Labour has announced its new policies to deal with child abuse, including tougher powers for the police to stop abusers and a new child protection delivery unit to work across Government and drive progress in preventing abuse and exploitation.
According to Labour, these new measures are being announced alongside new data showing that police forces are struggling to keep up with the big increase in cases coming forward at the same time as they face major staffing cuts.
Although there has been a big increase in child protection conferences (organised when a child is considered to be at significant risk of harm), in many areas police are attending only a small proportion and the number of cases where the police do not attend is rising rapidly.
Some forces are warning that a quarter of their local resources are needed for child exploitation, even though their budget has been cut by 25 per cent.
Overall child abuse offences reported to the police have increased by 33 per cent, but the police are getting fewer prosecutions – child abuse prosecutions are down by 13 per cent.
There are long delays in dealing with online child abuse, with some forces reporting year-long delays in getting computer checks done, while less than 1,000 of the reported 20-30,000 NCA cases under Operation Notarise have been fully investigated, one year later.
Research from the NSPCC suggests more than half a million children are abused each year, but police forces are overwhelmed, according to Labour.
The Government is failing to get to grips with the growth in online child abuse.
Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper says a revolution is needed in the approach to dealing with child abuse, with more support for children and adult survivors, stronger prevention measures including compulsory sex and relationship education to teach about respect and consent, stronger partnership working and requirements on professionals to report abuse, and stronger powers for the police to stop abusers.
She is also warning that 1,000 officers should not be cut from policing next year, as resources for child protection are badly needed.
Labour’s proposed tougher powers to stop abusers are as follows:
· A Labour Government will bring in new stronger police to allow the police to prevent an adult from contacting or communicating with a child if there is evidence of abuse, sexual exploitation or grooming.
· The new measure is part of a wider package of reforms to focus efforts on preventing abuse, putting in place stronger deterrents and making it easier to bring criminal sanctions against abusers.
· Labour will strengthen the law so that Child Abduction Warning Notices or Sexual Risk Orders can be used in all cases when the police are concerned a child may be at risk of sexual exploitation – with tough criminal sanctions if a suspected abuser attempts to make contact with them again.
· Currently Child Abduction Warning Notices have no criminal sanction for a breach – meaning abusers are getting away with it. Sexual Risk Orders require evidence of an “act of a sexual nature” having taken place – meaning the child has already been abused. Labour’s changes will make it easier for police to prevent contact between children and suspected abusers and to pursue criminal proceedings if this is ignored.
· Professor Jay’s report into Rotherham CSE found that though abduction notices were used, there was no criminal justice sanction involved and no abusers brought to justice: “Operation Czar, begun in 2009, led to the issuing of abduction notices, but no convictions. Operation Chard in 2011 led to abduction notices and 11 arrests but no convictions.”
· These new powers would also send a powerful message to the authorities that interventions are available and victims should not be criminalised. In one shocking case uncovered by Professor Jay in her report into Rotherham CSE, an 11 year old child was identified at risk of child sexual exploitation, but no action was taken. A month later, she was found in a derelict house with another child, and a number of men. She was arrested for being drunk and disorderly. None of the men were arrested.
· Labour will be voting to establish this tougher new regime through Child Abduction Warning Notices and Orders today in an amendment to the Serious Crime Bill – led by Sarah Champion MP and the Labour frontbench.
· But the Shadow Home Secretary will make clear today, if Conservative and Liberal Democrats oppose this move, a Labour Government will introduce it as early as possible after the election.
In addition, Labour is proposing a new Child Protection Unit in the heart of Government:
· A Labour Government will set up a new Child protection unit to improve standards in all agencies involved in keeping children safe and bringing those who abuse children to justice. The new Unit will put prevention, earlier intervention, stronger deterrence, and a firm pursuit of offenders at the heart of child protection.
· The Unit will be jointly run by the Home Office and Department for Education, but will work across Government to promote a more joined-up approach between Departments and to encourage more collaboration and information-sharing at a local level between police and other agencies.
Local collaboration will play an important part:
· Police forces are struggling to keep up with the scale of the problem. Labour is publishing new FOI analysis, and separate reporting from HMIC, showing huge increases in demand for police attendance at child protection meetings. These are intended to bring together representatives from all local agencies involved in protecting a child, if it is felt there is significant risk of harm to that child.
· This analysis shows more conferences are going ahead without police officers, with some forces attending fewer meetings year on year, and others forces not recording any information about their attendance.
· This raises serious concerns about how effective child protection conferences are and the capacity within police forces to fully respond when risks to children are raised.
· It comes on top of evidence from individual forces suggesting that in some areas 25 per cent of neighbourhood policing resources are now allocated towards the prevention of child sexual exploitation, that the cost of child protection investigations to forces has gone up substantially at a time when budgets have been heavily cut, and that there are long delays in pursuing online abuse cases.
Labour says it is important to recognise the scale of online child abuse:
· Just as people turned a blind eye to child abuse in care homes, in the BBC and the NHS or child sexual exploitation in Rotherham, Rochdale and Oxfordshire, Labour says we are now turning a blind eye to online child abuse
· Reports suggest the National Crime Agency has details of between 20,000 – 30,000 people who have accessed child abuse images, and has investigated fewer than 1,000.
· There are long delays in passing on intelligence on online child abusers to local police forces. In the case of Myles Bradbury, a paediatrician from Cambridge, the delay of more than a year meant children were placed at unnecessary risk.
· The government is still withholding important information on the scale of online abuse cases reported to the police and NCA, and the extent of delays in investigating them, both nationally and locally. Labour has called on the Home Secretary to publish details.
That is a lot to take on board in one sitting. At first sight it seems that a great deal of work has gone into these policies. But are they right?
Your opinions are invited.
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