People who download or view images of child abuse could receive stiffer sentences as part of a fresh Government plan to tackle sexual exploitation, a minister announced.
The murders of Tia Sharpe and April Jones, who were both killed by men who had viewed child abuse images online, has led to moves to block illegal pornography on the internet.
But Justice Minister Damian Green has said the Government will also consider stiffer punishments for those caught viewing indecent images in a bid to stamp out abuse.
Judges dealing with sexual offences are set to be given new sentencing guidelines in December, but Mr Green said the option for tougher sentences was kept under constant review.
Research has suggested that there is a causal link between those who view indecent images and those who go on to directly abuse children.
Mr Green said it was important there was a “strong deterrent” for those considering searching for indecent images online.
He said: “It’s something we keep under constant review, increasing the tariff for particular offences as a tough deterrent.”
His comments came during a summit meeting of key players in the fight against sexual exploitation and as the Government launched a national action plan to help tackle the issue.
The minister said the tougher sentencing regime would also send out a strong message to those who groomed vulnerable youngsters in order to lure them into a life of abuse.
Recent cases in Rochdale and Oxford and highlighted the problem of predominantly Asian gangs grooming young white girls for abuse.
Jon Brown from the NSPCC, who was at the meeting welcomed the move and said: “It’s absolutely right that we keep sentencing for these shocking crimes under review.”
“It’s been clear for some time that there is a new and specific pattern of grooming committed by gangs of men who deliberately target highly vulnerable young people and lure them into a life of abuse.
“So far we have seen some tough sentences for gangs who have been convicted and we need to make sure this strong deterrent, and a recognition of the huge suffering this form of abuse causes, continues as just one part of tackling the problem.
“We as a society must take these victims seriously and be absolutely clear to perpetrators that if they groom and abuse a child for sex they will be caught and they will spend a very long time in jail.”
Barnardo’s deputy director of strategy Alison Worsley said: “Barnardo’s is campaigning for a review of sentencing guidelines in cases of child sexual exploitation.
“As the leading provider of specialist child sexual exploitation services in the UK we know the courage it takes for sexually exploited children to seek to prosecute their abusers. A shift in our collective mindsets is still needed in the UK if we are to truly combat this terrible crime.
“It is vital that justice is done in order to enshrine confidence in the legal system among victims of child sexual exploitation. We must work together ever more effectively if we are to bring about more successful convictions for these horrific offences.”
The summit comes after the Prime Minister threatened to impose tough new laws on internet giants if they failed to blacklist key search terms for horrific images by October.
David Cameron set out a raft of reforms to protect children from “poisonous” websites that were “corroding childhood”, including introducing family-friendly filters that automatically blocked pornography unless customers chose to opt-out.
Mr Green said more work would also be done to ensure that victims of sexual abuse were given more support when they came forward to make complaints.
He explained: “The key problem we need to address is believing people. Many victims are often girls who have had a troubled background, they’re not very articulate, they tend to be involved in drugs and alcohol abuse – traditionally they’re not the sort of people the authorities have taken seriously enough.”
Among the measures being considered are changes to the way court cases are organised, allowing victims to give recorded interviews and preventing barristers from repeatedly cross-examining them on harrowing areas of evidence.