Combating Online 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

Clamping Down on 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.

Supporting people through the Government’s 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.

Antisocial Behaviour

I am pleased that our Police and Crime Commissioner is meeting with Cornwall Councillor and Mayor of Truro, Rob Nolan, along with the City Councillors and other organisations to discuss the current problems of antisocial and criminal behaviour from a small group of people in the centre of Truro.

Getting all the organisations that have the power and resources to help tackle antisocial behaviour and the causes of the behaviour around the same table to understand the issues and develop an action plan is a very welcome step forward. One that I believe is the most effective approach.

A few weeks ago, I raised this issue with the Chief Constable for Devon & Cornwall Police as well as the Mayor and I am pleased to see their concerted determination to work together to find solutions for all those concerned. I look forward to learning about the actions that are agreed and see progress as the plans are implemented.

Some of the perpetrators of the anti social behaviour might need help to tackle their problems, including substance abuse, and that will need to be part of the solution.

Keeping the city centre a safe and enjoyable place for all members of our community is not the sole responsibility of our local Police, it requires effective partnership working between our local NHS, Cornwall Council, local businesses and the wider civil society of Truro. This needs to include those voluntary organisations working with the most vulnerable people in our community. There are lessons to be learned from other towns in Cornwall and beyond where good partnerships have tackled similar problems really well.

I will of course provide any assistance that I can to ensure the antisocial behaviour that is currently blighting Truro is brought to an end as soon as possible.