Fixing the law on sexual communications

By Des Mannion

| 31 March 2017

It's taken two years, but the UK government has finally enacted a law that will make it illegal for adults to send sexual messages to children. Amazingly, until now police couldn't arrest adults who send sexual communications to young people in England and Wales. The government passed the anti-grooming law in 2015 but it inexplicably sat on the statute books for two years without being enacted.
 
In an era where children have so much access to social media and mobile communications it was unbelievable that police could only intervene if an adult actually met a child following grooming rather than taking action over the grooming itself and it is hugely welcome that this has finally changed.
 
From 3 April, any adult caught breaking the law will face up to two years in prison and be automatically placed on the sex offenders register. The law will cover both online and offline communication, including social media, e-mail, and letters.
 
What makes the delay more infuriating is that similar legislation has been in place in Scotland over the last six years and the authorities have recorded 1,537 offences. And since February 2015, a related offence has also been available to police in Northern Ireland.
 
Based on the Scotland figures, the NSPCC estimates that police in England and Wales could have recorded as many as 4,000 offences in the last two years if the law had been in force.
 
Fixing the flawed law is something to be celebrated, but we know that children are still increasingly at risk of being both groomed and exploited.
 
Evidence of this is shown in the fact that a recent freedom of information request from NSPCC Cymru revealed that between 2011 and 2015 there were more than 150 cases of child grooming in Wales. Worryingly, 60 per cent of these contained an online element.
 
We live in an age where children live their lives through social media, so it's important that they are educated about how to stay safe online and parents are aware of their children's use of social media, sites and apps.
 
It's vitally important that legislators keep up with the modern world so that children are protected from harm. Educating children about online safety is hugely important but it must always be accompanied by legislation so the law adequately protects young people and a deterrent exists for adults who might consider harming children.

Des Mannion is head of service, NSPCC Cymru

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