People who ask children to sext them will be breaking the law under plans announced by David Cameron on Thursday. But critics doubt an already overstretched police service will be able to cope.
The pledge was one of a host of new measures announced by Cameron, who said he wanted to launch an international crackdown on “evil” online child abuse.
Speaking at a conference in London, he said that technology firms like Google and Microsoft had agreed to work with the government to block images of child abuse and that £50m would be provided for a global child protection fund. He also promised that the British intelligence service GCHQ would cooperate with the National Crime Agency (NCA).
But, according to the former head of the child exploitation and online protection centre (CEOP) Jim Gamble, most of the measures announced in Cameron’s speech were “rehashed”. Much of the progress made in recent times has been made by technology firms, who were already blocking material, he said.
And he accused Cameron of electioneering over the issue as questions were raised about whether the planned change in the law would actually cover anyone who viewed images of child abuse who was not covered by existing legislation.
“When I was with CEOP, we had a seconded member of GCHQ. We looked at the technology offenders were using. If they are saying that, for the past three and-a-half years, that has not been happening, then they need to say why,” he told Channel 4 News.
Only months ago, police forces complained that they could not handle the number of cases of online sexual abuse they were encountering and this legislative change would create yet more.
“The problem is that, in the background, there has been a lot of horse-trading and arm-twisting for the headline, the silver bullet. But the truth is that the NSPCC has already been looking for this change in the law for a while. They are playing party politics to hide the fact that CEOP has been withering.”
He cited cases, such as that of the paedophile doctor Myles Bradbury, that were known to CEOP, but not properly dealt with for lack of resources.
He likened it to “someone inheriting a house, neglecting it, then giving it a fresh coat of paint”. He said that, after “wiping away the veneer”, there was still little investment in frontline services. “It is wrong manipulate it for politics. The hypocrisy is almost gut-wrenching,” he said.
In his speech, Mr Cameron said there has been an “increasing and alarming phenomenon” of paedophiles contacting children online over the internet or on mobile phones.
In response, he said the government would make it illegal for an adult to send a sexual communication to a child, such as requesting nude photos. The prime minister said: “if you ask a child to take their clothes off and send you a picture, you are as guilty as if you did that in person. So we are changing the law.
“Just as it is illegal to produce and possess images of child abuse, now we are making it illegal for an adult to send a sexual communication to a child. This law will make it clear – this is a crime, and you will be prosecuted for it.”
A recent study suggested that 22 per cent of 13 to 15-year-olds have sent a sexually explicit picture of themselves to someone using their smartphones. And some said they had sent one to someone they did not know. The issue, Mr Gamble agreed, needed urgent attention.
Mr Cameron’s plan would close a loophole which allows people who asked children for sexualised pictures but did not actually receive any to walk free. Anyone who did receive one, however, would already be covered by existing laws, he said.
And the government needed to be careful not to criminalise young people who send pictures of themselves as a result of their own naivete, he added.
“We are criminalising young people because of their bad judgment. The line is, if you share this picture, you are committing an offence. [Sharing] is wrong, but we should be distinguishing between a child’s bad judgment, a child who maliciously shares an image and the adult who asks for and receives it.”
Matt Brittin, president of Northern and Central Europe at Google, said: “We have been working for years to fight child exploitation online and we aggressively remove child sexual abuse imagery from Google products using our image and video matching technology.
“Over the past 12 months our algorithm changes and deterrent campaign have already led to a fivefold reduction in a number of child sexual abuse image-related queries in search. We will continue to develop technologies and work with others in the industry to tackle this terrible crime.”
Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said: “There are very serious gaps in the government’s plans as thousands of cases of abuse are not being followed up by the police, putting children at risk.
“And the Home Office is failing to make sure that the police have the capacity and policies to deal with the huge backlog of investigations.”