Ensuring the safety and wellbeing of Scotland's children and young people is a key priority for us all.
As Cabinet Secretary for Justice, I am committed to a preventative approach to offending that involves children and young people.
Our Justice Vision and Priorities underlines our commitment to being led by the best available evidence.
Our Whole System Approach to offending by young people is proven to work – driving down offending referrals by over 80% in the past decade. It involves emphasising timely and appropriate action to address crime and its causes - through early and effective intervention, diversion and specialist support. This complements a broader focus on prevention - mainly through universal children's services as part of GIRFEC. But we will always need more specialist support and intervention for some young people.
Last year, I commissioned research to analyse the increase in the 'other sexual crimes' category of police recorded crime. This category had grown to become the largest category of sexual offences. 40% of recorded sexual crime is made up of 'Other sexual crimes', the largest individual category ahead of 'Sexual assault'. There were suggestions that this was driven in part by an increase in cyber-related offences.
The research report "Recorded Crime in Scotland: Other Sexual Crimes, 2013-14 and 2016-17" highlighted that the offences falling within the 'other sexual crimes' category are often committed online. Importantly, online crimes are much more likely to have younger victims, mainly female and younger perpetrators, mainly male.
The research estimates that around half of the increase in all recorded sexual crime is due to this growth in 'Other sexual crimes' committed online.
This includes behaviour such as communicating indecently or causing others to view sexual activity or images. Where these crimes are committed online, there is a disproportionate impact on our young people. Three quarters of victims were under 16 in 2016-17, with an average age of 14. In a quarter of cases both the victim and perpetrator were under 16.
The research highlighted a significant gendered element across all 'other sexual crimes'. In 2016-17, four in every five victims of 'Other sexual crimes' were female while the vast majority of perpetrators were male.
On 26 September, alongside the research, the Solicitor General and I announced our intention to establish an Expert Group on preventing sexual offending involving children and young people.
Earlier in September, Alison Di Rollo had hosted an Education Summit. That event highlighted that cases reported to the Crown Office involving a sexual offence committed against a child by another child rose by 34% in the five years to 2015/16.
As the Solicitor General highlighted, these disturbing and depressing cases can give rise to profoundly difficult as well as important decisions for prosecutors – both in terms of the criminal law, and of the public interest. They have consequences. They have consequences for the accused, for the complainer, and for the witnesses. They have consequences for their family. They have consequences for our society as a whole. And they have consequences whether or not criminal proceedings are taken.
In recent years, we have come to understand more about the relationship between trauma, adverse childhood experiences and future outcomes including offending and imprisonment. There is also a growing body of evidence that one of the most significant factors in predicting whether a child will commit criminal offences in the future is in contact with the criminal justice system at an early age.
Prevention is undoubtedly preferable to prosecution, while recognising that for the most serious cases prosecution will be required.
We need to better understand why young people – predominantly males - are motivated to behave this way, and how we can prevent sexual offending, minimising risk of harm and the number of victims.
Considerable effort is happening across government already, including national campaigns around Child Sexual Exploitation, our national action plan on internet safety, and our "Equally Safe" strategy.
But we need a fresh impetus, armed with the very best evidence and the most useful tools, to prevent this type of offending. This Expert Group, with a focus on prevention, education, health and wellbeing and child protection, with a significant justice interface, will identify further steps needed to better tackle and ultimately prevent such offending.
Presiding Officer, I am pleased to announce that Catherine Dyer will Chair the Expert Group. Catherine's background as crown agent and chief executive of the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, and her role in chairing the independent Child Protection Systems Review, means she is uniquely placed to lead on this vital work. She will ensure that the Expert Group examines the necessary issues – doing so with independence, rigour and with a fresh eye. I know she is very mindful of the existing policies, programmes and the interactions between existing systems.
The Expert Group will bring together professional and academic expertise from across justice, education, Child Protection, health and the third sector. Their work will identify fresh actions to better prevent sexual crime involving children and young people and mitigate the harm it causes. The Group will consider the implications of the recent research and other evidence and relevant data. They'll conduct an assessment of existing policies, interventions and programmes. And they'll look at the impact of wider societal and technological changes.
The group will draw on lessons from preventative work on violence reduction and will link strategically with other developments across justice, education and health.
I should point to the current good work already happening across the government, or through partners, that contributes to this agenda. For example, we are working closely with the children's sector to implement the actions outlined in both the Child Sexual Exploitation and Internet Safety national action plans.
Health and Wellbeing is at the heart of children's learning. Schools are supported through guidance on relationships, sexual health and parenthood education which is an important part of the school curriculum in Scotland.
However, we know that in the modern world that we need to ensure that children and young people are provided with learning that fits with the ever evolving digital world.
As most in the chamber will be aware, the Government, as part of the Mental Health Strategy, has commissioned a Review of Personal and Social Education.
The review is looking at the delivery of a wide area of subjects, including relationships, sexual health and parenthood across our primary and secondary schools. This commenced earlier this year and is expected to provide recommendations to Ministers by the end of 2018.
Equally Safe, the Scottish Government's strategy for preventing and eradicating violence against women and girls has promoted a concerted effort from relevant sectors to deliver a holistic response to tackling violence against women and girls. It places a decisive focus on prevention, whilst also ensuring that we have effective services for survivors, and that perpetrators receive the strongest possible response.
Over the next few weeks, my Cabinet colleague Angela Constance will publish a delivery plan to further focus our efforts. This will build on our strong progress in strengthening legislation and building the capacity of these services. But it will also recognise – and focus action around - preventing violence requires the underlying attitudes and inequalities that create the societal conditions for that violence to be eradicated.
We're investing in programmes that promote internet safety and explore the online behaviours of young people. This includes Police Scotland's Choices for Life Peer Mentoring Programme, the Mentors in Violence Prevention Programme, Stop it Now Scotland! and Sacro's Challenging Harmful Online Images & Child Exploitation programme.
In addition, funding from the Violence against women and girls justice budget to support Rape Crisis Scotland to deliver a sexual violence prevention programme across a number of local authorities in Scotland – this work is vital in helping to deepen understanding of young people around issues of consent and healthy relationships.
The remit of the Group extends to all sexual offending and harm involving children and young people. This includes where children are either the victim or the perpetrator, and sometimes even both and there will be a particular focus on cyber-enabled offending.
The remit will not focus on adult perpetrators of sexual violence. The criminal justice system and multi-agency public protection arrangements will remain at the core of protecting the public from sexual offences where the perpetrator is an adult.
The Expert Group will map existing approaches, raise their visibility, identify gaps and explore best practice, including insights from other countries.
Young people must be involved in this work, in a meaningful way. We will invite the Scottish Youth Parliament and Young Scot to be part of the Expert Group and Youth Link can provide insight from a young person's perspective, drawing on the successful approach we've had with the No Knives Better Lives model.
Given the research outcomes, a gendered analysis will be a significant component. When it comes to cyber-enabled sexual offences, it's clear that young women and girls are predominantly the victims, while young men and boys are predominantly the perpetrators.
The Expert Group will be focused and time-limited, and it's expected to conclude its work by end March 2019.
A preliminary meeting with a number of third sector organisations to scope membership took place on 30 October. My thanks to Rape Crisis Scotland, Stop It Now, NSPCC, Barnardo's and others including COSLA and Police Scotland for supporting these discussions.
We want to draw on all available expertise. This will include the Coalition of Care Providers Scotland, Rape Crisis Scotland, Stop it Now!, Child Protection Committees Scotland, the National Child Protection Leadership Group, Education Scotland, the Scottish Children's Reporter Administration and a nomination from the Chief Medical Officer.
Police Scotland and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service will also be part of the Group. We will invite the Children and Young People's Commissioner to nominate a member.
We will also draw on academic experts from the specific areas being considered. The Chair will have the flexibility to invite others such as the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre and Zero Tolerance to augment the work of the Group.
Presiding Officer, I hope Members welcome the direction being taken through the Expert Group and will support the focus on a preventative approach in reducing the number of children involved in sexual offending, both as victims and perpetrators.
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