New child sexual abuse strategy launched as 320 of the ‘most dangerous’ offenders arrested
More than 300 of the UK’s most dangerous child sex offenders have been arrested since the first coronavirus lockdown following a joint operation by police and the National Crime Agency (NCA).
The arrests were among 4,760 made during a crackdown on online child sexual abuse (CSA), which also saw 6,500 children being safeguarded between April and September.
The NCA said that of the 320 “most dangerous child sex offenders” arrested, 122 were considered “high-harm”, including the deputy head of a primary school and a vicar.
The figures were released today (January 22) as the Home Office published its first-ever Tackling Child Sexual Abuse Strategy.
The Home Office says the “first of its kind’ national strategy recognises the evolving scale, severity and complexity of the threat and outlines the “whole-system response” required to tackle it.
This includes using new legislation and enhanced technology to “stop offenders in their tracks”.
It will also collect more detailed data about child grooming gangs.
The Home Office said it will be investing in the UK’s world-leading Child Abuse Image Database to identify and catch more offenders quicker – for example, by using new tools to speed up police investigations and protecting officers’ wellbeing by avoiding them being repeatedly exposed to indecent images.
It will also make it easier for parents and carers to ask the police if someone has a criminal record for child sexual offences as the department commits to a review of Sarah’s Law.
The Home Office said these measures were on top of civil orders to stop reoffending and introducing stronger sentencing so that serious violent and sexual offenders remain in prison for longer.
The Government says it will support local areas to improve their response to exploitation with funding for The Children’s Society’s Prevention Programme initiative, and will introduce the “ground-breaking” Online Safety Bill to ensure that technology companies are held to account for harmful content on their sites, and do not compromise on children’s safety.
Home Secretary Priti Patel said: “Victims and survivors of child sexual abuse have told me how they feel let down by the State. I am determined to put this right.
“This first-of-its-kind national strategy will tackle and respond to all forms of child sexual abuse, relentlessly going after abusers, whilst better protecting victims and survivors.
“Crucially, it contains a commitment to collect higher quality data on the characteristics of offenders, so that the government can build a fuller picture of perpetrators, and tackle the abuse that has blighted many towns and cities across our country.”
Home Office research estimates that the social and economic cost of the crime over the victims’ lifetimes was “at least a staggering £10 billion” for those who experienced child sexual abuse in the year ending March 2019, with the full emotional cost “being immeasurable”.
The strategy also aims to improve the data that is available on offenders following the publication of a paper on the characteristics of ‘group-based offending’, which found that it was difficult to draw conclusions about the ethnicity of offenders as existing research was limited and data collection was poor.
The Government will be working with local authorities to understand and respond to threats within their communities and collect “higher quality data on offenders so that it can build a fuller picture on the characteristics of perpetrators.
“The group-based offending paper demonstrates how difficult it has been to draw conclusions about the characteristics of offenders,” said the Home Office. “That is why the Tackling Child Sexual Abuse Strategy will commit to improving our understanding of child sexual abuse – including around ethnicity.
“This will enable us to better understand any community and cultural factors relevant to tackling offending – helping us to safeguard children from abuse, deliver justice for victims and survivors, and restore the public’s confidence in the criminal justice system’s ability to confront this issue.”
Rob Jones, NCA Director of Threat Leadership, said he welcomed the strategy at a time when the threat to children was “more severe than it has ever been”. Last year, the NCA assessed there were at least 300,000 people posing a sexual threat to children in the UK and warned of a spike in online CSA offending during the pandemic.
Mr Jones said it was vital that every part of the public and private sector recognises it has a part to play in tackling CSA.
He added: “As part of the whole system approach, the NCA is focusing on the most dangerous offenders. Many feel they can operate with impunity online – using anonymisation techniques, secure accounts and the dark web – but as we have shown with this [latest] operation they are wrong and we have the capabilities to track them down.
“We have also provided hundreds of leads to police forces.”
Mr Jones said that of the 320 “most dangerous child sex offenders” arrested, 17 were in positions of trust, including a volunteer with the Scouts, church youth group leaders, a social worker, primary school and college teachers, a hospital care assistant, a police officer and a civil servant.
“In addition to operational activity against high harm offenders, the NCA also manages a huge number of referrals of child sexual abuse material from the tech industry,” he added. “In 2020 alone, there were more than 84,000 referrals which resulted in over 16,500 actionable cases being developed and sent to police forces.
“These are not just images or videos being viewed online. What we are uncovering here is evidence of the horrific, real-world sexual abuse of children. It’s really important that connection is not lost or diluted.”
One of the 122 high-harm offenders investigated by the NCA included the deputy head of a primary school in Middlesbrough, who admitted watching videos of children being raped on the dark web. Following his arrest, indecent images and 87 category A videos of child abuse were recovered on his laptop. He told officers he had used TOR software in an attempt to make himself anonymous online. He was sentenced in September 2020.
In November last year, the NCA received a referral relating to more than 1,000 indecent images, including images of babies. Intelligence work identified that a vicar was linked to the images and the case was urgently sent to the local force. The suspect was arrested and the young children he was due to adopt were safeguarded.
In another case disseminated by the agency, the investigating force arrested two men and found more than 4,000 indecent images on their devices. This included images of contact abuse they had committed at their home address. They were sentenced to a total of 14 years in prison in October, and their victims were safeguarded.
National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) lead for child protection, Chief Constable Simon Bailey, said: “We welcome this strategy and look forward to building on the work already being carried out by police and partner agencies on a daily basis.
“There is more we can do to tackle all forms of child sexual abuse, prevent offending and protect children. Policing has made mistakes in the past and it’s important we recognise that but we are working hard to improve.
“Our changes include reviewing past mistakes, highlighting best practice and publishing advice for forces and frontline officers leading child abuse investigations. Operation Hydrant was established in 2014 to coordinate the policing response to non-recent child abuse and learning continues from that.
“We will carry on improving our approach and working with partners in the public and charitable sectors. Our recent operation with the NCA targeting the online element of abuse shows the importance of law enforcement working together.”
He added: “The positive impact of our changing approach is evidenced in the steady increase in the number of victims and survivors confident to report child sexual abuse to the police. Our focus continues to be improving that confidence because we know the numbers reported don’t represent the true scale of the problem.
“The strategy shows police can’t tackle this alone and our work with other organisations will continue. We – as police, partners and society – have to work together to understand more, spot the signs and intervene early to prevent child sexual abuse from happening.”
Mr Jones said that with schools closed once again during lockdown, the NCA and NPCC were urging children, parents and carers to ensure they know how to stay safe on the web.
He added: “The internet has undeniable benefits to society and now more than ever is playing a key part of our children’s education.
“Unfortunately, it also enables criminals to commit horrific crimes against children through grooming, live-streaming and distribution of indecent images.
“The advice and activities on our Thinkuknow website are really important and easily built into home schooling programmes.”
The Government says that in addition to the Online Safety Bill that will tackle online harms, it has also asked GCHQ to work with the technology industry to identify and develop solutions to “crack down on large scale online child sexual abuse”.
GCHQ’s Director of Serious and Organised Crime said: “GCHQ will continue to bring its unique cyber and intelligence capabilities to bear alongside its technological expertise as part of this cross-government effort to protect families from these awful crimes.
“Our work to tackle systemic internet problems, the insight we provide into offender behaviour and our efforts alongside law enforcement to identify and pursue the worst offenders will help to ensure there is no safe space online for these people to operate.”
To mark the launch of the strategy, Safeguarding Minister Victoria Atkins ‘virtually’ visited the children’s charity NSPCC on Thursday and spoke to staff in Sheffield and Camden about their Letting the Future In service, which uses therapeutic art and play to help children move on from abuse and recover with the support of parents and families.
Ms Atkins said: “Children across the country and beyond, continue to be subjected to horrific sexual abuse which has a devastating impact on their lives.
“The public expects the Government to do all it can to prevent child sexual abuse, particularly during this difficult period, and we are delivering on this promise by publishing our strategy.
“The publication demonstrates that, as a government, we are committed to tackling this crime on all fronts and will leave no stone unturned to prevent and pursue offenders, and will protect children and young people.”
Responses from 38 police forces in England and Wales to a Freedom of Information by the NSPCC at the end of last year showed that 1,220 offences of sexual communication with a child were recorded in the first three months of lockdown.
The data showed Instagram was increasingly being used in online grooming offences and was a factor in 37 per cent of cases compared with 29 per cent over the previous three years.
The NSPCC said offences had also increased annually in the three years before lockdown. In total there were 12,925 offences recorded by police in England and Wales from April 2017 to March 2020, with experts saying poorly designed social media sites are putting children at risk.
Susie Hargreaves OBE, chief executive of the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), warned earlier this month that children were at “greater risk of being approached or groomed by strangers online than ever before”.
The IWF – the UK charity responsible for finding and removing images and videos of child sexual abuse from the internet – said it processed a record number of reports of online child sexual abuse in 2020.
The IWF has also seen a dramatic 77 per cent increase in the amount of ‘self-generated’ abuse material as more children, and more criminals, spend longer online in 2020.
Ms Hargreaves said: “What was already a recognised phenomenon has now cemented into a grave and widespread threat to our children.
“Our analysts have warned there are whole online communities of sexual predators who devote themselves to finding and tracking down children on the internet, so as to bully and coerce them into abusing themselves sexually.
“These criminals can now groom a child who is in the apparent safety of their own bedroom, into making videos of the most serious kinds of abuse.”
Welcoming the Government’s focus on tackling child sexual abuse and exploitation, particularly online, Ms Hargreaves said: “We have seen increases in online child sexual abuse material coinciding with more people spending longer at home on the internet – due in part to the coronavirus pandemic. In 2020, we removed more criminal videos and images of children than ever before.
“It is important that we not only look at the online element of these crimes but the impact that it also has on communities. At the IWF, we are committed to working with the government, industry and the third sector to play our part in removing child sexual abuse material from the internet. We welcome the strategy’s focus on the importance of safeguarding children from sexual abuse whether that be online or offline.”