The government has announced an action plan to tackle child sexual exploitation after claiming that the number of cases are "far greater than we ever imagined."

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The plan, detailed in a report published today by the Department for Education (DfE), condemned local communities across the country, saying that they were failing to identify and combat the sexual exploitation of children.

The minister for children and families, Tim Loughton, described support structures for victims as "a postcode lottery at best".

"This country has to wake up to the fact that children are being sexually abused in far greater numbers than was ever imagined," he said.

"It could be going on in every type of community and in every part of the country.

This country has to wake up to the fact that children are being sexually abused in far greater numbers than was ever imagined - Tim Loughton

"Too many local areas have failed to uncover the true extent of child sexual exploitation in their communities and failed to properly support victims and their families."

Mr Loughton said the action plan would set out steps that needed to be taken urgently to deal with the problem.

It will see specialised training introduced for police and other bodies, more help for parents in recognising the signs of sexual exploitation and improvements made to court services to assist young victims.

Police forces will not receive any additional government funding for the courses. But the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) will provide over £15 million in funding over the next three years through the Victim and Witness General Fund to voluntary sector groups providing support to victims.

A two-year inquiry into child sexual exploitation in gangs and groups is being conducted by the children's commissioner, and comes after a recent series of high-profile cases involving men sexually grooming young girls.

It also comes after Britain's child protection police chief controvertially published a study that found that gangs grooming youngsters for sex are most likely to be Asian.

Today's announcements was welcomed by Sue Berelowitz, deputy children's commissioner for England, who said: "We have a collective responsibility to uncover the true extent of these horrific acts that our children and young people right now are facing alone."

And Anne-Marie Carrie, chief executive of children's charity Barnardos, said: "We cannot underestimate the scale of this sickening abuse and the damage it is doing to thousands of girls and boys across the UK."

But Mr Loughton's claim that there was a vast number of unreported cases of child exploitation does not appear to be backed up by numerical evidence.

The DfE said that Mr Loughton's comments were based on the findings of two reports, authored by the children's charity Barnardos and The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (Ceop).

But neither of the reports details any statistical evidence to back up the claim.

Parents do need to worry because this problem is bigger than the police - Donald Findlater

A Barnardos spokeswoman said: "We worked with over 1,000 [cases] last year, but we know that this is the tip of the iceberg." She suggested that Channel 4 News contact the DfE for more information, while Ceop suggested contacting Barnardos.

Ceop has previously identified more than 2,000 victims of child grooming.

Donald Findlater from Stop It Now! and the Lucy Faithfull Foundation said that Mr Loughton's criticism of local agencies and communities in the fight to crack down on exploitation was "fair comment."

"Agencies are waiting until after the abusive or exploitation has happened and not doing enough to prevent it from happening," he told Channel 4 News.

"They are simply not doing enough in terms of proactive prevention. There is something like one in 10 children being expoloited or abused and the police and probation officers can not do it by themselves: this problem is bigger than them.

"Parents do need to worry and we have a duty to educate the parents about identifying that this is happening."

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