A group of influential MPs is “very alarmed” that Britain’s most senior child protection police officer should want to keep low-level offenders viewing abuse images out of the courts.
HASC chair: Yvette Cooper
Home Affairs Select Committee (HASC) chair Yvette Cooper is calling for “immediate reassurance” after the National Police Chiefs’ Council child protection lead suggested only paedophiles who pose a “really significant” physical risk to children should face a criminal sentence.
While thousands of suspects are being arrested every year in conjunction with the National Crime Agency (NCA), Chief Constable Simon Bailey said alternatives needed to be looked at as increasing reports of sexual abuse have pushed the situation to "saturation point".
Worried by the “changes in approach” if implemented straight away, Ms Cooper said comments that forces cannot cope with the “huge proportions” of child sex abuse offences – up 80 per cent in three years – are “clearly of great concern to us”.
She wrote to Mr Bailey: “As you will know, for many decades institutions have put children at risk because it was seen as too difficult, not a priority or resources were insufficient to keep them safe.
“I would not want to see the same happen over online child abuse.”
A report by the NSPCC last year warned of an epidemic of indecent image sharing and estimated that half a million people could be involved in the practice.
Forces receive an average of 112 complaints a day and there are more than 70,000 investigations a year. The service is also preparing for an estimated 40,000 reports of abuse from the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, which began hearing evidence last month.
The NCA said that in 2015 up to 750,000 men living in Britain were potential child sex abusers.
Offenders who viewed online child abuse images should be placed on the sex offenders register, cautioned and managed in the community undergoing rehabilitation, said Mr Bailey where referrals are “increasingly effective”. Not using the court system would "speed things up", he said.
He insisted officers were not being lenient towards child sex abusers. “Let’s be really clear: somebody going online and using their credit card to direct the abuse of a child in the Philippines should be locked up, categorically,” he said.
“That individual who is not in contact with children and doesn’t pose a threat to children and is looking at low-level images . . . when you look at everything else that’s going on, and the threat that’s posed of contact abuse to children, we have to look at doing something different with those individuals.
“Do the Crown Prosecution Service, the courts and the police have the capacity to put them into the justice system?,” he asked.
National Association for People Abused in Childhood’s chief executive officer, Gabrielle Shaw, echoed the sentiments of the HASC, warning that the UK was in the middle of an “epidemic we have been sleeping through for years”.
The children’s charity CEO expressed concerns that Mr Bailey’s views could mean that “paedophiles who want to view indecent images of children now have the green light to do so?”.
Ms Shaw added:” If they think they won’t be thrown in jail, what’s to stop them from searching out these images to satisfy their sick appetites?”
Arguing there is no-such thing as a “low-risk paedophile”, she went on: “I don’t want anyone to think for a second that looking at an indecent image of a child is a victimless crime.
“Just because someone downloaded it, maybe paid for it, they might think it’s OK as they didn’t go and hurt a child physically? Except they have.
“They have fed the demand for these images, which means more children will be robbed of their innocence in the worst way possible.
“Those children have to grow up knowing these images will circulate for years – every time someone new views them they are being abused all over again. It never stops.”
She praises Mr Bailey for “sticking his neck out and making these suggestions”, adding: “He’s the top cop in charge of child protection in the UK.
“I know him to be a very decent man and committed police officer. If anyone knows his stuff, he does, which is why we need to take what he says seriously.
“But is this really the best way forward?”
Ms Shaw believes there is a place for the criminal justice route, prevention in the first instance as well as rehabilitation.
“But I would like a clearer conversation of where the police spend resources,” she added.
“Police priorities reflect society’s priorities. And if you want child protection to be a priority, then let’s all say so.”