Clause 17 - Meeting a child following sexual grooming etc.

Sexual Offences Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:45 am on 16th September 2003.

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Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Conservative, Beaconsfield 10:45 am, 16th September 2003

I beg to move amendment No. 156, in

clause 17, page 6, line 37, at end insert—

'( ) the earlier communications are sexual in nature or involve A impersonating another person in a way calculated to induce B to believe that it would be safe and appropriate to meet A,.'.

In clause 17, we come to an important area in relation to the creation of a new offence. I wholly support the principle of the new offence that we are introducing of meeting a child following sexual grooming. It is, therefore, with a certain amount of diffidence that I table amendment No. 156. I should make it clear that it is not my amendment; it was introduced by Liberty. As I open on the matter, I say that I am not wholly convinced of the merit of the amendment, but I am convinced that it raises a legitimate issue that the Committee should consider. That is why I tabled it.

Liberty's anxiety, which one can follow when one reads clause 17, is whether there is a danger that in our worthy attempt to properly criminalise an activity that is preparatory to carrying out a sexual assault or offence against a child, we might criminalise perfectly innocent communication and reach the conclusion that because a 40-year-old happens to be communicating by e-mail with a 13-year-old it is absolutely of necessity that a nefarious purpose lies behind it. Our society seems to me to be increasingly sexualised in many ways—sexual motives are attributed even to innocent actions and activities. We are sometimes in danger of putting labels on individuals and activities that are not always deserved.

Liberty's amendment spells out specifically that the communication that has to take place before the meeting is organised must be either ''sexual in nature'', or involve a deception by the person concerned so that although there is no sexual nature to the communications, one would be able to examine them and see that one person has attempted to deceive the other as to their identity, for instance, or age.

Photo of Sandra Gidley Sandra Gidley Liberal Democrat, Romsey

The hon. Gentleman attended the briefing by the paedophile unit at Scotland Yard. One of the points raised there—I am not sure how it is covered by this amendment or the Bill—was that sometimes there is an initial period of deception before the truth is revealed. How would the amendment deal with a situation where a 15-year-old is attracted by someone over the internet?

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Conservative, Beaconsfield

Looking at the amendment, if it were a question of starting with innocent communications that became gradually sexual in nature, it would clearly still be an offence. The second possibility is that an individual might start by saying, ''I'm John, aged 14'' on an internet chat line, and thereafter, prior to the meeting, admit that he is in fact Peter, aged 28, but say that everything is still all right. The hon. Lady raises an interesting point concerning such circumstances. As I read it, the amendment would still make that a criminal offence because the process of arranging the meeting involved an element of deception in order to soften up the child. That said, and arguing against the amendment, it may be argued by the Minister that sufficient safeguard exists in subsection (1)(b) because intent must be proved in order to make out the offence. All the surrounding circumstances will be considered.

If there were a situation where all that someone had done was to enter into what appeared to be completely innocent communications of a non-sexual nature and organise a meeting, and there was no other evidence to suggest that sexual activity was intended to take place, it would be a bold jury that would convict. Effectively, there would be no evidence to show or prove the intent. Doubtless the anxiety that the proposers and those who asked me to table the amendment have is that, in this era, we rightly have great fears about predatory paedophiles. It is also possible to react hysterically to innocent matters. Notwithstanding the lack of evidence that could justify the intent, people would still be convicted because juries might consider that anyone who engages in such e-mail communications must be up to no good. That is the

issue before the Committee, and the amendment provides the opportunity to consider it. It is the one possible objection to clause 17, which otherwise I welcome entirely. I am making a legitimate point. Even if I am not persuaded by the amendment, it is a proper proposal to put before the Committee.

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Conservative, Woking

I agree that the clause is entirely admirable. Does my hon. Friend know whether there is a particular reason why the clause specifies

''on at least two earlier occasions''?

Could not a serious matter have taken place had there been only one previous lengthy contact? I make just a small point.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Conservative, Beaconsfield

My hon. Friend is right. The Government are attempting in difficult circumstances to strike a balance to prevent people from being wrongly prosecuted or prosecuted in circumstances where a conviction would leave the Government and the Court of Appeal uneasy about whether justice had been done. That is the reasoning behind two shows of conduct rather than a one-off communication. Equally, if it were really internet grooming, it could be argued whether contact should have been made on three or four occasions. Such issues are difficult. Having sought to tackle the problem, I considered that two occasions were probably appropriate. I know that the Government have consulted widely on such matters with individuals who have more expertise than we do. I hope that the Minister can provide the Committee with a little background to the Government's reasoning, although having attended the briefing by the paedophile unit, I am aware of some of the approaches taken to such matters. However, that does not mean that we should rubber-stamp the clause. Clearly, we must consider its implications carefully.

Photo of Sandra Gidley Sandra Gidley Liberal Democrat, Romsey

I too have some trouble with the amendment, although I thank the hon. Member for Beaconsfield for tabling it. It raises an interesting debate. Were this any other Bill, we would all be up in arms because I am not sure whether it will create a precedent of intent to commit a relevant offence, in that the planned offence does not have to take place. I seek reassurance about how intent will be proved and what guidelines will be given to the police so that the clause is not used in a vexatious way by someone who has a grievance against a neighbour, for example.

The clause does not just cover the internet; it deals with contact of any nature. Let us suppose that a lonely, elderly gent chats to children on their way to school and that, in an atmosphere of suspicion, someone brings a complaint against that gentleman because they see him talking to children. In reality, the gentleman is not a paedophile. Perhaps talking to children is the only contact he has during the day when he is out in the garden. I have seen such innocent activity in my neighbourhood, but I am not aware of any complaints about it. However, in an era in which there is a certain tabloid frenzy about such matters, such complaints could be made. I seek reassurances about how the problem could be delicately handled.

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Labour, Redcar 11:00 am, 16th September 2003

I rise briefly to ask whether the measure is necessary or whether attempting to have a completed meeting, which would involve an offence under clause 17(2)(b), would meet the real mischief of the occasion.

Photo of Paul Goggins Paul Goggins Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

I begin my remarks by paying tribute to the Government taskforce on child protection on the internet for its work, and in particular to sub-group A, which formulated the thinking behind the clause. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) and to the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow), who are members. The taskforce membership is wide, including the Metropolitan police paedophile unit, the Crown Prosecution Service and a wide range of children's charities, academics and others with an interest. It is an exemplary form of modern governance to bring together experience of that kind to get our minds around such key issues and come forward with proposals that will work in practice.

Photo of Paul Beresford Paul Beresford Conservative, Mole Valley

If I recall correctly, Liberty is a member of the taskforce and, possibly, of that sub-group, so has had an opportunity to put its case.

Photo of Paul Goggins Paul Goggins Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

Indeed it has had such an opportunity, but we would not deny it the opportunity to press some of its thoughts further through the representations made by hon. Members.

I emphasise to the Committee that the Government do not want to criminalise activity that is absolutely innocent. I agree with the hon. Member for Beaconsfield that in our increasingly sexualised and dangerous world, relationships that might once have been seen as innocent are less easy to sustain in the modern day. For all our need to protect children, such relationships can be important and the legislation is certainly not intended to criminalise people involved in them. The sexual intent must be proved by the prosecution beyond reasonable doubt, so the measure does not intend to capture innocent behaviour such as buying a neighbour's child an ice-cream, about which there has been some discussion in the media.

The hon. Member for Woking asked why the clause specifies two occasions. As the hon. Member for Beaconsfield said, we are seeking to establish a course of action. We do not want to capture here one foolish moment that never goes beyond that. We want to capture people who are engaged in a course of action, but to do so at an early stage. Two occasions suggests a course of action, and we want to ensure that that and any subsequent contact is captured.

I want to impress on the Committee the need for the provisions and the reasons why the amendment would not help. I shall do so through an example, which I hope that Committee members will find persuasive. Let us say that a man in his 20s communicates with a girl of 13 or 14. He does so using the internet and talks through the internet about his favourite pop group and television programme, and the things that he likes and does not like, and in that way befriends the child. He then makes an arrangement to travel to meet her with the intention—with the intention—of committing

a sexual offence against her. He may even communicate his intention to commit the sexual offence to another adult friend, perhaps someone with similar sexual interests. But in that case, he has neither tried to impersonate someone else nor been remotely sexual in anything in his communication or the way in which it has been undertaken. If we amended the offence in this clause in the way suggested in the amendment, that gentleman would walk away scot free. I believe that all hon. Members would agree that we are trying to catch precisely that type of individual with the offence. I hope that the Committee will accept my reassurance and explanation and that the amendment will be withdrawn.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Conservative, Beaconsfield

I am grateful to the Under-Secretary, who has given us a good and compelling example. I wholly accept that, if surrounding circumstances make it clear that a sexual offence was intended against the child, it would completely negate the purpose of the legislation to say that no prosecution can lie just because the criteria laid down in the amendment have not been met. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for putting the matter in clear and succinct terms and beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Conservative, Beaconsfield

I beg to move amendment No. 40, in

clause 17, page 7, line 21, leave out '7' and insert '14'.

This amendment deals with a much more difficult area, one in which what I believe to be my general reputation in Committees on criminal justice Bills for trying to temper the fierceness of the criminal law will be reversed. Therefore, I should try to explain why I have come up with the suggestion that the maximum penalty should be raised from seven to 14 years.

I accept the argument that, normally, we must make a clear differentiation between a merely preparatory offence and a full offence. Generally speaking, if it was the defendant's good fortune that he was stopped from doing something before he actually did it, even though the intention that he wished to do it is clear, the courts recognise in sentencing that he benefits from not having been able to carry out the full details of his criminal intention.

That said, we face particular problems in respect of sexual offences. The most obvious, which was brought home to us at the briefing, is that paedophile behaviour is particularly intractable, despite punishment. Unless some of the psychological causes of the behaviour can be addressed—that is not always easy or possible—the dreadful truth, according to the evidence, is that individuals who have a propensity to commit paedophile offences will continue to do so over and over again. Indeed, it appears to be something that is almost beyond their control. That is a serious problem.

Increasingly, when I visit prisons—I have no doubt that the Minister who will reply to the debate has had the same experience—I come across paedophile offenders who are subject to life sentences. The sentences are discretionary; nevertheless, the prisoner may be in prison for a very long time. In some cases, the prison governor takes one aside and says that the

prisoner has been in prison for X number of years and probably will never be released, which, if one wishes to temper the criminal law, is a terrible thing to happen to an individual. However, we recognise that the safety of children must come first.

Let us think for a moment of likely examples of an offence of the kind that we are creating in clause 17. At one end of the scale will be someone who has no previous track record of paedophile behaviour. I dare say that the sentence will be relatively short in such circumstances, although the court may be worried that the defendant will go on to offend again unless the underlying causes of the behaviour are addressed. Indeed, one of the most telling things said by the officer was that what mattered was not so much the length of the sentence but whether something could be done with the defendant during the course of his incarceration. As I said, very often that is not possible.

Another situation that I can easily foresee may involve an individual who has committed two serious paedophile offences but, because of past changes in the rules, may on each occasion have received a determinate sentence of considerable length. However, determinate sentences come to an end. He may have spent a large part of the previous 20 years in prison. Nevertheless, he is out. He may be on the sex offenders register. He is a great worry to the police. He is found to be communicating by e-mail and there is no doubt, from the surrounding circumstances, about the criminality of his intention. He has impersonated someone else and groomed the child. When he is arrested on his way to the rendezvous with the child, all the apparatus and paraphernalia for committing an appalling child sex offence is found in the back of his car. It is all there. He is charged, and can only be charged, with meeting a child following sexual grooming. The reports produced by the probation service and the Court Service clearly show his propensity, his long history of committing such offences and the fact that he has been unamenable to treatment. It is clear that he intended to commit a very serious offence. The court says, ''Well, the maximum sentence that we can pass is one of seven years' imprisonment, which means, in practice, that he will be released three and a half years later.'' The public will consider that we have provided them with insufficient protection.

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Conservative, Woking

My hon. Friend's example is fascinating. I assume that, if the evidence were overwhelming, the man would be advised to plead guilty. In that case he would automatically be granted a discount, which, despite his background, could bring the sentence down, on a plea, to four and a half years, which would result in even less time being served.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Conservative, Beaconsfield

I agree. There would have to be a discount. It might be tiny, but the judge would have to accept the fact that there had been an immediate plea of guilty by giving such a discount.

I have put the facts before the Committee. In the circumstances that I described, the public would feel that there was insufficient protection from the activities of that individual.

It could be argued that the amendment is draconian, because it proposes a long sentence—in fact, it would be seven years in prison, because people serve half their sentence—for an individual who has not committed a full offence against someone else, but who had that intention. At least the proposal provides a measure of reassurance that that person will not be released for a considerable time. I do not support the provision of a power for life imprisonment because I consider it disproportionate. We cannot lock up for life people who have not committed serious offences, even if we think that they may commit such offences in future. We cannot run the criminal justice system on that basis. Including the possibility of a 14-year sentence means that judges will be able to provide some reassurance to the public, in exceptional cases, that Parliament takes the issue seriously.

I fear that there will be more than one or two examples of judges saying, ''This is all that I can do.'' Admittedly, what can be done is better than what could be done. Often, nothing at all could be done. However, given the nature of paedophile offences and offenders, we would be justified in widening the sentence to 14 years and opening up that possibility to the courts. Other members of the Committee may disagree. I do not wish to sound silly, but I have not moved the amendment with a light heart. I rather regret having to do it, but in this case it may be justified, and I should like to hear what other members of the Committee feel.

Photo of Stephen Hesford Stephen Hesford Labour, Wirral West 11:15 am, 16th September 2003

I support the hon. Gentleman. I welcome his repentance for his sins on previous criminal justice Bills and his confession—it is good for the soul and it is certainly good for the Committee. As a prompt, he clearly read my Second Reading speech, in which I raised the issue. On that occasion, no doubt due to the way in which matters get wound up, I received no response. The problem is not that the matter has not been placed on record, because I did so on Second Reading.

I part company with the hon. Gentleman because when I first looked through the Bill, bearing in mind that we were trying to find a consistent approach to child sex offences and their gravity—we have been wrestling throughout with the minimum consistency of approach that Parliament wants—my first reaction to such offences was that life imprisonment could be the correct maximum. I shall not argue that, but if we start from the premise that that is a possible argument—I accept the hon. Gentleman's argument as to why life imprisonment might not be appropriate—I do not resile from the fact that the maximum sentence in the clause does not mark the gravity of the offence, for the reasons given by the hon. Gentleman.

For my part—I hope that those in the Chamber will agree—I believe that in some circumstances clause 17 is akin to clause 15, which refers to arranging or facilitating the commissioning of a child sex offence. It seems to me that someone could easily be involved on the internet in the activities to which clause 15 refers. Seeking to groom for the purpose of introducing the

victim to others or for financial gain is serious and a seven-year sentence would not begin to meet that offence. One of the cautions from those who suggested the seven-year maximum is that the offence is new and we do not know how it will operate, so let us not go over the top at the beginning. I understand that that is the logic for a seven-year term of imprisonment rather than 14 years in clause 15.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Conservative, Beaconsfield

The hon. Gentleman may remember that I raised that issue on Second Reading. The Home Secretary at that stage kept referring to five years. He did not dream that up. I understand that the original proposal was five years and that seven years came in following further consultation and representations from the police—I only discovered that at the briefing. The hon. Gentleman will also remember that when I raised with the Home Secretary in that debate my anxiety that seven years might not be long enough, he seemed to be sympathetic to my anxiety.

Photo of Stephen Hesford Stephen Hesford Labour, Wirral West

I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman and I hope that that is right, but I confess that it was not at forefront of my mind. I shall go away and read the Second Reading debate again, but I do not know whether we shall conclude the matter before the end of this sitting.

My simple point is that this is a grave offence and a new offence. I congratulate those who introduced it and did the work to justify its inclusion in the Bill, but in terms of what it might cover and of consistency with the message that we are seeking to send, it is a statement of social policy. To be consistent in criminalising such offences, I ask the Minister who replies to the debate to state that it is analogous to clause 15; and if 14 years imprisonment is good enough for clause 15, I submit that it is good enough for clause 17.

Photo of Paul Beresford Paul Beresford Conservative, Mole Valley

The hon. Gentleman is right in linking clause 15 with clause 17. The difference, of course, is that in clause 17 the arrangement is for the individual. If Members have got into the depths of that, they will know that the most interesting and horrifying part of paedophile activity is that it is obsessional. In the teaching and the BBC programme, which I mentioned, attention was drawn to members of a group of paedophiles, which has been active since 1957. They have persisted with their activities over that period in spite of everything that the police have been able to do.

The aim of the clause is prevention. That gang had among its members a fairly elderly gentleman about whom the court was benign. He was in his 70s and he got a short sentence. Within weeks, if not days, of release he was patrolling the schools on his moped again and his activities were the same. He does not have the intellect for the internet and he does not need it. The police could not touch him but they may be able to do so now.

In that area of criminality, repetition is the norm. There is a form of treatment and, if the paedophiles are treated early enough, they can have a form of aversion treatment that is similar to the way in which Alcoholics Anonymous works. Usually, however, the paedophile will not stop—they will continue. Some of

them, especially those with internet access, are very active.

One can see the court encountering two problems. First, it will encounter consistent, persistent, repeat offenders, in whom it is recognised—even with young men—that they will harm children and that they should therefore be imprisoned for a considerable length of time. A provision by which they can be sentenced to seven years and can be out in three and a half years is inadequate.

Secondly, we must recognise that the internet has given paedophiles the opportunity to act across a broad range of children. There was a case about to go to court in which a man was charged with abusing a child. When the police looked at his internet activity, they found that he was grooming 54 children concurrently. If he were taken to court under the Bill, he would go away for a maximum of only five years. He is clearly a considerable danger to children. It is clear that the courts must be able to decide whether he should go away for some considerable time. The court needs an opportunity to consider that particular man, and many others, and realise that, in that area, seven years does not fit with the pattern of the rest of the Bill. The sentence does not fit with the patterns of behaviour of many persistent, obsessional and predatory paedophiles.

I hope that the Minister will think again, follow the trend of the Bill and accept 14 years as a maximum.

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Labour, Redcar

I have some concerns about the desire for a much higher sentence because of the limitation

on the offence. There are abundant other offences in the legislation with penalties that will punish and keep off the streets people of exactly the type that the hon. Gentleman talks about—active paedophiles who offend repeatedly.

When the paedophile commits the offence, it is all in his head. Nothing has actually happened and, of course, one does not want it to happen. It is, however, rather harsh that an offence by which someone has something in their head is as grave, and therefore merits the same penalty, as a completed offence in which a child has been damaged, perhaps permanently. That is a mistaken principle. At the stage in which the offence is in their head, one wants to send a shot across their bows to let them know what they face if anything else occurs. If he has committed any other offence—especially in the case of the person grooming 54 children at once—he stands to receive the maximum term multiplied by the number of charges faced. There is no problem, therefore, when someone has groomed several children.

I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, West, who puts clause 17 and its offence together with clause 15 and its offence. In effect, clause 15 deals with a conspiracy involving other people.

It being twenty-five minutes past Eleven o'clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee, without Question put.

Adjourned till this day at half-past Two o'clock.