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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


I.3: Investigation and prosecution of offenders

34. Responsibility for gathering evidence to prosecute offences involving the sexual exploitation of children rests primarily with the police. Bringing offenders to justice will lead to sanctions (such as imprisonment) and other restrictions on their activities, such as orders restricting contacts and movement. It can also enable rehabilitation work to be carried out. Rehabilitation and restriction on the actions of offenders can prevent further children from becoming victims of sexual exploitation.

35. HMICFRS has identified that, while understanding of child sexual exploitation has improved among police officers, further opportunities exist to improve the quality and consistency of police responses.[1] In particular, while police officers often respond appropriately to children at clear risk of harm, they may not be consistent in looking beyond that immediate need to the wider circumstances of a child’s life. They may also not consider other children to whom an identified perpetrator has had access.[2]

36. Once evidence is gathered by the police, cases may be presented to the Crown Prosecution Service, which will decide whether there is sufficient evidence to prosecute and whether it is in the public interest to do so. It may also provide early investigative advice to police investigators dealing with complex matters such as child sexual exploitation. Mr Gregor McGill, Director of Legal Services at the Crown Prosecution Service, stressed the importance of prosecutors working closely with police to provide early investigative advice on particular cases.[3]

37. However, we saw limited evidence of early investigative advice being used by police forces in the six case study areas. None of the police witnesses (other than Avon and Somerset Police)[4] were able to articulate a case where it had been used in relation to child sexual exploitation. The Unit Head for the Crown Prosecution Service West Midlands Rape and Serious Sexual Offences (RASSO) Unit confirmed that there are very few cases of child sexual exploitation referred to the Crown Prosecution Service in Warwickshire for early investigative advice and that when such cases are referred there appears to have been a lack of understanding of the purpose of early investigative advice and the process by which to access it.[5] In Bristol, Senior District Crown Prosecutor Rachael Scott provided early investigative advice in the Operation Brooke case in 2016, persuading the police to treat a 16-year-old girl as a victim rather than a facilitator of offending against younger girls and advising the need to resource the investigation properly.[6] More recently, she was involved in Operation Bulldog, in which early investigative advice was provided by a specialist prosecutor and ongoing advice has been provided.[7]

38. Victims and survivors often have a mistrust of police and other authorities. This mistrust can arise for a number of reasons, including previous negative experiences with the police or children’s social care, concern about the impact on a victim’s immigration status and a feeling, particularly among ethnic minority groups, that they have been targeted and discriminated against by public authorities.[8] In response, the Home Office is seeking to promote a victim-centred response through initiatives such as the National Vulnerability Action Plan (NVAP) and the ‘Child House’ (or ‘Barnahus’) model which encourage a joint approach between police and social workers.[9] A child-centred approach based on individual needs and identity is also embedded into the approach taken in Wales.[10]

39. Research conducted by Dr Ella Cockbain (Associate Professor in the Department of Security and Crime Science at University College London) found that the vulnerabilities of victims were widely seen as a major challenge for enforcement, as although police officers did not suggest that they did not believe victims, they thought that victims were not or would not be credible in the eyes of the Crown Prosecution Service and jurors.[11]

40. As we explained in Part B, dissatisfaction with the police response to reports of exploitation featured in almost all of the complainant accounts and in some of the case study evidence. This is part of a worrying wider pattern. Dr Helen Beckett of the University of Bedfordshire told us that criminal justice responses were:

perhaps the most frequently identified source of dissatisfaction with institutional responses to CSE, both by children and young people themselves and those who care for/work with them”.[12]

41. In the case study areas, there were several issues of concern regarding the quality of investigations. For example, a lack of timely victim contact was identified in a supervisory review of a Bristol case (CS-A32) where an investigation ran for several months without an interview in accordance with the Achieving Best Evidence (ABE) guidance being arranged for the victim.[13]

42. There were several examples of cases of sexual exploitation which did not lead to prosecution. Evidence considered by the Inquiry indicates that this is for a range of reasons. For example:

  • The primary suspect denied the offence; CS-A29 did not disclose the details of one male and also did not want to be medically examined. In a sexting case, the matter was dealt with by the school by way of words of advice.[14]
  • Although CS-A114 made disclosures to the police about a rape, the police did not appear to appreciate that she was under 13 at the time and so there was no prosecution for rape against a child under 13 years.[15]
  • There was no prosecution for certain offences against CS-A50 because she was not supportive of the prosecution[16] (albeit at least one individual was convicted of breach of a Sexual Harm Prevention Order and sexual activity with a child following sexual exploitation of CS-A50).[17] This was the most common reason why sexual offences against children did not lead to a prosecution in Durham between 2016 and 2019.[18]
  • In Swansea, there was a police investigation into serious sexual assault against CS-A25 which led to the arrest of two males but no further action was taken due to evidential difficulties.[19]
  • In Tower Hamlets, in the case of CS-A22, the child made disclosures of assault and rape but these allegations did not lead to prosecution.[20] Although a number of named potential perpetrators were added to a crime report and suspects database, the report was closed. Some information was passed to the local force but there is no evidence of any arrests.

43. An investigation by The Times in May 2021 noted that some councils and charities working with the Metropolitan Police Service expressed concern that the threshold for police to ‘accept’ investigations was too high.[21]

44. Child sexual exploitation has received a higher profile in recent years, which is to be welcomed. However, some of the processes in place to identify and address child sexual exploitation have created an institutional hesitancy to intervene and take the necessary action to protect children and catch perpetrators. If the nature of risk and harm is not recognised, the seriousness of cases is downgraded and leads to opportunities for investigation, disruption and prosecution being missed.

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