Met Police ‘overwhelmed’ by child sex abuse cases online
Image credit: Gerd Altmann, Pixabay
The Met Police, Britain's largest police force, has been "overwhelmed" by a surge in online child sexual abuse and exploitation cases, a watchdog has warned.
Social media platforms are increasingly used to distribute, share and view indecent images on a “global scale”, HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) said.
While the issue was flagged up in a report that was specifically concerned with the Metropolitan Police, the issue was described as a “national problem”.
HMICFRS cautioned that the Met’s existing arrangements for investigating online cases involving indecent images of children and sexual exploitation are “not working”.
In a review of 34 online cases, 29 were assessed as either inadequate or requiring improvement, with 15 sent back to the force because the inspectorate considered they contained evidence of a serious problem. The inspection found that the processes for examining devices suspected of containing indecent images of children were ineffective.
“For example, because of the limited capacity of the digital examination team, only two devices can be sent for full examination,” the report said.
Matt Parr, inspector of constabulary, said that limited capacity in specialist teams, backlogs and resourcing pressures “have all led to the force being overwhelmed by cases and not able to provide the service victims need and deserve”.
The increasing use of social media platforms and channels to distribute, share and view child sexual abuse images poses a complex challenge for policing, according to the report. It said: “This is a national problem, requiring a co-ordinated response at a national level, including internet companies, to understand and exploit opportunities to reduce the access to, and availability of, such images.”
Last year, Home Secretary Sajid Javid demanded tech companies step up their response to this issue, after he disclosed that the National Crime Agency had estimated that around 80,000 people in the UK present some kind of sexual threat to children online.
HMICFRS’s findings on the Met are based on a post-inspection review carried out in 2018. The watchdog first highlighted shortcomings in the force’s response to child abuse and sexual exploitation in a highly critical report in 2016.
In the latest assessment, an audit of 303 cases found that child protection practice was good in 93, required improvement in 127 and inadequate in 83. While fewer cases were judged inadequate than in previous inspections, HMICFRS said the results indicate that consistency of effective practice “remains weak”.
Opportunities to act quickly and decisively to protect children and prevent offending are still being missed, according to the report. It added: “We found that lack of supervision, along with the high workload of investigators, is contributing to drift and delays in investigations.”
The inspectorate said it was told by the Met that it anticipates work to ensure children receive consistently improved responses will take a further two years.
“Senior leaders must assure themselves that this timescale is justifiable, given the extreme vulnerability of many of the children who come into contact with the force,” the report said.
It also revealed that, in some areas of the capital, officers are managing more than 100 registered sex offenders each.
HMICFRS noted that the Met has made improvements since the 2016 inspection, resulting in “better and more effective oversight of child protection practices across the force”.
The Met said the scale of child abuse and sexual exploitation offending online has grown in recent years, adding: “This increased demand on police, coupled with the need to keep up with advancement of technology and adapt our methods to detect and identify offenders, means it is a challenging area for the Met and police forces nationally.”
“However, we are committed to addressing these challenges to improve our response in this area.”
Commander Richard Smith, the Met’s head of safeguarding, said: “We are pleased to see measurable improvement in our investigations since the last HMICFRS report was published. However, we know that we still have a lot more work to do before our child protection arrangements are consistently as effective as they should be.”
Earlier this year, a BBC Radio 4 investigation revealed that images of child sexual abuse, along with drugs and stolen credit card data, are being openly traded on encrypted apps such as Telegram.
An unrelated NSPCC report, released around the same time, showed that child grooming cases on Instagram have tripled within 18 months, further heightening concerns about the sexual exploitation of children on social media platforms.
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