Author: Iryna Pona, Policy Manager
Shocking figures published by the Government show the horrific extent of child exploitation – from sexual abuse, criminal and through forced labour. The exploitation children suffer is a form of modern slavery. And the number of exploited children continues to grow.
Over 21,000 children have been referred since 2016.
Only 185 prosecutions have taken place.
While more than 21,000 children have been referred for support as potential victims since 2016¹ following the introduction of the Modern Slavery Act, only 185 prosecutions have taken place under the legislation. Only half of these were successful.
This shameful conviction rate means that many of those who prey on children are allowed to walk free or are convicted for other offences, not always related to the exploitation of children, like drug dealing or weapon related offences. These convictions do not reflect their predatory behaviour.
The results are shorter prison sentences and that exploiters are not on the radar of statutory services as posing a risk to children. They do not have to comply with any restrictions limiting their contact with young people. This continues the violent cycle of abuse.
Why do prosecution rates remain so low? What more can be done to intervene early, prevent children from being exploited and disrupt perpetrators?
- There is still no statutory legal definition of child criminal exploitation. We urge the Government to put that right. This is a crucial first step.
- We encourage ministers to consider introducing an offence of coercion and control of a child for exploitation. They need to better equip all agencies to work together to protect children and build evidence to prosecute those who exploit them earlier in the grooming process.
The war in Ukraine makes the need for action even more pressing. It raises the prospect of vulnerable children, some separated for their families, making their way to the UK. The risk of these children being targeted for exploitation is extremely high, while others may be trafficked here. We know this from our work with children fleeing wars and conflict in other parts of the world.
Ministers must act now to tighten the laws around child exploitation. Creating a legal definition to make it easier to prosecute offenders, and equipping agencies with the tools to break the cycle of abuse earlier.
¹To the National Referral Mechanism. The national system for identifying victims of modern slavery, which should be a gateway for support.