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Recorded child abuse crimes soar by three quarters in four years

Police reports have revealed that the number of children being sexually abused online has grown by three-quarters in four years.

However, as politicians are set to scrutinise the draft Online Safety Bill, designed to protect children online, the NSPCC says that the bill falls significantly short of tackling this issue.

Sir Peter Wanless, chief executive of NSPCC, said: “Children should be able to explore the online world safely. But instead we are witnessing a dramatic and hugely troubling growth in the scale of online abuse.

“The government has a once-in-a-generation chance to deliver a robust but proportionate regulatory regime that can truly protect children from horrendous online harms."

The NSPCC’s analysis found that in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Channel Islands:

  • There were 9,742 online child sexual offences recorded by 41 police forces last year
  • Recorded crimes increased by three quarters in the last four years from 5,458 in 2016/17 to 9,736 in 2020/21 when comparing data from the 39 forces who were able to provide data for both time periods
  • This is a count of offences such as sexual assault, rape or sexual communication with a child where any element of the offence was committed online.

However, the government’s proposals for the Online Safety Bill has a number of significant weaknesses in its plans to protect children from preventable abuse online, the NSPCC says.

The charity states that the draft legislation must be strengthened in the following ways:

1. Stop grooming and abuse spreading between apps

There must be a duty on tech firms to tackle cross-platform risks. Groomers often target children on social networks, then move across platforms to encrypted messaging and livestreaming sites.

2. Disrupt abuse at the earliest possible stage

The Online Safety Bill currently fails to effectively tackle how abusers use platforms to organise in plain sight and post ‘digital breadcrumbs’ that signpost to child abuse images.

3. Fix major gaps in the child safety duty

Currently, the Bill only covers companies with a ‘significant’ number of children on their apps. This means high-risk sites, such as Telegram and OnlyFans, could be excluded from needing to protect children from harmful content.

4. Holding senior managers accountable

There should be a Named Persons Scheme which makes individuals at tech companies personally liable when they fail to uphold their duty of care.

5. Commit to a statutory user advocate for children

The government must introduce a dedicated user advocacy voice for children, funded by the industry levy.

Sir Peter Wanless said: “As it stands, there are substantive weaknesses in its plans, which cannot be overlooked. The draft bill fails to prevent inherently avoidable abuse or reflect the magnitude and complexity of online risks to children.

“The Bill is at a crucial point in pre-legislative scrutiny, and now is the time for the government to be ambitious to protect children and families from preventable abuse,” he concluded.

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