Police are considering launching a computer hard drive amnesty as part of a crackdown on internet sex offenders, BBC News Online has learned.
By Brian Wheeler
BBC News Online Magazine
The scheme, which would operate in a similar way to a gun amnesty, would aim to prevent child abuse by getting people who have images of children to volunteer for counselling.
People concerned about images they have accessed on the internet would be able to hand in their computer hard drives to police, to be destroyed or wiped clean.
They would then be assessed by a psychiatrist and if, after appropriate treatment, were judged to be no risk to children, would be given a caution.
The men would still be placed on the sex offenders register, but would be spared the humiliation of a court appearance and a formal prosecution.
The Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) has told BBC News Online it thinks a hard drive amnesty is a "good idea" for offenders in possession of low grade paedophilia.
Stuart Hyde, Acpo's spokesperson on combating child abuse on the internet, and Assistant Chief Constable of West Midlands Police said the idea would "need the most careful consideration" and it will be discussed at a routine meeting in the new year.
If it finds favour with senior officers it could eventually be trialled by police forces around the country.
The idea also has the backing of children's charity Barnardo's, although it says there are practical problems to overcome.
The man behind the idea, Donald Findlater, deputy director of child protection charity the Lucy Faithfull Foundation, believes it could help nip child abuse in the bud for many offenders.
Mr Findlater was director of the Wolvercote Clinic, the UK's only residential treatment centre for paedophiles, which was judged highly successful by the Home Office, but closed two years ago amid controversy over moving to a new location.
He believes the easy availability of material on the internet has caused a substantial increase in sexual offences against children.
"Exposure to child pornography increases the likelihood of people becoming riskier around children. It is likely to reinforce images, attitudes and disposition and leak out into the way they conduct themselves in real time.
"It leads them down into deeper problems," says Mr Findlater.
HOME OFFICE HELPLINE
Hundreds of men have called the Home Office's Stop It Now helpline
It aims to prevent abuse by urging people to confess inappropriate thoughts about children
One caller smashed his hard drive and threw it in the sea
It is in the nature of human sexuality to indulge in increasingly risky behaviour and "push at boundaries", he argues. For paedophiles, this means seeking out ever more extreme material and, eventually, turning their sexual fantasies into reality.
Mr Findlater wants to stop men before they reach that stage - and make them acknowledge that they have a problem.
But under the current approach, they face prosecution and demonisation by the media, if they break cover. As a result, Mr Findlater believes, paedophilia and child abuse will never be eradicated by law enforcement alone.
"I don't believe that criminal law is the best way of resolving these major social problems. Three quarters of child sex abuse is never reported anyway," says Mr Findlater.
At the same time, he does not believe paedophiles can be "cured" - or that every offender will respond to treatment.
But, as with other forms of compulsive behaviour, he believes some paedophiles can learn to modify their attitudes and keep their urges in check.
The problem is treatment programmes are thin on the ground, and men are afraid to seek them out for fear of prosecution.
Surrey Police say they are currently looking, "among other options," at the possiblity of setting up a pilot project called Caution Plus in which selected suspects who successfully complete a course of treatment are given a formal caution, rather than being prosecuted. West Midlands police have also piloted a similar scheme.
The advantage of combining it with a hard drive amnesty is that it would help gather information for investigations into the porn trade and reduce the number of images of children in circulation. It would also bring potential abusers to the attention of the authorities, rather than driving them further underground.
Tink Palmer, principal policy officer at children's charity Barnardo's, says she favours an amnesty but adds it would have to be piloted very carefully.
"I think it is an excellent idea, but there have to be clear messages about what will occur when men hand their computers in.
"We can't have people who know they have been up to something thinking they will escape prosecution if they hand in their hard drive."
She says there would need to be resources to assess each person regarding their risk.
Thousands of men are now suspects
John Carr, internet consultant at charity NCH Action for Children, is more cautious, saying there is no clear correlation between the seriousness of material on someone's hard drive and the likelihood that they are abusing children.
Then there is the question of resources.
The police already have the details of 7,200 internet sex offenders as a result of Operation Ore, which followed the closure of a US-based child porn "gateway" in 1999.
But they have so far been able to arrest and charge only a fraction of that number. Many people on the list have reportedly been let off with a caution.
According to Donald Findlater, some forces have even resorted to sending out a letter to suspects saying "we know what you've been up to, stop it or face arrest".
Whatever the figure, the scale of the problem is much bigger than even the most pessimistic commentators would have predicted a few years ago.
"If every person who had a sexual interest in children was identified," says Tink Palmer, "I think you would be amazed."