21/03/2012 06:47 GMT | Updated 19/05/2012 06:12 BST

Record Level of Convictions for Child Pornography Offences in the UK

I made two Freedom of Information (FoI) requests to the UK's Ministry of Justice. I asked for the latest official data on offences involving indecent images of children for England and Wales. The final set of answers arrived last week.

I expect many people imagined that after all the publicity about arrests for these kind of offences and the continuing police activity the numbers would start to go into a gentle if not vertiginous decline. Not a bit of it. The problem is obviously very deep-seated.

2010 is the latest year for which numbers are available. There were 380 convictions or cautions for 'simple' possession of indecent images of children and 1,401 for making or taking them 1,401. That makes a grand total of 1,781. The only other year the total went above 1,700 was 2003 when it reached 1,731. 2003 was when the police and prosecutors were at their busiest working on Operation Ore, the offspring of Operation Avalanche in the USA.

The nature of the beast

I imagine most of the people who read this piece will know that the images we are discussing typically depict unspeakable acts being perpetrated against some of the weakest members of society. According to the Annual Report of the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) in 2010 73% of all the child abuse images they dealt with involved children under the age of 10. 65% showed sexual activity between adults and children.

Is the material the IWF sees likely to be the same as or very similar to that which the police and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) see? Obviously the IWF sends the police everything they classify as illegal but the IWF deals more or less exclusively with the web and Newsgroups whereas the police additionally also engage with Peer2Peer and other online environments. I cannot think why there might be any significant differences in the nature of the material the IWF describes in its Annual Report and those images which the police and CPS might see and prosecute for that came from non-IWF sources. Until this is properly researched, I guess we have to allow there could be.

Operation Ore is ancient history

After the 'Ore peak' in 2003 the total number of convictions and cautions started to fall back, eventually bumping along in the 1,200s. Then in 2008 convictions and cautions start to rise again. How do we explain this?

Is it likely that engagement with child abuse images grew as broadband access in the UK became more or less universal or are we just getting better at catching people? Both could be true.

More police forces active

Part of the explanation for the "catching (more) people" bit must be linked to the creation of CEOP in April, 2006. Of at least equal importance is the increased appetite for this type of work among a larger number of the UK's local police forces. They have been establishing their own cyber-crime units, devoting resources to building up their expertise and capacity to investigate online child abuse image cases. Among local forces you only ever used to hear about London's Metropolitan Police, Greater Manchester and the West Midlands. That's not the case now.

CEOP's links to police forces in other parts of the world will also have played a part in registering that UK law enforcement agencies are up and running and ready for cyber business. This will have attracted more of it to them. Prior to CEOP arriving on the scene the National Hi-Tech Crime Unit and the National Crime Squad had all been active around the world, as indeed had the three local forces just mentioned, but the wider range of demands on their time meant they were not always able to sustain some parts of their online child protection work over the longer term. For CEOP this was and is core business.

Shooting fish in a barrel

Thus one very depressing inference of all this is that the more police officers you throw at the problem the more suspects get nicked and this eventually shows up in the number of convictions and cautions. "Fish in a barrel syndrome" as it is sometimes called. Maybe this is true in other areas of crime as well but it's not a very comfortable thought when we contemplate the offences being discussed here.

How big might the problem be?

The NSPCC's latest prevalence study tells us one in nine young adults said they experienced some level of contact sexual abuse during childhood. The vast majority of this was never reported at the time or since. I am not suggesting for one minute that one in nine gives us a reliable insight into the likely scale of offending in the UK in relation to images of child sex abuse. There is quite a leap from abusing a child to abusing a child and taking pictures or videos of the abuse which you then pass on to other people. But there again one in nine hints at a scale of offending behaviour which leaves no room for complacency.

More cautions than convictions for possession

The official figures that the Ministry of Justice released as a result of my FoI request also reveal that the use of cautions is on the way up, at least for possession offences.

The total number of cautions administered follows the same trajectory as the one referred to earlier. For possession offences they peaked at 205 in 2003 then started to fall back. In 2008 they start rising again reaching a new record high of 215 in 2010. Indeed in 2010, for the first time ever, the number of cautions given exceeded the number of convictions obtained.

The ratio of cautions to convictions for possession has been high for several years, often not far off 50:50. I wonder if there is any other class or type of criminal behaviour where this sort of pattern is repeated? It certainly looks a little odd and needs some explaining. The guidelines of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) are pretty clear:

.....a caution is unlikely to be a suitable method of disposal in cases where indecent images of children are found on the suspect's computer.

Cases that may be appropriate for a caution... are cases where indecent images of children are not found on the suspect's computer, but the suspect admits to having previously accessed such sites to obtain indecent images of children.

Cautions are not a soft option but...

Now I fully accept that getting a caution is not a soft option: it means the person has admitted the offence. They are still put on the Sex Offenders Register and get everything that goes with that. It might be the case that the rise in cautions reflects the fact that more young people are being picked up as offenders, maybe as the result of foolish behaviour on social networking sites. Dragging them before the courts is unlikely to be in their best long term interests nor will it serve justice. The expeditious use of a caution may be the exactly the right answer in these and other carefully selected cases.

However, cautions undoubtedly save police time, forensic laboratory time, CPS time and court time. Time is money. Police officers might therefore rationalise the use of cautions by saying it allows them to get on with dealing with more serious cases. It will be seen as a judicious use of scarce resources in an area where demand far, far outstrips supply. But that could be simply another way of saying

We can't afford to do the job we think needs doing

If that is the case we should acknowledge it and not pretend that what is happening is solely and wholly intended to improve the overall situation.

We also have to acknowledge that many people will feel angry about the use of cautions because they feel it denies the retributive element of a public trial. After all, by definition, most of the people convicted of these offences did not respect the right to privacy, or the right not to be publicly humiliated that was the lot of the children whose images they were collecting from the internet.

Against that someone quite close to these issues thought that the high level of cautions might not only be a sign, as mentioned earlier, that the police are picking up more young people but they are also finding a lot more individuals who are engaged in downloading and possessing smaller quantities of lower level images, particularly Level 1 images. I'm not sure how issuing cautions for Level 1 possession offences squares with The Sentencing Advisory Council's Guidelines but there you go.

De facto change of policy

I understand the Sentencing Guidelines are under review at the moment. It is possible the status of Level 1 is therefore about to change. But unless and until that happens people will be keen to know that level one images have not already been made the subject of a de facto demotion. It suggests that possession of such images may already be en route to being considered no more than an annoying misdemeanour, or possibly to becoming no crime at all.

For some time there has been a feeling in the child protection community that too often people found in possession of level one materials are thought to represent the least worrying type of offender. The assumption has been that only people found in possession of level four or five images, the worst of the worst, pose any sort of potential future threat to children. They get any help that is going, which anyway is precious little. Level one people are, in effect, cast adrift to fend for themselves. Yet there is no evidence at all to support the idea that level one offenders are less of a future threat to children than level four or five offenders. The reality could be the diametric and exact opposite.

That said, internationally our level one is regarded as being too strict or too high a standard. It does cause problems in terms of the smooth working of various police systems that work at a transnational level. Thus I do not think anyone should have a closed mind on the subject but if we are to make changes to the law or policy we need to know why.

Budgets alone do not a convincing case make!

Police officers frequently say they are having trouble coping with the volume of image-related offences. Phrases like "we cannot arrest our way out of this" reflect genuine anxieties within the law enforcement community.

Maybe we do all have to start looking for radical alternative strategies to try to deal with the scale of offending? But before anyone surrenders any terrain there should be a serious discussion which engages all stakeholders, not just some.

Matters of this kind should not be decided behind closed doors driven principally by pressures on the budget. We should not be bulldozed or led to a new position by a sleight of hand. There ought to be some sort of evidence base to support any changes. However, if budgets truly are the only reason for making changes to policy or practice we should at least record that fact. When we revisit matters as the economy improves we might then be spared having to jump through too many hoops merely to restore the status quo ante.