HC Deb 14 November 2000 vol 356 cc883-8

Lords amendment: No. 67, to insert the following new clause—Extension of offence: conduct towards 14 and 15 year olds— . In section 1(1) of the Indecency with Children Act 1960 (indecent conduct towards young child), for "fourteen" there is substituted "sixteen".")

Mr. Boateng

I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Madam Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendments Nos. 68 and 69.

Mr. Boateng

At present, it is an offence under section 1 of the Indecency with Children Act 1960 for a person to commit an act of gross indecency with or towards a child under 14 or incite a child under that age to such an act with him or another. The first new clause will raise the age of the child against whom the offence could be committed from 13 to 15. In Northern Ireland, a similar offence of indecent conduct towards a child in section 22 of the Northern Ireland Children and Young Persons Act 1968 applies to under 14-year-olds. The second new clause will raise the age of the child against whom the offence could be committed in Northern Ireland from 13 to 16.

Amendment No. 69 will increase the maximum sentence under the Protection of Children Act 1978 for taking, making, distributing, showing and possessing with a view to distribution indecent photographs of children under 16 on conviction on indictment from three years' imprisonment or a fine, or both, to a term not exceeding 10 years or a fine, or both.

The amendment will also make the simple possession of indecent images of children under 16 an either-way offence, and will increase the maximum penalty available under section 160 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 from six months' imprisonment or a fine, or both, to a term not exceeding five years' imprisonment or a fine, or both.

Mr. Simon Hughes

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Boateng

Before I turn to the detail of this amendment, I should like to set out the Government's position on this area as a whole, then the hon. Gentleman can certainly intervene.

We agree on the need to protect children and on the urgency of action. The Government are working actively on a number of fronts, of which the criminal law is an important aspect, but not the only one. As hon. Members will recall from our debate in Committee, we all realise the importance of the criminal law in this area, but we also recognise the other steps that need to be taken by the agencies and the parents' responsibilities. It is clearly vital for those who seek to offend against children, on or off the internet, to be prevented from doing so, and to be dealt with effectively as far as possible by the criminal law.

It may be helpful if I deal first with Lords amendment No. 69. The Government fully share public abhorrence of the crime to which it refers. The production and possession of child pornography is condemned by all right-thinking people. We well understand that misuse of the internet has led to an increase in the number of offences under the Protection of Children Act 1978, and public concern about the circulation of such material has understandably grown. The amendment would ensure that the penalties available for offences of this kind reflected the seriousness with which society regards them. We cannot forget that pictures of child pornography are pictures of child abuse: nothing more, nothing less. This is abuse, and it must be treated as abuse.

In the light of our anxiety to ensure that the law delivers protection for children—as well as the wider concern about increased incidences of child pornography offences—the time is now right for enhancement of the penalties.

Mr. Simon Hughes

I think there was just one inaccuracy in the Minister's introductory remarks. He mentioned amendment of the Indecency with Children Act 1960. According to my reading of Lords amendment No. 67, it would extend the law protecting children under 14—rather than 13—to those under 16. It is a small matter, but I think the Minister must have received an inaccurate briefing.

Mr. Boateng

I do not think so, but I will certainly give the hon. Gentleman reassurance that he seeks.

Let me now deal with the details of Lords amendments Nos. 67 and 68. We considered carefully what was said in another place. It appeared that, although our laws on sex offences are comprehensive, it was felt that the law was inadequate to deal with some preparatory acts, as they might be described, prior to the commission of any substantive offence. Particular concern was expressed about internet chatrooms, which are a whole new phenomenon with which parents and, now, the law must deal.

In Committee, Lady Blatch cited three cases in which children had been lured by men over the internet into meetings and the intention or result was a sexual crime. I have received briefings on that from both the Federal Bureau of Investigation and our own police during the last 18 months or so. The problem is global, and these people operate globally—and in ways that require a response.

Lady Blatch pointed out that no action had been taken in two cases, and said that that demonstrated the inadequacy of, in particular, the Indecency with Children Act 1960. At present, however, the Act can apply only to those of 13 and under. In two of the cases cited by Lady Blatch, the girls involved were above that age.

That is a loophole, and it will be plugged. The amendment would do that in a simple, straightforward manner—and, crucially, without creating further anomalies. If it were passed, the Act could apply in respect of any person under the age of consent: it could apply to those under 16 in England and Wales, and to those under 17 in Northern Ireland. 1 hope that that provides the clarification sought by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes).

What would be the effect of the amendment? It extends the protection offered by the 1960 Act to those aged 14 and 15 in England and Wales, and 16 in Northern Ireland. If, for instance, someone were to persuade or encourage a person of 15 to commit an act of gross indecency with him or another person, that behaviour—which might not be criminal at present—could come within the ambit of section 1 of the Act. We believe that much could be achieved by that change, which is simple and straightforward, as well as being right.

This is important, because I will be considering the comprehensive review of sex offences that resulted in the recommendations contained in "Setting the Boundaries". If further detailed changes to the law are required, they must be made on the basis of a sensible, comprehensive approach. They must not be complex piecemeal changes that would only add to the confusion in the law. The aim of "Setting the Boundaries" was to enable us to deal with the issue comprehensively and to avoid the anomalies created over the years by an ad hoc approach.

We all want more protection for children from sex offenders. The proposed change would add significantly to that protection, without further distorting the law.

Mr. Hawkins

The Minister is right to say that this is an important matter, and we are pleased that the Government have tabled an amendment to the 1960 Act.

On 8 November, Lord Williams of Mostyn, the Attorney-General, moved the amendment in column 1538 of the House of Lords Official Report. However, in that same debate, as the Minister pointed out, my noble Friend Baroness Blatch sought to persuade the Government to make yet more amendments. The Opposition remain concerned about the misuse of the internet by paedophiles. There is still a need for an even more thoroughgoing review of the law and we sought to persuade the Government to toughen the legislation, although we welcome the fact that they have taken all those matters extremely seriously. Even though more could have been done through the Bill, we hope that the Government will continue to consider the issues carefully and perhaps take an early legislative opportunity to do even more.

I hope that the Minister will again pay tribute to the constructive approach taken by my right hon. and hon. Friends and by my noble Friend Baroness Blatch in another place, on this issue above all. We agree with the Government that the protection of children is extremely important and all of us—from all parties and in both Houses—are concerned about it. There is no more serious danger to children than adult paedophiles who try to entrap young children by posing as children themselves. The Minister agrees with that and I hope that the Government will continue to listen. They may take another opportunity to strengthen the law still further, as we have requested.

Mr. Simon Hughes

There is a broad consensus on this important issue, which, given modern technology and the internet, has taken on a new relevance. Like others, I take a strong view, and it is right for political parties to hold firm views because that reflects not only public opinion, but our duty to ensure that people whom our society defines as children are protected. To achieve that, we need a clear law that punishes those who offend. Amendment No. 67, which applies to the Indecency with Children Act 1960, would take the indecency age limit up to 16. It refers clearly to the age of majority, which is also the school leaving age, and rightly does not add another age limit. No one should be in any doubt about that.

On amendment No. 69, it is right to send a tough signal that the courts should have significant powers to deal with people who commit offences involving using, passing and dealing with indecent photographs of children. The Minister was correct that there are examples of offences involving internet chatrooms and the passing of indecent photographs. The law must be able to deal very severely with people who commit such offences. Society wants the parties to stand together and put that view; amendment No. 69, by amending the Protection of Children Act 1978 and the Criminal Justice Act 1988, would achieve it.

On the amendment of the law in Northern Ireland, the Minister rightly pointed out that there is a different age of majority—l7, not 16—for these purposes. I shall not stray into constitutional areas that contain important differences, but I ask Ministers, if they find it appropriate, to consider with colleagues in Scotland and Northern Ireland whether there may be an opportunity to review the ages of majority and consent to achieve consistency in this area of law. I understand that that is entirely a matter for separate Northern Irish and Scottish legislation, and I am also aware that for Northern Ireland there is an all-Ireland dimension in terms of legislation that relates to the Republic, but the different age limits and different legislation for offences committed in Northern Ireland have been a problem over the years and cases involving the European convention on human rights have been brought. It would be sensible for the three Administrations to consider whether it would be appropriate to agree that that should change.

In that context, I hope that after we have legislated it might be possible to draw up a clear, consistent and readily accessible guide to the law. These three simple amendments would amend the Indecency with Children Act 1960, the Children and Young Persons Act (Northern Ireland) 1968, the Protection of Children Act 1978, the Protection of Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1978, and the Criminal Justice Act 1988. It is all very well for us to pass such legislation; there might be people in the Library or political researchers and lawyers who can look at all those measures, but I am someone who, like others, has to try to find out what the law means, and we must ensure that the law is clear so that people can find out information without doubt.

9 pm

There may be an argument for consolidating legislation dealing with children, offences against children and the protection of children in the near future. Ministers might receive the support of the Liberal Democrats if they did so. There has been much recent legislation on such matters, and it would be better if those measures were put together. The Liberal Democrats welcome the fact that the Government initiated the review of sexual offences legislation generally. Although they have allowed the review to be brought to a conclusion, the Minister makes the point that further work remains to be done. The report, which is before the Minister and has been published, will eventually lead to Parliament tidying up the legislation, some of which dates back to the 19th century and beyond.

We should bring the law up to date. It is right that old-fashioned, out-of-date, difficult to understand, discriminatory legislation should be done away with. It is also right that that should be done carefully, after serious consideration, but I hope that we shall use that opportunity to tidy the law as a whole. Children, young people and those who deal with them need to know where they stand. Parents, teachers, guardians and others who are responsible need to know where they stand. Equally importantly, those who think of offending need to know where they stand. The law must be clear; there must be no confusion or complexity. The clearer the law is on such matters, the better we shall do our job of protecting young people.

Mr. Boateng

I shall first deal with the points made by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes). To avoid any doubt, given his initial confusion about age, I should explain that the Children Act 1960 protects children under 14—hence my reference to children aged 13—and that the amendment would change the 1960 Act so that it covered children under 16, hence my reference to children aged up to and including 15.

On the other points that the hon. Gentleman makes, sometimes when listening to him speak about a range of issues, including devolution, I feel that he dwells among the angels, such is his general approach. I know of his deep and abiding faith, but I have to tell him that devolution is an area where even angels should fear to tread, so he will understand the reason why I, who most certainly am not one, do not intend to deal with devolution as he would urge me to do.

Codification is a virtue to which successive generations of lawyers—the hon. Gentleman is, of course, a lawyer—and others who practise in criminal law aspire. Indeed, it is a virtue to which we all aspire, but it has not yet been achieved. [Interruption.] We are all entitled to our aspirations, and he has shared his with the House, so I shall say no more about it.

I shall deal with the thrust of the argument of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins), who generously accepted and welcomed movement in this area. I appreciate his approach. He asked me to extend my gratitude for and recognition of the work by Baroness Blatch, among others on both sides in the other place. I do so.

We need to keep the law constantly under review. We are doing so. We need better to enforce existing law and the law as it will be amended. We are working closely with the police on that, improving their capability to use current law to deal with internet crime.

We need to pursue the issue of law enforcement and the internet through active support for the continuing work of the internet crime forum. We need to ensure increased responsibility by ISPs—internet service providers—and other providers of chatroom services, particularly in relation to chat services for children. We need greater education and awareness of the potential dangers in using chat services for parents, children and other internet users. We are doing all that. Yesterday, we announced further major investment of some £25 million, which is aimed at developing the police's capability to tackle internet crime.

No one listening to the debate, or reading the debates upstairs or in the other place, could be under any doubt that that is all activity in which we need to engage. Every penny is money well worth spending. That must be the way forward. In that spirit, I commend the amendments to the House.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 68 to 72 agreed to.

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