The authorities want to treat children, who are sold for sex, as victims and offer them help rather than punishment.
The shift in emphasis comes in a joint Home Office and Department of Health report that said there are child prostitutes in many towns, working on the streets and in flats. It added that child prostitutes often comes from local authority homes, families with "severe problems", or are runaways befriended by pimps.
The new guidelines for the police, social services, probation, courts, and organisations working with young people, stressed that child prostitutes should only be prosecuted in extreme circumstances.
Recent studies have suggested the number of children selling their bodies is greatly underestimated and is rising.
Pilot schemes in Nottingham and Wolverhampton involvedcontacting 125 prostitutes aged from 11 to 18 - four times the number of child prostitutes than had been thought to work in the towns. They led to the prosecution of 22 men and three women for rape, sexual intercourse with a child under 16, kidnapping, assault and living off immoral earnings.
Yesterday's report, "Guidance on Children Involved in Prostitution", which has been issued for consultation, said: "There are children involved in prostitution in many parts of Britain. They may not be obvious on the streets. But there will be children being abused through prostitution in rooms and flats in many towns. This is a hidden problem; we do not know how many children are involved. We can, however, be certain this problem exists."
Figures for 1995-96 show that 177 children under the age of 17 were convicted of offences relating to prostitution. A further 207 - including a 12-year- old girl - were cautioned.
While the Government resisted calls to decriminalise prostitution for children, saying it would send out the wrong message, it said the courts should only be used in cases where the child "freely" and "continually" tried to offer sex for money. This definition effectively rules out almost all cases against child prostitutes.
The Children's Society argued that unless child prostitution was decriminalised, children who were victims of abuse were still liable to being punished. "This is bad law and dangerous practice. There is no excuse at all for a law that punishes abused children," he said.
The Association of Chief Police Officers said it welcomed the guidelines.Reuse content