HC Deb 14 March 2001 vol 364 cc1075-83

'In section 1(1) of the! Indecency with Children Act 1960, after "incites" there is inserted "or entices".'.—[Miss Widdecombe.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald)

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

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to take the following: New clause 10—Encrypted information'.—At the end of section 53(5) Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 there is added—

  1. "(c) on conviction on indictment, to imprisonment of a term not exceeding ten years or to a fine, or to both, where the encrypted material has been seized under section IV of the Protection of Children Act 1978.
  2. (d) on summary conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years or to a fine not exceeding the statutory maximum or both where the encrypted material has been seized under section IV of the Protection of Children Act 1978".'.

New clause 11—Unduly lenient sentences'.—For section 35(3) of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 (Scope of Part IV), there is substituted— (3) This Part of the Act applies to any case in which sentence is passed on a person—

  1. (a) for an offence triable only on indictment; or
  2. (b) for an offence of a description specified in an order under this section; or
  3. (c) for an offence under the Prctection of Children Act 1978; or
  4. (d) for an offence under section 1(0 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988".'.

Miss Widdecombe

The Opposition first raised this issue in an amendment to the Criminal Justice and Court Services Bill, which was considered by the House nine months ago. On four occasions the Government rejected our amendments to that Bill, and they were also rejected at the Committee stage of this Bill.

The new clause is designed to close a loophole in the current law, in order to tackle paedophiles who lure or entice young children using internet chat rooms into meeting them offline for sex. I pay tribute to the work of the charity Childnet International, which has campaigned on the issue for some time and which first suggested the wording of the new clause to us.

Internet chat rooms can be a positive way to bring children together, but there are obvious dangers to children who use them unsupervised. Paedophiles across the world have recognised the opportunity that the internet has given them to contact children anonymously and at a safe distance, and then to build up an online, and subsequently an offline, relationship with the sole purpose of persuading the children to meet them in order to engage in sexual activity. The techniques that paedophiles use to entice children into sexual activity are known as "grooming".

It is, at the very least, unclear whether the current law affords children the protection they need from online grooming. I believe that the addition of the words "or entices" to the 1960 Act could offer them a degree of certain protection that at present is not available.

Internet chat rooms allow the predatory paedophile invisible access to impressionable younger teenagers from a safe distance, allowing contact to be made while the child is using the internet in the secure surroundings of its own home, or even possibly its own bedroom. Once contact has been made, the process of grooming proceeds with e-mail messages, and also, perhaps, use of the child's mobile phone.

The paedophile might easily represent himself as an older teenager or as someone in his very early 20s. Particularly for young teenage girls, the attentions of someone whom they believe to be an older boy or a young man is especially flattering. They are immediately lulled into a false sense of security, although the process of grooming can go on for weeks and indeed months, as it may take that long to make the child feel comfortable and at ease. At the end of that process, the paedophile proposes an offline meeting.

The results of that meeting can be devastating to the young person concerned. Innumerable cases of sexual abuse as a result of such meetings have been reported in the press. This month, for example, we heard of the case of Mark Stephens, a 45-year-old van driver who seduced a 14-year-old girl whom he met in a chat room. In that chat room, he had told her that he was 26. Eventually, they met and had sexual intercourse in the van that he used for work. He pleaded guilty to indecent assault and unlawful sex. The girl's story was published in a newspaper this weekend. She said: I knew something was wrong when I got in his van but after chatting to him so much on the Internet he seemed like a friend. Speaking about the grooming process, she said: He was nice and always asked me how my day was and what I did at school. He said he liked skiing and would take me skiing. He asked me for my mobile number so I gave it to him. Eventually, the girl agreed to a meeting. She said: He told me how pretty I was, then opened the passenger door of his van and I got in. I would never have got into a van with a stranger normally but I felt I knew Mark well. The second time that they met, he forced her to have sex with him in his van. That is what can happen. When there is a sexual assault, the paedophile can be charged and convicted—but by way of example, to illustrate why our new clauses are necessary, 1 shall describe two well known cases in this country in which the paedophile was not charged.

The first is that of the girl known as "Georgie". At the age of 13, she began to use internet chat rooms, and she became infatuated with an online "friend" who told her that he was an older teenager. They began talking on the phone, and gradually the relationship took on a sexual aspect. They arranged to meet, without her knowing what this supposed teenage boy even looked like. Luckily, however, her mother went along as well. It was clear at the meeting that the man was not a teenager but was middle-aged. The mother's presence stopped anything from happening, but—this is the crucial point—police could take no action against the man because no physical assault had occurred. Charges of conspiracy to commit an act of gross indecency were dropped.

The second case is that of the convicted paedophile Patrick Green. Last year, he was sentenced at Aylesbury Crown court to five years' imprisonment for sexually assaulting a 13-year-old girl whom he had lured into meeting him using an internet chat room. However, before his conviction, he was released on bail and began to communicate with another teenage girl using a chat room. He arranged to meet that girl, but he was caught by police while travelling to meet her for sex. Again, however, as no assault had occurred, and regardless of his record, no action could be taken against him in relation to the second girl.

It would seem from those cases and others like them that the law offers too little protection for children, as a sexual assault has actually to be committed before charges can be brought. However, an offence of enticement such as we are proposing would enable charges to be brought in those cases, which at the very least would have removed for a while the threat of the men involved contacting, grooming and approaching children online.

When police are able to intervene after a paedophile has turned up for a meeting, but before a sexual assault has occurred, the offence of enticement could be proved relatively quickly and easily with e-mail or other documentary evidence. We believe that that would be a strong preventive measure and send a clear signal to those who try to entice children online.

7.15 pm

The Minister will undoubtedly say that the amendment is unnecessary and that current law is adequate. Indeed, I believe that to be the Government's position. In a letter to me of 8 November 2000, the Home Secretary said that the law did not need amending at all. He wrote: We believe that, with respect to the particular concerns…raised, the law already makes this particular misuse of the internet illegal. That was what the Government reiterated last year on many occasions. However, if that is so, why could police take no action in the cases that I have just described?

Our previous amendments, including the new clause moved in Committee, were criticised because they applied only to online activity. The Minister and his colleagues argued that the law should cover both online and offline activity. We accepted that, and new clause 5 meets that test.

It has been argued that such provision would create "thought crime", but I do not think that it would. The amendment would focus on the actions of the predatory paedophile enticing a child for the purposes of sex. There would have to be real and available documentary evidence. I am told that the experience of other countries has shown that the creation of such an offence has allowed adults who are a danger to children to be convicted, rather than their getting away scot-free, as happened in the cases that I have just described.

In Committee, the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), said: I acknowledge that we have not yet squared the circle in this area…A great deal remains to be done… I conclude my comments by acknowledging the seriousness of the matter. We are giving it serious consideration".—[Official Report, Standing Committee F, 6 March 2001; c. 533.] I welcome that statement because it is certainly much less dismissive than the Home Secretary's comments last year. However, the Opposition have been pressing the matter for more than nine months. It is important that the law gives the maximum possible protection to our children. I cannot believe that there is any dispute about that on either side of the House. Paedophiles such as Patrick Green have to be stopped in their tracks.

I therefore hope that the Minister will be able to give a constructive response to our proposals. I commend the new clause to the House.

Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley)

I am speaking to support not only my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) on new clause 5, but new clauses 10 and 11 as well.

It is nice to see the Minister of State in the Chamber, as we have already gone two rounds on the proposals now contained in new clause 10. On both those occasions, my view on those proposals received support from both sides of the Chamber. The proposals deal generally with encrypted information and the failure to disclose encryption keys. In the form of new clause 10, however, they specifically target paedophiles.

As the Minister—and, I suspect, all hon. Members—knows, later this year, when the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 comes into force, the maximum penalty for failure to provide an encryption key will be two years' imprisonment and/or a fine on conviction on indictment, and six months' imprisonment or a fine on summary conviction. However, I believe that we have to re-examine some of the Act's provisions even before it comes into force, especially in the light of some of our debates during the passage of that legislation. In those debates, hon. Members on both sides of the House agreed that we needed stronger provision, especially to deal with paedophiles.

I am sure that the Minister will recall that in those debates, to illustrate my point, I asked him to put himself in the rather elevated shoes of a paedophile whom we called "Gary". If Gary and his colleagues made available to police encrypted information on paedophile activity, they could face a life sentence. The sentence that they would receive for such activity would certainly be considerably more than the two years that they might face by refusing to provide a key. Gary and his colleagues would therefore certainly opt for the lower sentence, or perhaps the fine. Therefore, during passage of the 2000 Act, strongly backed by child protection agencies, Opposition Front Benchers and Back Benchers, and at least one Government Back Bencher, expressed concern about the situation.

The Minister may know that in two recent police investigations, suspected paedophiles who were schoolmasters refused to give the key to encrypted information that they had, or were suspected to have, on their computers. The implication is that those individuals had something to hide, and that, given that the law provides a two-year maximum, it would be worth their while to plead guilty to failing to release the key rather than incriminating themselves as regards the alleged paedophiliac activity by them and their friends.

My new clause would move us forward. We should target not just computers, but CD-ROMs and DVDs, which can be circulated with encrypted information on them, unlike the pornographic videos that I understand—not from personal experience—are available at present.

Earlier, the Minister was plainly concerned that in attempting to target paedophiles, we were throwing our net too wide. The point of the new clause would be to use existing legislation to target paedophiles with encrypted information seized under section 4 of the Protection of Children Act 1978. That would close a further loophole in that a conviction for failing to give up a key, which attracts the two-year penalty, does not require the offender to be placed on the sex offenders register, although that would be appropriate. That is an area of great concern to the public and to Members, as well as to the media, as exemplified by the 'Wonderland" cases—the like of which, one sometimes feels, turn up every day.

Let me turn to new clause 11. The Criminal Justice Act 1988, part IV, introduced a right to appeal against over-lenient sentences. It allows the Attorney-General to refer certain cases to the Court of Appeal, with the leave of that court, where it considers that the sentence imposed by a Crown court has been unduly lenient. That applied only to cases triable only on indictment. The Criminal Justice Act 1988 (Reviews of Sentencing) Order 1994 extended the range of offences to include certain others, such as indecent assault on a man, threats to kill and actions of cruelty to persons under 16. A 1995 order extended the provision further, to include fraud cases tried in the Crown courts, and others.

The Minister may be aware of a recent case involving a highly unpleasant paedophile who was convicted of virtually everything possible under the Protection of Children Act 1978. For various reasons, I will not name the individual, but he was found guilty and sentenced to 18 months. It was a first offence, which means that he is likely to have his sentence reduced to nine months. With good behaviour and a lenient governor, it is likely that he will be out in four. I think that that is horrific. So did the prosecution and the police, who examined legislation to see whether it would be possible to appeal against that diminutive sentence. They concluded that they could not.

My new clause is intended to probe, and to nudge the Minister. I appreciate that such a change should be made through secondary legislation, but it would be helpful to me, to the prosecuting authorities, to the police and to those who look after and protect children, if the Minister would take the hint and say that he will return with secondary legislation.