Jim Gamble: We are losing the race to protect our young

Technology and the children who use it won't wait for slow-moving child-protection services and the police to catch up

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I don't know if you're reading your paper before breakfast, at lunch or after a good Sunday dinner. What I do know is that if you saw some of the things that have happened to youngsters who met the wrong people on the internet, you wouldn't keep your food down for long. How many of your own kids, or the children you know and care for, have mobile phones, tablets or laptops? Do you know what they do? Who they meet and what they share? The truth is you probably don't.

I have spent most of my adult life in law enforcement, combating terrorism in Northern Ireland, fighting organised crime in the National Crime Squad and, most recently, child abuse as the chief executive of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (Ceop), a role I resigned from in October 2010 in protest over the Government's plans to merge it within the National Crime Agency. I didn't believe it understood the issues then and, as cuts are being imposed on the very organisations fighting to protect the young and vulnerable, I am convinced some children will fall through the net and suffer terrible consequences.

The chairman of the Police Federation, Paul McKeever, warned that cuts in police budgets were likely to result in less work being done in schools educating children about avoiding abuse online. I wonder how the few at Ceop felt when they heard the Home Office response to his warning? The Home Office claimed that "Ceop had said it could maintain its current staffing levels within its current budget". It was a case of deliberately missing the point. There will be more work with responsibility for missing children, fewer people, the ongoing leakage of precious experienced personnel and a year-on-year reduction in its budget, but we are told Ceop can manage. I keep looking for the White Rabbit and Alice, because we must have gone through the looking glass.

Did you notice Internet Safety Day last week? Blink and you would have missed it. Internet safety should be something we not only encourage but demand. Every day should be a safer internet day. So what did we get? Consolidated advice. In the congested internet safety market, this is something we need. But is it easy to access, understand and use? Does it challenge those in the child protection partnerships that include the police, those involved in social care, education and industry, and the Government to do more? To do better? Ten years of task forces and talking shops should have produced more. The sad truth is some people become so seduced by technology and partnership with others that they forget that the primary focus in child protection is children.

If we have learnt anything, it is surely that to be a truly effective partner in tackling child abuse, you must be prepared to be challenged. When the partnership itself becomes the goal, everyone is vulnerable. That is why independent assessment by bodies such as the umbrella group the UK Council for Child Internet Safety (UKCCIS) are crucially important. We need to reflect on what was promised, when, what has been delivered, and what difference it's made.

Perhaps Internet Safety Day should be a time to reflect on the difference those people in UKCCIS make. People such as John Carr, a computer safety expert who is prepared to challenge the things he knows are wrong. Recently he spoke out about BlackBerry's refusal to filter the web on their phones, resulting in children being at risk of exposure to pornography and other adult content. I hope it has made a difference. A BlackBerry is the handset of choice for so many young people: what it does, or doesn't do, matters.

Sometimes the hero of the day, however, can come from the most unexpected of places. I will never forget how in the midst of a tough and very public debate with Facebook on the Click CEOP button (which allows kids to report a suspected abuser with a single click), Joanna Shields, at the time the newly appointed CEO of Facebook UK, came to the table to talk. She moved us all forward by engaging, not simply as the chief executive of a powerful company, but as a parent determined to do what was best for children. When people in the industry really get it, and have the influence and authority to point their company in the right direction, they can make a huge difference: at Facebook this was an app for parents and children, and improved privacy controls.

Then there are the unsung heroes in the police service and child protection community. We should put ourselves in their shoes and imagine for a moment what their day is like, the horror they will witness and the political hypocrisy they will have bear. In the bowels of the Ceop building people are looking at the unwatchable and listening to the unspeakable. To borrow a quote from Winston Churchill, never have so many owed so much to so few. If the public only knew what they see and what they do for our children.

Matt Bishop, a Microsoft executive, a Ceop board member and one of the strongest child-protection advocates in this field, told me that standing still in terms of technology is the equivalent of falling behind. He knew what he was talking about. Standing still is taking so long to agree how we meet everyone's agenda that, by the time we dilute the position enough to satisfy everyone's "sensitivities", we fail. We fail because technology and the young people who use it will not wait for us. By the time we get there, we look ridiculous, because our message, tactics and methods are much less credible.

Those in the field need to be empowered to do more than stand still: they have to move ahead of the game, develop strategies that match the new mobile markets, and support while challenging developers. Technology at its best is easy to access, understand and use, and the advice must be the same.

I am sure you have worked out by now that I am not a fan of the Government's policy on Ceop, or its impact thus far on the world of child protection. But the Government has the power and the responsibility, and we have to be able to trust it; so even as I resigned in protest at what it was doing, I was pleased that the Home Secretary was making public statements about investing in and building on Ceop's work.

The question now is where is that promised investment? Is Theresa May going to make that investment and move forward? Or was the commitment just the right thing to say, at a difficult time, to mask the fact that she doesn't understand the issues, won't listen and is standing still, simply hoping for the best?

Jim Gamble is chief executive of Ineqe Safe and Secure

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