HC Deb 12 June 2000 vol 351 cc691-707

'—For section 6 of the Protection of Children Act 1978 (Punishments), there shall be substituted—

"(6) a person guilty of an offence under this Act shall be liable—

  1. (a) on conviction on indictment to imprisonment for a term not exceeding ten years or to a fine, or to both;
  2. (b) 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.".'.—[Mr. Lidington.]

Brought up, and read the First time

Mr. Lidington

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: New clause 3—Repeat Child Sex Offenders: Minimum Sentences—

'.—(1) (a) Subject to subsection (b), this section applies where a person over the age of 18 years is convicted in England and Wales of a sex offence against a child and has previously been convicted in any part of the United Kingdom of a sex offence against a child.

(b) This section shall not apply to any person to whom section 2 of the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997 (Mandatory life sentence for second serious offence) applies.

(2) Where the person referred to in (1) above has one previous conviction for a sex offence against a child, the court shall impose either

  1. (a) a sentence of imprisonment of at least five years, or
  2. (b) a sentence of life imprisonment.

(3) Where the person referred to in (1) above has more than one previous conviction for a sex offence against a child, the court shall impose either

  1. (a) a sentence of imprisonment of at least 10 years, or
  2. (b) a sentence of life imprisonment.

(4) The court may not impose the prescribed sentences specified in (2) and (3) if it is of the opinion that there are specific circumstances which relate to any of the offences or to the offender which would make the prescribed custodial sentence unjust in all the circumstances.

(5) Section 58 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 (Sentences extended for licence purposes) shall apply to sentences passed under this section.

(6) In this section "sex offence against a child" means any of the following offences where the victim or intended victim of the offence was or would have been under the age of sixteen years at the time of the offence or intended offence:

(a) offences under the following provisions of the Sexual Offences Act 1956

  1. (i) section 1 (rape);
  2. (ii) section 5 (intercourse with a girl under 13);
  3. (iii) section 6 (intercourse with a girl between 13 and 16);
  4. (iv) section 10 (incest by a man);
  5. (v) section 11 (incest by a woman);
  6. (vi) section 12 (buggery);
  7. (vii) section 13 (gross indecency);
  8. (viii) section 14 (indecent assault on a girl);
  9. (ix) section 15 (indecent assault an a boy);
  10. (x) section 16 (assault with intent to commit buggery);
  11. (xi) section 23 (procuration of a girl under 21);
  12. (xii) section 28 (causing or encouraging prostitution of, intercourse with, or indecent assault on, girl under 16);

(b) an offence under section 1(1) of the Indecency with Children Act 1960 (indecent conduct towards young child):

(c) an offence under section 54 of the Criminal Law Act 1977 (inciting girl under 16 to have incestuous sexual intercourse);

(d) an offence under section 1 of the Protection of Children Act 1978 (indecent photographs of children);

(e) any offence under

  1. (i) section 70 of the Army Act 1955;
  2. (ii) section 70 of the Air Force Act 1955; or
  3. (iii) section 42 of the Naval Discipline Act 1957,
of which an offence under paragraphs (a) to (d) would constitute a corresponding civil offence (within the meaning of that Act)

(f) any offence of aiding, abetting, counselling, procuring or inciting the commission of the above offences;

(g) any offence of conspiring or attempting to commit such an offence;

(h) any offence under the law of Scotland or Northern Ireland that, if committed in England and Wales, would constitute an offence under paragraphs (a) to (g) above.'.

New clause 4—Possession of Indecent Photographs of Children—

'.—For section 160(3) of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 there shall be substituted:

"(3) a person guilty of any offence under this section shall be liable—

  1. (a) on conviction, on indictment, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 10 years, or a to fine, or to both;
  2. (b) 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.".'.

New clause 5—Procuration of child under sixteen—

'.—For section 23 of the Sexual Offences Act 1956 (Procuration of girl under twenty-one), there shall be substituted—

"Procuration of child under sixteen

It is an offence for a person to—

  1. (a) procure or attempt to procure a child under the age of sixteen for the purposes of sexual activity anywhere in the world with a third person;
  2. (b) incite or attempt to incite another to procure a child under the age of sixteen for the purposes of sexual activity anywhere in the world with any person."

(2) In the second schedule to the Sexual Offences Act 1956, in the column headed "offence", for the term "Procuration of girl under twenty-one (section 23)", there shall be substituted "Procuration of child under sixteen (section 23)"

(3) In the second schedule to the Sexual Offences Act 1956, in the column headed "punishment", for the term "two years" relating to "Procuration of girl under twenty-one (section 23)", and an attempt to commit that offence, there shall be substituted "ten years".'.

New clause 6—Indecency with children

'.—For section 1 of the Indecency with Children Act 1960 (Indecent conduct towards young child), there shall be substituted—

"—(1) In this section, except where otherwise stated, 'child' means a person under the age of sixteen years.

(2) Any person who—

  1. (a) knowingly commits an act of gross indecency with or towards a child, or who incites a child to commit such an act with that person, or with another, or
  2. (b) travels with the intent of committing any act of gross indecency with or towards a child; or
  3. (c) knowingly employs, uses, persuades, induces, entices or coerces a child to engage in, or to assist any other person to engage in, an act of gross indecency with or towards any child; or
  4. 693
  5. (d) transports a child with the intent that that child engage in an act of gross indecency,
is guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction on indictment to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 10 years, or to a fine, or to both.

(3) Any person who—

  1. (a) abducts, detains or otherwise restricts the liberty of a child for the purpose of sexually exploiting that child; or
  2. (b) organises or knowingly facilitates such abduction, detention or restriction.
is guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction on indictment to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 10 years, or to a fine, or to both.

(4) Any parent, guardian or other person having for the time being custody or control of a child who knowingly permits that child to engage in, or to assist any other person to engage in, sexual activity, or who knowingly permits the sexual exploitation of that child, shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction on indictment to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 10 years, or to a fine or to both.

(5) 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.

(6) 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).".'.

New clause 7—Use of computers to commit act of gross indecency with a child

'After section 1 of the Indecency with Children Act 1960 (Indecent conduct towards young child), there shall be inserted—

"Use of computers to commit act of gross indecency with a child

1A.—(1) In this section, except where otherwise stated, 'child' means a person under the age of sixteen years.

(2) Any person who uses an electronic communications system, including (but not limited to) computers, computer networks, computer bulletin boards and newsgroups, computer chatrooms, the internet, and other analogous electronic means, for the purposes of

  1. (a) engaging in an act of gross indecency with a person he knows or has reason to believe is a child; or
  2. (b) engaging in a sexually explicit discussion with a person he knows or has reason to believe is a child; or
  3. (c) soliciting a person he knows or has reason to believe is a child to engage in any that would constitute an offence under section 1 above or under subsections (2)(a) or (2)(b) of this section is guilty of an offence and shall be liable
  4. (d) on conviction on indictment to imprisonment for a term not exceeding ten years, or to a fine, or to both; or
  5. (e) 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.

(3) 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.

(4) 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).".'.

Government amendments Nos. 12 to 18 and 55 to 62.

Mr. Lidington

The Opposition have tabled a group of amendments designed to address a number of difficulties in the law relating to sexual offences against children. There are three aspects to the group. The first is that we believe that, in a number of cases, the existing maximum sentences are simply too low—in some instances, low almost to the point of risibility. They do not have proper regard to the gravity of the criminal offence that the law defines.

Secondly, we believe that we have identified some areas in which the current law is deficient and needs to be updated. Thirdly, we believe that the law needs to be strengthened to cope with the new and insidious threat posed by child pornography transmitted via the internet; and to deal with the problem, identified in a number of recent court cases, of paedophile offenders using internet chatrooms as a means of trying to entrap young children and establish contact with them, with a view to committing more serious criminal offences later.

I wish to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir P. Beresford), who has worked hard on this issue and lobbied my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) and me about the need for these changes to the law. I know that he feels strongly about this campaign.

New clause 2 would increase the maximum penalty for taking, making or distributing indecent photographs of a child from the present three years to a new level of 10 years. We believe that these are serious, arrestable offences and that the maximum penalties that the law current provides are simply inadequate. To many constituents, a maximum penalty of three years for an offence involving child pornography would seem trivial: a maximum more appropriate to a traffic offence than to an offence of this seriousness.

In the Republic of Ireland, the crimes targeted by this amendment warrant maximum prison sentences of as much as 14 years. The principle is that children under 16 cannot in law give consent for their bodies to be used sexually. People who force children to engage in sexual acts without their consent are committing the most vile crimes imaginable. It is our contention that the people who take, distribute or show photographs of this nature are, in effect, responsible for sexual offences. They are causing children, against their will and contrary to the law, to engage in sexual demonstrations. We believe that the law should provide a more serious penalty than it does now.

New clause 3 would impose new and higher penalties upon people who were convicted for the second time of a sexual offence against children. This is a principle with which the House will be familiar. The principle was introduced in respect of the most serious sexual offences such as rape and in respect of serious violent crimes and persistent burglary by the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997—one of the last Acts of Parliament to go on the statute book before the last general election. We believe that it is right to extend the principle to paedophile offences.

The new clause proposes that in a case where someone is convicted for the second time of such an offence, the judge should impose either a determinate sentence of no less than five years in prison or, alternatively, a sentence of life imprisonment if the judge decides that the threat to public safety is such as to warrant a life sentence, with all that that entails in terms of being able to keep that offender under supervision for the rest of his life.

New clause 4 would raise the maximum sentence for the possession of indecent photographs of children from the current level of six months to 10 years. We are told by the police that they sometimes catch people with literally thousands or tens of thousands of such photographs in their possession. I know of one case where the police found a man in possession of 35,000 different pornographic photographs of children. Some of them involved children as young as two. In theory, under current law, the court could pronounce a sentence for each photograph, and so impose in aggregate a very long sentence on the offender. However, in practice that does not happen. We therefore believe that a higher penalty is appropriate.

Jackie Ballard

It would help if the hon. Gentleman explained on what basis he has calculated that 10 years should be the maximum sentence for such offences. There is a big gap between six months and 10 years. What research has he undertaken, or how has he arrived at 10 years?

Mr. Lidington

The analogy that we have chosen is based on the law that relates to property. The maximum sentence for stealing is 10 years. Receiving stolen goods carries a heavier maximum penalty of 14 years. I am not wedded to 10 years. If other hon. Members present a persuasive case for a different penalty, so be it. However, I believe that a sentence of six months is too short. The public would surely expect us to allow the courts to impose a much longer sentence than the statute currently provides.

There is also an issue of principle. It is not merely a matter of getting tough with particular offenders. If we tightened up the law on the possession of pornographic material, it would make life more difficult and more risky for those who are involved in producing and distributing child pornography. There could be an indirect benefit to the law enforcement agencies in trying to crack down on the trade.

New clause 5 deals with offences of procuring children for sexual purposes and inciting others to procure children. When the Minister responds, I hope that he will be able to say whether this is a subject that the Government intend to examine, perhaps following the report of the current review into sexual offences. The present law is complicated and out of date. For example, it does not offer equal protection to boys and girls, and it does not provide for an offence of inciting somebody else to procure a child.

Mr. Garnier

One of the provisions in new clause 5 is novel in this area of the law, although it has been seen in conspiracy law relating to terrorism. If the clause took its place on the statute book, it would catch those who commit offences of procuring anywhere in the world if they are British subjects and can be brought within our jurisdiction. That would be a useful addition to the criminal calendar. Many people leave the United Kingdom to go abroad to commit what are loosely called sex tourism offences. Despite the private Member's Bill that passed to the statute book either this Parliament or at the end of the last Parliament, there is a role for the House in passing Government legislation to deal with extraterritorial sex offences committed by British subjects.

7.15 pm
Mr. Lidington

I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend. He has drawn the attention of the House to an important detail of the new clause.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley drew attention to a case in which a man approached the proprietor of a sex shop, seeking child pornography and "live action", as he termed it—in other words, sex with children. The police were able to arrest him, but they had a difficult time making charges stick because the only law available to them to draw on for a charge was that which involved a charge of the man having procured a girl, and having done so specifically with the intention of having sexual intercourse.

The new clause is designed to cover procuring children for any type of sexual offence, rather than for sexual intercourse itself under the law as it stands. It would help the police in establishing the evidence that they need to deal with such offenders, who are a menace to society.

Jackie Ballard

Having read the new clause, I raise a genuine query. The proposal provides that it will be an offence for a person to … procure a child under the age of sixteen for the purposes of sexual activity. As has been said, that would apply only to British citizens. How would the provision work in countries where 14 is the age of consent? In Italy and some other European countries, the age is below 16.

Mr. Lidington

I believe that we should have laws that allow us to provide protection for children that we as legislators believe to be appropriate. I shall examine the detail in the light of what the hon. Lady has said.

Mr. Garnier

It is not my job to give the House a lecture on double actionability. However, one of the possible answers is that a British defendant might be caught only if the crime that he committed was a crime both in the foreign jurisdiction and in this jurisdiction. If the two were not able to be brought on that basis, there would be no offence. However, it is open to Parliament to make laws that it thinks fit. If the House says that it will be an offence for anyone to act in the manner set out in the new clause, subject to any better advice from the Minister of State, who is an extremely experienced barrister in criminal cases, I think that the law will be as stated in the new clause.

Mr. Lidington

New clause 6 deals with indecent conduct towards children. Again, we think that the present law is complex and inadequate. The police can use the present law to protect boys under the age of 16, but 14 to 16-year-olds can be protected only if they have been assaulted by a man. As I understand it, girls of 14 to 16 are not protected at all. The new clause would both simplify and update the law. It would include all children regardless of gender, and it would increase the maximum penalty to 10 years. We believe that the clause would allow police to arrest offenders at stages prior to their having physically abused a child. Such preparatory offences already exist in other areas of criminal law.

Finally, new clause 7 deals with the problem of the use of computers to promote paedophile activity. This is something about which a number of the organisations involved with Internet service providers have expressed concern. The chief executive of the Internet Watch Foundation said recently that 90 per cent. of the hotline calls which its switchboard received were about child pornography. He added that the websites were not the main problem and said: By and large, Websites are legal. Most of the illegal material is in the much less controlled area of Usenet news. He continued: the new frontier is Chat Rooms, which are in real time. So what goes on there is not susceptible to the sort of process we have of getting material reported, looking at it and then investigating. There have been several recent cases in which it has been shown that paedophiles have sought to use chatrooms to make contact with children. One case, reported recently by the BBC, involved a 47-year-old man who introduced himself to a teenage girl as a 15-year-old when they first began swapping messages. The girl, who was only 13, agreed to meet the man, who admitted on the internet to being 18.

Thankfully, the girl's mother, who was suspicious of this unknown teenage boy, went with her daughter and was horrified when she found out that there was a middle-aged man behind the messages. The case was described by the chief inspector who investigated it as most disturbing. He said that the girl could have been placed at considerable risk.

In the recent Lockley case, Judge Peter Fingret at the Old Bailey called on the Government to seize the opportunity for an overhaul of the law on child pornography and to deal in particular with the problem of paedophiles using the internet.

We believe that it is time for such changes to be introduced and we hope that the debate that we have initiated can play a part in bringing that about. We look to the Government to tell us how they plan to deal with the issue, which we believe is a matter of increasing concern to many of our constituents.

Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley)

I hope that I can be succinct, even though we are dealing with six new clauses. The House will recognise the importance of this subject. When we were discussing a four-legged predator, we had a full House—presumably because there was disagreement—whereas now that we are considering two-legged predators who damage babies and children, the House is virtually empty, no doubt because there is general agreement at least on the idea behind the new clauses.

The idea is to broaden the action that the police can take and to increase the penalties for criminals who make little apparent effort to rehabilitate themselves. Perhaps most important, we have suggested changes to make the system proactive.

New clause 2 would change the maximum sentence and create a serious arrestable offence, giving the police a little more clout in trying to deal with paedophiles. As I understand it, at present, if the police have a warrant to search the home of a suspected paedophile, that person can just up sticks and walk without the police having any possibility of holding him. I understand that, if the offence were made a serious arrestable offence, the individual would be required to stay with the police if they so required it.

Most serious arrestable offences carry sentences of 10 or 15 years to life. Sexual offences of this class against adults carry maximum sentences of 10 years or more. That might answer the question put by the hon. Member for Taunton (Jackie Ballard). I hope that the House will agree that children should have at least the same protection as adults—arguably more, because they are more vulnerable.

The photographs are appalling. The aim of the photographs of the fox that were referred to earlier is to shock, whereas, in terms of physical and psychological damage to babies and children, the photographs distributed by paedophiles are unprintable and cannot be shown in the newspapers. Such pictures would certainly change the mind of anyone who felt soft on the issue. Those who take such photographs are forcing children to take part in sexual acts without their consent. Many children never properly recover from the psychological and physical trauma inflicted on them at such a young age. Many countries take a different approach from ours. Ireland has a maximum sentence of 14 years, and some of the states of the United States have a maximum of 20 years.

Modern technology enables paedophiles to feed and stimulate their and others' fantasies. We must recognise that and increase the sentence available to try to stimulate thinking towards stopping such action.

New clause 3 is in the classic "Three strikes and you're out" mode. It is well known that paedophiles are among the most difficult of criminals to rehabilitate. We need to approach the matter by saying that, if they persist, rehabilitation has failed, and we need to protect society by putting them away for a bit longer. We are not only protecting society; we are protecting its most vulnerable members—hence the idea of an incremental increase or "three strikes and you're out".

New clause 4 would extend to a prison term of 10 years or more or fine or both the maximum sentence on conviction, on indictment, for possession of child pornography. The Gary Glitter case shocked many people. This Glitter individual had tens of thousands of pornographic pictures of children, some of whom were under two, yet lie received only a six-month sentence—that was the maximum—and spent a very short time in prison. That is not unusual. It is sad, and reflects badly on us.

United Kingdom law should view the possession of such quantities of pornography in the same way as it perceives those who handle and receive stolen goods. If an individual is convicted of handling or receiving stolen goods, the maximum sentence is 14 years. For a pornographic photograph to be taken, the child has to have been abused. The stealing of goods carries a lower maximum of 10 years, which reflects the approach of cutting off the source that attracts the sellers and producers.

I find it hard to believe those who collect child pornography when they say that they do not want to abuse children. Ray Wyre, who works with convicted paedophiles, is considered an authority and often quoted. In David Howitt's "Paedophiles and Sexual Offences Against Children", Wyre makes it clear that If a man buys "child pornography" he does so for one reason and one reason alone … The fact that he may not have done so is more likely to be a question of availability or the fear of getting caught than revulsion at the very concept. I hope that that will be key to our approach this evening.

New clause 5 is a complex clause that would update and broaden the Sexual Offences Act 1956 by recognising that the age of consent is universally set at 16, not 21, and— unlike Members of Parliament in 1956 or thereabouts—recognising that protection against paedophiles should apply to boys as well as girls: in other words, it would make the legislation gender-neutral.

The new clause would replace "sexual intercourse" with "sexual activity", because some paedophiles have dodged prosecution by virtue of the fact that, legally speaking, their activities have fallen just short of sexual intercourse.

7.30 pm

New clause 5 would introduce a new offence of inciting a third party to procure someone under the age of 16 for the purposes of sexual activity. That would meet the difficulties experienced by the police in a recent case, in which a person sought to procure a young girl for quite appalling sexual abuse by means of the internet. Fortunately, the police managed to arrest the person, but they could bring only relatively minor charges with distinctly insignificant sentences. Consequently, I believe that the maximum sentences for such crimes should be increased.

Any hon. Member who hesitates about the importance of that needs to know about a previous case involving a person called Undermark. When he was arrested, he was attempting—persistently and seriously—to procure for his perverted sexual gratification a child so young as to be in nappies. I expect that all hon. Members will find that staggeringly hard to believe.

The new offence set out in new clause 5 is important, as it would enable the police—for the first time—to be proactive so that paedophiles could be stopped before they damaged a child. The law at present is more reactive, and there is a much higher risk that a child will be hurt before anything happens.

Proposed paragraphs (a) and (b) of new clause 5(1) would extend the application of the legislation to anywhere in the world. That has been mentioned before. It gives one a good feeling to think that, with sufficient evidence, police will be able to arrest a person as he waits for his first drink on a Thai airliner at Heathrow. However, the provision would go further. In a recent case, a person was trying to procure a very young girl over the internet. He was accessing the internet in California, but a police sting there led to the notification of the police in this country. As a result, the man was arrested before he was able to procure the girl.

New clause 6 would protect children of both sexes up to 16—the age of sexual consent. The present law applies only to children aged 14 and under. That fails to recognise that many children below the age of sexual consent but older than 14 can be victimised by paedophiles, with the justice system being unable to act.

I understand that the police have been able to use section 13 of the Sexual Offences Act 1956—which relates to gross indecency or attempted gross indecency with another man—to protect boys between 14 and 16. However, that does not apply when it comes to protecting girls.

Once again, new clause 6 is proactive. It would allow police to arrest offenders before they have physically abused a child or children. That approach is used already in respect of other areas of criminal activity—for example, it is a crime to go out equipped to steal. The difference is that new clause 6 is proactive, and I hope that the Minister will accept it, as it would help to prevent the damage to the child that can result from a reactive approach.

I turn to the sickening matter of parents or guardians who betray their great trust and responsibility by sexually exploiting the children in their care. I doubt that any hon. Member who had met such people would not agree that a maximum sentence of 10 years was appropriate.

New clause 7 would update the law by enabling the police to arrest paedophiles who use computers to engage with children by means of the internet in what is called cybersex. The matter was brought to my attention when I visited Charing Cross police station. I sat for about an hour with a Metropolitan police officer, scanning chatrooms and the information going to and fro. An enormous number of people were using the rooms. The word for what they were trying to do is "groom": they wanted to groom children in the sense that they wanted to lure them into their net. Their hope was to secure a meeting with a child, and their subsequent intentions were obvious. The experience in that room was staggering. I left wondering whether the thinking of a third of the population—male and female—was quite alien to what I consider normal.

I hope that the Minister will take the new clauses seriously, as they are intended to be a positive, proactive and modernising step forward in assisting police in the many paedophile units around the country to catch paedophiles and so prevent them from harming and damaging children.

Jackie Ballard

I am sure that all hon. Members abhor the sexual abuse of children and their exploitation for sexual purposes. The hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir P. Beresford) hinted that some people were soft on the matter, but I do not think that he will find any such softness in this House. However, 16 is not accepted all over the world as the age of consent for sexual purposes. It is the age below which the House has decided that people are children, and should be treated as such in connection with sexual offences. It must be remembered also that the age of 16 has not always been accepted for those purposes even in this country.

I believe that it would be more appropriate to have a more general review of sentences appropriate for sex offences than to take a few random offences and to fix what the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) admitted were fairly arbitrary maximum sentences for them. In general, Liberal Democrat Members oppose mandatory sentences, but I am not sure of the Conservative attitude. Conservative Members support mandatory sentences for sex offence cases but oppose them in others—for example, in connection with some well-known manslaughter cases.

Our approach to mandatory sentences is consistent. We believe that it should not be for politicians to determine sentences, but for the judge to take into account all the circumstances in relation to the sentencing guidelines that have been laid down. New clause 3 would bring in mandatory sentences for repeat sex offenders, but also contains what appears to be a get-out provision, allowing courts to take specific circumstances into account. I hope that, in his response, the hon. Member for Aylesbury will explain how a mandatory sentence can remain mandatory when such a get-out clause can be invoked.

Mr. Garnier

The hon. Lady said that her party was not in favour of mandatory sentences. Does that mean that Liberal Democrats oppose the mandatory disqualification of breathalysed drivers found to be over the drink-driving limit? Do they also oppose the mandatory life sentence for murder?

Jackie Ballard

I shall not be tempted to discuss offences outside the remit of the new clauses, but the straightforward answer is that, in general, we are not in favour of mandatory sentencing.

New clause 5 deals with the procurement of children internationally, in respect of which the current law does seem to need amending. However, the hon. Member for Aylesbury admitted that a general review of sexual offences was under way at present. That would appear to he a more appropriate forum for dealing with the matter.

New clause 7 also brings up a matter that needs to be addressed. Given the Government's modernisation programme, I should have thought that they would be looking at the problem of pornography on the internet, and at the fact that the net can be used to procure unknowing children.

I hope that the Minister will welcome the fact that new clauses 5 and 7 raise serious issues. I shall he interested to hear his response.

Mr. Malin

I shall be very brief. I have listened to the debate very carefully, and one conclusion is inescapable: the world of today involves internet pornography on an international scale. Parental control was much easier in the old days of the top-shelf magazine than it is in today's world of the internet.

I am the father of two teenage children. I am terrified of the unlimited access that the internet gives them to the sort of material that all hon. Members abhor. I am unable to do anything about it, however, because I do not know how it works. This is a very dangerous long-term development—it is an international problem.

I hope that the Minister will recognise my real concerns about the future—the need for some control and for some serious thinking. This is one of the biggest and most dangerous issues to affect families and teenagers today. I support what my hon. Friends have said, but my focus throughout the past 10 or 15 minutes has been on an area about which, sadly, I, along with many others, know little.

Mr. Boateng

This has been an important and significant debate, not least because, as we speak, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill is being considered in the other place. The internet has led to an international dimension in these matters; it has the potential for evil—that is not too strong a word—as well as for great good. Getting the balance right is essential when it comes to civil liberty and privacy on the one hand, and the significant public interest in bearing down on child pornography and the criminal abuse of children on the other. We are talking about child abuse of the most appalling kind. Right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House such as the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir P. Beresford), who is in the Chamber, my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) and others who take an interest in children's welfare are appalled at the potential for harm to which children are exposed.

The Government have put the protection of children not only at the heart of criminal justice policy but, significantly, at the heart of health and social policy, and in the overlap between the two. Tragically, the abuse of children in children's homes and other institutions, and in circumstances in which child protection measures have failed to deliver to children safe places in which to grow are all too obvious. We must be ever-vigilant in ensuring that the various agencies of health, social services, police, prosecution and prison and probation services all work in a way that is designed better to protect children. The debate tonight has been an important one, on which we need to build.

From the outset, the Government have, as I have said, sought to put child protection at the heart of criminal law, social and health policy, and put in place a strategy that has a number of building blocks. One of them is in the Bill. There are others, such as the work that the Department of Health is doing to take forward, in health and social services, the recommendations of Sir William Utting. The Department of Health is in the lead, but we are working across Government better to protect children through that work and the legislative and other measures that flow from it.

Another significant area that I will refer to in the course of my response is the review of the law on sex offences. It has at its heart the aim of increasing the protection of children and young people from abuse and exploitation.

7.45 pm

We believe that it is important to take forward this issue in a way that ensures that we address it as a coherent whole. Therefore, I will, I suspect, disappoint right hon. and hon. Members in some areas when I say that to maximise the protection of children and young people from abuse and exploitation, it is necessary to await the outcome of the sex offences review so that we can tackle this holistically rather than on an ad hoc basis. That is not for one moment to put the issue on the back burner or to underestimate the importance and gravity of the subject matter with which we are dealing and the need to address it with vigilance.

Mr. Simon Hughes

Will the Minister give way?

Sir Paul Beresford

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Boateng

May I just continue with my argument a little and indicate where we will be proceeding to reassure right hon. and hon. Members as to our determination to take forward this issue?

We will be bringing forward amendments in the House of Lords in relation to new clauses 2 and 4. We will be asking the House not to accede to new clauses 5 and 6, pending the conclusions of the sentencing review. We obviously commend our amendments Nos. 12 to 18 and amendments Nos. 55 to 62 to the House. I will deal in a little detail with why we do not feel able to accept new clauses 3 and 7.

New clauses 2 and 4 deal with maximum sentences. We share the sense of abhorrence towards the crimes to which the new clauses refer. The possession, taking, making, distributing, showing and possessing, with a view to distribution, indecent photographs of children under 16 is a loathsome offence that needs to be met with condign and appropriate punishment. It is a particularly abhorrent form of child abuse. The possession of such material is clearly wrong and is an important factor, as the hon. Member for Mole Valley said, in perpetuating its production by others. They have an incentive to feed the appetite, as long as that appetite continues to exist. We must do all we can to dissuade those who seek such material.

There is no doubt that the misuse of the internet, which is, as I said, capable of reflecting great evil as well as producing great good, has led to an increase in the number of offences committed under the Protection of Children Act 1978. We raised one such case in the House tonight—that of Paul Gadd, also known as Gary Glitter. It was a peculiarly unpleasant case; however, it is, sadly, by no means unfamiliar to those of us who have practised in the criminal courts.

In the light of these concerns and the forthcoming proposals for the protection of children in the sexual offences review, we felt it necessary to commence a piece of work in the Home Office to strengthen measures against this abhorrent activity. I welcome the opportunity that these two new clauses have provided to outline to the House what they are.

The sexual offences review did not look at pornography offences per se, but there is a clear read-across to the offences under the 1978 Act. In the light of our concern to ensure that the law delivers protection for children—the review has the protection of children and young people from abuse and exploitation as its central aim—and our wider concern as to the increased incidence of child pornography offences, the time is right for a review of sentences for such offences.

The Government believe, however, that there should be a clear distinction between the lesser offence of simple possession, with no aggravating features, and the more serious offence of production and supply. That is not to say that offences such as simple possession should be treated lightly; for the reasons I have given, they are extremely serious. That is why the Government intend to bring forward our own amendments in the Lords.

The first amendment will increase the maximum sentence for possession of child pornography from six months imprisonment or a fine, or both, to a term not exceeding five years' imprisonment or a fine, or both. The second will provide for a maximum sentence, under the Protection of Children Act 1978, for taking, distributing, showing and possessing with a view to distribution indecent photographs of children aged under 16, on conviction or indictment, of a term not exceeding 10 years or a fine, or both. The amendment will also propose a sentence, on summary conviction, of imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months, or a fine, not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale, or both. As we intend to table those amendments, I ask the House—

Sir Paul Beresford


Mr. Garier


Mr. Boateng

I shall give way first to the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir P. Beresford) and then to the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier).

Sir Paul Beresford

I thank the Minister for his positive reaction. He mentioned two reviews—on sentencing and on sexual offences. Can he tell us when they will be completed and when he anticipates some action? Many of the cynical policemen chasing paedophiles think that much has been said, but nothing has happened. That does not apply only to this Government, but to others going back over 30 years.

Mr. Boateng

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the way he put that intervention; that is how one should consider the issue. The sentencing review will take some months to complete. The sexual offences review has completed its considerations. It was led by the Home Office and involved both a reference group and a steering group with a wide cross-section of interests in the matter. The outcome has been passed to Ministers and we hope to publish it in due course. We shall pursue that agenda; we do not intend to delay, although hon. Members will understand why I am not able to announce the date of publication or of any responses at present.

Mr. Garnier

I rise simply to tell the Minister that my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir P. Beresford) asked the question that I would have put.

Mr. Boateng

We shall not kick the review into the long grass. That cannot be so. We need to approach the matter with determination and vigour.

We shall be tabling in the other place the amendments I described, ensuring that they are properly drafted to cover territorial considerations, especially with regard to the internet. There is little point in increasing the sentences in England and Wales, if child pornographers believe that they will receive a less severe sentence for a similar offence in, say, Northern Ireland. We must ensure that the drafting is right. Colleagues in Scotland will want the opportunity to consider the implications of our intentions on their own jurisdiction.

New clause 3, as currently drafted, is flawed. It stipulates a minimum sentence of either five or 10 years for a number of offences for which the existing maximum penalty is less than 10 years—in some cases, less than five years—with an alternative of life imprisonment. The reference to an alternative of life imprisonment is insufficient to overcome the conflict between the new clause and the current maximums for the offences to which it applies. There would thus be two conflicting maximum penalties, which would lead to confusion for practitioners and for the courts.

I well understand what lies behind the new clause, however, and have much sympathy with it. Section 2 of the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997 already provides for an automatic life sentence for those convicted of a second, serious sexual or violent offence. It is important that sentences take account of that. Under that section, rape, including attempts, under section 1 of the Sexual Offences Act 1956, and intercourse with a girl aged under 13, under section 5 of the 1956 Act, are qualifying offences.

Pending the outcome of the sexual offences review, which has been considering the law relating to sex offences, it would not be appropriate to change the maximum penalties at this stage. The review may result in recommendations that affect some of those offences. It is thus not the time to accept new clause 3.

Furthermore, it is important to acknowledge the role of mandatory sentencing, which has always been limited to the most serious offences for which life imprisonment is the maximum penalty. Such sentences should clearly be exceptional and reserved for narrowly defined categories of case. Although sexual offences against children are always a matter of grave concern, and courts can and should be expected to sentence in a condign and appropriate way, the new clause would potentially cover a wide range of behaviour and sets of circumstances—including, for example, consensual acts between a 15-year-old and a 17-year-old. That is obviously not the intention of those who tabled the provision; it would hardly be appropriate to impose that length of imprisonment in such cases.

In our view, the provision is flawed; it could not be enacted without significant consequential amendments to the maximum penalties for a number of the offences to which it applies.

There is a further flaw. The new clause applies to an offence under section 1 of the Protection of Children Act 1978 for which the current maximum penalty is three years' imprisonment. New clause 2 also addresses that offence, and proposes a new maximum penalty of 10 years' imprisonment. The two provisions are inconsistent; they could not both be enacted.

As the sexual offences review has conducted a rigorous examination of those complex issues and bearing in mind the wide-ranging proposals it recommends both on the definition of offences and on appropriate penalties—on which we shall hold consultations—the route suggested in new clause 3 would not be acceptable.

Mr. Simon Hughes

We welcome the sexual offences review and look forward to its publication. Do the Minister's comments mean that—except in the most exceptional sexual offence cases—the Government do not support mandatory sentences? Is that a fair conclusion to draw? New clause 3 proposes mandatory sentences but—as my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Jackie Ballard) pointed out—it allows exceptions in specific circumstances. Does the Minister share the view that that is not really a proposal for mandatory sentences at all?

Mr. Boateng

I have a different view on mandatory sentences from that held by the Liberal Democrat Opposition. That is the way it is; I do not go down the same road as the hon. Gentleman. I do not accept new clause 3 for the reasons that I have given. Although we have come to the same conclusion, I suspect that we reached it by different routes.

Sir Paul Beresford

Before the Minister concludes, will he give way?

Mr. Boateng

I shall go on for some time, I am afraid, but I shall give way.

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Sir Paul Beresford

Before the Minister goes on, will he reply to a final question? One of the drives behind the new clauses was their proactive aspect. They are designed to protect a child from damage while allowing for the arrest and conviction of the offender. Is that the sort of approach that the Minister is willing to take in further amendments and legislation?

Mr. Boateng

I wholeheartedly endorse the proactive approach; it is the best way of proceeding. We must ensure that action is taken against violent and sexual predators. That is why we will shall come forward with proposals, and we shall announce our conclusions in due course. The Select Committee on Home Affairs has already endorsed cur proposals for offenders and others with severe personality disorders that make such people a danger. Violent, predatory paedophiles will be among that group, and it is right that we are proactive in responding to the problems that they present. I have no doubt about that.

The underlying philosophy of the amendments is shared by the whole House. We have to ensure that we work in a way that is holistic and that our strategy recognises the complexity of the process. An action in one place, unless it is thought through and is part of a holistic strategy, can have the reverse effect from that which we intended.

I sense that the House wishes to arrive at a rapid conclusion on this matter, but it is a serious issue and I do not want anyone to be in any doubt about the extent to which we take it seriously. Although we cannot accept new clauses 5 and 6 for the reasons that I have given, it is important to ensure—I now come to new clause 7—that we do all that we can to curb the misuse of the internet by child pornographers and paedophiles. We have a great deal of sympathy for the intent behind new clause 7, but it contains gaps in the way in which it responds to the complexity of the issues involved. That is why we intend to proceed with the work that we are doing with, among others, the internal relay chat sub-group, which has been set up to examine the issue in detail, to identify the problems and to recommend solutions. That sub-group will present its report to the internet crime forum by the end of August and we need to wait for its conclusions and its recommendations before moving to legislation. However, we accept the thrust behind the new clause.

The Government amendments are designed to strengthen the Bill. They are a response to the debate that we had in Committee and to the consultations that we have had with a wide range of organisations concerned with child protection. They carry forward the intentions of the Bill as expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the Committee. For that reason, I commend the amendments to the House.

We intend to table amendments in the House of Lords as a result of new clauses 2 and 4 and to put new clauses 5 and 6 to one side pending the conclusions of the sentencing review. I hope that that course will commend itself to the House and that it will accept Government amendments Nos. 12 to 18 and 55 to 62.

Mr. Lidington

Before I respond to the Minister's remarks, may I deal briefly with the question put to me by the hon. Member for Taunton (Jackie Ballard) about the new clause on mandatory sentences? We have reproduced the previsions in the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997, as consolidated by recent legislation, that give the judge, when considering all the circumstances of a particular case, the discretion to override the normal rule for a mandatory minimum sentence if he considers that there is an overwhelming case for him to do so. One could argue whether such provisions should have been in the 1997 Act and I recall that there was much controversy about them at the time. The wording in the new clause simply reproduces what is in current legislation.

Jackie Ballard

The hon. Gentleman clearly, accepts the provision in the 1997 Act that judges can take specific circumstances into account, so, he does not support mandatory sentences without reservation.

Mr. Lidington

Our new clause reproduces the wording of the 1997 Act as it applies to burglars and class A drug offenders and applies it to the category of child sex offenders to which the new clause relates. Whatever the arguments about the principle of the extent to which judges should be allowed to exercise a degree of discretion, it makes sense for different categories of offenders to be subject to the same type of law on mandatory and minimum sentences.

The Minister replied in a generous spirit to the debate and I thank him for that. I welcome the fact that the Government propose to table amendments in another place that would pretty well mirror our proposals in new clauses 2 and 4. I hope that, in due course, the Home Office wall bring forward other amendments to the law to give effect to the ideas that were embodied in the other new clauses.

Given the number of flaws that we find in the legislation introduced by expert and professional Government draftsman, I concede that the inexpert and unprofessional draftsmen of any Opposition may make errors of their own. I accept the Minister's comments in both spirit and substance. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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