Child sexual exploitation Legislation, policy and guidance

England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales each have their own guidance for how professionals must respond to child abuse and protect children from harm, which includes child sexual exploitation. 

There is no specific offence of ‘child sexual exploitation’ in the UK. Instead, prosecutions can be brought under a range of offences in each nation’s legislative framework to protect children from harm. 

Below is a summary of the government policy and guidance for responding to child sexual exploitation in each nation.

Official definitions

"Sexual exploitation of children and young people under 18 involves exploitative situations, contexts and relationships where young people (or a third person or persons) receive 'something' (e.g. food, accommodation, drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, affection, gifts, money) as a result of them performing, and/or another or others performing on them, sexual activities.

Child sexual exploitation can occur through the use of technology without the child's immediate recognition; for example being persuaded to post sexual images on the Internet/mobile phones without immediate payment or gain. In all cases, those exploiting the child/young person have power over them by virtue of their age, gender, intellect, physical strength and/or economic or other resources. Violence, coercion and intimidation are common, involvement in exploitative relationships being characterised in the main by the child or young person's limited availability of choice resulting from their social/economic and/or emotional vulnerability."

(Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) and Home Office, 2009)

This definition of child sexual exploitation was created by the UK National Working Group for Sexually Exploited Children and Young People (NWG) and is used in statutory guidance for England.

The Home Office and Department for Education are considering revising the statutory definition of child sexual exploitation so that it's shorter and simpler and makes clear:

  • the definition of grooming and the issue of consent
  • child sexual exploitation is always the responsibility of the perpetrator
  • child sexual exploitation can happen in a different way to other forms of child sexual abuse such as intrafamilial sexual abuse.

Legislation

Sexual offences legislation makes it clear what constitutes a sexual offence against a child and states what is an appropriate sentence.

Sexual Offences Act 2003

Prosecutions for child sexual exploitation can be brought under provisions of the Sexual Offences Act 2003. These include:

The NSPCC’s Flaw in the Law campaign successfully amended the Serious Crime Bill so that it is now a criminal offence for an adult to send a sexual message to a child. The Serious Crime Act which received royal assent on 3rd March 2015 amends section 15 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003.

Closing this gap in the legislation means that predators will be discouraged from grooming children online for sexual exploitation and the police will be able to take action against offenders earlier on in the grooming process.

View section 67 of the Serious Crime Act 2015

Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014

Section 116 of this act ‘Protection from sexual harm and violence’ allows police to require hotels and similar establishments, in which they reasonably believe child sexual exploitation is taking place, to provide information about guests. This is intended to equip the police to better investigate sexual offences committed on these types of premises

View section 116 of the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014

Section 113 amends the Sexual Offences Act 2003 to create Sexual Harm Prevention Orders (SHPOs) and Sexual Risk Orders (SROs). An SHPO or SRO is intended to protect the public or an individual against sexual harm.

View section 113 of the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014

The Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2008

Prosecutions for child sexual exploitation can be brought under provisions of this Act, including:

  • S.12-13 Rape and other offences against children under 13
  • S.16-22 Offences against children under 16, including meeting a child following sexual grooming
  • S.23-42 Offences against children under 18

View The Sexual Offences Order 2008

Sexual Offences Act 2003

Although the Sexual Offences Act 2003 primarily addresses sexual offences law in England and Wales, certain sections apply to Northern Ireland and can be drawn on for prosecutions related to child sexual exploitation. These include:

Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Criminal Justice and Support for Victims) Act (Northern Ireland) 2015

S.3(3) defines sexual exploitation for the purposes of the Act referring to provisions in previous Northern Ireland legislation

View the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Criminal Justice and Support for Victims) Act (Northern Ireland) 2015 

Protection of Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1978

Includes protection against the showing or distribution of indecent photographs of children (s.3 Indecent Photographs of Children)

View the Protection of Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1978

Protection of Children and Prevention of Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2005

Prosecutions for child sexual exploitation can be brought under the Protection of Children and Prevention of Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2005, sections 1 and 9-12 including:

View the Prevention of Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2005

Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2009

Cases that come under the definition of child sexual exploitation may be prosecuted under the Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act including:

View the Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2009

Civic Government (Scotland) Act 1982

The Civic Government (Scotland Act) 1982 includes protection against the showing or distribution of indecent photographs of children (s.52 Indecent Photographs etc. of Children)

View s.52 of the Civic Government (Scotland) Act 1982

Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 2003

Section 22 of the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 2003 provides legislation to prosecute for acts of trafficking children for the purpose of sexual exploitation.

View the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 2003

Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Scotland) Act 2015

The Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Scotland) Act 2015 implemented a new single offence against the trafficking of both adults and children for all forms of exploitation, including sexual exploitation.

View the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Scotland) Act 2015

Abusive Behaviour and Sexual Harm (Scotland) Act 2016

Makes provision about sexual harm including provision about directions to be given to juries in sexual offence cases and provision about orders to prevent future sexual harm including sexual harm prevention orders and sexual risk orders.

View the Abusive Behaviour and Sexual Harm (Scotland) Act 2016

Sexual Offences Act 2003

Prosecutions for child sexual exploitation can be brought under provisions of the Sexual Offences Act 2003. These include:

The NSPCC’s Flaw in the Law campaign successfully amended the Serious Crime Bill so that it is now a criminal offence for an adult to send a sexual message to a child. The Serious Crime Act which received royal assent on 3rd March 2015 amends section 15 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003.

Closing this gap in the legislation means that predators will be discouraged from grooming children online for sexual exploitation and the police will be able to take action against offenders earlier on in the grooming process.

View section 67 of the Serious Crime Act 2015

Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014

Section 116 of this act ‘Protection from sexual harm and violence’ allows police to require hotels and similar establishments, in which they reasonably believe child sexual exploitation is taking place, to provide information about guests. This is intended to equip the police to better investigate sexual offences committed on these types of premises

View section 116 of the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014

Section 113 amends the Sexual Offences Act 2003 to create Sexual Harm Prevention Orders (SHPOs) and Sexual Risk Orders (SROs). An SHPO or SRO is intended to protect the public or an individual against sexual harm.

View section 113 of the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014

Policy

The Government for each nation has set out a strategy for tackling child sexual exploitation.

Parliamentary inquiry into the effectiveness of legislation for tackling child sexual exploitation and trafficking within the UK

(Barnardo's, 2014)

In 2014 Barnardo's published a report on a Parliamentary inquiry into how effective the existing legislation is.

Download Report of the Parliamentary inquiry into the effectiveness of legislation for tackling child sexual exploitation and trafficking within the UK (PDF)

Tackling child sexual exploitation

(HM Government, 2015)

This report was published in March 2015. The Home Office 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.

View Tackling child sexual exploitation

Tackling child exploitation action plan

(Department for Education (DfE), 2011)

This report was published in November 2011. The Department for Education sets out actions for government, local agencies and voluntary and community sector partners to raise awareness and prevent child sexual exploitation. It was updated with a progress report in July 2012.

View Tackling child exploitation action plan

View Tackling child sexual exploitation: action plan - progress report 
(Department for Education (DfE), 2012)

Report from the joint inquiry into children who go missing from care

(All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Runaway and Missing Children and Adults, 2012)

This report from the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Runaway and Missing Children and Adults looked at the risk of sexual exploitation for children who go missing from care. It concluded that the system was not fit for purpose and set out a number of recommendations.

Download Report from the joint inquiry into children who go missing from care (PDF)

Reform of Children's Residential Care

(Department for Education, 2012)

A report by Expert Group on the Quality of children's homes in response to the Children's Commissioner's inquiry into child sexual exploitation in gangs and groups and an All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) inquiry on children going missing from care. Its recommendations include: improving information on the costs and quality of placements, improving local authority commissioning, procurement and placement and reducing barriers to setting up for new or established providers.

Download Reform of Children's Residential Care: report of the Expert Group on the Quality of children's homes, presented to DfE Ministers – December 2012 (PDF)

Missing children and adults

(Home Office, 2011)

A cross-government strategy highlighting the link between children missing school and the risk of sexual exploitation. It presents a number of strategies to prevent children going missing in the first place.

Download Missing children and adults: a cross-government strategy (PDF)

Office of the Children's Commissioner's Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Gangs and Groups

(Office of the Children's Commissioner, 2013)

A two-year Inquiry by the Office of the Children's Commissioner's for England (OCC) which resulted in a series of reports.

The overall final report made recommendations including: a review of the definition of child sexual exploitation in the statutory guidance, 'Working together'; development of nationally and locally agreed information-sharing protocols; problem-profiling of victims, offenders, gangs, gang-associated girls, high risk businesses and neighbourhoods at national and local level; and provision of sex and relationship education for all children and young people.

Download "If only someone had listened": Office of the Children's Commissioner's Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Gangs and Groups: final report (PDF)

One year after the publication of the final report, the Office of the Children's Commissioner published a report setting out the progress that has been made in tackling child sexual exploitation in England.

View "If it's not better, it's not the end" Inquiry into child sexual exploitation in gangs and groups: one year on

(Office of the Children's Commissioner, 2015)

Visit Office of the Children's Commissioner's Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Gangs and Groups (CSEGG)

Child sexual exploitation and the response to localised grooming

(Home Affairs Committee, 2013)

This report from the Home Affairs Committee examined the results of the Office of the Children's Commissioner's Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Gangs and Groups. It covers the role of official agencies; identifying vulnerable victims and ensuring access to support; court processes; health and education; the issue of race; and future steps for Government to take, focusing on Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hubs and legislation.

Download Child sexual exploitation and the response to localised grooming: second report of session 2013-14: volume I: report, together with formal minutes and volume II: oral and written evidence (PDF)

Three year strategy 2012-2015

(Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP), 2012)

Published by the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) in 2012. Sets out CEOP's strategic objectives for tackling and preventing child sexual exploitation.

Download Three year strategy 2012-2015 (PDF)

Response to Marshall report

(Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland, 2014)

A Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland (SBNI) statement in response to the Marshall report. See 'Notes to editors' 1.4. for a summary of progress on SBNI strategy and business plan actions on child sexual exploitation.

View Response to Marshall report

Child Sexual Exploitation in Northern Ireland

(The Criminal Justice Inspection for Northern Ireland (CJI), 2014)

Makes a number of recommendations for future actions required to prevent and tackle child sexual exploitation involving social services, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and the Department of Health.

Download Child sexual exploitation in Northern Ireland: report of the independent inquiry: Kathleen Marshall: November 2014 (PDF)

Three year strategy 2012-2015

(Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP), 2012)

Published by the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) in 2012. Sets out CEOP's strategic objectives for tackling and preventing child sexual exploitation.

Download Three year strategy 2012-2015 (PDF)

Child sexual exploitation action plan

(Scottish Government, [2014])

This is the Scottish Government's action plan to tackle the issue of child sexual exploitation. It focuses on prevention of abuse, prosecution, supporting children and young people affected by child sexual exploitation.

Download Scotland's National Action Plan to tackle Child Sexual Exploitation (PDF)

Child sexual exploitation action plan: update

(Scottish Parliament, 2016)

Sets out progress on the actions set out in Scotland’s first Action Plan published in November 2014 and further actions that will be taken forward to continue Scotland’s commitment to prevent and tackle child sexual exploitation.

Download National action plan to prevent and tackle child sexual exploitation: update (PDF)

Report on tackling child sexual exploitation in Scotland

(Scottish Parliament, 2014)

Published by the Scottish Parliament's Public Petitions Committee in response to Barnardo's Scotland public petition calling for a co-ordinated national approach to tackling child sexual exploitation.

View the Public Petitions Committee 1st report, 2014 (session 4) report on tackling child sexual exploitation in Scotland

Three year strategy 2012-2015

(Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP), 2012)

Published by the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) in 2012. Sets out CEOP's strategic objectives for tackling and preventing child sexual exploitation.

Download Three year strategy 2012-2015 (PDF)

Parliamentary inquiry into the effectiveness of legislation for tackling child sexual exploitation and trafficking within the UK

(Barnardo's, 2014)

In 2014 Barnardo's published a report on a Parliamentary inquiry into how effective the existing legislation is.

Download Report of the Parliamentary inquiry into the effectiveness of legislation for tackling child sexual exploitation and trafficking within the UK (PDF)

Three year strategy 2012-2015

(Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP), 2012)

Published by the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) in 2012. Sets out CEOP's strategic objectives for tackling and preventing child sexual exploitation.

Download Three year strategy 2012-2015 (PDF)

Guidance

Includes key messages for practice for professionals working to safeguard children at risk of sexual exploitation. 

Safeguarding children and young people from sexual exploitation

(Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF), 2009)

This is statutory guidance on preventing child sexual exploitation and the roles and responsibilities of professional organisations such as Local Safeguarding Children Boards, the police, health and education services and voluntary groups.

Download Safeguarding of children and young people from sexual exploitation: supplementary guidance to Working together to safeguard children (PDF)

What to do if you suspect a child is being sexually exploited

(Department for Education, 2012)

This is a brief guide for local authorities, local safeguarding children boards (LSCBs) and frontline practitioners in the statutory, voluntary and community sectors (VCS). It outlines step-by-step actions professionals should take if they suspect a child they are in contact with is being sexually exploited. It is based on the more comprehensive statutory guidance Safeguarding children and young people from sexual exploitation: supplementary guidance published in 2009.

Download What to do if you suspect a child is being sexually exploited (PDF)

Statutory guidance on children who run away or go missing from home or care

(Department for Education (DfE), 2014)

This statutory guidance outlines the action that local authorities and their partners should take to stop children going missing from home or care and to protect those who do. It covers:

  • agency roles and responsibilities
  • multi-agency working
  • access to support
  • risk assessment
  • safe and well checks
  • independent return interviews
  • emergency accommodation
  • children who repeatedly run away and go missing
  • additional actions to protect looked after children.

A flowchart outlining the main steps that need to be taken when a child goes missing from local authority care and who is responsible for taking them has also been published.

Download Statutory guidance on children who run away or go missing from home or care (PDF)

Download Flowchart showing roles and responsibilities when a child goes missing from care (PDF)

Guidance on the Sexual Offences Act 2003

Home Office guidance. Part 1 provides an explanation of what each sexual offence covers, cases where it can be used and maximum penalty. Part 2 deals with provision for sex offenders and provides guidance for police and practitioners on the notification requirements for registered sex offenders and Sexual Harm Prevention Orders (SHPOs) and Sexual Risk Orders (SROs).

View Guidance on part 1 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003
(Home Office, 2004)

View Guidance on part 2 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003
(Home Office, 2015)

Guidelines on prosecuting cases of child sexual abuse

(Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), 2013)

Published by the Crown Prosecution Service in October 2013. These guidelines set out the approach that prosecutors should take when dealing with child sexual abuse cases, including child sexual exploitation.

View Guidelines on prosecuting cases of child sexual abuse

Child sexual exploitation: definition and guidance for professionals October 2014

(Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland, 2014)

Published in October 2014 by the Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland (SBNI) this document provides definition and guidance for professionals on child sexual exploitation.

Download Child sexual exploitation: definition and guidance (PDF)

Child sexual exploitation: a guide for those working with children and young people

(Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland, 2014)

A brief guide to help professionals recognise the signs of child sexual exploitation and know what to do.

Download Child sexual exploitation: a guide for those working with children and young people (PDF)

National guidance for child protection in Scotland

(Scottish Government, 2014)

This document includes guidance on child sexual exploitation (sections 572-584) including key messages for practice.

View National guidance for child protection in Scotland: harm outside the home or in specific circumstances

Guidance on the Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2009

(Scottish Government, 2010)

Includes guidance on child sex offences (s.71-83)

View guidance on the Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2009

Guidance on the Sexual Offences Act 2003

Home Office guidance. Part 1 provides an explanation of what each sexual offence covers, cases where it can be used and maximum penalty. Part 2 deals with provision for sex offenders and provides guidance for police and practitioners on the notification requirements for registered sex offenders and Sexual Harm Prevention Orders (SHPOs) and Sexual Risk Orders (SROs).

View Guidance on part 1 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003
(Home Office, 2004)

View Guidance on part 2 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003
(Home Office, 2015)

Safeguarding of children and young people from sexual exploitation

(Welsh Assembly Government, 2010)

This is statutory guidance on preventing child sexual exploitation and the roles and responsibilities of professional organisations such as Local Safeguarding Children Boards, the police, health and education services and voluntary groups.

Download Safeguarding of children and young people from sexual exploitation: supplementary guidance to Safeguarding children: working together under The Children Act 2004 (PDF)

Safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children who are at risk of abuse through sexual exploitation: All Wales protocol

(All Wales Child Protection Procedures Review Group, 2013)

This is part of the All Wales child protection procedures. It outlines responsibilities of different agencies and sets out the Sexual Exploitation Risk Assessment Framework (SERAF) for the identification of risk and a procedure for handling concerns.

Download All Wales protocol: safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children who are at risk of abuse through sexual exploitation (PDF)

Guidelines on prosecuting cases of child sexual abuse

(Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), 2013)

Published by the Crown Prosecution Service in October 2013. These guidelines set out the approach that prosecutors should take when dealing with child sexual abuse cases, including child sexual exploitation.

View Guidelines on prosecuting cases of child sexual abuse

All Wales protocol: missing children

(All Wales Child Protection Procedures Review Group, 2011)

Provides guidance to carers, police officers, social workers, education and other relevant agencies for dealing with situations where children go missing.

Download All Wales protocol: missing children: children who run away or go missing from home or care

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