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Baroness Walmsley: The Committee will perhaps not be surprised to hear that I generally support the amendments, as I generally oppose the inappropriate criminalisation of young people, particularly those of proximity in age who experiment in a sexual way. However, my main purpose in speaking is to oppose the Question that Clause 14 stand part of the Bill, which is part of this grouping. In a way, that is a protest about how tightly the Bill has been drawn with regard to young people who commit sexual offences, thereby preventing us tabling amendments about their treatment. Opposing the Question is the only way in which we can have that debate.
It seems to me that young people who demonstrate sexually harmful behaviour are very damaged. The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, and I recently visited a centre where such people receive expert help from a highly-trained multi-agency team of professionals. It became apparent to us as we listened to some of the case histories that society had failed each and every one of them. Every one had suffered neglect, physical or sexual violence, or severe deprivation of some sort. Research shows a very high correlation between being subjected to physical violence as a small child and the development of some sort of sexual dysfunction or aberrant behaviour later in life.
How inappropriate then to deal with such young people by the criminal law. They are victims themselves. The more I looked into the research, the more it became very clear to me that a great deal could be done to help those children to avoid reoffending. The earlier the treatment is begun, the more successful it will be. Sadly, there are not enough centres such as the one that we visited and those run by the NSPCC all over the country.
It is also sad that there is currently no obligation on the police to consult a multi-disciplinary professional team about the best action to take, with regard to both the welfare of the child and the safety of society, when a complaint is made. In addition, if the case goes for prosecution and the child is convicted, there is no obligation on the youth offending panel or court to obtain a professional assessment before deciding on the sentence.
There is some very good practice, however. In Greater Manchester there is a protocol for such cases, and an initial assessment is carried out to decide what is in the best interests of the child and society before proceedings get under way. That is getting very good results but is not happening everywhere, despite the guidance on the final warning scheme issued by the Home Office juvenile offenders unit. The guidance encourages prior assessment by the youth offending teams to inform the police decision about whether to
Similar arrangements already exist for adult sex offenders when they have been convicted. Given the importance of the welfare of the child, however, it is important that those arrangements are made prior to prosecution everywhere in the country.
"Prosecution" and "sentence" are inappropriate words in respect of those cases. "Treatment" is a much better word. Treatmenteither in a residential or non-residential situation, depending on the properly assessed riskis much more effective than putting such a child in the normal youth custody situation, where he may not receive the specialist help that he needs. Surely our objective must be to put right the damage that the parents or society at large have done to those children and prevent re-offending. That would protect other children from possible future predation. Surely they have a right to expect that. That should be mandatory, not optional. We have failed them, which is bad enough. However, to compound their misery by punishing them instead of treating them and helping them to put their lives in order is appalling in a society that calls itself civilised.
I beg the Minister to find a way of reassuring me and of ensuring that children in this situation will have a right and an entitlement to have their welfare taken into account if they offend. We should keep them out of the criminal justice system wherever possible and put them into the child protection system instead when they commit acts that society rightly abhors.
The Earl of Listowel: I will speak to the Question whether Clause 14 stand part of the Bill. I will also briefly speak to Amendment No. 67, which stands in my name. Before doing so, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, for speaking so eloquently about the need to treat children as children in this regard.
We are well aware of what needs to be done. The Minister earlier made it clear that we know what needs to be done, although it is not now being done. In, I believe, 1991, the NCH produced a report clearly laying out the range of services and interventions necessary with this group of children. In 1999, I believe, the Department of Health produced guidance about safeguarding children which clearly laid out the range of services needed by those children, who are at risk and are children in need. That depends on close co-operation between many different agencies. Each child behaving in that way needs an assessment. The Minister kindly wrote to me
Baroness Blatch: It is right to be concerned about vulnerable children and children in need and those needing a great deal of support. However, does the noble Earl agree that this catch-all group of amendments also involves robust and extremely maturesometimes not mentally mature, but certainly
One must bear in mind that some of those young people are deliberate about what they do, have no remorse and are very unattractive. A range of children is involved. Most of those children are of the sort described by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley; they have experienced abuse and neglect. Even those who demonstrate such a lack of compunction for what they do have often also had very poor experiences. All the same, it is important to make it clear that they are responsible for their actions. It is therefore acceptable and desirable for a small minority to be entered on the sex offenders' register.
This is a complex area and I do not seek to argue that there should be only one approach. The research clearly showsthis is well evidencedthat often in cases of children abusing other children, the children who abuse are often themselves in need. I have spoken to therapists who have worked with such children, and they say that it is quite difficult to like them and to want to work with them. They do not demonstrate any compunction for buggering several children, for example. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why there has been admitted slippage in this regard; I believe that the Minister will admit that this area has been neglected for many years. I have heard that from many organisations working in this field. One reason for that is because so many of the children are so unattractive.
We know what needs to be done. Are the services that are necessary to address the needs of those children out there? We should also consider the risk that those children involve; we cannot have them continuing to abuse other children. We should remember that while many of those children grow out of such behaviour, many adult sex offenders report that their behaviour began in their adolescence. This is an important matter of public protection.
If we intervene early and effectively, the great consensus of professional opinion in this area is that if one wants to stop adult offending behaviour, it is best to get in there as early as possibleperhaps even before adolescence startswith an effective, multi-agency approach to the problem and to the child. It is imperative that there is a clear strategy in this area. That has been lacking for many years. The National Organisation for the Treatment of Abusers made that clear in literature that it sent to me.
This matter involves public protection and child welfare elements. To illustrate that, I give the example of Darren, a five and a half year-old boy, who was, I believe, severely neglected when he was less than two. His brother had abused two girls and at the age of five and a half Darren was displaying severe difficulties with concentration and unacceptable sexual behaviour. One
I was grateful to the Minister for acknowledging earlier the gaps in service provision in that area and the need to give more thought to the needs and risks associated with the children and an appropriate response. What timescale does he have for pulling together what must be done to address those children's needs, and who is responsible? Responsibility falls principally between the Department of Health and the Home Office, but several other agencies can be involved, such as the Department for Education and Skills. Is Hilary Benn, the Minister who has taken over from John Denham as the Minister responsible for children, now responsible for that area?
Amendment No. 67, which also appears in my name, would leave out subsection (2). It is a probing amendment; more specifically, my concern is that there should be a preliminary assessment in nearly every case where a child abuses another child. That assessment would inform the decision taken by the Crown Prosecution Service if the case goes that far. Such an assessment would ensure that the welfare of the child is borne in mind as he goes through proceedings, if that is the course of action which is decided on. If there is a question of the child being included on the sex offenders' register, there should be a more thorough assessment. That assessment should involve a child psychologist, because many of the children concerned have learning disabilities and only a child psychologist is equipped to detect them. I look forward to the Minister's response.
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