Scotland 'lacks' clear child sex exploitation strategy

The committee said more research was needed into the "hidden" problem of child sexual exploitation

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MSPs have called on the Scottish government to develop a co-ordinated national approach to tackle the sexual exploitation of children.

Holyrood's Public Petitions Committee said that while good practice did exist the overall picture was "piecemeal".

The committee's report said more research was needed into the "hidden" problem so the full scale of exploitation could be established.

Charities who had called for the inquiry have welcomed the report.

The committee pointed to a number of complexities surrounding the issue, including the fact that young people sometimes did not recognise themselves as victims, a normalisation of intimate sexual relations and online and mobile technology allowing peer sexual bullying and "sexting".

It said education programmes showing young people how to recognise and challenge sexual exploitation and bullying should be made available across all communities in Scotland.

The investigation began after the child protection charity Barnardo's handed in a petition calling for new research into the nature and scope of child sexual exploitation in Scotland and urging new government guidelines.

First-hand accounts

The committee's report included powerful first-hand accounts which have been made anonymous.

One victim, known as Jessica, said when she was 14 she was involved with a group of older children who introduced her to drugs which she could not afford to buy.

Start Quote

After I had slept with him, I realised that I'd been used, but it was too late. I ended up hooked on drugs”

End Quote Jessica Evidence to committee

"My new mates said that it was fine and introduced me to a new boy in the group," she said.

"After I had slept with him, I realised that I'd been used, but it was too late. I ended up hooked on drugs.

"The need and the want became more and more. Next thing was, he made me sleep with one of his friends to clear a drugs debt.‟

In a series of recommendations the MSPs said Scotland lacked a clear strategy to deal with the problem, although they recognised there was no hard evidence on the full extent of child sexual exploitation (CSE) and bullying.

They called for further research to improve the way it was being tackled.

Committee convener David Stewart said there was a very real danger that CSE would continue to be hidden if the full extent was not uncovered.

The committee publishes the report The committee's report made a number of recommendations

"The committee recognises that although there is a lot of positive work being done, it can be piecemeal.

"It lacks the clear leadership and co-ordination needed to tackle effectively the sexual exploitation of our children."

The Labour MSP told BBC Radio's Good Morning Scotland programme: "It did appear to us that there were gaps in the system. There's evidence of not enough co-ordination, certainly evidence of lack of training.

"We also need to look at using existing legislation in a much more comprehensive way. For example, we find that Risk of Sexual Harm Orders are not being used sufficiently.

"And we have good legislation like the Protection of Children and Sexual and Prevention of Sexual Offences Act 2005.

"Frankly, it's not being used."

Barnardo's Scotland welcomed the report.

'Lack of focus'

Its director, Martin Crewe, said: "The sexual exploitation of children is a sickening crime, and I think the committee has been shocked by the evidence Barnardo's Scotland and others have presented.

"We launched out petition on this subject in 2011 because of concerns from our frontline staff about a lack of focus on tackling the sexual exploitation of children in Scotland.

"The committee took on board these concerns, and have identified a series of important measures in the inquiry that followed our petition to tackle sexual exploitation of children."

Among the other recommendations in the report were:

  • Refuges for young people experiencing or at risk of CSE;
  • Higher priority to addressing childhood sexual abuse;
  • National education programme on sexual exploitation for schools
  • Commitment by Scottish government and police to disrupt the activities of adult perpetrators, and identify children and young people at risk.

A spokesman for the Scottish government said it did not tolerate any form of child abuse, and the wellbeing and safety of children and young people was paramount.

'Significant issue'

He added: "That's why we have already taken several important steps including working with child protection experts to produce a report examining the problem of child sexual exploitation in Scotland and established an expert working group to build on the progress made in strengthening the support for vulnerable young people.

"While we will consider the recommendations of this report, it is welcome that both the committee and working group findings recognise progress has been made. We are also further updating the National Child Protection Guidance and other work to ensure robust procedures are in place for all children at risk."

Matt Forde, head of service for child welfare charity NSPCC Scotland, described the committee's report as a "critical step forward".

He added: "There is no doubt that child sexual exploitation is a significant issue for young people in Scotland, and one which requires a coordinated, national solution.

"While children from all walks of life - and from the most loving of families - can be affected, some will inevitably be more vulnerable than others. For this reason, the committee's recommendation on tackling other factors such as neglect, which put children at particular risk, is most welcome.

"There is still a great deal we don't know about the extent of child sexual exploitation and its long-term impact on victims, however we do know that interventions must be appropriate and timely.

"Importantly, we need to dispel the myth that CSE is simply the outworkings of 'unsavoury' generational norms. It is not - it is child abuse."

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