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New Sentencing Guidelines for Sex Offenders - Another Victory in the Long Battle to Stop Child Abuse

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When an adult sex offender is found guilty of harming a child punishment is often uppermost in the mind of the public, and for some people no sentence will ever be long enough.

However, for the judge passing sentence emotion must be left outside the courtroom and it is to the sentencing guidelines that they turn in deciding the offender's fate.

Today's overhaul of the guidelines for sexual offences, which the NSPCC has been calling for, is an important step forward in both recognising the harm done to victims and in justice being done.

The effects of these crimes on children can last a lifetime. It is important that sentencing reflects the severe damage caused by highly manipulative and devious sex offenders, who may use positions of trust or celebrity status to target children.

But I'm pleased to see that the changes aren't only about harsher punishments for offenders.

There are other important changes coming into effect in April 2014 that I hope will lead to more victims coming forward, more offenders being brought to justice, and more children protected from abuse in the future.

The NSPCC is expanding it's services that help children at risk of being groomed and sexually exploited by gangs, as in the cases in Oxford and Manchester, which saw some of the accused claim in their defence that their young victims had consented to the sexual abuse they had suffered.

Child abusers are experts at grooming vulnerable children and young people into believing they are in a special relationship when really they are being abused. So I am pleased to see the removal of "ostensible consent" from the guidance, the idea that a child over 13 can agree to sex. The outdated view that children can in some way be complicit in their abuse must be stamped out. The new guidance is a step in the right direction towards addressing this terrible myth.

The other high profile cases that have dominated the news during the past twelve months, of revelations of years of abuse committed by Jimmy Savile, Stuart Hall and other celebrities, focused attention on the barriers faced by victims of child sexual abuse speaking out and seeking justice.

We know now that these celebrities used their public image to groom their victims and secure their silence. The changes announced today could see any future abuser who used their fame to commit crimes receive a more severe sentence, as previous "good character" could be considered as an aggravating factor when used to commit a sexual offence.

Finally, the new guidance also takes into account the increased use of technology in sex offending. For example, the offender might pose as another young person and coerce their victim into sharing a sexual image. They will then threaten to share this with their friends and family unless the child continues to share more images or perform sexual acts via a webcam.

This power that the internet gives to offenders has not been fully recognised when it comes to sentencing, mainly because it barely existed when the guidance was last reviewed ten years ago.

So it's good to see that from next year judges will have to take into account aspects such as offenders lying about their age, or grooming via social media. Filming and photographing victims, known as "recording the crime", will also be listed as a new aggravating factor. This could be cited as a reason to hand out a more severe sentence, which will hopefully act as an additional deterrent to sex offenders planning to seek out their victims online.

Of course, if sentences are to be effective offenders first need to be caught and convicted.

We must not forget that child sexual offence cases often collapse because children are denied the support they need to give evidence against their abusers. A victim of child sex abuse can be the sole witness to the crime and the strength of the case lies in their testimony.

The NSPCC is campaigning for all children who give evidence in sex abuse cases to be supported by a registered intermediary, who can explain criminal proceedings and legal language in a child-friendly way, when they are interviewed by the police and if they give evidence in a trial.

I hope today's overhaul of the sentencing guidelines will result in better justice for child abuse victims. But we must not be complacent. The NSPCC will continue to fight for changes to the criminal justice system to help children to speak out about sexual abuse and to ensure that they feel supported at all points to give their best evidence in court.

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