Creating a system that puts the welfare of sexually exploited children at its very heart
We all want children and young people to feel safe and loved as they grow up, surrounded by people they can trust at time of innocence. Sadly for some the reality is very different. Children who become the victims of sexual predators who groom them, coerce and exploit them are left emotionally and physically scarred for life by these horrific experiences. They need careful support to help them towards recovery, provided by organisations like Barnardo's. Just as importantly, we need to take steps to stop these terrible crimes before they happen, and bring perpetrators to justice.
There have been great strides made in legislation to protect children and young people but now we need to go further. In November last year, to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, I launched an inquiry with children's charity Barnardo's. I wanted to ensure that vulnerable children from all backgrounds were protected from the devastating effects of sexual exploitation.
For the last two decades, Barnardo's has been tackling child sexual exploitation. The charity directly supported close to 2,000 sexually exploited and at risk children in 2012-13. I am fortunate to be an MP and have a national voice, I feel it is my duty to use that responsibility wisely. My aim for this inquiry was to shine a light on this awful crime and to make sure that we have the strongest legislation possible in place to tackle the grooming and exploitation of children and young people.
Our cross-party panel of parliamentarians heard from child victims of sexual exploitation, as well as representatives from the police, legal profession, local authorities and the voluntary sector.
Together with Barnardo's, we are calling for a number of improvements to the way child sexual exploitation is dealt with in this country. In particular, we are proposing two key changes to the law; to allow police to step in sooner if they suspect a child is being groomed and to unify the age that children are protected by abduction notices regardless if they are at home or in care.
Another major change proposed is the removal of the term "child prostitute" from all legislation, to signify that these children are the victims of sexual abuse.
Currently, child abduction warning notices, which are given by police to someone they suspect of acting inappropriately towards a child, are just that, a warning. The notice prevents perpetrators from having contact with that child, but at the moment, breaching the order isn't illegal. Breaching these orders should become a criminal offence, so that police can intervene earlier and children can have faith in the notices.
Although our focus was legislation, we also heard many concerns about interpretation, implementation and practice, with a particular focus on the criminal justice system. The way in which vulnerable children who have experienced exploitation are treated in court has attracted significant media coverage. It is an outrage that some children are so traumatised by the process of bringing their abusers to justice, many of them referring to it as a second abuse. I want our report to change that.
We are also recommending that judges and lawyers working on such cases must have specialist training; that jurors sitting on these cases should be given information about common myths believed about victims of sexual exploitation, so that justice can be best served; that children's wishes are sought about how they want to give evidence; and that they are kept informed of changes in their case.
Much of the evidence we heard was heartrending and it has made me all the more determined to keep vulnerable children and young people safe by ensuring that everyone involved has the necessary tools at their disposal.
I am proud to have worked with Barnardo's on such an important issue. Much has been done in the three years since Barnardo's successfully campaigned for a national action plan to tackle child sexual exploitation. However, there is more to do and I am determined to take this forward
I look forward to having discussions in Parliament and the wider world about the issues we have raised. We want to create a system that puts the welfare of sexually exploited children at its very heart to stop crimes like these happening.