A new action plan published today calls on all local areas to take urgent action to stop the sexual exploitation of children and young people.
Children's Minister Tim Loughton warned of failure by local agencies to recognise and deal with the problem of child sexual exploitation in many areas of the country.
He said tackling child sexual exploitation must be a priority and Local Safeguarding Children Boards (LSCBs) must now act to establish the severity of the problem in their areas, make sure they are tackling it effectively, and put in place robust preventative strategies.
The Tackling Child Sexual Exploitation Action Plan brings together for the first time actions by the Government and partners to protect children from this largely hidden crime. These include:
Work with the Association of Chief Police Officers, health professional bodies, and the Social Work Reform Board to make sure child sexual exploitation is properly covered in training and guidance for frontline professionals.
LSCBs to prioritise child sexual exploitation and undertake robust risk assessments and map the extent and nature of the problem locally.
Support organisations like Rape Crisis, and local sexual assault referral centres, to improve services for young victims. It will also look at raising awareness by improving sex and relationships education in schools and helping parents know what tell-tale signs to look out for.
The police, the Crown Prosecution Service, judges and magistrates to fully support young witnesses and victims, and increase the use of ‘special measures' in court to ease the stress and anxiety of criminal proceedings on young people. For example, live links to the court from an outside location and screens so the witness does not see the defendant.
Sexual exploitation of children under 18 can involve gangs or individuals giving gifts like money, food, drugs or alcohol in exchange for the victim performing sexual activities. Or it can happen through grooming using technology, for example being persuaded to post sexual images on the internet or phone. The young people are often lured into this and trapped through very heavy intimidation and controlling tactics.
Tim Loughton said:
This country has to wake up to the fact that children are being sexually abused in far greater numbers than was ever imagined. It could be going on in every type of community and in every part of the country.
Too many local areas have failed to uncover the true extent of child sexual exploitation in their communities and failed to properly support victims and their families.
Child sexual exploitation is child abuse, it is not good enough that some local areas don't recognise it as an issue. This is an extremely serious crime and must be treated as such, with the perpetrators pursued more vigorously. We need to make going to court much easier for the young victims and their families. It is worrying that many incidents go unreported because victims are unwilling to come forward.
We can only succeed if we address every aspect of the problem. The action plan is a big step forward and looks at sexual exploitation from the perspective of the young person, analysing what can go wrong and what should happen at every stage.
The plan outlines a compelling case for local areas to act quickly and for parents, and frontline professionals who come into contact with potential victims and perpetrators, to intervene at the earliest possible opportunity to stop the crime escalating.
Victims of child sexual exploitation often suffer long-term physical and psychological damage that can affect all the family and needs long-term care. Research by Barnardo's shows that there is an estimated potential saving of £12 for every £1 spent on providing the intervention.
To raise awareness among frontline professionals who work in child protection, the Department for Education will:
Publish a new, short, step-by-step guide on what professionals should do if they are worried that a child is being sexually exploited. It will emphasise the strong links between child sexual exploitation and children running away from home or care.This will be published in spring 2012.
Work with Ofsted on how their new guidance for inspectors can consider child sexual exploitation and the contact a child has with different services as they journey through the system.
Help spread examples of good practice in monitoring, tackling, and preventing child sexual exploitation between local areas.
The Government plan also emphasises the need for the criminal justice system to come down hard on perpetrators and make sure victims and their families get the right support. The action plan brings together commitments from the Home Office, Ministry of Justice and the Crown Prosecution Service, including:
A new sentencing regime, including mandatory life sentences for anyone convicted of a second very serious sexual or violent crime.
The Ministry of Justice will provide more than £15 million over the next three years to voluntary sector groups which provide support to victims.
In group or gang related cases, trial judges should think about how to minimise the trauma for witnesses by considering whether there is need for repeat cross-examination in the witness box.
The Ministry of Justice is actively considering whether s.28 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999, which provides for pre-trial video-recorded cross-examination can be made to work in practice.
Hilary Willmer, Chair of the Coalition for the Removal of Pimping (CROP), welcomed the action plan and said:
CROP particularly welcomes therecognition that whole families suffer the devastating consequences of child sexual exploitation and need support. CROP hopes thatthere will also berecognition of the significantpositive potential of many parentsto be included as active partners in the safeguarding of children.
Sheila Taylor, director of the National Working Group for Sexually Exploited Children and Young People, said:
I welcome this urgent call to action by the Government. There are pockets of good, innovative practice but most local authorities have no one to co-ordinate such work and no one to look at the bigger picture. This must change, if no one is putting the pieces together, children's desperate situations will continue to be missed.
The report rightly addresses the need for local agencies and voluntary organisations to work together to tackle child sexual exploitation; for more training to raise awareness among professionals; and for the courts to recognise the impact of the legal process on victims