Victims of Crime (Rights, Entitlements, and Notification of Child Sexual Abuse) Bill [HL] - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:19 pm on 19th July 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Benjamin Baroness Benjamin Liberal Democrat 1:19 pm, 19th July 2019

My Lords, I too congratulate my noble friend Lady Brinton on bringing this important Bill to the House. The impact of child sexual abuse on victims and survivors is devastating, even when the child reaches adulthood—as I always say, childhood lasts a lifetime. I speak today as someone who has dedicated her life to the well-being of children and to working with others who share that mission. One such organisation is the Internet Watch Foundation, of which I am a champion. I take this opportunity to highlight its work and its support for the Bill.

Over a three-month period in 2018, the IWF tracked the occasions on which its analysts had seen the child sexual abuse imagery online of a little girl with big green eyes and golden brown hair—let us give her the fictitious name Olivia. Olivia’s imagery had been taken in a domestic setting that may well have been her home, and she was with someone she trusted. Olivia was just three years old when her imagery was first discovered by an IWF analyst. She was abused over a five-year period until she was rescued by police at the age of eight in 2013. Thankfully, her physical abuse ended when the man who stole her childhood was imprisoned, but her images remained in circulation on the internet. The IWF team saw her image 347 times over that three-month period in 2018—approximately five times per day. So Olivia was still being victimised again and again.

Some young people, like Olivia, develop mental problems, depression, self-loathing, low self-esteem, drug and alcohol abuse and suicidal tendencies, especially when they are recognised by total strangers in the street, some of whom describe the abusive images they saw online and make sexual propositions and demands. Just imagine experiencing that horror and anxiety every time you go out, or having to face those who have watched your abuse and feel they have a right to want you to relive it. For this reason alone, it must be a duty to notify the police of possible victims of child sexual abuse. It is why the IWF supports any measures that would encourage the detection of those suffering child sexual abuse as early as possible.

The IWF vision is of an internet free of child sexual abuse. While it is busy removing record amounts of imagery—105,000 webpages in 2018—it knows that this remains a hidden crime, often behind closed doors, with the victim being abused by someone they know, or groomed or coerced in their own bedroom over the internet. This is why I tell children to take their televisions, computers and phones out of their bedrooms, or at least switch them off. In fact, no parent should allow televisions, phones or computers in their children’s bedrooms; or they should at least insist that their children practise the “switch it off” regime, because perpetrators are always on the lookout for children to take advantage of.

Clause 2 establishes a duty on those working in regulated professions, specifically healthcare professionals, teachers and social care workers, to notify law enforcement if they suspect a child has been the victim of child sexual abuse. While this measure has merit, it could be developed even more widely to include others who also have a duty of care towards children in their care.

The current Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse has highlighted significant failings in religious institutions, residential schools, local authorities and custodial institutions, which could be included in the scope of this Bill. Any recommendations the inquiry makes about these institutions in particular should be carefully considered in this legislation.

The IWF is also keen to ensure that the Bill acts in the interests of those, like Olivia, who have been unfortunate enough to have had their abuse further compounded by having their imagery spread online. It encourages the Bill to make provision for ensuring that, where these relevant regulated professionals become aware of child sexual abuse imagery and video that they suspect has been spread online, they also have a duty to report this imagery to the IWF and the police to have it removed from the internet and to prevent it circulating further.

It makes me weep to say this, but at the moment there is a rise in self-generated child sexual abuse imagery. One of the biggest areas of concern for the IWF is the rise of self-generated imagery of mostly young girls in the 11 to 13 age range. From 1 January to 30 June, the IWF dealt with 22,484 reports of self-generated child sexual abuse content. The statistics of this rise are shocking; of those reports, 96% were girls, and 85% were girls in the 11 to 13 age range. This clearly shows that the inclusion of teachers in Clause 2 is crucial, and the new RSE provisions that will come into effect later this year will also make a difference. However, there is also a real need to ensure that teachers and other professionals have access to the right training, support, advice and guidance on how to deal with suspected incidents of child sexual abuse that they may come across: what to do and how to report them. This will be a crucial factor in the success of any legislation that encourages reporting.

The saying “prevention is better than cure” applies very much to this Bill because, while the Bill positively attempts to improve the speed of reporting, there still needs to be a much greater emphasis on preventing abuse in the first place. The National Crime Agency recently announced that there were approximately 144,000 UK child sexual abuse and exploitation offenders on some of the worst dark web sites. There needs to be much more focus on targeting the 18 to 24 year-old age range of young men, who are known to be more likely to stumble on and view child sexual abuse imagery. This must be a co-ordinated prevent campaign, led by government and including all agencies with an interest in safeguarding children, including charities such as the IWF.

We cannot fully compensate a child for having their childhood stolen from them by evil, unscrupulous people, but we must consider awarding those affected by any form of child abuse some sort of compensation for what has happened to them online, as this does not apply at the moment. At the recent Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse hearings on the internet investigation, the independent panel heard evidence from the victim’s legal representatives about the insufficient nature of the current guidance from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority, which had ruled that A1 and A2—the victims of abuse at the inquiry—were ineligible for compensation because they were not victims of crimes of violence.

But, as their solicitor said at the inquiry,

“what is unacceptable offline shouldn’t be acceptable online”,

and just because an issue has been facilitated by technology, that does not mean that victims of these vile offences should be exempt from compensation.

While the Government have recently taken steps by abolishing the “same roof” rule, there remains much more that can be done for victims to ensure that the law is brought into the 21st century and made fit for the digital age. Therefore, the IWF encourages close scrutiny of how a victim is defined in Part 2 of the Bill, to ensure that it was possible for a child who had been abused and had it spread online to access compensation and some form of redress. At least this would give some sort of comfort after the trauma they had suffered.

As I said, this is a very important Bill. I look forward to supporting its passage through the House and to it becoming law as soon as possible. As I said before, childhood lasts a lifetime.