Thousands of Children At Risk of Criminal Exploitation as Government Classifies Modern Slavery as an Immigration Issue
New data on children in need reveals the scale of criminal and sexual exploitation of children – so why does the Government see modern slavery as an issue for illegal immigration?
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More than 10,000 children were identified by English councils as being victims of child criminal exploitation in the past year – with a further 16,330 children identified as potential victims of child sexual exploitation and 2,740 potential trafficking victims. But charities warn this figure could be the tip of the iceberg.
For the first time, councils have been required to record the number of cases where criminal exploitation was identified as a factor in assessments after a child is referred to social care. It found that 10,140 children were being groomed and exploited into criminal activity, including county lines drug dealing, car theft, shoplifting and more serious, violent offences.
Sarah Wayman, head of policy and impact at The Children’s Society, said: “These statistics give a glimpse into the huge problems that exist. Behind them lie horrific stories of children groomed by criminals who use threats and violence to force them into crimes like carrying drugs in county lines operations.”
Many of the children involved in criminal exploitation will be victims of modern slavery.
According to Government statistics, UK nationals under the age of 18 were the second-highest population to be referred to the modern slavery system in the first quarter of this year – 767 potential victims. The largest population was Albanian adults, at 1,008. UK nationals made up 26% of referred victims.
But, despite the fact that UK nationals represent the second-biggest cohort of modern slavery victims – and were the largest referred group between 2017 and 2021 – the Government has increasingly seen criminal exploitation as an illegal immigration issue.
Earlier this month, the Home Office removed the modern slavery brief from the minister responsible for safeguarding and classed it as an “illegal immigration and asylum” issue.
Modern slavery previously sat under former Safeguarding Minister Rachel Maclean’s ministerial portfolio. However, when she was replaced by Mims Davis, modern slavery no longer appeared on the list of her responsibilities. It now appears on the list of the Minister for Immigration.
Former Home Secretary Priti Patel argued that criminals were gaming the modern slavery system although, when asked, the Home Office was unable to provide data on how many people referred as potential victims of modern slavery were later charged with serious crimes. Her successor, Suella Braverman, has maintained the stance that the modern slavery system is being abused and has threatened to weaken legislation designed to protect victims.
But, far from the system being abused, charities believe that victims are not being identified by first responders and therefore are at risk of being further exploited.
“Professionals are still failing to consistently identify and share information about risks facing young people,” said Wayman. “Young victims are too often treated as criminals and police may not routinely refer them to social services. More needs to be done to protect children, including earlier identification of risks such as exploitation to commit crime.”
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Children in Need
The figures are just one part of a worrying picture of the abuse and neglect of children in England.
Councils have identified that there are 404,310 children classed as “in need” – an increase of 4.1% from last year and the highest number since 2017. This means that for every 10,000 children, 334 are in need.
The majority of children classified as in need were referred to social services due to abuse and neglect – a total of 230,830. More than 18,000 were referred because of absent parenting.
Domestic abuse was the most common factor identified by social services at the time of assessing a child: 160,690 cases where there was concern the parent was a victim, and 57,260 cases where there was concern the child was a victim.
More than 102,000 children were referred where emotional abuse was a factor, 11,600 cases where children were involved in gangs, and 850 cases where a child was at risk of female genital mutilation.
The Children’s Society welcomed the recording of this data, but warned that investment in local authorities is needed to better identify and to support at-risk children.
“Spending by councils on early support for families halved over the last decade following government cuts and they need urgent funding to turn this around,” said Wayman. “It’s vital that they receive, as an absolute minimum, the £2.6 billion recommended by the recent children’s social care review to put in place early help before children and families come to harm and require even more expensive crisis support.
“It would be a false economy for the Government to shy away from this investment amid pressure for public spending cuts. In the long run, it will cost taxpayers more and jeopardise children’s safety and futures.”