It is one of the lingering images of Victorian poverty: the little waif in a ragged dress standing in the lamplight in the foggy darkness of a city street waiting for the rich man in his carriage to buy her favours.
For decades now, that image has been consigned to the past. But not any more.
Britain’s shameful secret is that a hundred years after Victorian society rose in revulsion to put an end to child prostitution, once again it is possible for a man with money in his pocket to drive into just about any city in this country and buy a child to have sex with.
I stumbled into this twilight world four years ago when I came across two boys behaving in a furtive and suspicious way in the middle of a fairground in Nottingham. I watched them. I saw what they were doing. And yet I refused to believe it. This might happen in Bangkok. But surely not here.
In search of reassurance, I approached the two boys and persuaded them to talk to me. In the next few hours, they trampled all over my complacency. They not only revealed the grim detail of their own lives but took me out into the streets of the city where they introduced me to a dozen other boys and girls who were running a gauntlet of danger to sell themselves to passing men.
And I mean ‘boys and girls’. These were not young adults who happened to be a few months the wrong side of the age of consent. I went to London to dig out their birth certificates. The two boys were aged eleven and twelve. Their friends were fourteen at the oldest – and ten at the youngest.
That night in Nottingham was an experience so shocking that it propelled me on a journey of discovery into a hidden Britain. Over and over again I found children engaged in the same grim trade, not only in the shadows of old industrial cities like Liverpool and Newcastle but also in the sedate shires, in places like Ipswich and Bournemouth. The ghost of the Victorian waif had returned to the pavement.
I set out to discover why this was happening and found myself burrowing deep into the underbelly of British life. I spent weeks on grim housing estates where family life has collapsed and whole communities have been ravaged by drink and drugs and material hardship. I met street gangs and pimps. I went into crack houses and gambling dens and illegal bars.
It was soon clear that it was this Britain – of poverty and violence – which was the cradle of the child prostitutes. Growing up in this chaos, they had emerged into adolescence with their personalities so scrambled that it seemed to them quite normal and reasonable to go out in the night and sell themselves.
In one city after another, I met runaways and throwaways, some who slept on the streets, many who lived in children’s homes and simply walked out each night in their stockings and stilettos. I followed the footsteps of Natalie Pearman, who was murdered in the red-light area in Norwich, and of Kit Austin, who died in the brothels in the West End of London. Almost without exception, they came from the same background.
For a while, it seemed that this was a problem of insoluble complexity. And yet, as I continued this journey I discovered that, unlike so many other troubles that beset us, this was one where there was at least something we could do to help.
To my surprise I found that the men who prey on these children have almost nothing to fear from the vice laws, which are blind to the difference between adult prostitutes and children.
The man on his way home who stops in a red-light area to pick up a 12-year-old girl for his amusement faces nothing worse than a charge of kerb crawling if he is caught – a minor offence which is usually punished with nothing worse than a caution.
The fact that he is actively engaged in child abuse means nothing unless the police cynically and improperly stand back and wait for him not simply to pick up the child but to use it for sex. Quite rightly, the police step in as soon as they see the child get into his car. Quite wrongly, they have no law to use against him.
Senior police have raised this with government but they have been greeted with silence. No one in government has a policy to help these children. No one is responsible for them. No one even knows how many of them there are, because no one counts. Perhaps no one cares.
There was a select committee in the House of Lords which understood the problem. They reported: “The evidence before the committee proves beyond doubt that juvenile prostitution, from an almost incredibly early age, is increasing to an appalling extent in England, and especially in London. The committee are unable adequately to express their sense of the magnitude, both in a moral and physical point of view, of the evil thus brought to light, and of the necessity for taking vigorous measures to cope with it.”
That eloquent report was written 115 years ago, in July 1882. It is just about that long since a government confronted this scandal and tried to deal with it.
* Nick Davies is the author of Dark Heart: The Shocking Truth About Hidden Britain, published by Chatto and Windus, price £16.99.