Tough new laws that make it a criminal offence for an adult to send sexually explicit messages to a child under 16 are still not being enforced almost two years after they were passed by parliament, child protection campaigners have said.
The offence, which updated existing laws to include sexting and other online communications, was made a criminal act under section 67 of the Serious Crime Act in March 2015.
However, the NSPCC, which campaigned for the law, said no start date has been set to bring the new law into force, meaning police cannot charge anyone with the offence.
Labour MP Louise Haigh, shadow minister for the digital economy, wrote to the justice secretary, Liz Truss , saying the failure to enforce the law some 23 months after it was enacted was “leaving our children at risk from grooming”.
If enforced, the law would mean anyone over 18 in England and Wales who sent a sexually explicit message to a child, or attempted to elicit the child to send something explicit themselves, could face up to two years in prison.
home secretary, expressed her support for the offence in the Commons in 2014 before it was inserted into the bill. “We do need to be able to intervene early so predatory behaviour is tackled before a child is put at risk,” she said.
The government’s own assessment argued the new law was “necessary to … allow authorities to intervene earlier to prevent more serious offending against children” and to bring offences up-to-date with modern communications. However, research from the House of Commons library confirmed the offence was still not being officially enforced.
“It is scandalous, given the risk posed to our children, that this law has still not been enforced,” Haigh wrote. “Given this, can I ask why the government appear to be so utterly complacent? Our children should not be put at risk because ministers are unable or unwilling to get their act together and bring this law into force.
“This seems all the more inexplicable as other provisions of the Serious Crime Act which relate to child protection were brought into force with the urgency they demanded.”
Haigh, who has also written to her ministerial counterpart, Matthew Hancock, at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, raised the issue last week at DCMS questions in the House of Commons.
“Ensuring internet safety is, as she knows, at the top of the government’s agenda. It has been a crucial part of the digital economy bill and the proposal she makes is one we are considering very seriously,” Hancock said.
Haigh said the response did not appear to take into account that the law has already been passed but not enforced. “The minister for the digital economy, who operates within a department with responsibility for online safety, appeared unaware of the new law and suggested that the government were merely ‘considering’ commencing the legislation,” she wrote in her letter to Truss. “Responses from ministers to parliamentary questions appear to set no firm timetable for its implementation.”
The Ministry of Justice did not respond to questions from the Guardian about the cause of the delay. A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “Sexual communication with a child is abhorrent, which is why the government legislated to make it a specific offence. We remain committed to commencing this law as soon as possible.”
On Thursday, the home secretary, Amber Rudd, said the government would commit an additional £40m for a package of measures to tackle child sexual exploitation and abuse online, including an additional £20m for the National Crime Agency.
Rudd will announce, during a visit to a Salford counselling service for victims of childhood abuse, run by Barnardo’s, a new “centre of expertise” which will involve health, law enforcement, charities and social care professionals sharing best practice on tackling online child sex abuse.
The Home Office’s child trafficking protection fund will also award nearly £2.2m to seven charities for projects protecting vulnerable children in the UK and overseas who are at risk of trafficking.