Police bosses have warned the Government it needs to get tough on technology companies or risk another public inquiry into child sexual abuse.
The National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) told the final ever public session of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) that “real leadership” was needed in Westminster to ensure children are protected online.
The inquiry previously heard evidence of cases where children had been groomed online, including that of 14-year-old Breck Bednar, who was later murdered by computer engineer Lewis Daynes after being lured to the 18-year-old’s home in Essex in 2014.
In a closing speech as the inquiry’s final hearing drew to a close on Friday afternoon, James Berry, on behalf of the NPCC, called for the introduction of an independent regulator for the tech sector and a duty of care which platforms must agree to.
He said: “Real leadership is needed by Parliament in passing an Online Harms Act, no doubt over considerable opposition including from ordinary internet users, who don’t want the way in which they enjoy using the internet to be affected.
“But the bottom line is surely that corporate profit margins, user experience and privacy cannot trump the paramount concern of keeping children safe.
“Much has been said about the proposed duty of care on industry having teeth, and being enforced by a competent regulatory body. The NPCC agrees.
“But its overriding concern is that whatever the means, the end result is real change in how children are kept safe online – something that industry has conspicuously failed to do by way of self-regulation.
“If that does not happen, in five years’ or 10 years’ time, there will be another inquiry like this, where we will look back and ask: How on Earth did we as a society allow this to happen to our children?”
The Online Harms Bill is expected before Parliament in the first half of 2021, despite concerns that delays may mean the internet will be unregulated for years.
In October, Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee chairman Julian Knight criticised the timeline and accused the Government of failing to act with urgency.
He said: “People need that protection against online harms now and further delay is unjustifiable.”
IICSA was set up by then home secretary Theresa May in 2014 to look into allegations of historical abuse by establishment figures.
The inquiry comprised 15 different strands focusing on a separate area of abuse, hearing from more than 600 live witnesses about allegations dating back decades.
Arguably its most high-profile investigation was its conclusion that the political establishment spent decades turning “a blind eye” to allegations of child sexual abuse, with senior politicians protected from police action as aides sought to avoid “gossip and scandal” which would damage the parties.
But it found there was no evidence of a “Westminster paedophile ring” – allegations in the House of Commons in 2012 which kick-started the multi-million pound inquiry.
Other strands have focussed on abuse in the church, at residential schools and in children’s homes.
A final report of overarching findings from all 15 sections of the investigation is expected to be laid before Parliament in 2022.
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