Government blunders have left police powerless to use a new law to catch paedophiles, top child safety experts have warned.
The law was passed by parliament more than a year ago, but delays mean the power can not be used.
It was meant to outlaw adults communicating with children, to groom them, as a prelude to carrying out sexual abuse.
The Ministry of Justice is being blamed by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC). It described the government failure as “astonishing”.
The claims comes after figures last week showed a big rise in recorded child sexual abuse. Police chiefs believe that the rise is in part explained by an actual increase in the number of children being sexually abused. One method used by predators is to find children online and shower them with enticements so they agree to meet.
The law is contained in section 67 of the 2015 Serious Crime Act.
Alan Wardle, head of policy at the NSPCC, said: “At a time when police are under crushing pressure to tackle this type of crime it is frankly astonishing they are being held back by what seems to be administrative sluggishness in the extreme.
“The prime minister gave his backing for this law. Surely it doesn’t need another seal of approval for it to come into force immediately.”
Wardle said the law had come about after pressure from the NSPCC, which then won all party support and was passed by legislators in both houses of parliament.
He added: “It’s quite incredible that a year after this new legislation, which the NSPCC campaigned for was passed it has still not been implemented meaning many children are at risk of being targeted by sexual predators.
“Online grooming is a rapidly growing problem and one of the biggest threats to young people. Last year calls to our ChildLine service from children who had been affected by it rose 10% to 3,150.”
The government has previously explained the need for the new law in a supplementary memo: “The offence can only be committed by an adult who, for the purpose of obtaining sexual gratification, communicates with a child under 16 where the communication is either itself sexual or is one which is intended to encourage the child to make a communication which is sexual.
“The offence is not committed if the defendant reasonably believed the child to be aged 16 or over. The offence is triable either way with a maximum penalty on indictment of two years’ imprisonment.”
In another document, civil servants wrote: “The government considers it to be a necessary and proportionate response to the pressing social need to protect children from sexual abuse …”
It is also a political embarrassment for the government, which is trying to show itself as tough on law and order.
A spokesperson for the National Police Chiefs Council, said: “Section 67 has not been enacted and it currently sits with the MoJ who are responsible for seeing it through its final stages. We welcome any legislation which helps us to protect children and prevent abuse taking place.”
As if to show the confusion in government, when asked why the new law had not been enacted, the Ministry of Justice referred questions to another government department, the Home Office. After discussions between the two government departments, the MoJ accepted it was responsible for enacting the new law.
It then chose not to answer why it had not done so, instead sending a link to a statement by minister Mike Penning, which said: “The government is committed to commencing section 67 of the Serious Crime Act 2015 and will do so as soon as possible.”
Last week figures released by the NSPCC showed that in 2015 a one-third increase in recorded cases of child sexual abuse compared to the previous year. A total of 45,456 child sexual offences were recorded across the United Kingdom , an average of 124 a day.
Nearly 11,000 victims were under 10 years old and 2,409 were aged five or under.
Since the publicity around the Jimmy Savile case began in 2012, there has been a greater focus and commitment to tackling sexual abuse, especially that targeting children.
Police say that since 2012 they have seen an 88% in recorded child sexual abuse and they expect to see further increases.
Part of the rise is explained due to victims being more likely to tell police, and better recording of incidents, but police chiefs fear there is also an actual increase with the internet making it easier for predators to find their young victims.