For anyone nostalgic for the comfortable conventions, restrictive
attitudes and social framework of the 1950s, the Sexual Offences
Act 1956 makes salutary reading.
So in general, the government’s new proposals to modernise the way
in which sex offences are defined, policed and punished, announced
by the home secretary last week, are welcome.
In particular, measures to protect vulnerable adults, to put the
blame for child prostitution where it belongs, and to shift the
onus of proving consent onto defendants in rape cases are signs of
a shift in attitudes that has been hard won by years of
There is still room for improvement. The new offence of sexual
activity between minors could, in combination with the Sex
Offenders Act 1997, lead to children being inappropriately placed
on the Sex Offenders’ Register with their needs overlooked. The
scope of the offence of “breach of a relationship of care” should
be widened. And some concepts – “sexual grooming” and “capacity to
consent” in particular – will need detailed guidelines.
But the government is to be congratulated on listening to the
experts – as long as it listens some more before the proposals get
onto the statute books. At least the Home Office has shown that it
sees child protection as a top priority.
Or does it? The National Policing Plan, published in the same week,
almost ignores child protection. In fact vulnerable children only
appear in their more familiar guise as perpetrators of antisocial
A cynic might suspect that the government is more anxious to be
seen to address the public fear of predatory paedophiles than to
ensure resources go into tackling the everyday reality of child
Even a non-cynic must accept that a raft of new offences – and even
funding for each police force to develop a child protection
strategy – will not achieve much without the level of resourcing
that only the real priorities attract.