Grooming gang victims must not have futures ruined by convictions resulting from abuse, watchdog says

Grooming gang victims must not have futures ruined by convictions resulting from abuse, watchdog says

The law should be changed to stop the “future prospects” of grooming gang victims being tarnished by crimes committed because of the abuse suffered, a watchdog has suggested.

A probe into the police response to child sexual exploitation in Rotherham said many survivors “now have criminal records as a result of their actions when they were being exploited”.

The Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) said some had committed “survival crimes” for their own safety, been affected by trauma or acted under the influence of abusers.

“Offences may be used by the abuser as a means of controlling the victim and deterring them from making a complaint about the abuse they are experiencing,” said a report published on Tuesday.

“As a result, survivors’ lives have been adversely impacted and this has affected issues like employment.”

The IOPC warned that where child victims are locally viewed as criminals, it can affect the way they are dealt with by police and hamper action to protect them.

The report said that while current laws create a “non-prosecution principle” for victims of trafficking or modern slavery, it does not apply clearly to child sexual exploitation.

It called for the Law Commission to review the legal framework around offences committed by children and young people who are being sexually groomed and exploited.

The IOPC said the body should “identify whether any changes to legislation would be appropriate to reduce the impact on their future life prospects”, both by making sexual exploitation a defence and by filtering past convictions out of criminal records checks for jobs.

Steve Noonan, the watchdog’s director of major investigations, said: “It is a tragedy that so many of the survivors we spoke to now have criminal records as a result of their actions while being exploited and there must be action across the judicial system to protect vulnerable young people and safeguard their futures.”

The Law Commission said it had put the recommendation into a set of ideas for law reform to be presented to the government, adding: “We aim to announce our final programme of law reform in 2022.”

Sarah Champion, the Labour MP for Rotherham, said she had long called for action to address the criminalisation of grooming victims.

“It is a sad reality of child sexual exploitation that victims often receive criminal convictions as a consequence of their abuse,” she added.

“These convictions have a severe and lasting impact upon their future life prospects. Indeed, continue to be held against them, even by government agencies, like the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority.”

Dr Alan Billings, South Yorkshire’s police and crime commissioner, also welcomed the recommendation and said victims coerced into committing crimes should have them removed from their criminal records.

He said he expected South Yorkshire Police to accept all the recommendations in the wider report and implement them appropriately.

The IOPC report said inspectors “remain worried” that, despite multiple reports and recommendations, there are still areas of concern at South Yorkshire Police and there had been a “deterioration” since improvements made in 2015-16.

It said the force must do more to support survivors and listen to their experiences, and made a series of calls for change locally and nationally.

Mr Noonan said: “Police understanding of this type of offending has evolved significantly in recent years and we must acknowledge the efforts made to improve the way these cases are dealt with. However, there is still work to do and we have issued these recommendations to make sure lessons are learned and mistakes of the past are not repeated.”

The IOPC has been looking into complaints by 44 Rotherham grooming survivors, dating from 1997 to 2013, and covering 265 separate allegations against police.

It resulted in investigations into 47 officers, including six found to have a case to answer for gross misconduct and eight for less serious misconduct.

Five have faced sanctions and one disciplinary hearing is outstanding, but in other cases officers retired before they could face proceedings.