Child Sexual Abuse Material (Digital Devices)

– in the House of Commons am 12:35 pm ar 15 Mai 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

Photo of Pauline Latham Pauline Latham Ceidwadwyr, Mid Derbyshire 1:09, 15 Mai 2024

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for a power to require a person to grant access to their digital devices in the course of a lawful inspection under the Customs and Excise Management Act 1979 where there is a reasonable suspicion that the device may contain child sexual abuse material;
to provide that refusal to grant such access constitutes an offence;
and for connected purposes.

I begin by outlining the scale of the problem this Bill seeks to tackle. Up to 835,000 individuals in the United Kingdom represent a sexual risk to children, according to the national strategic assessment. We also know that 85% of online offenders are hands-on abusers, too. One in four girls and one in six boys are sexually assaulted before the age of 18. Child sexual abuse material—or CSAM—is abundant online, so much so that almost 30 million unique CSAM files are known to UK law enforcement, and the number is growing all the time.

The digital age has brought with it tremendous opportunities for advancement in many areas, communication has never been easier and the world has never been smaller, but as the world has become smaller, criminal networks have grown larger. Law enforcement is still having to play catch up, and as a result—tragically, unforgivably—more and more children are becoming victims to sexual predators.

The UK Border Force is our first line of defence against people travelling with the intent to cause harm, whatever that may be. Its search powers have been sufficient to stop terrorists and drug smugglers, but they are not sufficient to stop child abusers. That is because the law governing the scope of its search powers was drafted in the 1970s—long before the digital age. A single photo taken from one of today’s smartphones could easily exceed the entire capacity of even the highest-spec 1970s floppy disk, then at the revolutionary cutting edge of computing. It was an era when it was not even conceivable that sexual predators would be travelling across borders with potentially thousands of illegal photos and videos in the palm of their hand.

The outdated law in question is the Customs and Excise Management Act 1979. It grants the power for a Border Force agent to search an individual and their baggage to detect the import or export of prohibited goods. Border Force does not require reasonable grounds to suspect that the individual is in possession of prohibited goods to utilise this power of search in a port environment. While existing powers permit Border Force to require an individual to present their baggage, including their digital devices, those powers do not extend to requiring a person to open that baggage—to unlock a device. If they refuse to do so when asked, there is nothing that Border Force can do.

In previous decades, CSAM would amount to a stack of polaroids, which were often unmistakable and readily detectable. Now all this material is carried digitally, and often behind encryption software and passcodes. To expand on this point, there have been several examples of lone individuals identified as possessing belongings associated with the commission of sexual offences against children—for example, toys, lubricants, condoms and children’s underwear. In these circumstances, where it is reasonable to suspect that the individual may be in possession of digital CSAM, Border Force cannot inspect the digital device unless the individual consents. Each time this happens, we could be letting a dangerous abuser into the United Kingdom undetected. As I mentioned in my Westminster Hall debate on the same subject late last year, even when notified, it can take weeks for the police to trace an individual, and there have been cases where a suspect has raped two or more young girls before being caught.

My Bill gives Border Force the power it needs to prevent this. Under it, an individual refusing to unlock their digital devices would be subject to arrest for a new offence of obstruction. If an international passenger of any nationality arrives in or departs from the UK and Border Force reasonably suspects the individual to be involved in child sexual abuse, Border Force officers will ask them to unlock their digital device so that they can perform a scan to determine, beyond any reasonable doubt, the presence of CSAM as verified by the Home Office’s database. If the individual complies, the scan will take place, and if content is detected, the individual will be arrested under the 1979 Act. If they refuse, they commit an offence, and their devices will be seized and forensically examined by the police or the National Crime Agency.

I want to go into a little more detail on how the technology now available would be used, because I know that some hon. Members will have concerns about privacy. The power to search a device would be governed by a standard operating procedure whereby an inspection would be undertaken via a scan—not a download—that only searched a device’s memory for a file code or hashtag associated with known CSAM files. These codes are held on a Home Office database containing nearly 30 million unique files. There would be no manual device inspection or collateral searches. This also means that Border Force officers would not be subjected to any horrific material themselves, as they would likely have been in previous decades. It is worth noting that a similar power already exists for the police in relation to terrorist material under schedule 7 to the Terrorism Act 2000.

With these new powers, Border Force would become a full part of the multi-agency response needed to help prevent the proliferation of CSAM online. It would also mean it could meet the recommendation of the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse to increase proactive detection of previously unidentified persons, and therefore safeguard children from new or further harm.

I mentioned earlier that over 800,000 people in the UK present a sexual risk to children. What I did not say is that very few of these individuals have been identified. With the new powers that I have outlined, Border Force will go from having a near-zero impact on locating offenders to playing an active role in preventing the sexual abuse of children. Furthermore, it will be able to prevent potential first-generation CSAM from making it on to the internet.

Detection at the border can be a starting point for further investigation, such as identifying other devices or items held at the suspect’s home and looking into other offences against young people. That is the case in New Zealand, a member of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing group, which brought in similar powers for its border force under its Customs and Excise Act 2018. It reports a near 100% increase in intelligence-led interdictions against travelling child sex offenders since the law was passed.

To conclude, for many years I have campaigned against all forms of child abuse. In February last year, the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Act 2022, which I sponsored, came into force. It means that is it illegal, under any circumstances, for a child under 18 to be married. We have brought an end to this form of abuse, but it is wrong that we still have laws so outdated that they allow sexual predators and abusers to escape justice. It is also a great frustration that we must expend serious parliamentary time and resources to enact what I believe is a simple and inarguable case. Passing this Bill would give the UK Border Force the ability to play an active role in identifying previously unknown individuals who may represent a danger to children. In doing so, we would be further protecting our children from the lifelong trauma that so often results from being the victim of sexual abuse. Child abuse is happening now, and these powers should be there to confront it.

Question put and agreed to.


That Mrs Pauline Latham, Mrs Sheryll Murray, Mr Ian Liddell-Grainger, Mrs Heather Wheeler and Martin Vickers present the Bill.

Mrs Pauline Latham accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 21 June, and to be printed (Bill 219).