I spell that title with “te” rather than “ed”—but how far is the fact that prostitution among such girls is a criminal offence at the specified age an obstacle to the resolution of such traffic?
My Lords, the previous Government appointed Sir William Utting, the former director of the Social Services Inspectorate, to do two reports into the safeguarding of children in local authority care. One of his chief conclusions was that an environment of overall excellence is the best safeguard for children. The Barnardo’s report, Puppet on a String, which has already been referred to, states:
“We also know that some groups of young people are more vulnerable to targeting by the perpetrators of sexual exploitation. These include children living in care, particularly residential care”.
I should like to concentrate on children’s homes.
I hope that the Minister may take the following questions to Tim Loughton MP. Will he consider undertaking a review of children’s homes? Will he consider approaches from John Diamond, chief executive of the Mulberry Bush school, who is leading a group of tier 3 specialist providers in residential care to talk to the Government about how we can ensure that high-quality specialist residential care continues? Does he recognise the need to ensure that the current climate does not have the perverse effect of driving out high-quality provision as commissioners look for the cheapest residential care that they can find in the circumstances?
In my experience visiting children’s homes, I have heard staff talk about girls in their care being approached and given gifts by men. They have expressed concern about their limited ability to intervene. I have heard of girls being called out at night by an elder girl in the home and of staff rewarding in the morning those girls who did not respond to that pressure. It is a very difficult environment in which to work. While 90 per cent of children’s homes in Denmark, and 50 per cent in Germany, have degree-level qualified staff, only 20 per cent of homes in this country do, yet the children in those residential settings often have far higher levels of need than they would in Germany or Denmark. This area needs careful attention and I hope that the Minister will review it.
To see the difference that excellence in provision can make, your Lordships need only visit Hackney social services, which last year achieved 25 per cent access to university provision among their care leavers—the highest proportion in the country. This was a local authority that used to have an appalling reputation for its provision. It has done this by insisting on recruiting the very best social workers using the Reclaim Social Work model. Consultant social workers lead small teams supported by systemic therapists who have eight years of training. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, although I very much welcome this debate, I come to it from a slightly unusual standpoint as a barrister who has spent the past 20 years or so acting in claims against local authorities, social services departments and children’s homes for failures to protect children from sexual abuse. I, of course, share the concern of all noble Lords for the victims of sexual abuse. Anyone who has heard adult survivors of sexual abuse give evidence in court can feel nothing but horror for the way in which their childhood has been ruined by the breach of trust. Often, they come from very unpromising circumstances and their lack of faith in adult figures is confounded by their experiences. Anything that the Government can do and can continue to do to protect such children from abuse and exploitation is, of course, welcome.
I wish to sound a note of caution, however, although this must be seen in the context of my experience as someone who has spent many hours sitting round tables with social workers who are alleged to have been negligent in failing to protect children from sexual abuse. Social workers have a very hard job. There is no lack of guidance; indeed, a preponderance of guidance is now available. However, the inquiries that take place and the hearings that occur in the studied calm of the Royal Courts of Justice are a world away from the real fog of social work, with the difficulties of obtaining information and the changes of files and personnel.
It is a considerable worry to social workers that they are exposed to litigation and the risk of litigation. Previously, the courts had decided that social workers were not so to be exposed; it was considered that this was a multi-agency task and that it was unfair to single out social workers for responsibility. However, the Human Rights Act has altered that and we are now in a position where social workers face these allegations.
Of course, the Government will be anxious to make sure that social workers are properly trained and do all that they can to take on board the recent thinking about improving the way in which they do their job. I know that the Government will be taking note of Professor Munro’s report in particular. However, I ask the Minister to bear in mind the fact that social workers are dedicated individuals who do an unglamorous and not very well paid job in often difficult circumstances. They are pilloried by the press when things go wrong and, although I am sure that all of them have children’s best interests at heart, we should be careful that, in our understandable urge to protect children, we do not confound matters by putting them off doing that job well.
My Lords, I join others in thanking the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester for securing this debate on a subject that is of growing concern. The prevalence of child sexual exploitation is growing and the age of exploitation is getting younger. With rapid technological advances, the grooming of children has become more sophisticated, as abusers are using the internet and mobile phones to find and groom children. A recent report by the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre found a 16 per cent increase in the number of cases in a year, with a quarter of these from online grooming. Children are unwittingly putting themselves at extreme risk through internet usage.
Despite these shocking statistics, in most local authorities child sexual exploitation apparently is not, as we have heard, recognised as a mainstream child protection issue. Certainly more attention and resources must be focused on child protection on the internet. Studies suggest that almost 60 per cent of children aged nine to 19 have viewed online pornography and the rate of unwitting exposure is increasing. It is clear, therefore, that filtering software to control access to pornographic material needs to be improved. The onus seems to be far too heavily left to rest on parents, teachers and carers. Surely internet service and website providers should share a greater responsibility for keeping our children safe and be made much more accountable in this regard.
We need to make it a lot more difficult for our children to come across inappropriate adult content and images of child abuse on the internet. Are the Government engaging with internet service and website providers to ensure that steps are taken in this direction? I am especially concerned with the increasing ease with which internet content can be viewed through television. I believe that the BBC, whose age ratings are known and respected by parents, are already helpfully involved with some guidance to broadcasters, but will the Government’s next communications Act address this problem statutorily? Given that internet videos are not currently subject to the same rules as television, this convergence could threaten to expose even more children to inappropriate content. If legislation is not the Government’s intention, what measures are in place, or at least being explored, to protect children from the result of these technological changes? In short, what are the Government doing to address this?
I hope that, when he replies, the noble Lord will be able to reassure your Lordships that child sexual exploitation is indeed a priority for the Government and that he will tell us something about the actions that they are proposing to take to deal with this situation.
My Lords, the sexual exploitation of children is one of the worst challenges facing our society. A report last year for the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre revealed a 16 per cent increase in reported cases of sexual exploitation. Perpetrators of this heinous crime are using more sophisticated channels to lure their victims, often plying them with gifts, drugs and alcohol, specifically targeting vulnerable children. These children are groomed then abused, leaving them with deep emotional and psychological trauma.
Two of the young girls who were abused by a gang in Derby were in the care of Derby City Council. A serious case review into these victims’ cases revealed that if they had been taken into care earlier they would have been less vulnerable to the exploits of their abusers. A 2009 report published by Barnardo’s entitled Whose Child Now? revealed that 80 per cent of councils did not have a service dedicated to supporting victims of sexual exploitation. A greater focus on the training of professionals who deal with children is needed to improve the chances of early identification in cases of sexual abuse.
I turn now to a sensitive issue. The facts speak for themselves: 50 of the 56 perpetrators who have recently been convicted of these abhorrent crimes are from the Muslim community. However, any attempt to draw a parallel between these crimes and one ethnic or religious group would be not only wrong but particularly unwelcome. Child sexual exploitation is not exclusively carried out by one community. The recent focus on race in the media could have an adverse effect on the wider ability of the agencies to detect cases of abuse among all communities and in the country generally.
Barnardo’s, the children’s charity, has launched a report called Puppet on a String, which examines the nature and scale of sexual exploitation. The report states that the incidence of trafficking of children around Britain for sexual exploitation is rising, with children as young as 10 being groomed by predatory gangs. The report also reveals that the average age of victims has fallen from 15 to 13 in the past five years. Will the Government heed the advice of key figures in appointing a Minister with specific responsibility for dealing with this issue? Child exploitation is a deeply unwelcome phenomenon in our society. Our duty lies with providing victims with all the support that they require to rebuild their lives. We must also ensure their safety and prevent them from becoming innocent victims.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester on initiating this debate on this important subject. Most parents want the best for their children but, when parental responsibility is transferred from parents to the state, the state carries a huge responsibility to help those vulnerable children. I hope that the Minister will do all that he can to remind local authorities of the responsibilities that they carry, because many of these children have experienced chaotic lives, have been deprived of a normal childhood and have low self-esteem and poor educational attainment. The responsibilities carried by the state are huge and local authorities need to be constantly reminded of that.
Secondly, we need to recognise that predators on these young children have developed more sophisticated ways. Unfortunately and understandably, many of these young children crave affection and confuse the giving of affection with that of sexual favours. Therefore, it is particularly important that we not only are vigilant but help young people to recognise the dangers and equip them better to withstand those dangers.
Does the Minister recognise that many local authorities have a tendency to place young children far from their locality? I fear that that often leads to an attitude of “out of sight, out of mind”, which exposes these young children to even more danger. Because local authorities are sometimes more committed to a policy of ethnic compatibility, rather than of securing a normal family life for young children, many of these young children are allowed to languish in care for many years. I hope that the Minister will do all that he can to reduce the length of time taken in court proceedings and ensure that drift is eliminated from childcare practice. These children should be helped to have a more secure future, because childhood passes all too quickly.
I, too, congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester on securing this debate on this very important topic. It is a privilege to speak after the knowledgeable contributions of so many colleagues.
While recent cases have brought this issue to the fore, there has in fact been a growing awareness of this problem for some considerable time. In a previous life, I spent some years as a research fellow investigating what was then called organised sexual abuse of children—paedophile gangs, trafficking and so on. I was a senior lecturer at Manchester University and spent many gruelling hours reading the transcripts of children’s evidence and interviews. Like other Members here, I know what a vile predatory crime this is, targeting the most vulnerable children.
This is also a challenging issue for professionals—possibly one of the most challenging—as well as one of the most dangerous for children. The crime is becoming increasingly sophisticated, as modern communications technology makes it easier for paedophiles and perpetrators to keep their tracking and contacting of children hidden from parents and carers.
There has been progress over recent years but, as the Children’s Society and Barnardo’s have reported, the implementation of government guidance, best practice and so on is patchy as regards local safeguarding children boards and local authorities. The extent to which progress has been made is variable. It is clear that, for an effective local response, we need a child-centred approach that is sensitive to listening to children, the capacity for early intervention and identification, close integration and interagency working—as was reinforced again today by the Munro interim report—the capacity of professionals to share information easily and early, and the dissemination of knowledge and best practice.
As well as adding to the calls to the Minister asking what progress he is going to make, I should also like to express some concerns about decisions that the Government have already made, which I think will create new and unnecessary barriers to that progress. The first relates to the cuts to local authority budgets. I have to raise this issue, because the worst levels of cuts are being experienced by the local authorities with the highest children-in-need scores; they are in exactly those places where most vulnerable children are going to be.
Secondly, why has the Minister distanced himself from Every Child Matters, the acclaimed multi-agency framework that is making it much easier for agencies to work together? Under the Education Bill, schools will now be absolved from the duty to co-operate with other agencies locally. Thirdly, the abandonment of ContactPoint will make it much harder for professionals even to know who else is working with them, let alone how to contact them. Finally, absorbing CEOP into a national crime agency with border control, immigration and all those things will harm the dissemination of the best practice that CEOP has been achieving.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester on securing this timely debate. It has been a good debate and a good advertisement for speed dating. I shall try to crack on. I welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Hughes of Stretford, to her new role. I look forward to working with her. I know that she is experienced in this area and was herself a Minister for Children and Families in my department.
This debate is timely because, as we have discussed, today sees the publication of the interim report from the Munro review and because of the attention that there has rightly been on this issue following the series of reports in the Times and the publication of the recent thoughtful and helpful report by Barnardo’s, which I have read with care.
In his speech, the right reverend Prelate spoke with authority and experience about a subject that all noble Lords who have contributed today clearly care about deeply. It is hard to think of a greater responsibility or duty that we have as a society than to keep our children safe. We have a particular responsibility to care for those children who are the most vulnerable—those without families who are looked after and live in children’s homes or in foster care, a point that the noble Baroness, Lady Massey of Darwen, underlined. On her specific point, it is the case that we can opt into the EU directive if we want to, once we have seen how it works.
As a number of noble Lords have said, it is impossible not to read the horrific stories that we have all seen recently and not be appalled. The Barnardo’s report published in January underlined the youth of many victims of child sexual exploitation, suggesting that children as young as 10 are being targeted.
The fact that most of us find such behaviour inconceivable is, in some ways, part of the problem. Having been involved in the past in a minor way in some historic child abuse cases, I know that there is often a reaction that an allegation simply cannot be true, either because it is so shocking or because an alleged offender has been a colleague for many years. Yet some of those allegations were and are true and I believe that that is the frame of mind in which we have to tackle this issue. However, I accept the points made by my noble friends Lord Hodgson and Lord Faulks about proportionality and the need not to undermine inadvertently the important relationship that we want to encourage between adults and children, particularly in the context of encouraging volunteering. That lies behind our proposals for reviewing the vetting and barring scheme.
As was said in the debate, knowing the scale of the problem is one of the challenges that we face. I therefore welcome the fact that the Barnardo’s report and the Times articles have drawn attention to the problem and brought things out into the open. Research commissioned in 2002 found that children were known to suffer sexual exploitation in 111 of the then 146 child protection committee areas. Work carried out by Barnardo’s in 2005 found 507 cases across London boroughs. A more recent survey by Barnardo’s showed that in 2008-09 it worked with 1,059 children and young people and that this had risen the following year to 1,098.
However, apart from a sense that we all have that this is only part of the story, we almost by definition do not have hard and fast data. I hope therefore that noble Lords will support the announcement in January that the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre is carrying out a thematic assessment, which, among other things, will look at establishing whether there are any patterns of offending or victimisation, consider the effectiveness of existing processes and make recommendations to reduce risk. CEOP is looking to make its findings on this research public within a timescale of three to six months.
I know that there has been a lot of media debate around issues to do with ethnicity, a point that a number of noble Lords have raised. My view on that is very simple: while we should not make generalisations—we know that child sexual exploitation affects boys as well as girls and occurs across the country, involving people from a range of ethnic backgrounds—we should not turn a blind eye to wrongdoing for fear of rocking the boat. Indeed, rocking the boat is often precisely what we will need to do in this area, a point made by my noble friend Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville.
I turn to the current framework. The Sexual Offences Act 2003 is intended to protect young people from sexual exploitation. It extended the scope of the law to include a range of new offences, including meeting a child following sexual grooming and paying for the sexual services of a child. In addition, the police and Crown Prosecution Service are able to convict using other sexual offences, such as rape or sexual activity with a child under 13 or a child under 16, or they may use other legislation to disrupt this activity.
The statutory guidance on safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children, Working Together to Safeguard Children, was first published in its current form following the 1989 Children Act. Since then it has been regularly updated and in 2009 separate statutory guidance on the sexual exploitation of children was published. I believe that the noble Baroness, Lady Hughes, was involved in producing that guidance. The main objective of the guidance is to encourage local safeguarding children boards, practitioners and others working with young people and local agencies to prevent the sexual exploitation of children wherever possible, protect those children who are most vulnerable to exploitation and take appropriate action against anyone who is intent on abusing young people in this way.
Because looked-after children—children in care—are most vulnerable and more likely to be at risk of harm, local authorities have a specific statutory duty to safeguard and promote their welfare. In practice, that means that local authorities must allocate the child a social worker, who will assess their needs and draw up a care plan that sets out how the authority intends to respond to the full range of the child’s needs, including their education and health needs. I take the points that have been made about the importance of training in that regard. If there is any suspicion that the child may have been trafficked, whether or not for the purposes of sexual exploitation, the social worker must assess the child’s vulnerability to the continuing control of his or her traffickers. The local authority must then place the child with a carer who has the necessary skills and experience to support and protect them.
I understand the point that was made about the danger of criminalising the victim. Points were made about the way in which the police operate and I will relay those to my honourable friend Mr Loughton. I shall read an extract from the statutory guidance:
“The Government remains clear that children and young people who are sexually exploited should not be regarded as having bad or criminal behaviour; they are the victims of sexual abuse. The responsibility for the sexual exploitation of children or young people lies with the abuser … The focus of police investigations and of prosecutions should be on those who coerce, exploit and abuse children and young people”.
However, I will follow up the point that was raised.
I ran through that at quite a pace, but I wanted to make the point that the legislative framework is broadly in place. The issue that we have is that its application is patchy. As has been said, early findings from research carried out by the University of Bedfordshire show that there are low levels of compliance with the 2009 guidance, suggesting that only a minority of local authorities are prioritising child sexual exploitation as a child protection issue.
I turn to the steps that the Government are taking. The Barnardo’s report talks about the need for a lead Minister. That role is being carried out by my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Tim Loughton, who has the cross-government lead role on this issue as part of his child-safeguarding responsibilities. I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Masham of Ilton, that he understands fully the need for a collaborative and cross-departmental approach to these issues. He is clear about that and he is involving Ministers from a range of departments, including the Home Office, the Ministry of Justice and the Department of Health, as well as local authority children’s services, local safeguarding children boards and organisations such as CEOP, Barnardo’s and others, and other voluntary organisations. He is already working with the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Home Office, James Brokenshire, to develop a joint approach, and I know that they have both recently met Sheila Taylor, who runs Safe and Sound Derby. Mr Loughton has also recently met the chief executive of Barnardo’s. It will be my honourable friend’s job, working with others, to consider what further action may need to be taken to safeguard children and young people from sexual exploitation.
I will be certain to ensure that my noble friend reads today’s debate and I am happy to relay to him any further specific concerns that noble Lords may have. I will ensure that there is an answer to the questions raised by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel. I will also follow up separately the important points made about the spread of technology by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, and respond to her. I am not an expert in these matters, but common sense says that the ready availability of pornography has a desensitising effect, while the way in which technology can be used by people to work together to share images and to co-ordinate activity suggests that there is a growing problem there.
The Government share with the right reverend Prelate and other noble Lords a recognition of the problem of child sexual exploitation and of the particular vulnerabilities of looked-after children. It is almost impossible to comprehend the suffering that some of these children and young people have endured and are enduring at the hands of their exploiters. Like all noble Lords, we are determined to do all that we can to stop this terrible abuse.