THE POLICE commissioner for a force hit by the biggest child sex abuse scandal in British history has warned that the exploitation of children by criminal gangs could be the next big threat to the country.
Dr Alan Billings, police and crime commissioner for South Yorkshire, said the recruitment of children by drug dealers and violent gangs was an emerging issue and it was crucial police leaders did not fall into the same traps that allowed widespread child sexual exploitation to happen in Rotherham.
He said: “Child sexual exploitation happened, in my view, partly because the force was target-driven at the time and the target it was looking at was not child sexual exploitation. It took its eyes off the ball because it was focused on targets.”
Dr Billings said it was now imperative that whatever is the focus of police targets, that “they don’t lose sight of something else in the left field”.
And he said that child criminal exploitation (CCE), as opposed to child sexual exploitation, was the biggest threat they should be alert to.
Ministers are growing increasingly concerned about the use of children in criminal gangs, particularly in so-called ‘county lines’ drugs supply networks.
Typically, the method involves urban gangs supplying drugs to suburban areas and market and coastal towns using dedicated mobile phone lines. Gangs often use both children and vulnerable adults to move drugs and money.
Dr Billings said South Yorkshire was as affected by the issue as anywhere else.
He said: “Wherever we have got organised crime then we have got the concerns.
“We know where they are. They are mainly in urban areas, but not exclusively so.”
Dr Billings, a former member of the Youth Justice Board for England and Wales, said it was important that the criminal justice saw these children as victims rather than offenders.
He warned against criminalising young people, saying taking them through the criminal justice system often left them with records that “just blight their life”.
Dr Billings said to tackle the problem, the emphasis “clearly has to be on preventative work”, with schools, youth services and the voluntary sector all having a role to play.
He is currently funding a series of school workshops called You’re Only Young Once (YOYO), which educate pupils aged 13 and over on the dangers of both gang violence and child sexual exploitation.
But Dr Billings said it was important that the police also recognised their role in the preventative work.
“We have got to be careful we don’t say everything is the responsibility of the schools, everything is the responsibility of the local authority, everything is the responsibility of the third sector,” he said.
“We have all got to be in it together in that sense and look at this as a potential partnership.”