Siobhain speaks in child sexual exploitation debate

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17 December 2015

Siobhain chil debate dec 15 Today, Siobhain challenged the government to do more to tackle child sexual exploitation, and to provide 16 and 17 year olds with full protection and safeguards in the law. This age group is the most vulnerable to sexual exploitation, but too often is denied the protections and recognition that children should receive in the eyes of the law. 

In a debate organised by the Children's Society, in light of its 'Seriously Awkward' campaign, Siobhain celebrated the work of the WISH Centre, which supports young people who self-harm and has just opened a branch Merton. 

You can watch a shortened version of Siobhain's speech online (fast-forward to 14:30) and read it below. 

'Thank you Madam Deputy Speaker.

I would like to add my own thanks to my honourable friend and the honourable member for sponsoring this important and timely debate. 

I want to begin by commending The Children’s Society’s ‘Seriously Awkward’ campaign. Too often, the most vulnerable 16 and 17 year olds are treated like adults and not afforded the additional protections given in law to younger children. 

Adolescence is an important period of growth but it is also a time of greater vulnerability. Teenagers of this age are more likely to engage with risk-taking behaviour. For the most vulnerable, with earlier experiences of abuse, trauma and neglect, this risk-taking can have serious consequences.

There are currently 100 young people in the London Borough Merton that have been assessed as a ‘child in need’ due to abuse or neglect. Analysis from The Children’s Society’s estimates that nearly 1 in 10 girls report that they have experienced a sexual offence in the last 12 months. This means that sadly there are around one hundred and thirty young girls aged 16 and 17 in my constituency who are victims of some form of sexual exploitation. 

According to the NSPCC, the police recorded the highest number of sexual offences against children in the UK in the past decade in 2013/14. The surge may be partially explained by the increased willingness to report abuse, particularly after extensive media coverage on the subject. 

But the same study showed that for some children, disclosure of sexual abuse was often significantly delayed from the start of the abuse – by almost eight years on average. 

These figures show how timely and important this discussion is. 

Changing technology means that the approaches we use to end child sexual abuse and exploitation need to modernise. Indeed, when it comes to the potential for digital abuse, a staggering 63% of teenagers have sent nude or semi-nude pictures of themselves. The same figures recorded by the WISH centre suggest that 55% of teenagers know someone who has shared an explicit photo of a peer without their consent. 

Furthermore, the terrible problem of child sexual exploitation has so many complex aspects. 

For instance, children with learning disabilities are more vulnerable to sexual exploitation than other children, facing additional barriers in gaining protection and receiving support. The Children’s Society and partners have shown that this can be due to overprotection and social isolation, as well as a lack of awareness among professionals.

And these terrible problems are made worse by the gaps in national policy. For instance, we need a far clearer obligation on local areas and agencies to provide compulsory sex and relationship education for young people with learning disabilities. Specifically, professionals’ understanding of ‘capacity to consent’ to sex by young people with learning disabilities is a very real concern. And only 39% of local authorities and health and social care trusts say they are working specifically with young people with learning difficulties who are at risk of child sexual exploitation.

These vulnerable children are being failed, and the cost of this sexual abuse and exploitation is considerable. Notwithstanding the terrible, and unfathomable psychological and emotional trauma that it leaves, the financial cost is enormous too. In 2012, the NSPCC estimated that the cost of child sexual exploitation was around £3.2 billion, in mental and physical health problems, drug and alcohol misuse, criminal justice costs, social services, and general loss of productivity to society. 

And this is to say nothing of the unmeasurable hidden scars that children who are sexually exploited carry with them into adult life. 

But amidst the sadness of this subject, I would like to take this opportunity to speak about the incredible work that is done by the WISH Centre, in helping these children and young people into recovery. I was delighted to open their new centre in Merton just a few weeks ago, extending its pre-existing site in Harrow. I know the centre is already having a wonderful impact in our local community. 

The centre’s work is made possible with the funding from Comic Relief, and is supported by its excellent Director Rowena Jaber, and supporters like Michael Foster. 

Having the courage to speak out after sexual abuse is the beginning of a long journey, but there is a terrible shortfall in therapeutic support for children who are victims. We need at least another 55,000 clinical therapeutic support places to make sure all children, who have displayed suicidal or self-harming behaviour, receive this vital support. The provision of non-clinical early support is inadequate, even though such early intervention has been proven to be cost effective time and again, particularly when a child enters the criminal justice system. 

This is why institutions like the WISH Centre are so important. The Centre has been supporting those who have suffered from sexual abuse on the road to recovery for over ten years now. It specialises in support for those who self-harm, but it works extensively with young people who have experienced sexual abuse. This is because self-harm is a key indicator of sexual violence and abuse, as young victims struggle to cope with the trauma of their experiences. 

It has a tremendous history of success. In the past year, the centre supported over 220 young people on a long-term basis, mainly female and mainly from BAME communities, recording an 89% increase in safety from sexual exploitation and abuse. This emphasis on BAME communities is particularly welcome, given the different problems around the reporting of child sexual exploitation in some communities. 

There are a number of commendable ways in which the WISH centre supports young people. 

It has an Independent Sexual Violence Advocacy Service for young people who have experienced current or historic sexual violence, including rape, sexual exploitation, sexual harassment, gang-related sexual violence, and child sexual abuse. This confidential, emotional and practical support helps young people understand how the criminal justice process works, and explains what will happen if they report crimes to the police.

It also works very closely with schools, so that they are immediately notified on anything they need to act on regarding a vulnerable young person. And it builds connections between schools, social care services and the police, to raise awareness. This is so important because a staggering proportion of young people still believe that if a teenager is too drunk or high to give consent to sex, the sexual act is not rape, according to them.

The Centre’s response strategy is focused on three main points: prevention, identifying early, and responding appropriately. 

An excellent example of this work is its ‘Shield Campaign’ in Harrow. A shocking 44% of teenagers in Harrow know someone who has been stalked, sexually harassed or attacked. Funded by the Mayor’s Office of Policing and Crime, the campaign has been raising awareness of the rights of young people, and where to go for help or confidential support in a crisis. 

Other fantastic programmes specifically help those who self-harm with their recovery. ‘Safe 2 Speak’ and the award-winning ‘Girls Xpress’ provide out-of-hours support, mentoring, and creative therapies, to help young women express themselves in productive, positive ways. The girls can take part in self-defence courses and healthy relationship workshops to discuss concerns surrounding young people, power, choice and safety. Guidance with regard to healthy relationships is particularly important given that the most serious sexual assaults are usually committed by someone known to the victim, most often a partner or ex-partner. 

The girls that attend these group have all experienced self-harm but are likely to have also faced other issues such as exposure to domestic violence, sexual assault, depression, bullying, rape, neglect, and low self-esteem, and they are often at risk of sexual exploitation. 

Furthermore, by assessing and reviewing how well these services are supporting young people, the Centre is constantly improving its techniques and provisions in light of the responses of service users. I am sure that the House will want to join me in commending the tremendous work of the WISH centre. And I invite the minister to come and visit the centre in Merton and see for herself the excellent work it does – I would personally be very happy to show her around. 

But despite the hard work of groups like the WISH centre, there are still gaps in the provisions and protections available to 16 and 17 year olds. 

Older teenagers are at the highest risk of being a victim of sexual crime, and it is clear that they desperately need to receive better protection. I hope that this protection will be delivered when the Policing and Criminal Justice Bill is considered in the New Year. Sexual offences against children at the age of 16 and 17 should always be treated seriously.

I fully agree that Child Abduction Warning Notices should be amended so that they can be used to protect vulnerable children of this age. And we also desperately need the law to recognise that 16 and 17 year olds can be groomed for sexual abuse through coercive and controlling behaviour such as the use of drugs and alcohol and fear or intimidation. Furthermore, the need for additional safeguards for children with learning disabilities of this age is clear.

I sincerely hope that we will hear in due course how the government plans to develop, revise and implement the legislation, policy and guidance for all children and young people who experience, or are at risk of, child sexual exploitation. 

It is high time that these victims received our full support, and proper protection in the law.'