Written evidence submitted by The Children’s Society (VIC0031)
1.1. The Children’s Society welcomes the Bill Committee’s scrutiny of the draft Victims Bill and is pleased to submit evidence to this inquiry.
1.2. The Children’s Society supports the Government’s ambition to greater strengthen the protection of victims. The draft Bill in its current form outlines some proposals that should contribute to improving protections for victims of crime. However, there are still some areas where the draft Bill could be considered lacking. This response therefore identifies where there is scope for substantial change to be made to protect children and young people.
2.1. The Children’s Society’s work transforms the lives of vulnerable children and young people facing abuse, exploitation, and neglect across the country. We provide specialist support that empowers young people to make positive changes. Through The Children’s Society’s services and projects, including its Prevention Programme, we directly support thousands of children and their families each year. In particular, we hold expertise in supporting children that are victims of child criminal exploitation and grooming.
3.1. The Draft Victims Bill is an opportunity to recognise and protect in law the rights of child victims of sexual abuse and exploitation, child criminal exploitation, modern slavery, and trafficking. It is also an opportunity to ensure they are given access to recovery support and to see justice done in relation to those who abuse them.
3.2. The Draft Victims Bill is an opportunity to strengthen legislation on child criminal exploitation (CCE), addressing existing gaps and ensuring that children are properly protected.
3.3. The following recommendations have been created both in response to the public consultation on Delivering Justice for Victims in early 2022 and in response to the Draft Bill.
3.4. We are concerned that the specific rights of victims are not enshrined in the law but instead will be included in the statutory guidance. If that is the case, we believe that the draft statutory guidance should be made available for scrutiny at the same time as the Bill being introduced to Parliament.
3.5. The Children’s Society recommends that the Draft Victims Bill:
4.1. We believe that within the Bill’s commitment to improve the support and experience of all victims there is a need to recognise that child victims of crime have additional needs and require specialist support, simply because they are children. This is due to their developmental needs, their vulnerability to abuse and exploitation, and any additional needs they may have.
4.2. Sadly, the true number of children who are victims of crime is not known. However, what little statistical information is available suggests that children experience crimes at a great scale, sometimes even greater than adults. For example, the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) estimated that 1.6% of people aged 16 years and over were a victim of violent crime in the year ending March 2020 compared to 2.6% of children aged 10 and 15 years of age.
4.3. Additionally, police crime data from 2020/21 showed that of the 147,538 sexual offences recorded across the country at least 57,312 were against children aged under 16.
4.4. The number of crimes against children would be much higher if those aged 16 and 17 who experience serious violence or sexual offences such as rape and sexual assault were incorporated into data on children. Instead, they are subsumed into statistics for adults. We know that children aged 16 and 17 experience crime at a high level.
4.5. The recognition that the needs and vulnerability of a person under the age of 18 are different from those of an adult is included in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) and a raft of domestic laws, including with the Children Act 1989. We believe that this recognition should be reflected in the Draft Victims Bill, as well as in the commissioning of services and in the workforce training.
4.6. Data shows that many children are victims of crime, experiencing a range of horrific issues from child cruelty at home to sexual offences and modern slavery crimes, including sexual and criminal exploitation.
5.1. Numerous reports highlight the shocking scale of sexual offences against children, including in the latest strategy on Tackling Child Abuse. However shocking the scale of reported sexual offending against children is, it is even more shocking how few of the crimes reported result in the perpetrators being charged with a sexual offence, and that even fewer result in a successful conviction. The recent Rape Review exposed the failure of the criminal justice system in relation to children aged 16 and 17 and adults, but failures of the system to prosecute those who offend against children are equally serious.
5.2. In March 2020, the ONS released a compendium of data on child abuse and the criminal justice system in England and Wales, covering the period up to March 2019. This included statistics and research on child abuse from across government and the voluntary sector, giving a clearer picture of child sexual abuse victims’ experience of the system. It showed, for example, that of the 73,260 sexual offences against children reported to the police, 8,814 cases were taken to trial and 6,971 cases ended in conviction. The mismatch between the reported number of child abuse cases and eventual convictions shows the system is not working for young victims. However, this compendium and many other data sets are ad hoc rather than regular releases, and an equivalent data set is not set to be released until March 2023. This leaves Government and the sector without vital evidence that could be used to positively shape criminal justice processes.
5.3. One of the learning points from The Children’s Society’s research and practice is that there is a postcode lottery of support available for children who experience crimes. This depends on a range of factors such as: how well local areas map the needs of children and commissioning services accordingly; available funding; shared understanding among staff in different agencies of different forms of crime children may experience, such as child criminal and child sexual exploitation, and the opportunities for children’s voices to be heard and inform commissioning of services.
6.1. The Children’s Society knows from our direct work with children and young people that many of those who are victims of crime have negative interactions with statutory agencies and therefore do not feel confident to make a disclosure to them. Children may also not be willing to make a formal disclosure to police even where a disclosure may have been made to other services.
6.2. Research and practice show that children often don’t feel ready to disclose their experiences to adults, including the police, due to a variety of factors including not being able to comprehend what has happened to them, being coerced, manipulated, and threatened not to disclose, or feelings of shame and fear of being blamed for what happened.
6.3. The Children’s Society believes that the Draft Victims Bill should ensure that the definition of a victim, and correspondingly entitlements to support services, start at the point the child becomes a victim of crime irrespective of whether the formal disclosure is made to the police. We know that for some children making a formal disclosure may take years.
6.4. Children should be provided with support to enable them to understand and talk about their experiences of crime prior to that crime being reported to the police. They must have access to services that will help them recover from trauma irrespective of whether a formal report to the police has been made.
7.1. Child criminal exploitation (CCE) takes a variety of forms, but ultimately it is the grooming and exploitation of children into criminal activity. Across each form that CCE takes, the current reality is that children who are coerced into criminal activity are often treated as perpetrators by statutory agencies rather than as victims of exploitation. This is in part because safeguarding partners are working to different understandings of what constitutes criminal exploitation.
7.2. Recently, CCE has become strongly associated with one specific model known as ‘county lines’, but it can also include children being forced to work in cannabis factories, being coerced into moving drugs (often forced to insert drugs in their vagina or anus in a practice known as ‘plugging’) or money across the country, forced to commit financial fraud, forced to shoplift, or pickpocket.
7.3. The true scale of child criminal exploitation is not known, because many children who are exploited or groomed fall through the cracks of statutory support and therefore are not identified in official statistics. The Children’s Commissioner estimated that at least 27,000 children are at high risk of gang exploitation. We work with many young people who are victims of sexual or criminal exploitation who may also be seen as perpetrators of crime by law enforcement agencies. For example, young people who are arrested for drug related offences that result from coercion or control by criminal groups.
7.4. Children in Need (CiN) statistics highlight that many assessments of needs of children referred to social services are due to factors strongly associated with child criminal or sexual exploitation. The list of CiN factors below currently does not include CCE, however this has been introduced as a new assessment factor for the 2021-2022 collection.
7.5. Another set of useful numbers is provided by National Referral Mechanism (NRM) statistics. NRM is the statutory framework for identifying victims of modern slavery and human trafficking to ensure they receive necessary protection. Whilst NRM data is often the tip of the iceberg, during 2020 a total of 4,946 children were referred to the NRM, 2,544 of whom were due to concerns of criminal exploitation and 205 due to concerns of both criminal and sexual exploitation. This growing and distinct form of exploitation is now recognised by the NRM and should now be reflected in statute as well.
7.6. Gangs or organised crime groups (OCGs) are widening their net and targeting children from a diverse range of backgrounds. However, we know that current risk factors include family breakdown, poverty, children involved in local authority care, children with special educational needs and those attending pupil referral units.
7.7. The Children’s Society’s practitioners have found that the typical age of children being criminally exploited is from 14-17 years old, although we have seen victims as young as seven. Whilst this form of exploitation occurs most frequently amongst boys, there is evidence that girls are also being groomed to commit criminal offences and that this is under-reported amongst statutory services.
7.8. It is important to note that exploitation does not suddenly stop when someone turns 18. Whilst vulnerability is often most associated with children, it should not lead to the assumption that those over 18 have agency and cannot also be manipulated, coerced, and controlled to undertake criminal activity. Whilst the proposed amendment to this Bill focuses on children, work also needs to be undertaken to embed transitional safeguarding across multi-agency partners, so that the vulnerability of young people aged 18–25 is recognised.
8.1. There is a need to recognise the complexity of response and ensure that children and young people’s rights as victims of crime are always prioritised. Furthermore, law enforcement agencies should be prompted to consider possible exploitation when they are responding to children arrested for what is seen as offending behaviour, in addition to ensuring children are offered access to advocacy and support services.
8.2. The Children’s Society want statutory services to recognise that these children have not “made a choice” to get involved in criminal activity – as perpetrators of exploitation would want these children to believe. They have been groomed and coerced in the same way we have seen in children groomed for sexual exploitation and should be treated as victims.
8.3. We have encountered problems arising from insufficient knowledge among criminal and immigration solicitors, social workers and other frontline agencies working with young people with regards to the Modern Slavery Act and the protections that it offers. For example, due to a lack of awareness among criminal solicitors, our practitioners need to do extensive advocacy on behalf of the young people they support in order to obtain positive outcomes from solicitors. Similarly, as there is no mandatory training on the NRM or Modern Slavery Act for social workers, many remain unaware of the legislation or their duties in relation to the act and what they should be doing to safeguard children as part of it.
8.4. The Children’s Society believes that the Draft Victims’ Bill should aim to outline provision of support for all victims, clearly stating in law a statutory definition of child criminal exploitation to ensure children are seen and treated as victims first.
8.5. A statutory definition of CCE would send out a strong message that children who are forced to commit crime are victims rather than perpetrators. It would enable a shared understanding and a better multi-agency response to this form of exploitation; it could lead to professionals spotting the signs of this exploitation earlier in the grooming cycle and children being safeguarded and supported earlier, as well as a greater focus on disrupting the activity of those who groom children for child criminal exploitation. This will also help to avoid the confusion and miscarriages of justice that are seen all too often when children enter the criminal justice system.
8.6. The Victims’ Bill should also define children as victims of crime, including those children who have committed an offence as a result of their own exploitation. The contact of a child with law enforcement services should serve a trigger for assessment of child’s needs as a victim of abuse and exploitation.
8.7. The Draft Bill in its current form does not address these issues, and there is otherwise a complete lack of definition of child criminal exploitation in law. We call on the Committee to address our concerns and recommend appropriate amendments to the legislation in order to stop child criminal exploitation and those who seek to groom children for criminality.