Child protection campaigners have told ministers they want social media company executives to be made criminally liable for putting people at risk online as it emerged there has been a 60% rise in online child sex abuse and exploitation referrals over three years.

Police Scotland have admitted it needs to improve its approaches to violence against women and girls as official analysis seen by the Herald revealed that the number of recorded sex crimes soared by 13.4% in just one year, with reported rapes increasing by 12%.

Online child sex abuse reports have increased significantly since 2018/19 when there were 1961 referrals with 3,111 being received in 2020/21. Over the three years some 2,498 suspect investigations were generated from nearly 7,500 referrals.

There were 7,519 recorded sex crimes between April and September of 2021 - 890 more than the same period the previous year.

Of those the number of rapes rose from 1097 to 1229 over the same period.

Scotland's top law officer Lord Advocate Dorothy Bain has launched a review into the prosecution of sexual crimes in Scotland with sexual offences now accounting for 70% of the casework of Scotland’s High Court prosecutors.

Susanne Tanner QC, who has recently been appointed assistant principal crown counsel, will conduct the review.


And Deputy Chief Constable Malcolm Graham, who has executive responsibility for crime and operational support, has said that there is a "need to drive improvement" in efforts to tackle violence against women and girls in all its forms but it requires investment.

In an analysis he said: "It is clear from the outset that improving our response will require commitment and significant investment. Such investment, in terms of finance and resource, will enable a focus on developing a proactive approach to tackling Violence Against Women and Girls supported by effective partnerships, prevention strategies and technology.

"We acknowledge concerns which have been articulated about the whole justice system response, and are committed to enhancing our structures for hearing and responding to the views and experiences of victims.

"Violence Against Women and Girls presents increased risk to local communities if the issues are not addressed efficiently and effectively."

The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has called for criminal sanctions to be introduced on senior managers of social media companies whose actions put kids at risk as part of a strengthening of the UK Online Safety Bill.

Criminal sanctions would come where there is a clear evidence of repeated and systemic duty of care failings that result in a significant risk of exposure to illegal harm.

Andy Burrows (below), head of child safety online policy at the NSPCC, said: "Offenders, seeking to groom and coerce children, have taken advantage of young people spending more time alone and online during the pandemic, resulting in record numbers of child sexual abuse reports to Police Scotland.

“But even before the pandemic began we were seeing a worrying rise in such offences. This is because at the heart of the problem lies the refusal of tech firms to make children’s safety a priority.


“It is crucial that the UK Government significantly strengthens its Online Safety Bill to more effectively tackle online abuse and prevent children being exposed to entirely avoidable harm.

“We are calling for named senior managers of tech firms to be held personally liable for design choices that put children at risk. And the Bill must also compel firms to work together to tackle how abusers use multiple social networks to contact children, before they move across to risky encrypted messaging and live-streaming sites.”

An initial Police Scotland review of the national police response to public protection, which covers sex crimes, agreed that their work should be broader than an examination of demand, resources and force structures.

A Public Protection Programme Board has now been established as the force says the programme of work will look at improving national and local approaches to adapt to what they call "shifting demand and vulnerabilities".

Mr Graham added:"An opportunity exists to review, refresh and renew our existing approach and improve upon it. Whilst Police Scotland has made significant progress in tackling Violence Against Women and Girls, we recognise there is much more that can be achieved to ensure we effectively protect women and girls."

He said that the impact of the Covid crisis, has an influence on the development the force strategy.

"It is clear that the shifting and increasingly complex landscape requires the service to change and adapt, to enable us to respond appropriately and effectively," he said. "Policing is, fundamentally, public protection, however the growing demand in terms of the policing response to Violence Against Women and Girls and indeed all abuse and exploitation of people, creates challenging decisions around resources, prioritisation and funding."

He says that increased reporting may, in part, be attributed to increased public trust and confidence in policing response coupled with a proactive approach.

He said the murder in March last year of 33-year--old marketing executive Sarah Everard in South London, England was among the high profile events that have given rise to public concerns at UK level.

"Whilst Police Scotland has made tangible progress in tackling Violence Against Women and Girls, these events have further highlighted the need to continually review and improve our approaches," he said.

According to Police Scotland figures, since September 2020, Police Scotland's online child sexual abuse and exploitation enforcement teams have undertaken action in respect of 1226 of the suspect investigation packages generated from these referrals. This has resulted in the apprehension of 586 individuals and 1081 children protected.

In autumn 2021 Police Scotland launched a That Guy online campaign focused on male sexual entitlement and misogynistic attitudes, which they say act as enablers to serious sexual offending.

Police have said the campaign has been a "resounding success" having been viewed by 2.9 million Twitter users and shared millions of times via Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.

A UK Government spokesman said: "Our pioneering new laws will put more responsibility on social media platforms to protect their users, particularly children. 

"Tech firms will need to remove illegal content such as child sexual abuse, and if they fail to do so they will be held to account through huge fines, service suspension and their bosses could be held criminally liable."