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, 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
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.
“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.