HL Deb 20 January 1999 vol 596 cc579-82

2.56 p.m.

Lord Hylton asked Her Majesty's Government:

What means they are using or planning to increase the number of prosecutions for abusing and exploiting children under 18; and when they expect to publish a national plan concerning child abuse.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the Government are committed to do everything they possibly can to deal with those who sexually abuse and/or exploit children. There are a number of initiatives. The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, will be aware from his particular interest in this matter that recently the Government issued draft guidance on children involved in prostitution. We are implementing additional measures to assist child witnesses to give evidence in court. We are developing the details of the national plan and will be consulting interested organisations within the next few months.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, I am very grateful for that reply. Can the Minister put a date on when the national plan will emerge? Further, can he say whether the Government are yet able to draw conclusions from the pilot schemes in Wolverhampton and Nottingham where the police, voluntary organisations and others have been working together very closely?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the ministerial group which will deal with the national plan is to meet early next month. We expect therefore the document to be ready for consultation in early March. Very significantly, the pilot schemes have been effective in diverting children who are victims from being treated as though they are victims within the criminal justice system.

Viscount Addison

My Lords, can the Minister update the House on what is being done to curb the abuse of children of 18 and under through the world wide web, particularly in this country?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, a large number of organisations carefully monitor the web. As the noble Viscount implies, it is extremely difficult to deal with this particular abuse of children given the advancing technology. There are schemes in place and a co-operative approach between the Home Office and the Department of Trade and Industry in which I have myself taken part.

Lord Milverton

My Lords, is the Minister able to say at what age a child may be asked by the authorities, social workers or the police about this wretched subject of abuse? I ask that question for certain reasons. Does the noble Lord agree that sometimes it is wrong to say that a child should not be questioned below a certain age? I know of a police force where children are questioned by expert people not in uniform but in "civvies"; and they are able to "bring forth" from the child. What age must children be before those people are legally able to question them? It could perhaps be an earlier age than at present.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am not aware of any statutory regime or uniform police practice which states that a child is too young to be interviewed. One has to take expert advice and consider the circumstances of the individual child. Those circumstances do not always depend on chronological age.

A number of schemes, one run by the NSPCC—I declare a past interest: I was a trustee—deal with those exact points. How does one interview a young child as part of the investigative process without further damaging that child?

Earl Russell

My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the most practical forms of help to children who may be victims of abuse is the provision of refuges under Section 51 of the Children Act? Is the noble Lord aware that at present we have only three such refuges in the whole country which nowhere near meet the need?

The Minister's noble friend Lady Hayman in the past gave me a crumb of hope that the number might grow. Can the noble Lord give me any hope that that crumb may one day grow into a crust?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, refuges under Section 51 of the Children Act are one possibility. They are not the only one. The voluntary organisations, not simply the NSPCC, also provide refuges for children in an informal, sometimes non-statutory, way. The answer is not always to take the child away from his family circumstances. That may be grievously damaging. The issue is to deal with every child complainant as an individual who is not simply a small adult but who needs to be dealt with in a tender and careful way.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, I refer to the answer given by the Minister to my noble friend Lord Hylton. Will the noble Lord say that young girls aged 15 or 16 may be kept out of prison when they fall into prostitution and drug abuse, and have other treatment?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, no one wishes to see a child of 15 or 16 in custody for anything. However, in some circumstances our experience of life is such that some children, for their own protection as well as in the public interest, have to be taken into custody. However, we must ensure that the custodial circumstances—they would not of course be prison—need to be therapeutic and rehabilitative. In the not too distant future I hope to be able to make a more specific announcement, as I promised last year.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, can the Minister tell us what co-operation we are receiving from the authorities in the European Union? After all, it is not solely a national problem.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the noble Lord is right. It is an international problem. The ramifications extend way beyond Europe. We are developing closer co-operation between police forces and our colleagues in Europe. It is a continuing process. I am heartened to be able to say that it is developing well. But we must not limit our horizons to Europe alone. Notoriously, there are countries where children are abused unfortunately by nationals of this country.

Lord Wise

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the voluntary organisations' consultancy services are unable to carry out police checks because their funding is limited? Organisations have to use the Department of Health consultancy services which have proved unfortunately to be somewhat unreliable on certain occasions.

Does the noble Lord agree that charitable organisations should be given access to police checks in place of the VOCS? I declare an interest. I am privileged to be chairman of the Welsh Trust for the Prevention of Abuse.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, undoubtedly the noble Lord puts his finger on an important matter. It has been made quite plain that the Home Office is determined to disseminate information as widely as possible relating to those who may be a danger to children. As regards the investigation of these matters, I expect a report from the inspectorate of police to deal with these wider questions.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, will the Government urge, encourage and make it possible for local authorities to use their ample powers under the Children Act to prevent child prostitution and provide ways out of it for those who become so involved?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, yes. I think that we have given every such encouragement. The draft guidance on children involved in prostitution was sent out as recently as 29th December of last year. Every organisation which has any connection with children has an extremely important part to play. That consultative and co-operative approach is the way to protect children.

Lord Craigmyle

My Lords, I am pleased that the Government now accept that the best defence for children is to live in families within marriage. Will the Government make it possible in future for such families to be taxed at a rate which will not make it more attractive for the family to split up thereby exposing the children to greater risk?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I know of no causal connection between the rates of taxation and incidents of child abuse.