Paedophiles who look at indecent images of children online but do not physically assault minors should be spared prosecution, one of Britain’s most senior police officers said yesterday.
Speaking with the Times newspaper, Simon Bailey, the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for child protection, said the UK policing system had reached “saturation point” as far as child sex abuse allegations were concerned, and that officers should focus resources on the most dangerous paedophiles who have access to children.
Bailey suggested paedophiles accused of low-level offences, including the viewing of child sex abuse material online, should be offered counselling and rehabilitation.
Noting that incidents of child sexual exploitation reported to British police had risen by 80% over the past three years, with UK forces receiving an average of 112 complaints every day, Chief Constable Bailey said: “How can the police service be expected to cope with all that if, in the margins, we are still having to deal with what I would describe as very, very low-risk offenders, who, based upon good risk assessments, pose little if any actual threat of contact abuse?
“Those individuals that you can say with a degree of certainty genuinely don’t pose a physical threat – that to me seems to be a reasonable line [for an alternative approach].”
A powerful committee of British MPs reacted to Bailey’s suggestion with alarm, cautioning that his proposals should not be actioned lightly.
In a strongly-worded letter, Chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee Yvette Cooper said: “As you will know, for many decades institutions have put children at risk because it was seen as too difficult, not a priority or resources were insufficient to keep them safe.
“I would not want to see the same happen over online child abuse.”
While children’s charity the NSPCC agreed with Bailey, noting that it is impossible to “arrest our way out of the situation”, other child sex abuse experts said it was unwise to draw a distinction between paedophiles who physically abuse children, and those who view indecent material online.
Peter Saunders, Chief Executive of the National Association for People Abused in Childhood, commented: “Any kind of message that gives potential abusers or abusers the opportunity to think they may get away with it is extremely unhelpful to child protection.”
Criminologist Dr Graham Hill told BBC Radio 1’s Newsbeat programme: “The issue really is that looking at images doesn’t tell you anything about the risk that person represents. When you look at people who are looking at these images, they’re doing that because they have a sexual interest in children.”
Bailey’s comments were published as the first session of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse finally got underway yesterday. On its opening morning, the inquiry heard how thousands of children sent from the UK to Australia and other Commonwealth nations from 1947 to the 1970s were systematically abused by people in positions of power who should have been caring for them.
The inquiry, set up in 2014, has been dogged by controversy over the way it operates, and is now on its fourth chairwoman.