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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


A.1: Background to the investigation

1. Child sexual exploitation is a particular type of child sexual abuse. Generally, it takes place outside the family and involves children being coerced, controlled, groomed, manipulated or deceived into sexual activity. Many exploited children are sexually assaulted or raped repeatedly, over months or years. The perpetrators of child sexual exploitation are typically adult men, acting together.

2. In recent years several significant prosecutions have increased public consciousness of child sexual exploitation.

2.1. In November 2010, five men were convicted of sexual offences against girls aged between 12 and 16 in Rotherham and jailed for between 4 and 11 years.

2.2. In the same month, 11 men were convicted of offences connected with the sexual exploitation of children in Derbyshire. The two main perpetrators received prison sentences of 8 and 11 years respectively.

2.3. Between 2008 and 2010, after Operation Lakeland, three men were convicted of the sexual exploitation of children in Cornwall. It was thought that they sexually exploited around 30 young girls. The main perpetrator was sentenced to 14 years’ imprisonment.

2.4. In May 2012, at the conclusion of Operation Span, nine men from Rochdale and Oldham were convicted of offences relating to child sexual exploitation. The defendants were jailed for between 4 and 19 years.

2.5. In June 2013, Operation Bullfinch concluded with the conviction of seven men from Oxford for offences relating to child sexual exploitation which included rape of a child under 13, trafficking in persons for the purposes of prostitution or trafficking within the UK for sexual exploitation and inciting child prostitution. Two defendants were jailed for 7 years and five were given life sentences with minimum terms between 12 and 20 years.

2.6. In 2014, 13 men were convicted of the sexual exploitation of children in Bristol at the conclusion of Operation Brooke, leading to prison sentences of between 18 months and 13 years.

3. These prosecutions were followed by a 2014 report, Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Rotherham 1997–2013 (by the Chair of this Inquiry), which identified that at least 1,400 children and young people in Rotherham had been sexually abused or exploited over more than a decade. It identified “collective failures” by the local authority and that the police regarded “many child victims with contempt” and failed “to act on their abuse as a crime”.[1] A further report by Ms (now Dame) Louise Casey CB in 2015, Reflections on child sexual exploitation, showed that many in Rotherham had continued to deny the scale of the problem and not enough action had been taken to stop the abuse. She reiterated that:

efforts need to be directed towards perpetrators in order to detect, prevent and disrupt that abuse at the earliest stages as well as the prosecution of individual perpetrators to ensure that they face the full force of the criminal justice system for their vile crimes”.[2]

4. Since then, there have been further large police investigations, including:

  • Operation Clover, a South Yorkshire Police investigation underway at the time of the Rotherham inquiry, gathered momentum following the report’s publication. It concluded in early 2017 with four trials in which 21 offenders were convicted of multiple offences, including rape, false imprisonment and sexual intercourse with children under 13. One of the main perpetrators was sentenced to 35 years’ imprisonment.
  • South Yorkshire Police also invited the National Crime Agency (NCA) to carry out an independent investigation into child sexual exploitation in Rotherham. The NCA commenced Operation Stovewood, which is still operational. To date, 20 individuals have been convicted as a result of this operation and received prison sentences ranging from 2 years to more than 20 years.
  • In 2017, 17 men and one woman were convicted of sexually exploiting girls in Newcastle as a result of Operation Sanctuary and sentenced to between 4 and 20 years’ imprisonment.
  • In 2019, nine men were convicted of the sexual exploitation of girls in Bradford, seven of whom received prison sentences of between 17 and 20 years.

5. The government has sought to identify and address the issues behind child sexual exploitation.[3] The 2015 Tackling Child Sexual Exploitation report stated that “this will not be allowed to happen again” and recognised that:

While the full extent of this crime is still unknown, we do know that it is not confined to one area. Any local authority or police force that denies that it has a problem, or thinks that it is only happening elsewhere, is wrong.[4]

6. With online predators increasingly using mobile phones and other devices as well as social media or dating apps to target children, the risks to children are constantly changing. This requires the understanding of the issue and the response of statutory agencies to be dynamic.

7. In January 2021, the government published its Tackling Child Sexual Abuse Strategy, which set out certain specific measures aimed at targeting group-based child sexual exploitation. It made a commitment that:

Through investments in police intelligence and analysis of exploitation, we will improve government policy and inform local level responses.[5]

8. It is clear from this investigation that such improvements are necessary. As set out in this report, the sexual exploitation of children by groups is much more widespread than currently identified by data. Local authorities and police forces have failed to keep pace with the changing nature of this harm.

9. This investigation considered areas which have not already been the subject of well-publicised investigations of child sexual exploitation by networks (such as Rotherham, Rochdale and Oxford). Those cases have been examined in detail through the criminal courts, as well as in serious case reviews and other inquiries and investigations. Building on previous analyses, this investigation focussed on a range of geographical areas as well as responses to the sexual exploitation of a number of individual children, examining recent and current practice in order to better understand this insidious form of abuse of children. It has demonstrated that child sexual exploitation by groups or networks is widespread. It is not a problem faced by a small number of towns in the Midlands and the north of England.

10. This view has been reinforced since the conclusion of the public hearings in this investigation. In May 2021, an investigative report by The Times newspaper revealed failings in the approach of several police forces and social services departments to children who had been reported missing while at risk of sexual exploitation.[6] In July 2021, the Bradford Safeguarding Partnership published a Child Sexual Exploitation Thematic Child Safeguarding Practice Review. This found that, while there had been substantial improvements in practice since the response to the non-recent cases of child sexual exploitation, not all learning had been fully embedded into practice. For example, risk was not always recognised when it should have been; inappropriate language was occasionally used; and there were examples of children being put into placements which could not meet their needs.[7]


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