CHILD sexual exploitation by organised networks in County Durham will be examined as part of an inquiry.

The latest strand of The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, which started today, will take evidence from victims and survivors of child sexual exploitation and representatives of police forces, local authorities, Government departments and charities.

The hearings started today and will run until October 2.

They will analyse the current nature and extent of the issue across England and Wales, as well as institutional responses including from County Durham organisations which will give evidence on Wednesday.

Durham is one of six regions the investigation will focus on – the others being St Helens, Swansea, Tower Hamlets, Bristol and Warwickshire – which have been chosen because they represent a range of sizes, demographics and institutional practices.

The inquiry will assess the extent to which authorities have learned lessons from recent high profile cases, such as those seen in Rotherham, Oxford and Rochdale.

On Wednesday, the inquiry will hear from representatives of Durham County Council, Durham Safeguarding Children Partnership and Durham Constabulary about what is being done to prevent similar offending in the area.

In her opening remarks this morning, lead counsel Henrietta Hill QC said child exploitation in England and Wales is under-reported.

She said: “What seems clear is that cases of child sexual exploitation are under-reported and that the numbers of children affected are much higher than official records would report or suggest.

“We know from research that the big picture is that many thousands of children are sexually exploited each year.”

Ms Hill said police recorded 1,012 offences of abuse of children through sexual exploitation in 2018/19, and 5,900 offences of sexual grooming.

The latest section of the wide-ranging IICSA will draw evidence from a range of complainants and organisations to assess how networks including grooming gangs have been able to operate.

It will explore themes such as the adequacy of risk assessment and protection measures for vulnerable children, whether victims were shown appropriate empathy and concern, and measures taken to successfully disrupt offenders.

Evidence will come from a number of victims, including children as young as 12 who were raped or seriously sexually assaulted, who spent time in and out of care homes, yet repeatedly felt their complaints to police and social services were ignored.

The IICSA was set up in 2015 following claims from a complainant known as “Nick” of a murderous paedophile ring linked to Parliament operating in and around Westminster.

Nick, real name Carl Beech, was later discredited and jailed for 18 years for what a judge called his “cruel and callous” lies.

Nujoji Calvocoressi, a member of the Inquiry’s Victims and Survivors Consultative Panel, said: “It is clear that the grooming and sexual abuse of children by groups of offenders is an urgent problem across England and Wales.

“This hugely important investigation will examine the current strategies in places including Durham to prevent this type of child sexual exploitation and see what more can be done in future.”