Monday, March 13, 2017

April's Law Debate - my speech.

On Oct 1st 2012, I was at home, working on my iPad, when I read a tweet informing me that a 5 year old girl had disappeared after being seen climbing into a vehicle on the Bryn-y-Gog Housing Estate in Machynlleth, Montgomeryshire. There was something about that tweet that led me to immediately sense that this was a serious matter. Within hours the people of Machynlleth and surrounding areas had joined the search for April, daughter of Coral and Paul Jones, who live on the Bryn-y-Gog Estate. Over the following days, a huge number of volunteers, local and national organisations as well as the Police formed the most intensive widespread search I've ever seen. Six days later, a local man, Mark Bridger was arrested and charged with abduction and murder. In May 2013, Bridger was found guilty and sentenced to whole life imprisonment. The sentencing judge rightly pronounced that he should never be released from prison.

The death of April was particularly a tragedy for April's family. It was also a tragedy which touched the entire nation. There was a national, almost world-wide focus on the town of Machynlleth. The search for April, and the truly amazing response by the people of this small market town brought, what seemed like the world's media to Machynlleth. I spent several days in the town myself, and like everyone else, found it difficult to comprehend what had happened and what April's family were going through.

I want to pay tribute as I begin this speech to April's parents and sister, Jazz, who are here today. They have made huge efforts to raise awareness of the widespread availability of pornographic and sexualised images of children. They want to do all they can to prevent other families from facing a similar tragedy, from having to go through what they have gone through.  
These e efforts have culminated in this debate in the House of Commons, following a petition raised  by April's family reaching over 1000,000 signatures. 

The petition which is the subject of today's debate is as follows: We, the undersigned, call on the Prime Minister to make all sex offenders remain on the register for life no matter the crime, for service providers and search engines to be better policed regarding child abuse images and harder sentences on those caught with indecent images of children.

In preparation for today's debate, I met with Coral and Jazz Jones in Machynlleth ten days ago. We talked through what they expected - what an April's Law might actually be. The petition itself call for legislation, based on three objectives. 

Firstly, and perhaps the most difficult, is to 'clean up' the Internet. It should be our ambition to remove sexual images of children from the Internet. We all know this is not an easy straightforward process. We all know the Internet is technologically fast moving and not easy to control through legislation. But there is a responsibility on Government (and on governments across the world) to do all within its power to 'clean up the Internet' as far as possible. 

Last week we learned of a disturbing report involving Facebook, a giant of the social media world.  A BBC investigative team had used Facebook's 'Report Button' which exists to highlight to Facebook any improper sexual images on its platform that 80% were not removed after reporting. There was simply an automated response stating that the images "did not breach community standards" whatever that means. Included were images of children in sexualised poses, pages aimed at paedophiles, and an image appearing to be taken from a child abuse video. Instead of taking these images down, astonishingly Facebook reported the BBC for sharing them!! 

Now I cannot be certain of the precise truth about what happened. It seems beyond belief. I understand the images have now been removed. What we want is Facebook and every other operator on the social network to be under a legal obligation to always take down such images, constantly surveying what is appearing on their social network platforms, and reporting whoever puts them there to the police (as far as its possible).  We need a law that bans such content and ensures action is taken against whoever instigates it or permits it. And it must make no difference if the offender is a small operator o the biggest companies in the world. 

The second aim of what an April's Law might include would be a stronger process through which the names of sex offenders can be removed from the Sex Offenders Register. Paramount always must be protection of the public. I don't consider myself to be sufficiently qualified to outline a precise process of de-registration, but it must ensure that no name should ever be removed from the Sex Offenders List until and unless there is total certainty that the offender is reformed, and is not likely to repeat offend. I ask whether it is possible to introduce rigour and sympathy into the system by establishing a structure similar to 'magistrate's courts' to adjudge each individual case. The basis on which we judge the suitability of any sex offender seeking removal of their name from the Sex Offenders List must always put first the safety of the public. 

And the third policy area I'd like to say something about is the importance of always putting an offender on the Sex Offenders Register if the offence justifies it. We cannot have a situation where police resources, or pressure on the criminal court system results in offenders not being prosecuted.

Two weeks ago, there was a report in The Guardian on comments by Simon Bailey, the chief constable of Norfolk constabulary and the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for child protection. He said that the police were struggling to cope with the huge number of criminals looking at indecent images of children online, and that they should focus their resources on high-risk offenders. That is not good enough. ALL offenders must be looked, not just high-risk offenders. How do we judge between a high-risk offender and a low-risk offender? They are all offenders.

I agreed with the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, who wrote in response to the chief constable:

“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.”

I absolutely agree with that. She also said:

“This raises some very serious concerns about the scale of online child abuse, about the level of resourcing the police have available for it, about the systems the police has in place to deal with this new and increasing crime and also about the priority being given to it by police forces.”

We regard child abuse as a hugely serious crime and I believe that it is still under-reported. Police forces throughout the country should make dealing with it an absolute priority. Anybody who is deemed to be a sex offender—albeit they might be described as a low-level offender—should be prosecuted.

This crime destroys young people’s lives forever and it destroys families. We all know what has happened in Machynlleth and the damage it has done at a personal level to the family concerned, but this crime is happening in other places in Britain at a different level. We cannot ever say that the resources are not there to prosecute; we cannot ever knowingly allow somebody to come off a sex offenders register until we are absolutely certain that they are no longer a threat; and we cannot ever allow a major company—no matter how big, how rich or how powerful it is—to adopt an approach to dealing with sex offenders that is different to anybody else’s approach.

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