The number of suspected incidents of online child sexual abuse referred to the Metropolitan police has increased by 700% since 2014, an inquiry has heard.
The National Crime Agency (NCA) alerted Scotland Yard to potential paedophiles operating over the internet on 647 occasions between 1 January and 30 September in 2017, the Independent Inquiry Into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) was told on Monday. Evidence of the rapid expansion of the problem was given on the first day of the inquiry’s hearing into the role of the internet in facilitating child abuse
The US-based National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) had identified 30,661 suspects with IP addresses in the UK in 2016, the inquiry heard. In 2009, the comparable figure had been only 1,591.
Such tip-offs from NCMEC are passed to the NCA’s specialist team at the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, who pass information on to local forces if they can connect offences to a geographical area.
Sexual offending online can include forcing a child to take part in or witness sexual activity, grooming them online for abuse, or blackmail through posting indecent images.
Jacqueline Carey, counsel to the inquiry, said in her opening statement: “On any view, whichever way the statistics are looked at, there has been a marked increase in the last five years in relation to online-facilitated child sexual abuse. The panel may wish to consider whether that is a trend which is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.”
Police forces in England and Wales recorded 5,653 incidents of sex crimes against children which had an online element in 2016-17, up from 3,903 in 2015-16, according to the NSPCC.
In 2016, the media regulator Ofcom reported that 12-15-year-olds spent an average of 20 hours and six minutes online a week, up from 18 hours the year before.
The IICSA also commissioned its own research into the issue, finding that one in 10 adults had had a sexualised conversation with a child.
The inquiry also heard from the mother of a schoolboy murdered by a predator who groomed him over the internet. Breck Bednar, 14, fell under the influence of computer engineer Lewis Daynes when they began playing video games together online, before being lured to a flat and killed by him in 2014.
Daynes was convicted of the teenager’s murder and jailed for a minimum of 25 years in 2015. Bednar’s mother, Lorin LaFave, has since launched an organisation promoting safer web use – the Breck Foundation.
LaFave explained how her son had been turned against her by Daynes, who posed as a young teenager and became increasingly manipulative and controlling. She had contacted Surrey police to raise her concerns about online grooming, but her complaint was not pursued.
The IICSA hearing continues all week.