Select Committee on Home Affairs Written Evidence

15.  Memorandum submitted by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC)


  Cross-border challenges to child protection require cross-border solutions. The NSPCC believes the EU has an important role to play in providing these solutions, including in the field of justice and home affairs, and that it must continue to develop urgently needed initiatives in the field of JHA to improve child protection in the EU. The NSPCC recommends that not only decision making procedures but other obstacles to progress in this area are explored.

Preventing unsuitable people from working with children

  In order to prevent unsuitable people moving between countries to seek work with children, the NSPCC has been highlighting for some years the need to improve the exchange of information between EU Member States on child sex offenders, and to recognise other countries' disqualifications from working with children.

  There are a number of significant EU developments in this field, including attempts to make progress in the area of the mutual recognition and enforcement of prohibitions arising from convictions for sexual offences committed against children. However there have been obstacles to moving forward, which need addressing. The NSPCC believes mutual recognition is the most realistic way of responding to this problem.

  Additionally, further steps are needed to enable exchange of criminal records information, with a focus on offences against children, as well as ensuring that this information can be effectively made use of.

Identification of victims of child abuse images

  The development of computer technologies, and the internet in particular, has facilitated a dramatic expansion in the market for child sex abuse images. The EU has helped tackle this problem including through the adoption of a Framework Decision on combating the sexual exploitation of children and child pornography (2003), which obliges Member States to make offences related to child pornography illegal and lays down lower limits for maximum penalties. However, the NSPCC is aware that there is an urgent need for greater practical cooperation, within the EU as well as beyond.


  1.  The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) is the UK's leading charity specialising in child protection and the prevention of cruelty to children. It is the only children's charity with statutory powers enabling it to act to safeguard children at risk.

  2.  We have more than 180 teams and projects throughout England, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Channel Islands. Their work includes family support, counselling and therapy to children and families experiencing abuse; investigations into allegations of child abuse; and work within schools and other youth organisations to provide a voice for children and advocate their rights, among other activities.

  3.  The NSPCC provides an independent campaigning voice for children. It works to influence government on legislation and policy affecting the lives of children and families and runs public education campaigns to raise awareness of, and encourage action to prevent, child abuse.


  4.  The NSPCC welcomes the opportunity to comment on the issue of EU Justice and Home Affairs. The questions posed by this Inquiry are hugely important for efforts to protect children in the context of the changing nature of crimes against children, which increasingly transcend national borders including due to greater cross-border movement of people and new technologies.

  5.  The NSPCC will not respond to all of the questions raised in the consultation, but focus on the issues about which it has particular knowledge and which are most significant for child protection. These are:

    A.  The cross-border dimension of preventing unsuitable people from working with children.

    B.  Identification of victims of child abuse images.



  6.  One of the NSPCC's main priorities at EU level is improving information exchange between EU Member States on people convicted of offences against children, with particular emphasis on using this information to ensure disqualifications are recognised across the Union. We are also concerned to develop means of exchanging information about people who are cautioned, but not convicted, in relation to sex offences against children. In the UK system for example, such people would show up on a Criminal Records Bureau check, but information about them would not be exchanged with other countries under current proposals.

  7.  In the UK, the June 2004 report of the Bichard Inquiry, which was prompted by the conviction of Ian Huntley for the murder of two children in Soham, referred specifically to the difficulty of checking the background of overseas workers. It concluded that, "this is clearly an area of potential weakness in the protection of young people" and recognised the risks and loopholes posed by the lack of information sharing between EU member states.

  8.  The NSPCC's knowledge supports the fact that some sex offenders will go to considerable lengths to gain access to children; this includes moving from one setting to another, from one professional activity to another, and one country to another.

  9.  There have been a number of recent cases in which closer EU co-operation could have made a real difference to our ability to protect children from the activities of sex offenders. In 2004, the case of Michel Fourniret in Belgium highlighted a serious failure between neighbouring Member States to share information, which resulted in a convicted sex offender from France gaining employment in a school in Belgium.

  10.  The NSPCC's work in Northern Ireland (NI) in particular has made us aware of the difficulties posed by the existence of different systems across Member State borders. The lack of disqualification arrangements in the Republic of Ireland has created serious problems as offenders barred from working with children in NI can easily cross the border to work in the Republic of Ireland. There is some evidence from NSPCC NI that a number of sex offenders are using gaps in the different legislation and policy between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to manipulate assessment and risk management arrangements. In recent years the NSPCC NI has worked closely with the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (ISPCC) to highlight the problems and loopholes, to the Irish government in particular.

  11.  The UK vetting system, although not perfect, is considered to be one of the most rigorous in Europe. The picture varies considerably across the EU with not every member holding a list or a mechanism to track and monitor those who have been disqualified from working with children.

  12.  The NSPCC has long recognised the need to share information on convicted child sex offenders across the EU. We have particularly emphasised the need to create a mechanism for using this shared information to ensure that disqualifications from working with children are recognised and enforced in all member states. The NSPCC's CUPICSO report (2000) [107]on the collection and use of personal information on child sex offenders examined how personal information was being used in different member states. The report made several recommendations on how to establish more effective methods at Union level to protect children from sex offenders.

  13.  Since 2000 the NSPCC has continued to campaign on this issue. In 2003 we held a roundtable discussion in the European Parliament to highlight the existing gaps in advance of EU enlargement. We have worked closely with the Home Office, taking part in a Home Office seminar in March 2004 and joint information trips to Belgium and France in 2004 which helped develop our knowledge of relevant systems in other countries. At UK level the NSPCC has campaigned for, helped develop and supported recent legislation to prevent unsuitable people working with children at national level[108]. Our work has continued to shed light on the deficiences in relation to cross-border cooperation and the challenges faced in this field.

  14.  The NSPCC also has a strong interest as an employer of many staff who work closely with children in ensuring that vetting and checking systems are as robust and thorough as they can be, so that unsuitable and unsafe individuals, from the UK or any other EU member state, or elsewhere are not able to secure positions with children.

Current state of progress in mutual recognition, including the development of minimum standards across the EU, and whether further steps in this direction are desirable; In which areas is mutual recognition currently employed?

  15.  The EU has been attempting to make progress in the area of the mutual recognition and enforcement of prohibitions arising from convictions for sexual offences committed against children.

  16.  The Belgian government proposed in 2004 a "Council framework decision on the recognition and enforcement in the European Union of prohibitions arising from convictions for sexual offences committed against children". Under the decision, Member States would recognise and enforce bans on working with children imposed on individuals by other Member States, where these bans result from criminal convictions for sexual offences committed against children.

  17.  The framework decision is proposed on the basis of Articles 31(a) and 34(b) of the Treaty on European Union, as a supplement to previous decisions including Framework Decision 2004/68/JHA on combating the sexual exploitation of children and child pornography (2003). This established a minimum common EU approach to these offences, in particular as regards the type of penalty and prohibition that should be provided for by national legislation, thus laying the ground for legislative action in this area.

  18.  The NSPCC welcomed this Belgian initiative and detailed its reactions in a response to a Home Office consultation in May 2005. This would be an important first step towards better protection for children within a borderless Europe.

  19.  However, even this is proving difficult to achieve. The European Parliament (under the consultation procedure) adopted a report approving the Belgian initiative in May 2006, with some minor changes. The Finnish Presidency subsequently drew up a revised proposal which has been discussed in the relevant Council Working Group over the past months. Negotiations have so far been unsuccessful in reaching agreement. While Member States agree on the important purpose of the initiative and the need for action of this kind, there are a number of obstacles to agreeing on a workable system.

  20.  This step is highly desirable in order to respond to a growing challenge for child protection. It would not be acceptable to reduce ambitions to improve protection for children due to politically-motivated concerns. For the NSPCC, it is crucial in the first instance to ensure that this legislation is adopted.

  21.  It is important to recognise that this first step alone would not create a satisfactory system. As an organisation set up to protect children from all forms of abuse the NSPCC sees the framework decision as a basis on which further legislative action should be taken. Our concerns are in particular:

    —  The proposal applies only to prohibitions arising from convictions for sexual offences. However many states, including the UK, have procedures for prohibiting other offenders, and people who may pose a risk, from working with children. For example, the disqualification order in England and Wales also applies to some offenders convicted of violent and drug offences against children. While we recognise the complexities involved in extending the offences beyond those defined in the Council framework decision on combating sexual exploitation of children and pornography to include other forms of abuse and drug related offences, we would like to see a continuing dialogue with the EU member states to examine how this could be achieved.

    —  The proposal stipulates that recognition will only be of "prohibitions arising from convictions". However in the UK there are also administrative systems (ie not court-ordered convictions) intended to bar individuals who are considered to be unsuitable to work with children. The UK vetting and barring system is currently undergoing a huge reform to further tighten the system, including creating a new independent panel of experts whose role it will be to make decisions about prohibitions. This kind of administrative disqualification is not recognised in this proposal. The UK government has previously suggested examining the potential of extending this framework decision to include non court-ordered prohibitions, which the NSPCC supports.

    —  The proposal does not address the problem of discrepancies between penalties. We are concerned that sex offenders may seek to reduce the time of a court-ordered prohibition by moving between Member States seeking out more lenient penalties.

  The NSPCC therefore believes that further action is desirable to address these elements.

  22.  As mutual recognition has not yet been operationalised in this area we cannot comments on its effectiveness. Given the current political and legal EU context mutual recognition would appear to be the most realistic way of making progress in this area, which takes into account the wide variations in criminal justice systems.

  23.  However, mutual recognition does have limitations as evidenced by the current difficulties in adopting the legislation described above[109].

  24.  The exchange and use of criminal record information is an essential prerequisite for effective mutual recognition. This is not easy, especially given the huge variety of ways in which disqualifications are handed out and registered. It is clear that Enlargement has also added to the range of criminal justice systems within the EU and increased the variety of approaches which need to be coordinated. However, ongoing efforts in this area must be vigorously pursued.

  25.  The CUPICSO report included recommendations that governments ensure that criminal records contain a discrete category of records on child sex offenders; put in place arrangements to facilitate the movement of information on child sex offenders within countries; and set up clear national contact points to facilitate cross-border information sharing, among others. Many of the report's recommendations remain valid.

  26.  The Commission produced a White Paper in January 2005 on exchanges of information on convictions and the effect of such convictions in the European Union. Crimes committed against children, particularly sexual offences, are very different in nature to the other "serious crimes" recognised by the EU; terrorism, organised crime and fraud. At the time, the NSPCC expressed concerns that the White Paper was not specific enough to effectively deal with sexual crimes against children.

  27.  However, the NSPCC welcomed the Commission's commitment to putting in place a mechanism for exchanging information on convictions within a reasonable time frame. We also supported the idea of setting up a European index of offenders, a means of identifying the Member States in which a person has previous convictions, which could be easily consulted but which complies with national and European privacy laws. We believe this would enable the exchange of information more rapidly. Priority should be given to using this information for checking individuals who seek employment with children and young people.

  28.  However, the subsequent proposal for a Council framework decision on the organisation and content of the exchange of information extracted from criminal records between Member States (December 2005) did not include the earlier suggestion of a European index of offenders. The NSPCC questions the reasons for not taking forward the idea of an index of offenders.

  29.  The NSPCC believes that further steps to ensure exchange of criminal records information should be vigorously pursued, with a focus on offences against children, and ensuring that this information can be effectively made use of.



  30.  The development of computer technologies, and the internet in particular, has facilitated a dramatic expansion in the market for child sex abuse images. The internet allows images of the sexual abuse of children to be distributed all over the world and the evidence points to a vast increase in the number of images in circulation and to more and more children being abused to produce these images.

  31.  The Interpol database of child abuse images contains photographic evidence of more than 20,000 individual children who have been sexually abused for the production of child abuse images. In May 2006, fewer than 500 of these victims had been identified and become subject to protection[110].

  32.  The NSPCC has been working to focus attention on the victims of this crime, who are often forgotten in police efforts to identify and convict perpetrators. In 2003 the NSPCC published "Images of abuse: A review of the evidence on child pornography"[111]. The NSPCC was one of the first to identify this need and work with the police in a joint initiative called "E-Spy", to track down and prosecute people who download images of child sexual abuse from the internet and to identify the victims shown in the images. The NSPCC have also successfully lobbied the UK government for the creation and set up of CEOP(C) the new Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre and have embedded several of our staff in the new centre. We strongly support CEOP(C) programme of internet safety work which includes the identifying of victims. However we do not believe that the level of funding and resources channelled into the new centre to work on victim identification is yet sufficient.

  33.  The EU has helped tackle this problem including through the adoption of the 2003 framework decision on combating the sexual exploitation of children and child pornography, which obliges Member States to make offences related to child pornography illegal and lays down lower limits for maximum penalties.

  34.  The NSPCC is aware however that there is an urgent need for greater practical cooperation, within the EU as well as beyond. The most successful initiative to date has been the creation of the Virtual Global Task Force (VGT) which is a produce of cooperation at an operational level between a number of law enforcement agencies. However, its growth has been slow and there continue to be considerable difficulties around data sharing between countries. Interpol is currently struggling to set up one comprehensive global database of images and they have expressed concerns about the challenges to this. There is currently a pressing need for this issue to be given greater political priority and more global leadership.


The process of decision making on JHA issues at EU level

  35.  The principle of open borders and the free movement of goods, services and people has many advantages for EU citizens. However it has also made it easier for individuals to take advantage of open borders for criminal purposes and to evade detection. New cross-border threats to children require cross-border solutions.

  36.  The NSPCC is concerned that important objectives—such as agreeing initiatives aiming to better protect children, and exchanging relevant information efficiently and effectively—are failing to be reached due to the difficulties in this area. Changing decision making procedures alone is unlikely to be enough to address urgent child protection concerns.

  37.  Changes in criminal behaviour linked to increasing freedom of movement of people as well as new technologies, demand ambitious responses from governments. Greater and more effective European cooperation to tackle crime including against children is essential. This includes judicial cooperation, and addressing the difficulties currently being faced.

  38.  The NSPCC recommends that not only decision making procedures but other obstacles to progress in this area are explored. Political will and a spirit of cooperation will be essential ingredients in moving this work forward.


  39.  The EU can and must continue to develop urgently needed initiatives in the field of JHA to improve child protection in the EU.

Kathleen Spencer Chapman

European Adviser

17 November 2006

107   CUPICSO: the collection and use of personal information on child sex offenders. London: NSPCC (2000). Back

108   These include: The Police Act 1997 including implementation of Part V in Northern Ireland; Response to the Interdepartmental Working Group on Preventing Unsuitable People from Working with Children, Protection of Children Act 1999; The Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults (NI) Order 2003; The Sexual Offences (Amendments) Act 2000; The Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000; The Sexual Offences Act 2003; Response to the CRB consultation paper on the Reform of the Disclosure Process; Response to the Northern Ireland Office consultation "Safer Recruitment in Northern Ireland". Back

109   It is also important to note that in February 2006 the Commission published a Communication on Disqualifications arising from criminal convictions in the European Union. This recommended taking a sectoral approach, giving priority where a common basis between Member States already exists-such as in the field of prohibitions arising from convictions for child sex offences. Back

110   These figures were provided by Europol in May 2006. Back

111 Back

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