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Breakfast with Frost
On Sunday, 20 July 2003, Breakfast with Frost featured an interview with Esther Rantzen, Chair, Childline & Stuart Hyde, Assistant Chief Constable, West Midlands Police

Please note "BBC Breakfast with Frost" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used

Esther Rantzen
Discussion on the dangers to children of using the Internet

PETER SISSONS: Now, the case of Shevaun Pennington has been a wake up call to parents everywhere about the potential dangers of the internet. The 12-year-old girl was reunited with her family last week after spending five days on the run with a much older man.

The former American marine Toby Studabaker met Shevaun through a chatroom and took her from Britain to France and then to Germany. He's been charged with child abduction and is being held in prison near Frankfurt awaiting extradition to Britain. Studabaker has said he didn't realise Shevaun was minor.

Well I'm joined now in the studio by Esther Rantzen, the chair of Childline, and from Birmingham by Assistant Chief Constable Stuart Hyde, a senior police spokesman on child protection and the internet. Welcome both, welcome Esther. This internet, it's a pervert's paradise, isn't it? Anonymity, untraceability, infinite variety, solitude, it must be quite dangerous.

ESTHER RANTZEN: Absolutely. Just as a car can be lethal, so the internet can be very dangerous indeed. But, also it can be very useful - it can be a way for a child to explore a whole new world, gain a great deal of valuable information and I should say to you, Peter, that two nephews of mine actually met their first girlfriends via the internet.

The frightening fact is that one in ten children who start relationships in chatrooms do then go on to meet that person in reality. So that's why we have to be so careful and that's why what you say, there is a very, very real danger involved.

PETER SISSONS: You called the Shevaun case a 21st century horror story, are we doomed to have it endlessly repeated?

ESTHER RANTZEN: Well I think there will be other occasions, yes I do think that and I think that the parents have the answer in their hands really. I think that what we have to do is sit down with our children and talk through sensible rules for exploring the internet. Firstly, how long a child spends on it - and little Shevaun was spending up to 11 hours, which of course frightened and worried her parents.

But she should have sat down with them and worked out sensible rules for a maximum time. And there, also, they had to point out that if these friends were coming into their home, the parents would meet them and talk to them. They deserve that same sort of information about person that a child is developing a relationship with, because as the government campaign puts it, very, very vividly, the child they think that they know and trust can turn out to be a far older, very different person.

PETER SISSONS: The Sexual Offences Bill has had its second reading and grooming and other new offences are included in it. What's the judgement of Childline? Is that going to make a big difference?

ESTHER RANTZEN: Well I think it's very, very important that people who do this grooming, who encourage children to meet them with these terrible motives in mind, do get properly punished - at the moment the law doesn't do that. So I think that is very important.

Childline has had a number of calls from children who have found themselves frighteningly out of depth by meeting people who are far older and in one case a child was sexually assaulted by someone that she met thinking that she was meeting another child. So this is a very important new area and I think that the government, I think the children's charities and I think the police are only too aware of these dangers.

PETER SISSONS: Well Stuart Hyde, in Birmingham, you've got three school-age children, how do you handle this problem with them?

STUART HYDE: I think it's quite important to put this into some perspective. There are risks to children in any walk of life, whether it's walking across the road, going to school or in a swimming pool.

The work that we're trying to do at the moment, in terms of reducing that risk, is to educate them, reduce the opportunities for paedophiles to approach them on line and, much more importantly, to investigate, catch them and lock them up. In relation to my children, the most important thing for me is to let them know that I understand what they're trying to do, give them access to the internet, because as Esther said, it's a great place to go, there's lot of educational opportunities there, but also to warn them of those dangers. But I think we do have to put those dangers into perspective.

PETER SISSONS: Are you armed with sufficient legal powers?

STUART HYDE: Yes we have quite a lot that is available to us. The initial Computer Crime Act, for example, was ahead of its day. The recent legislation that's going through, clause 17 is providing us with another tool to combat internet paedophiles. But I think it's most important that we also link this in with a much greater use of educational opportunities - making sure that children across the country know what they can do, feel safe and benefit from that.

PETER SISSONS: Now we saw the huge resources needed to track Shevaun down last week, can the police be equipped to pursue these people who groom and entice young people away, if it's happening on anything like the scale we think it is?

STUART HYDE: Three, three or four years ago we'd have said that probably some of the police response was a little bit disorganised. Now we have a national crime squad, that's leading the, our work in this field. We have a national high-tech crime unit, every force in the country has the capability and the ability to be able to track people online and to investigate the sort of cases that we've had recently.

More importantly, our link with internet service providers, with the Internet Watch Foundation, with people like Esther Rantzen's group, has been extended considerably. Much of that work has been undertaken through the government task force and I think we've got our act together now, there's a lot more going on so our armoury of tools to be able to tackle internet child abuse is much, much better. There's a lot more that we can do but I think we've achieved a great deal in the last few years.

PETER SISSONS: Stuart Hyde, thank you. In the last ten seconds, Esther, what more would you like to see done?

ESTHER RANTZEN: Well I would like every child to recognise that you mustn't give your real name, you mustn't give your real address, you mustn't give your real phone number because that charming child, that you're communicating with in a chatroom, can be a very uncharming paedophile.

I also think that the press have done marvels today, two of the Sunday papers have actually entrapped paedophiles, and I think that the police are going to have to be proactive in this way, to keep an eye on the chatrooms and make sure that they're safe.

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