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More Needs to be Done to Protect Vulnerable Children From Sexual Exploitation

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Last November the government launched their first ever National Action Plan to tackle child sexual exploitation. At an event hosted by Barnardo's, I welcomed this as a key step towards addressing this appalling crime. A year on, none of us could have imagined how headlines would be dominated for weeks on end with shocking accounts of how so many innocents had been abused by Jimmy Savile and others.

It is imperative that these allegations of past abuse are taken seriously. It is also important that all involved co-operate with the relevant authorities in their investigations into this historical abuse. But let us also remember that tragically this is not just an issue of yesterday - calculating and controlling abusers are still exploiting children for sex in the UK today.

For many victims - who are often older, but still vulnerable children in their early to mid-teens - the grooming process itself makes it hard for them to see for themselves that they are being abused, so they don't seek help. Some are intimidated and too scared to speak out. Too often children slip through the net and the tell-tale signs of abuse go unnoticed.

Barnardo's runs projects across the country supporting children who have experienced this kind of abuse. Sadly we believe thousands of hidden victims are still being let down by the system. The numbers of children we worked with in 2010-11 increased by 8.4% and given that each time we are asked to look for sexual exploitation we find it, we believe that this is just the tip of the iceberg.

I have met with many of the young people who rely on our services and along with my staff I have been deeply saddened by their horrific accounts of exploitation for sex.

Whilst the abuse is ongoing young people can be subject to physical and sexual violence, be put at risk of unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease. Their families can suffer threats, distress and the stresses of the abuse can even drive them apart. Even after the abuse ends, the effects can be long term and highly damaging.

Every child who is at risk of being sexually exploited should have someone to turn to, and we must do all that we can to raise awareness so that everyone is able to spot the signs that abuse may be taking place and ensure young people's calls for help are not ignored or dismissed.

The government's national action plan emphasised how important it is for Local Safeguarding Children Boards to actively look for children at risk of sexual exploitation and they have since produced a step-by-step guide to help professionals identify this abuse and respond. Yet local efforts to assess the risks remain patchy and the government's own progress report found that much of the awareness-raising that has taken place has been achieved by the voluntary sector.

We must also do more to bring offenders to book. Last year Barnardo's worked intensively with 1,200 victims or young people at risk of sexual exploitation across the UK. Of 137 police investigations we knew about involving young people we have helped, only 24 had resulted in convictions.

There seems to be only partial understanding of child sexual exploitation within the criminal justice system and the provisions available to support young witnesses are not widely used. We need to see drastic changes to make sure the abusers who control such vulnerable children for sex and personal gain do not get away with it. Some police forces are becoming far better in helping young victims and are often supportive through the preparation for prosecution.

We need a greater consistency of approach, and to this end we campaigned for Police and Crime Commissioner candidates to take the necessary steps to tackle this abuse in their areas with 91 pledging to do so - and following on from last week's elections we will be checking up to make sure the successful candidates stick to their promises.

There is still so much more to be done. We need a renewed commitment from the government to follow through on the ambitions of the national action plan so that young people in all areas of the UK are able to grow up free from exploitation. In particular, the government needs to ensure that local areas do actively search for this abuse and routinely monitor the risks - without understanding the local problem, areas cannot respond appropriately.

The forthcoming interim report by the Office of the Children's Commissioner's Inquiry into child sexual exploitation by gangs and groups should help to increase understanding of the prevalence of some forms of this crime. However, it is imperative that all victims are identified and young people are protected from all forms of sexual exploitation however and whenever it occurs. Effective implementation of the National Action Plan is key to ensuring that young people are properly protected and supported year after year.

This week Lord Carlile has made wide-ranging recommendations for how child protection in England should be improved. I have welcomed his call for more joined up working and information sharing between agencies. Preventing sexual exploitation must be front of mind for all those who working with children, as I would argue that this it is the biggest hidden child protection issue for over tens in the UK.

Barnardo's has 18 years experience of providing support to young people who have been affected by sexual exploitation, and we have worked hard to put this at the forefront of the government's agenda. However, we still need urgent action from those on the ground to protect children who are being groomed and exploited for sex today. We must not let these children down by denying them the voice they deserve or failing to hear what they are telling us.