Girls are victims of most online grooming crimes in Hertfordshire

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NSPCC calls on Culture Secretary to strengthen proposals in the draft Online Safety Bill to ensure girls are properly protected from online sexual abuse

More must be done to protect girls online, the NSPCC has said, as new figures suggest they are the victim of most online grooming crimes in Hertfordshire.

The charity, which obtained the information from 43 police forces through a Freedom of Information request, is calling on new Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries to strengthen proposals in the draft Online Safety Bill to ensure girls are properly protected from online sexual abuse nationally.

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The data shows Hertfordshire Constabulary recorded 49 offences in which an adult engaged in sexual communication with a child under 16 between July 2020 and March this year.

The image has been used for illustrative purposesThe image has been used for illustrative purposes
The image has been used for illustrative purposes

The gender of the victim was recorded in 35 crimes – 31 of whom were female, and four male.

The data also shows that where the age of the female victim was recorded, 25 were aged between 12 and 15, and five under 11.

The offence of sexual communication with a child, which was introduced in 2017 in England and Wales, refers to crimes committed online as well as in-person or via text message.

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However, the NSPCC estimates more than 95 per cent of such offences are committed via the internet.

Detective Chief Inspector Jason Finnegan, who leads Hertfordshire Constabulary's Child Safeguarding teams, said: “Our Child Online Safeguarding Team (COST) is a specialist unit within our Safeguarding Command where detectives and investigators use sophisticated technology and techniques to identify, respond to and protect at-risk children.

“They safeguard victims by identifying perpetrators, executing warrants, seizing and interrogating electronic devices and bringing offenders to justice.

“We have recently appointed a Child Criminal Exploitation Co-ordinator, whose primary role is further developing the Constabulary’s response to the criminal exploitation of children.

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“Online grooming is often a key part of the exploitation process and the CCE Co-ordinator is working to strengthen our partnership with the county’s Children’s Services and other partners.

“Another key part of their role is working with vulnerable young people and professionals such as education providers to share the signs of exploitation and grooming, and empowering them to report it.

“This incredibly important issue is not one the police can tackle alone, and the work of our partners is intrinsic to achieving deeper societal change in order to protect children from predators online."

Across England and Wales, there were 12,944 recorded offences where the gender was known between April 2017 and March 2021, with 10,722 (83 per cent) of those recording the victim as female.

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The NSPCC is calling on the Government to act to ensure it lives up to its previously stated ambition of making the UK the safest place in the world for a child to be online.

It said the Online Safety Bill, currently being examined by MPs and peers, must be strengthened to stop grooming and abuse spreading between apps, disrupt abuse at the earliest possible stage and hold senior managers to account.

Anna Edmundson, head of policy, said: “Any child can be a victim of online sexual abuse but the sheer number of girls being targeted is both alarming and a reminder of the failure of platforms to effectively protect their young users.

“One of the primary functions of the Online Safety Bill is to keep all children – including girls – safe when they go online.

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“Now, the new Culture Secretary has the opportunity to fix the substantive weaknesses in the legislation so it does just that.”

The Government said social media companies needed to clamp down on child abuse content and prevent young people from being groomed.

A spokesman said: “Our new laws will be the most comprehensive in the world in protecting children online.

“Failing firms will face hefty fines or have their sites blocked, and we will have the power to make senior managers criminally liable for failing to protect children.”