THE Government has vowed to get tough on paedophiles who download sickening child abuse images, handing out tougher prison sentences.

The drive comes as official figures show that just one in four sentenced by a crown court over child pornography offences is jailed.

The Solicitor General Robert Buckland said that sex offenders who download or share indecent images should be dealt with by the courts as harshly as those who abuse children themselves.

He said it was just as “insidious” as direct sexual abuse.

Buckland told The Daily Telegraph: “We have got to make sure that it’s fully understood that use of the internet to download and share images of child abuse is as insidious a crime as direct sexual assault.

“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.

“People are making money out of this, children are being abused.

“Whilst I understand that police are having to deal with a large number of these cases and the analysis of hardware and software can be time-consuming, the possession and distribution of this kind of image is child abuse. The public view it seriously.”

Under plans put forward by the Solicitor General, child pornography offences will be brought into the “unduly lenient sentence” scheme, meaning they can be challenged, reviewed and increased by the Court of Appeal.

In 2017, 2,528 people were sentenced at a crown court for downloading indecent images of children, but less than a quarter of them received a prison sentence.

Half were given suspended sentences and a fifth were given community sentences.

Of the 14,624 paedophiles sentenced over child abuse images between 2007 and 2017, only 4,683 were jailed.

Nearly 10,000 were given suspended sentences and community sentences.

Dave Thompson, the chief constable of West Midlands Police, has said that society needs to have a “big discussion” on whether people who viewed child abuse images should be prosecuted.

He said last year: “Of course it makes us all deeply uncomfortable to think that people who engage in those activities should in any way escape punishment but the scale of it is absolutely huge.”

Simon Bailey, the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for child protection, has suggested that paedophiles who viewed indecent images should not be charged or taken to court unless they posed a physical threat to children.

He suggested low-level offenders should just be placed on the sex offenders’ register and be given counselling and rehabilitation.

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.”