Child Abuse Offences (Sentencing) — [Mrs Madeleine Moon in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:11 pm on 13th March 2017.

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Photo of Yasmin Qureshi Yasmin Qureshi Shadow Minister (Justice) 5:11 pm, 13th March 2017

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon, and to respond to the debate. As my hon. Friend 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.

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 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.