Child protection centre row grows as more staff resign

The row over the Government's plan to merge the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (Ceop) within a new National Crime Agency escalated yesterday, amid several more resignations andrecriminations.

Two senior managers and a group of specialist internet investigators followed the example set by the organisation's former chief executive Jim Gamble, who quit on Monday.

Andrew Mulholland, Ceop's head of governance, is among the new departures following Mr Gamble out of the door in protest at the plans, claiming the merger would compromise child safety.

The list of critics opposing the merger lengthened throughout the day. Following shadow home secretary Alan Johnson's condemnation of the plans on Monday night, theAssociation of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) voiced its displeasure. "Acpo continue in firm support of Ceop operating as a stand-alone agency," said Warwickshire chief constable, Keith Bristow.

"If Government choose not to support this option, then Acpo would seek to be consulted on whatever new governance arrangements are put in place."

Ceop coordinates police strategy for combating sexual abuse of children, gathering intelligence and working with specialists in computing and child protection to weed out online paedophiles. It brought about 417 arrests last year, safeguarding 278 children, and also claims to have initiated an online safety scheme that has so far reached six million children. Its annual budget is £11m.

Many of its staff, as well as external child protection experts, believe the loss of the organisation's independence will mean the loss of external funding amounting to millions of pounds a year, and that explicit focus on both the support of victims and the targeting of their abusers will be lost.

Kate and Gerry McCann announced through their spokesman that they were "personally upset and deeply saddened" by the resignation of Mr Gamble, who had worked with them in their efforts to find their lost daughter Madeleine. They urged the Government to "remember the value of our children and the invaluable work Ceop has been doing".

Shy Keenan, who alongside Sara Payne and Fiona Crook founded the Phoenix Chief Advocates to represent the victims of paedophiles, said: "You cannot approach child protection with a 'crime only' police unit. We need a proactive child protection centre, not just a reactive police approach."

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