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IICSA published its final Report in October 2022. This website was last updated in January 2023.

IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

The Report of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

Final report

B.4: Improving the understanding of the scale of child sexual abuse

Under-reporting of child sexual abuse

37. Data recording the number of child sexual abuse offences will inevitably present only a partial picture of the scale of child sexual abuse.

37.1. Not all children, for example, will be able to understand that what is being done to them amounts to child sexual abuse and some may not be able to tell someone about it.

37.2. The 2020 Crime Survey for England and Wales estimated that 76 percent of adults who experienced rape or assault by penetration did not tell anyone about their experience at the time.[1] People were even less likely to tell the police – only an estimated 7 percent of victims and survivors informed the police at the time of the offence and only 18 percent told the police at any point.[2]

37.3. Research has shown that disclosure of abuse is a complex and lifelong process. It often takes place for the first time in adulthood.[3] For example, analysis of data on allegations of child sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church between 1970 and 2015 indicate the abuse was alleged to have occurred or begun an average of 26 years previously.[4]

38. Police data from 2004/5 to 2019/20, published in the UK government’s Tackling Child Sexual Abuse Strategy (2021), show relatively stable levels of recording of child sexual abuse offences in the mid-2000s.[5] However, the data will not capture all child sexual offences, such as sexual assault, because they are based only on offences where a child is specified in the offence itself.

39. The data show a sharp increase in recorded offences from 2012 onwards.[6] In its 2021 Tackling Child Sexual Abuse Strategy, the UK government considered that this increase was linked to “an increase in victims’ willingness to report” following police investigation Operation Yewtree, which was established in the aftermath of widespread media coverage about child sexual abuse perpetrated by Jimmy Savile.[7]

A multi-series line chart showing data from Police Recorded Crime Statistics, the number of child sexual abuse offences recorded from 2004/5 to 2019/20, broken down by offence type.

Figure B.7: Police recorded child sexual abuse offences in England and Wales, 2004/05 to 2019/20

Source: INQ006448

40. The numbers in the graph for 2018/19 onwards appear to suggest a more recent fall in offending in relation to some child sexual abuse offences, including sexual assault on a child under 13 and rape. However, nearly a decade on from Operation Yewtree, it is not surprising that the initial explosion in reporting has abated. Nonetheless, as Figure B.7 depicts, tens of thousands of child sexual abuse offences have been recorded during the lifetime of the Inquiry. In particular, there has been a rapid increase in indecent image offences (referred to in the graph as falling within ‘obscene publications’ offences).[8]

41. The recent Crime Survey for England and Wales for the year ending December 2021 recognised that:

High levels of non-reporting combined with changes in reporting trends can have a significant impact on sexual offences recorded by the police. Prior to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the number of police recorded sexual offences was well below the number of victims estimated by the crime survey, with fewer than one in six victims of rape or assault by penetration reporting the crime to the police.[9]

Limitations with available data

42. Even where abuse is reported and recorded, the data may not reveal the complete scale of abuse. In respect of understanding patterns and trends in child sexual abuse over time, the Inquiry has not been helped by the inadequacies of the existing data collection systems. Different organisations have developed their own approaches to categorising and recording data. As a result, operational data from different organisations cannot be brought together and consolidated in a way which aids an overall understanding of the problem and the institutional response.

43. The prevalence survey data and the operational data do not distinguish between child sexual abuse within the family setting and that which is committed by perpetrators outside the family. They also do not distinguish between child sexual abuse committed outside the family in institutional settings as opposed to child sexual exploitation, meaning there are no official estimates of the serious criminal activity taking place in these two key areas.

44. Local authority data relating to child protection plans present only a partial picture of the scale of child sexual abuse. For the purposes of data collection, children are generally only placed on a plan under one of the four ‘primary’ categories (sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse and neglect), although sexual abuse may be a secondary risk. Research by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England suggests that:

among children who had been sexually abused according to police data, more were recorded by children’s services under the categories of neglect (32%) or emotional abuse (29%) than under sexual abuse (20%)”.[10]

45. The Inquiry has already identified particular problems with data relating to child sexual exploitation where, as noted in the Child Sexual Exploitation by Organised Networks Investigation Report, no specific criminal offence of child sexual exploitation is recorded and measured.[11] As a result, police forces manually apply a ‘flag’ to offences which fit the definition of child sexual exploitation. In many parts of the country, child sexual exploitation has been recorded within the broader category of child criminal exploitation.[12] Variations in the way offending is recorded may also contribute to differences in the available statistics. For example, police may record an offence of rape that also involves child sexual exploitation as a rape offence, thereby failing to capture the most serious child sexual exploitation crimes. As a result, in February 2022 in its Child Sexual Exploitation by Organised Networks Investigation Report, the Inquiry recommended that the UK government and the Welsh Government should take steps to ensure that data about child sexual exploitation are being collected and disaggregated in a consistent and accurate way by police forces and local authorities.[13] In June 2022, the UK government provided the Inquiry with its provisional response to this recommendation and stated that its final response to this recommendation would be provided by 1 August 2022. The final response is available on the Inquiry’s website.

46. Public agencies rely on accurate and detailed data to make the best strategic and operational responses for the protection of children. This is not possible if the nature of the abuse and changing patterns are not well understood. For example, the institutional response to familial child sexual abuse is categorically different from the response to sexual abuse committed by a child.

47. The lack of reliable data which measure the current prevalence of child sexual abuse in England and Wales (and across the UK) impedes the ability of statutory agencies and society more generally to prevent and respond appropriately to such abuse. The ONS assessed the feasibility of a survey measuring the prevalence of child sexual abuse in the UK (that is, the proportion of children in the population who are sexually abused) and, in April 2022, it concluded that there was “no fundamental reason not to conduct a survey” of children aged 11 to 15 years administered in a school environment or equivalent educational establishment, notwithstanding some challenges.[14] Such a survey is likely to provide valuable information for those working to protect children from sexual abuse in the future.

48. The UK government’s Tackling Child Sexual Abuse Strategy (2021) recognised that:

the quality and extent of data that is collected on offender and victim characteristics, including, but not limited to, age, gender and ethnicity, is inadequate”.[15]

It identified a “need to improve the quality and extent of data collected in relation to the modus operandi of offending”. It indicated the Home Office would “engage with criminal justice partners, academics, think tanks, charities and frontline professionals on improving the range of data currently collected, the quality of data collected, and drawing out insights from the data to help protect children by preventing and detecting offending”.[16] As at June 2022, no further information has been published, although the government has published – in line with its 2021 End-to-End Rape Review Report on Findings and Actions – “performance scorecards” to monitor progress against key metrics, including timeliness, quality and victim engagement in relation to adult rape offences.[17]

49. Urgent steps should be taken – led by the UK government and the Welsh Government – to improve the data on child sexual abuse. This should include recording when sexual crimes against children take place outside the family setting, both in prevalence surveys and data collected by the criminal justice agencies and local authorities. These agencies have operational intelligence or risk assessment information about the circumstances in which child sexual abuse has reportedly taken place. That information should be recorded and reported in a way that allows abuse of children outside the family setting to be measured. The Inquiry therefore recommends improvements to the data collected about child sexual abuse and the regular publication of that improved data.

Recommendation 1: A single core data set

The Inquiry recommends that the UK government and the Welsh Government improve data collected by children’s social care and criminal justice agencies concerning child sexual abuse and child sexual exploitation by the introduction of one single core data set covering both England and Wales.

In order to facilitate this, these agencies should produce consistent and compatible data about child sexual abuse and child sexual exploitation which includes:

  • the characteristics of victims and alleged perpetrators of child sexual abuse, including age, sex and ethnicity;
  • factors that make victims more vulnerable to child sexual abuse or exploitation; and
  • the settings and contexts in which child sexual abuse and child sexual exploitation occur.

Data concerning child sexual abuse and child sexual exploitation should be compiled and published on a regular basis. This should be capable of being collated nationally as well as at regional or local levels.


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