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Schools: Campaigns

Volume 735: debated on Thursday 8 March 2012


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they are taking to ensure that every school is aware of forthcoming campaigns focusing on sexual consent and forced marriage, and that schools and colleges know where to refer young people for specialist support.

My Lords, today, on this 101st anniversary of International Women’s Day, when women, and men, around the world are celebrating the progress that has been made on the rights and protection of women, the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, asks an important and timely Question. It is tragic that violence against women and forced marriage are still issues in this country. Sexual health is taught in personal, social and health education—PSHE—and is currently under review. The consultation phase closed three months ago, and the Department for Education is in the process of drafting a response.

On forced marriage, the Forced Marriage Unit conducts outreach work domestically and internationally and produces a wide range of resources that are available to schools.

I thank the Minister for her reply. I congratulate the Government on their excellent campaign “This is ABUSE”. Is the Minister aware that research has shown that the highest proportion of sexual abuse experienced by teenagers is perpetrated by those under 18 and that one in three teenage girls experiences unwanted sexual contact at school? It is essential that teenagers get as much information as possible, especially from this campaign. Will the Minister say why the Department for Education is not promoting the campaign, as that is where most teenagers are? I hope that she will not say, as the Minister for Children said the other day, that it is to reduce burdens on schools.

My Lords, the noble Baroness is correct that the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children recently produced a report that stated that 16 per cent of teenage boys and, tragically, 33 per cent of teenage girls had experienced some form of sexual violence or abuse, predominantly from a partner. The teenage rape prevention campaign, which was launched earlier this week by the Deputy Prime Minister, will build on the recent teenage relationship abuse campaign. All partners and front-line practitioners with whom the Home Office has been working, which include teachers and schools, will have access to this further information and resource material. It will also be featured on the Times Educational Supplement Connect website and on the Department for Education’s corporate Facebook page. Before I came into the Chamber, I typed in “teenage abuse”, and the Home Office-funded website “This is ABUSE” and information about the new campaign, including a very hard-hitting video, are immediately available as the top click.

My Lords, many of us will agree that forced marriages have no place in any civilised society and are also against the teachings of any religion that we are aware of. I am aware that the consultation ends on 30 March. However, most people are unaware that forced marriages are not illegal. Does my noble friend the Minister agree that making this a criminal offence would act as a deterrent, would support victims and would send out a very strong message that it is simply illegal to force any young girl to marry against her will?

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend’s comments, and I completely agree that this issue is not confined to any specific culture or religion. Indeed, no religion condones this kind of behaviour. The forced marriage consultation, which started in December last year, is looking specifically at moving from a civil remedy to a criminal sanction. That consultation concludes at the end of March. During the consultation we are speaking to victims’ groups, lawyers and specialists who have been involved in this area for many years. There are arguments on both sides as to whether this should be a criminal offence. I have made it clear in both opposition and government that the time has now come to make it a criminal offence, but of course the Government will have to consider all responses to the consultation before we come to a final decision.

Does the Minister agree and sympathise with my concern and frustration about the slowness of the implementation of personal, social and health education in schools? Can she also say who will be responsible in the mean time for carrying out education on things such as sexual consent and forced marriage, in which part of the curriculum it will be done, and how schools will get the information about where to refer young people to afterwards?

My Lords, as I said earlier, the position of PSHE in the curriculum is under review. It would be wrong to predict the outcome of that review and to predict where that subject would be taught. Of course, noble Lords will be aware that the responsibility for holding local agencies, including schools, to account for the effectiveness of safeguarding work relating to children rests with the local safeguarding children boards. All these boards have some sort of teacher representation, so there is ongoing contact with local child protection services and schools. Where this will be taught in the curriculum is currently under review.

My Lords, will the Minister consider looking at the services for children who sexually harm other children? There has been considerable concern in the past about the variable quality and availability of those services. Will she consider looking at that and perhaps write with her findings to noble Lords taking part in this short debate?

There has been research; indeed, the NSPCC specifically looked at abuse between children and the pressures that young people face when a relationship turns abusive. Indeed, the video that I referred to—which, if noble Lords have a few moments, is worth looking at—is a very hard-hitting video that specifically highlights the pressures that can be placed upon young people when they are in relationships. That video is being played not just as a resource within schools but during primetime viewing for that particular audience on television.

My Lords, I am sure that we all in this House are glad that the Minister has made clear that there is no religious basis for these marriages. Nevertheless, does she think that there is a long-established cultural tradition that will take a long time to change and that making it criminal might help to speed up that process?

My noble friend makes a very valid point. There are certain countries of origin in which this practice of forced marriage is more prevalent. Statistics show that it is more likely to occur in the Indian subcontinent, specifically in Pakistan and Bangladesh. The Forced Marriage Unit is hugely active in those countries and a great amount of resource has been put into that. This has been a long journey and I must give all credit to the opposition Benches and the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, of Rotherham, who did a huge amount of work on this in the late 1990s and in early 2000. This is an ongoing journey. The current consultation is about whether we are prepared to take the next step and criminalise it, and I am delighted that I have the support of noble Lords from across the House in taking that initiative forward.