On 12th January 2022, the House of Lords debated amendments to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. The Bishop of Gloucester, on behalf of the Bishop of Derby, spoke in support of an amendment tabled by Lord Rosser which would introduce a new statutory definition of child criminal exploitation:
The Lord Bishop of Gloucester: My Lords, I speak in place of my right reverend friend the Bishop of Derby, who sadly cannot be here today. She and I support this amendment, to which she has added her name. I declare her interest as vice-chair of the Children’s Society. These are her words.
In Committee, my right reverend friend the Bishop of Durham spoke in the place of my right reverend friend the Bishop of Manchester. I will not repeat all that was said, but I will reiterate a few fundamental points as we consider this amendment. As a Church living and working in every corner of this nation, we support families and children, often in the most vulnerable of contexts. We have seen the devastating consequences when children are coerced and exploited, including through serious violence. Those consequences have ripple effects through not only the life of that child but the wider community. Visiting young offender institutions, I am struck by how many of these children and young people are victims first. Their stories could have been very different if intervention had occurred earlier. They have been groomed and coerced in the same way as children groomed for sexual exploitation; as such, they should be treated as victims. They need support rather than the further trauma of being charged and prosecuted.
I share with noble Lords the story of a young person supported by the Children’s Society which illustrates how many victims of child criminal exploitation are not recognised as such. Bobby—not his real name—aged 15, was picked up with class A drugs in a trap-house raid by the police. Bobby had been groomed, exploited and trafficked across the country to sell drugs. After his arrest, he was driven back to his home by police officers, who had questioned him alone in the car and used that information to submit a referral through the national referral mechanism, which did not highlight Bobby’s vulnerability—instead, it read like a crime report. Bobby had subsequently been to court in Wales and, because his referral to the NRM failed and his barrister did not understand the process, he was advised to plead guilty, which he did.
At this time, he was referred to the Children’s Society’s “Disrupting Exploitation” programme. With its help, Bobby challenged the NRM decision and worked to ensure that he was recognised as a victim instead of an offender, enabling him to retract his plea of guilty. The Children’s Society was able to work with Bobby, his family and the professionals around him to ensure that they recognised the signs of exploitation and how it can manifest.
But for many young people who are criminally exploited, that is not the case. Many will be prosecuted and convicted as offenders, while those who groomed and exploited them walk free. Agencies that come into contact with these children are not working to the same statutory definition of what constitutes child criminal exploitation.
What this amendment hopes to achieve is for statutory services to recognise that these children have not made a choice to get involved in criminal activity. I whole- heartedly agree that local multiagency safeguarding arrangements are key to responding to child exploitation. However, we need a clear, national definition and understanding of the types of child exploitation that they must safeguard against. Front-line agencies all agree: there is no evidence that the system as it stands is working consistently to protect these children from exploitation.
We are committed to the flourishing of all people. That includes children and young people from the most marginalised and disadvantaged circumstances—those for whom real choice is out of their grasp. We must do all within our power to give hope to victims and dare to dream of a different future for these children.
Extracts from the speeches that followed:
Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con): We recognise that the vast majority of child criminal exploitation cases occur in the context of county lines. That is why the Home Office is providing up to £1 million this financial year to the St Giles Trust to provide specialist support for under-25s and their families who are affected by county lines exploitation. The project is operating in London, the West Midlands and Merseyside, which are the three largest exporting county lines areas. We also continue to fund the Missing People’s SafeCall service. This is a national confidential helpline service for young people, families and carers who are experiencing county lines exploitation.
I listened carefully to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester, who made some powerful points. She mentioned the Children’s Society. I should point out that the Home Office is funding the Children’s Society’s prevention programme, which works to tackle and prevent child criminal exploitation, child sexual abuse and exploitation, modern-day slavery and human trafficking on a regional and national basis. This has included a public awareness campaign called “Look Closer”, which started in September. It focuses on increasing awareness of the signs and indicators of child exploitation and encourages the public and service, retail and transport sector workers to report concerns to the police quickly.
Lord Rosser (Lab): First, I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby and the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, for adding their names to this amendment. Indeed, I thank all noble Lords who spoke in this debate.
Basically, the Government have repeated what they said in Committee. There is nothing new and no response to the point that a statutory duty to reduce violence cannot be effective without a statutory duty to safeguard children, which is what this amendment would provide by putting a recognised definition in law for the first time. There has not really been a response to that.
I made the point that the evidence indicates that there is no consistency of approach across the agencies on child criminal exploitation. Clearly, the definitions on which the Government relied in Committee, which they have now repeated on Report, are not assisting in the way that they should in responding to child criminal exploitation scenarios. It is a bit depressing to find no movement at all on the Government’s stance and, if I may say so, no attempt to respond to my point that, bearing in mind the inconsistencies, the existing definitions are clearly not doing the job that the Government claim they should be doing and, indeed, claim they are doing. That clearly is not the case.
I do not intend to test the opinion of the House on this. I say only that the issue is not going to going away. If we continue, as I suspect we will, with the inconsistencies of approach that have been identified by Barnardo’s and the Children’s Society and referred to during this debate—that is, if the Government do not address them, which is what this amendment in effect invites them to do—this matter will not go away. I am quite sure that it will be the subject of further discussion and debate if the present highly unsatisfactory situation continues in respect of child criminal exploitation. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
You must be logged in to post a comment.