Child Sexual Abuse

While there is so much more to Christmas than exchanging presents many of us will be. I suspect a new phone or tablet will feature on ‘wish lists’ of presents, especially for children and young people. Of course access to the internet can be hugely beneficial in many ways.

The unpalatable and unavoidable truth is that technology has made vile child sexual abuse and exploitation content vastly easier to find – and easier to participate in — through peer-to-peer file sharing, chatrooms and online forums.

And it has created conduits that enable abusers to search out and make contact with their victims in new ways.

The National Crime Agency tells me it is quite simply one of the most dangerous and harmful threats we face. Since 2013, there has been an exponential surge — a 700 per cent increase — in the number of indecent images of children that technology companies are alerting us to, so that we can identify the offenders and try to track down the children being abused.

Each month, there are more than 400 arrests and over 500 children being protected through coordinated action by the NCA and UK police against online child sexual exploitation.

Barnardo’s has told us that in the last six months of 2016, nearly half of the children it had supported had been groomed online — that is 297 children. Of these 182 had met their online groomer and suffered sexual abuse. So those are some of the statistics. But let me put a human face, a child’s face, to them.

Breck Bednar, from Surrey, was a 14-year-old who loved technology and gaming online, who his mother said never swore or yelled.

An excellent student and brother to three younger siblings, triplets who looked up to him and adored him.

But it was through this gaming that in 2014 he was groomed and lured to his death — suffering a sexual assault and fatal stab wound, miles from home, at the predator’s flat.

The grief of his parents is unfathomable. They do such important work now, warning of online dangers, through The Breck Foundation, set up in their son’s memory to make everyone aware how to keep safe online through education and empowerment.

Predatory paedophiles will try to approach vulnerable children (the average age of a child groomed online is 13) by, for example, chatting on a forum connected with a game application, or making an approach through Instagram, Snapchat or WhatsApp.

Then there are other sites like MyLoL — which disturbingly markets itself as a “teenage dating application” and allows anyone aged 13 to 25 to sign up.

There is virtual reality too. Earlier this year a man pleaded guilty to attempting to engage in sexual activity with children on at least 500 occasions.

His chosen conduit was MovieStarPlanet — a popular website for children to pretend to be film stars in a virtual world.

With the initial approach, there might be an accompanying message, perhaps about the victim’s profile picture, seeking to establish a rapport, which the offender will then exploit to eventually elicit indecent images of the child.

Having approached the child on one social networking site, the offender will then often intentionally and systemically move from one online platform to another, switching to “private” one-to-one communication methods such as Skype or live video chat services including Periscope.

All of us — parents, law enforcement, schools, peers — have a role to play in keeping our children safe online.

Government has given a further £20million over three years through the Police Transformation Fund to law enforcement working undercover online in forums and chatrooms, to identify and disrupt the threat of online grooming. I recently visited our Regional and Organised Crime Unit to see this essential work myself.

But it is with absolute urgency that I call on internet companies to also go further and also go faster in tackling online child sexual abuse.

We need them to bring their resources and technical expertise to help us turn the tide on this horrendous scourge. It is their moral duty.

We have worked closely with industry as they have found ways to identify and take down child abuse images through the “digital fingerprint” created of these images. This is incredibly important, and we need to turn the heat up under it.

So, we know that when industry innovates and collaborates, solutions are possible. We need them to do exactly the same in finding ways to interrupt that journey between abuser and victim.

None of us ever want another family to have to go through what Breck’s did.

First published in the Falmouth Wave

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Remembrance

Like countless others, I spent time last week remembering the sacrifice of so many people who gave their lives or have been damaged defending our freedom and values. Values that we can too easily take for granted today.

The poignancy of participating in our communal act of remembrance is not diminished as the years pass. I am heartened each year by the increasing number of young people taking part, sometimes wearing the medals of their ancestors.

Next year we will commemorate 100 years of the ending of the First World War and plans to mark this special occasion are well underway. When a campaign for volunteers was launched in August 1914, thousands answered the call to fight. Among them were 250,000 boys and young men under the age of 19. A concert in Birmingham will remember their stories, they will be given a voice in words and music by 250,000 youngsters of today. What a memorable occasion that will be.

Some say our wearing of the poppy, participation in the collective acts of Remembrance or laying of wreaths is glorifying war. I disagree. It is essential that we remember and learn from the past. Sadly, there are always those at home and abroad who will seek to undermine or destroy the morals and values of our shared society, of freedom and justice, of compassion and fairness.

While we work for peace at home and around the world, we need to be prepared to defend ourselves and our allies. I am very grateful to members of our armed services who serve at home and abroad who are prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice to keep us safe. Their families too. I am also very grateful to the many local charities who support veterans and their families to recover from their experience.

First published in the West Briton

Child Sexual Exploitation

The National Crime Agency (NCA) tells me that child sexual exploitation is quite simply one of the most harmful threats that we face.

Each month, there are over 400 arrests and over 500 children being protected through coordinated action by the NCA and UK police against online child sexual exploitation.

Predatory paedophiles will try to approach children (the average age of a child groomed online is 13) by, for example, chatting on a forum connected with a game application, or making an approach through Instagram, Snapchat or WhatsApp.  Then there are other sites like MyLoL – which disturbingly markets itself as a ‘teenage dating application’ for 13-25 year olds.  There is virtual reality too; earlier this year a man pleaded guilty to attempting to engage with sexual activity with a child on at least 500 occasions.  His chosen conduit was ‘MovieStarPlanet’ – a popular site for children to pretend to be film stars in a virtual world.

With the initial approach, there might be an accompanying message, perhaps about the victim’s profile picture, seeking to establish a rapport, which the offender will then exploit to elicit indecent images of the child.  Having approached the child on one social networking site, the offender will then often intentionally and systemically move from online platform to another, switching to ‘private’ one-to-one communication methods like Skypeor live-stream video chat, like Periscope.

All of us – parents, law enforcement, schools, peers – have a role to play in keeping our children safe online.

Government has given a further £20 million through the Police Transformation Fund to law enforcement working undercover online in forums and chatrooms, to identify and disrupt the threat of online grooming.

The Internet companies, working with government have helped find some solutions but they now need to go much further and faster.

First published in the West Briton

Building an Economy that Works for Everyone

The 100 Years Commemoration of the Russian Revolution is underway. This is a period of history that captured my imagination as a child, stimulating an interest in socialism, through my higher education to the present day. I see the tactics used by socialists over the years endure. The “agitprop” approach of the Bolsheviks is evident today. The agitation and propaganda undermining trust in our democracy, stirring up division and hatred, is pumped out on social media daily, spilling over into the real world in personal abuse of me and others who have different views.

A grievance promoted by socialists through the ages is of “elites” impoverishing “working people”. Last week the Office for National Statistics gave it’s annual snapshot of working Britain. The figures appear to dispel some of the myths in our political debate. The introduction of the National Living Wage by the Conservatives means that the earnings of the poorest 10% went up by more than any other section of the population, and above the rise in the cost of living. Nor are we seeing the “hollowing out” of the middle classes that we often read about. The figures show there are more middle income jobs. Finally, while any gender pay gap is unacceptable, thanks to this government’s action, it is now at the lowest level on record.

There is clearly more to do to build an economy that works for the many not just the few. Gaps in our society are too wide. Conservatives are a progressive force in British politics and I will continue to do all I can to enable well paid employment opportunities.

I am determined to enable Cornwall to be a truly inclusive place to work and am delighted by the support of many local employers at last week’s, ‘Lighting the Beacon’ event.

World Mental Health Day

Last week, I joined World Mental Health Day, in a global expression of how far we have come in understanding mental illness and breaking down stigma.

Last week it was reported that Local Clinical Commissioners spent £9.7 billion on mental health this year – £574 million more than last year.

The Cabinet also discussed plans to train a million people in basic mental health first aid skills – the first country in the world to have this scale of ambition. We will continue to invest in NHS mental health services, training more professionals, aiming to treat more people.

Applications were also opened for a new £15 million fund to improve support for people who experience a range of mental health conditions that put them at risk of experiencing an acute mental health crisis.

The Beyond Places of Safety fund is the successor to the original Places of Safety programme, which was established, alongside the Crisis Care Concordat, to confront one of the quiet scandals within mental health system – namely the thousands of people left in a police cell following a detention under the Mental Health Act.

Since then, the ingenuity and partnerships forged between statutory and voluntary organisations under local Crisis Care agreements has seen the number detained in police custody following a mental health crisis drop by over 80 per cent over the last five years.

Simple innovations – driven by passionate voluntary sector organisations, working in partnership with the NHS – are making a huge difference to how people are treated when they become acutely unwell. I hope that local organisations will work together and consider applying to the new Beyond Places of Safety Fund.

There may be no magic bullet to stem the rising tide of mental ill health – but innovative community initiatives can make a make a real difference to keeping people safe.

First published in the West Briton

Tackling Modern Slavery

Just over two years since the Prime Minister’s landmark Modern Slavery Act came into force, Anti-Slavery Day represents an ideal opportunity to assess just how far we have come in our fight against this horrendous crime.

Impressive progress has been made in raising awareness of this barbaric crime and sending a resounding message that the UK will not tolerate the exploitation of the vulnerable.

Three years ago this scourge was firmly restricted to the shadows; the term ‘modern slavery’ was hardly in the public consciousness, while it remained a brutal reality for thousands of people living all around us – often exploited in plain sight.

Today you would struggle to find someone who couldn’t name an example of this appalling crime – from a domestic servant, to a young man or woman forced to work for many hours at a car wash for little to no pay. We as a country are now painfully aware of the suffering being inflicted every day. And thankfully we are seeing new prosecutions brought each month and thousands of innocent victims protected.

But the problem is far from solved and it is not going to be without further action to develop our knowledge about this appalling crime and adjust our response accordingly. Earlier this year, the Home Office undertook a comprehensive analysis of the nature of modern slavery in the UK. We were already ahead of most countries in producing a rigorous assessment of the scale of the issue in the country – with an estimated 10,000-13,000 potential victims – but we also wanted to know more about the nature of the crime, to help build on the very limited evidence base around it.

Our research, published recently, identified 17 distinct types of modern slavery under four broad groups – domestic servitude, sexual, labour and criminal exploitation. This includes British children being groomed and subsequently enslaved by urban gangs to bring illegal drugs to people in Cornwall and around the country, collecting the money and returning.

This knowledge, while shocking, is essential to developing the best possible response to this terrible crime. We will use it to improve our understanding of how to prevent people falling into slavery. And it will help us to develop further guidance for front-line workers, and to help banks and other institutions identify patterns of behaviour so they can disrupt these predators and help us further raise awareness of this terrible form of abuse.

But no matter what we do to eradicate the sickening and inhuman crimes associated with modern slavery here in the UK, true success can only be achieved by looking beyond our own borders and taking the fight onto the global stage.

In 2015 world leaders agreed a new set of universal goals and targets which all countries need to strive for to achieve sustainable development, and the UK successfully pushed for a target on eradicating human trafficking, modern slavery, forced labour and child labour. And in September this year during a Meeting of the UN General Assembly, 37 countries endorsed the Prime Minister’s call to action. At the same time the UK pledged to double its aid spending on modern slavery to £150m.

This includes £33.5m funding towards achieving that goal by targeting it in high-risk countries, from where we know victims are regularly trafficked to the UK.

Last year the Prime Minister announced £5m of this funding to address modern slavery in Nigeria, and today I am pleased to announce that we will be investing £3m to tackle the issue in Vietnam, from where we know so many victims are trafficked with the promise of a better life, only to find themselves enslaved in brothels, cannabis factories or nail bars.

This money will help to catch offenders, support victims and stop people falling into slavery in the first place.

The Prime Minister’s Modern Slavery Taskforce is driving forward the domestic and global response, and just this week agreed improvements to the National Referral Mechanism, the system we use to identify and support victims in this country.

Those who would profit from modern slavery, are finding it more challenging to ply their despicable trade today than at the start of 2015 – while in the UK victims have a world-leading support network.

But we are under no illusion that this is a fight that will be won quickly or easily. it is vital that we continue to develop our knowledge, to adapt our tactics, put invest both locally and globally and, most importantly, put victims at the heart of everything we do if we are to truly consign slavery to the history books.

First published in the Falmouth Wave

Tackling Homelessness

Since my early twenties I have volunteered with charities that provide support for homeless people, providing shelter, food and company. I remain clear that one person without a home is one too many and the Government remains committed to do more to prevent people becoming homelessness in the first place.

The revised statutory Homelessness Code of Guidance for Local Authorities has been published this week. The statutory guidance sets out the steps that local authorities should take into account when providing support to people who are homeless and plans to update the current Homelessness Code of Guidance. In consultation with local authorities and the homeless sector the current guidance has been reviewed to cover the new duties created by the Homelessness Reduction Act whilst also streamlining the information on existing law.

The Act is the most ambitious legislative reform in decades and will ensure that more people get the help they need earlier to prevent them from becoming homeless in the first place. However, the Act is just one element of our ambitious programme to fundamentally reform the response to homelessness, putting prevention at the heart of this approach.

We’ve allocated over £950 million until 2020 to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping. Cornwall Council is receiving dedicated homelessness prevention funding and Ocean Housing funding for new dedicated accommodation for people rough sleeping here.

Cornwall Council will be receiving £697,152 between now and 2020 to fund the administrative costs of the additional new duties contained within the Act. Cornwall Council will also be receiving its share of £3 million to support them in upgrading their data systems to monitor the impact of the Homelessness Reduction Act.

But we know there is more to do. That is why are aiming to halve rough sleeping by 2022 and eliminate it altogether by 2027.

First published in the West Briton