Guidance has been issued following a recent covert operation, where only four out of 14 hotels and taxis examined for potential risks related to child sexual exploitation reported concerns to the police.

In this operation, the Leeds District Safeguarding’s Child Vulnerability and Exploitation Team collaborated with colleagues from the neighbourhood policing teams in west and south Leeds, along with Leeds City Council Taxi and Private Hire Licensing staff. The objective was to conduct a ‘test purchase’ style operation to assess the level of training and awareness in the hotel and private hire sectors.

While the initiative highlighted instances of commendable practices, such as reporting suspicious behaviour to the police, the majority of results indicated a need for increased awareness and training.

During the operation, a female officer, appeared visibly underage, and an older male colleague assumed the roles of a victim and a child sexual exploitation offender. Following a carefully devised script, they exhibited ‘red flag’ behaviour while attempting to book hotel rooms or during private hire journeys. This behavior included explicit conversations about condoms, false claims of being over 18, agreements to keep their whereabouts secret from parents, reminders about purchased gifts, and references to buying alcohol.

Additional suspicious behavior involved requests to pay for rooms in cash or without identification, as well as discussions about being turned away from other hotels.

Throughout a full day, they visited seven local hotels and took seven private hire car journeys. However, only two out of seven taxi companies and two out of the seven hotels raised concerns and alerted the police.

Private hire drivers were also subjected to ‘routine’ checks by uniformed police officers and licensing staff after the test journey, providing them with another opportunity to report concerns about their passengers’ suspicious behavior.

Follow-up efforts are underway to enhance training, including night-time economy active bystander training, to reinforce existing Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE) awareness activities within the hotel and private hire industries post-operation.

Detective Superintendent Heather Whoriskey, Head of Crime and Safeguarding for Leeds District, said: “Tackling child sexual exploitation remains a key focus of our work to reduce violence against women and girls.

“Those working in the hotel and private hire economies have a vital role to play in identifying suspicious behaviour and helping us to protect children from sexual exploitation.

“The more we can do to improve people’s awareness and vigilance around the signs to look out for, the more we can reduce the opportunities for children to be victimised in this way.

“We are not looking to catch people out when we carry out this type of operation, our aim is to identify where the risks are so we can improve how we work together to prevent, deter and disrupt this type of offending.

“The suspicious behaviour demonstrated by the officers during this operation was based on real-life scenarios and was done in such an overt way that it should have raised significant concerns with those who witnessed it.

“We are keen to work constructively to support local businesses around this issue and have given suitable advice and will be continuing to offer awareness training for staff in these areas.

“We will be carrying out further operations of this kind alongside other work to improve awareness and protect young people from exploitation and abuse.”