Child Abuse Offences (Sentencing)
Before I call Catherine McKinnell to move the motion, I remind Members that the House’s sub judice rule precludes reference in debate to cases before the courts. In criminal cases, that means from the time when charges are brought until the verdict and, if applicable, the sentence. The resolution also applies to active appeal proceedings. I call Catherine McKinnell.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 166711 relating to sentencing for child abuse offences.
I am pleased to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon, although the subject that we are discussing is possibly one of the most difficult that I have ever held a debate on or spoken about in Parliament. Entitled “April’s Law” and signed by over 126,500 people, the e-petition reads:
“We the undersigned call on the prime minister to make all sex offenders remain on the register for life no matter the crime, for service providers and search engines to be better policed regarding child abuse images and harder sentences on those caught with indecent images of children.”
Before I consider that, I want to reflect for a moment on the tragic and appalling events that led to Jazmin Jones, April’s sister, setting up the online petition. I imagine that all of us here remember watching the story of April Jones’s death unravel on the news. Only five years old at the time, she was abducted in October 2012 outside her mid-Wales home and later murdered by Mark Bridger in a crime that deeply affected people up and down the country. As a parent of three young children, I cannot even begin to comprehend the heartbreak of losing a child in such terrible and violent circumstances. What made the crime even more horrifying was that Mark Bridger had been looking at indecent images of children on the day he committed the murder, and he had at least 100—but it is thought that there were nearer 500—indecent images saved on his laptop. That is where the April’s law petition comes in.
I particularly want to recognise the efforts of Jazmin Jones, along with the rest of her family. They all deserve to be commended for their efforts in seeking to ensure that what happened to April does not happen to anybody else. The petition that April’s family established calls for all sex offenders to remain on the sex offenders register for life, for service providers and search engines to be better policed regarding child abuse images, and for harsher sentences for those caught with indecent images of children. All of us here understand the absolute depravity of indecent images of children and those who produce or look at them, as well as the severity of the crimes that we are talking about and their lifelong impact on those affected. I will start by addressing the issue of sex offenders remaining on the list for life.
As many right hon. and hon. Members are aware, part 2 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 provides various measures that enable the police in England and Wales to monitor and manage sex offenders living in the local area. Certain sex offenders, including those convicted of rape, assault by penetration, serious sexual assault, sexual assault of a child under 13 and other child sex offences, are automatically required to notify the police of personal information such as their name and address and to update the police whenever that information changes. Those notification requirements are commonly referred to as signing or being on the sex offenders register. As well as applying automatically to a number of sex offences committed in the UK, the notification requirements can also be imposed on sex offenders who have been convicted overseas. They are imposed for a fixed or an indefinite period, depending on the severity of the sentence received.
Controversially, sex offenders who are subject to an indefinite notification period can apply to the police for a determination that they no longer pose a risk and should therefore no longer be subject to notification requirements. However, the earliest point at which they can do so is 15 years after the date of their first notification —or eight years in the cases of those aged under 18 when they were convicted.
I completely understand the fear about the fact that dangerous men, and indeed women, who could pose a risk to our children and society at large are able to come off the sex offenders register. I particularly understand the concern that those convicted of the gravest offences may be able to overturn a previous decision that they should be on the register for life, following the Supreme Court’s 2008 ruling that indefinite sex offender registration without the right for review was incompatible with article 8 of the European convention on human rights. However, as I am sure the Minister will explain, the latter group of offenders must go through an extensive process before they are removed, with anyone deemed to remain a threat remaining subject to ongoing notification requirements.
Having implemented the Supreme Court ruling that a review mechanism of indefinite notification requirements must be in place, the Government have strengthened reporting measures by making it mandatory for all registered sex offenders to notify the police of all foreign travel; their whereabouts on a weekly basis when registered as having no fixed abode; when they are living in a household with a child under the age of 18; and their bank account and credit card details, as well as information about their passports or other identity documents. Yet I also understand the need for the public to be reassured that those who have possessed indecent images of children, or who have been involved in sexual offences against children, will remain on the sex offenders register for life.
I would therefore appreciate it, as would those following the debate, if the Minister clarified the circumstances that allow someone to be taken off the register and whether any monitoring of activity is undertaken for those who are no longer subject to notification requirements. Is she aware of the number of people who have left the sex offenders register who have gone on to commit further sex crimes? Indeed, just how many sex offenders have had their indefinite notification requirements overturned on review following the Supreme Court ruling? What certainty can she provide to April’s family— indeed, to all the families up and down the country whose lives have been torn apart by sex offenders—that the Government are doing everything in their power to stop those criminals from posing a danger to society?
E-petition 166711 also calls for search engines and internet service providers to be better policed on child abuse images. We have seen some progress in recent years with Google, for example, reporting an eightfold reduction in child sexual abuse image searches since it changed its algorithms to ensure that indecent images and videos do not appear in results. However, we can clearly do more to pressure organisations to avoid becoming complacent.
An organisation that works tirelessly on this issue is the Internet Watch Foundation, set up in the UK in 1996. It is world-leading in its work to eliminate child sexual abuse imagery online and to ensure that we continue to make progress. Europol has stated:
“IWF is one of the most active and effective European hotlines fighting against child sexual exploitation. The work developed by IWF in the process of notice and takedown, in close cooperation with Law Enforcement, is an example to follow.”
IWF’s work has meant that only 0.2% of child sexual abuse content is hosted in the UK, that 100,000 reports of sexual abuse images or videos have been processed and that an international reporting hotline has been set up. One of the most impressive IWF advances has been an “image hash list”, which allows companies automatically to find indecent images or even to prevent them from being uploaded. In a world now dominated by social media, it is somewhat reassuring that Twitter is also using the technology. Twitter has commented that the hash list system
“has added significant capacity to our ability to detect, remove and report”
child sexual abuse images.
I strongly believe that we should commend the Internet Watch Foundation for working tirelessly to make our internet safer. However, more can undoubtedly be done, as was highlighted only recently when the BBC reported that it had alerted Facebook to 100 images on its website that appeared to break the social media site’s guidelines, including: pages explicitly for men with a sexual interest in children; images of under-16s in highly sexualised poses with obscene comments posted beside them; Facebook groups with names such as “Hot XXX Schoolgirls” containing stolen images of real children; and an image that appeared to be a still from a video of child abuse, with a request below it to share child pornography.
Facebook’s initial response was to report the BBC journalists involved to the police and, most disturbingly, to remove only 18 of the 100 images because the other 82 apparently did not breach its “community standards”. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children said:
“Facebook’s failure to remove illegal content from its website is appalling and violates the agreements they have in place to protect children. It also raises the question of what content they consider to be inappropriate and dangerous to children”.
I agree, and I believe that the case raises a number of troubling questions. How easily can adults access and share images of child sexual abuse via social media and other sites? How easily can our children be groomed on that site, given that children as young as 13 years old can create a Facebook account? Finally, how easily can our children stumble across indecent images of other children being sexually abused—and perhaps even think that that is somehow normal or acceptable behaviour? Facebook executives must take the issue more seriously, and UK law enforcement needs to clamp down when companies do not remove content. What engagement have the Government had with large companies to ensure that indecent images of children are proactively policed and taken down by the companies themselves, especially given that those on Facebook had to be reported to Facebook by the BBC?
As I outlined earlier, the UK hosts 0.2% of sexual abuse content. That is, of course, 0.2% too much, but it also means that more than 99% is hosted internationally. In 2014, the UK held the first WeProtect summit, which brought together representatives from more than 50 countries, 26 leading technology companies and 10 non-governmental organisations. At the summit, the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, pledged to donate £50 million over five years to the UNICEF global protection fund, saying:
“This is money that will help put those lives back together again and I’m proud that Britain is pledging it and once again leading the way.”
Can the Minister confirm that Britain is still leading the way and is continuing to contribute to UNICEF’s global protection fund? I ask not least because child sexual abuse images and videos created abroad are viewed by paedophiles in the UK. We owe protection to children, regardless of where they are from, from such appalling crimes. We must not turn a blind eye to vulnerable children around the world.
We must also not turn a blind eye to people accessing indecent images of children that are produced in Britain. The Marie Collins Foundation said:
“All too frequently, we hear the people who view images of child sexual abuse defending themselves by saying: ‘I only looked at pictures, I didn’t actually hurt anyone.’…Every time an abusive image is viewed it means that the victim in the image is re-abused. No victim should have to suffer in this way.”
The National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for child protection, Chief Constable Simon Bailey, commented recently that paedophiles accessing such images should not be charged or prosecuted, and therefore not imprisoned, unless they pose a physical threat to children. Such comments massively threaten to downgrade the impact on the victims in those images. The case of Mark Bridger clearly demonstrates that people who look at images of child sexual abuse can be an enormous risk to our children.
What is more worrying is that one of Britain’s most senior police officers cannot identify a feasible solution to the growing numbers of people accessing such images online. Chief Constable Bailey made his comments in the context of an 80% increase in the number of child abuse reports over the last three years, and 400 men arrested by the police and the National Crime Agency every month for viewing indecent images of children. He states that that is just the tip of the iceberg. Estimates also suggest that there are around 500,000 people sharing indecent images of children, but I believe that we cannot remove the threat of prison without devaluing the crime, even though our prison population now stands at more than 85,000.
The hon. Lady is making an excellent speech. Does she agree that it is wrong that the prosecution cannot appeal sentences imposed by the courts for creating or distributing images of child sexual abuse, no matter how lenient they are, because those offences do not fall under the unduly lenient sentencing scheme?
The hon. Gentleman raises a valid concern. I am keen to hear from the Minister what the Government’s view is. It may be a matter to take up with the Law Officers and the Solicitor General, who I know takes up unduly lenient sentences on behalf of the Government. We must consider how to increase understanding of the severity of the crime and the ability to appeal unduly lenient sentences if appropriate.
We must remember that every indecent image of a child means a child suffering sexual abuse. We cannot allow police funding restraints to leave our children at risk. I call on our Government to ensure that our police forces and judicial system are adequately funded to deal with the influx of cases from Operation Hydrant. That is not to say that we do not need to focus on rehabilitation as well, but it is hard to ascertain how we can offer the rehabilitative services that Chief Constable Bailey is asking for when our current attempts at rehabilitation are chronically underfunded. There is only one place where paedophiles can receive treatment on the NHS in England: the Portman clinic in north London. Due to funding cuts, the clinic can now treat only paedophiles who have committed offences, which signals a massive lack of commitment to well-funded rehabilitative services.
In the charity sector, StopSO provides counselling to both non-offenders and offenders and believes that it can help paedophiles to manage their feelings towards children so as not to offend. However, to ensure that it can continue to offer services, StopSO charges £40 to £120 an hour, which obviously leaves thousands of people without access. Given that 500,000 people are currently looking at indecent images of children, we need a system that considers rehabilitation as a core part of prison life. At the same time, we also need to look further into the future and fund more services that can assist paedophiles before they offend. If we do not have a system that provides adequate rehabilitative services while the Government try to imprison fewer people, we run the risk of paedophiles falling through the cracks. Surely that would only perpetuate the idea that there will be no consequences for abusers and potential abusers watching child sexual abuse. We cannot allow that to happen.
The April’s law petition calls for increased sentencing for those caught with indecent images of children. The independent Sentencing Council is responsible for issuing guidelines to the courts, and updated guidelines on sexual offences have been in force since 2014. Although Parliament could legislate to increase the maximum terms, I argue that the existing Sentencing Council is the best body to determine the duration of sentences. However, I would welcome the Minister’s views on whether the Government are likely to legislate further in this area, not least in the light of the concerns about the criminal justice system’s inability to cope with the current volume of offenders and the concerns about unduly lenient sentences mentioned by the hon. Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson). I would be grateful if the Minister provided some feedback on that issue.
Before I conclude, I will touch briefly on another campaign that I know April’s family support. My hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn) is seeking to pass the Unlawful Killing (Recovery of Remains) Bill, also known as Helen’s law, which would ensure that murderers are ineligible for parole if they do not reveal the location of their victims’ remains. That is particularly relevant as Mark Bridger has never revealed to the police how he disposed of April’s body. Coral Jones has said:
“As her mum I would love to know where she is, the rest of her, and family and friends, we would all love to know. No mum or family would want their child’s remains somewhere else. They would like to put them all to rest.”
Families who are already living through absolute hell are denied even the slightest amount of closure if they are not able to properly bury their loved ones. I urge Members across the House to support my hon. Friend’s Bill to ensure that murderers who refuse to reveal the location of their victims’ remains are not allowed to walk free.
I conclude by commending the family of April Jones for being so proactive in trying to stop what has happened to their daughter and sister from happening to anyone else. Through the efforts of the Jones family and their vast number of supporters, this petition has allowed us this valuable time in Parliament to discuss how we can keep our children safe. For that, I would like to thank them.
I am pleased to have been able to highlight the commendable work of the Internet Watch Foundation and call for the UK to remain outward-looking and ready to support international efforts to combat child sexual abuse, especially regarding indecent images. I also strongly urge the Government to review the funding received by the police and the wider criminal justice system to properly deal with those who produce or access indecent images of children and who are involved with wider child sexual abuse. They must ensure that that funding is adequate to deal with the current influx of cases.
I hope that this debate will highlight to Members across the House the fact that we cannot afford to become complacent about indecent images of children, because April’s case shows just how significant a risk those who access such images can pose to our children and our society.
Thank you for calling me to speak, Mrs Moon. We have worked together on many other issues and it is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today. I also thank the representative of the Petitions Committee, the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell), for comprehensively outlining all the issues that surround this very complex case. There are all sorts of arguments for and against virtually every aspect of it—it is not straightforward.
I will contribute a constituency perspective and, of course, a family perspective. On 1 October 2012, I was at home working on my iPad when I read a tweet that a five-year-old girl had disappeared after being seen climbing into a vehicle on the Bryn-y-Gôg housing estate in Machynlleth in Montgomeryshire. It is not unusual to get tweets like that, but there was something about that tweet that immediately gave me the sense that this was something serious. Within hours, the people of Machynlleth and the surrounding area had joined the search for five-year-old April, the daughter of Coral and Paul Jones, who live on the Bryn-y-Gôg estate. Over the following days, a huge number of volunteers and local and national organisations, as well as the police, formed the most intensive, widespread search for anybody or anything that I have ever seen in my life—it was just amazing. Five days later, a local man, Mark Bridger, was charged with abduction, murder and perverting the course of justice. In May 2013, Bridger was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment. The sentencing judge, rightly in my opinion, pronounced that he should never again be released from prison.
The death of April was an absolute tragedy for her family and friends, but it touched the entire nation. It was something that the whole of Britain became engaged with. There was a national focus on the town of Machynlleth. The search for April and the truly amazing response of the people of that small market town brought what seemed like the world’s media to Machynlleth. I spent several days there myself. Like everybody else, I found it really difficult to comprehend just what had happened and what April’s family would have been going through.
I pay tribute to April’s parents and her sister Jazz, who are with us in this Chamber today. They have made huge efforts to raise awareness of the widespread availability of pornographic and sexual images of children. They want to do everything they can to prevent other families from facing a similar tragedy and from going through the same pain that they have gone through and, no doubt, are still going through today. Their efforts have culminated in this debate in the House of Commons, after a petition raised by April’s family reached more than 100,000 signatures. For completeness, I will read out that petition, which is quite short:
“We the undersigned call on the prime minister to make all sex offenders remain on the register for life no matter the crime, for service providers and search engines to be better policed regarding child abuse images and harder sentences on those caught with indecent images of children.”
The petition can be divided into three calls for action. In preparation for this debate, I met Coral and Jazz Jones in Machynlleth 10 days ago. We talked through what they expected from the debate and what form an “April’s law” might take. The petition calls for legislation to be based on three objectives. The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North addressed them all in her speech but, for myself and my constituency, I will repeat some of what she said.
The first objective, which is perhaps the most difficult to achieve, is cleaning up the internet. It should be our ambition to remove all sexual images of children from the internet. We know that the presence of those images is damaging, but removing them is not an easy or straightforward process, because the internet is technologically fast-moving and is not easy to control through legislation. However, the Government have a responsibility, which I think they take seriously—indeed, all Governments throughout the world have a responsibility —to do everything within their power to clean up the internet as far as is humanly possible.
Last week, we learned of a disturbing report, which has already been mentioned but certainly had a very big impact on me, that involved Facebook, a giant of the social media world. A BBC investigative team used the report button, the purpose of which is to highlight to Facebook any improper sexual images on its platforms. The BBC found that 80% of such images were not removed after being reported. There was simply an automated response, stating that the images did not breach community standards—whatever that means. Included were images of children in sexualised poses, pages aimed at paedophiles, and one image that appeared to be taken from a child abuse video. Astonishingly, instead of taking down all those images, Facebook reported the BBC for sharing them.
I cannot be certain of the precise detail of what happened in that case, but it seems beyond all belief. I understand that the images have now been removed, but what we want is for Facebook and every other social network operator, whether small or large, to be under a legal obligation always to take down such images, constantly to survey what appears on their social network platforms and, as far as possible, to report whoever puts them there to the police. We need a law that bans indecent and dangerous content and that ensures that action is taken against whoever instigates or permits it. It must make no difference whether the offender is a small company or is among the biggest companies in the world.
The second aim for what an “April’s law” should include is a stronger process for removing the names of sex offenders from the sex offenders register. I fear that an absolute ban would probably fall foul of human rights legislation, but as far as we possibly can, we must always put the protection of the public first. I do not consider myself to be sufficiently qualified to outline precisely what a process of deregistration might look like in order to satisfy human rights legislation and keep the public safe. However, it must always ensure that no name should ever be removed from the sex offenders list until and unless there is total certainty that the offender has reformed and will not repeat offend.
I ask the Minister whether it is possible to introduce rigour and certainty into the system to a greater extent even than now by establishing some sort of structure similar to a magistrates court structure to judge each individual case. The basis on which we should judge the suitability of a sex offender seeking removal from a sex offenders list is that we must always put first the safety of the public and of children.
The third policy is the importance of always putting sex offenders on the sex offenders list, or at least bringing them to court if the offence justifies it. This has already been covered in this debate, but we cannot have a position whereby police resources or pressure on the criminal court system result in offenders not being prosecuted. Sex offenders should always be prosecuted.
Two weeks ago, there was a report in The Guardian—again, this has already been referred to—on comments by Simon Bailey, the chief constable of Norfolk constabulary and the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for child protection. He said that the police were struggling to cope with the huge number of criminals looking at indecent images of children online, and that they should focus their resources on high-risk offenders. That is not good enough. All offenders must be looked, not just high-risk offenders. How do we judge between a high-risk offender and a low-risk offender? They are all offenders.
I agreed with the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, who wrote in response to the chief constable:
“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.”
I absolutely agree with that. She also said:
“This raises some very serious concerns about the scale of online child abuse, about the level of resourcing the police have available for it, about the systems the police has in place to deal with this new and increasing crime and also about the priority being given to it by police forces.”
We regard child abuse as a hugely serious crime and I believe that it is still under-reported. Police forces throughout the country should make dealing with it an absolute priority. Anybody who is deemed to be a sex offender—albeit they might be described as a low-level offender—should be prosecuted.
On the exploitation of children and police resource, I had reason to talk to Facebook not that long ago about an online bullying problem. Facebook made the not unreasonable point that a lot of this stuff is not necessarily on social media that is within UK control, but on foreign websites in jurisdictions about which we might have limited knowledge and over which we might have limited control. Would my hon. Friend comment on that point and whether he thinks we are suitably focusing on that source of imagery? It is a crime to look for child pornography on the internet, including for employees of the very platforms that we hope will rectify this matter. Does the law give them the power they need to police it themselves?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention and I agree with him. The point I am trying to emphasise—I think it is something that most Members in this House believe—is that this is a growing crime. We are also becoming more aware of it, and it has probably been under-reported forever. We are starting to realise just how awful things have been.
This crime destroys young people’s lives forever and it destroys families. We all know what has happened in Machynlleth and the damage it has done at a personal level to the family concerned, but this crime is happening in other places in Britain at a different level. We cannot ever say that the resources are not there to prosecute; we cannot ever knowingly allow somebody to come off a sex offenders register until we are absolutely certain that they are no longer a threat; and we cannot ever allow a major company—no matter how big, how rich or how powerful it is—to adopt an approach to dealing with sex offenders that is different to anybody else’s approach.
Diolch yn fawr iawn, Mrs Moon; it is an honour to serve with you in the Chair. It is also an honour to follow the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) and of course the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies), who is my constituency neighbour.
Looking back to that time, the loss of April Jones hit rural Welsh communities hard. It shattered our comfortable belief that such horrors could never happen in Wales—that such monsters could not live among us and would not be greeting us daily on our high streets, buying a round in our pubs and quite possibly loitering outside our schools and where children play. I speak also as the mother of girls, and we were secure in our illusion—our delusion—that such things always happened elsewhere, to other families and in other places.
The revulsion was reflected in the outpouring of support for April’s family; in the thousands of people signing this petition, many of them in Meirionnydd; in the hundreds of people who turned out to assist the police in their search across mile upon mile of forested hill country, in rivers and even down disused mine shafts; and in the feelings among the police themselves—Dyfed Powys police, and officers from North Wales police and, of course, other forces who came in to help with the search. They persevered through the winter months, in the biggest search ever organised in Britain. I am sure that many of us will remember the pink ribbons on gate posts and fences across Wales.
Evidence against April’s murderer was found on his computer. In discussions with North Wales police, with whom I participated in the police service parliamentary scheme last year, I have heard a number of concerns about the increasing number of digital devices seized by officers and also real questions about consistency of sentencing. Many of these issues have been raised already, but there are a couple that I would like to raise. In particular, I would like the Minister to consider including as a penalty the forfeiture of all digital devices and data owned by a child sex offender when illegal images are found on any of those devices. Ironically, that would be quite similar to the penalty for poaching. Indeed, it is a surprise to me that we have not done that already with devices, given their sheer multiplication.
Although we are aware that the child abuse image database exists to help police forces—I draw hon. Members’ attention to North Wales police’s bespoke digital imagery facility at St Asaph—this issue is none the less putting an increasing burden upon police. I saw police in action last summer, carrying out a warrant from the paedophile and online investigation team, but when I spoke to them in preparation for this debate, they were at pains that I should emphasise how heavy the workload is. To a degree, the number of cases that they are bringing to court and conviction is very much dependent on how they can actually cope with the sheer number of devices.
I have heard instances of court orders from judges that required police to return data from seized devices to convicted offenders. In one case, a former teacher who had been found guilty of keeping these sorts of images successfully argued that he needed teaching material from the computer on which he had stored illegal images—a request granted to a man who in all likelihood would never teach again. This seems to be a waste of police time, taking them away from dealing with other cases that could lead to convictions. Surely the time has come for all seized digital devices that are the personal property of a convicted paedophile to be confiscated as part of the penalty. Surely the onus should be on the offender to prove that they have a genuine need for the data on seized devices to be returned, and this should only happen in very exceptional cases. Of course, this is not a political matter; it is one of pragmatic policy making, and I hope that the Minister will respond in due course.
The second issue I would like to raise is the consistency and appropriateness of sentencing. Again from North Wales police, I heard of a case of attempted grooming of a 13-year-old child for sex. The defendant had travelled from London to north Wales with that very intention, but had unknowingly actually been communicating with an undercover officer. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to only 21 months. In a similar incident, between Lancashire and North Wales police, and where the undercover operation led to arrest in the offender’s home, the sentence was 24 months, suspended.
Sentencing guidelines are complex in the area of attempted sexual offences against children, but there is no doubt whatsoever that both those individuals had every intention of arranging and carrying out a sexual offence against a child. They had meticulously planned their route and how to commit the offence. Only the saving grace of the undercover officers’ interventions prevented them from carrying out those plans. Surely sentencing should reflect that, bearing in mind that an actual sexual offence against a child would be in category 1A and receive in the range of four to 10 years, depending on aggravating features. Even with a guilty plea, surely the evidence of determined intention should warrant more robust sentencing—certainly more than 24 months, suspended.
To close, I want to pay credit to April’s family, because in the midst of the unfathomable horror of their experiences over the last five years they have succeeded in ensuring that while April’s murderer will see out the rest of his whole-life tariff in obscurity, her name will be remembered and cherished. Her legacy should be that other children are better protected in law.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon, and to respond to the debate. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) said, it gives no one pleasure to talk about this issue, but so many children have, regrettably, been sexually abused, and are being abused even now. I pay tribute to the family of April Jones for their strength and bravery in bringing to the attention of the House, and indeed of society generally, the challenges we face in combating sexual abuse and offences against children. In particular, I thank Jazmin Jones for her efforts in securing the success of the petition.
Today’s debate has particular significance for me. As a very new lawyer, I joined the Crown Prosecution Service as a prosecutor and within a year had to deal with the case of a six-month-old baby who had been sexually abused and then, a year later, that of a woman who had held her three-year-old daughter down while her boyfriend raped the child. Such things are horrific. Everyone will agree that those who commit sexual offences must be held accountable for their crimes, and it is right that in dealing with perpetrators of sexual offences, especially those against children, terms of imprisonment follow.
In this country we have some of the toughest powers for dealing with this type of offence. In fact, many years ago, our Government recognised that such offences were occurring abroad and for the first time introduced legislation that meant that individuals could be prosecuted in this country for sexual offences in relation to children, and put on the register. Even now, there are many people —sadly, mainly men—who go out to poorer parts of the world and abuse young girls and boys. It is a big pattern.
We have also seen an increase in victims of child abuse summoning up the courage to identify their abusers and inform the police. When I started practising law more than 20 years ago, it was difficult to get children to come forward and give evidence of what had happened to them. That increase is therefore to be welcomed, but we must ensure that the increased media coverage of such offences does not result in complacency or the mistaken belief that they are commonplace. Any offence against a child is an affront to our society and a personal tragedy for the victim and their family, and the courts must respond appropriately.
In addition, it is right that the police have the power and the capacity to monitor offenders when their custodial sentence comes to an end. That, too, is crucial for the safety of our children. The basket of information that those convicted of serious sexual crimes are required to submit is commonly referred to as the sex offenders register. Together with sexual harm prevention orders and sexual risk orders, the register is vital for police forces charged with monitoring those who pose a risk of committing sexual offences. As of 2011, the child sex offender disclosure scheme, widely referred to as Sarah’s law, has allowed parents to apply for information on registered sex offenders living in their area. It is right that the police should have that information available, so that they can act as its gatekeepers.
The length of time offenders are required to remain on the register varies. One of the major concerns that informs the petition is the right granted to those who have been placed on the register for an indefinite period to seek a review of the decision. As has been mentioned, that was the result of a Supreme Court ruling that said that there had to be a right of review, because otherwise article 8 of the European convention on human rights would be contravened.
The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) rightly said that the rights of children come before the rights of any perpetrators, and I would like to reassure him about what the court is trying to do. It is settled jurisprudence across the world that, when someone has either been convicted of an imprisonable offence or is on something like the register, there is normally recourse to some sort of appeal. All the Supreme Court was saying was that domestic legislation should have that right to appeal, not that those people should be released, after 15 years or eight years. It is obviously for the police officers and courts to decide in each case whether that happens. I wanted to reassure the hon. Gentleman, because sometimes these things get caught up emotionally with the Human Rights Act. However, for many people the potential for reoffending is clearly so great that, while an offence is perhaps not deserving of lifelong imprisonment, lifelong surveillance and tracking is required. It is quite proper that the police have the initial say regarding who is and who is not to remain on the register indefinitely, but it is also in accord with the principle of the rule of law that there is recourse to the judicial system.
I should also stress that, if the register and the associated orders are to be effective, they must be maintained and those subjected to them monitored sufficiently. In order to do that, the police must be given the resources they need, and a significant threat to child safety is posed by funding cuts to our police services.
Although I am sure that everyone abhors the crimes referred to in the petition, it remains the case that most of those who commit them will at some point have to live in society, albeit subject to some oversight. To protect our children, we must do all we can to reduce the risk of reoffending. Accordingly, more work must be done with offenders, both inside and outside prison, to enable them to function without committing further acts against our children. That must inevitably involve the National Probation Service, which has recently become stretched, and also psychiatric services. Just recently, the Royal College of Psychiatrists warned that its members felt unable to work in prisons.
The petition also calls on internet service providers and search engines to be better policed regarding child abuse images—an ambition we all must endorse. Each case must be judged on its own merit, but we must never forget that every image of abuse created is an image of actual abuse of a child, and that viewing such images only encourages their further production. Moreover, for an individual to have a visual record of a crime committed against them, for future viewing by other offenders, must outrage any sense of decency and provoke the fiercest compassion for victims.
We must also remember that not only abusive images, but forms of communication opened up by social media, are a potential source of danger to children. Law and legislation protecting children must be designed for a 21st century context where technology is constantly advancing. Technological answers alone can never suffice, however. The disturbing normalisation of highly sexualised language and images that children may produce and share among themselves via instant messaging poses a deep cultural challenge for our society. At the very least, it normalises the sexualised way in which children can perceive themselves. At worst, those types of communication provide weak points through which adult abusers can co-opt networks of younger people. If we are to counter that disturbing trend, teachers, parents, politicians and popular culture all have a role to play.
There are more immediate responses, however. In addition to greater cultural awareness and improved policing, it is not unreasonable to expect technology companies to do more to counter the availability of child pornography online. Doubtless the technological challenge is large, but they have a responsibility not to aid predators who view images of abuse. Moreover, internet service providers must do more to provide information to the police in a timely fashion when called upon. If the police are to use that information to the full in identifying and detaining offenders, they must have sufficient resources.
I ask the Minister to consider a number of things. My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North mentioned what Chief Constable Simon Bailey said about having to make decisions on whether to pursue offences where someone is actively dangerous, as opposed to offences where someone may be dangerous because they are viewing things online. Due to the lack of resources, the police cannot give sufficient attention to the latter. The Government need to consider providing additional officers and resources—possibly ring-fenced—specifically to deal not only with sexual abuse, but with online abuse, online pornographic images and online sexual images of children. They also need more resources to train more police officers to carry out undercover operations of the type referred to by the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts). She referred to examples of undercover police officers effectively managing to stop abuses and predators, and prevent offences from being committed. They constantly do that. We need to resource those types of operations more so that there are more officers able to deal with the dangers of the internet.
We also need to think seriously about how the internet operates in relation to pornography and sexual images. As has been referred to, when an image on the internet is reported, it can take months and months for it to be removed. Sometimes nothing happens. The process needs to be strengthened so that internet providers have to deal with reported images immediately. If they fail to do that, criminal penalties should be considered. Will the Government relook at how the internet and internet providers work and allow so much indecent material to be on the internet? I hope the Minister can deal with that in her response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I am sure you will agree that this has been a well-informed debate, and I very much appreciate the spirit in which all Members have made sincere and thoughtful contributions.
This is an incredibly important issue, and I thank the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for leading the debate and bringing the issue to our attention today. It has allowed us to have such a thorough discussion. Other Members have said this, but this issue is not really something that any of us wants to debate. It is horrendous to think that such appalling acts of depravity and crime are happening in our country in the 21st century.
Before I address all the very thoughtful questions that have been put to me, I want to speak directly to the family of April Jones—to her parents Coral and Paul, and to Jazmin—who are here today. I cannot imagine the horror of what you have had to experience. You are an inspiration to us all. You have managed to take such grief and the worst imaginable situation and use those feelings so constructively to campaign for changes to ensure that no other family or community has to experience what you had to experience. I thank you sincerely for your bravery and persistence in bringing this matter to the attention of the people of Great Britain and us here today. It is not a problem that any one of us will deal with alone; it requires a whole society approach, and each and every one of us has an important role to play. I thank you very much for everything you are doing.
I also commend the family’s excellent MP, my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies). He has given the family a lot of support and gave voice to their concerns today. What a powerful advocate he is for the family—and he is well supported by his neighbouring MP, my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart). As others have said, the issue transcends all party politics. Members of Parliament representing all parties work together constructively to ensure that the Government are doing everything we can to prevent, detect and prosecute these horrendous crimes.
I want to answer some of the questions that have been asked. The first set of questions were about what we are doing about who is on the sex offenders register. I understand why people think that anyone who has committed any such crime should go on the register and stay there for life without any reconsideration. I understand that strong sentiment, but the Supreme Court ruling in 2010 has been mentioned, and I want to go into a bit more detail about it. It prevented us from not giving sex offenders the opportunity to be removed from the register: we were told that there must be opportunities for that to be reconsidered. There was an objection about human rights and the offenders being denied the right to a family life. At the time, the Government were disappointed by the ruling, and we remain disappointed today. I am sympathetic to the demands of the petition and the concerns of the Jones family. I understand why they feel that the petition is necessary.
It is precisely because we are determined to do everything we can to protect the public from predatory sexual offenders that we made the minimum possible changes to the law to comply with the Supreme Court ruling, while ensuring that the police and others can protect the public from the serious and appalling sorts of crime that have been committed by individuals on the register. That means that no offender comes off the register automatically. The most dangerous offenders—those we cannot afford to leave unmonitored in this country—will stay on the register for life; they do not have a right to request reconsideration of their status on the register.
We have provided for a review carried out by the police, but no more than that. Offenders have the right to ask the police to reconsider, but they have no recourse to appeal. We believe that approach complies with the Supreme Court ruling, but it also ensures maximum public protection, which remains at the heart of managing sex offenders. They can seek a review of their indefinite notification requirements only once they have completed 15 years. For juveniles, it is eight years. People have to wait a long time before they can even request a review.
The review takes a range of considerations into account. Information is provided from a wide range of agencies operating within the multi-agency public protection arrangements framework. This ensures an individual assessment of the risk before any offender is considered for removal. As I have said, the most serious offenders are never even considered for that. The process has proven robust and workable and puts public protection at the heart of sex offender management, while at the same time preventing sex offenders from being able to waste public money by repeatedly challenging decisions in the courts.
We want to make sure that victims are also engaged in the process. We want to ensure that the feelings of victims’ families—for example, in the tragic case of the Jones family—are taken into consideration. Victims’ needs and safety are absolutely fundamental in the process. It is important to remember that many victims who have undergone appalling acts against them want to move on with their lives. They have had therapeutic interventions and they want to put it behind them. We need to bear in mind their views as well. The police look at cases to make sure that victims’ voices are heard in a sensitive way. They are not necessarily publicly forced into anything; they are treated according to their needs.
When we made the changes in 2012, we also introduced additional safeguards to tighten the notification arrangements even further, making it compulsory for sex offenders to report to the authorities before travelling abroad, whenever they are living in a household containing a child under the age of 18, and when they have no fixed abode. It is important that we always know where they are. Collectively, the safeguards ensure that the public continue to be protected from the sex offenders who continue to pose a risk.
We have continued to work with the police and other law enforcement agencies to ensure that the right powers are available for the authorities to tackle sexual crimes and bring perpetrators to justice. For example, we have introduced new civil orders that capture a range of risky behaviours and allow the police to further restrict the behaviour of those who pose a risk, preventing them from escalating to contact abuse. I want to be absolutely clear that victims and survivors of sexual and other forms of violence against women and girls are at the heart of all our policy making. Over the spending review period, we will spend more than £100 million to make sure that victims get the help they need when they need it and to ensure that no victim is turned away.
The petition that we are debating today also calls for better policing of search engines and internet service providers. I agree that that is absolutely critical. Under the Protection of Children Act 1978, it is illegal to take or distribute an indecent photograph of a child under 16. The penalty can be up to 10 years’ imprisonment. Possessing indecent photographs of children is an offence with a maximum sentence of five years’ imprisonment. However, we know that more can be done.
Through the campaigning of Paul and Coral Jones, major search engines have tried to address the abuse of technology. Since 2014, both Google and Microsoft have introduced changes that make it significantly harder to find child sexual abuse material online. Using new technology, they have experienced an eightfold reduction in search engine attempts over an 18-month period. The message is clear: when industry works together with law enforcement to take action, it really can deliver results.
The Government’s response has been significant, with law enforcement agencies taking action against online offenders, developing new capabilities to find and safeguard victims, and working with the industry here and overseas to make sure that we remove as many images as possible. All UK police forces and the National Crime Agency are connected to the child abuse image database, which was launched in 2014. CAID provides law enforcement agencies with effective tools to search seized devices for indecent images of children, reducing the time taken to identify such images and increasing the ability to identify victims.
Recently, the NCA was able to use CAID to review one of its largest ever seizures within six weeks. Based on the case size, that would have taken six months to review before CAID. Collaboration and use of the new tools that are available are dramatically reducing the time it takes to search, find victims and secure prosecutions. That has resulted in around 400 arrests each month for online CSE offences, and we estimate that it is safeguarding around 500 children each month.
Child sexual exploitation and abuse is one of the national priorities in the strategic policing requirement. The threat will be more visible and there will be more consistent understanding, prioritisation and planning of capabilities to tackle child sexual abuse. The strategic policing requirement enables forces to collaborate and to share resources, intelligence and best practice, and provides improved access to specialist capabilities.
Some Members have asked whether we are giving the police enough money to do the work. I absolutely want to reassure everyone here that the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, the main specialist agency within the National Crime Agency, has had its resources nearly doubled. We have committed an additional £20 million over the spending review period. It also gets a significant amount of help from specialists within GCHQ, so our top intelligence community, which is there to keep the nation safe, is now deployed to help CEOP. I regularly meet police officers in CEOP. Every time I visit, I ask them, “Do you have the resources you need to tackle this crime?”, and they all say yes. The amount of investment that we put in is something we keep under constant review.
One Member asked whether we were investing in WeProtect. The need to work internationally has rightly been raised today because the threat is global. I can confirm that the £40 million commitment that the previous Prime Minister, David Cameron, made to WeProtect over this spending period is absolutely secure and is being spent. The UK leads the world in this effort, and we will continue that work. As has been rightly said by many people here today and outside this Chamber, all companies have a responsibility to ensure that they do everything they can to make sure that their platforms and services do not allow the exploitation and victimisation of children. They must address the abuse of what is otherwise legitimate technology. It is really important that they step up to the plate and do everything they can.
The Prime Minster, the Home Secretary and I have regular meetings with all the internet providers—the Prime Minister herself chairs a meeting—to make sure they do everything they can. In the light of the revelations reported by the BBC about Facebook, the Home Secretary will have an urgent meeting with Facebook to ask why the images were not taken down after being reported. We must be satisfied that lessons are learnt by Facebook. We must not leave any stone unturned.
There has been quite a bit of discussion about sentencing. Although it is a matter for our courts, in December 2013, as a result of a lot of pressure, the Sentencing Council issued revised guidelines on sentencing for sexual offences, which came into force three years ago. They include guidance on assessing offender behaviour and the appropriate sentence level in proceedings relating to indecent images of children. The Sentencing Council keeps the maximum penalties under review to ensure that the courts have adequate powers to deal with offences effectively and proportionately, while taking into account the circumstances of the offences and any mitigating and aggravating factors.
More adult sex offenders are being imprisoned and they are being imprisoned for longer. The number of prisoners serving immediate custodial sentences for sexual offences is at its highest since 2002. At the end of last year, more than 13,000 adult sex offenders were in prison. That is a rise of 9% on the preceding 12 months, and is up by more than 5,000 since 2010.
The Minister will recall that the manifesto that she and I stood on at the last general election included a commitment to extend the scope of the unduly lenient sentence scheme. Even after the Budget, our manifesto must mean something. Does she therefore agree that it is time to extend the scope of the unduly lenient sentence scheme to include the distribution and creation of indecent pictures of children?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that important issue. He must have read my mind, because I was coming to it. The manifesto we stood on does mean something, and I am pleased to confirm that the Attorney General is undertaking that work as we speak. The scope of unduly lenient sentences is being reviewed at the moment. I hope that gives my hon. Friend the satisfaction for which he rightly asks.
I was asked by other hon. Members to look at other aspects of the criminal justice system. Although they are the responsibility of the Ministry of Justice, I will do so. I agree that it is important that, if perpetrators who are arrested have a range of digital devices, they should be forfeited and searched for inappropriate images. As we have heard, that puts a lot of demand on the police, but new digital tools, such as CAID and fingerprinting, enable much faster recognition of images and should enable the police to manage the increased demand.
In the Minister’s representations to the MOJ, will she commit to raising the issue of whether the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority reflects the 21st century? It has been put to me that it treats the crimes of sexual assault by penetration and rape entirely differently. Any victim of those crimes would find that an extraordinary distinction.
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Of course I will speak to my colleagues in the Ministry of Justice.
I want to finish my point on perpetrators time-wasting, demanding things of the police and extracting information from forfeited devices. The hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) gave an example of a teacher who undoubtedly, as they were going on the sex offenders register, would never be a teacher again. They did not need the teaching plans and resources that they wanted to extract from their computer. That was a dreadful waste of police time. I will certainly take that up to see what more we can do to clamp down on it.
The Prime Minister recently said that she is minded to introduce a new Bill in the next Session to look at what more we can do about domestic abuse and domestic violence. This debate is specifically about child sexual violence and abuse, but that Bill will enable us to look at what more we can do legally. The Home Secretary will chair a group of experts to look at what more we can do to support victims in the criminal justice system to ensure their experience is as positive as possible. The evidence that we get will secure the best possible outcomes. As that Bill is developed, there will be opportunities to look at some of the issues that have been raised today.
A question was asked about what is called Helen’s law. We heard about the absolutely horrendous situation of families who want to know where the bodies of their loved ones have been put by the horrendous criminals who perpetrated those acts. I am a mother myself, so I understand that families want to know exactly where their children’s remains are so they can be reunited with them, lay them to rest and have a place to visit them. The Justice Minister made it clear that he is looking at options to encourage offenders to say where the remains are, including making their release conditional on declaring that information. The Ministry of Justice is doing good work to ensure that happens.
The Minister is giving a very thorough response to many of the issues that were raised, but one issue that she has not touched upon, which does not always seem a priority but could go a long way to protecting children in the future, is rehabilitation. Does she have a response to the questions I asked about funding for the rehabilitation of offenders or potential offenders?
I am very happy to talk about that. We are undertaking a comprehensive piece of work in the Home Office with experts, academics, law enforcement officers and some particularly good charities that have a good track record, to ensure that young people understand what consent is, what good relationships are and what the law of the land is. We have seen reports about the amount of sex offending committed by young people against other young people. The very tragic case that we are talking about today involved an older person who perpetrated a terrible crime against a child, but there is a growing category of younger people who commit appalling abuse—even rape—against children younger than themselves. We are doing a lot of work to educate young people that that is simply wrong and about what good relationships look like. The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, the association for personal, social and health and economic education—the PSHE Association—and the Department for Education have developed extremely good tools to enable teachers, parents and youth workers to engage young people.
I expect that people have seen Disrespect NoBody, a large campaign that the Home Office funds every year. It uses material developed by children that they can see online on their phones and iPads to get those messages across. We work with young people to develop age-appropriate messages, and campaigns are thoroughly evaluated to ensure that they are having the right effect. Now that sex and relationship education and PSHE are to be compulsory, there will be even further opportunity to send that message to everyone.
We know that a lot of young men view images of young girls online, but that they do not realise that what they are doing is illegal. They seem to think that it is a victimless crime. They do not appreciate that a girl is being abused to make those images, that every time someone watches them she is being re-abused, and how devastating that is. We have worked with experts in the field to make hard-hitting little films that are put out on the internet to communicate to young men—I am afraid that it is young men—who might be tempted to view that material or who might inadvertently come across it. The films are to educate them about the harm and to prevent them from becoming criminals—if they were caught, they would be convicted of a criminal offence and go on the sex offenders register, which would have a devastating effect on their life.
We are working with the Lucy Faithfull Foundation. Where we know perpetrators are watching images, we want to send out clear messages that they are illegal, and about the harm they are doing. We want to give them access to helplines where they can get advice on how to wean themselves off their addiction—it is an addiction. We also fund care and support services for the perpetrators, enabling them to say, “I want to stop this behaviour but I need help to do it.”
That is all new and emerging work. It is important to build up the evidence base on its effectiveness, so that we understand what works, what does not, the risk profile of the perpetrators, and who can be diverted or prevented from behaviour escalating into contact abuse. We take that seriously and invest in it, and we want to leave no stone unturned in preventing people from watching those dreadful images and all the abuse that goes with them. I hope that that is a full answer for the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North.
Some hon. Members mentioned the comments of Chief Constable Simon Bailey. As politicians, none of us is a stranger to being misquoted, or having our quotes being taken out of context so that we do not say everything we would want. That is what happened to the chief constable in this case. It was helpful for the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee to write to ask him about some of the comments he made and the media published. My understanding is that he has written back a full response, which will be published on the Select Committee’s website. The chief constable does not need me to speak for him—he is more than capable of speaking for himself—and it is important for Members to read what he has to say. He might be appearing before the Select Committee, when Committee members will have further opportunity to ask him about what he said so that there is absolute clarity.
I can assure the House, however, that the Government’s policy has not changed. As we have discussed today, issues to do with sex offenders are complicated and contentious, but our position is crystal clear and unequivocal: we will reduce the harm to children and other vulnerable people; we will continue to protect the public; and we will keep dangerous people on the sex offenders register for as long as they are a risk. I am proud of the progress we are making to tackle all aspects of violence against women and girls and to protect all victims, but the truly terrible murder of April Jones highlights how much all of us need to do to protect victims. In my time as Minister, I am determined to do absolutely everything I can to protect people in our country and to bring those perpetrators to justice.
I do not have much more to add to the debate, because the Minister has given a thorough reply to all the questions asked. Many of her responses have been reassuring, and some have clarified areas on which we all need to work together in future. The Minister was absolutely right when she said that this is an issue that transcends party politics. We have representatives present from all parts of the House, and we have a common interest to ensure that we all work together to protect children in the best way possible.
I want to add a final, sincere word to thank the Jones family for the way in which they have turned the most unimaginable horror into an opportunity to make our legal and parliamentary processes and procedures more responsive to the clear need to protect our children better from those horrendous crimes. I thank the Jones family for everything they have done. I also thank Members for their contributions to today’s debate. This is not the end of the conversation. I feel that it is very much the beginning of work that needs to go on.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 166711 relating to sentencing for child abuse offences.