Grooming children is not a crime. That statement is uncomfortable isn’t it? It doesn’t seem right. But it’s true that in England and Wales, adults can send sexual messages to children and they cannot be arrested, or even stopped from doing so.
There is a law on our statute books that makes it illegal to send seedy, harmful messages to children for sexual gratification and it should be being used right now to protect children from predators. But two years after creating the law, the government has yet to bring it into force.
Whatever the reason for the delay, this failure to tackle grooming needs to stop today. Justice Secretary Liz Truss simply needs to sign a piece of paper and send it to Parliament to bring the law into effect. So why hasn’t she done it yet?
Truss might argue that we already have a law making it illegal for an adult to incite a child to perform a sexual act. But is that really the first stage at which we want the law to protect children - when an adult has manipulated and exploited a child so much that they are engaging in physically engaging in sexual activity?
Another law – “meeting a child after sexual grooming” – is also there to protect children.
The number of recorded offences for meeting a child after grooming has more than tripled in the last five years. But it is shameful that we are waiting for predators to meet up with children in person before police can step in.
We’ve seen high profile cases where sexual messages have been sent to children, such as that of footballer Adam Johnson who sent a 15-year-old girl more than 800 messages seeking ‘more than a kiss’ and asking her to take her jeans off. Those messages were not a crime at the time.
And we know more than 3,000 sex offences against children in the year to March 2016 involved a cyber element. This is more than enough evidence that we need this law in place.
Scotland and Northern Ireland have already brought anti-grooming laws in, and there have been more than 1,500 recorded offences in those nations.
We know that Theresa May supports this law. Back in January 2015 when, as Home Secretary, she said: “If there are other gaps in child protection legislation, we are determined to take the necessary action to safeguard those at risk of harm.”
Where is that determination today?
We don’t know why the government is dragging its feet on protecting children from being targeted by groomers. Many charities have written to Justice Secretary Liz Truss to ask her to bring in this law - but have received no explanation for the delay.
Who else supports this law? 50,000 people signed a petition to get this law enacted in the first place, in 2014. The Government has let them down
It is vital that we don’t let another day go by where adults are able to send sexual messages to children, with complete impunity. I urge the Prime Minister to intervene and bring in this law so we can stop abuse before it starts.
Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC