Speech by Ann Coffey MP: Banishing the term “child prostitute”

Ann Coffey MP

Second Reading of the Serious Crime Bill, 5 January 2015

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The Serious Crime Bill is an opportunity for Parliament to remove all references to child prostitution from legislation. Britain should lead the world in outlawing the term.

This would send out a powerful and unequivocal message in the wake of the shocking high profile street grooming cases in Derby, Rotherham, Rochdale, Telford, Oxford and Stockport, that there is no such thing as a child prostitute – only a sexually abused or exploited child.

The term child prostitute is inappropriate and is an insult to innocent victims – who have been robbed of their childhood and then stigmatised and blamed.

There are currently 16 pieces of legislation that use the term ‘child prostitute,’ which implies an element of complicity and gives the idea of a consensual contract of a child offering sex in return for gifts or money.

It is shameful that the offence of loitering or soliciting for prostitution (contrary to section 1 of the Street Offences Act 1959, as amended by section 16 of the Policing and Crime Act 2009) can still be committed by a child aged 10 or over.

There is also the offence of ‘controlling a child prostitute or child involved in pornography’. As recently as June 2014, a Bolton man was charged by Greater Manchester police and found guilty of ‘controlling a child prostitute for financial gain’.

There can be no doubt that much has been done in recent years to take the word “prostitute” in relation to children out of government guidance. This is important because language shapes attitudes. However it is incongruous and wrong that it still remains in statute.

I hope that there will be cross party support for amendments I am planning to table to this Bill which will consign the term child prostitution to the history books together with amendments that will make it much harder for defendants to argue consent in cases of child sexual exploitation.

There has been a significant cultural shift away from talking about child prostitution to child exploitation and underlying this change is the acknowledgment that a child cannot consent to exchanging sex for financial gain. Removing references to child prostitution in legislation is the final piece of the jigsaw.

We should remember that a child for these purposes is under18.

It seems surprising now that up until only six years ago, the sexual exploitation of children was still being referred to as child prostitution in statutory guidance.

Fresh guidance in 2009 was entitled “Safeguarding Children and Young People from Sexual Exploitation” whereas previous guidance in 2000 had been entitled: “Safeguarding Children involved in prostitution”.

The 2009 guidance said: “Sexually exploited children should not be regarded as criminals and the primary law enforcement response must be directed at perpetrators who groom children for sexual exploitation.”

However the offences referring to child prostitution still remained on the statute book and this affects attitudes. Describing a young person as a “child prostitute” means they are not seen as victims and their sexual abuse is seen as self-inflicted.

These attitudes were identified in the Rochdale Overview Report in December 2013.

Social workers talked about the victims making ‘lifestyle choices’. One Rochdale father described being told by social workers that his daughter was a ‘child prostitute’.

Figures provided by the House of Commons library for my recent report: ‘Real Voices – Child sexual exploitation in Greater Manchester’ which was commissioned by Tony Lloyd, the Police and Crime Commissioner for Greater Manchester – show that between 1992 and 1996 there were 1,449 cautions – about 300 a year – for prostitution for under-18-year-olds and 976 court proceedings for loitering, or soliciting for the purposes of prostitution (Street Offences Act 1959).

In the past four years between 2010 and 2013 there were 15 cautions issued to juveniles under the age of 18 and seven defendants under the age of 18 were proceeded against. Of those seven defendants, three were found guilty but none were imprisoned.

Last year there were five cautions for prostitution related offences for those aged 15-17 and two were proceeded against and found guilty. One received a £35 fine and the other a Youth Referral Order.

Although these figures show that attitudes are changing, it is wrong that we still have legislation referring to child prostitution on the statute books because of the message it sends out.

Referring to a young person as a child prostitute fuels old fashioned attitudes that have done so much harm to children over the years because it feeds the idea that the child is in some way to blame for their own abuse.

Even now, current CPS guidelines state that children should generally be treated as a victim of sexual abuse, but still add and ‘only where there is a persistent and voluntary return to prostitution and where there is a genuine choice should a prosecution be considered.’

In my Real Voices report I said it was vital that wider culture and attitudes were tackled and changed if we are going to protect children and young people from sexual exploitation. We have seen how the culture at the time protected very well-known high profile people, including celebrities like Jimmy Savile.

Young people are still too often being blamed for being a victim of crime. I was shocked that the Crown Prosecution Service highlighted the fact that a victim wore cropped tops as a reason for throwing out a case.

Police, social workers, prosecutors and juries, made up of ordinary people, all carry attitudes around with them and language used in legislation heavily influences those attitudes.

The more people I spoke to during my inquiry, the more I realised that although we can come up with more effective ways of working for agencies, the most important thing we can do to protect children is to tackle the cultural attitudes that cocoon sex exploiters and enable them to get away with what they are doing under our noses.

There has been a sea change in the public’s attitude towards same sex relationships and the decriminalisation of those was an important step in effecting changes in attitudes. We must effect the same change in attitudes to the sexual exploitation of children.

Changing Attitudes

The exploitation of children for sex has been around for centuries.

In 1885 child prostitution was described in the Pall Mall Gazette by a journalist called Stead a “veritable slave trade” where children are – quotes- “snared, trapped and outraged either when under the influence of drugs or after a prolonged struggle in a room”. His words could have been describing events in Rochdale, Rotherham, Oxford and Derby more than 130 years later.

He campaigned for changes within the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, commonly known as Stead’s act, which raised the age of consent to 16.

However, even as late as the interwar period, judges were commenting on the ‘wickedness’ of girls under 16 seducing men twice as old as themselves. In the same period there were two conflicting key organisations developed to address child abuse: the Association for Moral and Social Hygiene and the National Vigilance Association. The former group emphasised the promiscuity and therefore the blame of girls aged 14 and 15 and the latter emphasised the abuse and therefore the abstention from blame of the children.

This confusion is apparent in the Street Offences Act 1959, which gives no age distinction to the term “common prostitute” or to soliciting offences. This should be changed to 18, because by still allowing for conviction for offences relating to prostitution, children are given adult status as offenders responsible for their own actions.

The 1990s saw a renewed focus on issues facing children involved in sexual exploitation.

During that time that language began to change from using the term ‘prostitution’ to ‘exploitation’. In 1995 the Children’s Society produced a report entitled “The Games Up” which helped to raise awareness about the sexual exploitation of children and young people.

The report was most influential in its revelations of the high numbers of young people being punished through the criminal justice system for offences relating to prostitution, offences that the report claimed result from experiences of abuse, poverty and coercion.

The report argued that there was no evidence to suggest that criminalising the young person helped their plight.

Interestingly enough that report written in 1995 said young people were extremely unlikely to turn to the police for help and they also felt alienated from social workers.

Unfortunately more than 20 years later in my ‘Real Voices’ report I found the same reluctance of children to confide in the police or social workers because of a lack of trust in those services.

Barnardos was also a key player in raising awareness of sexual exploitation and its high profile campaign “Whose Daughter Next?”1998 influenced government development of guidance on safeguarding children.

Now is the time

In 2012 the Office of the Children’s Commissioner inquiry into sexual exploitation in gangs and groups “I thought I was the only one: The only one in the Word” Interim report, called for a government review of all legislation and guidance which makes reference to children as ‘prostitutes’ or involved in prostitution. The Home Affairs Select Committee report into ‘Child sexual exploitation and the response to localised grooming’ in June 2013 supported all of the OCCs recommendations.

In 2012 the joint APPG report on Children missing from care, which I chaired, called for changes to Schedule 5 of the Children’s Homes Regulations 2001, which related to the obligation for homes to notify agencies of ‘Involvement or suspected involvement of a child accommodated at the home in prostitution’ to be changed to ‘suspicion that a child accommodated in a home is ‘at risk of abuse or child sexual exploitation’. I am pleased to say that has now been done.

The Howard League for Penal Reform in “Out of place; The policing and criminalisation of sexually exploited girls and young women” highlighted in 2012 the importance of language and said: “To speak of girls and young women’s involvement in prostitution without also stating that they are emotionally, physically or economically coerced is now the same as saying ‘girls and young women’s involvement in their own abuse’. To state that they are involved in prostitution is regarded as denial that they are being abused.”

And in April 2013, Barnardos, The report of the Parliamentary Inquiry into the effectiveness of legislation for tackling CSE and trafficking within the UK, chaired by my honourable friend for Rotherham, also recommended the removal of all references to child prostitution in legislation as did my own Real Voices report in October last year.

The government supports the principle that the phrase” child prostitute” should not be used and Sara Thornton, the Chief Constable of Thames Valley Police, said: “We try not to use the term child prostitute and our absolute aim is that we don’t use it. I think that if Parliament were to set the standard and say we’re thinking of new legislation and we don’t have the term child prostitute in the legislation, I think that would be a good step.”

The office of Simon Bailey, the Chief Constable of the Norfolk constabulary, who is the national lead for child protection and abuse investigation, told me:

“It is our opinion that the term Child Prostitution is no longer appropriate and does not truly reflect acts which should always be considered as Child Abuse.  Child Prostitution implies complicity by the child when they should only be considered as a victim.”

I agree and feel that the continued use of the term by the criminal justice system gives out the wrong messages to those who are being abused; the adults who abuse them and to the general public.

It could be argued that those offences involving child prostitution are so little used that it is immaterial that they remain offences. However, I would argue that as long as they remain they influence attitudes to consent, which defence lawyers exploit.

They are a barrier to a better understanding and awareness of the nature of sexual exploitation of children.

It is shameful to us all that the term child prostitute remains in law. It is an outdated insult to victims, many of whose lives have been ruined. It is inappropriate; no one believes it any longer; it is plain wrong and it should go!!

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