Sarah Champion – 2016 Speech on Online Child Abuse

Below is the text of the speech made by Sarah Champion, the Labour MP for Rotherham, in Westminster Hall on 20 July 2016.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered prevention of online child abuse.

I am honoured to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon, and to be in a room of parliamentarians who have campaigned for so long on this issue. I feel I am among friends, and I hope that together we can cover some real distance.

Tomorrow, the Office for National Statistics will release its police crime data for the past six months. It is the first time it is including online fraud and computer misuse. Fraud is a huge issue in this country—Age UK says that 53% of people over the age of 65 believe that they have been targeted by fraudsters—but the data coming out tomorrow will not include online abuse and harassment. Sexual offences are recorded, but not the age of the victim or the specific nature of the crime. I ask the Minister to look into that. For sexual offences, if we can differentiate between under 18s and over 18s, we would have a much better understanding of the scale of child abuse in this country.

Today I want to focus on online child abuse. Too often we think of child abuse as something that happens only to vulnerable children—many child protection services focus only on their definition of vulnerable children—but the truth is that the internet means that almost every child in the UK is at risk of abuse. Ministers have yet to show that they understand that. The Minister before us has an understanding of child abuse—I welcome her to her new role—and I hope she will be able to make a difference.

Let me set out the context. With respect to everyone in this Chamber, we are too old to understand the generational pressure that our youngsters are under because of social media. I was 26 when I got my first mobile phone, and I used it to text. I did not have the 24/7 immersion of the online world on my phone. We cannot understand the enormous psychological pressure that that puts on young children. They cannot get away from abuse; it follows them home. Bullying has always been here, but if I was bullied at school, when I got home and shut the door I would hopefully be safe from it. For children now, it goes on and on. We need to understand that as a country and as a Government. Seventy-eight per cent. of 12 to 15-year-olds own a mobile phone, 65% of which are smartphones, and a smartphone means access to the internet.

According to the 2015 Parent Zone survey, 67% of parents admitted to resorting to “iParenting”—that is, they are a bit busy, so they give their child the iPad as a babysitter. I understand that: children love being on the internet, and they love their iPads, but the iPad is a direct link to the outside world and its dangers. The problem is that parents often fail to appreciate the severity of the threat faced by their children, largely because they do not understand everything that their children are doing online. Half of young people living at home report that their parents know only some of what they get up to on the internet, according to an Ipsos MORI poll commissioned by Barnardo’s.

People do not grasp how sneaky—for want of a better word, and keeping it polite—abusers and groomers of children are. I will give two examples, the first being gaming. A parent might buy the child an online game as a Christmas or birthday present. When the child is online playing, say, a shoot ’em up game, a chat is going on, and that is open internationally. When I speak to girls, they tell me that they turn it off, because of the amount of sexual harassment they get; when I speak to boys, they tell me, “Oh no, it’s other boys my age who are talking to me about who we are going to shoot, and who we are going to kill.” Talking about the abuse on the screen is only a slight step from starting to groom or radicalise a child—we need to understand that.

My other example is something else that we need to understand. A police officer told me this. A family might be watching TV on a Sunday evening and the child is there, but with an iPad. The parents have no idea whom that child is talking to, or what is being said. Parents do all they can to protect their children, but they are literally letting someone into their home—someone they have no control over and have not vetted. To be honest, there are a lot of bad people out there who are deliberately using the internet to target our most vulnerable.

Mrs Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con)

I commend the hon. Lady on securing this debate. I also welcome my hon. Friend the Minister to her place—a promotion long overdue. The hon. Lady is absolutely right that children can be open to the many different ways of harassment that she is describing. Does she, like me, want to see the producers of such platforms and products take far more responsibility for building out the problems from the design stage, rather than leaving it to parents to police what can be almost impenetrable problems?

Sarah Champion

The right hon. Lady makes a very key point. For film, the British Board of Film Classification will vet films and put criteria and age limits in place. That needs to be happening much more robustly with games. Gaming in particular has a nasty, misogynistic element. For example, one incredibly well known game gives extra points to someone sleeping with prostitutes who then abuses or gang-rapes them. The game might have age verification for 18, but what happens if someone is playing it with a younger brother who is eight? We need robust legislation, because we are taking those games into our homes and giving them to our children.

As I said, the mobile phone and the iPad enable children to be bullied 24/7. To give some stats to back that up, one in three children has been a victim of cyber-bullying, and almost one in four young people has come across racist or other hate messages online. According to the 2016 Childnet survey, 82% of 13 to 17-year-olds had seen or heard something hateful on the internet in the past year. By “hateful”, I mean something that has been targeted at people or communities because of their gender or transgender identity, sexual orientation, disability, race, ethnicity, nationality or religion.

To highlight the impact of bullying, I will focus on one aspect of it: the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. Recently, Stonewall released truly shocking figures: nine in 10 young people have heard homophobic remarks at school; six in 10 young people have experienced homophobic bullying; and one in four young gay people has reported experiencing homophobic abuse online. Then there are the consequences—I am going goosebumpy as I read this—which are that two in five of those young LGBT people contemplate suicide and 50% self-harm. Young LGBT people are three times more likely to commit suicide than their straight peers. That is what our young people have to deal with.

When I started to research online abuse, I had not considered the targeting of specific groups because of their sexuality or situation. We should think about it from the point of view of young people considering their sexuality. They will not talk to their mum or, probably, to their teacher. Where do they go to find information? They go online. Paedophiles and perpetrators deliberately target young LGBT people because they know that young LGBT people are vulnerable and isolated. They then meet and abuse them. Unfortunately, for some of our young people, that is a daily occurrence.

I also want to talk about young people and children with learning difficulties, and two things in particular. First, the overly sexualised behaviour of children with learning difficulties is often put down to their condition rather than being considered to be a cry for help, or a side-effect of being abused. We absolutely have to challenge that. One in four children is targeted with online hate because of their gender, sexual orientation, race, religion or transgender identity, but that horrifying figure goes up to 38% for someone who has learning difficulties. Those people are being deliberately targeted because of their condition. I urge the Minister to focus on those specific groups.

I will now talk about the internet world. I have been very honoured to work with a fantastic organisation called the Internet Watch Foundation, which I commend to the House. The foundation’s most recent report was in 2015. It found 68,092 pages of web images that it confirmed as child sexual abuse images. To break the stat down, that is 68,000 children who have been abused for the gratification of a paedophile, and 68,000 lives that have been decimated. We need to put support in place. That figure is 118% up on last year, an increase that tallies with what police forces and social services are telling us—such crime is growing exponentially. We have to do all that we can to prevent it.

Liz Saville Roberts (Dwyfor Meirionnydd) (PC)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for securing the debate, and I, too, welcome the Minister to her place. Something raised during consideration of the Policing and Crime Bill was the need for child sexual exploitation units, as well as specialist digital units, in police forces throughout the country. I am sure she shares my concern about the inconsistency of approach among police forces and, possibly, among the devolved nations.

Sarah Champion

I do. We should praise the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, which has done fantastic work, but I have spoken to officers on the street. Once CEOP went into the National Crime Agency, it seemed to lose its teeth and identity a little. I know the hon. Lady tabled an amendment to that Bill to that end, but we need to ensure that the whole police force understands online abuse, how to refer it and how to act on it. Online crimes are as deprived as those that happen in the real world, and in sentencing terms need to be seen as involving the same degree of violence towards a young child. We seem to think that, because online crimes happen in the virtual world, they do not matter as much, but they really do.

Liz Saville Roberts

I very much praise the child abuse image database, which is evidently helping to deal with the backlog of forensic work on digital devices. None the less, there were 410 victims of child sexual exploitation in the first months of last year, and those victims need support. This is not just a matter of dealing with the evidence; it is about how we actually support those children afterwards. The figure of 68,000 that the hon. Lady mentioned is a terrifying number of lives to have been affected.

Sarah Champion

It really is, but let us scale that internationally. The Internet Watch Foundation does fantastic work. When it finds an image, it takes that image down and reports it to the police, and the police will act on it. Google and Facebook get a lot of criticism, but they are doing what they can to manage, contain, report and take down offensive images. We have really good legislation on that kind of thing in this country, and there is really good legislation in Europe, America and Canada. If any of the creators of child abuse websites are in those countries, we can do something swiftly. However, there has been a proliferation in third-world countries—particularly those in south-east Asia—of the most heinous forms of child abuse. I will not go into detail; I will just say that there are “pay as you view” systems there—sorry, it gets me every time. We cannot do anything about that, because unless those countries sign up proactively to address this issue, all that we will be doing is shifting the problem from one country to another. I urge the Minister to work with her international counterparts to get absolutely zero tolerance across the country and around the world.

Mrs Miller

There is one way that we can tackle that problem: through payment systems. It is important for the Minister to respond to that point with particular regard to putting pressure on international payment systems to try to address the problem that the hon. Lady is talking about. The previous Prime Minister worked hard on the use of splash pages to try to obscure the pages that internet companies may not be able to take down. Some of the very best people work in the internet industry. Does the hon. Lady not wonder, like me, why we are not seeing more innovative ways of resolving the sorts of problems she is describing?

Sarah Champion

I do, but given the proliferation of such abuse, we are always lagging behind. There are twisted people with the life mission of abusing children and sharing these images. Sadly, we are always playing catch-up to them, which is why we always need to send out the strongest possible message: “This is not tolerated. We will come after you, and we will prosecute you.”

We also need to accept an uncomfortable truth. A survey by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children found that one in five indecent images were actually generated by children themselves. I would like to explore two parts of that issue. The first is sexting. Young people are sexually curious—they always have been and they always will be—and we should celebrate that; it is part of developing. However, they need guidance on the consequences and boundaries of that and the long-term impact of putting something into the ether of the internet.

There is a lot of pressure on young people to upload more and more explicit images. The young girls I have spoken to in particular do not realise that there are perpetrators out there who go through Facebook or chatrooms harvesting images, and a large proportion of those images actually appear on paedophile websites. When a girl sends a picture to her boyfriend and he uploads it as a “joke”, it is very likely that it will not just be her boyfriend who sees it, but there will be a vile old man in a room somewhere looking at it. That is one of the things that we need to get across.

Esther Rantzen is doing some fantastic work on this issue and is looking to create an extension of ChildLine, specifically for teenagers, called “Is that okay?” Young people are saying that they are not quite sure what the boundaries are or what is appropriate, so we need to step in and tell them—probably through the internet, because that is where they get all their information from—what is okay and what the consequences are.

One of the things that started me on this crusade to do something to make people aware of the threats on the internet was that last autumn a mum came to one of my surgeries absolutely distraught and devastated because she had found that her 12-year-old was uploading very sexually explicit videos of herself to a chat website. She was getting a barrage of responses and an awful lot of pressure to keep uploading images. When the mum spoke to her daughter, the daughter said that it was fun, it was up to her, she could do it herself, there was no harm in it and the man was her boyfriend. The mum tried to explain the consequences, but the 12-year-old was not listening, so the mum went to the police. The police said, “Well, it’s just a bit of fun, and she’s choosing to do it.” The mum went to social services, and they did send round a social worker, who met with the girl and explained some of the dangers. Both services then backed off.

The uploading of the videos got more extreme. The mum telephoned round again and was told to take the phone off the daughter. As the mum explained, “That’s all very well—I can take the phone off her—but what about her friends who have phones? What about the iPad that her brother has? What about the computers at school?” The mum had come to me because she was desperate. She said, “I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to stop this. I can’t find any advice.” I created a website called Dare2Care, where we have brought together all the information about this issue. Parents are crying out for the tools and the understanding to protect their children online, and I urge the Minister to do all that she can to circulate that information.

The mum tried to take the phone off her daughter and, lo and behold, the daughter stole her phone and hid it. It was only when the mum went to the police with some of the images and videos that her daughter had taken and said, “This is what she’s doing,” that the whole child protection system suddenly swooped down. It swooped down to protect the child, but I have a mum who is devastated that she let her child down, and I am devastated that as a country we let that mum down. That mum will be representative of mums around the country. That is why I urge us to make sure that all parents and professionals are aware of this issue.

Why is this happening? The internet is a relatively new phenomenon. Sadly, we have always had paedophiles, but whereas before they might have taken a couple of years to groom a couple of children, now they will have a phishing exercise. They will chuck out a thousand emails to children, and they will target the one or two who are vulnerable. That process, which used to take years, now takes days or hours. Paedophiles’ reach has become enormous.

Another thing to which I draw hon. Members’ attention is online porn. Again, we have always had porn, but the internet is giving it a new, more sinister overtone. The NSPCC and the Children’s Commissioner surveyed 1,000 children aged between 11 and 16, and found that at least half had been exposed to online porn, with 94% having seen it by the age of 14. A Girlguiding survey found that among girls aged 11 to 21, seven in 10 feel that the increase in online porn contributes to women being treated less fairly than men, and 73% believe that pictures such as those on page 3 have that effect.

Again, I give my own story: when I was 14, a gang of us had a porno mag that we kept in our den. Looking at an image of a naked woman is very different from looking at a video of someone being gang-raped, and that is what our children are finding. There is no suggestion or imagination; this is basically an online manual of how to abuse a woman, and it is predominantly, by far, the abuse of women that is happening in porn.

From a child’s perspective, they are curious about relationships, they try to find out and they find out by going online. What do they find? Porn. I have had boys in my constituency who are really anxious about having sex because they do not want to strangle their girlfriend, and they think that is what they have to do. I have girls in my constituency who are terrified about having to endure the violence, but they want to have a boyfriend so they think that is what they have to go through. They have no background to let them see that as a fantasy. They have no background knowledge of consent, of respect and of the ability to say no.

What is the solution? Basically, it is to give all children understanding around resilience and relationships. Currently, children are not learning about the dangers of the online world, or about respect, sex or consent. Sex Education Forum found that 53% of pupils have not even learnt how to recognise grooming or sexual exploitation. Charities, experts and survivors of abuse are all united in saying that improving children’s awareness of respect for relationships from a young age is the best way to prevent child abuse. Introducing compulsory, age-appropriate resilience in relationship education in schools would show that the new Prime Minister, the new Education Secretary, the new Home Secretary and the new Minister are serious about acting to prevent more child abuse.

What I am saying is that we need to give the children the tools to protect themselves. I urge that to happen from the youngest age. For example, as soon as children go into school, I want them to be taught about “No means no”. If someone wants them to keep a secret that makes them uncomfortable, they should tell someone else and they should be listened to. I want them to understand that there are people who are bad out there and that they can tell people if they feel uncomfortable.

I am not talking about teaching five and six-year-olds about sex—nothing about that—but when two-year-olds start to go to playgroup, we teach them not to snatch toys and not to push children over, so why can we not also teach them about respecting themselves and other people in the language they will understand? The NSPCC runs the fantastic PANTS campaign, which teaches about just that: what is in your pants is yours and is private. That is a very simple message that we can get across.

The other key thing is to ensure that parents and professionals know and understand the signs and symptoms and how to tackle the suggestion and the actual online abuse that is happening. We need to arm them in advance, because as I have said, this is a generational crime. We are not, and have never been, in that submersive environment as young, malleable children, so we need to ensure that everyone who is there to protect our children understands the effects of that and also how to prevent them. I have to say—not least because we have a Select Committee Chair in the Chamber—that the Select Committees on Education, Health, Home Affairs, and Business, Innovation and Skills all recommend statutory relationship education.

I have three asks of the Minister. The first is a public awareness campaign. I have mentioned my campaign, Dare2Care, which she is free to take and use. All the major charities and academics have contributed, as well as survivors and campaigners, so all the information about preventing child abuse is there. Secondly, she knows that there is already a good e-safety course, which goes to all children in all key stages, but it focuses more on data protection and personal security than on recognising and dealing with abuse. There will be some fantastic teachers who will ensure that online safety in its broadest sense is happening, but I urge the Minister in her guidance to ensure that that is a serious component. The other, final point is about relationship and resilience education for all children to prevent online abuse. I also say to the Minister that we need to focus on literally all children, whether they are home schooled or not and whatever sort of school they go to.

The Government have done quite a lot in this area, but they need to do more, because I do not think they recognise the scale of online abuse that is happening and the potential dangers to our children. I ask the Minister to please take up this campaign, because our children depend on her.