HL Deb 07 December 1995 vol 567 cc1043-6

3.9 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Worcester asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether, in the light of the recent Children's Society report on child prostitution, they will strengthen the guidance issued to police in order to make protection rather than prosecution the priority in dealing with children who are involved in prostitution.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Blatch)

My Lords, the policing of prostitution is an operational matter for chief officers of police and the police service works closely with other agencies to protect children from all forms of abuse and exploitation. As the welfare of the child is the paramount consideration, the prosecution of juveniles for offences relating to prostitution is an exceptional step taken only where other interventions are likely to be inappropriate or ineffective.

The Lord Bishop of Worcester

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that reply. Given the indication in a recent report by the Children's Society that prostitution on the streets is an issue of survival for young people, will the noble Baroness agree that in order to remove children from such vulnerable activity there has to be collaboration between government and voluntary societies? Will she outline to the House proposals by Her Majesty's Government to remove this scandal from our streets?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I have to agree with the right reverend Prelate. This is a scourge involving the exploitation of children up with which we should not put. The Government believe very strongly that agencies should work together. That includes the police, who take such collaborative work very seriously. The report, however, contains an appeal to decriminalise; not to caution, not to press prosecutions and not to convict. I have to say that there are some very knowing and street-wise young people under the age of 18 out on the streets. It is very important that they understand the wrongness of that activity. At the same time, however, we have an absolute obligation to concern ourselves with their protection.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate raises the choice between protection and prosecution. When that choice is being made, is not one primary consideration a destination for such children that will free them from the temptation to take drugs? Is that not one of the major factors in child prostitution?

Baroness Blatch

No, my Lords, it is not the main factor. Certainly children get into activities on the streets for many different reasons. We saw graphic illustrations of the abuse and exploitation of children on our television screens last night. It is not only a question of drugs. It is important that those with responsibility for children, particularly of primary school age and 10 to 13 year-olds—their parents, guardians or those who have responsibility for them when they are in care—are first in the front line to protect them and keep them at home at night, not on the streets.

Baroness Faithfull

My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister not agree that the Children Act 1989 needs amendment? So many children who are on the streets as prostitutes have been in residential care and have no home. Should not social services have a duty to look after such children after they have left care?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, my noble friend makes an important point. Children who are vulnerable when they leave care should be protected. But there are many agencies other than social services. Social services have responsibility for people of all ages in the community. It is those who work with children in care who have a particular responsibility until the young person is deemed to be of adult age.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, would it be possible for consideration to be given to the idea that our very able police might be encouraged to participate in relation to this incredibly difficult matter with parent-teacher associations? A triumvirate of police, parents and teachers could assist in eradicating this awful problem.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, we continue to do everything we can to encourage all agencies, especially those directly involved with the care of children; teachers, parents, guardians, social care homes, children's homes and the police. The police have gone a very long way, not only specifically to train staff who work with children but to set up special units within forces, so that any child who comes under their auspices and who is suspected of any criminal activity, particularly of this kind, can be dealt with. Collaboration between all the agencies is very important.

Lord Renton

My Lords, has it come to the notice of the Government that in recent years there has been the tragedy of children being taken abroad, apparently for holidays, and being sold into prostitution? Although the practice is difficult to detect or prevent, will the Government bear it in mind and take whatever steps are necessary to try to reduce it?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I hope my noble friend will he comforted by some of the measures that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary is to take. We are seeking the greatest possible collaboration with other countries to do what we can to put an end to this evil trade.

Lord Ewing of Kirkford

My Lords, can the Minister explain why, after 16 years of Conservative government boasting of so many investments in social policy, these horrendous social problems are now manifesting themselves on the streets of the United Kingdom?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, it is very unfortunate that the noble Lord has sought to introduce party politics. This question concerns everybody and it is very important to get it into perspective. The report claims as fact but quite erroneously—I make the point only because of the noble Lord's remarks—that children of primary school age are being cautioned and convicted of these crimes. It is not true. The main area of cautions and conviction relates to 15, 16 and 17 year-olds. Those are young people who should know better than to be out on the street engaging in these activities. It is a message to the whole community, and particularly to parents, to take much more of an interest in what children are doing, where they are, and what activities they are involved in outside the home.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, the Minister referred to the previous questioner introducing party politics into the debate. All of us in this House can understand why that charge is wounding. However, can the Minister advise the House as to the situation 20 years ago? It seems that the problem has got worse over the past few years. The House would welcome information about its prevalence 10 years and 20 years ago.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, bringing party politics to this subject was not wounding; it was inappropriate. The Government have made parents more responsible for their children before the court; it is now possible to bind over parents in court. We continue to make it easier for young people to come forward, tell us what is going on in their lives and talk about abuse. The police are making it easier for children to talk about these matters; social services departments and other departments are working with children. The chances are that many of these activities were going on but we did not know too much about them. We have to continue to flush out these evil activities. All of us, all in this Chamber, should do what we can to root them out.

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