Looking back to that time, the loss of April Jones hit rural Welsh communities hard. It shattered our comfortable belief that such horrors could never happen in Wales—that such monsters could not live among us and would not be greeting us daily on our high streets, buying a round in our pubs and quite possibly loitering outside our schools and where children play. I speak also as the mother of girls, and we were secure in our illusion—our delusion—that such things always happened elsewhere, to other families and in other places.
The revulsion was reflected in the outpouring of support for April’s family; in the thousands of people signing this petition, many of them in Meirionnydd; in the hundreds of people who turned out to assist the police in their search across mile upon mile of forested hill country, in rivers and even down disused mine shafts; and in the feelings among the police themselves—Dyfed Powys police, and officers from North Wales police and, of course, other forces who came in to help with the search. They persevered through the winter months, in the biggest search ever organised in Britain. I am sure that many of us will remember the pink ribbons on gate posts and fences across Wales.
Evidence against April’s murderer was found on his computer. In discussions with North Wales police, with whom I participated in the police service parliamentary scheme last year, I have heard a number of concerns about the increasing number of digital devices seized by officers and also real questions about consistency of sentencing. Many of these issues have been raised already, but there are a couple that I would like to raise. In particular, I would like the Minister to consider including as a penalty the forfeiture of all digital devices and data owned by a child sex offender when illegal images are found on any of those devices. Ironically, that would be quite similar to the penalty for poaching. Indeed, it is a surprise to me that we have not done that already with devices, given their sheer multiplication.
Although we are aware that the child abuse image database exists to help police forces—I draw hon. Members’ attention to North Wales police’s bespoke digital imagery facility at St Asaph—this issue is none the less putting an increasing burden upon police. I saw police in action last summer, carrying out a warrant from the paedophile and online investigation team, but when I spoke to them in preparation for this debate, they were at pains that I should emphasise how heavy the workload is. To a degree, the number of cases that they are bringing to court and conviction is very much dependent on how they can actually cope with the sheer number of devices.
I have heard instances of court orders from judges that required police to return data from seized devices to convicted offenders. In one case, a former teacher who had been found guilty of keeping these sorts of images successfully argued that he needed teaching material from the computer on which he had stored illegal images—a request granted to a man who in all likelihood would never teach again. This seems to be a waste of police time, taking them away from dealing with other cases that could lead to convictions. Surely the time has come for all seized digital devices that are the personal property of a convicted paedophile to be confiscated as part of the penalty. Surely the onus should be on the offender to prove that they have a genuine need for the data on seized devices to be returned, and this should only happen in very exceptional cases. Of course, this is not a political matter; it is one of pragmatic policy making, and I hope that the Minister will respond in due course.
The second issue I would like to raise is the consistency and appropriateness of sentencing. Again from North Wales police, I heard of a case of attempted grooming of 13-year-old child for sex. The defendant had travelled from London to north Wales with that very intention, but had unknowingly actually been communicating with an undercover officer. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to only 21 months. In a similar incident, between Lancashire and North Wales police, and where the undercover operation led to arrest in the offender’s home, the sentence was 24 months, suspended.
Sentencing guidelines are complex in the area of attempted sexual offences against children, but there is no doubt whatsoever that both those individuals had every intention of arranging and carrying out a sexual offence against a child. They had meticulously planned their route and how to commit the offence. Only the saving grace of the undercover officers’ interventions prevented them from carrying out those plans. Surely sentencing should reflect that, bearing in mind that an actual sexual offence against a child would be in category 1A and receive in the range of four to 10 years, depending on aggravating features. Even with a guilty plea, surely the evidence of determined intention should warrant more robust sentencing—certainly more than 24 months, suspended.
To close, I want to pay credit to April’s family, because in the midst of the unfathomable horror of their experiences over the last five years they have succeeded in ensuring that while April’s murderer will see out the rest of his whole-life tariff in obscurity, her name will be remembered and cherished. Her legacy should be that other children are better protected in law.