HL Deb 14 October 1998 vol 593 cc917-20

3.8 p.m.

Baroness Lockwood asked Her Majesty's Government:

What was the outcome of the scheme to pilot the good practice guidelines for dealing with child prostitutes, drawn up by the Association of Chief Police Officers together with non-governmental organisations and social services; and when the new guidelines will be available.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Williams of Mostyn)

My Lords, the ACPO guidelines on child prostitution were prepared in order to provide a structure in which these children are recognised as being the victims of abuse. The emphasis of the criminal justice system should be to deal more effectively with abusers rather than the children involved. The guidelines were piloted in Wolverhampton and Nottinghamshire. They were successful.

The Government have welcomed the development of the guidelines. They will provide an important contribution to the joint Home Office/Department of Health inter-agency guidance on children in prostitution which is now being prepared. We have said we will consult on our guidance later this year. We shall also conduct a separate, longer-term evaluation of those two pilots.

Baroness Lockwood

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that encouraging reply. What is the timetable for the Home Office/Department of Health guidelines? I understand that my noble friend says they are to be consulted upon. What is the timetable for their consultative process and for the final publication of the guidelines? Many of the voluntary organisations feel there is a need for greater urgency on this matter than there has been in the past.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the matter that my noble friend identifies is extremely important, but it is also important that we get this right. In specific answer to her question, I expect that the guidance will be issued for consultation in the middle of next month.

Lord Henley

My Lords, the Minister will remember that as long ago as the end of March we debated an amendment on this very issue, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, to the Crime and Disorder Bill. I believe that at that time the Minister rightly dismissed the noble Lord's suggestions because he said that further work needed to be done. He rightly promised that the report from his department and the Department of Health would appear sometime in the autumn. Are we now being told that merely a draft of that report will appear in the autumn and that further guidance will then have to be issued following consultation on that report? When will we get the final version?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, what I said in March I repeat today to your Lordships: guidance will be issued in the autumn—that is, the middle of next month. When the guidance has been issued, we want as wide a response as possible. A large number of voluntary organisations have already been notified that we would welcome their contributions. We want to produce the final guidelines in as perfect a form as possible and as soon as possible. However, in the nature of things, that will depend on who responds and in what timescale. There is no doubt in my mind that these matters must be attended to as quickly as possible for the protection of the children involved.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, can the Minister say whether the work done since March indicates that there is a real willingness to work together on the part of all the statutory agencies in co-operation with the voluntary bodies which have pioneered work in this area?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

Yes, my Lords, I can confirm that. The pilots have been remarkably successful. In Wolverhampton, in the 12 months of 1996, 23 children under the age of 18 came to police notice. In the 12 months to 31st July 1998, when the pilots were active, 66 such children were identified and 15 men and three women have been charged with serious criminal offences. A similar pattern emerged in Nottinghamshire. Those were the results of a good deal of co-operation.

However, I take the noble Lord's point. In August we asked a large number of voluntary organisations, including Barnardo's, ChildLine, Christian Aid, NCH Action For Children, the NSPCC and many other similar bodies to be ready to offer their thoughts on the guidance that, as I said earlier, we intend to publish next month.

Baroness David

My Lords, if the proposed guidance and guidelines are accepted, will that mean that there will be legislation and that children under 16 will no longer be prosecuted?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, legislation is not a necessary or inevitable consequence of guidance. I have already indicated—I believe that this is a persuasive argument—that decriminalising such activity will simply engender a perverse and perverted market in preying on young girls of 15, 16 and 17 because an appalling signal will be given that that is no longer a criminal activity. I repeat that the point is that we must prosecute and deal firmly with offenders. I believe that we have let children down over the past years.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, can my noble friend assure the House that local authority associations will be consulted? Can my noble friend tell us what activity has taken place in pursuance of the sex offenders order which was considered by this House and which is now in operation? Can my noble friend say to what extent the order has been used and how successful it has been?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, it is very early days to deal with my noble friend's second point. On his first point, we have to work closely with local authorities. Having been present during our debates, my noble friend will recognise that an important theme of the Crime and Disorder Act is that one has to deal with specific crimes on the basis of local knowledge. That is why the partnership between the police and the local authorities is so important and is defined in that Act.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton

My Lords, perhaps I may follow the question asked by my noble friend Lady David. Can my noble friend the Minister say how many children under the age of 16 have been charged with a criminal offence under the Sex Offenders Act and what steps have been taken to rehabilitate those children?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I do not have those figures available, but I shall research such figures as are available and write to my noble friend about them. I shall, of course, place in the Library a copy of such research as there is.

Baroness Lockwood

My Lords, can my noble friend tell me how far the good practice arising from the ACPO code of practice and the pilot schemes is being disseminated throughout the country?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, there are two specific areas. As it is a joint consultative body of chief officers of police, ACPO circulates its own memoranda and details among its members. However, one needs wider dissemination than simply to police forces. That is why the Probation Service and, as my noble friend Lord Graham of Edmonton pointed out, the local government associations are closely involved, together with relevant departments across the whole spectrum of government. In the past, one of the problems has been that the effort has been too fragmented, with not all the relevant organisations being fully engaged.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, following the question asked by my noble friend Lord Graham of Edmonton, will my noble friend the Minister make it clear to local authorities that they should be extremely careful about the people they recruit to deal with children, bearing in mind the recent surfeit of prosecutions on this subject?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I know from my own experience that the local government authorities are well aware of the danger and of the need to have careful checks of prospective employees if they are to have any contact with those who are vulnerable, particularly young children.