An inspection of the effectiveness of the police and law enforcement bodies’ response to group-based child sexual exploitation in England and Wales
Published on: 8 December 2023
Group-based child sexual exploitation has a devastating effect on children and their families. It shouldn’t be underestimated how complex and challenging these crimes are to prevent and investigate, and the police can’t tackle them alone. The police, law enforcement bodies, government departments and child protection agencies need to work together effectively to protect children from harm and bring offenders to justice.
The purpose of this inspection was to establish how well the police and law enforcement bodies understand and respond to group-based child sexual exploitation. We found that challenges previously identified in academic literature and reported through public inquiries persisted. We also found that the police, law enforcement bodies and the Government still didn’t have a full understanding of the nature or scale of these crimes. This needs to change.
Over the years, the police and law enforcement bodies have improved how they support victims and understand their needs. However, child sexual exploitation is still under-reported. It is therefore the responsibility of the police to work proactively with safeguarding partners to identify these crimes and give victims and their families the confidence to report them. The police must make it a priority to make sure that victims feel heard.
After we had finished this inspection, the Government announced that it intended to establish a new child sexual exploitation task force. The objective of the task force is to improve how the police respond to and tackle group-based child sexual exploitation and abuse. This is a welcome development.
In this report, we identify one area for improvement and make nine recommendations that are intended to support the work of the task force and lead to improvements. I hope these recommendations are taken seriously and acted on swiftly.
The progress towards improvement
The police service has taken steps to improve its response to child sexual exploitation over the years. Police forces know more about the wider context in which cases of child abuse occur. Many forces now undertake strategic assessments of specific child protection issues, such as child sexual abuse, grooming and indecent images of children. These assessments help senior leaders to understand the nature and scale of these issues in order to inform the development of force priorities.
However, progress remains slow. We found that an accurate view of group-based child sexual exploitation still wasn’t available to the police service as data collection is unreliable and intelligence gathering isn’t prioritised. These concerns are exacerbated by the absence of a common definition of group-based child sexual exploitation.
The police service has problems identifying group-based child sexual exploitation because there is no clear definition of it
We found that forces were using different definitions to tackle group-based child sexual exploitation. This was demonstrated by the difficulty forces experienced in identifying (for this inspection) which child sexual exploitation cases under investigation were group-based.
Having multiple definitions creates problems for the police service and the Home Office when attempting to understand the true nature and scale of group-based child sexual exploitation. A shared definition would provide forces with greater clarity about their performance in tackling group-based child sexual exploitation. This, in turn, would support better oversight of policing practice and help the service to track progress and show it is making improvements.
At the start of our inspection, the National Police Chiefs’ Council had two separate leads in this subject area at deputy chief constable level. One was for child protection and abuse investigation and the other was for group-based child sexual exploitation. We spoke to both leads, who had recognised the need for better national co-ordination across the police service. During our inspection, group-based child sexual exploitation became part of the wider responsibilities of the child protection and abuse investigation portfolio. This avoids duplication, co-ordinates most child protection matters and provides national leadership for the policing response. We regard the change as an important and positive development.
There isn’t enough reliable information about group-based child sexual exploitation
We visited six forces and two regional organised crime units as part of our inspection. We found inconsistencies in how they analysed and developed intelligence on group‑based child sexual exploitation. Some forces held intelligence on local rather than central intelligence systems. This meant they didn’t have a force-wide understanding of the problem.
The police generally use problem profiles to provide them with a greater understanding of established or emerging threats. They use data from partner organisations to help senior leaders decide how to prioritise their allocation of resources. Problem profiles also help frontline police officers and staff and their supervisors understand local risks and demands.
None of the six forces or two regional organised crime units we inspected had produced a problem profile specifically for group-based child sexual exploitation. Group-based child sexual exploitation is often seen as a subset of wider child sexual abuse and exploitation. This means forces should have a problem profile for child sexual abuse or child sexual exploitation, which should ideally include an assessment of group-based child sexual exploitation. We found two of the six forces had problem profiles for child sexual exploitation, which had been completed in the previous 12 months from the start of our inspection. But only one force had included group-based child sexual exploitation as part of a wider problem profile that related to general child sexual exploitation.
Before our inspection, we asked each of the 43 forces in England and Wales whether they had a problem profile on child sexual exploitation; only 24 said that they did and of those, only half updated it yearly.
After we had finished this inspection, in April 2023, the Government announced that it intended to establish a new child sexual exploitation task force. The task force aims to improve how the police respond to and tackle group-based child sexual exploitation.
The quality of criminal investigations is inconsistent
We found that forces struggled to identify group-based child sexual exploitation investigations among their wider child sexual exploitation investigations when we requested them. However, we were still able to identify 27 investigations into reports of group-based child sexual exploitation from the 6 forces we inspected. We assessed how well forces, regional organised crime units and National Crime Agency officers and staff recognised and identified group-based child sexual exploitation and acted to protect children harmed or at risk.
We found that when specialist officers took charge of investigations, they were of a better quality. Specialist investigators were more likely to identify and pursue lines of enquiry promptly and to address any safeguarding concerns. This is because they have the right training and skills to investigate group-based child sexual exploitation offences.
In some of the other investigations we reviewed, we found that non-specialist investigating officers lacked the experience and training to progress investigations promptly and effectively. Enquiries were often carried out in isolation with little, if any, consideration that other incidents may be linked to or may involve additional victims, offences and associates. Developments regarding the examination of devices, such as mobile telephones, weren’t always recorded, and warning markers to alert others to the risks posed by individuals were often absent. This meant that opportunities were missed to identify group-based child sexual exploitation and protect other children.
Despite efforts to avoid criminalising children unnecessarily, in some forces we found victim-blaming language being used
We found that most officers understood that children were being sexually exploited and made efforts to avoid criminalising them. In the cases we reviewed, we didn’t see any examples of officers making efforts to prosecute children when there was evidence of coercion and exploitation. This is positive.
We didn’t find examples of victim-blaming language in three of the six forces we inspected. One of these forces had challenged another organisation about its use of inappropriate language. We commend the leadership shown by that force.
While we found examples of specialist officers who demonstrated sensitivity and understanding in their references to victims, inappropriate language was used on a few occasions in the other three forces. We saw more than a dozen examples of this in our audits of case file records, in focus groups with frontline officers and in a multi-agency meeting. One example was: “Concerns raised [due] to her general proclivity with older men.”
The use of victim-blaming language indicates that some police personnel didn’t understand the vulnerability of children. It meant that responses to protect and help them were at times inadequate and risk was missed. This lack of understanding was evident from the response of two senior officers in one force when we brought our concerns to their attention. They didn’t appreciate that our findings may have demonstrated a cultural issue for the force rather than the shortcomings of individual officers. However, a senior officer in another force immediately recognised the effects this type of language might have on the approach to children and, therefore, the potential outcomes. They made it clear that they intended to address its use across the force.
Forces aren’t always doing enough to disrupt the threat of group‑based child sexual exploitation
During our inspection, we found that most forces’ use of disruption was limited and didn’t always involve partner agencies. For example, disruptions predominantly revolved around measures such as arresting suspects and the use of bail conditions, which might have only a short-term effect. Other options, such as targeting fast food and taxi businesses or other locations where offending is committed, weren’t considered by all forces.
The forces we visited made limited use of campaigns to raise awareness of group‑based child sexual exploitation. The campaigns we saw were usually limited to one part of the force area and in some cases, were one-off local interventions.
Senior leaders we interviewed recognised the importance of force-wide awareness campaigns and the need to resume them. This is because some officers we spoke to in focus groups and interviews expressed a lack of understanding of the tools to prevent group-based child sexual exploitation. One force commented that it doesn’t have any meaningful prevention or disruption capability when it comes to group-based child sexual exploitation or wider exploitation.
We have made nine recommendations and identified one area for improvement. These aim to improve how the police and law enforcement bodies understand the nature and scale of group-based child sexual exploitation and achieve better outcomes for children.
By 31 December 2024, the Home Office, the Department for Education, the Welsh Government, the National Crime Agency, the National Police Chiefs’ Council and the College of Policing should adopt the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse’s definition of an ‘organised network’ as a definition of group-based child sexual exploitation. Or they should devise and implement a suitable alternative.
By 31 December 2024, all chief constables should make sure that their forces have problem profiles for child sexual exploitation, each of which should include an assessment of the nature and extent of group-based child sexual exploitation. This should include relevant data from local partner agencies and should be updated frequently, at least annually.
By 30 May 2025, the National Crime Agency should produce an assessment of group-based child sexual exploitation as part of its annual strategic assessment of serious and organised crime. The assessment should use the agreed definition of group-based child sexual exploitation from our recommendation 1.
By 31 December 2024, all chief constables and the relevant business user groups for police record management systems should make sure there are sufficient measures in place to identify group-based child sexual exploitation.
By 31 March 2026, the Home Office should introduce a new and specific annual data requirement on group-based child sexual exploitation. This should be aligned with its existing child sexual abuse and exploitation crimes annual data requirement. The supporting guidance to forces should use the agreed definition of group-based child sexual exploitation from our recommendation 1.
By 31 December 2024, the College of Policing should update its authorised professional practice on child sexual exploitation to include group-based child sexual exploitation. It should use the agreed definition from our recommendation 1.
With immediate effect, all chief constables should take effective steps to eradicate victim-blaming language in their forces.
Area for improvement
All chief constables should work with their statutory safeguarding partners to review, promote and make sure that relevant group-based child sexual exploitation disruption and prevention initiatives are implemented effectively in their forces.
This should include consideration of options such as the advice given in the Home Office disruption toolkit and an Operation Makesafe (a national police initiative to raise awareness of child sexual exploitation in the business community) type of approach.