British girls as young as twelve are being sold to wealthy men for sex at up to £50,000 a time, it has been disclosed.
Three women and a man have been arrested in Manchester after secretly being filmed offering to sell six girls aged between 14 and 23 at a five-star West London hotel.
They were also caught on video offering even younger, prepubescent girls.
A senior insider from the vice unit of the Metropolitan Police said: “This is about as sick as it gets.
“These are among the youngest girls we’ve found being offered for sex.”
He added: “Sex with a virgin aged 12 or under costs anything up to £50,000.
“Our inquiries continue and we expect more arrests.”
An NSPCC spokesperson said: “Unscrupulous traffickers are controlling and terrorising vulnerable children within the UK, forcing some into the sex industry and abusing and exploiting many others.
“When the police and other agencies find these children, they need to provide immediate protection and support to help them overcome their ordeal.
“We urge anyone who fears a child is being exploited to call the police, children’s services or the NSPCC.”
In September an academic caused controversy when he called for the age of consent to be lowered from 16 to 13 on a BBC Radio 4 programme.
Professor John Spencer, professor of law at Selwyn College, Cambridge, suggested that since many under-16s were having sex anyway, the law should be changed.
He is known as an outspoken critic of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, which confirmed the age of consent at 16.
But Conservative MP David Davies argued: “It is vital that the law protects vulnerable young people from exploitation by adults.”
In the same month columnist Melanie Phillips pointed out the importance of the age of consent law in protecting children after a female teacher was sentenced for a sexual relationship with a 15-year-old girl.
She dismissed Prof Spencer’s call to lower the age of consent, contending that to abolish the legal protection would be to remove “all remaining constraints and worsen an already disastrous situation”.
Michael Gove, the Shadow Children’s Secretary, said the age of consent “affirms our society’s determination to use law to protect the innocent”.
He said the age of consent law is a safeguard against the physical risks and emotional damage caused by underage sex.
Earlier this year the Scottish Government backed off on plans to legalise oral sex for under-16s.
The justice minister, Kenny MacAskill, had originally proposed to legalise all sexual activity short of full sexual intercourse for 13 to 15-year-olds but faced strong opposition.
The age of consent was raised to 16 during the victorian era because girls as young as twelve were being sold into the sex trade.
The age of consent law stands at 16 thanks to the efforts of Christian campaigner, Josephine Butler, who fought to protect girls and prostitutes from liberal laws.
Listen to a lecture on the life and work of Josephine Butler: