The level at which children are being exploited by criminals in Britain is “almost back to Victorian times”, a police chief has said.
Chief Constable Shaun Sawyer said cuts to state-run youth services has left a void between the “school gate and the front door” which criminals are exploiting.
In an interview with the Guardian, he also called for boys who are being exploited to be treated as victims, rather than criminals – in the same way young girls are.
Mr Sawyer, who is the national policing lead for modern slavery, told the newspaper: “For these children they are almost back to Victorian times and are being criminally exploited. These kids are looking for family and security. This is the vacuum of youth diversion schemes.
“For understandable reasons of austerity, state youth services have been vacated. This gap of youth provision between the school and family is the void that the exploiters are filling.”
More British kids becoming victims of modern day slavery
Many youngsters who were victims of modern slavery and human trafficking were British nationals, Mr Sawyer told the newspaper, with the figure up 73.7 per cent from 2018 at about 726 people.
Mr Sawyer, who is the Chief Constable for Devon and Cornwall Police, said criminal exploitation driven by drug gangs was one of the biggest causes of modern slavery.
In a three-month period, 638 children under the age of 18 claimed to be criminally exploited, according to police figures seen by the Guardian. Mr Sawyer said the majority of these were due to county lines.
The term “county lines” refers to the mobile phone lines dedicated to taking orders from drug users, which are operated by criminals from big cities who have expanded into smaller towns.
They are known for forcing young and vulnerable people into crime by using them to act as drug runners.
Mr Sawyer said that while Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s promise of 20,000 more police officers would “make a dent” in the battle to protect children from exploitation, it “won’t stop the causes”.
He said: “One of the solutions to the causes is the gap between the dysfunctional home and the school.
“Youth diversion services need to be hard wired in. Child criminal exploitation, it’s all about family, creating feelings of security, self-worth and power. This gap between the school gate and the front door is where the exploiters are attractive to youngsters.”
Mr Sawyer also stressed the importance of seeing young boys who are being exploited as victims, rather than criminals.
“We accept that a 14-year-old girl does not make a choice to sleep with multiple men,” he said.
“I don’t think it is an informed choice to choose repeatedly to steal or deal drugs, and then hand over the profits.
“We’ve learned that girls who are exploited can be victims, but we seem unable or unwilling to learn the same lessons for boys where criminal exploitation is concerned.”