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Jacqui Lait calls for children to be protected from exploitation

Jacqui Smith MP Beckenham MP Jacqui Lait introduced a Bill in the Commons yesterday. It seeks to "prevent the exploitation by parents of their children by means of seeking publicity, primarily for the purpose of financial gain, in respect of the actions of such children; and for connected purposes".

The Bill was presented by Mrs Lait, Charles Hendry, Mr. Nigel Waterson, Mr. Iain Duncan Smith, Mrs. Maria Miller and Tim Loughton (Shadow Minister for Children). It will be read a second time on 26 June.

Mrs Lait said:

"It would be a rare adult who was not appalled to discover that a mother could plot with other members of her extended family to kidnap her daughter for financial gain, and I, for one, was relieved that the plot was discovered and the mother and her accomplice jailed. Not much later, the story broke of the alleged 13-year-old father, and we had to endure the spectacle of him, the baby, the mother and other claimants to fatherhood all over the world’s media.

I ought to declare an interest as my husband is leader of East Sussex county council, which was involved in that case. Senior officers in the council have done much devilling work for me and I am grateful to them for their help and advice, as I am to the Clerks and the Library of the House. I am also grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) and for Wealden (Charles Hendry), among others, for sponsoring the Bill, and I hope they do not think I am treading on their toes. I regard this as potentially a nationwide issue.

I also alerted the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mr. Malik) to the fact that I was planning this Bill. I quite understand that, as a Minister in the Ministry of Justice, he cannot be involved, but I hope he hears my argument and acts on it. I am also hugely grateful to the Centre for Social Justice for its analytical work, which has opened up the whole debate on the impact of family breakdown on society

Those two cases had in common the misguided desire of a self-interested adult member of a dysfunctional family to profit by exposing their child to a media storm. I shall not refer any more to the details of those cases as those involved have had the protection of the law to regain their anonymity. What alarmed me about them was the damage that would inevitably be caused to the youngsters who were exposed to the full glare of publicity.

I want to emphasise that this is not a routine attack on the media. I used to be in that business, and when I was I would have given my eye teeth to be in on such a story. Luckily, however, I have not had to face the media pack in full cry and I hope I never have to, but I have heard about the horrors of it from adults who have had to endure it, whether for good or for bad reasons. For vulnerable children to be exposed to it is appalling. To have lots of strangers doorstepping them, asking for comments and interviews, shouting at them, having flashing cameras pointed at them and being followed by the press pack must have been a nightmare, and I commend the relevant authorities for acting as quickly as they could within the ponderous processes of the law to protect the youngsters in a way that any normal person would expect the parents to do.

What concerns me more than anything else is that the parents could even dream that they could make money from their own vulnerable children. This is a new extension of the many abuses that children have suffered over the years and which we have tried to address. We have spent many hours in the House and much printers’ ink in trying to come up with foolproof systems of protection for children from physical abuse, and I am fairly certain that we have not succeeded yet.

Such abuse by the media is an extension of the abuses to which children are already subjected. I do not want to see other adults thinking that there may be some financial gain to be had by doing this. I want to stop a terrible trend of abuse that could be emerging, and I want to stop it before it can take hold. In this simple Bill, therefore, I want to put in place a measure of protection for any other children who may become the victims of their parents.

We all know of dysfunctional families from our constituency casework. I doubt that there is a single Member who has not met in their constituency large, extended and informal families: some work as families, many do not. We are probably all aware of the impact on families of lack of work and benefit dependency, debt and financial challenges, drug or alcohol addiction, mental health problems, poor neighbourhoods and poor parenting skills. I have not designed the Bill to sort out those fundamental problems; that will take a Parliament of legislation and work on the ground across many years and many generations. It is not a Bill to control the media, and I do not want it to stop child prodigies and their parents benefiting from their achievements in music, maths, dance, sport or whatever they excel at—good luck to them. We will need them to do well in the Olympics and to get us out of our current economic mess.

My Bill simply puts back on parents the responsibility not to exploit their vulnerable children by amending the Children and Young Persons Act 1933, so that anybody who has responsibility for any child or young person and causes the publication of any information in respect of the child, including photographs or digital images, that is likely to cause significant harm to the child should be guilty of an offence and liable on summary conviction to a fine and/or imprisonment of up to two years. I define a child or young person as someone under 18 years old. I also include in significant harm both physical and psychological harm.

We protect our children in the family courts from publicity, notwithstanding the changes that were brought in yesterday. We also protect those involved in the youth justice system, however horrible the crime they may have committed. Most young people in trying circumstances are already protected from media exposure, and none of us probably expected or envisaged that this horrible loophole would emerge, whereby parents intentionally try to make money out of their children in ways that would harm them. I doubt that in 1933, when the Act to protect young people was drawn up, anybody thought that we would need to extend it to stop parents exploiting and abusing their children for the money that they could make from publicity. It is a sad indictment of our society that, some 70 years later, we need to introduce such an amendment.

It is our responsibility as legislators to ensure that our young children are able to grow up as normally as possible, but that, as we all know, is quite a stretch, given the record of family breakdown and dysfunctionality throughout the UK. The wider challenge is to help to heal those wounds, but that is well beyond the scope of the Bill. This Bill is a small Bill; it is a one-paragraph Bill, but it could prevent more abuse of young and vulnerable children by their parents. I commend it to the House."


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