The level at which children are being exploited by criminals is “almost back to Victorian times” after years of austerity, a senior police officer has said.
Chief Constable Shaun Sawyer, the national lead for modern slavery, said the use of children by “county lines” drug gangs was driving the abuse.
“These kids are looking for family and security. This is the vacuum of youth diversion schemes.
“For understandable reasons of austerity, state youth services have been vacated. This gap of youth provision between the school and family is the void that the exploiters are filling.”
His comments came after The Independent revealed that the Home Office was leaving modern slavery victims waiting for years for Home Office decisions on whether to give them support.
The number waiting over two years has surged by more than half in just three months, fuelling concerns that the system is pushing people back into exploitation.
The National Referral Mechanism (NRM) is designed to identify modern slavery victims and offer them a 45-day period to recover while the Home Office investigates their case.
The status of their immigration and whether or not the claimant could face criminal charges are two of the potential consequences dependent on the outcome of the decision.
The number of British people identified as modern slavery victims in the UK has surged by 72 per cent in a year, according to official figures, and referrals of child victims have increased eightfold in four years.
Much of the increase has been attributed to the use of children by “county lines” gangs who traffic drugs from urban to rural areas.
Research by the Children’s Society found that primary school pupils as young as seven were being targeted for the trade, which has been linked to a nationwide rise in knife-carrying.
They are forced or coerced into moving drugs across the country, to work in cannabis factories, shoplift, pickpocket or act as enforcers, according to the report.
Even children who are initially lured in with promises of payment or friendship can be controlled using threats, violence and sexual abuse.
Mr Sawyer said the 20,000 new police officers promised by Boris Johnson would not tackle the causes of exploitation.
He called for more to be done to “close the gaps” for children from dysfunctional homes who are susceptible to offers of security, self-worth and power.
Mr Sawyer also stressed the importance of seeing young boys who are being exploited as victims, rather than criminals.
“We accept that a 14-year-old girl does not make a choice to sleep with multiple men,” he said.
“I don’t think it is an informed choice to choose repeatedly to steal or deal drugs, and then hand over the profits.
“We’ve learned that girls who are exploited can be victims, but we seem unable or unwilling to learn the same lessons for boys where criminal exploitation is concerned.”