The good news that 18 people have been successfully convicted by Northumbria Police for the sexual exploitation of children has almost been lost in the controversy concerning their use of a convicted child rapist as an informant. So first of all let us pause and congratulate the police on their hard won success and take the time to reflect on the fact that thanks to them these predators are now where they should be - in prison.
That said, whilst the use of such a high-risk informant may have diverted us from celebrating the outcome of the case, there is no doubt that the simplistic 'end justifies the means' argument, which has been deployed in a knee-jerk defence of the police action misses the point. In fact, it dismisses many legitimate questions and concerns.
When authorising the use of a Covert Human Intelligence Source (CHIS), better known as an informant, the police must satisfy a number of tests. Primarily, questions of legality, proportionality and necessity. If there is 'no other way' intelligence can be gained and the seriousness of the crime warrants it, police will, provided the other tests are met, consider authorisation. They will do so in the context of a community risk assessment and carefully crafted control measures. Controlling and supervising the informant once authorised is critical.
So if the question is whether or not the decision is defensible, the answer is yes it is. The real question however in the case of a convicted child abuser is whether it is wise and worth the inherent risks.
Sex offenders who prey on children are a different kind of criminal, a very different beast. Years of experience and the academic studies tells us that these predators minimise, self-justify and blame others. They are master manipulators who seek personal survival at all cost and are driven not by profit but by a deviant sexual desire. Engaging with one in the belief that you can control what they do at all times and in all places is, in my opinion, simply naive.
In my former roles as Head of Counter Terrorism in Belfast and Deputy Director General of the UK National Crime Squad I have authorised the use of many informants, recognise their worth and understand the benefits that they can bring. However, I also know that no other area of policing carries more risk or the danger of letting a noble cause blur vision and judgement. Add to that mix the natural desire to protect children and the relentless pressure the police face; the complexity of their decision making process becomes clear and unenviable. Given my former role as the founding Chief Executive of the UK Child Exploitation and Online Protection (CEOP) Centre, I have found myself being asked many times since the news of Operation Sanctuary broke, whether I would have authorised the informant known as XY.
My answer is easy: no. However, this is easy because it was not my decision to make. I do not have the unenviable responsibility held by my one time colleagues, nor the pressure of being second guessed from so many armchairs (including my own).
The debate concerning this lawfully audacious and controversial tactic must focus on what is in the best interests for children and vulnerable adults. Therefore, specific questions must be asked because answers cannot be found in carefully crafted media responses, or the emotive rhetoric of 'throwing the kitchen sink' at predators. Nor for that matter can they be found in the process and practice based reviews carried out by the Office of Surveillance Commissioners (OSC) or the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC).
In my opinion, there should be a fundamentally independent, child-centred and transparent safeguarding review. It must be victim-focused and establish whether the tactic was worth the risk, whether the risks posed by the informant were controlled at all times and in all places and critically, what lessons have been learnt that can be applied in the future.
If there are no issues, if no crimes were committed or inappropriate engagements with children were facilitated by the informant, I would expect the Chief Constable and the Police and Crime Commissioner to reflect, help others learn and to do so in a way that reinforces public confidence.
Finally, as we rightly celebrate the rescue of so many victims, let us spare a moment for one other survivor of abuse - the child brutalised and raped by the man who went on to make so much money from the access his child abusing past provided to him.
Jim Gamble is CEO of INEQE Group and a former Police Head of Counter Terrorism in Belfast, Deputy Director General of the National Crime Squad and founding CEO of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection (CEOP) CentreSuggest a correction