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A senior police officer has sounded a warning over the “horrifying” number of men who view child sex abuse images in the UK, calling for a national debate on how online paedophiles should be punished.

Dave Thompson, the Chief Constable of West Midlands Police, named child sexual exploitation alongside terrorism as one of the biggest challenges for forces while appearing before the Home Affairs Committee.

“I am staggered by what I see in terms of the operations the force carries out on the peer-to-peer sharing of images and more sensitive covert policing techniques we carry out,” he told MPs.

“The amount of men in this country who appear to show an active interest in this area is horrifying and the scale of it takes my breath away.

“There is a really big discussion to have in society about how we deal with this that is much more than law enforcement.

“Of course it makes us all feel deeply uncomfortable to think that people who have that involvement in those activities should in any shape or form escape punishment, but the scale of it is just absolutely huge.”

When asked about controversial proposals to give convicted paedophiles who view images online compulsory counselling and rehabilitation programmes, rather than prison sentences, he said “prosecution is not the answer on its own”.

Mr Thompson believes the online activity has become a form of “volume crime”, like muggings, burglary and car crime, which are most commonly seen across the UK.

“Everything as a police officer and a parent says that we need to do something urgently to deter people in this area,” he added.

“I think if people are in denial that they’ve got a problem, then we need to be really careful that treatment might not work, but I think the broader issue that’s being raised is this is a massive challenge that goes far beyond policing.”

Research by the NSPCC last year found that around half a million men in the UK may have viewed child sexual abuse images online, calling for the issue to be addressed as a “social emergency”.

The charity said 68,000 URLs hosting the material had been identified and removed in a year, while the number of obscene publications offences recorded by the police had doubled to almost 9,000 over five years amid efforts by the National Crime Agency.

“We don’t know just how big the problem is or how many children are affected,” the NSPCC warned at the time. “This data only tells us how many images have been found, or how many offenders have been caught.”

Campaigners described the images as a “visual record of the sexual abuse of a child” – abuse that is repeated every time they are viewed and causes lasting trauma.

Last year, the head of the National Crime Agency suggested that offenders who are “just viewing the images” could be put through charity programmes so police can “increase focus on those who are involved in the actual abuse”.

Gareth Morgan, the Chief Constable of Staffordshire Police, stressed that the action taken should not be based on whether or not police forces have sufficient resources.

“It has to be based on judgments that a range of people make, not just the police service,” he told the committee.

“And that’s about how you best manage the risk of an offender going forward so there’s a range of options, and I think that’s a decision that you take with a range of partners, not just the police on their own.

“And from my perspective that should never be driven by a resourcing issue because that’s not the right reason to make the decision and it’s certainly not taking the issue seriously.”

But Mr Morgan said all options including sentences that do not involve prison sentences should be considered “because there will be circumstances where they fit the nature of the offender and their offending nature.”

He described police forces as “squeezed” while giving evidence as part of the ongoing Policing for the Future inquiry, which is looking at current and future challenges.

Among the key issues was the strain put on forces by the response to recent terror attacks and prevention work, as well as funding levels and models.

Figures released last week showed that crime recorded by police had risen by 13 per cent in a year across England and Wales, although a separate survey shows offending has fallen.

Recorded sexual offences, gun crime and knife crime are all up amid warnings that the resources demanded by counter-terror policing are taking officers away from frontline neighbourhood roles.

Sara Thornton, chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, told the Home Affairs Committee flat cash settlements offered by the Government had left forces having to “absorb inflation and pay rises” and make cuts accordingly.

Dee Collins, the Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police, said she was seeing additional problems in attracting new officers potentially put off the career by the mounting challenges.

Tuesday’s hearing came a week after the Metropolitan Police announced new guidelines telling officers to stop investigating some “low-level crimes” as it works to make savings of £400m by 2020.

Police officer numbers are down to the lowest level since 1985 and the Government is investing £175m in the Police Transformation Fund this year to “help forces become more productive and manage pressures”.