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The BBC's Angus Stickler
"Children as young as nine are being recruited into prostitution on the streets of Britain"
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Sunday, 29 July, 2001, 06:01 GMT 07:01 UK
Child prostitution crisis

Police are unable to keep track of number of children involved
By BBC Radio 5Live's Angus Stickler

An investigation for 5Live has found that child prostitution is in danger of spiralling out of control.

According to both the police and child care agencies, hundreds of children around Britain are being lured into the world of paid-sex.

They admit they are unable to keep track of the number of children involved, but both warn that sophisticated networks involving children of both sexes are being set up by ruthless criminals.

In Rotherham alone for example, 80 girls are said to be working as prostitutes.

And experts say prostitution is rife in every major town and city.

It's our problem, it's on our doorstep and we need to do something about it

Mark Leigh, Barnardo's
Mark Leigh of Barnardo's runs a project working with rent boys at London Bridge.

He said: "I think that the sexual exploitation of children is actually spiralling out of control as we speak.

"Of course child sex exploitation goes on in the developing world.

"It goes on in Bangkok but it's also happening in Birmingham and Bristol and Brixton.

"It's our problem, it's on our doorstep and we need to do something about it."

One rent boy told me that he started selling sex at nine-years-old.

Street dangers

The man who abused him gave him a bag of five pence pieces.

By the age of 13 he was being shared around between a group of men.

Another girl describes the dangers of living on the streets.

She was just 12 when she started running away from home.

She said: "A man approached me one time ... I didn't want to do him and the geezer had me up by the throat threatening to kill me, I was actually really scared, I didn't know whether he was going to knock me out or do what.

"They could just stab you, they could take you down an alley, they could rape you, then kill you, they could do anything."

Drug abuse

These children exist on the margins of society - they are extremely distrustful of the police and social services.

It has been described as a revolving door situation - the police hand them over to social services, but within hours they are often back on the street.

Many are addicted to crack cocaine and they will do anything to feed their habit.

Child prostitute
Child prostitutes in fear for their lives
But despite the difficulties in dealing with these children, local authorities in England and Wales, charged with dealing with the problem, have been accused of dragging their heels.

Responding to a BBC survey, only half of them were prepared to provide details of their plans, with one in four admitting that they had no formal plans in place.

In the absence of these guidelines, police and campaigners believe that more and more vulnerable children could be drawn into the child sex trade.

Not only do the police have to deal with these children on the street, but also a more sinister scene of organised crime.

Vulnerable targeted

A team of officers at the Metropolitan Police Clubs and Vice Squad spent months on a successful investigation into a pimp called Maris Malone, who was jailed for four years.

He was an extremely dangerous individual who targeted vulnerable young girls in the care system and then recruited and exploited them as prostitutes on the streets of central London.

The police linked him to 22 girls aged 12 to 18.

Inspector Paul Holmes explains: "He was extremely skilled at identifying disaffected, unhappy, vulnerable young teenage girls, most of whom where either already in the care system or on the brink of the care system.

"On a commercial basis, he recruited and exploited them as prostitutes on the streets of central London."

Bleak picture

But of course many areas of the country don't have the luxury of a vice squad.

In Rotherham for example, it appears there is a highly organised network of pimps involving up to 80 girls, again some as young as 12.

And there is evidence that they are being transported from Rotherham to private addresses in red light districts as far afield as Bradford and Sheffield.

And this, campaigners say, is mirrored in other areas of the country.

Child prostitute
Children as young as 12 on the streets
When you talk to the young people involved in child prostitution they paint a bleak picture.

They have often been failed by both their parents and the care system, leaving them marginalised and disaffected.

Many are notoriously difficult to deal with.

Critics argue that for many of the local authorities responsible for their care, bringing these children back from the brink is just too difficult and too expensive.

But as the authorities argue over resources, the pimps are quick to act.

This is the ruthless exploitation of children and the human cost of ignoring the problem leaves a legacy of shattered lives and innocence lost.

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