NEARLY 650 online grooming crimes have been recorded by Lancashire Police under a new law that made it illegal to send sexual messages to children, it has been revealed.

New figures obtained via freedom of information requests show that 10,119 offences of sexual communication with a child were recorded by police in England and Wales in the two and a half years since the law came into force, following an NSPCC campaign.

In the North West alone the police forces recorded 1,738 offences of sexual communication with a child between April 2017 and October 2019, including 647 in Lancashire.

The NSPCC said the number of offences is accelerating, with a national increase of 23 per cent taking place in the six months up to October last year – including 118 offences in Lancashire.

But the the charity is warning there could be a sharper increase this year due to the unique threats caused by coronavirus which it says is being exacerbated by "years of industry failure to design basic child protection into platforms".

The charity is now calling on Prime Minister Boris Johnson to urgently press ahead with legislation that would help prevent offenders from using social media to target children for sexual abuse, particularly apps owned by Facebook.

The NSPCC said Facebook-owned apps – including Facebook, Facebook Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp – were used in 55 per cent of cases of the 5,784 incidents, from April 2017 to October 2019, where police recorded information about how a child was groomed.

A total of 1,060 were recorded for Snapchat.

NSPCC chief executive Peter Wanless held talks with Mr Johnson last week, in which he highlighted how the pandemic was the perfect storm for abusers and asked that there be no unnecessary delay to legislation.

He said: “Child abuse is an inconvenient truth for tech bosses who have failed to make their sites safe and enabled offenders to use them as a playground in which to groom our kids.

“Last week the Prime Minister signalled to me his determination to stand up to Silicon Valley and make the UK the world leader in online safety.

“He can do this by committing to an online harms bill that puts a legal duty of care on big tech to proactively identify and manage safety risks.

“Now is the time to get regulation done and create a watchdog with the teeth to hold tech directors criminally accountable if their platforms allow children to come to serious but avoidable harm.”

The charity called for no further delays in a new Online Harms Bill – legislation which it says would enforce a duty of care on tech companies to identify and mitigate reasonably foreseeable risks on their platforms, including at the design stage, to proactively protect users from harm. It also believes the legislation would create a regulator that can hand out GDPR equivalent fines, give the regulator robust powers to investigate companies and request information and create a culture of transparency by legally compelling tech firms to disclose any breaches of the duty of care and major design changes to their platforms.

Responding to the NSPCC's concerns a Facebook spokesman said: “There is no place for grooming or child exploitation on our platforms and we use technology to proactively find and quickly remove it.

“We have a content and security team of over 35,000 people investigating reports from our community and working to keep our platforms safe.

“Our teams also work closely with child protection experts and law enforcement, reporting content directly to specialists such as CEOP (Child Exploitation and Online Protection Command) and NCMEC (National Centre for Missing & Exploited Children).”

Commenting on the number of sexual communication with a child offences which have been recorded in the county, a Lancashire Police spokesman said: "Lancashire Constabulary is committed to preventing child sexual abuse, helping victims and bringing offenders to justice. It is a crime that can affect any child, anytime, anywhere - regardless of their social or ethnic background.

"Anyone with concerns about child sexual exploitation can contact police on 101. In an emergency always dial 999."