Thousands of young people are sexually exploited, says Tim Loughton, but local authorities are failing to measure problem
Thousands of children in the UK are being sexually exploited, according to the children's minister, Tim Loughton.
He told a conference in Manchester organised by St Mary's Sexual Assault Referral Centre that many local areas were failing to collate information on the extent of the problem in their communities.
"My strong sense is that this country is waking up to the fact young people are being sexually exploited not in the dozens or the hundreds, but very probably the thousands," Loughton added. "For too long, child sexual exploitation has been a hidden issue."
He said the government was "absolutely committed" to reducing the number of young people who fall victim to abuse, and was working closely with the sector to make progress with its action plan to tackle child sexual exploitation.
Loughton admitted progress was "slow but sure and there is always room and reason for improvement".
He said the government was going to continue to help organisations such as St Mary's, with funding already committed to support 87 independent sexual violence adviser posts over the next four years.
He said the government was working with police, child protection services, judges and magistrates to ensure young witnesses and victims were fully supported through the legal process. "And we are working hard to increase the use of special measures in courts so we can ease the stress and anxiety of criminal proceedings on young people," he added.
"Children must be able to make informed choices. They must be able to recognise and manage risk, and they must have the awareness to make safe decisions. This is why sex and relationship education is a key constituent of the wider personal, social, health and economic education review we are undertaking."
Loughton urged every Local Safeguarding Children Board, "not just some", to treat exploitation as a top priority.
He stressed this was not a race issue and there were examples of child exploitation cases in a range of communities.
Ann Marie Carrie, chief executive of Barnardo's, said child exploitation did not fit one model of behaviour or victim. "In a way the media has been guilty of promoting only one model, when there have been many," she said.
"My concern is that the level of awareness about child sex exploitation is akin to domestic violence 20 years ago. There's a sense that because the child is over 10 years old, that behaviourally and attitudinally there must have been consent ? but it is abuse and they are still a child and cannot consent."
She said children can become vulnerable as they move to secondary school away from their friends, with predatory perpetrators targeting children who are vulnerable and isolated.
"They drive a wedge between children and their parents and youth workers and they isolate them to command and control them," she said. "It's not just about sex, it's about control."
In one case, said Carrie, police were called to a flat where a 14-year-old girl was found, drunk, with eight older men. The police released the men and the girl was charged with being drunk and disorderly. No one questioned why such a young girl was paralytic with a group of older men.
Carrie said the average age of victims had fallen from 15 to 13 because 15-year-old girls were too sophisticated to be taken in by perpetrators. "But we work with girls, and boys, as young as 10," she added. "Prosecutions are woefully inadequate. In one case, there was a girl who was cross-examined by eight or 10 different QCs after suffering a three-and-a-half year period of abuse."
Dr Catherine White, clinical director at the St Mary's Centre, said: "Victims of sexual exploitation tend to be the voiceless, marginalised groups in society. Meeting their needs and striving for social justice may not fit in neatly to a reductive business case model."