Tougher laws demand as child abuse image crimes in Scotland hit five year high

3rd December, 2021 1:54 pm

CAMPAIGNERS have called for tougher laws as the number of offences relating to possessing, taking, making, and distributing child abuse material in Scotland has reached a five year high.

More than 3,000 child abuse image crimes have been recorded by Police Scotland over the last five years.

And the data shows crimes relating to the possession of child abuse material has peaked at 660 in 2020/21 – a 20% rise from 2018/19.

The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children is concerned the pandemic had created a ‘perfect storm’ for grooming and abuse online and said an Online Safety Bill needs to be strengthened so it “decisively disrupts” the production and spread of child abuse material on social media.

The number of child sex abuse crimes logged by Police Scotland reached 1,966 in 2020/21 – nearly 25% greater than the five-year average.

The force’s performance report notes that 434 children were identified and safeguarded by officers hunting online child abusers during the period between September and March, with 277 people arrested.

And offences surrounding sexual messages being sent to children have risen by 80 per cent in the last five years.

Between April 2020 and March 2021 there were 685 offences of indecent communications with a child in Scotland – a record high – a rise of 80% from the same period in 2015 to 2016.

The NSPCC said social media was being used by groomers as a conveyor belt to produce and share child abuse images on an industrial scale.

It added that the issue of young people being groomed into sharing images of their own abuse has become “pervasive”.

The charity has urged the UK culture secretary Nadine Dorries (above) to seize the opportunity to strengthen the Online Safety Bill, so it results in “decisive action” that disrupts the production and spread of child abuse material on social media. It said that children will continue to be at risk of an unprecedented scale of abuse unless the draft legislation is significantly strengthened.

The draft Online Safety Bill is due to be scrutinised by MPs next week – but the NSPCC, which has been campaigning for social media regulation, set out a five-point plan to strengthen it.

Their online safety experts said the bill currently fails to address how offenders organise across social media, does not effectively tackle abuse in private messaging and fails to hold top managers liable for harm or give children a voice to balance the power of industry.

And there is criticism of the industry response to child abuse material.

A Facebook whistle-blower told authorities in October that the company’s efforts to remove child abuse material from the platform were “inadequate” and “under-resourced”.

The allegations are contained in documents submitted to the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) two weeks ago.

In a sworn statement to the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) which regulates securities markets and protects investors, the unidentified individual said there was no solution to illegal material at Facebook because there had not been “adequate assets devoted to the problem”.

The whistleblower also claimed Facebook does not know the full scale of the problem of child abuse material because it “doesn’t track it”.

A constant question allegedly asked by senior managers was “what’s the return on investment?”

Facebook said in a statement: “We have no tolerance for this abhorrent abuse of children and use sophisticated technologies to combat it.

“We’ve funded and helped build the tools used by industry to investigate this terrible crime, rescue children and bring justice to victims.”

It added that it has shared its anti-abuse technologies with other companies.

NSPCC chief executive Sir Peter Wanless (above), said: “The staggering amount of child sexual abuse image offences is being fuelled by the ease with which offenders are able to groom children across social media to produce and share images on an industrial scale.

“The UK Government recognises the problem and has created a landmark opportunity with the Online Safety Bill. We admire Nadine Dorries’ declared intent that child protection is her number one objective.

“But our assessment is that the legislation needs strengthening in clear and specific ways if it is to fundamentally address the complex nature of online abuse and prevent children from coming to avoidable harm.”

A UK Government spokesman said: “Our pioneering new laws will be the most comprehensive in the world in protecting children online.

“Social media companies will need to clamp down on child abuse content and prevent young people from being groomed or exposed to harmful material. If they fail to act they will face huge fines or having their sites blocked.”

Scottish Government children’s minister Clare Haughey said: “The wellbeing and safety of children and young people in Scotland is paramount and we recognise that online child abuse is a growing issue.

“While internet safety is a reserved matter we continue to work closely with the UK Government and Ofcom in developing proposals for stronger safety measures online to help protect children and young people in Scotland – including close liaison with the UK Government on the forthcoming Online Safety Bill.

“We continue to work with Police Scotland, Child Protection Committees Scotland and third sector partners to engage the public and raise awareness about the dangers of online abuse. A new Scottish Government national public awareness campaign is planned for the New Year.

“In each of the last five years, £14 million core funding has gone to the third sector to strengthen early intervention and prevention efforts to better protect children and young people from abuse, including sexual abuse. We also recently published revised National Child Protection Guidance.”

Source: The Herald, December 2021

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