There has been a 60% increase in child sexual abuse reported to the police over the past four years, according to official figures which make public for the first time the scale of the problem in England and Wales.
A House of Commons library analysis based on freedom of information releases by individual forces shows that the number of offences of child sexual abuse reported to the police has soared from 5,557 cases in 2011 to 8,892 last year.
Child sexual abuse includes grooming, facilitating abuse and child rape.
At the same time the number of arrests for child sexual abuse offences in England and Wales has fallen from 3,511 in 2011 to 3,208 – a drop of 9%.
Child sex abuse experts say the official figures represent only the tip of the iceberg because of widespread reluctance to report attacks to the police, although it is still difficult to establish the overall size of the problem.
The official reported police figures, however, do provide the first proper snapshot of the scale of child sexual exploitation.
The shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, who made the freedom of information requests, said the figures showed that the police “are struggling to cope with this emerging crime” in the face of the loss of 17,000 police officers over the past four years. That's heart-breaking! How are police ever going to make a difference when they are understaffed?
She said the majority of the recent increase in reported child sex abuse involved current cases rather than historical ones, such as those triggered by the Operation Yewtree inquiry related to Jimmy Savile.
She said there has been a recent rise in online grooming in particular. “This is a national scandal. This isn’t a problem just from the past. It is a problem the government should be confronting right now,” she said.
The police figures also show that the previous “best estimate” from the children’s commissioner, who found that 2,409 children were confirmed as victims of sexual exploitation in gangs and groups during a 14-month period from August 2010 to October 2011 was, if anything, an understatement of the problem.
The figures show that the biggest increase in reported cases in a single force over the past four years has taken place in South Yorkshire. The force has seen an increase of 577% in cases from 74 in 2011 to 501 in 2014, reflecting the exposure of the large-scale child sexual abuse scandal in Rotherham.
Although the number of reported offences have rocketed in South Yorkshire, the number of arrests has only seen a modest 14% rise from 50 to 57 a year.
Thames Valley police have seen the largest proportionate increase in the number of arrests for child sexual exploitation offences – up 1,370%, rising from just 13 in 2011 to 191 in 2014.
It is telling that both South Yorkshire and Thames Valley recorded a similar number of child sex abuse offences last year as Britain’s largest force – the Metropolitan police – with each force recording more than 500 cases.
Cooper said the increase in reporting of a previously hidden crime was a step forward.
“However, victims of child sex abuse are being let down when alongside a 60% increase in reports there has been a 9% drop in arrests for child sex abuse, as well as falling prosecutions and convictions for child abuse offences, as the police are unable to keep up,” she said.
Cooper said the home secretary, Theresa May, argued that fewer police were needed because crime was falling but she said crime was changing, with more complex and difficult offences emerging.
The shadow home secretary added that Conservative plans to cut a further 20,000 police officers during the next parliament would be deeply damaging to the fight against child abuse.
Cooper pledged to introduce new police powers to prevent abuse and to convict perpetrators, mandatory reporting, and a dedicated Home Office unit to lead a government “crusade” on the issue.
Annual police recorded crime figures do not include an overarching category of child sexual abuse.
The FOI figures were based a College of Policing definition which requested data for crimes against children under 16 for the following offences: sexual activity with a child; causing or inciting a child to engage in sexual activity; causing a child to watch a sexual act; arranging or facilitating the commission of a child sexual offence; and meeting a child following sexual grooming.
The Office for National Statistics has said the general increase in reported sexual offences has been partly due to the effect of Operation Yewtree.
But the ONS added, in the latest set of crime figures, that “historical offences are now making a substantially smaller contribution to the overall rise, while the contribution made by recent or ‘current’ offences has increased”.
It said offences in the past 12 months accounted for 78% of the latest annual increase.
Alan Wardle, NSPCC head of policy and public affairs, responded to the new figures.
“In recent years there has been a huge increase in awareness of child sexual abuse and it’s good that more people are coming forward,” he said.
“Since the Operation Yewtree police investigation was launched in 2012, the NSPCC helpline has seen a huge rise in the number of victims willing to speak out, get support and help bring abusers to justice.
“In the year after Yewtree was launched, there was an 81% increase in calls about sexual abuse to the NSPCC helpline and this surge continues.
“When children take the extremely difficult step of reporting abuse we need to ensure they are properly supported and get the help they need when they are brave enough to give evidence in court.”