A police force under the spotlight over its investigation of child sex exploitation (CSE) must act immediately to i mprove its response, a police and crime commissioner (PCC) has said.
South Yorkshire PCC Shaun Wright said there had been "a failure of management" at South Yorkshire Police as he responded to a report into his force by HMIC (Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary).
The report, published today, was commissioned by Mr Wright in the summer.
The HMIC inspection report said South Yorkshire Police now showed a " clear commitment to enhancing the force's response to the sexual exploitation of children" and found "al l the officers and staff working in child protection to be deeply committed to their work".
But the inspectors also said these efforts have had "mixed success".
Their report concluded: "In particular, although staff and officers were aware that tackling child sexual exploitation was a stated force priority, this has not consistently been translated into operational activity on the ground at a local (district) level."
Mr Wright said: "This current situation has to change.
"The report makes a number of recommendations, with the most urgent to be implemented immediately and others within three and six months. I fully support the recommendations and have instructed the chief constable that he must ensure they are in place within the time frames set out by the inspectors."
"The commitment and effort of officers and staff on the front line of this most heinous of crimes is fully appreciated by me and rightly recognised by the inspectors. However, there is clearly a failure of management to turn my, and the public of South Yorkshire's, key strategic priority into operational effectiveness uniformly across the whole force area."
South Yorkshire Police found itself a focus of concerns about under-age teenage girls being groomed by groups of adult men for sex, particularly in the town of Rotherham.
The spotlight first fell on the town in 2010 when five men, described by a judge as " 'sexual predators'', were given lengthy jail terms after they were found guilty of grooming teenage girls for sex.
The prosecution was the first of a series of high-profile cases in the last three years that have revealed the exploitation of young girls in towns and cities including Rochdale, Derby and Oxford.
Following the 2010 case, The Times claimed that details from 200 restricted-access documents showed how police and child protection agencies in the South Yorkshire town had extensive knowledge of these activities for a decade, yet a string of offences went unprosecuted.
The allegations led to a range of official investigations, including one by the Home Affairs Select Committee.
Earlier this year, The Times published fresh claims that a teenager in the care of social services was allowed extensive contact with a violent adult offender who was suspected of grooming young girls to use and sell for sex.
At the same time, a South Yorkshire law firm announced that it was working on behalf of four women who want to take legal action against Rotherham Council in relation t o sexual exploitation when they were teenagers.
Mr Wright said he was "extremely disappointed" that the force had failed to translate his strategic priority into operational effectiveness.
The report applauded steps taken by the force, including improving its engagement with other organisations involved in child protection and, with them, developing strategies to prevent children becoming victims.
It also noted the force's activities had led to a number of prosecutions.
But it said: "M any of the staff interviewed for this inspection felt that the emphasis from senior and middle local managers was still more focused on dealing with offences such as burglary and vehicle crime, rather than child sexual exploitation (and both the notices displayed in police stations, and some of the documentation reviewed for this inspection support this perception)."
The inspectors also criticised the variability of South Yorkshire Police response between its four districts - Sheffield, Barnsley, Doncaster and Rotherham. It said best practice was observed in Sheffield and staff in Doncaster and Rotherham were struggling with heavy workloads.
They concluded: "This situation must not be allowed to continue. It is unarguably of paramount importance that all children in South Yorkshire receive the same high levels of protection, irrespective of the policing districts in which they live."
The report said: "HMIC also found that many staff in public protection and children safeguarding specialist units were working in crowded offices, were poorly equipped, and found it difficult to manage their workloads. This situation is adversely disproportionate to the importance the PCC and chief constable have placed on this area of policing."
It said: " HMIC therefore recommends that as a matter of urgency the force must put the PCC's strategic priorities into operational delivery on the ground."
The report said the leadership provided by chief constable David Crompton in relation to CSE was "unclear" to those working on the ground.
It said: "The leadership provided by the chief constable in respect of child sexual exploitation is unclear to many members of South Yorkshire Police officers and staff.
"The direction and the messages from senior leaders at superintendent level also differ across the force.
"The force should therefore review its internal communication channels regarding child sexual exploitation and ensure that clear, consistent messages are passed on to all officers and staff. The messages should ensure that everyone is aware which chief officer is the lead on tackling child sexual exploitation."
Mr Wright said that his determination to make CSE a force priority has been backed by a £500,000 investment, funded by a council tax increase this year.
The PCC said this has been spent on an extra 10 Public Protection Unit officers, specialist training and the establishment of a countywide CSE forum to ensure the sharing of best practice.
According to Mr Wright's office, his force was involved in 425 investigations into child sexual exploitation b etween January 1 and September 30, 2013.
It said that b etween January and March 2013 all of the force's 1,700 front line staff received specialist training in CSE.
South Yorkshire Police said they will act on the HMIC's recommendations "without delay".
A spokeswoman said: "As H MIC says, we have had mixed success in improving our response to tackling CSE.
"We welcome the report and its findings because it provides us with a series of recommendations about how to further develop our approach and provide the most robust and consistent service to children at risk.
"A significant amount of work has been done in the last year to enhance our performance and do all we can to ensure our children are safe from this type of harm. But there is much more we need to do, as HMIC point out, and we absolutely acknowledge this. In particular, we accept that the inconsistency of approach across the four policing districts is unacceptable and it will not continue.
"It is heartening that HMIC recognises the considerable efforts we have made so far. We now intend to build upon this by acting on its recommendations."
Minister for Crime Prevention Norman Baker said: " Child sexual exploitation is an abhorrent crime which this Government is determined to stamp out.
"I welcome the report from HMIC into South Yorkshire Police. We must all learn lessons from the past and this report shows how important it is for agencies to continually review and refine their approach.
"Through the Home Office-led National Group, agencies are working together to better identify those at risk and create a more victim-focused culture within the police, health and children's services.
"In the past, all too often, these crimes were largely hidden and now child sexual exploitation is rightly centre-stage as an issue we must tackle. We must work together to ensure victims are not left to suffer in silence and those who exploit them are brought to justice."