Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary said it was “concerned about the standard” of probes into child sexual exploitation by West Yorkshire Police.
The watchdog’s report into how the force protects children said staff working in this area “are dedicated and knowledgeable individuals, working to provide the best outcomes for the children of West Yorkshire”.
But it said its work protecting vulnerable children was “often weak” in difficult, complicated or prolonged cases, and information about cases was being recorded poorly on police systems.
The report, published today, said many children were being unnecessarily detained in police custody overnight and that there was a force-wide lack of understanding of demand created by child protection issues.
And it criticised an inconsistent approach in different parts of the county, with the response in Leeds weaker because its teams were “less well developed”.
Though inspectors found examples of very good investigations, it said some cases saw “significant drift” if more work was required, particularly if an officer had a high workload.
Of the probes into CSE, nine of the 15 examined by inspectors in August were inadequate, often because delays or “failure to consider the wider risk posed by offenders to other children”.
One worrying case cited by HMIC showed the long delays caused by the time it took for the force’s high-tech crime unit to analyse suspects’ computers.
A man assessed as high risk was arrested in January for possessing indecent images of children, and he was released on bail while his computer was analysed.
In June, when he was arrested for sexually abusing a six-year-old girl who had been playing in the street, he was still on bail due to delays looking at the computer.
In another case, an 18-year-old woman reported that she had been raped by her brother five years earlier and said she was concerned he was still living with their younger brother.
The report said: “There were significant delays in this investigation, including in arranging a medical examination. There was little activity or contact with her in five months, which might well have contributed to her withdrawal of the allegation.”
Last month, the force said a team of investigators looking at safeguarding and child sexual exploitation would be brought in at a cost of £1.5 million a year.
HM Inspector of Constabulary Mike Cunningham said: “West Yorkshire police is clearly committed to improving child protection services and its staff are dedicated and knowledgeable individuals, working to provide the best outcomes for the children of West Yorkshire.
“However there is more work to be done, particularly on the more difficult cases, to ensure that delays are reduced wherever possible and that instances of children being unnecessarily detained in police custody overnight are tackled.”
The force, which late last year had 84 live CSE investigations ongoing, has been asked to come up with an action plan in the next six weeks.
Assistant chief constable Russ Foster said today that when HMIC visited in August, the force was “in the throes of a comprehensive review of our safeguarding units and looking at enhancing service delivery, refining our structures and better managing our demand with a view to providing a consistently high quality service to protect children across the five districts of West Yorkshire.”
He added: “Within West Yorkshire Police we have increased resources dedicated to investigating these offences including appointing more staff to tackle child sexual exploitation across all districts and improved multi-agency working with partners in local authorities and charities to ensure joined up approaches to safeguarding.
“There are safeguarding teams in each of the county’s five district policing areas which are focused on dealing with all issues around child protection including sexual and physical abuse, child sexual exploitation, children missing from home, child neglect and harm.
“The HMIC has identified issues relating to the recording of updates on internal police systems after crimes and reports from victims have been recorded - this is being reviewed. West Yorkshire Police would like to reassure victims that all crimes are taken seriously, recorded appropriately and investigated thoroughly.
“These are complex and resource intensive enquiries and police work closely with the Rape and Serious Sexual Offences team within the Crown Prosecution Service to ensure proper consideration of available evidence when there is a possibility of proceeding to court.
“A dedicated Detective Inspector now works alongside reviewing lawyers to ensure any issues can be immediately identified to streamline the process and provide a better service.
“We are liaising with our partners in relation to the availability of secure beds outside a police environment.
“We have also majored on campaigns to raise awareness of child protection issues such as ‘Know The Signs’ which focusses upon child sexual exploitation and “Do you know who you’re really talking to? which is aimed at raising awareness of child exploitation on line.”
Police and crime commissioner Mark Burns-Williamson said he made an extra £3.5 million available for increased capacity to deal with CSE, human trafficking and cyber crime last year.
He said: “It is important to note that the HIMC report was completed last August and a number of positives were identified in the report such as cases where frontline officers demonstrated good awareness of Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE) and took decisive action to protect children from harm.
“However, there were also serious concerns identified by HMIC including West Yorkshire Police devolving responsibility to the five districts resulting in inconsistent practice and concerns about the consistency of CSE investigations.
“I will be seeking an immediate update from the Temporary Chief Constable to make sure the force has implemented all the recommendations included in the report and the progress made on implementing the action plan as agreed by partners.
“This area of work would benefit from a joint inspection on safeguarding which is inherently a partnership responsibility and I have previously raised this with HMIC.
“Here in West Yorkshire, we are working better together to ensure safeguarding vulnerable children remains a top priority for police and partners and that we are doing everything we can to protect our children from harm.
“The risks and demands that are placed on the police and our safeguarding partners are significantly increasing at a time when the government is making severe cuts to all of our budgets. The police budget alone in West Yorkshire Police will have been reduced by £163.5million by 2016/17.”