May under pressure over child protection agency plans

Jim Gamble
Image caption Mr Gamble said he did not believe the decision was in the best interests of children and young people

Police, campaigners and politicians have urged the government to reconsider its plans for the UK's child protection agency, after its head quit in protest.

Jim Gamble resigned from the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (Ceop) because it was to be merged into the National Crime Agency.

Police chiefs say they support Ceop's independence, while Labour said the plan may "harm child safety networks".

Home Secretary Theresa May defended the move, saying a "quango" wasn't needed.

Ms May said: "The government recognises the importance of child protection and wants to build upon the work of Ceop, but does not necessarily feel this is best done by creating a new quango."

She added that Mr Gamble had "done a great job at Ceop".

Ceop was set up in 2006 to help find and convict paedophiles, as well as working to keep young people safe from predators when they are online, and tackling child trafficking.

The merger proposal was outlined by Ms May in July.

It is believed that Mr Gamble made representations to the government after the announcement and wanted more independence for the agency rather than allowing it to become part of a larger body.

He said he did not believe the decision to assimilate it into the National Crime Agency was in the best interests of vulnerable children and young people.

Ceop felt it would lose its identity and the priority of its work would be devalued.

The UK's four children's commissioners wrote a joint letter to the home secretary last month urging her to maintain Ceop as an independent agency.

Commissioner for England Maggie Atkinson told BBC Radio 4's The World at One that it was felt Ceop's work could "get lost" within a new larger organisation.

"Those who really need to talk to an agency can sometimes be very fearful of talking to an agency that has a police branding on it, and the National Crime Agency will be an arm of the police. Some youngsters, who are trafficked for example, would rather not talk to the police but would talk to Ceop.

"I do urge that we think again"

'International reputation'

Campaigner Sara Payne, whose eight-year-old daughter Sarah was murdered by paedophile Roy Whiting 10 years ago, said Mr Gamble's resignation was "the worst possible news".

The Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) said it was "in firm support" of Ceop remaining as a stand-alone agency.

Chief Constable Keith Bristow, Acpo's head of crime, said: "If the government chooses not to support this option, then Acpo would seek to be consulted on whatever new governance arrangements are put in place.

"Jim Gamble has been a hugely committed advocate for the protection of children for many years."

Shadow home secretary Alan Johnson said he believed the government's plans would "harm child safety networks".

"Their lack of consultation has led to the resignation of Mr Gamble, who is highly respected within and outside of the organisation he served so well. His expertise will be badly missed," he said.

He added that Ceop had been gaining an "international reputation for its tremendous work" and said Labour would have given it the "freedom it needed to become even more effective".

Malcolm King, a former member of Ceop, said "all the evidence" showed that the agency should remain separate.

The Labour councillor for Wrexham told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "There seems to have been some sort of campaign in the Home Office for some time now to make Ceop as ineffective as possible.

"What is more important than protecting children? This is not like stopping burglaries.

"This is children being raped, [people] having sex with babies, children being tortured or forced to have sex with animals. This is unimaginable evil that is happening, every parent's worst nightmare times a million."

Mr King added: "Of course it needs to link up but the main link that Ceop needs to have is with local police forces so that they are as effective as possible as they can be locally in dealing with it."

In a statement Ceop said it was not in "the best interests of children and young people for Ceop to be assimilated into the National Crime Agency".

It continued: "This direction of travel does not seem to have changed and Ceop's chief executive, Jim Gamble, has therefore offered his resignation to the Home Secretary with a four-month notice period."

Ms Payne said she was "disgusted" with the government for "betraying" Mr Gamble.

In a statement, Ms Payne, Shy Keenan and Fiona Crook - who jointly set up the campaign group The Phoenix Foundation - said: "This is the worst possible news and a devastating blow for UK child protection. Jim Gamble changed the face of child protection for the better, forever."

"We cannot begin to describe how disgusted we are with our own government for betraying him and for betraying all of our children. This cannot be allowed to happen; we must stand up and fight, we must do what is right for the protection of our children against the crimes of paedophiles."

Shy Keenan, who was abused as a child, also told the BBC: "We need an independent Child Protection Force, that is focused only on child protection, not soaked into a massive team where he has to fight every single day for funding to do what actually has to be done, and needs to be done," she said.

Mr Gamble was head of Northern Ireland's anti-terrorist unit before joining Ceop and was one of five senior police figures shortlisted to replace Sir Hugh Orde after he stepped down as chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

As Ceop chief executive Mr Gamble led calls for Facebook to set up a "panic button" to give reassurance for young users. The application has been downloaded tens of thousands of times since its launch in July.

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