Is a child sexually attacked every 20 minutes?

5 April 2012

"Child sex offence every 20 minutes"

The Sun, 4 April 2012

This week several news outlets ran stories highlighting the high rate of child sex offences in 2011. The most startling claim stated that a child was sexually assaulted every 20 minutes last year.

The Sun, Express, Guardian, Sky News, Daily Mail and Metro (in print) all reported a study by the NSPCC which had obtained the figures through a Freedom of Information request.

But are the claims made in many newspapers an accurate reflection of child sex attacks in Britain today?


The press release from the NSPCC defines a child sex offence as covering various sex crimes:

"including rape, incest and abuse of children through prostitution and pornography."

The figure used in most of the news headlines is that every 20 minutes a child is sexually assaulted in Britain. This particular statistic was not, however, included in the NSPCC press release. The NSPCC said:

"Figures obtained by the NSPCC reveal sixty child sex offences a day"

This calculates at roughly the rate claimed by the news outlets. To check this figure further, we asked the NSPCC to provide us with the raw data they obtained from the various police services.

They provided us with this table of data retrieved from all 43 police forces in England and Wales. This confirms the total number of offences for under 18 year-olds across all the forces was 23,097, although this is subject to different measurements used by each force.

Dividing this figure by 365 gives 63.2 offences a day or one every 23 minutes.

The annual figure of 23,097 was said to account for over one third of the total number of sexual offences committed in 2011 which was 54,982. This figure can be confirmed from the Home Office Report on Crime in England and Wales in 2010/11.

Another issue highlighted by numerous news outlets was the significant difference between boys and girls when it comes to sexual abuse. As the Express reported:

"six times as many offences were committed against girls (19,790) than boys (3,218)."

These figures can be verified from the information sent to use by the NSPCC which shows that of the 23,097 child victims of sexual assault 3,218 were male, 19,790 were female, 88 did not have their gender reported and one did not have their age reported.

It is important to note however that different police forces can collect data on sexual offences differently and this can affect the quality of the statistics.

For example, the NSPCC in the press release and in the information provided to us have a figure of 426 under 18s being previous victims of a sexual offence. However, only one third of police forces were able to supply the NSPCC with this information. Forces that were unable to provide the NSPCC with this information include the Metropolitan police force - which at 3,420 had the largest recorded number of child sexual offences.

One issue that was not reported in any of the major news outlets or mentioned in the press release by the NSPCC is problems associated with statistics on child abuse. All police recorded statistics on sex crimes (including sexual abuse of children) is affected by the problem of under-reporting.

This problem was acknowledged in the Home Office Report on Crime in England and Wales 2010/11:

"Police recorded statistics on sexual offences are likely to be more heavily influenced by under-reporting than the BCS [British Crime Survey] and therefore should be interpreted with caution."

This document went on to say that analysis of the 2009/10 BCS self-completion modules showed that only 11 per cent of victims of serious sexual assault (not just cases involving children) told the police about the incident.

The likelihood then is that the figures mentioned in the papers today from the NSPCC's findings underestimate the true number of victims of child abuse in this country. We contacted the NSPCC about this issue of under-reporting and they agreed that the real figure of the number of children sexually abused in Britain is probably higher.


The figures on the level of child sex offences in Britain reported today are all accurate figures. In 2011 there were 23,097 reported child sex offences in Britain.

Most news outlets obtained their statistics from a press release by the NSPCC who themselves gained the information from 43 police forces across England and Wales. We have been able to verify most of this information, although we cannot account for possible discrepancies in how the FOI requests were interpreted by each force.

However, these figures should be taken with a pinch of salt because, like all statistics on child sex offences, they suffer from the problem of under-reporting. The likelihood is that the real figure of the number of child sexual offences is much higher than those mentioned in the news today, a statement which the NSPCC support.

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