Paedophiles who download indecent images of children should get tougher sentences, the Solicitor General has said.
Robert Buckland said the use of the internet to download or share images of child abuse is “as insidious a crime as direct sexual assault”.
The Government minister told The Daily Telegraph: “I’m talking about people who are using the internet to exploit children. It’s the gateway. It facilitates the commission of other offences, it can lead on to more horrendous crimes.”
Official figures show that last year 2,528 individuals were sentenced at Crown Courts in England and Wales for the offence of “taking, permitting to be taken or making, distributing or publishing indecent photographs or pseudo photographs of children”.
Of those, a quarter were jailed, nearly half received a suspended sentence, and one in five was sentenced to a community penalty.
Mr Buckland’s remarks appear to be at odds with the position of the country’s most senior child protection police officer.
Last year, Norfolk Chief Constable Simon Bailey sparked controversy by suggesting those who view indecent images of children should not always face criminal charges.
He said lower level offenders should be dealt with through counselling and rehabilitation while officers focus on the most dangerous individuals with access to children and those looking at the most serious images.
He emphasised that he was not “going soft” on the issue, but told MPs in March that the system was “failing”.
In new comments on Tuesday, Mr Bailey said the number of sexual offences reported and investigated by police is growing year on year.
He said the response from law enforcement in the UK is “one of the most robust of anywhere in the world”, with 400 people arrested every month on suspicion of child sexual abuse and exploitation offences.
Mr Bailey added: “However, more must be done to stop abuse happening in the first place.
“All those with contact with children need to play their part in keeping them safe, particularly parents talking to children about healthy relationships and the risks online.
“Internet companies need to acknowledge their social responsibility and do far more to stop access to sexual abuse images and videos and prevent abuse happening on their platforms.
“This would enable police to pursue offenders who pose the most harm to children and are using sophisticated technology to evade detection.”
Figures indicate that forces in England and Wales recorded an average of 15 child sex offences involving the internet every day in 2016/17.
While acknowledging police are dealing with a large number of cases, Mr Buckland said that this “shouldn’t detract from the seriousness of this offending”.
A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: “Online child sexual exploitation is sickening, and offenders who take or distribute indecent images already face 10 years in prison – with record numbers given custodial sentences in 2017.
“Last year, we also made it illegal to communicate sexually with a child, and we will shortly set out further measures to protect child victims in our Victim’s Strategy.
“However, sentencing is a matter for independent judges who make decisions based on the full facts of each case.”
The Telegraph also reported that the Government is planning to allow victims and members of the public to challenge sentences handed down for downloading indecent images.
Punishments for certain offences can be queried under the unduly lenient sentence scheme.
A spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s Office said: “As set out in the manifesto commitment, we are working with the Ministry of Justice to look at extending the scheme further. No decisions on future extensions have been made.”