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Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, September 21, 2023


Online Child Abuse, Grooming and Exploitation

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Annabelle Ewing)

The next item of business is a debate on behalf of the Criminal Justice Committee on tackling online child abuse, grooming and exploitation.

I invite members who wish to speak in the debate to please press their request-to-speak buttons, and I call Audrey Nicoll to open the debate on behalf of the Criminal Justice Committee. You may have around nine minutes.


Audrey Nicoll (Aberdeen South and North Kincardine) (SNP)

I am grateful that the Criminal Justice Committee has been given time to debate the issue of online child sexual exploitation. The committee has taken evidence on the issue on two occasions, and I thank all the witnesses who shared their expertise and knowledge with members.

We heard about the increasing rate at which incidents of online child sexual exploitation are being reported and that the response must go

“beyond one of law enforcement”,

involving justice, health, education, social work and third sector services working together.

Miles Bonfield of the National Crime Agency stated:

“We should be clear that our assessment is that the threat, complexity and severity of offending continue to grow. The challenge is really out there”. —[Official Report, Criminal Justice Committee, 18 May 2022; c 50.]

NSPCC Scotland told the committee that, across the United Kingdom, online child sexual exploitation has

“rapidly increased over the last decade”,

and Police Scotland confirmed that it is dealing with enduring increases in reporting.

The NSPCC provided sobering statistics showing that there has been an 84 per cent rise in online grooming offences recorded since 2017-18 and that girls aged 12 to 15 were most likely to be victims of online grooming. In 2021-22, freedom of information data from the United Kingdom police showed that four out of five grooming cases involved girls. In internet-facilitated abuse, the trend has been towards more serious sexual offences against children.

Alison Penman of Social Work Scotland highlighted the emerging issue of children behaving harmfully towards others and the need to deploy different approaches so that those children receive appropriate support to recover from trauma, while addressing their own offending.

John Swinney (Perthshire North) (SNP)

The data that Audrey Nicoll marshals paints a troubling picture. Did the committee explore the sensitive and difficult issues in relation to the educational approaches that are required? Given that much of the technology is moving at such a pace, as are the activities, families might struggle to keep pace, so our education system faces additional burdens in trying to equip children and young people to deal with these difficulties.

Audrey Nicoll

I thank John Swinney for a valid question, which I will come on to.

I commend Stuart Allardyce from Stop It Now! Scotland for his insightful evidence, in which he described three key components to prevent online harm. The first is safety by design, which he called

“the stuff that tech companies need to take on board and which the ... Online Safety Bill is driving.”—[Official Report, Criminal Justice Committee, 31 May 2023; c 8.]

The second is effective messaging for young people and parents, and the final one is perpetrator-focused prevention.

On safety by design, witnesses spoke of the need for tech companies to prioritise children’s safety by building platforms that are safe for children. The witnesses want duties to be placed on tech companies to prevent children from accessing harmful material; to co-operate with law enforcement agencies to identify child sexual abuse; and to implement robust age-assurance measures.

Daljeet Dagon from Barnardo’s Scotland said:

“we have spent too long expecting children to protect themselves and to take responsibility for the abuse and harm ... they suffer and encounter. It is about time that we made technology organisations and companies take much more responsibility for preventing abuse from happening in the first place”.—[Official Report, Criminal Justice Committee, 31 May 2023; c 8.]

Will the member take an intervention?

Audrey Nicoll

I want to make progress. If I have time, I will come back to Martin Whitfield.

The committee heard about the pivotal role of education in safeguarding children online. NSPCC Scotland told us about the

“lifelong benefits for children and young people by teaching them about healthy and positive relationships, empowering them to recognise abuse”,

while Wendy Hart of the National Crime Agency spoke of the importance of educating parents on engaging with children in a way that avoids blame.

Stuart Allardyce spoke of the support that Stop It Now! offers individuals who are worried about their sexual thoughts and feelings towards children. He also spoke of the learning, from work with individuals who have committed sexual offences, that has been taken to develop prevention resources and stop sexual abuse before it happens.

In March, Stop It Now! published a report on the impact on partners, children and families after a loved one has been arrested for an online sexual offence. The organisation found that families, who are secondary victims of the crime, typically become aware of offending behaviour when the police arrive at the family home—a time that is known as “the knock”. Family members can experience post-traumatic stress and feelings of guilt or shame, with little or no access to support. Police Scotland’s online campaign #GetHelpOrGetCaught has seen significant success in signposting to Stop It Now! individuals who recognise that their behaviour is concerning.

NSPCC Scotland spoke of the importance of children as experts in this space. They understand the emerging risks that they face and have a key role in developing constructive solutions.

On policy and legislation, the committee heard that there remains a lack of understanding of the scale and nature of child sexual exploitation in Scotland. The Scottish Government has acknowledged the need to improve data collection and is working with analysts and partners to make improvements in that regard. The committee understands that work is under way involving Police Scotland, the Scottish Government and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service to consider legislative gaps, including around the growing incidents of self-generated images of children.

Witnesses called for an overarching sexual harm strategy for Scotland. Social Work Scotland said:

“The National Guidance for Child Protection in Scotland 2021 provides a context for tackling issues within the current child protection processes. However, the complexity and continued development of online concerns and increased level of risk for children and young people means that a specific, national, multi-agency strategy would be beneficial for services. Any strategy would need to evolve and develop as new and emerging risks are identified.”

I would appreciate the minister’s views on that proposal. The organisation also asked for a nationally funded training programme. It said:

“Online harm is a challenging and fast changing context and social work services must continue to develop the skills and knowledge to assess and respond to online risk. A nationally funded training programme and for a for shared learning would support local areas to maintain expertise and knowledge in a specialist area of practice.”

The committee also wrote to the Scottish Government about the proposal for a sexual harm strategy. However, the Government has indicated that it does not consider that one is required at this time.

The Online Safety Bill, which, as members will know, was passed earlier this week, creates a provision to protect against risks and harms online, with particular reference to children and young people. The Criminal Justice Committee has engaged with Ofcom and will host a briefing for MSPs so that they can learn more about Ofcom’s role in the context of the new legislation. I invite and encourage all members to attend.

I am grateful that we are debating this complex and emerging issue, and I look forward to hearing the contributions of colleagues on how we collectively tackle online child sexual abuse in Scotland.


The Minister for Children, Young People and Keeping the Promise (Natalie Don)

I welcome the debate and the committee’s interest in this important issue. All members in the chamber will be committed to ensuring the online safety and wellbeing of our young people.

Throughout the past two decades, technology has expanded at an unprecedented pace, and it is in our homes and in our hands. In 2000, less than 7 per cent of the world was online; today, more than half the world’s population has access to the internet. The same pattern can be seen in use of mobile phones. At the start of the century, there were just under 740 million mobile phone subscriptions in the world; now, the number is more than 8 billion. We have more mobile phones than people.

There is no doubt that the change in internet and mobile technologies has positively transformed our lives and brought vast opportunities. Just imagine the pandemic and lockdowns, for example, without technology to keep us connected. However, with all that comes risk, especially for our young people. Keeping children safe from online abuse and exploitation is a key priority for the Scottish Government. Child sexual abuse, irrespective of how it occurs or how it is facilitated, is an abhorrent crime that can have a profound and long-lasting impact on its victims and their families. The number of images that are being found online showing children being sexually abused rises year after year.

Establishing the true prevalence of those crimes is extremely challenging, due to the crimes’ hidden and underreported nature. However, recorded crime statistics provide us with some context. The latest statistics show that there were 765 offences of taking, distributing and possessing indecent images of children in Scotland, which is an increase of 16 per cent since 2021-22, and the highest total since comparable records began in 2009. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance that we ensure that our young people benefit from the online world in safe and secure ways.

Our approach to achieving that is multifaceted. It involves equipping children with the tools and skills that they need to stay safe online, and supporting parents and carers to ensure that they have the information and skills to guide children and recognise when a child is at risk. Professionals must be equipped with the knowledge and skills to build children’s resilience, to recognise abuse and exploitation and to respond with high-quality support. That must be accompanied by work to detect, disrupt and prosecute perpetrators and to reduce reoffending.

In our schools, teachers deliver the “technologies: experiences and outcomes” area of the curriculum to provide learning on internet safety and cyber resilience. Those things help teachers to support children in learning about safe and responsible use of technologies, including the internet and social media, as part of their broad general education under our curriculum for excellence. We are also committed to ensuring that all children and young people receive high-quality relationships and sexual health education to help them to build safe and positive relationships as they grow older.

Public messaging is key in preventing online abuse. In March 2023, we reran our successful public awareness campaign, which supported parents and carers to keep children safe online, and emphasised the importance of talking regularly to children about online safety, setting safety measures and agreeing boundaries. The campaign had a strong impact on behaviour. Nine in 10 of those who saw the campaign reported taking action as a result. That is the highest rate of any Parent Club campaign that we have seen.

Martin Whitfield

With regard to education, in the curriculum for excellence technology section, the exploration of online communities—the social platforms that the minister is talking about—is not expected to start until the second level, which is at the top end of primary school and into the first year of high school. Is it worth our while to consider introducing it earlier in a young person’s education experience, so that they are equipped before they venture on to those platforms?

I have also alluded to the importance of having such conversations in the home, which is important from an early age. However, that suggestion is certainly something that could be looked at.

John Swinney

I will follow up on Mr Whitfield’s question, which was on a very important point that is worthy of consideration. Does the question not highlight another of the sensitivities in the discussions, which is about how we deal with educational content about relationships in the school setting? The issues cause considerable distress to individuals, but do the risk that Mr Whitfield highlights and the risk of abuse at a young age not reinforce the importance of having such dialogue as early as possible, in an age-appropriate fashion, with young people and children?

Natalie Don

Yes. I absolutely agree with Mr Swinney.

The Parent Club campaign that I was referring to linked to an online safety hub on the Scottish Government Parent Club website, which provides information and advice on how to keep children safe from online harms. We are updating that to include advice for the parents of younger children, who are increasingly exposed to technology. We have also prioritised early intervention by providing funding to the third sector—in particular, Stop it Now! Scotland—to deliver online child sexual abuse prevention work.

In relation to people who seek to cause harm online, we are working with Police Scotland to find effective ways to deter potential perpetrators from committing online abuse in the first place.

Foysol Choudhury (Lothian) (Lab)

Schools and local authorities have roles to play in keeping children safe online, but they are struggling with already-stretched budgets. At the same time, Police Scotland is losing police numbers and is having to abandon planned capacity improvements in the force. Does the minister share my concern that the stretched budget of that institution will impact on its ability to keep up with the complexity of the crimes?

Natalie Don

I recognise the crucial role that Police Scotland officers play. We have recently provided an additional £80 million of funding to the police budget this year, which I think addresses the member’s point.

The Scottish Government is a member of the Police Scotland multi-agency group on preventing online child sexual abuse. Through the group, the child protection leads from a number of agencies consider advancements in tackling the problem, emerging trends, including in artificial intelligence and virtual reality environments, and new projects and support for victims.

I intend to visit the Scottish crime campus to discuss the police response to this important issue and whether the Scottish Government or national partners can take other actions to provide support. The Scottish Government has issued national child protection guidance to support local areas to develop effective evidence-based responses to child sexual abuse and exploitation, and we published an updated version of the guidance at the beginning of this month.

Providing support to victims and their families is vital, which is why we provide funding to a number of third sector organisations that are involved in safeguarding support. This year, that includes £570,000 for Barnardo’s Scotland to support children who are at risk of, or affected by, child sexual abuse and exploitation. We have also provided funding to NSPCC’s Childline to provide resources, support and counselling to children, and to the Moira Anderson Foundation to provide therapy and counselling for child survivors.

The bairns hoose model gives Scotland the opportunity to provide a genuinely child-centred approach to delivering justice, care and recovery for children who have experienced trauma. This year, we are investing £6 million to establish pathfinder partnerships for our bairns hoose project.

We also need to ensure that the online industry plays a major role in increasing internet safety for children and young people. Although internet regulation is reserved, we have engaged with the UK Government during development of the Online Safety Bill, and we have successfully pushed for stronger protections for children online in the final bill. The bill will require tech firms to remove illegal content quickly from their services, or to prevent it from appearing in the first place. It will also mitigate the risk of platforms being used to commit or facilitate child sexual abuse and exploitation offences.

In response to concerns that were raised by the First Minister in May, the UK Government announced additional measures to protect children online from abuse and bullying, by placing reference to “primary priority content” and “priority content” that are “harmful to children” in the bill, thereby raising the profile of those harms. We will continue to work with the UK Government and Ofcom as the bill is implemented to make sure that it does all that it can to protect children online.

I want all children and young people to be able to enjoy the online world and the benefits that it has to offer, but to do so in a protected, safe and supported way. Let us work together to make sure that, while children and young people are online, they are kept safe.

Thank you, minister. I call Sharon Dowey.


Sharon Dowey (South Scotland) (Con)

The internet has been a positive force in so many ways. It has made information more accessible, helped our economy to grow and given people new ways to communicate—but there are many downsides and negatives to our increasingly online world.

Of all the difficulties that the internet has created, the most dangerous is the increased risk to children. As digital platforms have expanded into almost every aspect of life, so have the problems that parents encounter when trying to keep their children safe. It has never been easy for parents to protect their children, but these days, it has never been harder.

As a parent of three children, I know how difficult it can be to make sure that young people are safe online. Potentially harmful content is everywhere. Almost every link could lead to something that we do not want our kids to see, and online abuse can come from so many platforms and places. The potential harms online range from verbal abuse to very serious crimes, including child grooming and exploitation.

The Scottish Government’s “National Guidance for Child Protection in Scotland 2021” provided a broad definition of what online abuse can entail, including online bullying, emotional abuse and blackmail, sharing of indecent images, grooming behaviour, coercion, and preparatory behaviour for abuse including radicalisation, child abuse and exploitation. Those crimes are not only difficult for parents to track, but can be tough for the police to prevent, due to their nature. Those kinds of offences are defined by Police Scotland

“as one of the primary cyber threats facing Scotland”.

Official figures show that crimes of this nature are rising rapidly. In 2022-23, 1,928 online child sexual abuse crimes were recorded in Scotland—an increase of 6.6 per cent on the five-year mean.

Kate Forbes (Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch) (SNP)

Is Sharon Dowey aware of the organisation International Justice Mission? It has reflected the fact that the rise in demand in Scotland for such material is fuelling a huge increase in the trafficking of very young children across the world. Supporting the police here to engage internationally and to crack down on the crime here helps to rescue children abroad as well as supporting children in Scotland.

Sharon Dowey

I have only recently joined the Criminal Justice Committee, but I have seen from reading all the information that there is a lack of data on what is a huge problem that is on the increase. We need to know all the data to ensure that we tackle the problem properly.

There were nearly 3,000 incidents of child grooming in the past five years in Scotland, with crimes against under-13s having risen by more than 60 per cent since 2017-18. Recorded crime statistics show that the volume of indecent photos of children increased by 16 per cent over the previous year and by 50 per cent since the year ending June 2019.

The Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service has identified potential legislative gaps. I am pleased that that has already been the subject of discussions between Police Scotland and the Scottish Government, and I hope that the Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Home Affairs or the Minister for Victims and Community Safety can soon provide an update on the content of those conversations. Parliament would benefit from a timetable for when we can expect to see changes to address any weaknesses in the law.

The UK Government’s Online Safety Bill, which has been passed at Westminster, should improve online protection for children. It is positive that the UK and Scottish Governments are working constructively on such issues. The Scottish Government has welcomed commitments from the UK Government, with the introduction of a new communications offence of intentionally encouraging or assisting serious self-harm. Changing the law can be effective at tackling such crimes, but it is not the only thing that the Scottish Government can do.

The Scottish Parliament’s Criminal Justice Committee, of which I am now a member, has suggested multiple actions that the Government should consider. First, there is a lack of understanding of the scale, nature and extent of child sexual abuse in Scotland: that data gap must be addressed as there is a clear and pressing need for more information. I hope that the Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Home Affairs will outline the steps that she plans to take to deal with the committee’s concerns and to improve our collective understanding of what are complex crimes. As things stand, the Government seems to have accepted the need for better data in the area but has not identified solutions that would fill the gaps.

Secondly, the committee has identified that an overarching national strategy could be effective. From the response of the cabinet secretary, however, I am not clear where she stands on the merits of such a strategy. She has not rejected the idea, but neither has she appeared to agree that it is an urgent necessity.

Thirdly, there is the problem of violence in schools and the role that online content plays. That needs to be tackled with more urgency by the Government. The number of attacks in schools has risen rapidly—by more than 50 per cent since the previous year for which there are statistics. My party previously secured a debate on the growing scandal of violence in schools, and we welcomed the Government reacting to that debate by arranging a summit on the issue. That summit has happened, but it appears that there have not been many outcomes from it. I hope that the Government will today outline what specific actions we will take following that meeting.

We can welcome much of the Government’s action to date, but those three areas—the data gaps, the national strategy and violence in schools—deserve more focus from the Scottish Government. They must move up the priority list to the top of the Government’s agenda.

There is no greater duty on Parliament than protection of the safety of young people. Of all our jobs as MSPs, keeping the public safe is the highest priority. Future generations depend on us to get that right and to ensure that they are protected from harm. My party will support any sensible proposals that keep children safe. I am confident that we can, by working together, find solutions to the complex challenges that are posed by the digital age.


Pauline McNeill (Glasgow) (Lab)

Child abuse by grooming and exploitation through the use of the internet, which enables that deplorable behaviour, is a matter that I have made a top priority in my work as an MSP. I believe that it is one of the biggest societal issues affecting children and young people.

I was therefore pleased when the Criminal Justice Committee took evidence from the police, charity leaders and experts about tackling online child abuse, grooming and exploitation. In particular, the scale of online sexual abuse material, the harm that children face every day, and the desire of abusers to see more of that content, has not abated. Kate Forbes is quite right to point out that such demand has created further crime in human trafficking—as if there was not enough of it in the first place.

News stories in the past few days alone indicate that the problem is worse than ever. If we do not tackle those harms and take appropriate action, children and young people will be harmed and face lifelong implications for their wellbeing. Although we have to tackle the problem here, in Scotland, there should be a global campaign. We are all grappling with new and changing technologies, as the minister said in her opening speech. Never-ending changes to social media platforms shift the behaviour of online criminals who seek to create and distribute child sexual abuse imagery, usually for monetary gain.

The Internet Watch Foundation has reported that it has

“continued to see a high proportion of ‘self-generated’ imagery”

in this context. Just to be clear, self-generated child abuse material means sexual images or videos that are taken by a child themselves because of peer pressure or coercion by an adult. The IWF has been conducting extensive research into the prevalence of self-generated child abuse images and videos. Shockingly, it found 20,000 web pages that included self-generated content of seven to 10-year-old children in the first half of 2022—what could be more alarming than that? The children have been asked to undress in front of cameras by strangers online. The IWF argues that it is a “digital and social emergency” that requires a sustained national prevention effort.

Clare Adamson (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP)

As someone who works as an ambassador for the Internet Watch Foundation, I am glad that Pauline McNeill is raising its work here today. Does she agree that there is a gap in that, when an image is altered and the visage of a young person is put on to another pornographic image, very little can be done to get redress for that young person?

Pauline McNeill

I thank Clare Adamson for raising that point because I want to address something similar to that. There are gaps in the law around imagery for children, obviously, and also for adults. It indicates that the problem is getting much worse every single day.

We can all agree that child sexual abuse is a heinous crime. Online space gives offenders new opportunities to groom and abuse children, and to exchange child sexual abuse material, and we need a strong response to that. As stated by Christian Action Research and Education Scotland in its briefing:

“Children on both sides of the camera, those able to watch and those forced to participate, need to be protected.”

I whole-heartedly agree with that statement. Those children need to be protected and that protection needs to be provided urgently. Police Scotland is doing an excellent job with better detection and moves towards prosecution, but such vital work depends on the adequate training, funding and staffing of police services.

The technology industry must take responsibility for keeping children safe when they use its platforms. How many times have we said that? I hope that the UK Online Safety Bill will go some way towards doing that but, according to many third sector organisations, it does not go nearly far enough.

A BBC Radio 5 Live and BBC Bitesize survey that was released yesterday found that one fifth of teenage girls who responded had received unwanted nude images and videos from peers. That illustrates the difficult environment that young people, particularly young girls, are growing up in.

I accept that the crime is not gender-specific, but it is important for the Scottish Government to talk about the connection between the issue and the great work that it is doing on violence against women and girls.

Will the member take an intervention on that point?

There is a bit of time in hand.


Kate Forbes

Pauline McNeill has made a really important point. Normalising violence against women and girls has allowed this industry to profit and become lucrative. Does she agree that we need to take a zero tolerance approach to all forms of violence against women and girls?

Pauline McNeill

Yes, I do. That is one of the most important points of the debate: we must make the connection and ensure that we do not discuss issues in isolation. It is fundamental that the strategy identifies that.

Young men and boys are being groomed and radicalised into hating women in misogynistic ways. Katy Clark has spoken about that in the chamber before. We do not like to mention the name of the influencer, but members will know who I am talking about. That is an indication of what needs to be tackled online.

Children cannot be expected to protect themselves and to take responsibility for the abuse and harm that they suffer and encounter online. Sharon Dowey and another member made a point about parents having control and trying to understand how to keep their children safe. It must be very hard to be a parent, to see all this happening and to worry about how to keep your children safe. All the different things have to come together in the strategy.

It is about time that we made tech organisations and companies, whether that be Snapchat, TikTok or other platforms, take more responsibility for preventing abuse. From my basic understanding of the situation, Snapchat and TikTok, in particular, need to take more action to safeguard children and young people.

We must remain constantly vigilant to the threats that are posed by an ever-changing online world—it does not stand still for very long, as we have all experienced. I believe that we still do not have a full understanding in Scotland of the scale and extent of child sexual abuse, and we must ensure that we have the full picture. We seem to lack a national strategy to tackle online child sex abuse in Scotland. There is an action plan for Wales and, separate from that, a Home Office strategy for tackling child sexual abuse in England, but there is nothing in Scotland.

Stop It Now! Scotland, a national child protection charity that is based in Edinburgh, was mentioned by a previous speaker. Stuart Allardyce of Stop It Now! Scotland has said:

“there is no strategic vision ... solutions are often piecemeal, quite disconnected from one another”.—[Official Report, Criminal Justice Committee, 31 May 2023; c 13.]

That is a point that I made earlier.

We must ensure that, in tackling online child abuse, grooming and exploitation, we work across the parties as an absolute priority. On Clare Adamson’s point—I am thankful to her for mentioning this—I have been working with Professor Clare McGlynn, who raised with me the issue of image-based sexual abuse. I am due to have a meeting with the Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Home Affairs on that, because I believe that there is a gap in the law.

Ms McNeill, I have been quite generous with time.

Pauline McNeill

I will close on this point.

For far too long, images on the internet that no one has consented to have used and exploited by people who do that kind of thing.


Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

There have already been, and I am sure that there will be more, powerful speeches on the horrific and abhorrent nature of these crimes.

I am not on the Criminal Justice Committee, and I have not followed the debate in the detail that other members clearly have. However, I have been working with the families of those who are accused of online sexual offences. It has been difficult and, until now, it has been a private experience. In part, that is because of the public focus that comes with the subject, but, as a Liberal, I have never shied away from a difficult debate.

Following an introduction by a constituent, I have been working with the charity Stop It Now! Scotland, which has been mentioned several times in the debate. Stop It Now! does some tremendous work with offenders and also with families. I recently attended and spoke at an event in its offices, which was attended by social workers, policy researchers, the police, Government officials, other charities and, most importantly, the partners of offenders.

The partners were part of a research project that captured their experiences, thoughts, dreams and nightmares, which were expressed artistically in images, posters, cards, letters and—most powerful of all—theatre. The theatre piece was entitled, “The knock”, which is a phrase that has already been mentioned. “The knock” obviously refers to the knock on the door when the police arrive and then when social work follow up. It also refers to “non-offending carer” or NOC. As if the knock on the door was not already traumatising, those people now have an official acronym for life—they are depersonalised in an instant.

First, was the physical intrusion, with the police turning their home—their children’s home—upside down. However, much worse was the verbal intrusion, not only from the social work department but from the rest of the family, the neighbours and everyone and anyone from across cyberspace. There are the questions: “What do you know?” There is suspicion: “You must have known.” There is doubt: “Are your children safe with you?” There is shock: “Your partner still lives with you?” There is stigma: “Oh God, you are that family.”

There is conflict deep in the soul between disgust at what has happened and the desire to grasp on to something from when life was good. There are the interests of the children to consider. They deserve a father in their life—but should it be this new, offending father? “What will everyone say if he stays?” There is concern for his life: “Will he try to kill himself?” and “I still love him.”

There is the natural desire to minimise what has happened, in order to grasp on to that better time. “But can I say that publicly to anyone? And, if I do, am I complicit with the events?” There is isolation for the family and the children. There are playground taunts and bullying. Can they ever go out for a meal again without being stared at, gossiped about and pitied? There is the financial future to consider: “Will he lose his job? How will we survive?” There is fear: “Will I ever be able to sleep at night not knowing whether my house will be attacked by some vigilante?”

Everything that I have just said is what the partners who took part in that research told that audience in that meeting on that night. They said that they lived with that fear, loathing and stigma all day, every day. However, their spirit was striking. Before the event, they were laughing together, partly in relief that they had the friendship of people who understood—friends who could share without judgment.

The harm that is caused by viewing indecent images of children is huge, and the crime is abhorrent. That should not be understated. However, we should not overlook the fact that there are secondary victims: the families who are traumatised by the investigations into a loved one. It is, indeed, a trauma. In a study that was published recently about the experiences of around 120 partners of offenders, around three quarters had symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. It is estimated that such an event happens to one family every day in Scotland. Half of those whom Stop It Now! Scotland works with who were arrested for an online offence were in a relationship, and many have dependent children.

I want to bring to the Parliament the exhibition from that night, and from that research project, involving the partners. I am trying to persuade the partners to come and meet members of the Parliament. I want members of the Parliament to listen and talk to them. The reason is simple: I want a justice and social work system that acts with more care and sensitivity and that considers non-offending carers as people—as humans, often with children and with needs and hopes. I want it to be more supportive and less judgmental. We need to fund services to produce better outcomes for families and to help them to move on from the distress and trauma when a loved one is arrested. I want the public—the neighbours and the communities—to understand and care, too. Thank you for listening to me.

We move to the open debate.


Rona Mackay (Strathkelvin and Bearsden) (SNP)

I commend Willie Rennie for such a powerful and fascinating speech, as I do all the speakers so far, who have been excellent.

As a member of the Criminal Justice Committee, I am pleased to speak in this important and timely debate. We all know how toxic social media sites can be, with women and children being targeted and bullied to an abhorrent level. For my contribution today, I will focus on the harm that online abuse does to children and young people.

A recent NSPCC report warned that online child sexual abuse has reached astronomical levels, with thousands of kids being targeted. Children are being traumatised daily and we must act to stop that trauma. That fills me, and everyone in this chamber and in wider society, with utter horror. How can we protect our children from those invisible and despicable predators?

The UK Government’s Online Safety Bill has been delayed for years but is finally ready to be passed into law this week, having gone through its final stages at Westminster. Platforms must now commit to removing images relating to child sexual abuse, controlling or coercive behaviour, extreme sexual violence, illegal immigration and people smuggling, promoting or facilitating suicide and self-harm, animal cruelty, the sale of drugs or weapons and terrorism.

That is, of course, all very welcome, but does it go far enough? The bill could have introduced stronger age-verification requirements for providers of pornography, including a requirement for confirmation that individuals depicted in pornographic content have given consent. With technology changing at an eye-watering pace, there could have been greater consideration of how to future proof legislation against the threats posed to children and young people by emerging technology, including artificial intelligence and virtual reality. Also, as convener of the cross-party group on men’s violence against women and girls, I would have welcomed a mandatory code of practice on violence against women and girls to ensure that providers recognise, and act to prevent, the disproportionately gendered impact of online abuse. I completely echo the comments made by Kate Forbes and Pauline McNeill.

During the time that politicians have spent talking about the UK bill, Police Scotland has dealt with an astonishing 3,500 online grooming crimes, with more than half the victims being under 13, which defies belief. The new legislation will compel global tech companies to take responsibility for the content on their sites. The time for thinking about profit is long past: the loss of our children is far more important. Online safety campaigner Ian Russell has said that the test of the legislation will be whether it prevents other young people seeing the horrible images that his daughter Molly saw before she tragically took her own life.

Disappointingly, online messaging services, such as WhatsApp and Signal, seem to be refusing to provide access to encrypted messages. I hope that that can be resolved, as the issue will take a concerted effort by all stakeholders if it is to work effectively.

This Criminal Justice Committee debate is a timely opportunity for a cross-cutting and wide-ranging discussion about how to tackle abhorrent crimes. As we heard the convener say, we took evidence on the issue on two occasions, in May 2022 and then a year later. We heard that there is a steady increase in the scale, complexity and severity of online offending. Witnesses told the committee that tackling the issue requires a co-ordinated approach across the justice, health, education and social work services and I absolutely agree with that. We are living in an age when bullying does not stop at the school gates.

The Scottish Government is taking a range of actions to ensure that robust child protection measures are in place across Scotland. A members’ business debate led by Christina McKelvie some years ago highlighted the emerging issue of revenge porn and we are doing as much as we can now to combat the scourge of online abuse, despite those powers being reserved to Westminster. We are working closely with partners, including Police Scotland, social workers and civic society to deliver a multi-agency response to preventing child sexual abuse and exploitation. We are also working with excellent third sector organisations on awareness training and victim support.

Would Rona Mackay agree that it is disappointing that, when we are talking about working together, we never see social media platforms coming forward to offer their assistance?

Rona Mackay

I completely agree. We must work together on the issue, which will be the only effective way to combat it.

Prevention and early intervention must be a key focus, as must education, as we have heard in several speeches. That will ensure that the risks to and harming of children can be dealt with quickly and effectively.

Raising public awareness is an important element of the Scottish Government’s approach. In the past three years, we have run national public awareness campaigns about child sexual abuse.

I am running out of time, Presiding Officer. During a members’ business debate that I led earlier this month on the joyous opening of the first bairns hoose in Scotland, I said that, although we cannot stop bad things happening to children, we can do everything in our power to help them to heal. In the case of the online safety of children and young people, we must do everything in our power to protect them from that which can harm them and undoubtedly is harming them.


Liam Kerr (North East Scotland) (Con)

I am not on the Criminal Justice Committee, but I wanted to speak in the debate on this difficult topic both because of the powerful and deeply concerning contributions of the participants in the committee’s round-table sessions, which I read, and because, as Audrey Nicoll said at the outset, this is a cross-portfolio issue. Reading the evidence and listening to the debate today has brought home to me not only the scale of the issue, but the fact that there is so much that I do not know but that I need to know as a legislator, as a parent and as a citizen.

I echo Rona Mackay’s comments. We all find it horrific that Police Scotland has said in evidence that it continues to see rises in online child sexual abuse, recording nearly 2,000 such crimes last year. I have also looked at newspaper reports from June 2022 that suggest that there were nearly 3,000 incidents of child grooming in Scotland in the previous five years. Sickeningly, the “Recorded Crime in Scotland” statistics show that indecent photos of children increased by 50 per cent from the year ending June 2019. We should also bear in mind that those figures are only for the crimes that are recorded.

Kate Forbes

Given that we find this debate difficult enough, I wonder what more the member believes we can do to support those who are responsible for hunting and prosecuting predators, who often have to view some of the most ghastly and heinous material in the process of doing that.

Liam Kerr

That is a really important point. I remember, when I held the justice portfolio, visiting one of the centres where we have some extremely brave people who have to view that stuff. I was deeply affected by what they were having to go through. The Government needs to be, as I am sure it is, interrogating what those people are going through and what support they need to deal with what I understand to be very harrowing situations, and making sure that they are okay as they deal with it. My friend Kate Forbes makes a very good point.

I also read the submission from Barnardo’s Scotland, which talks about a 10-year-old, who it has named “Lisa”, from its “Invisible Children” report. It is horrific. Barnardo’s suggests some helpful actions that it would like the Scottish Government to take, including a national working group and action plan, investment in specific research for Scotland and enhanced training for those who work with children.

I would like to discuss something that John Swinney raised in an important intervention earlier when he spoke about education, families and the speed of technological advances. I recently attended a presentation at a school that included a slot on internet safety for children. I confess that my initial feeling was that I knew all about being abused online, as we all do, and getting pelters on Twitter and Facebook. I have read about Snapchat and bullying, and I took part in Gillian Martin’s really important debate a while ago about, among other things, the risks of Roblox. I thought, “I don’t really need to listen to this,” but I did listen and it became clear that I did not know about these things.

Natalie Don made a really important point in relation to parents knowing about the issues and having conversations in the home, but they can do that only if they have the knowledge. I did not know that TikTok, which is apparently the most popular app in the world, is not just about silly dances and lip-synching. It is also presenting inappropriate content such as sexual discussion, profanity and violence.

I had heard of but did not know much about Omegle, which sounds like what Lisa from Barnardo’s might have been exposed to. It is an anonymous video chat platform where the user is paired with a complete stranger somewhere in the world and they can be exposed to nudity and sex acts.

I had never heard of Discord, which is a kind of chat room in which kids can be exposed to all sorts of inappropriate content. It turns out that Discord is consistently in the top five platforms for bullying, suicidal ideation and body image. On Hoop, which is apparently like Tinder meeting Snapchat, the user can form connections with total strangers by swiping through profiles. Yarn is a reading app—

Will the member take an intervention?

Do I have time, Deputy Presiding Officer?

Yes. There is a bit of time in hand.

Audrey Nicoll

What the member eloquently describes is absolutely pivotal to where we need to go in relation to safety in the home in Scotland. I simply wanted to flag up the fact that there are fantastic resources on the Child Exploitation and Online Protection website, particularly for parents, which I had a look at yesterday. However, I think that the member is indicating that we need to go much further on parent education.

Liam Kerr

Absolutely. I am very grateful to Audrey Nicoll for bringing up CEOP, whose website I will mention shortly, for exactly that reason.

I will finish off my point about the apps, because I think that it is important that parents know about this. I came across something called Yarn, which is a reading app that tells stories using fake text messages. “What’s the problem with that?”, I thought. Some of the titles that you can access are “Send nudes?”, “He’s watching me”, “Serial slasher” and “Sexting 101”.

I then heard about vault apps, which are used to hide content on phones and tablets. They often look like harmless apps—apparently, a popular one is a fake calculator, which grown-ups would not usually think twice about. Sometimes, those apps require a passcode to gain entry. I knew nothing about that before that session.

I say this in case it helps members or people watching these proceedings: the session concluded by making the point that, fundamentally, people need to stop thinking about the internet as a thing and to start thinking about it as a place. It was suggested that if I would not allow a child to be unaccompanied in the city centre at 3 am due to where they were, whom they might meet while they were there and what they might be exposed to, surely I should protect them from similar things on the internet.

I am really glad that the committee has brought this issue to the chamber and is shining a light on it. The cross-party nature of the debate and of the committee’s report is key. To me, it seems obvious that the Scottish and UK Governments must work together to ensure that any legislation to tackle the issue is sufficiently robust.

If what I have said in my contribution today has made anyone who has tuned in to watch the debate worried about online sexual abuse or the way in which someone has been communicating with them online, or if they just want more information and support, I direct them to the website that is run by the National Crime Agency, which Audrey Nicoll mentioned. It can be found at It even has a button that enables you to crash out of it immediately if anyone comes in.

I say well done to the committee for holding the debate. I really hope that it and the committee’s report will help us to tackle this vile scourge.


Collette Stevenson (East Kilbride) (SNP)

Child abuse is one of the most sickening crimes, and we must do everything that we can to prevent it. The internet has brought new challenges with regard to exploitation, so keeping children and young people safe online is absolutely vital. Following the passing of the Online Safety Bill, this debate is a timely opportunity to discuss the cross-cutting approaches that must be taken to tackle online child abuse, grooming and exploitation.

As a former member of the Criminal Justice Committee, I heard the evidence that the committee took from stakeholders on the issue. Emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence have rightly been mentioned as adding to the challenge of online abuse. However, AI can also play an important role in identifying and, ultimately, tackling sexual exploitation. NSPCC Scotland highlighted that fact in its evidence to the Criminal Justice Committee. It said that such technology can enable tech companies to find and remove such material and report abuse to police.

Other tools are available. For example, I asked Stuart Allardyce from Stop it Now! Scotland about the work that child protection charities are doing with online platforms to prevent people from accessing illegal images. He told me about work with Pornhub to develop warnings and a chatbot to divert people, as well as work with Google to block access and signpost potential offenders to organisations such as Stop it Now!. He highlighted the fact that some tech companies were very proactive in wanting to work with the organisation. Those examples highlight the positive actions that can be taken through a collaborative approach.

The consequences of child abuse and neglect are themselves cross-cutting, as we have heard. Child abuse and neglect can have significant effects on the physical and mental health of children, as well as having an impact on their social development and education and their future employment.

Committee witnesses told us that tackling online child abuse requires a co-ordinated approach across justice, health, education and social work services. I welcome the fact that the Scottish Government is taking a range of actions to ensure that robust child protection measures are in place, with a key focus on prevention and early intervention.

That includes refreshed national guidance for child protection and multi-agency approaches, such as Police Scotland’s group on preventing online child sexual abuse and exploitation. The third sector also does admirable work on awareness raising, safeguarding and supporting victims, some of which has already been touched on.

Given the nature of online child abuse, the committee heard about some of the challenges regarding collecting data to fully understand what is going on, which is possibly a universal problem. In 2016, a crime audit by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland highlighted some concerns on data capturing

“the scale of cyber-enabled sexual crime and associated victimisation”.

Following that, Police Scotland improved its systems, which will, I hope, help it to better understand what is going on and ramp up work to tackle and eradicate the abuse.

We have some data. The audit found that a significant proportion of online sexual incidents involved children, noting that

“Children and young people are increasingly experiencing sexual crime online via commonly used apps”.

Recent Police Scotland data show that reports of online child abuse are continuing to rise, with more than 1,900 offences recorded between 1 April 2022 and 31 March 2023. Investigations led to nearly 500 arrests, and 776 children were protected in that period.

Children’s social work statistics also show that, since the category was introduced in 2016, 595 concerns of child sexual exploitation have been identified at social work case conferences in Scotland. Furthermore, in its evidence to the committee, NSPCC Scotland highlighted a recent 35 per cent increase in calls to Childline about online grooming across the UK. Those figures combined give some idea of the impact of online child abuse, grooming and exploitation. They paint a tragic picture but underestimate the true scale of these abhorrent crimes.

I am pleased that the Scottish Government is keen to ensure that data are gathered in a trauma-informed way that is respectful of survivors of abuse. As Barnardo’s pointed out, gathering evidence to show the scale of child sexual exploitation is hampered by stigmatisation and victim blaming. As is often the case, particularly with sexual and/or gender-based crimes, the consequences of victim blaming are severe. We must all commit and recommit to tackling that, too.

Wide-ranging action is being delivered across Scotland to tackle online child abuse, grooming and exploitation, with involvement from multiple stakeholders, including the Scottish Government, Police Scotland, social workers and the third sector. We must ensure that we do everything possible to tackle the scourge of online child abuse, grooming and exploitation. These crimes are not inevitable—we can eradicate them.


Martin Whitfield (South Scotland) (Lab)

I start with an apology to the Deputy Presiding Officer, the chamber and to Sharon Dowey for having had to step out for a short moment during her contribution, which I will go back to read.

All the contributions that we have heard today have been powerful in different ways. I compliment the committee for bringing before Parliament a debate on this hugely challenging matter, which straddles so many areas of life. There is a need for a strategy—indeed, a sophisticated strategy—if we are to address all the small areas that need to be addressed, so that we can stand up for our young people and fight back against people who have no idea or care about the harm that they do to our young people.

I want to pick up on Rona Mackay’s fascinating comments about age verification and, in particular, how we can reach out to people on that. It is the responsibility of platforms to oversee the age verification of the people who are involved, many of whom are overseas. As we move into the age of artificial intelligence, the fact is that those individuals may not exist other than as a string of ones and zeros hidden in some database. This is a significant problem and it presents a significant challenge. It is a scourge on the young people in our society. For that reason alone, we should aim to fight back on it.

I want to pick up two matters in particular—not that any of the others are not important. All the earlier contributions from members have shown the importance both of the victims of violence, who are mainly women and girls, and of society’s expectation that such violence should not exist.

I want to talk about the role of boys as victims of such practices, and the sextortion scams that are happening. I do so on the back of a very powerful BBC investigation into those aspects. I also do so because of the effect here, in Scotland, and because of the identification, across large areas of this country, of how damaging that can be. In part of my region, in the Lothians and the Scottish Borders, Scottish police had identified that the victims were, in the main, boys aged between 13 and 18 years old. That speaks to my interventions, and that of Mr Swinney, about the role of education.

In Dunfermline there were 16 victims aged between 16 and 20. Between 2020 and 2021, the number of sextortion cases reported to police in the UK rose by more than 40 per cent, with nine out of 10 victims being male. Those are frightening statistics that sit on top of the truly appalling ones about girls and women. However, they should make people sit up and try to address such problems.

That leads me to the area of education. Mr Swinney raised a fascinating dilemma—it perhaps sits not in the sphere of education but in the journey of a young life—about where the responsibility for introducing such discussions to young people lies. Is it at home, in which case, as we have heard so powerfully, do we need to provide information to parents so that there is an understanding of the extent of the risk that our young people are exposed to? We must ask questions such as: would you allow your young son or daughter to go, unaccompanied, into the centre of town at 3 am? Schools also have a responsibility to educate young people about information technology, hardware, the devices that are used and the role of AI.

In my earlier intervention, I deliberately mentioned the curriculum for excellence. Education Scotland’s document “Benchmarks: technologies”, which these days has some age to it, is fascinating for the indications that it gave our teachers about the journey that we expect a young person to go through, from nursery and primary 1 all the way through to the end of their broad education and beyond, into the examination period. I used to go back to that document frequently, but this time I went back to read again about the journey that is expected. Those who first start school are expected to

“explore, play and communicate using digital technologies safely and securely”.

That speaks to the huge benefits that technology has given us. We have heard mention of the role of technology during the Covid pandemic and the absolutely essential platform that it offered to allow educationists to reach out to young people, and sometimes for adults to come back to the teachers.

Will the member take an intervention?

John Swinney rose—

I will give way first to the convener and then to Mr Swinney.

Audrey Nicoll

I am fascinated by the member’s contribution. On the matter of technology, an issue that flagged itself to me during the committee’s evidence-taking sessions was the idea of the profile of a perpetrator as being, for example, someone who is considered to be a paedophile. However, organisations such as Stop It Now! find that many offenders simply drift into more extreme and transgressive materials. Would the member agree with that organisation that technology provides huge opportunities for more deterrence and disruption by tech companies, which they really must address?

I will respond to that in a moment. I will let Mr Swinney come in and I will deal with both questions as swiftly as possible.

John Swinney

Mr Whitfield opens up a significant issue, which Parliament has to consider, which is the sensitivity of some of the educational dialogue that has to take place. The world today is very different to the world of even five years ago. I suspect that the document to which Mr Whitfield referred is a few years older than that, and the world will have changed dramatically since. Engagement between families and schools about the material that children might well be exposed to is important, because children must be given the ability and capacity to handle really difficult and challenging circumstances and to know what is right and what is wrong, and that is changing in front of our eyes.

Martin Whitfield

I am grateful for those powerful interventions, which I can simply say are both right.

An identifier of human nature is that it has within it an element whereby exposure to something only continues to be pleasurable if it gets more and more extreme. That applies even when one falls in love with playing a musical instrument or that kind of thing. However, there is a darker side, which is the desire to find ever more—I do not even know what the word is, but I would say obscene material.

On Mr Swinney’s powerful intervention, there is a conversation to be had as to where responsibility lies and about the ability for a parent to say, “No,” or, “Maybe, but I need to find out”—

I ask you to conclude, Mr Whitfield. Thank you.

Martin Whitfield

I will do so very shortly. I stand by the submission, and I wish that we had more time.

The journey that young people take through the requirements of education is broad, from that initial stage of play and communicate, all the way through to exploring the impact of technology. I thank the Presiding Officer for her patience. This is a fascinating start and I compliment the committee on the debate.


Ruth Maguire (Cunninghame South) (SNP)

The scale and complexity of tackling online child abuse, grooming and exploitation feels entirely overwhelming. It is a difficult thing to think and talk about, but it is an issue that must be out in the open. I thank the Criminal Justice Committee for introducing the debate and I am also grateful to all the witnesses who contributed to its discussions. Although I was not at the round tables, I have read the transcripts of the meetings and found them informative.

This subject is complicated and vast, so I intend to remark on three things that stood out for me: children and what adults might term the online world; the impact of pornography; and the role of tech companies in the law.

For children, there is no such thing as the online world. No differentiation exists between the online and real worlds for our children and young people—they are the same place. That is a fact that we middle-aged policy makers and legislators who were lucky to have a childhood free from the internet absolutely have to get our heads around if we want to make a difference.

During the round table, Stuart Allardyce of Stop It Now! Scotland remarked that there is

“an assumption that those involved in online offending are motivated paedophilic serial offenders.”

However, the organisation’s current understanding is that there are

“different pathways that lead to such behaviour”

and that there is

“a shift towards more transgressive and ... illegal material over time”,


“those ... who often view large amounts of legal pornography initially”


“towards more illegal materials.”—[Official Report, Criminal Justice Committee, 31 May 2023; c 27.]

That being the case, there is, as the convener has stated, obviously huge scope for preventative work to happen. Awareness needs to be raised and action taken promptly.

The statistics that Stuart Allardyce quoted about the percentage of males who had looked at illegal images of children were shocking—indeed, they were pretty gut-wrenching. There is obviously a much wider debate to be had around pornography in relation to tackling commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking, but that is perhaps for another day. However, the situation that Stop It Now! Scotland articulated provides a stark illustration of one of the many potential serious harms to individuals and society as a whole. It is crucial that men who are concerned about their behaviour know that they can do something about it and that help is out there.

I recently read a very interesting article by a playwright called Abbey Wright. She had spoken with 10,000 children—in a child-friendly way and not, as she said, using the P word—about the impact of pornography on their lives. She found that children as young as six are encountering pornography. For nine to 11-year-olds, exposure to pornography is frequent. She also met a boy of 12 who was dealing with a pornography addiction and she found that, across the board, pornography is confusing the issue of consent. We will have to be cognisant of those uncomfortable truths as parents, teachers and legislators, and in any discussions about the quality and content of relationship, sexual health and parenthood education.

Another finding of note was that children and young people were using pornography to plug the gaps in their education, which is concerning for the obvious reasons of the violence and lack of consent depicted in much pornography. Also, really importantly, it reflects just how important inclusive approaches are, where children and young people can see themselves reflected in what they are taught.

I hope that the UK Online Safety Bill will go some way to making children safer online, with the commitment to make age-verification measures compulsory for pornography sites and social media. That is very welcome. I would, however, join Barnardo’s and others in asking for those measures to be put in place as soon and as robustly as possible, to help to protect children from viewing pornographic content.

There is further work required in that regard to keep children safe. We need to ensure that the parity of regulation between online and offline content exists, and age and identity checks have to be there for anyone appearing in pornographic content online. It is critical that those two issues be dealt with if children are to be kept safe from exploitation online.

Online platforms should be held liable for content that is non-consensual or depicts anyone under 18. As Pauline McNeill said, children on both sides of the camera—those able to watch and those forced or coerced into participating—need to be protected with robust regulation and enforcement.

Age verification and consent are part of the terms of service for financial institutions and credit card companies. It was reported that, when Mastercard stopped processing payments for Pornhub due to concerns over age verification and consent, almost two thirds of the content on that site was removed.

Tech companies can and must do more to keep everyone, but particularly children and young people, safe while on their platforms, and where they do not our Governments must step in.


Maggie Chapman (North East Scotland) (Green)

I thank the Criminal Justice Committee for its work on this important issue, and for this afternoon’s debate. I also extend thanks to those from the third sector and statutory agencies who gave evidence with such care and sensitivity.

I refer colleagues to my entry in the register of members’ interests. I previously worked for a rape crisis centre, and in that capacity I managed the prevention project that involves workers going into some schools to speak to young people about relationships, consent, sexual violence, safety and so much more. Such education and awareness-raising programmes are so important, as has already been highlighted by many others this afternoon.

I will focus my remarks on just a few of the important points that were raised during the committee’s evidence sessions. First, and perhaps most importantly, we must never lose sight of the fact that we are talking about actual harm to actual children. What matters is preventing and intervening to end that harm, and also helping children to recover from their pain, trauma and distress.

Expressing revulsion and talking tough may make us feel better, but they do not always help anyone else. For example, zero-tolerance policies on sharing self-created images can make it much more difficult for worried children to express their concerns.

If tough legislation is not always the answer for young people and their mistakes, it is a different matter when it comes to wealthy corporations and those who profit from them. The committee heard very clearly how important it is to make senior managers in technology companies responsible for failures to protect children on their platforms. The committee learned of the striking parallel with the construction industry, where introducing such responsibility has been transformational in saving lives and preventing serious injury. We cannot yet tell whether the UK Government’s long-delayed Online Safety Bill, which was finally passed this week, will have the impact that it needs to have.

This is a moral issue, but not in a prudish or puritanical sense. It was interesting to hear that adult entertainment sites are often the most proactive in working to protect children, while mainstream social media—notably Snapchat and the service formerly known as Twitter—have been much more reluctant to engage.

Online abuse does not exist in a vacuum. The distinction between virtual and physical worlds that older generations make is not experienced by children and young people, as others have highlighted. That is why retaining a hierarchy in which contact offences are more serious than online offences can be unhelpful, as that fails to recognise the ways in which profound harm can be caused without physical presence. Issues of online safety, trafficking and child criminal exploitation all need to be addressed together, rather than being confined to separate silos.

Those interconnections affect how we view and treat children who cause harm to others but whose behaviour may often be the consequence of their own traumatic experiences. They, too, need care and support as well as to have their own offending addressed. The committee heard that Westminster’s strategy barely recognises that—a failure that is now compounded by Westminster’s abdication of all responsibility for trafficked asylum-seeking children.

We can and must do better here. That includes acknowledging the reality of how much child abuse takes place at home, within families, where children should be safest and most secure. We cannot allow culture war rhetoric to rob children and young people of the support and help that they need. The noisy clamour against confidentiality for children’s gender identity is dangerous in its transphobic tendencies but also in how it potentially undermines the safety of home—a vital space. Children and young people must be able to talk to responsible professionals about their lives with the assurance that information will not be shared with possibly abusive family members.

Professionals such as teachers and social workers need the capacity, space, time and experience really to listen and really to hear. Sexual abuse is often much harder for children to disclose than other forms of violence or emotional abuse. The committee heard that it can be difficult to overcome the assumption that abuse simply does not happen in nice middle-class families.

Finally, against the backdrop of our continued work to incorporate the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, we need to remember that this is not only an issue of care and responsibility and a criminal justice matter but a public health problem and a human rights question. Children and young people need not only protection but recognition, trust and age-appropriate agency and autonomy. They are the experts in such harm and in its rapidly changing context.

As many of the expert witnesses testified, children and young people are often best placed to advise lawmakers and support one another. Perhaps our role is to listen to children and young people more, to amplify their informed voices and to join them in calling the powerful—in Governments and corporations—to urgent and effective account. I wish the committee well in its on-going work to that end.


Fulton MacGregor (Coatbridge and Chryston) (SNP)

I draw members’ attention to the fact that I am the convener of the cross-party group on adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse. I put on record my thanks to Anne Macdonald and other members of the group’s secretariat.

The debate has provided us with an excellent opportunity to have an open discussion about repulsive crimes such as online child abuse, grooming and exploitation, while outlining the Scottish Government’s commitment and the extensive range of actions that it is taking to protect children and young people.

It has been obvious that the debate has generated much consensus—as it should—among all the parties in the chamber. We can all agree that every child and every young person in the world has the right to be protected from all forms of abuse and neglect. Unfortunately, as we all know and have heard today, that does not always happen, and such crimes can have a catastrophic impact on a child’s emotional and physical health, social development, education and future employment.

The Criminal Justice Committee, of which I am a member, first began to hear evidence on the issue just before summer recess 2022. I was disheartened to hear the mounting evidence that not only was the scale of online abuse growing, but the severity of it was, too. One thing that was made abundantly clear to us was that this is not solely a justice issue, and that the response should reflect that. It is important that we have ministers from two different portfolio areas in the chamber for this debate, which shows that the Scottish Government’s response is reflecting that. The issue requires a co-ordinated response from our health, education and social work services. All of that ties into the need for greater public awareness of the issue of online child abuse, grooming and exploitation. The Scottish Government has acknowledged that through the awareness campaigns that it has run each year since 2021, which have advised parents and carers on how to spot the signs of child sexual exploitation and how to help keep children safe online.

In addition, as we have already heard, the Scottish Government developed the child sexual abuse and exploitation hub and has established an online safety hub. Those resources can be found at In 2020, the Scottish Government published a delivery report on its progress, and that of statutory and third sector organisations, against those actions. Since then, it has also revised the national child protection guidance to support local areas to develop effective, evidenced-based responses to child sexual abuse and exploitation.

I welcome the minister’s opening remarks about the Moira Anderson Foundation, which is a fabulous organisation. Although it is based in Airdrie, which is in my neighbouring constituency, Moira Anderson was a girl from Coatbridge who went missing 60 years ago. The work that is done in her memory by Sandra Brown, Gillian Urquhart and others is fantastic.

I will also comment on Willie Rennie’s speech, although I know that he has left the chamber. His speech came at the issue from a slightly different angle, which I felt was powerful. He said that, when offences are committed and the police become aware of them and make an arrest, the impact on any children who are in the house, as well as the non-offending carer—which is the term that he used—must be absolutely dramatic, because they have done no wrong. He put it in a very powerful way. That is something that our organisations and services need to think about when dealing with these issues.

Just last June, the Scottish Government published practitioner guidance on criminal exploitation on behalf of the serious organised crime task force. That guidance sought to give clear advice on questions such as “What is Criminal Exploitation?”, “What is human trafficking and why is this relevant when talking about criminal exploitation?”, “Recognising and understanding the complexity and impact of Criminal Exploitation”, “What does Criminal Exploitation look like in practice?”, “Whom does Criminal Exploitation Affect?”, “Who is perpetrating Criminal Exploitation?” and “Identifying Criminal Exploitation”.

As we know, and as has been said in the debate, the regulation of internet services is a reserved issue. The Scottish Government will continue to press the UK Government to use its powers to protect children from harm online. In May this year, the First Minister wrote to the UK Government, stressing the need to make changes to the Online Safety Bill to make social media platforms more responsible for their content. To be specific, I believe that any legislation that is introduced to protect children and young people must introduce stronger safety by design duties on companies to actively eliminate or reduce the risk of exposing children to harm. As the committee convener said, that was advocated for strongly by Stuart Allardyce from Stop It Now! Scotland during our evidence sessions. Any legislation should also contain stronger age verification requirements on the part of pornography providers, including confirmation of the consent of individuals; greater consideration of how to future proof legislation against threats to children and young people posed by emerging technology including AI and immersive and virtual reality technology; and the introduction of a mandatory code of practice on violence against women and girls to ensure that providers recognise and act to prevent the disproportionately gendered impact of online abuse against girls and women.

Talking about those actions takes me to Ruth Maguire’s contribution and to one of Kate Forbes’s interventions. It is all very well saying that we want legal pornography sites to abide by certain standards, and I think that we do need to say that, but there also needs to be a wider conversation about pornography in general. As Ruth Maguire said, perhaps that is for another debate.

Although the committee heard that both the prevalence and severity of online abuse was increasing, we still do not have a full and comprehensive data base in order to best understand the issue.

The final report of the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse in England and Wales acknowledged that data collection must be improved, and there is an issue with Scottish data collection, too. On that point, I stress that data must be collected in a trauma-informed manner, as there can be a massive risk of retraumatisation of children and young people. That has been made clear to me in my work as the convener of the cross-party group.

This is a very real and present issue, which requires a huge effort to overcome. The Scottish Government has invested in many useful policies, but more will be required. The Online Safety Bill that was passed in Westminster could have taken a more protective approach, and increased data collection will be required to better inform our policy makers. With all of that in mind, we must remember that, in looking at policy, the children and young people who are affected by this abuse must always come first.

Meghan Gallacher is the final speaker in the open debate.


Meghan Gallacher (Central Scotland) (Con)

I welcome the opportunity to speak in today’s committee debate. I grew up at the same time as the rise of the social media giants. Bebo, MySpace, Twitter and Facebook were the main social media forums then, although there are many more platforms today. I must admit that they could only be described as the wild west.

Random chat rooms and websites were also doing the rounds; however, young people had begun to move to MSN, and although that was not completely safe, you at least had to know a person’s email address to talk to them. However, just because you knew the email address and the person you were speaking to, that did not stop the bullying. Many children and young people at that time were subjected to all sorts of online abuse. After all, it is easier to be a bully hiding behind a screen than to be one in person.

Looking back, I am glad that my mum and dad supervised the time that I spent online when I was a child. Back then, there was no real protection in place for young people, and not knowing the dangers, young people were exposed to all sorts. However, that is nothing compared with what children and young people are faced with now. AI is an example of those new dangers. During the debate, I was sent an article about a recent incident in a Spanish town, where police are currently investigating naked images of dozens of young girls, which have been shared around schools. The youngest victim is 11 years old.

However, it is social media content and its dangers that I want to focus on today. A global report in August 2022 found that the number of incidents of children aged between seven and 10 being manipulated into recording abuse of themselves has surged by two thirds over a six-month period. Through grooming, deception and extortion, self-generated abuse is typically created using webcams or smartphones, and then it is shared online. Almost 20,000 reports of self-generated child sexual abuse content were seen by the Internet Watch Foundation in the first six months of 2022, which was up from just under 12,000 the previous year.

That is a trend that should worry us all, and it is incumbent on us all to try to address the problem across the UK. The IWF’s chief executive, Susie Hargreaves, has said that self-generated abuse is “entirely preventable” due to where the abuse takes place. It takes place in the home, and homes are meant to be a safe place for children. Therefore, I have a great deal of sympathy for the UK Online Safety Bill, which is trying to address that worrying trend.

There is more that we can do to keep children safe online. Before allowing children to access the internet, parents should be aware of the privacy settings and age limits for certain websites, which have been discussed in previous contributions. When on social media, they should make sure that children are not befriending or interacting with people whom they do not know. However, I wish that it was only education that we needed to worry about when it comes to online child abuse, grooming and exploitation—we also need to be concerned about the approach that social media platforms are taking.

We have yet to find the right balance between young people accessing social media and protecting them. Social media can be used as an access tool for false information—I have raised the issue of misinformation about contraception on social media and how that might be contributing to Scotland’s record-high abortion figures. Videos on TikTok have included false claims about hormonal contraception, such as the pill, the implant, the jabs and some types of coils. The misinformation online often focuses on the side effects, with one video posted by a so-called influencer claiming that birth control is this generation’s cigarettes and that it ruins our bodies.

Hashtags including #naturalbirthcontrol and #quittingbirthcontrol have also been viewed hundreds of millions of times on the app. I would argue that that is a form of online abuse, because it is telling young women that they do not need to protect themselves during sex. I believe that influencers have a duty of care to their audience, and that one should be ashamed of themselves for spreading false information and putting young women’s health at risk. If the Scottish Government can do anything to help protect young women online when it comes to sexual health, it will have my full support.

In short, I do not think that we have found the right balance between access for children and young people to social media and protecting them from online abuse. However, social media can be a force for good. After all, 800 predators a month are arrested by UK law enforcement agencies, and up to 1,200 children are safeguarded from sexual abuse because of social media handing over vital data. That is why I agree with the Home Secretary, who has urged Meta not to roll out end-to-end encryption on social media platforms without robust measures. I hope that the Scottish Government will join in those calls.

We need to have more conversations about this issue, because social media is still the wild west, it still harms young people and we must work collectively to continue to put safeguards in place to stop online child abuse, grooming and exploitation.

We move to winding-up speeches.


Katy Clark (West Scotland) (Lab)

I am pleased to close the debate on behalf of Scottish Labour. I thank my colleagues on the Criminal Justice Committee for bringing this important issue to the chamber, and I welcome the wide-ranging and cross-party nature of the discussion.

The committee’s convener and many others have outlined the increasing scale of the problem and the levels of online child abuse and grooming. As Audrey Nicoll said, a number of witnesses gave evidence to the committee on the need to develop a sexual harms strategy.

We all know that young people use social and digital media as a part of almost every aspect of their lives, and that has led to predators exploiting and taking advantage of children. For that reason, Scottish Labour included questions on online crime and on young women and sexual harassment as part of our consultation on fighting violence against women and girls. We hope to report on that work later this year.

Sharon Dowey spoke clearly about not just the scale of the problem but the difficulties that parents face in dealing with the wide range of cyberthreats and the many forms that online child abuse takes. She also highlighted the lack of data. Martin Whitfield spoke about the importance of discussions on the issue taking place in both the home and education settings. Pauline McNeill spoke about the ever-changing nature of both the technology involved and the behaviour of predators, which reinforces the point that parents often are not adequately equipped to deal with these difficult challenges. Pauline McNeill also spoke about the scale of self-generated content from very young children, in the age range of seven to 10 years. Ruth Maguire spoke powerfully about how simple steps, such as not allowing certain websites to use financial payment methods such as Mastercard and Visa, can have a massive impact.

The National Crime Agency estimates that, across the UK, there are likely to be between 550,000 and 850,000 people who pose varying degrees of sexual risk to children. That sets out the potential scale of the problem.

Rona Mackay spoke about the Online Safety Bill. I agree with her about its inadequacies, but we need to keep under review how that legislation is used. We need to come to a view on what further legislation is needed as well as do everything that we can to ensure that that legislation is used to its full capacity.

I am pleased that Liam Kerr focused on the role of education in online safety, which can equip children to know the risks and educate adults, whether they are parents, carers or others.

This whole debate links very closely to the debate around violence against women and girls and, indeed, around misogyny and violence in schools. It is clear that the current legislative framework is inadequate, and that the way we are dealing with those problems across government and the public sector is woefully inadequate. I say that on a cross-party basis, as I do not think that anybody has all the answers. It is the nature of the debate that the solutions are far from simple.

In an intervention, Kate Forbes referred to the normalisation of violence against women and girls. Research by the University and College Union and the University of Kent found that the sending and receiving of unsolicited sexual images is becoming “dangerously normalised”. We need a genuinely national, joined-up strategy to address all the points that have been made in the debate, and I think we can genuinely say that there has been a cross-party consensus, both regarding the scale of the problem and regarding the number of actions that are needed to tackle disturbing behaviours from those who are targeting children and that are needed to protect children and young people online. Indeed, those threats do not stop when young people reach an older age; they still exist for many in society. It is also a matter of ensuring that parents and carers are fully educated and informed of the risks and dangers.

Today’s debate must not just be about paying lip service to the issue. I hope that it will form part of a continuing discussion that enables us to develop a strategy to address the scale of the challenge and make the issue a thing of the past.


Roz McCall (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

I, too, am not on the Criminal Justice Committee, but it is no surprise to anyone in the chamber that, as we are discussing children, I really wanted to speak in the debate.

Online child abuse, grooming and exploitation is a growing epidemic, which must be tackled. I hasten to add that I did not attend the same school meeting as my colleague Liam Kerr but, going back 10 years, when my eldest daughter was at secondary school, we were invited to discuss concerns about online mobile phone security. I want to highlight some of the points that have already been raised by John Swinney, Martin Whitfield and Liam Kerr, and I want to congratulate educators and schools in trying to be proactive in getting in touch with parents, so that they can get information out regarding some of the online concerns.

I should mention that the concerns expressed back then, 10 years ago, were regarding different apps that gave access to exact locations of the person messaging. Those apps would analyse landmarks in real time from video calls to identify the exact location of where somebody was talking with pinpoint accuracy. They secured anonymity for the sender but allowed access to all the details of the receiver. Those apps were legal, approved and targeted, and they went out to the younger end of the social media market, actively providing platforms where groomers could do their worst. The meeting was intended to be informative—an attempt for the school to address the issues proactively and to give as much information to parents as possible.

The point has been well made today: as much as children are part of the discussion and a part of how we move forward and help to combat the issue, it is important that parents, young people and schools are all included, so that we can raise awareness and work together to combat these online problems.

I mention all that because the statement that was given by the police at the meeting that I attended was that there was no way to get ahead of technology. Every time the app in question became concerning enough for police recognition, or when parents started to use the app themselves, it rendered the app so uncool that young people moved in droves to newer, more advanced and “cooler” ways to contact friends across the globe.

It is important to recognise that that is being taken into consideration in the UK’s Online Safety Bill, which will give parents, guardians and carers more power over the content that young people see by requiring the platforms to offer tools that give those people greater control. For me, the realisation that it was not just a small section of society that was the problem but the applications themselves was a loud and clear wake-up call.

A point that was well made in an intervention by Kate Forbes was that online apps know no borders. They cross international boundaries of geography, language and culture. It is a global issue that needs Governments to come together for the collective good of our children. That is why it is of paramount importance that the Scottish and UK Governments work together to ensure that legislation to tackle online abuse, grooming and exploitation is robust. I am delighted to hear from the minister about the co-operative approach that has been taken so far. Trying to stand alone and be seen as superior in the fight against online abuse will have only one loser—the children whom we are charged to protect.

I have learned so much today that I was unaware of, and some very poignant speeches have been made. Ruth Maguire and Meghan Gallacher made some poignant points about child pornography and highlighted the problems that we now face now. I will be taking an awful lot of that away with me.

However, I want to highlight the fact that Police Scotland recorded 1,928 crimes of online sexual abuse in 2022-23, a point that Sharon Dowey raised earlier. We know that the problems have no borders, so the solutions must also recognise that.

It is important that we also realise that the Scottish Sentencing Council’s report, “Public perceptions of sentencing”, which was published in September 2019, advised that more than three-quarters of the Scottish public believe that those who are in possession of indecent images of children should go to prison. Seventy-seven per cent of the Scottish population is so incensed about the issue that it thinks that people who are convicted of possessing indecent images of children should be given a custodial sentence. I wonder whether that same percentage would be happy to know that current sentencing guidelines state that they will not go to prison. It is important that Police Scotland has the ability to deal with that.

Bullying and the abuse of children is the act of a coward. Preying on the young and the weak to wield power is the act of a spineless individual who further hides behind the veil of online apps, which only proves their cowardice. It is essential that more is done to catch and sentence people who go out of their way to entrap, endanger and exploit our children.

Today’s debate seems to be only the beginning. Many members have made the point that we need to do more and we need to bring more discussion to the chamber, and I really hope that we can do that. Let us take the opportunity to protect and secure our children and young people in online spaces where the perpetrator is unknown and shielded, supported by technology that was designed for good but is being used for criminal intent. We need to give the police the tools and support for the work that they do to bring down the numbers, work across borders, and ensure that those who actively go out of their way to abuse, groom and exploit young people online properly repay their debt to our children.


The Minister for Victims and Community Safety (Siobhian Brown)

I thank the committee for bringing the debate to the chamber today, and I also thank all the members who have taken part. They have raised quite a few issues that I will try to address later in my speech.

Online safety is an important issue for the Parliament, as has been reflected in the powerful contributions from across the chamber today. The debate has provided us with a chance to highlight the dangers that our children and young people face online, and to reflect on how we might better protect them.

Online child sexual abuse is now a national threat and the reality is that it is happening to children and young people now, right here in Scotland, in the UK and across the world. What happens to us as children shapes who we are and can have a huge impact on us throughout our lives, especially if those experiences are adverse and involve exploitation or abuse. We have a responsibility to do all that we can to protect our children and young people from harm whenever it occurs, whether online or offline, and we have a responsibility to equip our children and young people so that they are informed and prepared to make the most of digital technologies.

We work with Police Scotland and other partners to find effective ways of deterring potential perpetrators from committing online abuse in the first place. The Minister for Children, Young People and Keeping the Promise has already set out the range of actions that the Scottish Government is taking to tackle the threat.

Kate Forbes

I have already made a similar point, but I just want to get a commitment from the Scottish Government that we are maximising the support for Police Scotland, for example, to work at an international level. I am extremely burdened by the fact that demand in Scotland is driving the abuse of not just our own children but children in other parts of the world.

Siobhian Brown

I was going to come to that point at the end of my speech, but I will go into it now. Pauline McNeill raised the issue, too.

We recognise that this is a global issue and that we have to work together through international collaboration. In June 2022, alongside all our UK Government counterparts, Scottish Government officials attended the WeProtect Global Alliance summit on online child sexual abuse. We will continue to explore how we can strengthen Scottish representation internationally to promote our policies on online child sexual abuse and exploitation.

We want our children and young people to enjoy the internet and all that it has to offer and to do so in a safe and supported way. We want them to stay in control and to know what to do and to whom they should go if they feel at risk. That is why we are prioritising work with our partners and schools to encourage safe and responsible use of the internet. For those children who have experienced trauma, including but not limited to child sexual abuse, the bairns hoose affords Scotland an opportunity to provide a genuinely child-centred approach to delivering justice, care and recovery.

It is important to emphasise that current laws leave no room for ambiguity that child sexual abuse and exploitation—online and offline—are criminal, and the most serious of those offences carry with them a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.

Pauline McNeill

Does the minister agree with the statement that I made at the beginning of my speech? The law is one thing, but we are dealing with a huge societal issue, and the extent of the problem might be greater than we think. For that reason, perhaps she will address the question of how we wrap up legislation with how we tackle societal change. I am sure that she agrees with me, as not tackling that means that we will be accepting the widespread harm of our children and wider society.

Siobhian Brown

I will come to that later in my speech.

It is important that any Government keeps criminal laws under review to ensure that they remain fit for purpose and to provide police and prosecutors with the tools that they require to tackle all forms, both online and offline, of child sexual abuse and exploitation as they emerge. That is why Police Scotland, the Scottish Government and the justice agencies are considering Police Scotland’s proposals, to assess whether changes are required. It might be helpful if I explain a bit more about the Scottish Government’s current position on that.

The proposals can be broadly split into different categories. The first category is on extending the criminal law to cover images of children that do not directly include actual children—for example, cartoon images of child abuse. Current law does not cover that explicitly, with the focus of the law being on images of actual children or what appear to be photographs of actual children that might have been generated using software. It does not extend as far as cartoon images of children.

It is worth noting that it would be rare for such materials of cartoon images of child abuse to be found without the person also having illegal images of actual children. As such, that person could be brought to justice. However, I understand the concerns that some people have expressed about whether such material could be used by those seeking to groom children for abuse, and we will consider whether there is a case for extending the current law to cover illustrations and cartoon depictions of child sexual abuse.

Secondly, Police Scotland has suggested that consideration be given to modernising the law to reflect the emergence of the internet. That has been reflected by a number of MSPs, in view of the fact that much of the existing law was developed prior to the internet’s widespread adoption. The Scottish Government has discussed the issue with prosecutors, who are not aware of any practical issues that have arisen as a result of the way in which the legislation was developed. Our initial view is that the current law provides an effective tool for prosecuting those who use the internet to commit offences that relate to child sexual abuse material, but I assure members that we will continue to reflect on that position and to consider further the views that have been expressed today.

Thirdly, Police Scotland has suggested the consideration of legislation to criminalise the possession of child-like sex dolls. I understand the concern that is caused even by the existence of such dolls. It is useful to bear in mind that legislation already bans their sale, display, distribution and importation, as they would amount to obscene material. However, we will carefully consider whether legislation is merited to criminalise their possession.

Finally, Police Scotland have raised concerns about the use of online encryption tools by child sex offenders to hide their criminal activities from the police. More generally, the use of encryption by organised crime, in particular, is a growing challenge that the police face across a wide range of criminal activities; it is not limited to child sexual online offending. Any proposed solution most certainly requires careful consideration to ensure that it is effective and does not inadvertently interfere with the legitimate uses of encryption—for instance, to protect customer data for online commerce.

The power to legislate on matters that relate to the regulation of internet services is reserved to the UK Parliament under the Scotland Act 1998, but the Scottish Government will play our part in assessing the challenges that encryption can bring to law enforcement.

Presiding Officer, do I have a bit of time?

You are currently a minute over, and I would be grateful if you would conclude.

Siobhian Brown

My ministerial colleagues and I are absolutely determined that Scotland’s children and young people are afforded protection from online harm, wherever that harm is caused. I thank all members for their thoughtful reflections throughout the debate.

I call Russell Findlay to wind up the debate on behalf of the Criminal Justice Committee, for up to eight minutes.


Russell Findlay (West Scotland) (Con)

I am pleased to close the debate on behalf of the committee. The word “priority” is used a lot in the Parliament and in politics generally. The more it is said, the greater is the risk that its meaning becomes diluted, because the more priorities there are, the less of a priority each becomes.

However, I argue that protection of a country’s citizens—especially protection of our children—is the fundamental priority: it is priority number 1. I am therefore pleased that the committee has staged the debate. I pay tribute to the convener for making it happen and, of course, to the clerks, who do all the unseen heavy lifting.

The debate follows two committee sessions, in May 2022 and May this year, which focused on the issues of child online abuse, grooming and exploitation. Those sessions were important and informative, but they were also disturbing. Members were grateful to hear from a wide variety of experts, including from policing, from social work and from child protection charities. On behalf of the committee, I thank them for their time. Each provided fascinating insights into the horrors of online child abuse, grooming and exploitation. Truly, those are the dark side of the internet age—which, as Sharon Dowey observed, has positively transformed our world in so many other ways. It is strange to think that, in 2005, just 16 per cent of the planet’s population was online. The figure is now more than 90 per cent, although I note that my statistics differ somewhat from Natalie Don’s.

This week, I have reread the Parliament’s Official Report in order to remind myself of all the evidence. A lot of ground was covered. Issues that were discussed include online grooming of children. When that is committed by an adult, it is criminal, but what about explicit content that is self-generated by a teenager then shared with a peer? Pauline McNeill asked a series of questions about that. Daljeet Dagon of Barnardo’s Scotland told us that children as young as 11 years old are affected. She also warned of children being drawn to platforms on which provision of sexual content is monetised. She told the committee:

“we need to think about how we can respond to young people in terms of harmful behaviours, rather than criminalising them.”—[Official Report, Criminal Justice Committee, 31 May 2023; c 39.]

As Audrey Nicoll said in her opening speech, this is an issue not just of law enforcement but of health, education and social work. Fulton MacGregor also made that point very well.

The digital world does not stand still. People who work in child protection explained the challenges of the fractured and opaque landscape that is moving at a pace that we struggle to keep up with. During our evidence sessions, some committee members displayed astute self-awareness by questioning whether we, as middle-aged politicians, could really know what life is like for today’s young people, whose real and digital spaces are seamless—a point that has been made by Maggie Chapman and Ruth Maguire.

As I re-read the Official Reports of the committee meetings, it occurred to me that a few short years from now, or perhaps even sooner, those evidence sessions might seem to be dated—a point that Martin Whitfield also made about the education curriculum.

Let us take artificial intelligence, which has been mentioned only once, by my colleague Jamie Greene. Which of us can predict how it will impact on society, for good and for evil?

During the evidence sessions, there was one mention of the truly depraved and disgusting concept of childlike sex dolls. Although I hoped that it was not really happening, Scotland has, in just the past few weeks, seen the first man being convicted of trying to import one of those dolls from overseas.

There was also, in the sessions, just a single mention, by Wendy Hart of the National Crime Agency, of haptic suits. To be honest, I did not even know what those were. Essentially, they allow the user who is wearing them to feel interactions through physical sensation. As Wendy Hart told us:

“We are looking at a range of technologies and how they may affect and manifest in the CSA space.”—[Official Report, Criminal Justice Committee, 31 May 2023; c 38.]

Some of the statistics about the potential scale of online child abuse are terrifying. As was noted by Katy Clark, statistics from the National Crime Agency suggest that up to 850,000 people in the UK pose some degree of sexual risk to children. Extrapolating that for population share would suggest that around 70,000 of those people are in Scotland—70,000. What is perhaps even more terrifying is that the very nature of online offending means that the true extent cannot be properly quantified, as we heard from Liam Kerr.

What can be stated with certainty is that the vast majority of people who seek to harm children in this way are men. Stuart Allardyce of the charity Stop It Now! Scotland told us that, in a typical year, 98 or 99 of the 100 offenders that they work with are men. He also cited studies suggesting that up to

“2 per cent of males have looked at illegal images of children”—[Official Report, Criminal Justice Committee, 31 May 2023; c 26.]

That is a huge number.

The subject of the debate is a difficult one. Willie Rennie’s contribution on offenders’ families was important and truly thought provoking. All the evidence suggests that protecting our children will only become even more challenging. How can we begin to prepare for the unknown technologies of tomorrow’s world?

However, I believe that there are reasons for optimism. First, I have faith in our young people. They are smart, savvy and adaptable—way more than I was at that age. Secondly, there are many determined people out there who are working day and night to keep children safe. We were fortunate to hear directly from some of them at our committee meetings.

Thirdly—and fortuitously for the timing of today’s debate—the Online Safety Bill has just completed its passage through the House of Lords. The chief executive of the NSPCC described the bill’s passage on Tuesday as “momentous” and the UK Government’s minister for digital, Lord Parkinson, stated:

“The intention of this Bill is to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online, particularly for children.”

The broadcasting regulator, Ofcom, will have the ability to impose meaningful fines on big tech companies, which have far too often been disgracefully negligent. Crucially, according to the online safety charity 5Rights Foundation,

“the mantle of responsibility for child online safety now falls firmly on the shoulders of the tech sector.”

I find it gratifying that ministers in Edinburgh and London worked constructively together to ensure that the legislation will be strong and effective.

In conclusion, I urge all members to attend the forthcoming briefing session with Ofcom. We can all strive to play our part in keeping Scotland’s children safe.

That concludes the debate on tackling online child abuse, grooming and exploitation.