An undercover operation led by Avon and Somerset Police to raise awareness of child exploitation amongst hotels and taxi companies has found that too often people do not recognise key signs that a child may be at risk.
This month, plain-clothed officers and volunteer cadets aged between 14 and 16 carried out a number of test bookings with firms as part of Operation Makesafe.
Officers visited 22 hotels and B&Bs across the force area and attempted to book a room with cash, accompanied by an underage child without identification.
Only three establishments refused to book the room due to concerns that something wasn’t right.
Two hotels refused for other reasons, such as not taking cash or allowing one-night stays, but would have accepted the booking had it met these requirements. The rest allowed the adult to book the room with no questions asked.
Officers and cadets also approached six taxi companies to make bookings for the child to travel alone to a distant location.
All of the firms agreed to transport the child, with one taxi office happy to take two children to two different locations outside of the force area.
Child Exploitation Prevention Officer, Androulla Nicolaou, says: “These were really disappointing results. It’s hard to see how many people are unaware of the signs of child exploitation, or are not willing to question a customer if they don’t think something is right.”
“We all need to take responsibility for protecting vulnerable children within our communities in whatever way we can.”
Operation Makesafe is run across police forces nationally and aims to empower businesses and organisations to tackle child exploitation through increased awareness and training.
Avon and Somerset Police have previously provided training and guidance to local businesses around how to spot the signs of child exploitation, both criminal and sexual, and the actions they should take.
The visits were conducted by officers from a specialist team working to tackle child exploitation across Avon and Somerset by identifying those who pose a risk to children at an earlier stage.
Following each of the visits, officers gave feedback and advice to all hotels and taxi drivers, with many having since got in touch with the police force to take up the offer of training for their staff and employees.
Detective Inspector Grant Boyd adds: “This has highlighted a concerning lack of awareness of signs of exploitation or when a child may be at risk. We will be looking to carry out further training with businesses to ensure that staff have the knowledge and confidence to report when there are signs of child exploitation.”
“I’d like to thank the volunteer police cadets who gave up their time to support us with this operation and will have helped provide valuable awareness and education that may help a vulnerable child or young person in the future.”
Georgia, 15, who took part in the operation, said: “It was shocking how hotels would let underage kids book rooms or taxi drivers would take us so far away without asking if we were okay or asking any questions.”
Another cadet, Murphy, said: “I was shocked at the amount of hotels that failed to notice there was something wrong, but I really enjoyed the positive discussions afterwards that I believe had a real impact and hopefully a new recognition of the scale of the problem.”
To report concerns to the police call 101 or complete a secure online reporting form at www.avonandsomerset.police.uk/report.
In an emergency, or if a child is in immediate danger, always call 999.
For information about the signs of Child Sexual Exploitation, alongside links to help and support, visit www.avonandsomerset.police.uk/cse.
Advice, support services and a downloadable leaflet for partners is also available via www.thisisnotanexcuse.org/child-sexual-exploitation.