A specialist grooming gangs unit has helped to arrest more than 550 suspected child predators in its first 12 months, the Home Office has claimed.

The Grooming Gangs Taskforce has also helped to protect more than 4,000 victims from sexual exploitation since it was first set up by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in April 2023.

The unit is made up of experts and specialist officers who have been working with all 43 police forces in England and Wales to support child sexual exploitation and grooming investigations.

Grooming gangs facility at Essex Police Headquarters
Home Secretary James Cleverly said that more is still to be done (Joe Giddens/PA)

Home Secretary James Cleverly, who visited the Essex Police headquarters on Monday to speak with the force’s sexual exploitations teams, said: “Where a child is being abused, we must do everything in our power to protect them and pursue the perpetrators until they are behind bars.

“This despicable crime can have a lasting impact on a child’s life and I am pleased that in only a year, the taskforce’s hard work alongside local policing efforts has led to more than 550 arrests and helped keep thousands more children safe. I thank everyone that has been involved in this effort.

“But we know we must do more. Through our Criminal Justice Bill, we are better protecting children by requiring all professionals to report to police where they fear abuse is taking place and banning sex offenders from changing their names to evade justice.”

Led by the National Police Chiefs’ Council and supported by the National Crime Agency, the taskforce is a full-time, operational police unit funded by the Home Office to improve how the police investigate grooming gangs and identify and protect children from abuse.

It is staffed by experienced and qualified officers and data analysts who have long-term, practical on-the-ground experience of undertaking investigations into grooming gangs.

More than 400 officers across the country have now been specially trained by the taskforce, with more set to be mobilised over the coming months to root out child sex offenders.

Mark Russell, chief executive of The Children’s Society, told the PA news agency on Monday: “It’s really important to have the Home Secretary here.

“There’s always more we can do. What we need to do is ensure children have safe spaces where they can receive the support they need. They’ve all experienced truly horrendous things.

“Organisations like the Children’s Society have been working with the police to provide those safe spaces which then allow children to provide the evidence the police are able to use in the courts process.

“(There is) joined-upness between charities like ours, the police, the Home Office and other organisations in the sector.

“Our job is to be a critical friend to the police and Home Office and to say we need to be putting the voices and experiences of children at the centre and making sure that every police force and every officer is able to deal with a child who has experienced terrible things in the most appropriate way.”

Gabrielle Shaw, chief executive of the National Association for People Abused in Childhood (Napac) added: “At Napac, we are proud of the work we and other third-sector colleagues have been doing in integrating the voices and experiences of victims and survivors into the CSE (Grooming Gangs) Taskforce.

“By listening to and acting on this, national policing will create authentic, practical change that improves victims’ and survivors’ engagement with the justice system.

“The CSE Taskforce’s work is informed by Napac’s unique body of research on what victims and survivors themselves want. This research shows that for a large proportion of survivors, a positive outcome does not necessarily equate to a criminal conviction. Many want to feel heard and believed, to stand up and be counted without entering the court process and without fearing judgment or re-traumatisation.

“We look forward to police forces across the country continuing their positive work with partners, such as third sector organisations, to successfully understand and achieve the outcomes that victims and survivors wish for.”