Minister hints at reform to ‘positions of trust’ loophole to protect youngsters

Richard Wheeler, PA Parliamentary Editor

Ministers can “see the merits” of reforms to outlaw sports coaches and faith leaders having sexual relationships with 16 and 17-year-olds in their care.

Labour MP Sarah Champion (Rotherham) pressed the Government to come forward with proposals to close a loophole following several years of campaigning and delays.

Speaking in the House of Commons, Justice minister Alex Chalk said the Government “recognises the current law may not be sufficient” in dealing with situations in which an adult abuses their position of trust to exploit a 16 or 17-year-old.

But he advised “care” must be taken when examining the issue to avoid creating new loopholes when seeking to close existing ones.

MP portraits
Labour MP Sarah Champion (Chris McAndrew/UK Parliament)

Under the current law, someone in a position of trust cannot engage in sexual activity with a child in their care, even if that child is over the age of consent.

Teachers, care workers and doctors are examples of some of those on the “positions of trust” list, but MPs heard that sports coaches and faith leaders are not.

Ms Champion said this means some professions are “above the law” and they can engage in sexual activity with 16 and 17-year-olds in their care “with impunity”.

Replying to the adjournment debate on the issue, Mr Chalk said an “exhaustive” review on the issue began in 2019.

He said: “Many of those we heard from agreed that any change or reform of existing laws raised difficult and complicated issues.

“There was a clear concern from some stakeholders that any broad or sweeping new definition could raise the age of consent by stealth.

“The risk here is if you go too far in one direction, there is the risk of the pendulum swinging all the way back in the other direction – and who is it that will be the collateral damage in this? Young people. That’s why we proceed with care.

“Conversely… there were those that said that drafting the law too narrowly or perhaps by simply listing roles or jobs to be considered as positions of trust, in effect adding to the list, could create loopholes or definitions that could be easily exploited or circumvented by abusers. That’s why we have to take care.

“It is fair to say most stakeholders, however, felt a change in the law was required and I can see the merits of change here.

“It was made clear during the review that any legislative changes would also need to be bolstered by changes outside the criminal law in order to ensure an effective overall approach to safeguarding young people.

“Let me conclude, however, by saying this: the Government is very sympathetic to concerns raised throughout the process, not just sympathetic but as I indicated in words (Ms Champion) was kind enough to repeat back to me, we agree it requires a clear, considered and decisive response.

“We’re continuing to look at how the law might be strengthened in this area, and I hope to set out our plans very shortly.”

Andrew Fellowes, NSPCC associate head of policy and public affairs, said in a statement: “Over the last three years, organisations from sport, faith and voluntary sectors have been joined by voices from across the political spectrum in calling for this to be addressed.

“Now it is vital that the Government acts and finally closes the loophole.”