Is Bedfordshire winning the struggle against child sexual exploitation (CSE)?
Could what happened in Rotherham or Rochdale take place here?
A single CSE prosecution in Luton and a low level of children identified as being at risk in the town suggests all is well.
But the authorities closely monitoring the evidence acknowledge more work needs to be done.
There were 38 CSE-related crimes in Luton, 34 in Bedford and 21 in Central Bedfordshire from April 2017 to June this year.
Between 2014 and 2017, 146 children and young people were flagged as being at risk of CSE in the county.
Currently, as of June 2018, there are 19 children or young people considered to be at risk of CSE.
Luton benefits from having a multi-agency safeguarding hub (or MASH) in which staff are well briefed about all forms of exploitation.
Within Luton to date “there has been one successful prosecution, one youth caution and two adult cautions administered”, according to a report to Luton Borough Council’s children service’s review group.
The links between CSE and other emerging threats and hidden crimes are becomingly increasingly apparent, says the report.
These offences range from domestic abuse, modern slavery and trafficking, to cybercrime, gangs and criminal exploitation.
CSE is a form of child abuse. Child abuse includes any act of forcing or enticing a child or young person to take part in sexual activities.
A CSE disruption toolkit was introduced for Bedfordshire in February 2017.
After an initial focus on taxi drivers and hotels, the authorities are spreading their prevention message to fast food outlets across Bedfordshire.
The council’s head of strategic safeguarding Glen Denham said a proactive approach included training taxi drivers to recognise the signs of sexual exploitation.
“It’s part of taxi drivers’ licensing process now that they have to attend training,” he told a review group meeting on Tuesday. (July 31st)
“That approach has been adopted across Bedfordshire.
“Police and council staff have been really proactive under Operation Make Safe, identifying hotels where we have intelligence to suggest that there could be sexual exploitation happening.”
He said hotels were visited to ensure staff are aware what the signs are, such as thinking about a child with an adult, about where rooms have been booked and for how long, and asking what their safeguarding policy is.
“We’re also doing the same now for fast food outlets where we know there are challenges in relation to young people being at risk.”
Bedfordshire’s CSE co-ordinator Lisa Robinson said: “We invited every hotel across Bedfordshire to a conference. A big part of our role is about prevention.
“Now what we’re finding is that hotels are calling in, with concerns, before a child is being taken into a hotel room.
“I wouldn’t like to say we’ve had an increase in the number of offences taking place in hotels. It’s because we’ve raised that awareness,” she added.
“We had a recent case where someone who’d had the training saw a mattress being taken out of the back of a takeaway shop and that didn’t seem right, so they reported their concerns.
“Clearly that could have been a situation of modern day slavery or other form of exploitation,” she told the review group.
“In Luton specifically, we’re targetting areas where we have got that intelligence, the fast food outlets where we have concerns, that are our hot spot areas.”
Mr Denham said: “There has been one prosecution in Luton recently, but at the end of the day we can only state the facts.
“We’ve got low prosecution rates. We’ve had a number of individuals under surveillance, and lots of work across the partnership in terms of disruption, and raising awareness about individuals.
“It’s about cases being prepared to the level where the police think they having sufficient evidence and that’s supported by the CPS.
“I don’t want to give impression that we are patting ourselves on the back across the partnership and Luton Borough Council to say ‘aren’t we doing well’?
“We are doing well in our approach to try to prevent and protect,” he explained.
“But I still think there’s lots more to be done, particularly in relation to the four recommendations to the review group.
The review group was told the next campaign will be ‘It happens to boys too’.