Criminal Justice and Police Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:30 pm on 6th March 2001.
`After section 1 of the Indecency with Children Act 1960 (Indecent conduct towards young child), there shall be inserted—
``Use of electronic communication to engage in, incite, entice, or solicit an act of gross indecency with a child
1A.(1) Any person aged eighteen or over who uses an electronic communication for the purpose of—
(a) engaging in an act of gross indecency with a person he knows or has reason to believe is a child; or
(b) inciting or enticing a person he knows or has reason to believe is a child to meet with him, with the intent of engaging in an act of gross indecency; or
(c) soliciting a person he knows or has reason to believe is a child to engage in any act that would constitute an offence under section 1 or under section (1)(a) or (1)(b).
is guilty of an offence and shall be liable
(i) on conviction on indictment to imprisonment for a term not exceeding ten years, or to a fine, or to both; or
(ii) on summary conviction, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months, or to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale, or to both.
(2) References in the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 to the offences mentioned in the first Schedule to that Act shall include offences under this section.
(3) Offences under this section shall be deemed to be offences against the person for the purpose of section 3 of the Visiting Forces Act 1952 (which restricts the trial by the United Kingdom courts of offenders connected with visiting forces);
(4) In this section—
``child'' means a person under the age of sixteen years
``electronic communication'' has the meaning given by section 15 of the Electronic Communications Act 2000.''.'.—[Mr. Heald.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
With this will be convenient to take the following: New clause 18— Use of electronic communications to entice an act of gross indecency with a child—
`—(1) Any person aged eighteen or over who intentionally uses an electronic communication for the purpose of enticing a child, or other person who is believed by such person to be a child, to meet him in order to be able to engage in an act of gross indecency, is guilty of an offence and shall be liable—
(i) on conviction on indictment to imprisonment for a term not exceeding ten years or to a fine, or to both; or
(ii) on summary conviction, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months, or to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale, or to both.'.
The new clause deals with the issue of internet chat rooms and the luring of children by paedophiles. It mirrors similar amendments tabled last year to the Criminal Justice and Court Services Bill and rejected by the Government, who have rejected such measures four times. The most recent occurrence was in the other place on 8 November, when the proposals were defeated fairly narrowly. The noble Lord Bassam, the Lord Chancellor, the Attorney General and the Leader of the Lords voted against them, as did the Liberal Democrats. That is surprising, given that the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey has tabled new clause 18, which relates to that issue.
The new clause is primarily designed to combat paedophiles who lure or entice young children into meeting them for sex using internet chatrooms. There have recently been two well-documented cases. The first related to a girl known as Georgie, who at the age of 13 began to use internet chatrooms and became infatuated with an on-line friend who said that he was an older teenager. They made an arrangement to meet, and luckily her mother went along, because in fact, far from being a teenager, he turned out to be a rather unpleasant middle-aged man.
The girl was lucky, but unfortunately it was not possible for the charges of conspiracy to commit an act of gross indecency to be pursued because an offence such as the new clause is aimed at was not committed.
The second case involved a convicted paedophile, Patrick Green, who was sentenced to five years at Aylesbury Crown court last year for sexually assaulting a 13-year-old girl whom he had lured into meeting him using an internet chatroom. Before his conviction he was released on bail and began to communicate with another teenage girl using a chatroom. He arranged to meet the girl and was caught red-handed by the police while travelling to meet her, but because no assault had taken place, it was not possible to charge him with luring her.
``the present law . . . already applies online as it does offline.'' —[Official Report, House of Lords, 31 October 2000; Vol. 618, c. 887.]
``We believe that, with respect to the particular concerns ... raised, the law already makes this particular misuse of the internet illegal.''
``The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. I am informed by the Home Secretary that earlier today he had a meeting on that very subject. We are actively considering doing what the hon. Gentleman has just suggested. Perhaps when our deliberations have finished I can contact him and tell him the result''. —[Official Report, 28 February 2001; Vol. 363, c. 904.]
Given that the matter is actively under consideration, I should be interested to hear the Minister's comments. Why has it taken almost a year of pressure from the Opposition to get even active consideration of the matter?
The Government must come to terms with some of the problems that the internet creates. Last year's Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill was an attempt to tackle some of the problems. However, we are dealing with children. The Government should focus on the problem, as there is no doubt that children are at risk. I commend the new clauses to the Committee.
The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire obviously received the same briefing from Childnet International as I and, I suspect, other members of the Committee did, which refers to a couple of cases. Childnet has made a submission to the Home Office. It believes that the current law does not adequately protect children from on-line ``grooming''. Paedophiles have another place in which to start the bonding process with a child and gain children's confidence and, perhaps, after several months suggest that they meet off-line, or in real life.
The main difference between our new clause 18 and the Conservative new clause 13 is that the Conservative new clause would make it necessary to prove both enticement and intent to engage in an act of gross indecency, whereas ours does not set such a high hurdle. Childnet International and many others, including my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam, do not believe that the current law allows for people to be arrested before the off-line or real-life offence takes place. Clearly, if we are serious about protecting children, we do not want to reach the point at which an off-line offence takes place.
New clause 18 is not perfect, and we would not expect the Minister to accept it here and now. However, in the light of various attempts to enable legislation to catch up with what is happening in real life—and given the Prime Minister's response to my hon. Friend last week—I hope that the Minister will tell us that positive steps are being taken to address the problem.
As both hon. Members said, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made clear our concern about the matter in his answer to the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam, to which I shall add. I had a meeting two or three weeks ago with the hon. Gentleman and his constituents, who are the parents of one of the individuals concerned. It was a moving discussion of the issues at stake. I have had meetings with children's charities, which played an active role in the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill and with which we are seeking to work closely on such matters.
I do not make the point sharply, but I take slightly amiss the suggestion that the Government have been remiss in this area. When I was an Education Minister, before I came to the Home Office, we were exceptionally exercised by the matter as we were spreading the internet to schools. We established a tight group to decide how to put controls in the system to ensure that schoolchildren's e-mails could not be used for such an approach. A wide range of different initiatives were taken. Since I have been at the Home Office, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill, to which the hon. Gentleman generously referred, has been introduced, as well as the legislation piloted through the House by the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South, which included several changes in the law in this area. In addition to those positive steps, we announced six months ago substantial extra investment in the National Criminal Intelligence Service precisely to deal with such issues.
I acknowledge that we have not yet squared the circle in this area, but I am not prepared to accept the charge that we have been delinquent in any way. A great deal remains to be done, and the Prime Minister was speaking honestly to the House when he said that we are actively engaged with internet service providers and others in tackling the issue.
On the amendments, it is already an offence under the Indecency with Children Act 1960 to incite a child to engage in such an act. The relevant law therefore establishes a legal basis. There is a real need for fundamental, comprehensive and coherent reform of the law in this area in two respects. First, it is necessary in relation to the whole question of sex offences, which is why we published a comprehensive analysis of sex offences in the sex offences review last July, to which we are currently seeking responses. The principal two purposes of that approach were to establish and strengthen protection for children and to modernise the law in a wide variety of other ways. Such complex issues will raise profound moral questions when they are debated in the House. Secondly, comprehensive reform is necessary to deal with internet chatrooms and the use of the internet in a way that is internally consistent.
I fully accept what the Minister said about consultation on the whole range of sexual offences. However, sometimes there is a need to plug a gap in the law and to do so speedily. That was done by the Licensing (Young Persons) Act 2000, even though a larger review of licensing and a new licensing law is likely to be introduced whichever party wins the general election. Would the Minister not agree that a specific problem needs to be solved in this area, and that it needs to be solved now?
I accept that we must make the best of the enemy of the good. We honour that principle in various things that we do. However, my third point is that the amendments are restricted to on-line behaviour. It is extremely important to establish consistency across various areas of the law as we make changes. Further protection is also available under section 2 of the Child Abduction Act 1984, which makes it an offence for someone other than a parent or certain others to take or detain a child under 16. The key areas are active policing and good work with industry, which we are addressing.
I conclude my comments by acknowledging the seriousness of the matter. We are giving it serious consideration: first, by making the necessary changes to the law; secondly, by strengthening policing and working with industry, to which I assure the hon. Member for Taunton that we are absolutely committed; and thirdly, by ensuring that new legislation on such matters is consistent across the range of areas in which we operate. We work closely with children's charities—which already work well as a team—and we shall continue to do so.
I should have paid tribute to Childnet International, which has done a fantastic campaigning job in recent years. Its websites set out many of the horrendous problems that exist.
Sometimes it is right to wait for a general review of the law and to cover everything at once; on other occasions a problem arises as a result of a loophole in the law and needs to be tackled immediately. Having pressed the matter for more than a year, we want to press it again.
Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—
The Committee divided: Ayes 7, Noes 9.