At present, someone is only considered to be committing an offence if they contact the child twice and arrange to meet them or travel to meet them with the intention of committing a sexual offence. This new Clause would mean that the perpetrator would only have to make contact once.—(Sarah Champion.)
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mr Crausby. It is also a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton. I am very glad that her new clause has been accepted. I would like to build on that and deal with the next stage in the grooming process and its horrific consequences. Since my election I have been working a lot to find out more about child sexual exploitation. I did not know much about it before I was elected but there were a number of high-profile trials in South Yorkshire and Lancashire of gangs of perpetrators abusing large numbers of children. Unfortunately, at the moment a case involving a gang led by a woman is going through the Sheffield courts; she has abused large groups of children. Today, a Rotherham child who was known to the child sexual exploitation services is still missing and at large; we all hope and pray that she is swiftly and safely returned.
This is not a South Yorkshire, Oxfordshire or Greater Manchester issue. Unfortunately, the more I research it, the more I find that it is going on across the country, and has been going on for a long time. The media lead us to believe that it is a new crime, but it is not; it is an historical one. I have been working with Barnardo’s, which began its pioneering work in the field 20 years ago. I started work with Barnardo’s a year ago to see whether we could make a difference and stop this horrendous crime. With new clause 9, I hope that we can start to make that difference.
Over the past few months, I have had the pleasure of chairing a cross-party inquiry into the effectiveness of legislation for tackling child sexual exploitation and trafficking within the UK. The new clauses tabled today were developed after analysis of the written and oral evidence from the inquiry panel. Submissions came from a wide range of organisations with expertise in the topic, including the police, legal experts, local government, charities and, most importantly, young people who had been affected by sexual exploitation.
New clause 9 will remedy a damaging anomaly in the law. Currently, a child abuser is considered to be committing an offence under section 15 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 only on the second occasion they make contact with a child and meet them, or travel to meet them, with the intention of committing a sexual offence. New clause 9 would mean that the perpetrator need make only one contact to be guilty. The exact same thresholds, evidence and definitions will apply: that is, the requirement will be retained for a subsequent meeting to be planned and for the intention to commit a sexual offence. New clause 9 would not remove those thresholds.
It is clear to me that if a child is travelling across the country, or just across the street, to meet an adult or vice versa, and if that adult has demonstrated the intent to commit a sexual offence, it is completely unnecessary to require them to make contact with the child at least twice before an offence has occurred. I want to make it clear that the amendment would not mean that we would accidentally convict people of grooming. By reducing the number of times that the individual must make contact from two to one, we are not talking about criminalising people who somehow accidentally send to a young person, for example, an explicit e-mail intended for someone else. The amendment will not lower the existing legal requirements. The abuser would still need to travel to meet the child with the intent to abuse them, which of course must be proven in order for the offence to have been committed.
The Committee might wonder why the amendment is necessary. After all, it normally takes more than one text, e-mail or phone call to set up a meeting about anything. However, we know from the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre—CEOP, part of the National Crime Agency—that online sexual exploitation has shifted in nature. Now, the time between initial contact and the offending behaviour is often extremely short and characterised by rapid escalation of threats and intimidation. CEOP describes a scattergun approach taken by perpetrators, who target a large number of potential victims.
We know that the methods used to groom online are becoming increasingly diverse. A Barnardo’s survey of its 28 sexual exploitation services showed that young people are now targeted by perpetrators through a variety of media, including social networks such as Facebook, instant messaging apps such as BlackBerry Messenger, dating apps such as Grindr and even online gaming. The law simply must be updated to keep pace with such changes. Importantly, in practical terms, the change means that the police would be required to prove only one contact rather than two.
I am extremely interested in the detailed way in which the hon. Lady is presenting her case. She is right to make the point that the offence is about the intentional offence at the second stage. It has never been about the initial meeting and the intent then. I remember having arguments about that in cases when the offence was introduced back in 2005. Her proposal, all importantly, does not affect that threshold. Therefore, the point she made about accidental meetings is met by her proposal.
I agree that we are not talking about lowering thresholds, but about the process going towards that initial meeting. The hon. Gentleman knows that clear, detailed and explicit legislation that the police can use is in place. We do not look to change that at all. The new clause would enable the police to act a lot quicker.
As I said, changing the contact from two occasions to one reduces the time required for evidence collection by the police, which allows them to protect the child quicker and remove the perpetrator from the streets sooner. However, as I keep saying, that does not remove the already high requirement to prove that the person intended to commit a sexual offence.
The senior police officers questioned in my inquiry all agreed that making this change to legislation would enable them to do their jobs more easily and, most importantly, intervene earlier to protect children. Indeed, one described the new clause as “a no-brainer”, which all police officers would fully support. I cannot even imagine the horror for a police officer in having to sit and wait for a second act of grooming before they can intervene to protect the child. Minister, please do not let the Committee sit and wait.
I will speak briefly. I congratulate the hon. Lady on making a strong case for the new clause; it is a pleasure to support her proposal. I also congratulate Barnardo’s on its work; I found its briefing particularly helpful.
It was particularly useful that the hon. Lady highlighted the clear intention. We do not want people to be caught up inadvertently and the legislation is clear on that. I understand the logic of the need for a charge of grooming to be based on a number of occasions, but she is right to say that it could be one event with a number of communications within that event.
The hon. Lady also touched on the important point of what the police would have to prove. There may be a case of grooming over some considerable time, but to have proof that could stand up in court about sufficient instances could be a problem. It would be frustrating and perverse if the police had a case where they had proof of only one event but knowledge of others. I am not a lawyer and cannot comment on the exact details, but the new clause seems sensible.
The phrase in section 15 would be on one occasion. I can imagine arguments about whether to start splitting up an SMS and a response as different occasions. In fact, the argument should be that they are so close in time that they should be treated as one event. It seems sensible to try to avoid that sort of dancing on a pin by evolving the law.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I do not know what the case law says about the definition of occasion, but saying one occasion clearly makes it simpler. I hope that the Government will look at the new clause and, if there is no unforeseen problem, support it either now or on Report to allow us to make this change in the Bill. Moving from two occasions to one occasion follows the trend of other changes that the Government made in previous similar legislation. I hope that the new clause will be supported.
May I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham on tabling the new clause, which I hope that the Government will support, and on all her work on this topic? In the relatively short time that she has been in the House she has become a crusader on this and it is great that she has used her position to try to change the law.
I have one question for the Minister. He has been put on the spot today with a number of new offences, and I am sure that he up to assimilating and accumulating them, but, as this area of the law is developing, will he think about having a more general review? The issue of a course of conduct occurs not only in this offence but in harassment and stalking offences. This is clearly a growing problem in many parts of society, and not just through electronic means. While I entirely commend the new clause tabled by my hon. Friend, we may also need to do more work in this area.
Before I address the details of the hon. Lady’s new clause, I thank her more generally for her work in the fight to tackle child sexual exploitation and the trafficking of children for sexual abuse. She has been far too modest to go into it in any detail herself, but I think that the Committee knows that she has done a huge amount of work in this area. The protection of children from this awful abuse is, as she recognises, something that many of us regard as a priority. I thank her for her work.
As the hon. Lady says, her new clause would amend the offence set out in section 15 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003. She has made a powerful argument. However, I have some reservations about the new clause. If she will forgive me, I will deal with those reservations first.
Currently, to meet the terms of the offence set out in section 15 of the 2003 Act, it must be proved that the defendant had met or communicated with the child on at least two occasions and subsequently, as the hon. Lady has set out, that the defendant met or arranged to meet the child, or that the defendant or the child travelled with the intention of meeting. Further, the defendant must intend to do something to the child either during or after the meeting that would amount to an offence under part 1 of the Act if done in England or Wales.
This offence was created specifically to tackle a pattern of behaviour that we commonly think of as grooming, and it was designed to protect children who may be contacted by adults, for example by e-mail or a text message, over a period of time, with the intention of subjecting them to sexual abuse.
The new clause would reduce the number of occasions that the defendant needed to meet or communicate with the child in order to satisfy that element of the offence, as the hon. Lady has said, from two occasions to one.
As I understand it, section 15 of the 2003 Act was crafted to cover what was thought at that time to be a gap in the law in respect of grooming. Grooming covers situations where an adult establishes contact with a child with the intention of gaining the child’s trust and confidence, but with the ultimate purpose of meeting that child for sexual activity. In practice, what is required in terms of what the defendant actually does may not, in fact, amount to a great deal under this offence, and to reduce the necessary contact to one such text could be thought to be disproportionate given the seriousness of the offence. It would remove the essence of the course of conduct through which a child’s trust is gained, which is central to the purpose of section 15.
The hon. Lady is right, and of course the point that she is making about course of conduct is something that the hon. Member for Hammersmith has also referred to. As I said, that course of conduct is a significant part of what I think was in the minds of those who drafted section 15 of the Act in the first place. My reservation is about making sure that we maintain reference to what the original drafters of the Act had in mind, but I am also conscious of the points that she and other hon. Members have made about the need to keep up with events. The 2003 Act is now more than 10 years old and things have changed substantially. It is important that we keep up with those changes.
Of course, depending on the circumstances of the case, contacting a child once might amount to the commission of, or an attempt to commit, the offence in section 14 of the 2003 Act, that being:
“Arranging or facilitating commission of a child sex offence”.
That would be so in a case where it can be proven that the accused intentionally arranged or facilitated something that would involve the commission of a child sex offence, on his own behalf or on behalf of another. Of course, as the Committee has already discussed this afternoon, in addition to offences under the 2003 Act, section 1 of the Malicious Communications Act 1988 broadly makes it an offence to send an indecent or grossly offensive message, which could include a text message, with the purpose of causing
“distress or anxiety to the recipient”.
That measure could be used against those who send distressing sexual material to children.
However, as I have said, the law in this area is complex and not perhaps as clear as it might be. The Government are always open to suggestions that could strengthen it. We have already discussed the amendment tabled my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton, which I believe strengthens the law further in this area, and I accept entirely that that is also the intent of the hon. Member for Rotherham in tabling this new clause. I also accept the wise advice of the hon. Member for Hammersmith that we must think these issues through carefully.
With all that in mind, I hope that the hon. Member for Rotherham will accept that it is sensible for me to go away and reflect on what she has said, and to work out what we can sensibly do next. I do not want to make promises to her that I cannot keep, but I will certainly consider carefully her argument and what other members of the Committee have said. Given that, I hope she will withdraw the new clause.