A NEW scheme to protect children at risk of being exploited will be piloted in Oxfordshire in the wake of the Bullfinch child sex gang investigation.

The Home Office is working with Oxfordshire County Council to pilot a network of specialist independent advocates – called Guardians – who will offer support and guidance to children.

Details of the pilot scheme, including how many guardians there will be and who they will be, are yet to be confirmed, but they will be separate from the child’s social worker.

The scheme starts in April, almost a year after seven members of the Bullfinch gang that raped, prostituted and sexually abused young girls in Oxford were handed sentences totalling 95 years.

The pilot will last six months and is taking place in a number of areas across the UK, including Manchester and the West Midlands.

Melinda Tilley, Oxfordshire County Council cabinet member for children, said: “Anything you can do to stop any kind of exploitation, particularly child exploitation, is going to be a good thing.“ She added: “It is because we have experience. There was an awful lot to learn from Bullfinch.

“When we started we had no idea about child grooming.

“Now we know what we are looking for, which helps a huge amount.”

In the scheme each child will be allocated a person with specialist training and expertise in trafficking.

They will support the child in overcoming language and cultural barriers, make sure the child has access to the right services and accompany the child to meetings.

The scheme will work in two ways. Existing independent advocates used by local authorities will be trained in child trafficking awareness and new specialist advocates who are entirely independent of the local authority will be recruited, although it is not clear at this stage who by.

County council spokesman Paul Smith added: “We believe we can draw on our experience of tackling child sexual exploitation, which can include trafficking, to understand the secretive nature of this appalling crime.

“Training advocates provides a valuable addition to statutory social work, and we welcome the opportunity to develop this approach.

“Involvement in this pilot also gives us a chance to identify the warning signs of modern slavery so we could respond quickly if they did emerge in Oxfordshire.”

Danny Scott, spokesman for campaign group Oxford Community Against Trafficking (OXCAT), said: “While I give it a good nod, I am concerned that it is a bit of policy and a little bit superficial.”

East Oxford MP Andrew Smith said: “I think that any support for the victims of child slavery is to be welcomed.

“It can clearly be of benefit to them when they are in a vulnerable position to have someone to speak up for them and to help them through their difficulties.”

Banbury Cake: Tony Baldry

Banbury MP Tony Baldry

Banbury MP Tony Baldry added: “It is difficult to believe that in the 21st century there might still be child slavery victims in England.

“The fact that even in Oxfordshire there is a need for a scheme to give individual support to child victims is an indication of just how serious this problem has become.

“What the Home Office is clearly trying to do is discover what works best.

“This is an abhorrent crime and one which we all need collectively to stamp out.”