New review finds criminally exploited children being harmed by failing system

Anna Caines - Senior Media Officer
Thursday 21 March 2024
Criminal exploitation of children - report cover image

A review of the criminal exploitation of children commissioned by Action for Children has found the system for dealing with it is not fit for purpose.

It also found the lack of a UK wide strategy is resulting in serious and preventable harm being caused to children and young people.

'I didn’t know what criminal exploitation was, I was so naive... I could see him getting in with the wrong crowd, they made him feel good about himself and that’s all he wanted, to be liked...'

Mum of a 19-year-old
The Jay Review

We’ve commissioned a review into how we can end the crisis of children being criminally exploited.

Read the report (opens in a new tab)

Who was involved in the review?

The Review, commissioned by the charity Action for Children, was chaired by Professor Alexis Jay CBE, who headed up the long-running Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. She led a panel to examine the growing issue, which official statistics suggest affects tens of thousands of children across the UK. Although this is thought by many experts to be an underestimation (1).

The Review makes a series of recommendations, as new research from the charity suggests over 130,000 parents say their child has experienced three or more signs of criminal exploitation in the last 12 months, highlighting the urgent and growing nature of the problem (2).

On the panel were Simon Bailey CBE QPM, the former National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for child protection and a former member of the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel, and Charles Geekie KC, a barrister specialising in family law and an Action for Children Trustee.

Boy standing amongst concrete pillars - trees surround - he looks up at sky

What did the review find?

The review heard there is currently no agreed legal definition of the criminal exploitation of children, which is a complex type of child abuse where a young person is manipulated or pressured to take part in criminal activity (3).

It also heard about the scale and depth of the devastation caused to young people, families, and communities across the UK, including how the cost-of-living crisis had exacerbated all forms of exploitation, youth violence, and vulnerability. One witness described poverty “in itself acting as a grooming process”.

There was also evidence that the pandemic significantly increased childhood vulnerability. Concerns were raised about the rising rates of exclusions and school absences – particularly for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), with the risk of children falling through the cracks. Social media and gaming were also cited as key methods of targeting and grooming vulnerable young people.

70 organisations and individuals, including Children’s Commissioners from all four nations, contributed to the Review, along with young people and families with lived experience (4).

Girl standing up looking sad into camera next to curtains

The review heard that:

  • Too often, exploited children are treated as criminals rather than victims.
  • Schools are vital in identifying and safeguarding children who are being exploited, but do not always feel equipped to do so.
  • Certain groups of children are inherently more vulnerable, including those with special educational needs and disabilities, those growing up in poverty or in the care system.
  • Black and minority ethnic children are overrepresented in statistics on criminal exploitation across all types but particularly in county lines.
  • Children often don’t recognise they are exploited which can impact on whether they are perceived as victims or perpetrators and how agencies respond.
  • The current system is failing to bring exploiters to justice.

Summary of recommendations

A single, cohesive legal code designed to tackle the criminal exploitation of children, including:

  • A statutory definition of criminal exploitation of children within UK law.
  • New powers for the police and criminal justice system to identify and sanction exploiters.
  • A new specific offence of criminally exploiting children.

Coordinated policy and practice at a local and national level, including:

  • A UK wide strategy for preventing criminal exploitation of children from central government.
  • A welfare-first approach in the management of offences committed by exploited young people.

Investment, research and whole-system learning, including funding for early intervention services.

The Jay Review

We’ve commissioned a review into how we can end the crisis of children being criminally exploited.

Read the report (opens in a new tab)

Comments on the review

Professor Alexis Jay, chair of the review of criminally exploited children, said:

‘Child criminal exploitation is a form of child abuse. We heard hours of evidence that demonstrates how the current system used to tackle the issue is clearly not working and needs to change.’

‘The real scale of the problem is unknown, but we do know tens of thousands of vulnerable children are being groomed, coerced, and threatened into a life of criminality and violence – with devastating consequences for them, their families, communities, and those harmed by the related crimes.

‘It’s deeply worrying that serious and preventable harm is being caused to so many children and young people.

‘What is required is a new system designed with the explicit purpose of tackling the criminal exploitation of children.’

Paul Carberry, Chief Executive at Action for Children, said:

‘Exploiters are efficient at identifying, recruiting, and exploiting vulnerable young people, and are often far better at spotting them than the authorities.

‘We commissioned this review because the system is failing, piecemeal, and letting down our most vulnerable children.

‘This is an urgent and preventable crisis, and we call on the government and all political parties in this election year to come up with a credible UK wide strategy to prevent the criminal exploitation of children.’

Action for Children delivers services that help prevent vulnerable young people from becoming involved in criminal activity. Since 2012, its Serious Organised Crime Early Intervention Service (SOCIES) has helped young people at risk in eight areas of the UK, including Glasgow, Edinburgh, Newcastle and Cardiff.

Action for Children media team
020 3124 0661 (24 hours)
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The Review panel:

Professor Alexis Jay CBE (Chair):

Professor Alexis Jay is the Chair of the Centre for Excellence for Children’s Care and Protection (CELCIS) in Scotland. She was previously the author of the 2014 Inquiry report into Child Sexual Exploitation in Rotherham, and the Chair of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, an eight-year public inquiry which delivered its final recommendations to government in October 2022.

Simon Bailey QPM, DL, CBE:

Simon Bailey is the former Chief Constable of Norfolk Constabulary and was the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for child protection. Since retiring from the police, he has continued to work in child protection and is a former member of the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel.

Charles Geekie KC, MCIArb:

Charles Geekie KC is a practicing barrister with more than two decades of experience specialising in areas of the law relating to children. He joined the Board of Trustees at Action for Children in April 2023.

(1) Department for Education, ‘Children in need’, 26 October 2023.

Home Office, ’County Lines Programme data', 11 December 2023. Available at:

A lack of a formal definition of the criminal exploitation of children means there is no reliable data collection on the overall scale of the problem across the UK. However, in 2023, 7,432 referrals relating to children were made to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), the framework for identifying and referring potential victims of modern slavery and criminal exploitation. The most common reason for referral was for criminal exploitation (3,123), with over 40% of those referrals relating to county lines. In the year to March 2023, 14,420 children in need assessments in England recorded criminal exploitation as a risk of harm, an increase from 10,140 in 2022. Since 2019, 15,623 people have been arrested through the County Lines Programme in England and Wales.

(2) UK representative polling conducted by Opinium Research of 1,077 parents of children aged 11-17. Field dates 29th February-5th March 2024. Opinium Research is a member of the British Polling Council.

This figure is based on 70 respondents to Opinium’s representative survey of 1,077 UK parents of children aged 11 to 17. To estimate a figure for the total population, we have used the Family Resources Survey 2021/22 figures for the number of families with dependent children (accessed via StatXplore).

(3) Action for Children report, March 2024.

Criminal exploitation of children can include dealing and transporting drugs or weapons (county lines), growing cannabis, theft and burglary, street crime such as begging and pickpocketing and compulsory labour.

(4) The panel took evidence from 70 organisations and individuals, including young people and parents with lived experience of exploitation, from children’s services, education, local governments, charities, academia and the police and youth justice systems across the UK.

About Action for Children

Action for Children protects and supports vulnerable children and young people by providing practical and emotional care and support, ensuring their voices are heard and campaigning to bring lasting improvements to their lives. With 426 services across the UK, in schools and online, in 2022/23 we helped 765,905 children, young people and families.