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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

Child sexual exploitation by organised networks investigation report


B.4: Prevalence

16. Assessing the scale or prevalence of child sexual exploitation requires consideration of different sources of data, primarily from:

  • the criminal justice system, which relates to criminal offences arising from child sexual exploitation; and
  • children’s social care, which relates to children who have been identified as being harmed by child sexual exploitation, or at heightened risk.

Criminal justice data

17. Offence codes: Police data collection and reporting is generally driven by type of offence but there is no specific offence of child sexual exploitation. Instead, four criminal offences are listed under the heading ‘child sexual exploitation’ in the Sexual Offences Act 2003.[1] In 2018/19, offenders were charged with 1,012 offences within this group.[2] In 2019/20, the latest full year for which figures are available at the time of writing, this rose to 1,363.[3] However, these categories do not include more serious crimes such as rape, which may also involve child sexual exploitation.[4] For that reason, crime statistics for offences listed as child sexual exploitation fail to capture the most serious child sexual exploitation crimes.

18. ‘Flagging’: One of the ways in which child sexual exploitation offences are identified and collated is by ‘crime flagging’. This is a manual operation, which requires police officers or staff to apply a ‘flag’ to offences which fit the definition of child sexual exploitation. This can be very subjective and thus variable. Some use software to search reports for particular words. Such flags were not always used properly or appropriately applied.[5] They also do not enable specific identification of network-based offending.[6] Flagging was made a formal requirement by the Home Office in April 2016 so that child sexual exploitation offences which do not have their own offence codes, and which would not necessarily be obvious from the nature of the offence, can be highlighted.[7] In 2018/19, police forces in England and Wales identified or ‘flagged’ 11,554 criminal offences as related to child sexual exploitation.[8] In 2019/20, the figure was 12,569.[9] However, due to the significant variations in flagging practices, the Office of National Statistics (ONS) recognised that the data on offences flagged as child sexual exploitation are not yet robust enough to provide an accurate comparison of prevalence between years.[10]

19. Victim and perpetrator data: Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) has found that police forces do not capture data about victim and perpetrator characteristics accurately because they struggle to gather relevant data and to input it on to their IT systems and because they do not make the best use of information from other statutory agencies.[11] (Ethnicity data are considered further below and in Part H.)

20. Prosecution data: The Crown Prosecution Service does not collect separate data for prosecutions or convictions where child sexual exploitation was a factor but reports only on child sexual abuse cases.[12] This is an important gap in criminal justice information. It fails to recognise cases or defendants involving the sexual exploitation of children. According to the Home Office, as at February 2020 there were more than 90 police investigations in operation across England and Wales into group-based child sexual exploitation.[13]

21. These various deficiencies with criminal justice data on child sexual exploitation have been recognised for some time. Research published in 2017 highlighted the lack of consistent data across police forces, resulting in data being unreliable. Disruption and prosecution data at individual police force level were not readily available. Qualitative interviews with police in child sexual exploitation teams revealed that they were unaware of the scale of successful child sexual exploitation prosecutions because of the problematic nature of the data. The report concluded:

It is recognised across the field that the problems faced by practitioners in recording data have an adverse impact on the capacity of police and researchers to portray an accurate picture of what is happening on the ground. Information of the kind sought in this research will be largely unachievable until substantial strides are made in data recording practices across the criminal justice system”.[14]

Children’s social care data

22. The Department for Education’s annual children in need statistics give figures for the number of assessments which identified child sexual exploitation as a factor. Over the five years to March 2020, assessments which included a risk factor of child sexual exploitation rose by over 50 percent (from 12,200 to 18,700).[15] There is, however, a need for caution in considering these data, as the number of assessments are recognised to be below best prevalence estimates.[16]

23. In 2016, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services collected data on child sexual exploitation, finding a variation ranging from 1.1 to 137.5 children at risk per 10,000. The highest rates were reported in areas where there had been recent high-profile cases and in coastal towns. The majority of local authorities attributed higher levels of referrals for child sexual exploitation to heightened awareness among professionals and the wider public. The Centre for Expertise in Child Sexual Abuse (the CSA Centre), however, concluded in a 2018 report that this was “unlikely to account for variations where there are few, if any, cases identified”.[17]

24. The same report by the CSA Centre commented on wide variations across England in child sexual exploitation assessment data, concluding that these were likely to be related to recording issues rather than an accurate reflection of prevalence. Rates in local authorities ranged from zero to over 30 children at risk per 10,000.[18]

25. A 2019 report by Public Health England commented on reporting bias and the unreliability of counts of child sexual exploitation cases. It noted that:

counts of known [child sexual exploitation] cases are always likely to be an under-estimation of the problem given widely documented under-reporting and under-identification of the issue”.[19]

Data reliability and recent trends in data capture

26. Overall, there are fundamental flaws with both the criminal justice and children’s social care data sets. There are also significant difficulties in using the available data to assess prevalence because the various agencies use different definitions of child sexual exploitation and collate data for different purposes. These difficulties were illustrated by the data obtained by the Inquiry from each of the case study areas. As a consequence, it is simply not possible to know the scale of child sexual exploitation by networks.

27. There have been two significant changes in approach to child sexual exploitation and child sexual abuse since the regional child sexual exploitation profiles were produced. The first is the now widespread practice in many parts of the country of recording child sexual exploitation within the broader category of child criminal exploitation. In many areas, this has been done without retaining good quality and specific information about child sexual exploitation. This practice was evident in many of the case study areas. The second is the trend away from recording specific child sexual exploitation data separately from the category of wider child sexual abuse, with the police highlighting the difficulties of distinguishing one form of abuse from another with any certainty.

28. The failure to identify and record instances of the sexual exploitation of children as a sub-group within criminal exploitation and wider child sexual abuse data inevitably results in child sexual exploitation becoming even more of a hidden problem and underestimated. It is also possible that fewer assessments are being undertaken.

29. In addition to inaccurate data and poor reporting systems, a number of other factors impact on how well the prevalence of child sexual exploitation is understood and reported. In 2015, the Cabinet Office’s Tackling Child Sexual Exploitation plan highlighted the culture of denial that had been found in Rotherham and said that people who abuse children must be stopped, regardless of their race, age or gender. It identified the need for a fundamental change of attitude within professions and the public about the nature of this crime.[20] Six years on, not nearly enough has been done to change this culture.

30. The possible reasons for denial and downplaying of child sexual exploitation are complex. One factor may be differing priorities between institutions in the same area. There may also be competing priorities within institutions, especially for resources. As set out in Part E, victim-blaming attitudes towards child victims persist. A different factor may be the notoriety and adverse publicity attracted by high-profile sexual exploitation cases. This may see some institutional leaders more keen to assure themselves that their area is ‘not another Rochdale or Rotherham’, rather than being determined to find and root out child sexual exploitation in their area and expose its scale.

Data from the case study areas

31. The institutions in the six case study areas were asked to provide local data on the extent of child sexual exploitation.

32. Criminal justice ‘flagging’ data were available for only two of the case study areas where police and local authority boundaries were the same. In 2019/20, Durham Constabulary flagged 403 cases and Warwickshire Police flagged 250.[21]

33. Four of the case study areas were within wider police force areas and the police sometimes provided data for the whole police force area. Police forces should ensure that disaggregated data are available to local authorities and safeguarding partnerships about child sexual exploitation in their area.

34. Over the past three years, there have been large increases in the number of assessments in which child sexual exploitation was identified as a factor in Durham and Warwickshire, and a steady decline in Bristol, while there have been marked fluctuations in cases recorded in Tower Hamlets and St Helens. The City and County of Swansea Council said there was a “sharp reduction in Child Sexual Exploitation cases between 2018–2019”.[22]

35. The rates of assessments in which child sexual exploitation was identified as a factor in two of the case study areas were below the England average of 15.6 per 10,000 children: the rates were 11.0 per 10,000 in Bristol and 13.1 per 10,000 in Tower Hamlets. Rates were higher in St Helens (26.3), Durham (25.9) and Warwickshire (20).[23]

36. The factors underlying these variations are not known. However, the broader findings of the CSA Centre’s 2018 report suggest that the differences between the case study areas and annual variations in each area are likely to be linked to changes in data collection and reporting problems, rather than changes in prevalence.[24]

37. The Inquiry obtained data from the case study areas.

37.1. Durham provided data for the five months to March 2019.[25] This showed that the police recorded 39 child sexual exploitation incidents. The police received safeguarding referrals for 238 children because of sexual exploitation concerns. In the same period, ERASE sexual exploitation forms were completed for 124 children. A Durham Safeguarding Children Partnership report gave a figure of 115 child sexual exploitation referrals in 2019/20.[26] For the same year, Durham County Council reported a very marked increase in child sexual exploitation as a factor in assessments of children in need (263 assessments).[27] In March 2020, 17 children at risk of sexual exploitation were being monitored by the child exploitation vulnerability tracker.[28]

37.2. Swansea reported 57 children identified as being at risk of child sexual exploitation and being monitored on its child sexual exploitation protocol in 2017/18, reducing to 39 the following year.[29] In the two years to March 2019, 106 children were referred because of sexual exploitation concerns and 92 children were discussed at multi-agency strategy meetings.[30] In the two years to March 2019, South Wales Police stated that they had recorded 74 Swansea incidents with a child sexual exploitation flag; in the 2019 calendar year only four ‘direct contact’ offences were investigated.[31]

37.3. In 2018/19, Warwickshire recorded 115 child sexual exploitation referrals and 291 incidents and investigations.[32] Strategy meetings or multi-agency sexual exploitation meetings were convened for 33 children.[33] In 2018/19, 173 assessments were conducted where child sexual exploitation was a factor, increasing to 242 assessments in 2019/20.[34] This represents a marked increase in a single year. The other data for Warwickshire are more mixed. For example, the number of child sexual exploitation-related incidents and investigations in Warwickshire suggests a decrease – from 303 in 2017/18, to 291 in 2018/19, to 245 in 2019/20.[35]

37.4. In respect of St Helens, between April 2017 and March 2019, Merseyside Police recorded seven crimes in St Helens which were flagged for child sexual exploitation and involved direct contact.[36] In 2018/19, there were 76 children open to multi-agency meetings because of child sexual exploitation.[37]

37.5. Tower Hamlets reported 374 episodes of concerns of child sexual exploitation that resulted in a child protection strategy meeting in 2018/19.[38] In the same period the Metropolitan Police Service recorded 102 reports of child sexual exploitation in Tower Hamlets.[39]

37.6. In Bristol, in the two years to March 2019, children’s social care worked with 205 children at risk of sexual exploitation.[40] In 2017/18, it identified 144 children as being at risk of sexual exploitation. The figure decreased to 100 in 2018/19. For the first five months of 2019/20 it was 72.[41] Bristol also provided data for the number of children newly identified as at risk of child sexual exploitation in each calendar year. This showed 80 children identified in 2018 (of whom 50 were identified for the first time), 77 in 2019 (39 for the first time) and 46 in the first six months of 2020 (16 for the first time).[42]

38. Overall the Inquiry did not receive data which it considered to give a reliable picture of child sexual exploitation across the six case study areas. This is likely linked to the absence of systematic and regular profiling of the problem of child sexual exploitation.

39. The data that were presented to the Inquiry were confused and confusing. There were inconsistencies in the data for each case study area, with unexplained trends and, in some cases, large and unexplained variations in the figures. Where the data suggest a reduction in child sexual exploitation, this is highly unlikely to be an accurate portrayal of the experience of children, not least due to the substantial recent increase in internet-based sexual harms.


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