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Disabled Children: Sexual Exploitation

Volume 764: debated on Monday 7 September 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to protect children with learning difficulties and disabilities from sexual exploitation.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and declare an interest as a vice-president of Barnardo’s.

My Lords, the Government’s report, Tackling Child Sexual Exploitation, sets out the steps that the Government are taking to protect children from sexual exploitation, including children with learning difficulties and disabilities. For example, we are exploring how personal, social, health and economic education training and resources for schools might be tailored for staff and special schools, and have provided £4.85 million for services supporting child sexual abuse survivors, including vulnerable children with learning difficulties.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. This week the report “Unprotected, Overprotected”, by Barnardo’s and other organisations, concludes that children with learning difficulties are particularly vulnerable to sexual exploitation. The Rochdale serious case review showed that five out of six children who were sexually exploited over a long period had learning difficulties and disabilities. What action have the Government taken to improve the support for this group of children, who often miss out on the information and advice they need to keep safe? Will they issue new guidelines on how sex and relationship education should be taught to vulnerable young people who suffer from learning disabilities? I hope they will show that they take this case really seriously.

My Lords, there are few things that we take more seriously. Existing guidance and training for safeguarding professionals includes reference to the particular vulnerability of children with learning difficulties and disabilities. We are currently revising the 2009 Safeguarding children and young people from sexual exploitation guidance, and we will strengthen it so that professionals are better equipped to support children who are particularly vulnerable to CSE, including those with learning difficulties and disabilities. As I mentioned in my earlier Answer, we are considering how PSHE materials might be best adapted and used by staff in special schools. This Thursday my honourable friend the Home Office Minister Karen Bradley will be speaking at the event hosted by Barnardo’s in connection with the report mentioned by the noble Baroness—I pay tribute to Barnardo’s for its work in this field—and she will reiterate the Government’s commitment to supporting vulnerable children.

My Lords, I commend the Government for the work they are doing in education, but education alone will not improve the welfare of children. I would like the Minister to say something about what he is doing to support social workers, the people in the front line of this work, who have to pick up such cases and take them forward.

My Lords, it is true that this problem is a multidisciplinary one, and involves not only social workers but the police, teachers and the health service. We are trying to co-ordinate that across the piece, and the Prime Minister has appointed a task force chaired by Nicky Morgan, who is going to take the whole issue of child protection and try to bring to bear the necessary government resources, including social workers. That will continue to be a high priority.

My Lords, I declare an interest, in that I have an adult son with autism. In the light of the Barnardo’s report, what is the Minister doing to make sure that all educational institutions ensure that independent advocates are available, particularly to those with learning difficulties, when a child or a parent reports sexual abuse? In my experience there are still serious shortfalls in many of our institutions.

The noble Baroness has highlighted a particular instance. The training is constantly being reviewed, and that could of course be taken into account: the ministerial task force will also take such things into account. For example, the Ministry of Justice has just recruited 100 more registered intermediaries to help especially vulnerable children and witnesses go through the criminal justice process, which is a difficult but necessary part of dealing with this problem.

My Lords, I declare my interest as vice-president of Mencap on a UK-level and in Wales. Are the Government giving any attention to the possible need for an augmented level of punishment for those guilty of such crimes against people with learning disabilities?

My Lords, given that abused children often do not show symptoms for some years, and that children with learning disabilities tend to show symptoms in different ways that are not as easily recognised, does the Minister agree that all children who are subject to sexual harm prevention orders or sexual risk orders should receive assessment of their needs and therapeutic support even before signs or symptoms are shown?

That is a very sensible suggestion. These symptoms take time to manifest themselves. However, we realise that people with special needs have needs which go on beyond the conventional age of adulthood. The relevant statutory guidance for young people with special educational needs and disabilities extends to the age of 25.

My Lords, will the noble Lord reflect on the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, and tell us what impact he thinks cuts to local authorities will have on the services that are necessary to link up the various agencies helping with child protection that he mentioned?

As I said, this is one of the Government’s highest priorities. Across the piece, we are spending more money on social services and the police to deal with this problem, so I do not expect a difficult situation to arise. I could give a list of additional money that we have spent in this area; it is one of our highest priorities.