Child sex grooming cases have quadrupled in four years, but even this level represents ‘the tip of the iceberg’, a report reveals today.
The number of children classed as being at risk of sexual exploitation in just one of the worst-affected regions of the UK has almost trebled to 1,732 since 2015, research found.
‘Chaos’ afflicting children’s homes, with half of youngsters in care sent away from their local area, and sexualisation through access to the internet are identified as key causes.
Today’s report, by Labour MP Ann Coffey, is a follow-up to one she wrote in 2014 entitled ‘Real Voices’, commissioned to address the problem in Greater Manchester following the Rochdale grooming gang scandal.
Three years ago she warned that child sexual exploitation had become a ‘social norm’ in many towns, with older men plying young girls with alcohol and drugs in return for sex.
Titled ‘Real Voices – Are they being heard?’, today’s report shows a ‘shocking’ level of child sex grooming remains despite police and other agencies having become better at recognising that girls – and boys - pressured into underage sex should be treated as victims.
Among disturbing findings, it discovered that:
The number of child sexual exploitation offences in Greater Manchester increased fourfold from 146 in 2013 to 714 in 2016.
1,732 youngsters there are currently identified as victims of exploitation or at risk of being groomed - almost trebled from 2015.
Over a three-year period, 4,066 sex crimes were reported against girls and boys under 13 years old.
One in eight Greater Manchester schoolchildren aged 14 to 15 admitted sending sexually explicit messages or images on their mobile phones.
Miss Coffey, chairman of the Commons’ all-party group for runaway and missing children and adults and MP for Stockport, said despite the rise in offences, grooming remained under-reported and even the latest figures could be ‘the tip of the iceberg’.
Her report praised Greater Manchester Police for undergoing a ‘culture change’ in how they treat vulnerable children – many of them runaways or in care – who are at risk from paedophiles.
It says a range of new orders have enabled police and social workers to intervene, while closure orders on premises such as hotels have also helped reduce the opportunities for offenders.
But it warns that a backlog in police examining suspects’ computers of up to five months is hampering efforts to bring suspects to justice.
It details the case of a 13-year-old girl from Stockport who was being groomed online whose mother reported what was happening to police in 2013.
She handed in her daughter’s computer and mobile phone for examination, but ten months later the family had heard nothing.
In the meantime, the report says, the man had gone on to groom another girl online from another town, meet her and sexually abuse her.
Finally last November he was jailed for four-and-a-half years for abusing both girls.
The report quotes the first victim’s mother saying: 'I feel like I have had a weight lifted from me. He needed to be dealt with. I am thankful he is off the streets. I felt devastated when I heard he had abused another child.’
Miss Coffey’s original report was criticised for failing to address the fact that many street grooming gangs are made up of men of Pakistani origin.
Her follow-up also avoids the topic of race, but does reveal that taxi drivers have begun providing important intelligence about child sexual exploitation as a result of the ‘stigma’ of being linked with the Rochdale grooming gang.
Miss Coffey said: ‘As the extent of the level of sexual offences, including child sexual exploitation, is revealed one still cannot fail to be shocked at the levels of sexual abuse of children in our communities. It is no longer hidden.’
But she said ‘a growing awareness’ of the problem among police, other agencies, local communities and potential victims meant there was hope the problem could be tackled.
Tony Lloyd, the Greater Manchester Police and Crime Commissioner who commissioned both Real Voices reports, said: ‘This is an important and powerful report, which gives a true picture of the scale of child sexual exploitation in our communities.
‘While the findings are shocking, it also shines a positive light on the innovative work police and other agencies are doing to tackle this issue, instilling confidence and hope in children and young people that we are here to protect and support them.’
A spokeswoman for the NSPCC said: ‘This report provides a welcome insight into child sexual exploitation across Greater Manchester, but also highlights that it is vital that we all keep working together – agencies and the wider public alike - to ensure all victims feel supported enough to report their harrowing experiences and bring those who cause harm to children to justice.’