He may have three decades of public service behind him, with an OBE for services to law enforcement and the prevention of child sexual abuse and exploitation (CSAE), yet Charles Yates is happy to admit it wasn’t cut-throat ambition that led him to the Civil Service. “It was just a job, to be honest,” he says “I’d studied Marine Biology and Applied Statistics at university, back when degrees were Government funded and you picked a subject that sounded interesting. Once I graduated, I just needed a job, and the Civil Service seemed like a good place to find immediate work.”
Little did he know that he would rise to become an incredibly influential figure in a now-crucial area of law enforcement. He started in the VAT office, jumping to Customs and Excise before moving into the National Crime Agency (NCA). He joined the NCA’s Child Exploitation and Online Protection Unit (CEOP) five years ago and for the last six months has been acting Deputy Director, where some of his team’s activity is supported by Nominet as part of our Countering Online Harms Fund.
It’s a pivotal time for the Unit; their work, Charles believes, is now approaching “the seminal moment” as “there is now a real political will in the UK and a global consensus that more needs to be done when it comes to tackling CSAE online. I think it’s being recognised that we must raise the bar to offending, making it far more difficult for those with a sexual interest in children to access indecent images. The demand on law enforcement is significant. The UK’s Online Harms Bill is going to be hugely important.”
The data demonstrates how critical action now is. “Last year in coordinated activity by the NCA and UK Policing we arrested over 7,200 people and safeguarded over 8,300 children. These figures are staggering, but then place that in context and you realise how much further we need to go. We estimate there is a minimum of 300,000 UK adults who pose a sexual threat to children online, or in the real world,” he explains.
It is, sadly, an opportune time for offenders. Internet access is fast and affordable, uploading photos is easy and those running ISPs or platforms don’t undertake pre-screening procedures, so material can appear online instantaneously. The internet also feeds those with urges; places where offenders can, sadly, meet likeminded people, be reassured and incited. “There are people who will always find a way to offend, but there are also people who only do it because it’s so easy,” Charles says. “If we make it harder, we can immediately prevent thousands of individuals from offending in the first place and focus our resources on those people who are most tenacious, the serious threats to our community.”
A comprehensive approach is needed, he believes. Government policy and regulation can put in the checks and balances to stop this material appearing online, but outreach also plays a key role in education and raising awareness. This is something Charles’ unit engages in; during lockdown, they have been running the ‘Online Safety at Home’ campaign, sharing audience-appropriate content for young people, parents and teachers. To date, the materials have had more than 400,000 unique downloads, a fact which gives Charles a bit of comfort in what, at times, can be a dispiriting occupation.
“There are days when I just want to switch off the internet for the world completely, give everyone back books and pens! But it’s a reality now; kids live most of their lives online. And it’s the internet that has made it possible for us to reach 400,000 people with our positive and supportive messages,” he says. “I have to force myself to focus on things like that because otherwise it can get a bit depressing.”
Charles can also focus on the work they do to reach children early and ensure they are growing up with an understanding of how to stay safe online. “It’s about helping them to make the right choices and build resilience,” he explains. “The materials we produce start at four years old and develop as they grow. And we’re very careful about our messaging; we avoid victim blaming because too often young people are blaming themselves.” Charles acknowledges that this generation can often make situations worse for themselves, taking their own photos, including nude selfies, and sharing them online with people they thought they knew. “This is a generation who thinks about the internet in a different way so we need to be reaching them early.”
Fortunately, his own children grew up largely before the problems and risks of digital infiltration escalated. That said, Charles admits he was still concerned and acknowledges how tough it is today for parents; “you think you’re kids are safe because they’re under your roof, not out on the streets, but if they have an internet-enabled device, the risks are all still there and anonymity is a real enabler for those intent on doing harm.”
It could all sound a bit miserable, both in and out the office, yet Charles reassures that he has no regrets about life leading him into such a role. “Four days out of five I look forward to going into the office,” he says, “back when we were in the office of course. And probably that fifth day it’s just harder because it’s raining! I get real job satisfaction from what I do; my work truly makes a difference and that’s a very fortunate position to be in. Not everyone gets to do that.”
Making a difference is something of a calling card for Charles and it started long before he joined the CEOP, making it easy to see why the OBE came his way in January. From taking three VAT measures and a Customs measure through the Finance Bill – the most any one person has done before – to developing a new approach to prosecution in customs and new ways of investigating fraud, Charles has many reasons to feel proud of all he has achieved.
“I don’t look back much to be honest, I’m not reflective by nature, but it’s been an interesting journey and I’ve been exceptionally lucky in my career, working with some fantastic people,” he says. “The OBE was incredibly humbling and surprising – it’s something that happens to other people, not me! – but it is wonderful to be recognised and for this work to be recognised, because we’ve come a long way in CSAE. There’s still so much further to go, of course, but it’s what gets me out of bed every morning. We still need to do more to protect the most vulnerable in our society from some of the most criminal.”
For advice or support on any issues related to CSAE online, visit the CEOP website.