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Tuesday, December 29, 1998 Published at 00:09 GMT

UK Politics

'Treat child prostitutes as victims'

The proposals aim to safetuard young prostitutes' welfare

Child prostitutes should be treated as victims rather than criminals, new Home Office guidelines have recommended.

The BBC's Cary Johnston: "Children will only be prosecuted in extreme cases"
The consultation guidelines, which will be sent to the police, social services and relevant charities, recommend children working as prostitutes should be treated like victims to safeguard their welfare.

The consultation guidelines, prepared jointly by the Home Office and Department of Health, are expected to be generally welcomed by child welfare groups and the police who have been campaigning for such a move.

'Utterly desperate'

Home Office Minister Paul Boateng said: "It is a tragedy that any child becomes involved in prostitution.

[ image: Paul Boateng:
Paul Boateng: "A tragedy"
"It exposes them to abuse and assault and can even threaten their lives. Child prostitutes are robbed of their self-esteem, their education, good health and most importantly of their childhood.

"Pimps and abusers identify children who are vulnerable and force them into prostitution for their own gains.

Paul Boateng: "This is a tough and determined approach focused on the child"
"These children are utterly desperate, they are not making a free economic or moral choice."

But many would also like to see the government go further and decriminalise child prostitutes and, instead, prosecute and sentence pimps and their clients as child sex offenders.

Pilot project success

Figures for 1995-96 show that 177 children under 17 were convicted of offences relating to prostitution. A further 207 - including a 12-year-old girl - were cautioned.

One project in the West Midlands has already operated on the approach of not treating child prostitutes as criminals.

Police work alongside social services to identify children who are being sexually exploited or are at danger of being exploited.

In the 12 months since the project began, 66 children have been referred to them of which 61 were children at risk.

As a result of this 19 men have been charged for a wide variety of offences including rape, assault, kidnap and witness intimidation. Ten have been prosecuted and the rest of the cases are ongoing.

The new guidelines draw upon the responses to the recent Department of Health consultation paper "Working Together to Safeguard our Children".

'Prostitution not acceptable' - Boateng

The BBC's Alison Holt: Decriminalisation remains a contentious issue
Mr Boateng said: "We have had calls to change the law to deal with prostitution.

"The law acts as a deterrent. Decriminalising prostitution for children risks creating a perverse incentive to encourage children into prostitution or encourage pimps and abusers to force children into it.

"However, the criminal law plays an important role in establishing society's view that prostitution is not welcome nor is it acceptable for children to be involved in it.

"The priority for criminal justice action must be to investigate and prosecute those who abuse children."

A report issued earlier this year by Barnardo's warned because child prostitution usually took place behind closed doors rather than on the streets, it was going unnoticed.

It warned pimps were deliberately befriending vulnerable young girls, having a sexual relationship with them so when they were dependent on them, forcing them into prostitution.

The Children's Society Chief Executive Ian Sparks said: "By issuing this guidance the government is taking crucial steps in helping some of the most abused children in the country and turning its attention to the violent and abusive adults who commit these crimes."

He added unless child prostitution was decriminalised, children who were victims of abuse were still liable to being punished.

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