Not an Easy Fight, but the Right Fight

09/10/2012 10:06 BST | Updated 08/12/2012 10:12 GMT

In opening up law enforcement to public influence we must guard against the temptation to opt for populist policies which risk sidelining the youngest and most vulnerable victims.

The government's introduction of police and crime commissioners in England and Wales will be a powerful channel for communities to voice their views and hold forces to account.

But, with electioneering for the first 41 underway, candidates must make sure that they are clear in their own hearts and minds that they will not lose sight of the most fragile in the clamour to win office.

Right now we have a marvellous opportunity to make serious gains in the fight against child sexual exploitation.

However, I am concerned that there may be commissioner candidates who are presently ill-prepared for the decisions they are going to have to make. It will be difficult for them to avoid focussing on the loudest voices, whilst those who find it hard to speak up for themselves remain silenced.

Children and young people are particularly at risk of being overlooked. They do not have a voice in elections because they cannot vote and they are more often seen as causing crime, than as victims of it, despite youth offending rates falling for years.

That's why charities like Barnardo's and its supporters have a duty to speak up on their behalf.

Police prosecutions of men who sexually exploit children are rising, but sadly we are now working with more boys and girls who are abused in this way than ever - up 8.4% on last year. There is still a worrying lack of awareness of this issue across the board.

It isn't an easy fight, but it's the right fight.

This abuse is complex and largely underground; one in six young people we have worked with have been trafficked around the country, rising to one in two in some areas, and there are cases where the perpetrator is a victim too. This is why Barnardo's wants to support commissioners as much as possible to get it right.

The more we learn from each other and understand how to tackle child sexual exploitation, the more chance we have in stopping this scourge on our society.

At Barnardo's we are asking candidates to sign up to our Cut them free campaign and if elected take the necessary steps to tackle this abuse within their Police and Crime Plan. So far 36 candidates have already made that pledge, and whilst not all those who will join the race have declared, we still have a long way to go before polling day on 15 November.

The east and north east regions are seriously lagging behind in support of our campaign to prevent sexual exploitation. Worryingly only two candidates in Yorkshire have signed up, despite this crime having a high profile in the region where serious failings to stop this kind of abuse were recently exposed and five Rotherham men were jailed in 2010 for a total of 32-and-half years for sexually abusing and grooming girls as young as 12.

We have made ourselves available at Barnardo's to work with police and crime commissioners to support them to understand this difficult issue and respond in the right way. We want government to work with commissioners to ensure they are tuned in to the national efforts to tackle child sexual exploitation so we see real improvements in preventing this horrible crime.

We will never tire in our fight for the right of the voices of these vulnerable boys and girls to be heard.