Sports coaches and priests who have sex with, or abuse 16 and 17-year-olds in their care are to face prosecution, under a government move to close a controversial legal loophole.
A huge piece of new crime legislation being introduced in the Commons includes a new law to prevent adults in positions of trust from engaging in sexual relationships with young people under 18.
The new law will bring sports coaches and religious leaders into line with teachers and doctors and follows cases of sexual predators exploiting their influence on young people and making them vulnerable to abuse.
Welcoming the new law, Peter Wanless of the NSPCC, said: “We are delighted that after relentless campaigning, the government has finally listened to our calls and agreed to close this legal loophole.
“This landmark step sends a clear message that children and young people can return to the extracurricular activities they love without being at risk of grooming by the very adults they should look to for support and guidance.”
The abuse crackdown is contained in a massive Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which includes longer jail terms for a wide range of crimes, up to 10 years for vandalising memorials and new curbs on travellers’ sites and political demonstrations.
There are life sentences for killer drivers, child killers and terrorists, two-year jail terms for assaults on emergency workers instead of 12 months, a crackdown on knife crime with new stop and search powers and no more automatic early release for violent and sex offenders.
The Bill will also enshrine in law a Police Covenant, which the government says strengthens support for serving and retired officers, staff and their families, but officers have claimed is worthless since they have been denied priority COVID jabs.
Ahead of the Bill’s publication, the Justice Secretary Robert Buckland said: “This government has pledged to crack down on crime and build safer communities. Today we are delivering on that commitment.
“We are giving the police and courts the powers they need to keep our streets safe, while providing greater opportunities for offenders to turn their lives around and better contribute to society.
“At the same time, we are investing hundreds of millions to deliver speedier justice and boost support for victims, and will continue to do everything it takes to build back confidence in the criminal justice system.”
The Home Secretary Priti Patel added: “On becoming Home Secretary, I vowed to back the police to cut crime and make our streets safer.
“This Bill delivers on that promise – equipping the police with the tools they need to stop violent criminals in their tracks, putting the thugs who assault officers behind bars for longer and strengthening the support officers and their families receive.”
In a move that will be criticised by political campaigners, the crackdown on demos strengthens police powers to tackle non-violent protests that have a significant disruptive effect on the public or on access to Parliament.
And in another controversial move, police will also be given tougher powers to tackle unauthorised encampments that they claim significantly interfere with a person’s or community’s ability to make use of the land.
For Labour, the Shadow Justice Secretary David Lammy said: “A decade of Conservative cuts and failed ideology has left us with a justice system that is failing victims of crime and creating endless cycles of re-offence.
“The relatively light sentence Thomas Griffiths received after the horrific killing of Ellie Gould shows that some criminals deserve tougher sentences.”
And the Shadow Home Secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds said: “The measures in this Bill will be cold comfort to officers who are have been offered a pay freeze in response for their remarkable bravery in this pandemic.
“While Labour has been calling for a number of these changes, they will not go far enough to tackle violence against officers, which saw attacks on officers rise 50% over the past five years.”
The human rights group Liberty branded measures to crack down on protests an “assault on our rights”, adding: “They risk stifling dissent and making it harder for us to hold the powerful to account.”
And on plans for longer sentences, Peter Dawson of the Prison Reform Trust, said: “There is not a shred of evidence to show that this runaway inflation in punishment reduces crime.”