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Many organisations work with vulnerable children, including the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, Barnardo’s, the UK Human Trafficking Centre, ECPAT UK, UNICEF and the Children’s Society. As the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) mentioned, there are statutory bodies and those from the voluntary sector.

Sexual exploitation is all around us, as was clear from the recent arrest of a nursery worker in Plymouth, which astounded most people. At the weekend, we heard of primary school head teachers who had not done Criminal Records Bureau checks on staff.

Some years ago, I took part in the police parliamentary scheme and spent time with what was then called the child protection unit and the vice squad. Sadly, I learned of things that were happening to children that I had not imagined. I was also involved in the Home Secretary’s task force for protecting children on the internet until it changed to its new format, which was when CEOP was set up. I commend CEOP’s work, but I have been concerned to read about possible shortcomings in funding. We worked hard to set up that organisation, we examined experience in the United States before doing so, and it has strong support across the board. Will the Minister assure us that it will not be constrained in its vital and successful work because of a lack of funding?

The issues are prevention, identification of young people at risk, effective intervention at an early stage with avoidance of a crisis response, vital support as we pick up the pieces, prosecutions and convictions. Barnardo’s defined sexual exploitation as:

and perhaps if a child is lost in a strange country. Barnardo’s operates on the principle that no child can consent to their own abuse, so children and young people under 18 who are abused by sexual exploitation are victims. An important point was raised about criminalisation of victims, and I hope that the Minister will reply to that. Adults involved in sexual exploitation are child abusers.

As the hon. Member for Totnes said, Government figures suggest that around 330 children and young people are trafficked in the UK each year, although that is likely to be an underestimate. Problems continue to arise from the identification of child victims, which remains very low. We must make it a priority to increase identification. Authorities have not developed adequate procedures and guidelines to improve detection, and there is a general lack of awareness about child trafficking and its indicators among practitioners who come into daily contact with victims from abroad.

Some non-governmental organisations and other campaigners are worried that the immigration age assessment dispute process is used to divert young people into the adult system rather than to safeguard them. That is important, because there is much anecdotal evidence and many examples of disputes when someone is said to be under 18 but the judgment is swayed on the side of them being over 18. I do not know what criteria are used, but the issue is important because of what subsequently happens to those children and young people.

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Mr. Steen: Swaying on the side of a child being over 18 means that they are sent back, without regard to what will happen to them when they get back. Often, they are trafficked again. The advantage for someone under 18 is that they should be cared for, but the Border Agency is not the right agency to deal with them.

Annette Brooke: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I have met adult females who have been returned to their country and it was the most distressing situation that I can ever recall. They were put into a sanctuary for a short time, but so much support was needed that it was impossible to deliver it, because of the state that those young ladies were in—and they were young. I would not have known if they were all over 18.

Practitioners have stressed the need for child protection concerns to override concerns about the age or immigration status of children and young people who have been trafficked into the UK from abroad. Safeguarding the child must be paramount. Children trafficked from abroad might not receive the same rights and treatment as children born in the UK, even though they are entitled to by law. Multi-agency work between the UK Border Agency, police and children’s services at the point of arrival, focused on securing the safety of the child, is essential in efforts to engage with the child and to prevent them from being abducted or going missing.

Good practice is to provide the child with a child protection key worker, who is supported through multi-agency work with police involvement, and accommodation in a place of safety, preferably in supported and supervised foster care. As an aside, I just mention that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) and I have talked at great length about the need to register private foster carers. One concern that we all have is that if children enter this country and go into unregulated private foster care, none of us knows what their fate might be. I think that we both hope that the new Minister will look on our request in that area rather more favourably.

Safeguarding procedures are clearly not systematically followed for trafficked children. Immigration issues have generally taken priority. As there is inadequate safeguarding, high numbers of young people go missing. That is the consequence of inappropriate placement, young people not being placed safely and inadequate training of carers in trafficking issues. Poor risk assessment means that children are often defined as trafficked only in retrospect, providing little opportunity for police investigation or for recovery of the child. A patchy police response and lack of clarity about a co-ordinated working group have resulted in a national deficit of support services for children who may have been trafficked.

Many local authorities feel inadequately resourced to meet the additional care needs that those children present. Although it is the responsibility of local authorities, there is currently a lack of safe and appropriate accommodation for trafficked children, as the hon. Member for Totnes mentioned. There are very few specialised services for trafficked children. The trafficking of children and young people is child abuse. Therefore I think that the responsibility for protecting children in the UK rests with the local safeguarding children boards, but clearly practice there must improve.

Experience brings improved practice, and practitioners’ awareness of the indicators of trafficking is improved through their experience of working with cases. As
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practitioners deal with cases and face the problems presented, they begin to recognise indicators and emerging patterns. Lessons can be learned by referring to the practitioners engaged in the work and building those lessons into initiatives. We often refer to the need to see good practice spread.

The important point is that every child matters, including trafficked children and other very vulnerable children, and everyone should be working towards achieving for every child the five outcomes specified in the Every Child Matters programme.

The NSPCC report “Breaking the wall of silence” focuses on the need for improved and more structured practices between agencies: police, health, social services and immigration. The role of LSCBs in facilitating multidisciplinary agencies must be strengthened and good practice learned. The overriding feature is that the safety and welfare of trafficked children should come above their immigration status.

At the time of a 2007 report, no national data were collected by the Department for Children, Schools and Families on runaway and missing children. Around the time of the report, a welcome announcement was made that children missing from home and care would be included as a national framework performance indicator for local authorities. That shows that raising issues continually at least gets them on the radar, but I wonder whether that is enough.

In September 2001, we needed a national plan to safeguard children from commercial and sexual exploitation. Have we made progress over time? Certainly a new report is needed in respect of changes in society, the growth of use of the internet, as has been said, and new structures in local authorities, but we have had so much guidance and so many documents. Do they really make a difference?

I have to confess that I have only skimmed at high speed through the Government’s guidance. There were bits that I related to and thought were excellent—for example,

That is an excellent starting point. I was recently at a conference about trafficking in Dorset. The local Soroptimists were highlighting the purple teardrop campaign, and there was amazement that there might be trafficked women in Dorset. We are so unaware of what is going on, and that is why it is important that we start with that premise.

The report states that LSCBs should

What monitoring will the Department do as a consequence of the guidance being put in place? We need a report on progress right across the board, because time is ticking on. Just producing papers and books of guidance year after year is not enough. This must not be just a paper exercise. I share the hon. Gentleman’s concerns about cuts in funding to some important organisations, and I hope that the Minister will address that point.

Finally, something that I have been involved with throughout my time in Parliament is a campaign for making therapeutic treatment available to all children who have been abused. Provision is patchy across the country. As much as we are doing to safeguard children,
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we will not stamp out child abuse unless we provide therapeutic treatment, which is vital to breaking the cycle. Sadly, many abused children go on to exploit others in their adult life.

11.48 am

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen), who has enormous expertise in this area and has campaigned on it for many years. It is unfortunate that there are not more hon. Members here today, because this important subject affects all our constituencies. I know that there are trafficked women in Worthing in my constituency, and the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) admitted that there are some in Dorset. Exploitation happens everywhere, and often in the most unexpected places.

I welcome the Minister, who is new to the children’s brief. This is an example of where joined-up thinking and action under the remit of the Department for Children, Schools and Families is absolutely key. It needs to work with all kinds of other agencies and colleagues at the Home Office and elsewhere to bring joined-up solutions to this ongoing and, perhaps, worsening problem.

My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes gave a comprehensive tour d’horizon of sexual exploitation of children in all kinds of areas, ending with trafficking, on which he has expertise. I recognise some of the domestic problems in broken families to which he alluded. The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole mentioned the generational effect: children who have been sexually abused go on to have children who may suffer the same fate. That kind of vicious circle often exists.

The very alarming figures that my hon. Friend gave—that one in six children will experience sexual abuse—provide a serious wake-up call to everyone in our country. A third of all rapes are of children under the age of 16. We often demonise children as being responsible for crime, but we forget that they are the major victims of so much crime—rape being one of the more horrendous ones.

My hon. Friend made a good comparison when he described the trafficking of children as the new slave trade. He also made a good point about children being victims: they should not be criminalised for being forced into prostitution at sensitive young ages. We need better awareness and more specialist training—particularly among some of our professional staff, such as social workers. The General Social Care Council has made recommendations about how better to train social workers who work in child protection. Such social workers work with children at risk from sexual exploitation or from being trafficked and ending up in sexual exploitation in this country, as well as with those who are subject to child abuse.

My hon. Friend will know—because his wife was part of the commission on social workers, which I chaired on behalf of the Conservative party—that we have produced two reports since 2007, in which we discuss the need to make sure that we have a properly trained, motivated, reinvigorated and resourced social worker work force. Social workers work in very difficult,
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challenging and depressing areas—my hon. Friend has touched on several of those—and it is important that the responsibilities in relation to those are joined up. After baby P, we have heard a lot about child abuse at the hands of parents or carers. The figures are alarming: perhaps upwards of three children a week die as a result of abuse or neglect in the home. In addition, 389 young people have gone missing from care since 2000, which is probably a woeful underestimate of the actual figure. My hon. Friend referred to some cases in relation to that.

I shall refer to three areas: first, child abuse; secondly, abuse using the internet—what has been referred to as networked paedophiles; and thirdly, the subject of trafficking, which formed the major thrust of my hon. Friend’s comments. We have heard the ghastly figures about child abuse and killings, but we need to appreciate that not enough people have been prosecuted: too many people have proceedings taken against them, but get off.

Let us consider some of the figures on the sexual assault of a male child aged under 13. In 2004, only 19 cases were brought under that charge, of which only four people were found guilty. That is a woefully low conviction rate. Those figures had improved. For example, in 2007, the figure had gone up to 81 cases proceeded with, among which half—41—had a verdict of guilty. In 2004, 45 proceedings were brought for rape or attempted rape of a child aged under 13, with only three successful convictions. Again, those figures have gone up—in 2007, the number was 142. We are getting better at detecting some such cases—perhaps because more people have come forward to report such crimes, which is progress—but still only 69 were found guilty, which is just over a third. The figures are similar for sexual assault of a female child aged under 13: back in 2004, proceedings were brought against 128 people, but only 29 were convicted. That figure had risen to 448 proceedings, of which 246 ended in a conviction—rather better progress.

Too many people are carrying on such activities under the radar and are not being detected. When they are detected, it is difficult to make charges stick. Too many of the perpetrators of such crimes are still on the loose and getting away with it—whether it be the abuse or, ultimately, the death of a child. There were serious flaws in the law about joint enterprise, although I am glad to say that the Government addressed them some years ago after a lot of campaigning by many hon. Members on both sides. As a result, both parents can now be prosecuted under the law on joint enterprise when it cannot be proved which parent struck the fatal blow. We have a long way to go to ensure that people are brought to justice and receive appropriate justice for the severity of their crimes.

The second issue that I want to touch on is that of sexual images on the internet and the obvious exploitation that that inevitably involves—every image that ends up on the internet does so because a child has been exploited somewhere down the line, somewhere in a foreign country, in some hidden room. A while ago, I spent a depressing afternoon in the specialist unit at Scotland Yard, speaking to those whose highly depressing job it is to go through literally millions of images and films on seized hard drives. What struck me was how ingenious those who view the images are. Jim Gamble, the chief executive of the child exploitation and online protection centre, has referred to them as networked paedophiles. They are
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enormously clever at being one step ahead of the authorities. They use technology ingeniously to carry on their sinister activities of swapping, accessing and subscribing to images of very young children and babies in highly distressing situations. They do that as if they were swapping cigarette cards or souvenirs. The lengths to which some people will go to secure such ghastly images, which represent the exploitation of young, vulnerable children at its worst, are extraordinary.

I have concerns about funding, which my hon. Friend also mentioned. It has been reported that thousands of cases of children who are portrayed in pornographic pictures and are at risk of abuse are not being investigated properly because of a cash crisis. CEOP is hailed as one of the leading child protection agencies in the world, but despite its excellent work, it faces something of a funding crisis. It had a three-year funding arrangement with Visa and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which are to be congratulated on their support, and the Home Office has also contributed some money. None the less, the work load is so enormous that the funds are just not sufficient.

When I visited my sexual offences unit in Sussex, I was told that there was a limit on its funding. The unit needs a lot of resources just to get the appropriate equipment—as I said, the people involved in these crimes are very clever at hiding images. Then, however, it needs people who are properly trained and able to cope with that equipment.

The important point is that we will never prevent indecent images from being posted on the internet. One of the downsides of the internet is that we cannot closely regulate what happens on it. As we know, things can happen well beyond the geographical boundaries of the United Kingdom. The challenge is to cut off the tentacles, like those of an octopus, and to make it as difficult as possible for people to put images on the internet, to profit from them and to access them.

That is why the European Financial Coalition has been important. The EFC is an assembly of various firms—particularly those involved in finance—including MasterCard, Microsoft, PayPal, Visa Europe, and Allen and Overy. Using those various financial firms, CEOP can cut off some of the tentacles and make it more difficult for the money to flow where people are trying to gain commercial advantage from exploiting images.

Things have improved. As Jim Gamble has said,

However, it is still going on far too much.

Mr. Steen: On internet images, the idea that we need to cut off the tentacles is all well and good, but this is a worldwide issue. If they are cut off here, they must also be cut off in Vietnam. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is no good Britain being jolly good at preventing traffickers and children from coming into this country when there is no Europe-wide and worldwide effort? It is no good saying that we are a wonderful island that does not let any traffickers in if they just go to Spain or Holland instead. Does he agree that we need a Europe-wide approach?

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