October 2014 – and as ‘many as 20,000 to 30,000‘ potential sex offenders, or vile perverts in tabloidese, had been identified. There was outrage that all those on the list provided by the National Crime Agency hadn’t been castrated before dawn, indeed a mere 745 ‘suspected paedophiles’ had been arrested, and of those, only 264 eventually charged – with having accessed indecent images of children online. There are no figures currently available for the number of convictions amongst those 264 charged.
The many flaws inherent in the previous ‘mass arrest’ during Operation Ore are well known and well argued – let us try not to go there; not least the irony of one of the ‘computer experts’, Jim Bates, who had examined much of the digital material, being arrested for ‘being in possession of child abuse images’. It was later ruled that the search of his house had been conducted unlawfully, with the magistrates unaware that the material was legally privileged – and resulted in the pantomime of a Chief Constable appearing to be in contempt of court for refusing to hand the material back.
Equally well known and well argued are the rights and wrongs of images being classed as ‘child abuse’. I am aware that it is said – ‘if there was no end customer prepared to view this material, then it would not be produced and no child would be abused’. It is a valid argument; though when it is extended to include, for instance, a collection of photographs of properly dressed girl guides, because someone finds them enchanting, but they are subjectively considered to have been collected ‘with sexual intent’ then I find the argument stretched too thin. Ditto Japanese ‘cartoons’.
The ‘end user is to blame’ argument also takes attention away from the parents of the child involved, and the photographer, who have actively conspired to abuse the child, but rarely get a mention. This is particularly relevant to the people who find themselves ensnared in this sort of operation for having viewed perfectly legal pornography which has contained images judged to be of children – as in the famous case of Melissa Bertsch, who gave evidence in the trial of an Army Major serving in Northern Ireland, that she was in fact 20 years old and an established porn ‘star’.
I would like to look at another aspect of Operation Notarise.
The fact that 20,000 to 30,000 people, and their families, have found themselves on a list held by the Police as being ‘potential offenders’. That alone has far reaching ramifications, not least in the field of employment.
One has only to listen to Yvette Cooper in the Serious Crime Bill debate, to understand how pernicious is the ‘no smoke without fire’ mantra. Under discussion was the fact that prosecutions for child sexual abuse had fallen from 9,235 in 2010-11 to 7,998 in 2013-14. (This despite the spirited ‘Savile’ effect!) She argued that:
The number of prosecutions has fallen and there are 800 fewer convictions as a result. That means that more abusers and dangerous criminals are getting away with it.
It is that strain of thought that has brought us the ‘sexual risk’ orders – only last night a Police Officer who had been acquitted of a sexual offence was served with such an order. It has also brought problems with the infamous CRB checks – for then entire families are brought into the net.
Should your husband, brother or child come under suspicion in one of these large scale sweeps conducted via specialist software to trace the IP address of everyone who may have, however accidentally, had access to an image judged illegal, then this will appear on your DBS (previously CRB) record should you have any access to children via your work. That doesn’t just mean if you are a teacher or carer – many people have access to children via their work – some 1.6M people work in the NHS alone.
Surrey Police received 46 ‘packages’ of information via Operation Notarise in 2014. That resulted in 7 arrests. Or 39 families unnecessarily involved in investigations that would have far reaching implications for their future employment.
Across Surrey, 72 computers and related items were seized. Several thousand other items such as books, magazines, DVDs and cassettes were seized. Forensic examination and further enquiries are continuing in each case while the men are on bail, and reports will be submitted to the CPS when investigations are complete.
As yet no evidence has been found of any contact offending against any children but precautionary child protection measures have been taken in cases where suspects have been found to have access to children. Four children in Surrey were subject of a safeguarding referral to Children’s Social Care.
Police searches are typically carried out in the early morning. The suspect will be arrested and taken to a police station where he will be interviewed under caution. It is not uncommon for searches to be carried out at the suspect’s place of work, and computers etc can be seized. Social Services are often involved where the suspect has children, and in a number of instances suspects were requested to live away from the family home during the course of the investigation. The effect on the suspect’s home and work life is often devastating regardless of the outcome of the investigation.
It can be equally devastating for those related to him.
Whilst we are routinely told via press releases to local newspapers of the few convictions that have been obtained as a result of Operation Notarise, no one, not even members of parliament, has been able to obtain information regarding how many families have been unfairly stressed, separated, and sanctioned by Notarise.
Has Operation Notarise merely become a vehicle for the Police to justify additional funding and be seen as pro-active towards tabloid friendly crime?