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Bishops plead the cause of victims of child criminal exploitation

31 January 2024

Bishop of Manchester warns peers of ‘the adultification of children’

Andy Aitchison 

Children and relatives arrive at HM Prison Send, a women’s prison in Surrey, to visit family members

Children and relatives arrive at HM Prison Send, a women’s prison in Surrey, to visit family members

CHILDREN caught up in crimes such as the Rochdale grooming scandal should be treated as victims, not as criminals, the Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, has said.

Dr Walker was speaking in the House of Lords during the Committee Stage of the Victims and Prisoners Bill, on Wednesday of last week, in support of an amendment that sought to introduce a clear definition of child criminal exploitation. This would include any child under the age of 18 who was “encouraged, expected or required to take part in any activity that constitutes a criminal offence”.

Dr Walker spoke of “the adultification of children”, whereby “a child is treated as a grown-up when they are caught up in wrongdoing. Moreover, we know that in the absence of a strong countervailing pressure, this is disproportionately applied to black children. This has been a long-standing concern of many civil-society organisations focused on countering the exploitation of children.”

He continued: “In my own diocese of Manchester, we are still reeling from the discovery of the extent of grooming gangs exploiting children for sexual crimes, most notably — but, I doubt, exclusively — in Rochdale. If the children caught up in these crimes had been seen by the authorities primarily as victims, and treated as such, I believe that the gangs would have been brought to justice far sooner.”

The amendment was not moved.

Dr Walker also spoke in support of an amendment, which he sponsored, that sought to ensure that victims of crime were aware of, and signposted to, a full range of specialist services.

“It is not good enough for a service to exist; the people it is meant to support have to know it is there, and be able to access it,” he said. The intention of the amendment was “to make it clear that responsibility for ensuring that victims can access services does not lie with the potential service user”. Too many victims, he said, were “simply not aware of what they ought to be able to look for for help — or they cannot access that help in a format that meets their needs”.

Victims of crime needed to be put “in a place from where they can access the service”. Simply handing them a leaflet was not enough: “It requires enduring engagement by service providers until the message can be heard, and that may be some considerable time later.”

The Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, spoke in support of two amendments sponsored by the Bishop of Bristol, the Rt Revd Vivienne Faull, who was unable to be in the chamber. The amendment sought to ensure that victims of modern slavery, and their children, were included in the Bill’s definition of victim.

There was “an urgent need”, she said, to extend victims’ rights to children of modern slavery, who, research suggested, could number as many as 5000.

The amendments were not moved.

During a debate on persistent absenteeism in schools, on the same day, Bishop Treweek asked the Government to “put in place a statutory mechanism to identify and support children with a parent in prison, as this would significantly reduce school absenteeism for those families”. The charity Children Heard and Seen, which works with children whose parents are in prison, reported that its support services improved attendance significantly.

The Roman Catholic charity Pact, which supports prisoners and their families, this week urged peers to support an amendment to the Victims and Prisoners Bill that would require the Justice Secretary to publish data annually about children who have a parent in prison.

“Estimates suggest that around 312,000 children are affected by this issue every year, but accurate and accessible information is currently not collected,” a press release said. “There is no statutory safety net or system for identifying children whose primary carer has been removed from their child’s life to serve a prison sentence.”

If children who have a parent in prison were not supported, the charity said, they were “more likely to suffer from problems later in life, including mental health problems, homelessness, and poverty”.

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