As if the country was not in enough of a panic already about child sex abuse. A new report came along yesterday suggesting that the number of children in England subject to sexual exploitation was likely to be far greater than reported, and the number of those at risk greater still. The study, by the Children's Commissioner, painted a desperate picture of depravity and neglect that does nothing at all to contradict the impression of predatory men lurking around every corner on the look-out for a vulnerable child.
The tone of the report was such that the Government dubbed it "hysterical". And there is something disconcerting about a document that swings so readily between cool academic fact-finding and impassioned advocacy – however heinous the crime and admirable the cause. The Office of the Commissioner might bear this in mind when it releases its full report in a year's time. The strength of the initial report, however, lay less in the headline numbers – the 2,409 victims it said there had been in the 14 months to October 2011, and the 16,500 it claimed were "at high risk of sexual exploitation in 2010-11" – than in the way it corroborated earlier evidence and in the shortcomings it exposed in definitions and data.
One of the most shocking findings, for instance, was the proportion of victims found to be in local authority care, and the fact that it was mostly not schools or social services, but the police, who identified the cases, even though earlier signals had been there. Again, the very system charged with the protection of children turns out to be doing no such thing.
The inconsistency of record-keeping across local authorities and institutions is also highlighted. And in the end, it is in the recommendations for change in these less eye-catching and less alarmist areas – reading the signs and sharing information – that the most realistic hope for tackling these crimes may reside.