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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:24 pm on 13th March 2017.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Sarah Newton Sarah Newton The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department 5:24 pm, 13th March 2017

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 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 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 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.