Home Office
Printable version E-mail this to a friend

We owe it to victims to act boldly and decisively

Home Secretary speech about online child sexual exploitation delivered at the #WeProtect Children Online summit.

Thank you. I am very pleased to welcome you all to this incredibly important summit. I know some of you have travelled great distances to be here, and that you have all taken time out of busy schedules. I want to thank you for showing such tremendous commitment to protecting children.

We are here to discuss an issue which is difficult, disturbing and can be very hard to confront. It is an issue of which we don’t yet truly know the scale; which we are still learning to deal with; and to which there are many obstacles and challenges.

But it is one that we have to face head on. If we don’t we will be failing the victims of these disgusting crimes, allowing the perpetrators to escape justice, and letting down countless children across the world who are in such desperate need of protection.

The scale of child sexual abuse both online and offline is truly shocking, and it is much greater than we ever previously thought or imagined. In recent years in the UK we have had many appalling revelations. There have been cases of organised and persistent child sexual abuse by people who have used positions of trust or their status to carry out abuse, including abuse by celebrities. There have been harrowing reports of systematic and organised abuse of vulnerable children in some of our towns and cities – not just in the past, but continuing today. There have been revelations about the failures of public organisations, the police and other agencies to protect vulnerable children, and to ensure that the perpetrators of these awful crimes are brought to justice. There have been further allegations about child sexual abuse stretching back decades. And there have been serious allegations that the evidence of this abuse was suppressed by people in positions of power.

I am telling you this because as we open this summit I think it is important we remember the wider context to this work, and the many children who are damaged and traumatised by these devastating experiences.

As Home Secretary, I have launched an independent inquiry into child abuse in the UK. I am very clear that we have a once in a lifetime opportunity to get to the truth of this issue. I have asked the inquiry to consider whether public bodies – and other non-state institutions – have taken seriously their duty of care to protect children from sexual abuse. We must look into what has happened and learn lessons for the future.

In recent weeks I have been speaking to survivors and their representatives and listening to the issues they have raised. It is imperative that the voices of the victims are heard.

And today it is important we remember that behind every case of online abuse is a real life child who has endured unimaginable horror.

We are here to work together to put a stop to that. To confront the appalling abuse of children online, and to help stop children suffering. As governments, industry, civil society organisations, citizens and parents, we owe it to victims to act boldly and decisively.

The online threat

Everyone in this room today is here because we are united by one purpose: to protect vulnerable children from sexual exploitation online and stop people accessing vile images.

We don’t yet know enough about the potential connection between online offending and contact abuse. I know, however, from my meetings with survivor groups that that line can, and does, get crossed.

The World Wide Web was created 25 years ago. In that time, it has transformed our lives dramatically, achieving so much which should be celebrated.

It connects us with our friends and family and enables us to communicate with them in many different ways; it allows businesses to grow and flourish; it allows us to shop at our leisure, access news and other information quickly, and it has changed the way we are entertained.

There are now almost three billion internet users worldwide. By the end of this year, 44% of the world’s households will be able to access the internet at home, and there will be almost five times as many mobile broadband subscriptions worldwide as six years ago.

It was a British computer scientist, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the World Wide Web and that tremendous achievement is to be welcomed. Through greater connectivity the enormous benefits of the internet will soon be brought to many more people around the world.

But the same technology that has helped bring the world together is also being used for harmful purposes. The same technology that makes it possible for us to stay in touch with friends and families in different parts of the world has also created an opportunity for people to share noxious material including indecent images of children; and it is making it possible for abusers to contact children, communicate with each other even abuse them. Unless we challenge them, they will create a space in which they feel they are beyond the reach of censure and the law.

Today there are millions of images and videos of child sexual abuse online.

And as technology advances and connectivity continues at pace across the world, we face the appalling prospect of ever greater numbers of vulnerable children becoming victims.

We must all ask ourselves some tough questions about why this is happening, and why this material is proliferating. It is unacceptable that anyone should consider themselves immune from the law and public censure. It is unacceptable that anyone should think they can get away with such activity just because that activity is online, and they are at home and think no one is watching. Behind every vile image accessed online a real life child has been abused; accessing such images is participating in that abuse.

So the case for action could not be clearer, and it could not be more urgent.

The problem we are facing is global, and it requires a coordinated global response from governments, law enforcement agencies, technology companies and civil society organisations.

We have already seen significant achievements, and I know technology companies have been working hard to develop technological solutions. But we must do more.

What we are doing in the UK

We are here to agree a global response, and to make individual pledges and group commitments to tackle the challenges we face. In doing so, we will build upon existing good work, including the work of the Global Alliance Against Child Sexual Abuse Online, which met in Washington DC in September. It is important that we keep up the momentum from that event.

But first I want to tell you about some of the work we are doing in the UK.

Our approach to tackling child sexual exploitation online is set out in our cross-Government Serious and Organised Crime Strategy. This details the work we expect from Government departments, agencies and partners to pursue offenders, prevent these crimes from happening, protect vulnerable children and prepare for when these crimes have taken place, so that we can properly care for victims.

Part of that work means ensuring that our law enforcement agencies have the powers they need to investigate child sexual exploitation, pursue offenders, and identify and protect victims.

In the UK, we have robust legislation in place to protect children. Our laws leave no doubt that the creation, possession and dissemination of child sexual abuse material are serious criminal offences.

But because the way in which we communicate is increasingly online, the ability of the authorities to obtain the data they need is declining rapidly.

That is why in the summer, with cross-party support, we legislated to deal with two urgent problems relating to communications data and interception. When the European Court of Justice called into question the legal basis upon which we require communication service providers to retain data, and when providers based overseas questioned the application of our laws on interception to them, we changed the law to put both questions beyond doubt.

In addition, the Counter Terrorism and Security Bill, which is currently before our Parliament, will address one of the challenges currently faced by law enforcement agencies, and help us to identify who in the real world is using an Internet Protocol address at a given point in time.

However these measures only deal with limited and specific problems. The way people communicate is constantly changing, and the options are multiplying. There are still gaps in our law enforcement and intelligence agencies’ capabilities. This means that those agencies may, for example, still struggle to identify those who have been accessing servers hosting illegal images of child sexual abuse.

I remain passionately convinced that our ability to fight back against networks of child abusers – not to mention protecting national security – means that we need to address these gaps, as set out in the Government’s Draft Communications Data Bill published in 2012. We must ensure that law enforcement agencies have the powers they need not only to catch perpetrators online, but by providing them with the capabilities they need to investigate and pursue perpetrators who are carrying out crimes in the real world, and to protect vulnerable children no matter where in the world they are.

We do not take the use of these powers lightly. We have one of the most rigorous communications data acquisition and oversight regimes in the world. There are well established safeguards in existing legislation to ensure that communications data can only be acquired when it is necessary for a statutory purpose, such as the prevention and detection of crime, and that the intrusion involved is proportionate to what is sought to be achieved. In an interconnected and globalised world, it is vital that we all work together to ensure that there are no safe havens for child abusers, and that they have nowhere to hide. Part of this requires legislation making illegal the possession, distribution and production of child sexual abuse material. But part of it is about having specific resources within law enforcement agencies to combat child sexual abuse online.

CEOP Command in the NCA

Many of you here will know about, and indeed have worked with, our Child Exploitation and Online Protection – or CEOP – Command which is part of the UK’s National Crime Agency.

In the UK we have overhauled our response to serious and organised crime, and with it our approach to online child sexual exploitation. Last year we established the new National Crime Agency with the powers and mandate to task and coordinate law enforcement organisations and assets.

We brought the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre into the National Crime Agency as a Command in its own right. This was not a cosmetic change. The CEOP Centre was set up eight years ago to ensure that there was an organisation within UK law enforcement that could provide a coordinated nationwide response. But the problem has changed again given the dramatic growth of the internet, the complexity of the technology and the global scale of the issue, and what is needed is a coordinated international response.

Now within the NCA, CEOP Command has access to specialist officers who can be called on to assist in complex cases – including specialists within the National Cyber Crime Unit, the NCA’s investigations teams, and the Intelligence Hub, as well as the ability to draw on the NCA’s international network of officers currently stationed in over 40 countries. In addition, every one of the NCA’s approximately four and a half thousand officers has a legal duty to safeguard children and promote child welfare.

The benefits of CEOP’s position within the NCA are clear and making a real difference.

The NCA is currently leading an operation unprecedented in its degree of co-operation, which has involved all 45 police forces across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. It has identified people in all walks of life, including those in positions of trust. To date, 704 arrests have been made, and more than 400 children safeguarded or protected.

In total, since CEOP became part of the NCA it has protected over 1,300 children, and activity by all law enforcement agencies resulted in more than 1,600 people being prosecuted and 1,300 people being sentenced for crimes involving indecent images of children last year alone.

But we know that in recent years we have seen an increase in the number of sexual offences being reported, and that there are potentially more cases like these. We are seeing a number of people coming forward to report sexual offences in the past. It is important that they are coming forward, and feel able to do so. We are also seeing a disturbing increase in online child sexual exploitation.

This is an emerging issue, and the world is waking up to the true scale of it. The NCA is working hard, and we are, of course, making sure that resources are available. In addition, the NCA work in close partnership with local police forces so that their specialist capabilities, including those of the CEOP Command, can be deployed alongside the police where they are needed.

The NCA is also doing good work internationally. Last year through an investigation involving the NCA, the Australian Federal Police, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement and law enforcement agencies in the Philippines, an organised crime group involved in sickening internet based child sexual abuse in the Philippines was cracked.

29 people were arrested internationally. Of those 17 were in the UK. And most importantly, 15 children aged 6-15 were rescued and safeguarded from sexual abuse.

I know that the NCA will be discussing this case in more detail later today. It shows just what can be achieved through coordinated international action. That is why it is so important to see so many countries and law enforcement agencies from around the world here today.

But this problem can not just be solved at a national or international level. It has to be addressed locally too – perpetrators do not exist in a vacuum, they live in towns, cities and villages. Police forces and police and crime commissioners have to be part of the solution, and configure their resources so that we can tackle this issue in the communities where the perpetrators live. That is why I was pleased to see Tony Lloyd in Greater Manchester commission the Coffey Report into child abuse in his police force area. This is exactly the type of leadership we are coming to expect from police and crime commissioners.

The scale of the challenge, the number of suspected offenders, and the number of potential victims also means that we must ensure that local police forces in England and Wales have the capabilities they need to work with the National Crime Agency, and so help bring offenders to justice.

So I am pleased that this month the UK’s Child Abuse Image Database was launched. It brings together all known child abuse images in the UK on a single secure database, helping to increase the speed of investigations and reduce the duplication of effort, so enabling officers to protect victims and bring perpetrators to justice sooner.

It marks a significant step change in our ability to protect children.

Today I can announce that four police forces have now adopted this technology, and that a further three will go live this week. It is our ambition that next year every police force in the UK will be fully connected to this incredible resource.

I know that other countries such as Canada and the USA already have similar technology in place, and that in developing the UK’s Child Abuse Image Database we learnt a great deal from them. Internationally, INTERPOL’s International Child Sexual Exploitation image database (ICSE) plays an incredibly important role. It is good to see that Interpol’s Secretary General is here to tell us about that. I am extremely grateful to those who have shared their knowledge and experiences with us. We will share our learning just as others have supported us.

We must all work together to protect and safeguard children

Tackling child sexual exploitation online is an immense task, and it requires action on many fronts.

Everyone gathered here today has a role to play: governments, law enforcement agencies, civil society, and industry. No one country, and no one organisation, can tackle this in isolation. The responsibility for tackling this threat rests upon us all.

At the British Prime Minister’s summit in November last year, we made it absolutely clear that we are determined to eradicate online child sexual abuse.

I am pleased that industry is working with us to make strides forward in this. We are seeing enormous progress by some of the world’s biggest technology companies in preventing access to illegal child abuse images. You will hear more about some of these successes over the course of this summit.

Last year, as part of our commitment to work closely with global technology firms, the UK and US governments announced a new taskforce to collaborate with industry and help identify new technological solutions to some of the biggest challenges. With the support of this taskforce, the weProtect programme led by Joanna Shields, digital adviser to the British Prime Minister, has developed a number of new technological innovations.

But there is still much more to do. We have come a long way and achieved a lot through the weProtect programme, but over the course of the next two days I hope we hear a lot more about what can be achieved through partnership.

We need technological solutions to tackle anonymous networks that facilitate online abuse, with solutions to identify and remove illegal imagery so that law enforcement agencies can be alerted, offenders identified and prosecuted, and victims protected.

We need to see more coordinated action to close the net on perpetrators, arrest them, and prosecute them for their crimes.

We need to send out a clear message to perpetrators that no matter where they are, they will not get away with their crimes. We will track you down, arrest, prosecute and put you behind bars for a very long time.

And we must remember that what is taking place online is part of a much wider picture – and that horrendous child sexual abuse is taking place in our communities around the world.

This conference marks a watershed moment: it marks an unprecedented level of international cooperation by nations, technology companies and non-governmental organisations. There can be no greater task than the protection of vulnerable children in our own countries and around the world. We owe it to all those who have lost their childhood to sexual exploitation – and those still at risk – to do everything in our power to protect them, and put an end to these disturbing crimes.

 

Latest News from
Home Office