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Child Sexual Exploitation: Grooming Gangs

Volume 793: debated on Thursday 18 October 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they are aware of the case of “Sarah” who was, as reported in the Daily Mail on 14 September, held captive by a grooming gang for 12 years; and if so, what assessment they have made of that case and its implications.

My Lords, the House will understand that I cannot comment on a specific case while a police investigation is ongoing, but such reports of children who are sexually exploited by organised networks are truly shocking. The Government are committed to eliminating all forms of child sexual abuse and exploitation. Home Office officials are working with law enforcement partners to better understand the characteristics of cases such as these, as well as the implications for the investigation and prevention of offending.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply. Is she aware that I had the painful privilege of trying to offer support to Sarah—not her real name—who was kidnapped at the age of 15, held as a sex slave for 12 years, forced into three sharia marriages, and had eight forced abortions? Given that her case is the tip of the iceberg and that countless others have suffered similarly, what policies are in place to help these courageous women and girls who are now speaking out about their terrible ordeals, and how many perpetrators have been prosecuted for rape and/or abduction?

My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, for her excellent work in supporting vulnerable women and girls who experience these heinous crimes. This year the Government will provide £7.2 million for sexual violence support services and are allocating £68 million to police and crime commissioners for victim support services. In 2017, 145 defendants were proceeded against for child abduction offences, 3,141 for rape offences and 1,361 for rape offences against children.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that many victims of grooming still do not receive the support and protection they desperately need from the police and social services because of a reluctance to interfere in cultural practices? What steps are the Government taking to ensure that cultural sensitivities do not inhibit the protection of vulnerable citizens—or, indeed, override the law of the land?

My Lords, people who abuse children must be stopped. Their race, age or gender is irrelevant. Child sexual exploitation is not exclusive to any single culture, community, race or religion; it happens in all areas of the country and can take many forms. However, cultural sensitivities must not get in the way of preventing and uncovering child abuse. Our £7.5 million centre of expertise on child abuse is conducting research into offender innovations and motivations so that we can better understand and target different forms of offending.

My Lords, regrettably, many perpetrators of this shocking crime come from the ethnic communities. Are the Government satisfied with the degree of co-operation from community leaders on this crime, which can have such a negative effect on race relations?

My Lords, as I have said, we must look at the perpetrators and understand the characteristics. On 3 September, the Home Office tasked a working group to look at what characteristics are involved. However, the issue is the vulnerability of people, rather than race or community. It is right that we offer the appropriate training and advice in those areas, and encourage community leaders to engage with this.

My Lords, will the noble Baroness tell the House what guidance all faith organisations can access to allow them to identify instances of coercive control and to report that offence to the relevant authorities?

My Lords, I will have to write to the noble Baroness on the particular issue of how we are engaging with faith leaders. Certainly, however, the engagement is on a regular basis—but I am not quite sure what the mechanisms are to translate that into working groups within child protection teams.

Is the Minister aware of how many young women, very often under the age of 18, are victims of forced marriage, and how few refuge facilities there are for them?

As the noble and learned Baroness is aware, forced marriage was made a criminal offence in 2015. We know that we need to better protect victims and send a clear message that this abhorrent practice is not acceptable. We are looking at the number of refuges that are available. As she is aware, the number of places that these women can go to is perhaps not at the level that it should be.

My Lords, the Minister’s answers have related largely to child sexual abuse, but this is not a child case—it is a case of a vulnerable adult. I know it is a difficult issue, but I wonder whether a culture in which it is acceptable to pay for sexual services does not encourage some of the regrettable attitudes we have seen in these dreadful cases.

Most evidence suggests that people are victimised on the basis of their vulnerability rather than other characteristics. So I take on board the point made by the right reverend Prelate.

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, referred to the fact that “Sarah” had three sharia marriages. Does not this highlight the uncontrolled actions of many sharia courts and, once again, the need for legislation to require that all marriages in the United Kingdom be formally registered under the law of the respective Administrations?

I thank my noble friend for the question. We do not have sharia courts or an alternative legal system in the UK: UK law prevails in all circumstances.

My Lords, do the Government recognise that separating children from a woman who has had the courage to come forward could act as a disincentive to other women to come forward? It is a major step. These children may, as they grow up, become vulnerable to abuse because they have not had security. We may need to rethink the way we manage support for families—with, for example, proxy support grandparents—to help the mother who has been traumatised bring up her children so that they are not as vulnerable as she was.

I entirely agree. This is an area that has been discussed on a number of occasions, both in this House and elsewhere. Protecting vulnerable children and those who see domestic violence or abuse is absolutely key to the Government’s strategy.