Article: Changes to sexual risk orders opportunity to ‘empower parents’

Originally published on the Pace blog.

Much progress has been made just one year on from the publication of an ACPO commissioned review of civil prevention orders, as new legislation is now making way for an overhaul.

We recently caught up with Hugh Davies, OBE QC, the lead author of that original report and an independent member of the ACPO child protection executive board, to talk about what the recent changes mean for families affected by child sexual exploitation.

Pace: New measures have come in as part of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime & Policing Act 2014 that reform civil prevention orders. What is the significance of these recent legislative reforms for cases of child sexual exploitation in the UK?

HD: One purpose of the legislation is to enable the police to more easily act early to disrupt organised grooming activity in the United Kingdom. Crucially, it isn’t dependent on somebody already having been convicted of a ‘qualifying sexual offence’. The new orders are intended to be much more realistic as to the nature of this offending. We very often will not have a complaint from the vulnerable people and children who are groomed because they don’t see themselves as victims.

The legislation is intended to allow police and parents to respond to these patterns of behaviour by adults, and in effect say to a court, “We need an order to disrupt this behaviour and prevent the sexual abuse it will otherwise lead to”. In cases where the behaviour continues in breach of a prevention order, that will represent a criminal offence punishable by imprisonment.

The new system will also allow the police to apply to prevent those representing a sexual risk to children from travelling abroad without the need for them already to have a qualifying conviction for sexual offending. This is a really important change.

You mentioned that police and parents have a role here. Can you expand on how you feel parents could use the new orders if their child is at risk of sexual exploitation?

The familiar, but no less dispiriting, case is that of a vulnerable child who is, to the parent’s knowledge and experience, obviously being manipulated or groomed by an adult or adults with the ultimate objective of sexual abuse. The manipulation or grooming activity is very obvious to the parents, but might not be so obvious to the child. Part of the manipulation is removing the child from their pre-existing social environment, and impressing them with lifts in cars, parties, drink and so on. Parents and guardians have felt, I think, powerless at times to get the police to do anything to disrupt the activity, because the police have had to wait for a defined sexual activity to take place. Police and parents have watched situations progress and deteriorate without any apparent ability to intervene.

With the new orders, parents will hopefully be able to go to the police with concerns that their child is being manipulated for a sexual purpose, and the police will be able to get an order to disrupt that progression. This should include orders preventing the groomer from, for example, driving your daughter or son, or even any unrelated child, around town, taking them to parties, giving them alcohol: in other words all the pre-cursive activity that is so obviously related to intended sexual activity that the police have not been able to disrupt in the past.

Your 2013 report for ACPO was instrumental in bringing these changes forward. Can you tell us a bit about what inspired this?

It had become obvious to me that the existing civil prevention order system was really not working. The police were being over-conservative in applying for orders: some local forces did not understand the regime, and it was not applied consistently. Our report demonstrated that the system was over complicated and under-used, and that relatively straightforward changes to the law could address these issues and produce real benefits for child protection.

Peter Davies, the ACPO lead, commissioned the report and – importantly – made it public. This was absolutely essential. It was also to his great credit because he was essentially publishing a report that was in some ways critical of the performance of the police. He put child protection first. I sent the report to Nicola Blackwood MP, and her role in converting the report to legislation is not to be underestimated. The result was a well-researched (multi-agency) independent report; an informed and committed MP; pressure from NGOs such as Pace and ECPAT; and heightened public concern on these issues arising from the recent Oxford and Telford trials. In this context the Home Office then acted remarkably quickly, with complete cross-party support, to produce legislation.

Pace: The new sexual risk orders become law as part of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime & Policing Act 2014. What happens now?

HD: A date for these changes to come into force has not yet been published. The Home Office is currently drafting Statutory Guidance on the implementation and purpose of the new orders. It is vital this reflects the reality of documented patterns of offending in this area, and accordingly enables the police to disrupt sexually motivated activity. If there is to be the change we want to see, it is also going to be absolutely crucial that local forces, and multi-agency safeguarding hub (“MASH”) teams, make themselves aware of these new powers, and actually use them.

One thing I think that has changed for the good in the last year, to give real momentum to the police actually using these orders, is a much greater and direct role from the centre through the College of Policing. Its role is to ensure that there is effective training to local police forces about these changes in the law, and that orders are applied for. From initial discussions I am confident that the College will deliver much better results in terms of local performance than we saw before, and we will have a much more accountable system reporting back. I would like to see a SPOC (“single point of contact”) in each force that accounts to the College in relation to these specific issues.

As you have mentioned, grooming can often work to normalise abuse for the child such that they might not see themselves as a victim. Do you have any advice to parents on how they can best use this legislation if their child is at risk or being exploited?

Everyone in policing, and child protection agencies more generally, should understand just how disempowered parents and guardians feel as their child is concurrently groomed for sexual activity and estranged from them as part of that process. Sexual abuse often follows a long period of manipulation. It is a sustained pattern of behaviour to isolate the child from social support, and parents have felt powerless to intervene.

Parents can play a pro-active role in relation to the new orders. Whilst the application to the court for an order has to be made by the police, it depends on the evidence the police are able to present. This is unlikely to come from the child, and if possible any child will be removed from the court process as a witness in any event.

If a parent is concerned that their child is being drawn into a dangerous situation, is being manipulated, it is important to speak to the police and inform them of their concerns as soon as those concerns arise. An informed officer will be able to manage the situation from that point, and it may be that any one report is evidence of a wider system of grooming by the same adult or group of adults.

If parents keep a chronological log to document the activity or behaviour, preferably by named adults, towards their child, and a history of the effect on their child (for example through alcohol use; social activity), it can provide useful evidence for the police to consider to make an application to disrupt the activity.

Such material is capable of constituting evidence for any application the police make. Such co-operation with the police is important, and will empower parents.