Approximately five percent of boys and 15 percent of girls in the U.K. experience sexual abuse at some point in their childhood. A study of financial and monetized non-financial costs, mainly consisting of lost output and physical and emotional harm, estimated that child sexual abuse (CSA) occurring in England and Wales in 2019 would cost the British economy GBP 10.1 billion over the course of the victims’ lifetimes. However, according to the Children’s Commissioner for England, a public body in England promoting and protecting the rights of children, sponsored by the Department for Education (DfE), only 12.5 percent of CSA cases in England are known to the police or local authorities (LAs). As of 2022, 1,930 children in England were subject to a child-protection plan, overseen by their LA, because of an initial referral due to sexual abuse, representing a decrease of 11.5 percent from 2018.
With a score of 77.2/100, the United Kingdom was ranked highest overall out of 60 countries by the 2022 Out of the Shadows Index, including highest in the justice process and second-highest in policies and programs. Due to devolution in the United Kingdom, the four regions—England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland—have individual child-protection systems, legislation, and guidelines in place to prevent and respond to child abuse and neglect. In England, the principal legislation addressing CSA is the Sexual Offenses Act of 2003. The act defines sexual abuse, including child sexual exploitation in its definition, and breaks down CSA into three age categories: offenses against those under age 13, 16, and 18. Other relevant legislation includes the Children Act of 1989 and the Children Act of 2004, which establish the legislative framework for the child-protection system in England, facilitate transparency and cooperation between agencies, and provide a mandate to LAs. The Children and Social Work Act of 2017 created monitoring mechanisms, such as the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel, an independent panel to commission reviews of serious child-safeguarding cases, including those of CSA.
The U.K. Home Office launched the Tackling Child Sexual Abuse Strategy for England and Wales in 2021, building upon previous government reports and the findings and recommendations of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. This strategy committed to: (1) bringing perpetrators to justice, including through increasing investment into the U.K.’s Child Abuse Image Database and the frontline-focused child exploitation disruption tool kit; (2) preventing offending and re-offending, including by deterring potential offenders through the Stop It Now! campaign and educating children through compulsory relationships, sex, and health education in schools; and (3) safeguarding children and supporting survivors, including through introducing an Online Safety Bill, supporting at-risk youth through the Trusted Relationships Fund, and establishing support centers for survivors like the Child Sexual Abuse Services Transformation Fund and Child House pilot. The strategy also has a component to combat international CSA. Adhering to global conventions—including the Convention on the Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse (Lanzarote Convention)—the U.K. strategy emphasizes collaboration with international organizations, such as the WeProtect Global Alliance and End Violence Against Children, to provide assistance to countries most at risk.
When the U.K. Home Office launched the Tackling Child Sexual Abuse Strategy for England and Wales in 2021, it announced a GBP 30 million spending package to prevent and respond to CSA. In 2021, Home Office funding associated with the strategy included GBP 16.3 million to law enforcement for the Police Special Grant to investigate CSA cases; GBP 9.5 million to upgrade the U.K.’s Child Abuse Image Database; GBP 3.7 million to the Trusted Relationship Fund; and GBP 2.8 million to launch the Child Sexual Abuse Support Services Transformation Fund. The Ministry of Justice was also included in the strategy, allocating GBP 4.8 million in 2021 to police and crime commissioners for services for victims of CSA, and GBP 1.9 million per year to the Rape and Sexual Abuse Support Fund, earmarked specifically to support victims of CSA.
While there is much public information outlining the U.K. government’s strategies and one-off monetary commitments to safeguard children, annual budgetary commitments to address and prevent CSA specifically are limited. A Tackling Child Sexual Exploitation Unit is housed within the Home Office’s Tackling Exploitation and Abuse Directorate which has over 500 posts across England. However, limits to publicly available program-related budgetary data prevent analysis of Home Office budgeting over time to address CSA.
While the Home Office is responsible for the overarching CSA strategy within England, the child-protection system is implemented by local government authorities (LAs), such as county councils, district councils, unitary authorities, metropolitan districts, and London boroughs, which are guided and coordinated by the DfE. LA budgets are funded by council taxes, business taxes, and the central government, often through the Department for Leveling Up, Housing & Communities. FP Analytics’ research suggests that CSA-related spending by LAs is likely captured under “Safeguarding children and young people’s services” in activities related to protection. The nationwide budget for “Safeguarding children and young people’s services” has steadily increased over the research period, growing by 26.8 percent from FY 2017–18 to FY 2021–22. Likewise, in the same period, the nationwide budget for social work (including for child protection) increased by 27 percent, while the budget for local safeguarding-children boards slightly decreased.
Actual Expenditure on Select Children and Young People’s Services by Fiscal Year
As demand for child-protection services has increased in recent years, driven in part by the COVID-19 pandemic, government grants and the real spending power of LAs have decreased. For example, central government agencies, including the Home Office and Departments for Education; Work and Pensions; and Leveling Up, Housing and Communities, reduced funding for the Early Intervention Grants supporting at-risk youth by almost 66 percent from FY 2010–11 to FY 2018–19. Underfunding and rising demand have led LAs to increasingly overspend on statutory children’s social care, reducing funding from other budget areas, often to the detriment of preventative services. According to the National Audit Office, as a percentage of total expenditure on children’s services, prevention services decreased from 41 percent in FY 2010–11 to 25 percent in FY 2017–18. Consequently, prevention services have been depleted considerably. In the words of Iain Drennan, executive director of the WeProtect Global Alliance, “I think the efficacy of prevention programs is a current gap, and it’s a gap that there is work underway to help it to be filled.”
“I think the efficacy of prevention programs is a current gap, and it’s a gap that there is work underway to help it to be filled.”
Iain Drennan, executive director of the WeProtect Global Alliance
It is important to note that each LA has a different threshold with regard to what constitutes a “child in need,” leading to disparities in spending across all 318 local councils. For example, during FY 2021–22, North Yorkshire LA spent GBP 77.0 per capita on safeguarding children and young people’s services, while Islington (Inner London) LA spent GBP 623.0 per capita. Furthermore, monitoring found no correlation between spending per child in need and quality of services provided, suggesting inefficiency in spending.
It remains unclear how much funding overall is allocated by central and local governments in England to address CSA. As there are no subcategories that refer to CSA specifically, it would appear that child-protection funding is organized generally and not in reference to specific types of abuse, including CSA.
In England, efforts to address CSA are characterized by their whole-of-government, localized approach. The U.K. Home Office’s Tackling Child Sexual Abuse Strategy in England and Wales defines England’s long-term vision to prevent and respond to CSA, including outside of the United Kingdom, and draws a blueprint for coordination across ministries, NGOs, and LAs. Prosecution of CSA is handled by the National Crime Agency, which encompasses the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Center. In general, it appears that prevention and response efforts dovetail into England’s broader child-protection system, which is guided and coordinated by the Department for Education, and implemented by LAs, which draw funding from the Department for Leveling Up, Housing & Communities, among other sources. Meanwhile, the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services, and Skills monitors and evaluates programmatic efforts. The overall strategic successes and failures of government efforts have been monitored and assessed by studies commissioned by the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel and entities such as the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse.
Apart from publicized one-off grants, such as the Child Sexual Abuse Support Services Transformation Fund, funding to address and prevent CSA is not made visible through government expenditure data. Therefore, it remains unclear how much the central government and LAs are spending to combat sexual abuse specifically. In other words, while many child-protection services will undoubtedly include CSA prevention and response efforts, funding has not been traceable over the past five years. In addition, available data indicate significant disparities in child-protection funding across LAs, as well as a lack of correlation between spending per child in need and quality of services. During the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to an increased demand for child protection, the government reduced unearmarked funding, forcing LAs to spend outside of their budgets, leading to a reduction in prevention spending.
Overall, it would be beneficial for tracking and evaluating spending if government budgets and expenditures included categories pertaining to CSA specifically at the local and national levels. In addition, it is imperative that the government coordinates with LAs to ensure that service provision matches demand for child-protection services. Furthermore, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse emphasized the need for a unified set of data tracking CSA. Nevertheless, the government has made huge strides in strengthening efforts to prevent and respond to CSA, notably launching the Tackling Child Sexual Abuse Strategy; offering prevention services for potential perpetrators and rehabilitation and support for offenders; engaging in high levels of monitoring and reviewing; and spearheading CSA efforts on the international stage.