People who sexually exploit and abuse older teenagers should receive tougher sentences because 16 and 17-year-old’s are still children, a Yorkshire MP has said.

Rotherham MP, Sarah Champion
Rotherham MP, Sarah Champion

Sarah Champion, Labour MP for Rotherham, said the capacity of older teenagers to consent to sex could be “impaired through an imbalance of power between a child and a perpetrator”, as well as by use of drugs or alcohol.

And she called on Government to help raise awareness of the vulnerability of older teenagers, who were “treated like adults and not afforded the additional protections given in law to younger children”.

Ms Champion made the comments during a House of Commons debate about older teenagers at risk of sexual abuse and exploitation.

She told MP’s: “Yes, 16 and 17-year-old’s can give consent to sexual acts, but is it always informed consent? The law does not recognise that in many cases where children aged 16 and 17 become victims of sexual offences, they are coerced into submission by perpetrators who supply them with drugs and alcohol or of whom the young people are scared… The capacity to consent is impaired through an imbalance of power between a child and a perpetrator, and by the young person’s use or dependency on drugs or alcohol prior to the offence.”

The MP called for sentencing guidelines on sexual offences to be amended to “strengthen the message that targeting children for sexual crimes will not be tolerated and raise awareness of the vulnerability of children of this age”.

Ms Champion was one of several MP’s to speak during Thursday’s debate, which heard calls for action to tackle the huge number of sexual offences against 16 and 17 year-old’s that go unreported and unpunished every year.

The debate was supported by national charity The Children’s Society, which provides a range of services to help young people cope with the trauma of sexual exploitation – and to protect those at risk before they become victims.

The charity’s Seriously Awkward campaign is highlighting how 16 and 17 year old’s don’t get the same protection or help as younger children, despite being at high risk of abuse or harm and in many cases extremely vulnerable.

Teenage girls aged 16 and 17 are more likely to be a victim of a sexual offence than any other age group, with almost one in ten saying they experienced a sexual offence in the last year.

And yet research by The Children’s Society shows that police take no action against perpetrators in more than three quarters of reported sexual crimes against teenagers in this age group. Only a tiny proportion of cases result in successful prosecutions.

Analysis from the charity found that nearly one in ten girls aged 16 and 17 said they had experienced a sexual offence in the last year – equivalent to 50,000 across the country. In contrast, data from 30 police forces in England, suggests that only 4,900 crimes of sexual nature have been reported in the last year where the victim was 16 or 17.

The most vulnerable 16 and 17 year old’s are often at highest risk of being preyed upon. People seeking to exploit them will go to great lengths to target vulnerable young people, using gifts, affection, money, alcohol, drugs – or the false promise of love. Victims are often teenagers in the care system, with backgrounds of abuse and neglect, learning disabilities or with mental health problems.

The Children’s Society is calling for the law to be strengthened to provide better protection for vulnerable 16 and 17 year old’s, and for police to be given greater powers to intervene when a 16 or 17 year old is being targeted and groomed for exploitation, in order to prevent this group being placed at higher risk than younger children. It also wants older teenagers who experience this awful trauma to be given urgent mental health support so they can stay safe and rebuild their lives.

Matthew Reed, Chief Executive of The Children’s Society, said: “The law should send a strong message that sexual offences against all children, including those aged 16 and 17, will not be tolerated. Too many cases go unreported and unpunished because victims are gripped by the fear of not being believed, or because they are scared of the process or think the offence isn’t worth reporting.

“We see in our front-line work how these vulnerable teenagers are often not recognised as victims of exploitation, professionals can be unsure or reluctant to intervene, and the police can find it very difficult to bring perpetrators to justice.

“The law needs to change to recognise the vulnerability of 16 and 17 year-old’s. And that change needs to happen now.”