In the UK it is illegal to:
- cause or incite a child to engage in sexual activity
- arrange or facilitate a child sex offence
- meet a child following sexual grooming
- have sexual communication with a child
- take, make or have indecent photographs of children
- sexually exploit a child (including paying for or arranging sexual services of a child)
(Serious Crime Act 2015; Sexual Offences Act 2003; Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 2015; Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2008; Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2009; Protection of Children and Prevention of Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2005).
> Find more information about the legislation and guidance for child sexual abuse
Trafficking and modern slavery legislation across the UK makes it an offence to traffic and/or enslave children for sexual exploitation and makes provisions for sentencing offenders. These can also apply to trafficking children for online sexual exploitation.
> Find more information about the legislation and guidance for child trafficking and modern slavery
Investigating child sexual exploitation
In England and Wales, under Section 116 of the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, police can require hotels and similar establishments where they believe child sexual exploitation is taking place to provide information about their guests. This is intended to help police investigate sexual offences committed in these types of establishments.
Improving the justice system
In Scotland, the Abusive Behaviour and Sexual Harm (Scotland) Act 2016 aims to improve the justice system’s response to abusive behaviour and sexual harm. Under the Act, judges must give special information to guide juries in certain sexual offence trials, to challenge any preconceptions jurors may have about how sexual assaults take place.
In England, the Child sexual exploitation guidance (PDF) provides non-statutory advice to help practitioners, local leaders and decision makers who work with children and families to identify and respond to CSE (Department for Education, 2017).
In Northern Ireland, Child sexual exploitation: definition and guidance (PDF) and Child sexual exploitation: a guide for those working with children and young people (PDF) help professionals and those working with children to recognise the signs of CSE and know how to respond (Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland 2014a and 2014b).
In Scotland, sections 572-584 of the National guidance for child protection in Scotland (PDF) provide indicators of CSE and guidance on how professionals and staff who work with children should respond (Scottish Government, 2014b).
In Wales, Safeguarding children from child sexual exploitation is statutory guidance on understanding, preventing and responding to child sexual exploitation. The guidance is for safeguarding board partners and organisations such as local authorities, the police, health and education services and voluntary groups (Welsh Government, 2021).
The Wales Safeguarding Procedures include a practice guide on safeguarding children from child sexual exploitation (Wales Safeguarding Procedures Project Board, 2020a).
The Home Office has published a Child exploitation disruption toolkit to help frontline staff and safeguarding partners understand their legislative powers and use best practice to disrupt the sexual and criminal exploitation of children and young people (Home Office, 2019).
The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and Home Office have published voluntary interim codes on tackling online child sexual exploitation and abuse. The codes apply to technology companies that host user-generated content and enable social interaction between users, including social media companies and search engines (DCMS and Home Office, 2020b).
In England and Wales, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) provides guidelines on prosecuting cases of child sexual abuse, which includes information about recognising and responding to CSE (CPS, 2020).
Children and young people going missing from home or care
In England the Department for Education (DfE) has provided statutory guidance on children who run away or go missing from home or care (PDF). This outlines the action that local authorities and their partners should take to prevent children from going missing and to protect those who do from risks such as CSE. A flowchart highlighting the main steps to take has also been published (DfE, 2014a and 2014b).
In Northern Ireland the Runaway and missing from home and care: missing children protocol (PDF) provides guidance for the police and health and social care agencies to work together to respond to children who go missing and protecting them from such risks as CSE. The protocol includes questions to assist in decision making (Health and Social Care Board and the Police Service of Northern Ireland, 2015).
In Scotland the National missing person’s framework for Scotland (PDF) provides guidance for a multi-agency response when an individual goes missing, outlining roles and responsibilities and including questions to use in risk assessment for concerns such as sexual exploitation (Scottish Government, 2017).
In Wales, the All Wales Practice Guide on safeguarding children who go missing from home or care provides guidance to carers, police officers, social workers, education and other relevant agencies for handling situations where children go missing. A child information form is included in the protocol (Wales Safeguarding Procedures Project Board, 2020b).
Tackling and preventing child sexual exploitation
In England and Wales, Tackling child sexual exploitation (PDF) sets out how the government is dealing with child sexual exploitation. It includes actions for healthcare, social care, education, law enforcement and criminal justice agencies (Home Office, 2015). A progress report has since been published to give an update on the actions taken to date and sets out next steps to achieve objectives around:
- tackling offending
- reducing young people’s vulnerability
- supporting victims and survivors (Home Office, 2017).
The Tackling violence against women and girls strategy includes actions to tackle sexual exploitation (Home Office, 2021). The elements of the Strategy which relate to crime, policing and justice apply to England and Wales. The elements relating to health, social care, and education apply to England only.
In Northern Ireland, the report of the Independent inquiry into child sexual exploitation in Northern Ireland (PDF) makes recommendations for future actions required by social services, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) to prevent and tackle child sexual exploitation. The recommendations focus on:
- investigating and prosecuting cases
- supporting recovery for survivors (Marshall, 2014).
Two progress reports have been published to give an update on implementing the Marshall report recommendations (DHSSPS, 2016).
The Northern Irish government has set out its approach to preventing sexual abuse in Stopping domestic and sexual violence and abuse in Northern Ireland: a seven year strategy (PDF) (DHSSPS and Department of Justice, 2016). It is highlighted that whilst the response to CSE in Northern Ireland is a separate piece of work, it may dovetail with future actions taken forward under the Strategy.
In Scotland, the Child sexual exploitation action plan sets out the Government's plan to tackle the issue of child sexual exploitation. It focuses on:
- prevention of abuse
- supporting children and young people affected by child sexual exploitation (Scottish Government, 2014a).
A final progress report has been published to give an update on the delivery of actions from the plan since 2016 and the ongoing activity to continue Scotland’s commitment to prevent and tackle child sexual exploitation (Scottish Government, 2020).
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