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Vulnerable children who cry out for protection

It is a hidden problem of the most disturbing kind.

Child sexual exploitation, says a leading charity, is here and it is significant. Exploiting young people for sexual acts or images, with payment such as cash, drugs, or housing, is such an unpleasant issue many of us would rather not examine it. But that it is taking place in Scotland should not come as a surprise.

We know grooming of children by paedophiles is an issue, and have seen the way gangs or networks of abusers have targeted vulnerable girls in northern English towns such as Rochdale and Rotherham.

We have such children too. Those most at risk include young people in council care and children with neglectful or irresponsible parents. Sadly, those who already have a past history of sexual abuse also appear among the most susceptible.

The idea of organised groups targeting the vulnerable is abhorrent. But child sexual exploitation has many forms and does not need to involve gangs. It can include the use of technology: webcams, apps or so-called sexting, when young people are prevailed upon to send images or take part in other activities using computers and cameraphones.

There is much to ponder in the new report from the Scottish Parliament's public petitions committee. It concedes that facts about the extent of the problem are hard to come by. That is why it is calling for more research into the prevalence of such exploitation.

Neither MSPs on the committee nor leading children's charities think the problem is trivial.There are reasons why it goes so easily under the radar and they are not just to do with the relative invisibility of some of the young people involved.

Even where authorities such as the police are alerted to the activities of an abuser or exploiter, it can be difficult to take action against them. In some cases, the young person involved does not recognise him or herself as a victim. The committee heard about the normalising of unsavoury intimate relationships and a need for safety workshops in schools. The report suggests we need more input for young people on coercive relationships and efforts to tackle sexual bullying.

There is also a suggestion that we turn away from some of these young people just as they need support. Scotland's only refuge for young runaways has closed. MSPs are concerned that very few children are on child protection registers above the age of 12. We may have a false sense of security about their safety.

Meanwhile Risk of Sexual Harm Orders, which were introduced in the Prevention of Sexual Offences Act of 2005, have barely been used. Police can use them to protect children even where the adult involved has not been convicted of an offence.

This does not suggest Police Scotland is not taking other measures to tackle this problem. But MSPs say the effort is piecemeal and children cannot expect uniform protection across the country. That will not do.

This report is shocking. But ministers should give it sober consideration and act on the committee's key recommendations.

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