Child porn goes uninvestigated amid cash crisis

Report warns hundreds of children will be at mercy of paedophiles if the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre continues to be mismanaged
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The Independent Online

Thousands of cases of children portrayed in pornographic pictures and at risk of abuse are not being investigated properly because of a cash crisis and ministerial "prevarication", according to confidential documents seen by The Independent on Sunday.

Britain's Child Exploitation and Online Protection (Ceop) Centre, hailed as one of the leading child protection agencies in the world, is mired in a financial and bureaucratic crisis, prompting concern that children across the UK are being left at risk.

Nearly 350 children have been saved from abuse since the centre was launched in 2006 and it is credited with breaking up or disrupting 166 paedophile networks, 82 of them in the past 12 months.

Despite its growing success, a £1.1m budget shortfall meant the 12-strong squad, which tracks the UK's most dangerous paedophiles, was at risk of disbandment. This was caused by the end of three-year funding pledges from Visa and the NSPCC. Its immediate future was secured after the Home Office agreed to contribute an extra £500,000 11 days ago, but question-marks remain over its long-term fate. The organisation, officers say, is "swamped" by work.

Janet Paraskeva, chair of Ceop's board, admitted in its annual review earlier this month that "resources are stretched and yet the demand for our work continues to grow. We will need to consider imaginative means to address this."

However, Ceop is also at the centre of an increasingly heated fight over its future. Critics claim that unless funding is dramatically increased and control of the centre is removed from the Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca), hundreds of children will be at risk of serious sexual abuse.

A confidential report by a former Ceop advisory board member warns that governance arrangements for both Soca and Ceop are "hopelessly inadequate", "naive" and "unworkable". As a result, Ceop is in "no-man's land in terms of management and governance, which at best squanders opportunities to develop and at worst is downright dangerous". The report, seen by the IoS, was written by Wrexham councillor Malcolm King, an influential former member of the Association of Police Authorities.

Mr King warns that children are at risk of abuse because neither Ceop, nor police forces around the country, can cope with the flood of evidence of child abuse from the internet. The report says there has been an "alarming increase", both by volume and by seriousness. "Whereas police forces might, some years ago, have seized several thousand images and films in a year, they now seize millions. Disturbingly, the most serious – categorised as level five – have shown the largest increase."

The report says that, despite this, many of these images are retained by local police forces but are never examined. If they are, it is often months or even years later. "There will almost always be in every police force area a certain proportion that would lead to an arrest and a child or children being saved from further harm. Even if it were one child being saved from further abuse and particularly from being killed, it would surely be worth the effort," it warns.

Investigators admit that relations between Ceop and Soca are "professional but tense". Last year, Soca rejected a three-year plan by Jim Gamble, Ceop's chief executive, which would have expanded the unit from 120 staff to almost 300, with its budget doubling from £9m to £18m.

In the report, which is strongly critical of Soca performance, Councillor King says: "The Government needs to recreate Ceop as a free-standing organisation, free of Soca. Its governance should be significantly influenced by the local police forces that Ceop needs to continue to serve."

In a statement, Councillor King yesterday admitted lobbying for Ceop to be freed from Soca control and given greater resources. "Ceop is regarded as the world's leading child protection agency; it is the most successful organisation I have come across in more than 30 years of public service. It is at an important crossroads. If we are serious about protecting our nation's children, then we must stop frustrating the progress of the one organisation that has the potential to successfully lead the battle against child abuse. Serious consideration needs to be given to expanding its role into a more comprehensive National Child Protection Agency," he said.

"The Government should be congratulated for creating Ceop, but it must now start to deal with what is being discovered or it will risk not only losing credit for what has been achieved but taking the blame for covering up the scale of the problem. All the evidence is that we are miles away from where we need to be if we are to say honestly that we are doing our best to protect Britain's children and bring to justice the most dangerous, damaging criminals in the country.

"The fact is that children's lives across Britain are being put at risk and many are being raped every day for the sake of a few million pounds. While MPs make sure they claim for their cat food, they are failing to protect Britain's children which surely ought to be their number one priority."

Several MPs, together with the Children's Commissioners for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, are understood to be concerned about a perceived lack of urgency on the part of the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith. For many months the Home Office has sat on a report by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary into Ceop's progress which was requested by Soca.

The finished report, which unusually has not been published, is believed to acknowledge that Soca's continued management hinders the development of Ceop, but calls for a further report into the issue. The Home Office said a further review is currently under way, led by a senior civil servant, Stephen Boys Smith.