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House of Commons Hansard
20 July 2016
Volume 613

  • I beg to move,

    That this House has considered prevention of online child abuse.

    I am honoured to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon, and to be in a room of parliamentarians who have campaigned for so long on this issue. I feel I am among friends, and I hope that together we can cover some real distance.

    Tomorrow, the Office for National Statistics will release its police crime data for the past six months. It is the first time it is including online fraud and computer misuse. Fraud is a huge issue in this country—Age UK says that 53% of people over the age of 65 believe that they have been targeted by fraudsters—but the data coming out tomorrow will not include online abuse and harassment. Sexual offences are recorded, but not the age of the victim or the specific nature of the crime. I ask the Minister to look into that. For sexual offences, if we can differentiate between under 18s and over 18s, we would have a much better understanding of the scale of child abuse in this country.

    Today I want to focus on online child abuse. Too often we think of child abuse as something that happens only to vulnerable children—many child protection services focus only on their definition of vulnerable children—but the truth is that the internet means that almost every child in the UK is at risk of abuse. Ministers have yet to show that they understand that. The Minister before us has an understanding of child abuse—I welcome her to her new role—and I hope she will be able to make a difference.

    Let me set out the context. With respect to everyone in this Chamber, we are too old to understand the generational pressure that our youngsters are under because of social media. I was 26 when I got my first mobile phone, and I used it to text. I did not have the 24/7 immersion of the online world on my phone. We cannot understand the enormous psychological pressure that that puts on young children. They cannot get away from abuse; it follows them home. Bullying has always been here, but if I was bullied at school, when I got home and shut the door I would hopefully be safe from it. For children now, it goes on and on. We need to understand that as a country and as a Government. Seventy-eight per cent. of 12 to 15-year-olds own a mobile phone, 65% of which are smartphones, and a smartphone means access to the internet.

    According to the 2015 Parent Zone survey, 67% of parents admitted to resorting to “iParenting”—that is, they are a bit busy, so they give their child the iPad as a babysitter. I understand that: children love being on the internet, and they love their iPads, but the iPad is a direct link to the outside world and its dangers. The problem is that parents often fail to appreciate the severity of the threat faced by their children, largely because they do not understand everything that their children are doing online. Half of young people living at home report that their parents know only some of what they get up to on the internet, according to an Ipsos MORI poll commissioned by Barnardo’s.

    People do not grasp how sneaky—for want of a better word, and keeping it polite—abusers and groomers of children are. I will give two examples, the first being gaming. A parent might buy the child an online game as a Christmas or birthday present. When the child is online playing, say, a shoot ’em up game, a chat is going on, and that is open internationally. When I speak to girls, they tell me that they turn it off, because of the amount of sexual harassment they get; when I speak to boys, they tell me, “Oh no, it’s other boys my age who are talking to me about who we are going to shoot, and who we are going to kill.” Talking about the abuse on the screen is only a slight step from starting to groom or radicalise a child—we need to understand that.

    My other example is something else that we need to understand. A police officer told me this. A family might be watching TV on a Sunday evening and the child is there, but with an iPad. The parents have no idea whom that child is talking to, or what is being said. Parents do all they can to protect their children, but they are literally letting someone into their home—someone they have no control over and have not vetted. To be honest, there are a lot of bad people out there who are deliberately using the internet to target our most vulnerable.

  • I commend the hon. Lady on securing this debate. I also welcome my hon. Friend the Minister to her place—a promotion long overdue. The hon. Lady is absolutely right that children can be open to the many different ways of harassment that she is describing. Does she, like me, want to see the producers of such platforms and products take far more responsibility for building out the problems from the design stage, rather than leaving it to parents to police what can be almost impenetrable problems?

  • The right hon. Lady makes a very key point. For film, the British Board of Film Classification will vet films and put criteria and age limits in place. That needs to be happening much more robustly with games. Gaming in particular has a nasty, misogynistic element. For example, one incredibly well known game gives extra points to someone sleeping with prostitutes who then abuses or gang-rapes them. The game might have age verification for 18, but what happens if someone is playing it with a younger brother who is eight? We need robust legislation, because we are taking those games into our homes and giving them to our children.

    As I said, the mobile phone and the iPad enable children to be bullied 24/7. To give some stats to back that up, one in three children has been a victim of cyber-bullying, and almost one in four young people has come across racist or other hate messages online. According to the 2016 Childnet survey, 82% of 13 to 17-year-olds had seen or heard something hateful on the internet in the past year. By “hateful”, I mean something that has been targeted at people or communities because of their gender or transgender identity, sexual orientation, disability, race, ethnicity, nationality or religion.

    To highlight the impact of bullying, I will focus on one aspect of it: the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. Recently, Stonewall released truly shocking figures: nine in 10 young people have heard homophobic remarks at school; six in 10 young people have experienced homophobic bullying; and one in four young gay people has reported experiencing homophobic abuse online. Then there are the consequences—I am going goosebumpy as I read this—which are that two in five of those young LGBT people contemplate suicide and 50% self-harm. Young LGBT people are three times more likely to commit suicide than their straight peers. That is what our young people have to deal with.

    When I started to research online abuse, I had not considered the targeting of specific groups because of their sexuality or situation. We should think about it from the point of view of young people considering their sexuality. They will not talk to their mum or, probably, to their teacher. Where do they go to find information? They go online. Paedophiles and perpetrators deliberately target young LGBT people because they know that young LGBT people are vulnerable and isolated. They then meet and abuse them. Unfortunately, for some of our young people, that is a daily occurrence.

    I also want to talk about young people and children with learning difficulties, and two things in particular. First, the overly sexualised behaviour of children with learning difficulties is often put down to their condition rather than being considered to be a cry for help, or a side-effect of being abused. We absolutely have to challenge that. One in four children is targeted with online hate because of their gender, sexual orientation, race, religion or transgender identity, but that horrifying figure goes up to 38% for someone who has learning difficulties. Those people are being deliberately targeted because of their condition. I urge the Minister to focus on those specific groups.

    I will now talk about the internet world. I have been very honoured to work with a fantastic organisation called the Internet Watch Foundation, which I commend to the House. The foundation’s most recent report was in 2015. It found 68,092 pages of web images that it confirmed as child sexual abuse images. To break the stat down, that is 68,000 children who have been abused for the gratification of a paedophile, and 68,000 lives that have been decimated. We need to put support in place. That figure is 118% up on last year, an increase that tallies with what police forces and social services are telling us—such crime is growing exponentially. We have to do all that we can to prevent it.

  • I am grateful to the hon. Lady for securing the debate, and I, too, welcome the Minister to her place. Something raised during consideration of the Policing and Crime Bill was the need for child sexual exploitation units, as well as specialist digital units, in police forces throughout the country. I am sure she shares my concern about the inconsistency of approach among police forces and, possibly, among the devolved nations.

  • I do. We should praise the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, which has done fantastic work, but I have spoken to officers on the street. Once CEOP went into the National Crime Agency, it seemed to lose its teeth and identity a little. I know the hon. Lady tabled an amendment to that Bill to that end, but we need to ensure that the whole police force understands online abuse, how to refer it and how to act on it. Online crimes are as depraved as those that happen in the real world, and in sentencing terms need to be seen as involving the same degree of violence towards a young child. We seem to think that, because online crimes happen in the virtual world, they do not matter as much, but they really do.

  • I very much praise the child abuse image database, which is evidently helping to deal with the backlog of forensic work on digital devices. None the less, there were 410 victims of child sexual exploitation in the first months of last year, and those victims need support. This is not just a matter of dealing with the evidence; it is about how we actually support those children afterwards. The figure of 68,000 that the hon. Lady mentioned is a terrifying number of lives to have been affected.

  • It really is, but let us scale that internationally. The Internet Watch Foundation does fantastic work. When it finds an image, it takes that image down and reports it to the police, and the police will act on it. Google and Facebook get a lot of criticism, but they are doing what they can to manage, contain, report and take down offensive images. We have really good legislation on that kind of thing in this country, and there is really good legislation in Europe, America and Canada. If any of the creators of child abuse websites are in those countries, we can do something swiftly. However, there has been a proliferation in third-world countries—particularly those in south-east Asia—of the most heinous forms of child abuse. I will not go into detail; I will just say that there are “pay as you view” systems there—sorry, it gets me every time. We cannot do anything about that, because unless those countries sign up proactively to address this issue, all that we will be doing is shifting the problem from one country to another. I urge the Minister to work with her international counterparts to get absolutely zero tolerance across the country and around the world.

  • There is one way that we can tackle that problem: through payment systems. It is important for the Minister to respond to that point with particular regard to putting pressure on international payment systems to try to address the problem that the hon. Lady is talking about. The previous Prime Minister worked hard on the use of splash pages to try to obscure the pages that internet companies may not be able to take down. Some of the very best people work in the internet industry. Does the hon. Lady not wonder, like me, why we are not seeing more innovative ways of resolving the sorts of problems she is describing?

  • I do, but given the proliferation of such abuse, we are always lagging behind. There are twisted people with the life mission of abusing children and sharing these images. Sadly, we are always playing catch-up to them, which is why we always need to send out the strongest possible message: “This is not tolerated. We will come after you, and we will prosecute you.”

    We also need to accept an uncomfortable truth. A survey by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children found that one in five indecent images were actually generated by children themselves. I would like to explore two parts of that issue. The first is sexting. Young people are sexually curious—they always have been and they always will be—and we should celebrate that; it is part of developing. However, they need guidance on the consequences and boundaries of that and the long-term impact of putting something into the ether of the internet.

    There is a lot of pressure on young people to upload more and more explicit images. The young girls I have spoken to in particular do not realise that there are perpetrators out there who go through Facebook or chatrooms harvesting images, and a large proportion of those images actually appear on paedophile websites. When a girl sends a picture to her boyfriend and he uploads it as a “joke”, it is very likely that it will not just be her boyfriend who sees it, but there will be a vile old man in a room somewhere looking at it. That is one of the things that we need to get across.

    Esther Rantzen is doing some fantastic work on this issue and is looking to create an extension of ChildLine, specifically for teenagers, called “Is that okay?” Young people are saying that they are not quite sure what the boundaries are or what is appropriate, so we need to step in and tell them—probably through the internet, because that is where they get all their information from—what is okay and what the consequences are.

    One of the things that started me on this crusade to do something to make people aware of the threats on the internet was that last autumn a mum came to one of my surgeries absolutely distraught and devastated because she had found that her 12-year-old was uploading very sexually explicit videos of herself to a chat website. She was getting a barrage of responses and an awful lot of pressure to keep uploading images. When the mum spoke to her daughter, the daughter said that it was fun, it was up to her, she could do it herself, there was no harm in it and the man was her boyfriend. The mum tried to explain the consequences, but the 12-year-old was not listening, so the mum went to the police. The police said, “Well, it’s just a bit of fun, and she’s choosing to do it.” The mum went to social services, and they did send round a social worker, who met with the girl and explained some of the dangers. Both services then backed off.

    The uploading of the videos got more extreme. The mum telephoned round again and was told to take the phone off the daughter. As the mum explained, “That’s all very well—I can take the phone off her—but what about her friends who have phones? What about the iPad that her brother has? What about the computers at school?” The mum had come to me because she was desperate. She said, “I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to stop this. I can’t find any advice.” I created a website called Dare2Care, where we have brought together all the information about this issue. Parents are crying out for the tools and the understanding to protect their children online, and I urge the Minister to do all that she can to circulate that information.

    The mum tried to take the phone off her daughter and, lo and behold, the daughter stole her phone and hid it. It was only when the mum went to the police with some of the images and videos that her daughter had taken and said, “This is what she’s doing,” that the whole child protection system suddenly swooped down. It swooped down to protect the child, but I have a mum who is devastated that she let her child down, and I am devastated that as a country we let that mum down. That mum will be representative of mums around the country. That is why I urge us to make sure that all parents and professionals are aware of this issue.

    Why is this happening? The internet is a relatively new phenomenon. Sadly, we have always had paedophiles, but whereas before they might have taken a couple of years to groom a couple of children, now they will have a phishing exercise. They will chuck out a thousand emails to children, and they will target the one or two who are vulnerable. That process, which used to take years, now takes days or hours. Paedophiles’ reach has become enormous.

    Another thing to which I draw hon. Members’ attention is online porn. Again, we have always had porn, but the internet is giving it a new, more sinister overtone. The NSPCC and the Children’s Commissioner surveyed 1,000 children aged between 11 and 16, and found that at least half had been exposed to online porn, with 94% having seen it by the age of 14. A Girlguiding survey found that among girls aged 11 to 21, seven in 10 feel that the increase in online porn contributes to women being treated less fairly than men, and 73% believe that pictures such as those on page 3 have that effect.

    Again, I give my own story: when I was 14, a gang of us had a porno mag that we kept in our den. Looking at an image of a naked woman is very different from looking at a video of someone being gang-raped, and that is what our children are finding. There is no suggestion or imagination; this is basically an online manual of how to abuse a woman, and it is predominantly, by far, the abuse of women that is happening in porn.

    From a child’s perspective, they are curious about relationships, they try to find out and they find out by going online. What do they find? Porn. I have had boys in my constituency who are really anxious about having sex because they do not want to strangle their girlfriend, and they think that is what they have to do. I have girls in my constituency who are terrified about having to endure the violence, but they want to have a boyfriend so they think that is what they have to go through. They have no background to let them see that as a fantasy. They have no background knowledge of consent, of respect and of the ability to say no.

    What is the solution? Basically, it is to give all children understanding around resilience and relationships. Currently, children are not learning about the dangers of the online world, or about respect, sex or consent. Sex Education Forum found that 53% of pupils have not even learnt how to recognise grooming or sexual exploitation. Charities, experts and survivors of abuse are all united in saying that improving children’s awareness of respect for relationships from a young age is the best way to prevent child abuse. Introducing compulsory, age-appropriate resilience in relationship education in schools would show that the new Prime Minister, the new Education Secretary, the new Home Secretary and the new Minister are serious about acting to prevent more child abuse.

    What I am saying is that we need to give the children the tools to protect themselves. I urge that to happen from the youngest age. For example, as soon as children go into school, I want them to be taught about “No means no”. If someone wants them to keep a secret that makes them uncomfortable, they should tell someone else and they should be listened to. I want them to understand that there are people who are bad out there and that they can tell people if they feel uncomfortable.

    I am not talking about teaching five and six-year-olds about sex—nothing about that—but when two-year-olds start to go to playgroup, we teach them not to snatch toys and not to push children over, so why can we not also teach them about respecting themselves and other people in the language they will understand? The NSPCC runs the fantastic PANTS campaign, which teaches about just that: what is in your pants is yours and is private. That is a very simple message that we can get across.

    The other key thing is to ensure that parents and professionals know and understand the signs and symptoms and how to tackle the suggestion and the actual online abuse that is happening. We need to arm them in advance, because as I have said, this is a generational crime. We are not, and have never been, in that submersive environment as young, malleable children, so we need to ensure that everyone who is there to protect our children understands the effects of that and also how to prevent them. I have to say—not least because we have a Select Committee Chair in the Chamber—that the Select Committees on Education, Health, Home Affairs, and Business, Innovation and Skills all recommend statutory relationship education.

    I have three asks of the Minister. The first is a public awareness campaign. I have mentioned my campaign, Dare2Care, which she is free to take and use. All the major charities and academics have contributed, as well as survivors and campaigners, so all the information about preventing child abuse is there. Secondly, she knows that there is already a good e-safety course, which goes to all children in all key stages, but it focuses more on data protection and personal security than on recognising and dealing with abuse. There will be some fantastic teachers who will ensure that online safety in its broadest sense is happening, but I urge the Minister in her guidance to ensure that that is a serious component. The other, final point is about relationship and resilience education for all children to prevent online abuse. I also say to the Minister that we need to focus on literally all children, whether they are home schooled or not and whatever sort of school they go to.

    The Government have done quite a lot in this area, but they need to do more, because I do not think they recognise the scale of online abuse that is happening and the potential dangers to our children. I ask the Minister to please take up this campaign, because our children depend on her.

  • I advise Members that I will go to the Front-Bench speakers at 5.18 pm at the very latest and that the debate will end at 5.38 pm.

  • Many thanks, Mrs Moon. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again. May I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) on securing the debate and to the Minister on her new role? I want to speak only briefly, as I have a specific concern that I would like to draw to the Minister’s attention.

    As we know, schools play a vital role and are in a strong, if not unique position to identify concerns around child abuse and child protection. However, I have concerns that the training that teachers in schools receive is not up to the challenges that they as teachers, as well as parents and pupils, face in an ever-changing digital world. I therefore completely support my hon. Friend’s call for compulsory and age-appropriate relationship and resilience education and for much better online and face-to-face support for parents and teachers.

    I would really like that training to include the specific issue of online dating and dating apps in particular. This issue was raised with me recently by a Sheffield teacher who teaches at a special educational needs school and has been concerned to see young girls using apps such as Tinder and happn to look for older men. The concerns around that are obvious: either older men are deliberately looking for young girls or young girls are pretending to be older than they are to get an older boyfriend. As my hon. Friend said, that is not exclusive to vulnerable children; it affects all children.

    I understand that the cyber-safety training that teachers currently receive mostly covers issues such as “Be careful who you speak to” and “Make sure they are who they say they are while online”, but it does not cover girls, or indeed young boys, out there on dating sites in frankly perilous circumstances. Take Tinder, for example, which has 50 million users worldwide. Last month, it rightly took the step to ban users under the age of 18. Previously, it had an age restriction of 13, but it only allowed those aged 13 to 17 to view profiles within that age bracket. The issue now is that Tinder takes its data and data verification from Facebook, which can easily be manipulated and falsified. There is every chance that fake Tinder profiles could be set up to exploit and groom children. Facebook even allows people to change their ages after they have signed up to profiles, so the risks are enormous.

    I would therefore simply ask the Minister to consider making representations to Tinder and similar dating apps and sites on this subject. If she is willing to do that jointly with me, as shadow Digital Minister, I would be happy to join her in that. We absolutely must be pushing them to ensure there are robust age verification tools across all such platforms. Secondly, will she consider making representations to her colleagues to consult on the training that teachers receive in this area to include dating sites and their appropriate use?

    The world is changing so quickly, so teachers and all safeguarding professionals—and, most importantly, parents—must be aware of any opportunities that could be exploited to harm children. I encourage the Minister to ensure that all training in the area is updated and reviewed on at least an annual basis to ensure that it is as up-to-date as possible.

  • It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I congratulate the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) on securing the debate on this vital issue. I am not the only man in the room, but is always good to come and speak on these issues to make it clear that concerns are across all genders. It is nice to see the shadow Minister in her place and I welcome the Minister to her position. As has been said, her elevation is not before time and we look forward to her response.

    Times are always changing, but it seems the internet has brought an unprecedented change to our society at pace and it is essential that we keep up with it. Just a few decades ago, it would have been impossible to envisage the society in which we live now and in which our children are growing up. The right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) sponsored a debate in the main Chamber last week along the same lines as this one, outlining the issues. I commend her for her presentation on that day and for her interventions and participation today.

    Parents can make a difference by censoring what their children see online, but with more devices available and more methods to access the internet, the Government ultimately have to take action to ensure that young people and children are protected online. In her introduction, the hon. Member for Rotherham gave that horrifying example of a young daughter who thinks it is all right to do those things, with her frustrated mother protectively saying “No, it is not”, and going to the police and the social services and all of those things without any success or response. That frustration, which the hon. Lady so convincingly put to the House today, underlines the problems for parents in how difficult it can sometimes be to win over a child who might not know their own mind.

    It is difficult to strike a balance. I believe the Government recognise that and the Minister’s response today will therefore be important. It is important for Members to recognise that getting it right is difficult, but more needs to be done to prioritise the issue—the debate is a way of doing that—and strike the balance so that the Government can make a difference for those affected and those at risk. Whenever we hit a brick wall or an obstruction, we look to those who can help, and we look to the Government for legislative change. That is what the debate today is about, and what the debate in the main Chamber last week was about as well. It may be difficult to get it right, but it is essential it is resolved. The longer it takes, the more young people and children are at risk of being victims.

    It is clear that this is not just an issue for the hon. Lady’s constituency of Rotherham, but an issue for us all, including in my constituency of Strangford in Northern Ireland and every hon. Member’s constituency in the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Some 259 sex crimes were allegedly committed at schools in Northern Ireland and reported to the Police Service of Northern Ireland in just three years. Officers in Northern Ireland recorded 66 school sex attacks that were related to the internet in 2012-13; 79 attacks in 2013-14; and 114 assaults in the latest academic year of 2014-15. Data supplied by the PSNI to the NSPCC showed there were 139 recorded sex offences against children involving the internet in the past year.

    Those figures show the growing problem. The hon. Lady said that in her introduction, and I clearly concur. The NSPCC says those statistics show that the internet was used as a “gateway” to sex offences against children. How can we more aptly describe exactly what has taken place? One child being a victim is one child too many. The time for action to make that statistic zero, as it should be, is now. Data from 38 out of 43 police forces suggest that the internet was used in 3,186 sexual offences against children in the year to 31 March—equivalent to eight per day. That is a horrendous figure. It should shock all of us in this Chamber and should shock society. It should vitalise us to ensure that the Government can make legislative changes and control it.

    I know the Member from the Scottish National party, the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley), will speak shortly, but in Scotland the number of adults targeting children with indecent communications online or via text increased by 60% from 2013-14 to 2014-15. If such figures in Scotland were replicated nationally, it would show that the internet is becoming a hotbed for abuse against children. It is clear that there needs to be a framework in place to stop it, which is why we need the debate and Government action.

    According to the data, a majority of offences in Northern Ireland—a total of 105—involved 12 to 15-year-olds, but in 30 cases the victims were aged 11 and under. My goodness me. If that does not shock us, it should. I think we are all shocked when we hear those figures. Pure innocence destroyed at a very early age. The crimes include horrendous stories of young people being forced to send pictures of themselves to adults who are posing online as young people when they are quite clearly not. Let us be honest. The repercussions are not just the traumatic effects upon those children—some of those young people have committed suicide as a result. It drives them to extremes at a vulnerable time. It is vulnerable people being taken advantage of.

    To think that an adult could do such a thing to abuse a young child’s innocence and trust is absolutely despicable, but unfortunately the reality is that there are such monsters out there and it is time to get the laws, the law enforcement and the awareness and attitudes right so that those monsters—those abusers and scum of the earth—can no longer be of any harm. We all appreciate the difficulty of striking a balance and of finding a remedy that works without infringing on other areas and without unintended consequences, but the stats and the figures cannot be ignored. The pain and the hurt cannot be ignored. This issue is only getting worse and it needs to be bumped right up the Government’s priority list and addressed sooner rather than later.

    We look to the Minister for her response. I know she is a compassionate lady and I am convinced her response will be one we are heartened by. I know she wants to see things happening in the way we all want to see, but we have to help those vulnerable people right across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. In conclusion, I ask the Minister if we can work together—the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and us here at Westminster—to rid society of this scourge once and for all.

  • I welcome you to your post, Mrs Moon, and I welcome the Minister and the shadow Minister to theirs. It is excellent to see strong and confident women in those positions and I am sure they will take their challenges and responsibilities seriously. I congratulate the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) on securing the debate on an issue that she has worked and campaigned tirelessly on, not least through her work on Dare2Care. It is fair to say she has gone above and beyond her public duty to tackle this issue. She takes it incredibly seriously, which I am sure all hon. Members in the Chamber also do.

    This is a broad debate. Online abuse covers any type that happens on the web. We have already heard about the role of social networks, messenger services, chatrooms, playing online and mobile phones. Anecdotally, as one of the younger Members in the Chamber, I received my first mobile phone at the age of 13. It was a Nokia 2210, on which someone could play snake or push their luck by texting home and asking if they could stay out late.

    That was what mobiles meant to me and my generation but times have certainly changed, with 24/7 social media online. I cannot even keep up with the current trend of Pokémon Go, and I am obviously too busy to play it. Through social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, online abuse is a new and growing phenomenon. With the increasing use of the internet across the UK and the world, and with the advent of smartphones, our young people are now more vulnerable than ever before, and traditional understanding of child abuse has been deepened and compounded by that fact.

    At this point, it is important to recall the words of the hon. Member for Rotherham and many others who have contributed to the debate highlighting the instances of bullying, in particular of the LGBT community; the rates of suicide and self-harm, which cannot and must not be ignored; the influences of apps, games and other online devices; and the role and increasing accessibility of online pornography. It is fair to say that this is a very different world from the one I started in, and future generations will come into a very different world still, so our resilience, understanding and approach are absolutely vital.

    The right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) —I have the honour of serving on the Committee of which she is the Chairwoman—highlighted the need for protections in the design and build of apps. The hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts)—I hope she forgives me for terribly pronouncing the name of her constituency—highlighted the need for databases, but how many instances go unrecorded? The hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) highlighted the role of dating apps and the potential for fake profiles. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) recognised with his always measured and reasonable approach the need to strike a balance, and the need for all of us to work collaboratively across devolved nations and reserved competencies to ensure we tackle the issues head on, and that we do not underestimate the challenges we face.

    Children, as we have heard, experience cyberbullying, grooming, sexual abuse, sexual exploitation and emotional abuse through devices and services that have become integral parts of their social lives. We need to look only at the Channel 4 documentary “Cyberbully”. “Game of Thrones” star Maisie Williams highlighted to me and to many parents out there the challenges and difficulties that young people face simply by sitting in front of a PC, laptop or mobile phone. In this day and age, the internet gives abusers unprecedented access to children and the ability to contact them at any time, day or night. It erodes traditional safe spaces. Children can be at risk of online abuse from both strangers and people they know.

    The NSPCC has outlined some of the difficulties for children facing online abuse. Children will often not tell anyone about online abuse because they feel guilty or ashamed. When they would like to tell someone, they often do not know who to go to, and many will not even realise they are being abused. According to Ofcom, one in five eight to 11-year-olds and seven in 10 12 to 15-year-olds have social media profiles. The number of children who are at risk is increasing and we must do more to safeguard them.

    The scale of the problem has not been pinned down by any definitive or official figures. The fact is that we simply do not know the scale of the problem, but that does not mean we cannot put protections in place to tackle it. In 2014, studies found that one in four children between the ages of 11 and 16 had experienced upsetting or abusive language online while on social networks, and one in three children had been the victim of cyberbullying. Youth engagement organisations such as DoSomething.org suggest that nearly 43% of children have been bullied online. More worryingly, in 2015 the Internet Watch Foundation identified 68,000 websites containing child abuse images.

    If we dispense with the statistics for a moment, it is fair to say that we do not yet know the full scale of this issue, but we know we must do more to tackle it. It is hard to underestimate the work that must be done and is already being done by many charitable organisations to tackle child abuse. The information and statistics supplied by the NSPCC and other charities and organisations are up to date and highly informative in dealing with abuse.

    I want to highlight the work of the Scottish Government—I say this not to be political, but simply to enhance the debate. Since 2009, online safety has been monitored by the Scottish Government-led stakeholder group on child internet safety, which has made a number of recommendations. In recent years—as early as 2014—those recommendations resulted in a refresh of national guidance and child protection policies. Recent developments such as the national action plan for tackling sexual exploitation and the cyber-resilience strategy outline that Scotland takes this issue incredibly seriously. The Scottish National party condemns all instances of online abuse and welcomes any efforts to strengthen legislation in order to tackle it. The Scottish Government firmly believe that online abuse is unacceptable. Scotland’s anti-bullying services—

  • Order. The hon. Lady is eating into the Minister’s time. Can she bring her remarks to a conclusion? She has had more than her allotted five minutes.

  • Forgive me, Mrs Moon. I will close by simply saying that, to tackle this problem and the scale of it, we must collaborate and co-operate with one another.

  • It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. May I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) on securing this very important and necessary debate? I congratulate her and other Members on the thoughtful and emotional speeches they have given.

    Technology is a wonderful thing. It has moved on. I was 38 when I got my first mobile phone. Before that, I had a pager—something that not many people in this room will remember. However, that has come at a cost, and the cost is one that I fear is really not worth paying. The internet has provided our children with a world of new possibilities and opportunities. The digital age gives children access to knowledge, facts and friends all over the world, but the internet and the way it is being exploited by those intent on committing the most heinous crimes poses a considerable threat to the safety and wellbeing of all our children.

    According to the Internet Watch Foundation, in 2015 more than 68,000 URLs were confirmed as containing child sexual abuse imagery, having links to the imagery or advertising it. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham said, that figure is up a frightening 118% since 2014. Behind every indecent image online and every video or photo of abuse, a child has been harmed or abused in the real world. The victim is condemned to repeated violation and degradation each time the image is accessed. Perpetrators are using the internet to sexually exploit children through manipulation and coercion.

    The NSPCC found that in 2014-15 the internet was used in eight cases of child sexual abuse every day, including rape, online grooming and live-streaming of sexual abuse. As technology has developed, so have the ways in which children suffer bullying, which often takes place online and is relentless, without any sanctuary or safety for the child. As the mother of a teenage son, I know—I have seen the texts and the vile Facebook posts that kids seem to think are a way of life these days.

    In 2015-16, ChildLine provided 4,541 counselling sessions about cyber-bullying, which is the highest the figure has ever been. The impact of this behaviour on children can be devastating, reducing their self-esteem, impairing their ability to establish normal relationships and, in extreme cases, leading to mental health problems, including self-harm and, tragically, suicidal thoughts. Children also face peer pressure to share explicit images and engage in harmful sexual behaviour. As technology has developed, sexting has become an increasingly common activity. With greater access to the internet, children are exposed to more and more harmful content. Frighteningly, many children believe that pornography is an accurate representation of sex. Just over 53% of boys and 39% of girls who were surveyed by the NSPCC said that they thought pornography was realistic. The images of sex, violence and consent portrayed through pornography are distorting the very way in which boys and girls relate to one another.

    The problems outlined in today’s debate are not news; they are not new, and the Government know all about them. I am sure the Minister knows that children are growing up facing a tidal wave of online abuse, bullying, harassment, peer pressure and exposure to totally inappropriate content, yet we do not give them the tools to protect themselves, to recognise abuse and exploitation and to build resilience in coping. We do not give parents the knowledge and confidence to keep up to date with the threats their children are facing. We do not give teachers and other professionals the training they need to support children.

    Will the Minister tell us whether she has any plans to help proactively protect children from online abuse, exploitation and cyber-bullying? Does she agree with the former Education Secretary, the right hon. Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan), and with four Select Committees, MPs from across the House, children’s charities, experts and academics that mandatory, age-appropriate relationship education in schools would provide children with the knowledge and resilience they need to challenge this behaviour? Will the Minister today take the opportunity to put right what the previous Government got wrong by supporting and teaching our children to protect themselves from this phenomenon?

  • It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I wholeheartedly congratulate the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) on securing this debate and raising an issue that is so incredibly important. It is good to see so many people in the room today, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), who chairs the Women and Equalities Committee. I cannot tell Members what a privilege and honour it was to be asked to take on this role as Minister. I cannot think of a better job in government. I will be working with people across all political parties on preventing harm to children in our society.

    Sexual exploitation of children, whether online or offline, is an appalling crime. I know that the hon. Member for Rotherham has campaigned tirelessly against it, and I do not think I need to tell the House how determined and committed the Government are to tackle it robustly. I would like to give my assurance to hon. Members of my personal commitment to this. On only my second day as a new Member of Parliament back in 2010, a paedophile ring was unearthed in my constituency. I represent a beautiful, coastal, rural part of Cornwall. I grew up there and I went to school there. The community where that happened is where my family lived and I was deeply shocked. I have been on the journey of seeing what a devastating crime this is, not only for the people directly involved but for the whole wider community. I am utterly determined to use my time in this post to do everything to prevent it.

    The Government are committed to improving the safety of children online and have a strong track record of working with the industry and the charity sector to achieve this. The UK Council for Child Internet Safety, which is co-chaired by Ministers, is a multi-stakeholder forum representing more than 200 organisations that are committed to internet safety. It brings together the Government, industry, law enforcement agencies, academia, charities and parenting groups to work in partnership to help to keep children and young people safe online. Its achievements include the roll-out of free network-level filters for the vast majority of broadband customers and automatic family-friendly, public wi-fi in places where children are likely to be. It has also developed guidance for providers of social media and interactive services to help them to make their platforms safer for children and young people under 18, and another for parents and carers whose children are using social media.

    The hon. Lady mentioned children accessing pornographic information and images online. The Government have consulted on this and are introducing measures in the Digital Economy Bill to prevent access to pornographic material online without age verification. I am sure she will agree that this is a really important step forward. We will carefully monitor the implementation of the age verification measures.

  • I am sure the Minister is aware that almost any 12-year-old in the country can get round any blocks and devices to try to prevent them from accessing content. Will she consider piloting that verification with some young people, so that we use their experience to make sure it is as robust as she says?

  • It is a really good idea to get children involved as the implementation goes ahead and I will take that away.

    We are clear that abusive and threatening behaviour online, whoever the target, is totally unacceptable. We expect and demand that social media companies have robust processes in place to address inappropriate behaviour on their sites, including the provision of clear reporting channels and prompt action to assess reports and remove behaviour that does not comply with their terms and conditions.

    As we have seen today, there is an even more insidious threat facing children online: sexual exploitation. Our response to that is rightly robust and includes action by law enforcement agencies against online offenders, developing new capabilities to find and safeguard victims, and working with the internet industry to remove illegal images. All police forces and the National Crime Agency are now connected to the child abuse image database—CAID—which reduces the time taken to undertake investigations and identify victims. A new victim identification suite has been established by the National Crime Agency with access to CAID. In 2015-16, UK authorities identified more than 450 victims from abuse images, more than double the number in the previous year.

    The hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts)—I am sorry if I mispronounced the name of her constituency—rightly questioned the resources for digital forensic teams in forces around the UK. These are operational matters for local police officers, but I am aware that real improvements have been made in the prioritising of resources for this work. Officers have been working with the NCA to use the tools that are constantly being developed. It is an area where we have to be vigilant all the time through the use of technology to enhance identification and processing. I will be keeping a careful eye on that and working on it with the police and crime commissioners.

    We were talking about financial resources. In 2015-16, the NCA received an additional £10 million of investment for further specialist teams to tackle online child sexual exploitation. That enabled a near doubling of its investigative capacity to tackle such exploitation. A joint NCA and GCHQ team has been established to target the most technologically sophisticated offenders.

    Our law enforcement response is delivering effectiveness against offenders. In 2015, 2,861 individuals were prosecuted for indecent images of children offences, a 27% increase on the previous year. In co-ordinated activity in the nine months ending last November, undertaken by the NCA and 40 police forces, 399 children were safeguarded and 682 individuals were arrested, all of whom were suspected of making, distributing and/or possessing indecent images of children.

    The NCA also works to protect children and young people from abuse. The Thinkuknow education programme provides resources for use with children and young people, helping them to identify the risks that they may face both online and offline, to understand how to protect themselves and to know how to seek further support. In 2015-16 alone, just over 1.5 million primary and just under 2 million secondary school children received face-to-face education sessions from Thinkuknow’s network of more than 130,000 professionals, and the number of children and young people reached through Thinkuknow was over 205,000 more than in the previous year. Thinkuknow’s educational resources, including films, cartoons, lesson plans and websites, educate children about keeping themselves safe from sexual abuse and exploitation.

    As several hon. Members rightly pointed out, schools have a critical role to play in protecting children from the risk of abuse online. E-safety is now covered at all key stages in the curriculum, including key stages 1 and 2, reflecting the fact that younger children are increasingly online. I will very seriously consider the recommendations made by the hon. Member for Rotherham today about what more can be done in that curriculum development.

    Safeguarding is now a key consideration in all Ofsted school inspections. As part of their assessment of safeguarding, inspectors need to consider pupils’ understanding of how to keep themselves safe from relevant risks such as exploitation and extremism, including—

  • Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).