A REVIEW of the criminal exploitation of children commissioned by Action for Children has found the system for dealing with it is not fit for purpose. It also found the lack of a UK-wide strategy is resulting in serious and preventable harm being caused to children and young people.

The Review was chaired by Professor Alexis Jay, who headed up the long-running Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. She led a panel to examine the growing issue, which official statistics suggest affects tens of thousands of children across the UK – although this is thought by many experts to be an underestimation.

The Review makes a series of recommendations, as new research from the charity suggests over 130,000 parents say their child has experienced three or more signs of criminal exploitation in the last 12 months.

On the review panel were Simon Bailey, the former National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for child protection and a former member of the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel, and Charles Geekie KC, a barrister specialising in family law and an Action for Children Trustee.

The panel heard there is currently no agreed legal definition of the criminal exploitation of children, which is a complex type of child abuse where a young person is manipulated or pressured to take part in criminal activity.

It also heard how the cost-of-living crisis had exacerbated all forms of exploitation, youth violence, and vulnerability. One witness described poverty “in itself acting as a grooming process”.

Concerns were raised about the rising rates of exclusions and school absences – particularly for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), with the risk of children falling through the cracks. Social media and gaming were also cited as key methods of targeting and grooming vulnerable young people.

Seventy organisations and individuals, including Children’s Commissioners from all four nations, contributed to the Review, along with young people and families with lived experience.

The review heard that:

  • Too often, exploited children are treated as criminals rather than victims.
  • Schools are vital in identifying and safeguarding children who are being exploited, but do not always feel equipped to do so.
  • Certain groups of children are inherently more vulnerable, including those with special educational needs and disabilities, those growing up in poverty or in the care system.
  • Black and minority ethnic children are overrepresented in statistics on criminal exploitation across all types but particularly in county lines.
  • Children often do not recognise they are being exploited which can impact on whether they are perceived as victims or perpetrators and how agencies respond.
  • The current system is failing to bring exploiters to justice.

Summary of recommendations

  • A single, cohesive legal code designed to tackle the criminal exploitation of children, including:
  • A statutory definition of criminal exploitation of children within UK law.
  • New powers for the police and criminal justice system to identify and sanction exploiters.
  • A new specific offence of criminally exploiting children.
  • Coordinated policy and practice at a local and national level, including:
  • A UK wide strategy for preventing criminal exploitation of children from central government.
  • A welfare-first approach in the management of offences committed by exploited young people.
  • Investment, research and whole-system learning, including funding for early intervention services.

Professor Alexis Jay, chair of the review of criminally exploited children, said: “Child criminal exploitation is a form of child abuse. We heard hours of evidence that demonstrates how the current system used to tackle the issue is clearly not working and needs to change.’

“The real scale of the problem is unknown, but we do know tens of thousands of vulnerable children are being groomed, coerced, and threatened into a life of criminality and violence – with devastating consequences for them, their families, communities, and those harmed by the related crimes.

“It’s deeply worrying that serious and preventable harm is being caused to so many children and young people. What is required is a new system designed with the explicit purpose of tackling the criminal exploitation of children.’

Paul Carberry, Chief Executive at Action for Children, said: “Exploiters are efficient at identifying, recruiting, and exploiting vulnerable young people, and are often far better at spotting them than the authorities.

“We commissioned this review because the system is failing, piecemeal, and letting down our most vulnerable children. This is an urgent and preventable crisis, and we call on the government and all political parties in this election year to come up with a credible UK wide strategy to prevent the criminal exploitation of children.”

* Read: Shattered Lives, Stolen Futures: The Jay Review of Criminally Exploited Children here.

* Source: Action for Children