Britain needs to have a national debate about whether men who view child abuse images online should be prosecuted because of the “breathtaking scale” of offending, one of Britain’s most senior police chiefs has said.
Dave Thompson, the chief constable of West Midlands police, said that the number of men who are showing an “active interest” in child sexual abuse is “horrifying”.
He said that the offending is now so widespread that society needs to have a “big discussion” about how it is dealt with, highlighting calls for offenders to be given counselling instead.
Mr Thompson told the Home Affairs select committee: “The scale of it takes my breath away. There is a really big discussion as a society of how we deal with this.
“Of course it makes us all deeply uncomfortable to think that people who engage in those activities should in any way escape punishment but the scale of it is absolutely huge.”
He made the comments after Simon Bailey, the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for child protection, suggested that paedophiles who view indecent images should not be charged or taken to court unless they pose a physical threat to children.
He said that low-level offenders should simply be placed on the sex offenders register and given counselling and rehabilitation instead.
Tim Loughton, a Tory MP and member of the Home Affairs select committee, raised Mr Bailey’s comments during a hearing with some of Britain’s most senior police officers.
He said: “Do you think that’s sustainable? To say that modern paedophiles viewing images of children being abused, which is a serious crime, should not be prosecuted seemed to suggest that either the police were not taking this seriously or did not have the resources to take it seriously.”
Mr Thompson said: “I am staggered by what I see. The amount of men in this country who appear to show an active interest in this area is horrifying. The scale of it takes my breath away.
“There is a really big discussion as a society of how we deal with this that’s much broader than law-enforcement.
“Everything as a police officer and parent says we need to do something urgently to deter people in this area. Seeing prosecution as the answer to this is not going to be the answer on its own.”
Mr Thompson also warned that neighbourhood police officers are facing cuts because police are being “boiled like a frog” by falls in their budgets and increasing demands.
He said that forces are enduring real-terms cuts in their budgets while facing an increasing terror threat and a surge in gun crime and violent crime.
He said: “It feels to me a series of things have come together – a step up in terror resourcing for terror threats, a demand for vulnerability (modern slavery and human trafficking), coupled with a return of volume crime.
“That squeeze has felt really tough in the past 18 months. “I use the boiling of the frog analogy. The waters have started to feel quite hot this summer.
“There is a stretch here that feels more profound. There are red lights but not some white flags. Our ability to be preventative has been curtailed.”
Sara Thornton, chair of the National Police Chiefs Council, said: “Most chiefs would agree crime prevention work has been squeezed as there have been fewer officers in neighbourhood policing.”