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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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

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

Domestic abuse survivor praises Emmerdale for its powerful Rhona storyline

Rhona Goskirk’s recent domestic abuse storyline in Emmerdale moved many viewers. Here, domestic abuse survivor Mandy Thomas, explains why she’s thankful the soap tackled such a sensitive subject…

51-year-old Mandy Thomas is an artist, writer, and mum-of-four. She’s also a Survivor’s Ambassador for Women’s Aid, after surviving 18 years of horrific abuse at the hands of her ex-husband.

“I suffered every kind of abuse imaginable at the hands of my ex, including horrific physical attacks,” Mandy explained. “My eldest son even saw his father take a blow torch to me.”

And now Mandy – whose son Jahméne Douglas won the nation’s heart when he took part in The X Factor in 2012 – has praised Emmerdale for raising awareness about the horrors of domestic violence through Rhona Goskirk’s story.

“Hats off to the Emmerdale scriptwriters and actors for tackling such a sensitive subject,” she enthused.

“Storylines such as Rhona’s not only raise awareness about the different kinds of abuse – from verbal, to coercive control and physical – but also help victims know that they’re not alone.”

Although the dramatic scenes of Rhona being raped on her wedding night were clearly powerful, for Mandy, it was the more recent court scenes which really struck a chord.

“My heart was in pieces for Rhona,” she explained. “I was pleading for her to get justice, as so many do not.”

Talking about her own experiences, Mandy told us: “My trial went on for a year and my children were dragged through the court, as my ex pleaded not guilty. In the end, he was sentenced to 15 years (six for rape and nine for GBH with intent and false imprisonment).”

However tragically, that wasn’t the end of Mandy’s ordeal. Her ex-husband was released from jail early after serving just six years, and shortly after her son Daniel took his own life.

“We still live in an era where people are unaware about what goes on behind closed doors,” Mandy explained.

“It’s so important that TV shows like Emmerdale show exactly what victims of domestic abuse have to go through to get justice.”

Mandy isn’t the only person who’s been impressed by Emmerdale’s work. Sarah Newton, Minister for crime, safeguarding and vulnerability, echoed Mandy’s comments, saying: “I welcome Emmerdale raising awareness of domestic abuse to millions of people.

“More abusers than ever are being brought to justice, but with so many people still suffering from this horrendous crime it is clear there is more to do.”

What is the UK government doing to tackle domestic abuse?

The Domestic Abuse bill

The UK government recently introduced the landmark Domestic Abuse bill, which will help them to protect and support victims, recognise the life-long impact domestic abuse has on children, and make sure agencies effectively respond to domestic abuse. This will include measures to:

  • Enshrine a definition of domestic abuse in law
  • Create a consolidated new domestic abuse prevention and protection order regime
  • Make sure that if abusive behaviour involves a child, that the court can hand down a sentence that reflects the devastating life-long impact that abuse can have on the child
  • Establish a Domestic Abuse Commissioner, to stand up for victims and survivors, raise public awareness, monitor the response of statutory agencies and local authorities and hold the justice system to account in tackling domestic abuse
  • Demonstrate our commitment to the Istanbul Convention by extending our extra-territorial jurisdiction over Violence Against Women & Girls (VAWG) related offences to ratify the Convention.

Coercive or controlling behaviour offence

A new coercive or controlling behaviour offence came into force in December 2015. It carries a maximum five years imprisonment, a fine or both. Guidance for professionals on the new offence was also launched at the same time. The offence means victims who experience coercive and controlling behaviour that stops short of serious physical violence, but amounts to extreme psychological and emotional abuse, can bring their perpetrators to justice.

Justice for victims

In the year ending March 2017 the police recorded 464,886 domestic-abuse related offences – a 10% increase over the 421,185 offences recorded the previous year. This increase is likely to be due to improvements in crime recording and more victims coming forward to report crimes to the police.

More perpetrators of domestic abuse than ever have been brought to justice with the highest volume of prosecutions and convictions ever recorded. There have been year on year improvements for domestic violence prosecutions and in 2015-16 the volume of prosecutions rose to 100,930, the highest ever recorded. The volume of convictions in 2015-16 reached 75,235, also the highest ever recorded.

Funding and projects

Earlier this month the Home Secretary announced a £17million Violence Against Women and Girls Fund.

More than 40 projects will share the money to help prevent violence against women and girls.

If you or a friend or family member need support, you can contact the Freephone 24 Hour National Domestic Violence Helpline (run in partnership between Women’s Aid and Refuge) on: 0808 2000 247

First published in Closer Magazine August 2017

Acid Attacks

We have seen a worrying increase in reports of attacks using acid or other similar substances as offensive weapons. Of course violence of any kind is unacceptable, but there is something particularly troubling about these kinds of attacks. Corrosive substances cause severe burns and serious tissue damage. All too frequently, victims’ lives are altered forever. Nobody should have to go through the kind of mental and physical trauma they suffer.

I have heard from victims and survivors, including from Truro, and they are at the heart of the new plan to tackle these appalling crimes that, as Home Office Minister, I announced in Parliament last week.

While mercifully there are relatively few attacks, I am acutely aware of this growing problem and I refuse to let those behind such attacks spread fear through our society. The law in this area is already strong, with acid attackers facing up to a life sentence. Meanwhile, by law, suspicious transactions involving sulphuric acid must be reported to police.

But there are ways we can and will improve. The plan I announced in Parliament is wide-ranging and a comprehensive cross-Government review of our response to this profoundly concerning phenomenon.

Earlier this month the Home Office, with the National Police Chiefs’ Council, hosted a conference which brought together a range of organisations and people united by a determination to make a difference, from law enforcement, from Government, from the medical sector, mental health experts and representatives of the retail industry. Because there is no one simple answer, this joined-up approach has informed this action plan.

And we need to make sure that when these attacks do take place, victims are given the care and support they need; from the initial medical response to giving evidence in court and throughout the recovery process.

Drugs Strategy

Drugs destroy countless lives. They lead to crime, violence and disorder on our streets. They are one of the creeping and corrosive threats to our society that we must do more to tackle. But I am also determined to do all I can to protect the most vulnerable, who too often become the victims. I am proud to have played my part in the development of the Government’s new drug strategy which sets out how we will tackle the deadly impact of drugs, including substances like spice or fentanyl.

Drugs are illegal because they devastate lives. They are illegal because traffickers target vulnerable people all over the world and exploit their misery. They are illegal because of the agony caused by those solely focused on their next fix.

Last year, the Psychoactive Substances Act introduced a blanket ban on so-called ‘legal highs’, meaning back-yard chemists can no longer dodge the law by making small changes to the make up of dangerous drugs.

Being tough on drugs is vital, but it cannot be all we do.

It is vital we protect the vulnerable – to prevent them falling into the cycle of drug abuse and to help them turn their lives around. Doing so will spare countless families the agony of seeing a loved one’s life destroyed. It could save lives. And it will reduce the burden placed on our public services, in particular the police and the NHS.

While drug use is falling we are not complacent and are redoubling our efforts to prevent children taking drugs.

The new post of Recovery Champion will travel up and down the country, meeting NHS staff, police officers, teachers, community groups and local authorities, who all have a vital role to play in enabling people to live their lives free of drugs.

First Published in the West Briton 18/07/17

Antisocial behaviour in Truro

So another week passes and the people sleeping rough in Truro have not received the help they need. Antisocial behaviour has escalated into a stabbing. What have these unlinked but totally unacceptable incidents got in common? Cornwall Council’s lack of grip and getting their priorities right.

During the same week that Cornwall Council leaders are defending spending more than £500,000 on a risky bid for Truro to be the EU Capital of Culture in 2023, without even securing agreement from the Mayor, a fellow LibDem Cornwall Councillor.

We all support investment in Cornish culture and tourism. Record numbers of tourists visited last year with even more anticipated. Additional investment from the Government since 2010 is significant, £750,000 for the Cornish language alone. Last week, another £100,000 was announced to start a Cornish Culture Fund.

Yes, Cornwall Council is having to make savings, like most other public services, to deal with the record national debt racked up by the last Labour government but that does not excuse them. All elected representatives have to make tough choices, but the LibDems who are the largest group of councillors are failing some of the most vulnerable people in Cornwall, as well as everyone else effected by the resulting criminal activity.

Amongst other things, disproportionate cuts to Cornwall Council’s ‘Supporting People’ funding that helps vulnerable people sustain their tenancies in private and social rented homes have contributed to the present homelessness and anti social behaviour.

So come on Cornwall Council, get your priorities right, stop wasting money and don’t further cutting services that could prevent rough sleeping and crime in Truro. If you really want to help Truro, reverse the planned cuts to Supporting People and spend your considerable resources working more effectively with partners including the Police and NHS to keep people safe.