A FIFTH of recorded sex crimes against children in Cumbria are committed online, new figures show.
The NSPCC has warned that tech companies are enabling the crimes by failing to design their sites with children’s safety in mind. A freedom of information request by the charity revealed that 194 grooming and online offences involving a victim under-18 were recorded by Cumbria Constabulary in 2019-20.
This was a 20 per cent decrease from the previous year, but still meant 18 per cent of all sex crimes recorded against children by the force were online. In 2018-19, 20 per cent of child sex crimes in Cumbria had an online element.
The recorded crime figures include sexual assault and activity, gross indecency with, and grooming of children, as well as crimes of abuse of children through prostitution and pornography.
Rape of children aged under 16 is also included.
The number of online sex crimes against children across England and Wales topped 10,000 in 2019-20 – the 10,058 recorded was a 17 per cent rise on the previous year.
The Home Office said about 700 people were being arrested across the country each month. The Government says its Online Harms White Paper sets out plans for world-leading legislation to keep children safe online.
Andy Burrows, head of child safety online policy at the NSPCC, said: “Offenders are using the web to commit child sex offences in ever-growing numbers and young people are at even greater risk of grooming and abuse due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“But these crimes have been enabled by tech companies that continue to fail to design their sites with children’s safety in mind.
“The Government have a pivotal opportunity to change this in the coming weeks in their response to the Online Harms White Paper. “By setting out bold and ambitious legislation that puts a duty of care on tech companies to protect children online, and giving a regulator the power to enforce this with financial and criminal sanctions, they can set a global precedent for preventing avoidable harm.”
The Government said it had invested heavily in law enforcement, including hosting a Hidden Harms Summit, convening a global conference to drive the response to online child sex crimes and giving £1.6 million towards the NSPCC’s helpline.
A Home Office spokesman said: “Tackling online child abuse is a priority and we are working at pace to develop legislation to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online.
“This will introduce a duty of care on companies, who will need to put in place systems to deal with harmful content and take robust action, and will be overseen by an independent regulator.”
Detective Sergeant Tracey Nimmo said “Tackling online sex crime and protecting young people is of the utmost importance to us.”
A Cumbria police spokesman said: “Throughout October we have been running, Operation MOVIE to shine the spotlight on the work we carry out around vulnerability.
“The Month of Vulnerability Initiatives and Education aims to provide the public access to the unseen policing that is undertaken every day to keep vulnerable people safe.
“Many of the crimes we deal with are unseen to the public with offenders using online technology to contact children to groom them into sexual or criminal activity.
“The way criminals, who look to exploit children, operate has developed with the continuous advancement in technology.
“This is happening behind closed doors, sometimes invisible to parents or guardians.
“I would urge people to familiarise themselves with and to monitor what their children are doing online.
“As well as investigating all reports thoroughly and ensuring victims are safeguarded, we also analyse the reports to determine any trends or patterns of behaviour to which we can provide proactively target and prevent offences from occurring.
“We continue to raise awareness around online safety, child sexual exploitation and other topics and have done so during the current pandemic through live surgeries on social media. This has provided the public the opportunity to speak to officers and partner agencies to receive important advice and any necessary support.
“There is a huge amount of support available within Cumbria, from agencies such as Cumbria’s Sexual Assault Service, The Bridgeway, who offer victims another avenue of support if they need it and can be accessed 24/7.
“I would urge anyone who is worried about a child who may be suffering abuse to get in touch – whether that is via an anonymous helpline, through the NSPCC, the police on 101, or a trusted adult. For more information on Child Sexual Exploitation, visit our website.”