Child protection campaigners have told ministers they want the leaders of social media companies to be held criminally responsible for putting people at risk online, as it emerged there had been a 60% increase in online child sexual abuse and exploitation cases over three years.
Police Scotland have admitted they need to improve their approaches to violence against women and girls, as an official analysis seen by the Herald found the number of recorded sex crimes soared by 13.4 per cent in just one year, with reported rapes increasing by 12%.
Reports of online child sexual abuse have increased significantly since 2018/19, when there were 1,961 referrals, including 3,111 in 2020/21. Over the three years, some 2,498 suspect investigations were generated from nearly 7,500 referrals.
There were 7,519 sex crimes recorded between April and September 2021, 890 more than the same period the year before.
Of these, the number of rapes rose from 1,097 to 1,229 during the same period.
Scotland’s leading barrister, Lord Advocate Dorothy Bain, has launched a review of sex crimes prosecutions in Scotland, with sex offenses now making up 70 per cent of prosecutors’ cases in the Scottish High Court.
Susanne Tanner QC, who was recently appointed Deputy Senior Crown Counsel, will carry out the review.
And Deputy Chief Constable Malcolm Graham, who has executive responsibility for crime and operational support, said there was a “need to improve” efforts to tackle violence against women and girls. in all its forms, but it requires investment.
In an analysis, he said: “It is clear from the outset that improving our response will require significant commitment and investment. Such an investment, in terms of funding and resources, will focus on developing a proactive approach to addressing violence against women and girls. supported by effective partnerships, prevention strategies and technologies.
“We acknowledge the concerns that have been expressed about the overall justice system response and are committed to improving our structures to hear and respond to the views and experiences of victims.
“Violence against women and girls poses an increased risk to local communities if issues are not addressed effectively and efficiently.”
The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has called for criminal sanctions to be introduced against senior executives of social media companies whose actions put children at risk as part of a tougher UK online security.
Criminal sanctions would arise where there is clear evidence of repeated and systemic breaches of duty of care that result in a significant risk of exposure to unlawful harm.
Andy Burrows (below), Head of Child Safety Online Policy at the NSPCC, said: “Offenders, seeking to groom and coerce children, have taken advantage of young people spending more time alone and online during the pandemic, resulting in a record number of child sexual abuse reports to Police Scotland.
“But even before the start of the pandemic, we were seeing a worrying increase in these offences. Indeed, at the heart of the problem is the refusal of tech companies to make child safety a priority.
“It is crucial that the UK Government significantly strengthens its Online Safety Bill to tackle online abuse more effectively and prevent children from being exposed to entirely avoidable harm.
“We demand that named senior executives of tech companies be held personally accountable for design choices that put children at risk. And the bill must also force companies to work together to tackle how abusers use multiple social networks to contact children, before moving on to risky encrypted messaging and live streaming sites.
An initial review by Police Scotland of the National Police’s response to public protection, which covers sex crimes, agreed its work should be broader than a review of demand, resources and force structures .
A Public Protection Program Council has now been created, as the force says the work program will aim to improve national and local approaches to adapt to what they call “changing demand and vulnerabilities”. .
Mr Graham added: “There is an opportunity to review, update and renew our existing approach and improve upon it. Although Police Scotland have made significant progress in tackling violence against women and girls, we recognize that there is much more to be done to ensure that we are effectively protecting women and girls.”
He said the impact of the Covid crisis is influencing the development of force strategy.
“Clearly the changing and increasingly complex landscape requires the service to change and adapt, to enable us to respond appropriately and effectively,” he said. “Policing is fundamentally about protecting the public, but the growing demand for police response to violence against women and girls, and indeed to all abuse and exploitation of people, creates tough decisions about resources, prioritization and funding.”
He says the increase in reporting can, in part, be attributed to increased public confidence in the police response coupled with a proactive approach.
He said the murder in March last year of 33-year-old marketing manager Sarah Everard in south London, England, was among the most high-profile events to spark public concern at UK level. .
“While Police Scotland have made tangible progress in addressing violence against women and girls, these events have further underscored the need to continually review and improve our approaches,” he said. .
According to figures from Police Scotland, since September 2020, Police Scotland’s online child sexual abuse and exploitation teams have taken action on 1,226 of the suspicious investigation files generated from these referrals. This resulted in the arrest of 586 people and 1081 protected children.
In autumn 2021, Police Scotland launched an online That Guy campaign focusing on men’s sexual rights and misogynistic attitudes, which they say promote serious sexual offences.
Police said the campaign was a “resounding success” after being seen by 2.9 million Twitter users and shared millions of times via Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.
A UK government spokesperson said: “Our pioneering new laws will make social media platforms more accountable to protect their users, especially children.
“Tech companies will have to remove illegal content such as child sexual abuse, and if they don’t they will be held accountable through huge fines, suspension of service and their bosses could be held to account. criminally liable.”