Ensuring hotel staff know what action to take when they suspect perpetrators of Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE) are using their premises to commit offences has been the focus of an operation by the Metropolitan Police Service to raise awareness and safeguard children.
Over the last week, officers have been attending hotels across London to test their response to a scenario which would be expected to raise alarm bells and prompt proactive action by staff.
Venues - many of which have previously received training under Operation Makesafe; a training package offering guidance to hotel managers around how to spot the signs of CSE and mitigate risks - were visited by plain-clothed officers in the company of young police cadets.
Attempts were made by the officer to book a room. Often they had large amounts of alcohol on show and tried to pay for the room in cash, refusing to offer any identification.
The hope was that staff working on reception at the venue would recognise the warning signs, refuse to rent out the room, and contact police. Referencing 'Makesafe' during the call alerts call handlers to the CSE element and officers will be sent to the scene.
Chief Superintendent Helen Millichap, the Met's lead for CSE, said: "We know that perpetrators of CSE may use hotels to commit offences, which is why Operation Makesafe was initially introduced. Makesafe is all about awareness raising and has received wide recognition at a national level, helping us all to keep children safe. We know that CSE is likely to be under reported, so we rely on people being alert and well informed about some of the ways that children could be groomed. We would far rather someone alerted us and for it to be a false alarm, than for us to miss a chance to investigate. This operation is based on that principle so that even if this type of crime might be very rare for a hotel to see, they are sure about what to do.
"This is about making sure that the training implemented is being put into practice; and what has been established during previous similar operations, is that there are occasions when the correct action is not always being taken. We have been working closely with those within the hotel industry, who understand the importance of the issue and are keen to support our efforts.
"This is not an operation designed to catch people out or blame these venues. We want to encourage awareness in a powerful way. Where the response is not what we would expect, it offers us the opportunity to provide refresher training and reiterate the warning signs. By carrying out these operations we are keeping the issue fresh in the minds of those who can take positive action, with a view to preventing offences and safeguarding young people."
Officers from City of London have also taken part in the operation, with a number of hotels within the Square Mile visited.
Detective Inspector Anna Rice, of the City of London Police's Public Protection Unit, said: "We all have a role to play in keeping children and young people safe from sexual exploitation. The City of London Police will continue to work collaboratively with the Metropolitan Police to provide a consistent approach to tackling child sexual exploitation and raise awareness amongst businesses and the general public. We would always encourage people to trust their instincts and get in contact with the police at the first available opportunity if they have any concerns. Together we can identify, protect and safeguard those who may be at risk."
CSE is a form of child sexual abuse and can occur when a young person or group of young people are manipulated or deceived into sexual activity by another. This can be by an adult but young people can also be exploited by other young people or peer groups, who take an advantage of the imbalance of power within the relationship. It often involves the young person being offered drugs, alcohol, money, gifts, cigarettes, mobile phones or supposed affection in return for engaging in sexual activity.
CSE can occur through the use of technology without the child realising that they are being exploited. For example, the victim may be persuaded to post sexual images on the internet or send them via their mobile phones, without immediate payment or gain.
A common feature of CSE is that the victims do not recognise the coercive nature of the relationship or see themselves as a victim of sexual exploitation. As a result they are unlikely to report the abuse, so the issue remains under reported.
That said, in the last three years (to 2017/2018) the number of CSE-linked offences has almost doubled, from 602 to 1,107; whilst the number of children assessed as being at possible risk of CSE was 40% higher in 2017/18 than in 2014/15 - 1,524 to 2,128.
Given the scale and complexity of the challenge to raise awareness of CSE across London and to increase reporting, these figures are significant. CSE reporting has steadily improved since 2013 (when the MPS first began to record CSE on CRIS). The MPS is keen to sustain this increase in identification and reporting and to truly understand the scale and threat of CSE - both locally and regionally.