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 also 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.