Skip to main content

0800 917 1000 Open weekdays 8am-8pm, Saturdays 10am-12pm

3.3 The scale of child sexual abuse in England and Wales

No-one knows ‒ or will ever know ‒ the true scale of child sexual abuse in England and Wales. It will always be hidden from view.

However, it is important to have an accurate estimate of the number of victims and survivors of child sexual abuse in England and Wales as it provides a basis for policy-making at national and local levels. It informs the design, delivery and funding of services aimed at preventing and responding to child sexual abuse, and for supporting victims and survivors. Publishing estimates of child sexual abuse can also help victims and survivors recognise that they are not alone and encourage them to come forward.

Information on the scale of child sexual abuse is taken from two types of source: surveys conducted with the general public that include questions about child sexual abuse, and operational data collected by agencies in the child protection and criminal justice systems or by organisations supporting victims and survivors of child sexual abuse.[1]

According to the 2015-16 Crime Survey for England and Wales, 7% of people aged between 16 and 59 reported that they were sexually abused as a child. Although this survey did not include young children or all forms of sexual abuse, this still equates to over two million victims and survivors in that age bracket across England and Wales ‒ a substantial proportion of the population.[2] The Inquiry welcomes the fact that the Office for National Statistics is seeking to improve the way it gathers information about child sexual abuse for the 2018-19 Crime Survey.

Some of the data gathered by agencies is collected locally and aggregated nationally. This includes data on children in need of protection and police-recorded crime statistics. As well as this, local agencies also collect other data that are used at a local level ‒ sometimes by individual agencies and sometimes on a multi-agency basis ‒ to inform local responses. Data collected by local authority children’s services focus on children who have been referred to a local authority due to concerns about their welfare. When a child is subject to a child protection plan in England or placed on the child protection register in Wales, the local authority will record the initial type of abuse (including sexual abuse). This is so that the child can be given the necessary protections. Local authorities in Wales ‒ but not England ‒ can also record multiple and specific types of abuse (for example, a child in Wales could be recorded as being at risk of sexual abuse as well as neglect or physical abuse).

On 31 March 2017, 2,260 children in England who were subject to a child protection plan had sexual abuse recorded as the initial type of abuse. That is equivalent to 4.4% of all children under a child protection plan. Figures from Wales for the same period show that 120 children on the child protection register were primarily at risk of sexual abuse, equivalent to 4.1% of all children on the child protection register in Wales. An additional 30 children on the register were recorded as being at risk of multiple categories of abuse, including sexual abuse.[3]

Information about children who are deemed at risk of sexual abuse, but who are not subject to a child protection plan or on a child protection register, is recorded in England but not in Wales. In 2016-17, 29,600 children were identified as in need of support in England (6.3% of children in need nationally) and were recorded as being at risk of sexual abuse during their initial assessment following referral to a local authority; 18,800 (4% of children in need nationally) were identified as at risk of sexual exploitation. There may be overlap between these categories.

Local authorities in Wales changed the data collected following the introduction of the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014. However, specific data regarding the number of children identified as being at risk of sexual abuse were not recorded under the previous arrangements or in relation to the new category of Children Receiving Care and Support established by the new legislation.

Criminal justice agencies are an additional source of data relating to child sexual abuse. Their data are categorised by offence type and focus on outcomes specific to the agency ‒ such as investigation outcomes for the police or prosecutions and convictions in the case of the Crown Prosecution Service. As such, the data are unsuitable for establishing the number of victims or perpetrators. There are also other important restrictions to the usefulness of these data to assess the prevalence of child sexual abuse. For example, the latest police data show that the number of sexual offences against children aged under 16 in England and Wales more than doubled between 2013 and 2017, increasing from 24,085 to 53,496.[4] This increase is likely to be due, at least in part, to an increased willingness of victims and survivors to come forward, and to improved recording of sexual offences by the police.[5]

A significant limitation of all operational data is that it will only include instances of child sexual abuse that are detected by or reported to the agencies involved. As a result, it is recognised that operational data will always underestimate the scale of child sexual abuse. This was clearly demonstrated by recent work carried out by the Children’s Commissioner for England, which found that only 1 in 8 sexual offences against children come to the attention of the police or local authority.[6]

Comparisons between the data collected by public agencies and public surveys are difficult to make. The Centre of Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse has looked at these issues in detail and found that there are a number of limitations that apply to both categories of data.[7] They explain that operational data are collected for specific purposes that are driven by the aims and outcomes of an agency, and that these aims and outcomes can be affected by wider policy and political priorities. Both surveys and operational data use different definitions and methodologies that will always influence the results, and it is often difficult to compare data from the same source over time due to changes in recording practices. As a result, it is often not possible to bring existing information together, and it can be difficult to provide an overall perspective on the scale of child sexual abuse now and in the future.

The Inquiry recognises that different institutions collect different information relating to the scale of child sexual abuse depending on their specific aims and objectives. This means that local decision-making is informed by different data and levels of understanding about child sexual abuse in different areas. The Inquiry is interested in whether the right data are recorded locally and aggregated nationally so that policy development and resource allocation are informed by an up-to-date and accurate understanding of need. It will consider this issue further as its work progresses.

Back to top