31 May 2023
Rt Hon Suella Braverman KC MP
2 Marsham Street
London SW1P 4DF
An inspection of how well the police and National Crime Agency tackle the online sexual abuse and exploitation of children
I am writing to you in response to the above HMICFRS report published on 5th April 2023.
I know you share my considerable concern as to the harm being caused by those perpetrating exploitation of children. My very first holding to account session after I was elected in 2016 focused on Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE) and my record since has been to continue to focus attention and resource on this issue.
HMICFRS inspected 6 forces, 2 Regional and Organised Crime Units (ROCUs) and the National Crime Agency (NCA). The inspection focused on addressing how effective the police and NCA are at identifying and safeguarding children affected by online sexual abuse and exploitation (OCSA/E).
HMICFRS made 17 recommendations following the inspection; 9 of which were for Chief Constables of local police forces and 2 of which included Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs). Below I set out how I and the Chief Constable in West Mercia will address these recommendations.
I am pleased to confirm that work is already underway to address each of the recommendations for local Chief Constables. As a result of the inspection, the force is undertaking analysis and reviewing a range of processes including:
- Reviewing processes for sharing information and making referrals to statutory safeguarding partners. This will build on an existing successful pilot that took place in South Worcestershire, with a view to a wider roll out across West Mercia.
- Reviewing processes for referring victims for support or therapeutic services. This is linked to work being undertaken by my office which is set out in more detail below.
- Reviewing and updating the force’s Cyber Portal on the website to ensure it is consistent with the NCA’s ThinkUKnow (Child Exploitation and Online Protection) material.
- Analysis of Online CSE and CSA crime flows and allocation to ensure any OCSA/E demand identified is allocated to the Criminal Investigation Department rather than being allocated to Patrol officers.
- Reviewing timeliness of OCSA/E activity; monitoring the impact of the new national prioritisation tool which is anticipated by 31 July 2023.
The inspection also included a recommendation for Chief Constables to work with Local Criminal Justice Boards (LCJBs) to review and if necessary, amend arrangements for applying for search warrants. This needed to include the feasibility of remote communication. As the Chair of the LCJB in West Mercia, I am pleased to report that West Mercia Police and partners are already in a good position in respect of this recommendation and there are no concerns regarding the provision of search warrants. Remote working is already in place in West Mercia, though further improvements would be delivered if the overall running of the Courts was more efficient. Whilst not required at this time, where any concerns do arise, I will use my role as the Chair of the LCJB to convene partners and determine how further improvements can be made.
My response to PCC-specific recommendations is set out below.
Recommendation 9: By 31 October 2023, chief constables and police and crime commissioners should make sure their commissioned services for children, and the process for referring them for support or therapeutic services, are available for children affected by online sexual abuse and exploitation.
Whilst HMICFRS do not have the authority to issue formal recommendations to PCCs, I am pleased to report West Mercia is in positive position in respect of this recommendation. Since my election in 2016, I have commissioned the West Mercia Rape and Sexual Abuse Support Centre (WMRSASC) to work with children and young people who have been victims of sexual abuse and exploitation. WMRSASC already take referrals for children and young people who are victims of online CSE and CSA. In 2023, WMRSASC received additional Ministry of Justice funding for a Tech Assisted
Exploitation Worker. This specialist role will increase the capacity of WMRSASC to work across agencies to improve the service for children, young people and their families.
I also commission a Paediatric Sexual Assault Referral Centre (SARC) service. Whilst the service has forensic and non-forensic clinics, it is not clear whether these services are utilised for online abuse and exploitation cases. I am currently in the process of re-developing the SARC site in Telford and I will ensure this includes services for victims of online child sexual abuse and exploitation.
In addition to the services above, I also fund Purple Leaf who deliver educational programmes to schools and colleges, as an enhanced package for victims who need more support as they transition to adulthood . However, on review the services and educational programmes do not currently provide detailed resources, information, or guidance in respect of online abuse and exploitation. This will be addressed by my work with NHS England set out below.
Recommendation 12: By 31 July 2023, chief constables and police and crime commissioners should review the advice they publish, and, if necessary, revise it, to make sure it is consistent with the National Crime Agency’s ThinkUKnow (Child Exploitation and Online Protection) material.
My website does not currently include advice in relation to Child Exploitation and Online Protection. However, acknowledging the gap in resources, advice and guidance for victims, families and professionals I have secured almost £10,000 funding from NHS England to develop a bespoke online resource in West Mercia. The funding will enable the online resource to be hosted and maintained for 3 years and will detail the pathways for support, information, advice and guidance for victims of rape and serious sexual assault (including online CSE and CSA). The online resource will include links to the NCA’s ThinkUKnow material to ensure compliance with the national HMICFRS recommendation.
My Safer West Mercia Plan includes specific commitments to deliver effective early intervention and prevention and improve the response to victims of sexual violence. I will continue to use the findings from the national HMICFRS inspections to inform the delivery of activity against these commitments, including through commissioning of services and scrutiny activity. I have recently held formal accountability meetings with the Chief Constable in respect of Violence Against Women and Girls (inc. sexual violence) and the Independent Inquiry of CSE in Telford. I will ensure my scrutiny programme for 2023/24 continues to include appropriate focus on these important commitments.
My commitment is clear that the exploitation of children has no place in our community. I will do all I can to see it rooted from our society. In the meantime, I will support the relentless pursuit of those perpetuating this horrific crime and give the very best support to those that are victim of it.
Police and Crime Commissioner
cc West Mercia Police Chief Constable