Millions of children could be at even greater risk of online exploitation and abuse unless the government steps in to replace “vital” funding after Brexit, police, charities and teaching unions are warning.
The UK Safer Internet Centre – a partnership between Childnet, the Internet Watch Foundation, and SWGLF, who run the Revenge Porn Hotline – currently receive half their funding from the EU.
The government are currently refusing to confirm whether they will be replacing this funding after the transition phase of Brexit is complete.
Without this money, which amounts to £1.3million, there are fears children could be left vulnerable to online abuse, sexual exploitation, and bullying.
Among the signatories of the letter are Peter Wanless, CEO of the NSPCC, Nancy Kelly, CEO of Stonewall, and Tessy Ojo of the Diana Award.
The letter warns that unless the funding is replaced, “efforts to innovate to remove illegal and harmful content online will be hampered, schools will be less supported to educate and protect their pupils on these crucial safety issues, and millions of children will be more vulnerable to the growing number of threats they face online each day.”
David Wright, UK SIC Director, said: “The UK Safer Internet Centre plays a pivotal role. It runs Safer Internet Day, the critical annual touchpoint in online safety education, which this year reached half of the nation’s children.
“With the funding, the UK Safer Internet Centre can continue to expand their reach, continue to remove illegal child sexual abuse imagery, innovate against new threats and allow children and young people to reap the benefits of being online safely.”
This year, the coronavirus pandemic and national lockdown have seen more children and young people being exposed to online harm, including sexual exploitation.
In a Westminster hall debate, Labour MP Chi Onwurah told MPs schools “desperately” need help improving online safety, and called for the government to replace the UK Safer Internet Centre’s European Union funding so it can continue to “do its good work” as the UK leaves the EU.
The IWF has reported a shocking increase in self-generated child sexual abuse images. In 2019, a third of all the content the IWF acted upon was generated by children themselves who had been groomed or coerced into making it. That rose to 44 per cent in the first half of 2020.
Reports to the IWF’s hotline have also spiked, with analysts processing a record 15,258 reports from the public in September 2020.
The UK’s revenge porn helpline (run by SWGfL) has also seen an increase in demand, with calls remaining high since the coronavirus lockdown.
UK SIC Director Susie Hargreaves OBE said not replacing the funding would have “dire” consequences for children in the UK.
She said: “The internet is where, increasingly, we are living our lives. It has been a lifeline keeping us all together during this pandemic. But it is also where criminals are looking to exploit the most vulnerable among us.
“Without the right education, training, and help, people – children in particular – are more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. I worry there will be dire consequences if that is not available.
The Independent understands that confirmation of any new funding from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sports will not be announced ahead of Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak’s spending review, setting out departmental expenditure, scheduled for Wednesday 25 November.