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Government resists pressure in Lords on Bill to combat criminal exploitation of children

29 October 2021

Bishop Butler and others seek to add definition to Bill and to impose new duties

Lime Pictures/Channel 4 picture posed by model

THE Home Office has resisted efforts in the House of Lords, by the Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, and others, to reform the legal framework for addressing the criminal exploitation of children.

Amendments to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill proposed by peers, including several Lords Spiritual, would have created a statutory definition of child criminal exploitation. They would also have required councils, police forces, and others to work together to stop violent gangs from forcing children to break the law.

Lord Rosser (Labour), who led on the group of amendments, said that they had been informed by research and advocacy by Barnardo’s and the Children’s Society. “Children and vulnerable young people who are being pulled into violence require a bespoke response that recognises their particular risk factors,” he said during a Committee Stage debate on Wednesday of last week.

Drug gangs involved in county-lines networks often coerce children into trafficking drugs around the country, carrying weapons, and attacking rival gangs, charities have reported.

Bishop Butler, the Church of England’s lead bishop for education, said that the Church had seen the “terrible damage caused by serious youth violence and by the criminal exploitation of children”.

Only one in three local authorities has a plan for responding to child criminal exploitation, however, and county lines, by definition, span several areas; thus it was imperative that the Government create a national “shared understanding of child criminal exploitation so that children do not fall through the gaps if they live in one area but are exploited in another”, he said.

Nevertheless, the Home Office Minister Baroness Williams of Trafford said that the Government would not support the amendments. The Home Office believed that adding new statutory duties or definitions was not necessary: councils, police forces, clinical commissioning groups and other agencies were already by default required to address serious violence.

A previous review had already considered the question of a statutory definition, and had concluded that the definition in the 2015 Modern Slavery Act was flexible enough to encompass it, she said. In response, Lord Rosser withdrew the amendments.

Religious leaders have also written to the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, urging her to strip new restrictions on public protests from the Bill because they may infringe religious liberties. One of the proposals would give the police powers to shut down protests if they are deemed too noisy, which, the faith leaders said, could affect people expressing their faith through street preaching or singing in public, The Independent reported.

The signatories include the Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, and Muslim, Jewish, Roman Catholic, and Sikh representatives.

The Bill has further days of debate in Committee Stage ahead, before it returns for its Third Reading.

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