A far-reaching government plan to tackle child sexual exploitation is to be unveiled to prevent abusers going unpunished and victims unaided.
Agencies in many parts of the country were failing to recognise and tackle child sexual exploitation, with support structures for victims "a postcode lottery at best", said the minister for children and families, Tim Loughton.
"This country has to wake up to the fact that children are being sexually abused in far greater numbers than was ever imagined. It could be going on in every type of community and in every part of the country," he said.
"Too many local areas have failed to uncover the true extent of child sexual exploitation in their communities and failed to properly support victims and their families."
The action plan will call for changes in the legal system to make giving evidence less intimidating for vulnerable young people. The move could include restriction of cross-examination of young witnesses. A victim of a rape by a number of perpetrators can currently be questioned by several different barristers.
Earlier this year, a teenager alleged to have been the victim of several incidents of sexual abuse broke down in tears in the witness box after facing a succession of defence barristers who accused her of lying. It could also lead to more children and young people giving evidence by videolink, rather than in person.
"Many victims of this kind of abuse are deterred from coming forward because giving evidence is too traumatic," said Loughton. "Not only do they have to relive the abuse but they are bombarded with questions by sometimes several aggressive barristers. That is not the most effective way of doing justice and means some perpetrators are not feeling the full force of the law."
Too many councils were disregarding government guidelines on tackling child sexual exploitation, said Loughton, echoing the findings of a recent report by Bedfordshire University which revealed that three-quarters of councils were not putting in place government guidance issued in 2009.
Local Safeguarding Children Boards (LSCBs) would be pushed to assess the risk of sexual exploitation in their areas, with the government putting "rocket boosters" under organisations to ensure they were tackling the problem and putting preventative measures in place.
Schools had a key role to play in raising awareness of the dangers of sexual exploitation, through sex education lessons and inviting parents to events which highlighted the risks, he said.
The issue of child sexual exploitation came under the spotlight this year after the ringleaders of a gang of Asian men in Derby were jailed for grooming girls as young as 12 for sex, and a group of nine mainly Asian men were arrested in Rochdale on suspicion of grooming a group of white teenage girls.
Abuse was perpetrated by people from all sections of society, but there was a specific problem in some areas of gangs of Asian men targeting young white girls, said Loughton, who said the government would not "be held back from tackling this issue wherever it is by concerns about political correctness or ethnicity".
Anne-Marie Carrie, chief executive of children's charity Barnardos whose campaign Puppet on a String informed much of the action plan, welcomed the move but said there had to be a huge shift in culture and attitudes so that the victims of grooming were not seen as somehow complicit in their abuse.
Particular emphasis had to be given on protecting children in the care system and councils had to work together to ensure children were not being trafficked across county boundaries, she said. "If we start by recognising the size and the scale of this problem it is the first step to recognising it as a child protection issue that is happening everywhere in the country."
- MALTA: No time limit on bringing an action against child sex abuse (14 November 2011)
- NEW ZEALAND: Reforms target child witness tactics (7 October 2011)
- SPAIN: Testimony of child victims of abuse found to be reliable (in Spanish) (12 September 2011)
- SPAIN: Interviewing preschool child victims about sexual and/or domestic abuse: Effectiveness of forensic interviewing models (in Spanish) (Centre for Legal Studies, November 2011)
- UNITED STATES: Supreme Court confronts conflict between constitutional rights and protecting children (28 February 2011)
- ICELAND: The Ability of Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuse to Give Evidence (Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology, February 2010)
- More on children's rights in the United Kingdom