HC Deb 19 November 2002 vol 394 cc505-20 3.31 pm
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Blunkett)

With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement on the reform of the laws on sex offences and offending.

Today, we are publishing a Command Paper outlining proposals to increase public protection and to modernise current laws. First, may I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) who, as the former Home Secretary, established these reviews? I pay tribute also to those who have contributed to the reviews and the consultations that followed. A summary of responses has been placed in the Library of the House.

Protection of the public from dangerous and sex offenders is a priority for this Government and for the House. All crime has a damaging effect on individuals and communities, but sex crimes, particularly against children, can tear apart the fabric of society.

We have already put in place important protection measures. We have established public protection panels to manage offenders in the community, and introduced sex offender and restraining orders. We have set up a taskforce on child protection on the internet and introduced disqualification orders to stop unsuitable people working with children. The registration requirements in the Sex Offenders Act 1997 have already been strengthened. But there is more that needs to be done, in addition to the revision of sentences and monitoring included in the new criminal justice legislation.

We are working in government and with other agencies to develop new measures to catch offenders who abscond or change their names without telling the police. As a step towards this, all sex offenders will be obliged to register with the police every year. Fingerprints and photographs will be renewed. Offenders will be required to provide their national insurance details. In future, we will aim to use biometrics to ensure that we know who they are and where they are. Those entering Britain who we know have been convicted abroad will have to register and to comply with the Sex Offenders Act.

The research that we are publishing today shows that some violent offenders have a greater propensity to commit sex crimes. We are not prepared to wait until they do before we take action. For that reason, we will allow sex offender orders and restraining orders to be taken out against anyone convicted of a serious violent offence if the police believe that they present a real risk.

The law on sex offences is archaic and incoherent. The Sexual Offences Act is 46 years old and was mostly a simple consolidation of 19th-century law. Our proposals for reform reflect changes in society and social attitudes and, most importantly, will better protect the public, particularly children and the vulnerable. All sex crimes are abhorrent, but none more so than those committed against children.

The internet has opened up a new world. Chat rooms allow children to contact each other. But we must deal with those who use the internet to groom children for abuse. To tackle that both online and offline, we will create a new offence of sexual grooming. That implements the recommendations of the taskforce on child protection on the internet. To further strengthen protection, we will create a new civil order to prevent inappropriate adult behaviour, such as sending children explicit e-mails or photographs. A further offence of an adult committing a sex act with a child will cover anyone over 13 but under 16, and where ostensibly consent of the child has been claimed. It will carry a maximum sentence of 14 years.

We do not believe that any very young child truly gives consent to an adult. In a recent case, a 32-year-old man was tried for having sex with a 12-year-old. The judge pronounced that he was not a paedophile. I beg to disagree. In future, such cases will be treated as rape. The issue of consent where a child of 12 or younger is involved will not be relevant.

We have no intention of interfering in consensual relationships between adults, but some people with a severe mental disorder or a learning disability are particularly vulnerable to abuse. Convictions under current laws are hard to achieve. There are often difficulties in gathering evidence from someone who is not only deeply distressed but does not understand what has happened. For that reason, we will create a new offence of sex acts with a person who could not have had the capacity to consent.

I want more criminals to be convicted, not at the expense of the innocent but because of the cost to society. Giving more rights to victims and communities does not erode the rights of defendants. This is not a zero-sum game. It is a miscarriage of justice when an innocent person is wrongly convicted; it is a travesty of justice when the guilty walk free.

Rape is one of the most terrible crimes. The current defence of honest belief in consent means that a rapist can claim in court, no matter how unreasonably, that he honestly believed that consent had been given, and walk away free. That is not justice. We do not wish to convict anyone who genuinely and reasonably believes that consent was given, but we expect a defendant to show that his mistake was not only honest, but in the circumstances, reasonable. I want to make it clear that I have no intention of asking anyone to keep a pen and paper by the bedside, but we will include a test of reasonableness in the law.

All rapes, including drug rape, will continue to carry a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. A new offence of administering drugs with the intent to commit a sex crime will carry a maximum penalty of 10 years. We are sending out a clear message that such offences will be treated very seriously. A new offence of sexual assault will cover a wide range of offending, from minor assaults to more serious crimes such as violent attacks. At the top of the range, offences will carry a maximum sentence of 10 years.

Much has been written about the question of anonymity. I am not minded to change the present situation for defendants who have been accused of sex crime, but I am prepared to listen to the arguments of those who feel strongly on the point.

There is increasing concern about the role of transnational and organised crime in trafficking children and adults for sexual exploitation. New offences with tough penalties will cover those crimes. We shall apply those offences to persons trafficked in the UK, whether they are British citizens or foreign nationals.

Many in the House will be aware of the terrible exploitation of women and girls through organised criminal activity, and the use of pimps to promote and control prostitution. Often that is linked to drug dependency and what amounts to organised slavery. It is time in the 21st century to face the reality of that sub-world of degradation and exploitation. We therefore intend to examine the scope for a review of prostitution. We will need to listen carefully to communities that are affected most. From antisocial behaviour to mafia-style criminality, communities are bedevilled by the terrible trade. We must aim to create a safer neighbourhood and an escape route for those trapped by vice.

Our current laws on sex offences are not only archaic but discriminatory. Criminalising acts between homosexuals that are not against the law for heterosexuals goes against the principle of equality and previous reforms. We will therefore update the law to ensure equality of treatment. Consensual sex in private that does not harm anyone should no longer be a criminal offence.

For the sake of absolute clarity and my own peace of mind, I want to point out that we will not be legislating to allow sex in public. Provisions in the Public Order Act 1986, together with common law offences, will remain in place. However, as well as those, we will introduce a new offence to deal with specific sex acts in a public place. That will reinforce a sense of decency and respect for others.

Our overall aim is to create laws that are fit for the 21st century and which provide confidence and protection—laws that remain true to the time-honoured and accepted parameters of a free and civilised society. That is why I commend the statement to the House.

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset)

I am grateful to the Home Secretary for his usual courtesy in providing a copy of the statement.

We welcome the Home Secretary's statement. It has been a long time coming, but it has come at last. Some months ago, we made six suggestions to increase the protection of children from paedophiles. From the White Paper and briefings surrounding it, I detect that the Home Office has adopted—or is in the course of adopting—four of those suggestions, and that is very welcome.

The White Paper deals with a wider range of issues relating to sex offences. In general and subject to certain caveats to which I will come in a moment, it appears to have found a reasonable way through what is by any standards a nasty thicket. We welcome the Home Secretary's refusal to make sex offenders registers public. We welcome the protection of disabled people and of minors subject to exploitation as prostitutes, and we welcome the Home Secretary's decision to retain the presumption of innocence in relation to rape. I hope that he will profit from his own example in the Extradition Bill and the Criminal Justice Bill. I cannot say that I believe that the proposed changes to rape law are likely to make a difference to conviction rates, but the Home Secretary has at least avoided doing any harm, for which we must grateful.

We are conscious, however, that the detailed drafting of the law alone will determine whether it has the right effects in practice, and that Bills that receive little scrutiny from the Opposition usually make bad Acts—one is uncomfortably reminded of the Child Support Act 1995. We shall accordingly look in great detail at the drafting of each clause when the Bill is introduced. Will the clauses on grooming be drafted so as adequately to distinguish between a manifestly evil pattern of genuine grooming and a harmless or even arguably harmless gesture from an adult to a child? Will the clauses defining the new test of reasonableness in relation to consent to a sexual act, to which the Home Secretary referred in his statement, be drafted to reflect the delicate balance between the right of the woman to be protected from rape and the right of the man to be exonerated from slanderous allegations?

Will the clauses on voyeurism be drafted to distinguish clearly between the landlord who sets up invisible closed circuit television cameras in his tenants' bedrooms and the innocent individual who merely espies whatever is still allowed once the Home Secretary has explicitly banned sexual acts in public? We cannot expect the Home Secretary to answer those questions in any but the most general terms today. However, we and our colleagues in the Lords will want to explore them, and others like them, constructively, carefully and effectively when the Bill is introduced.

All good criminal law strikes a balance between public protection and the protection of civil liberties. The Government have begun, after long consideration, to build on the foundations laid by my right hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor, when he was Home Secretary, in the Sex Offenders Act 1997. We shall now do our job as an Opposition, probing and questioning to ensure that the right balance is struck when the Bill is enacted.

Mr. Blunkett

I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's comments and the manner in which he delivered them. I am glad that we made four out of six. I thought that he might refer to suggestions that had already been floated—I caught the echo in the right hon. Gentleman's voice. That is the Opposition's job—to pick up what the Government are about to do, turn it into a suggestion and claim the credit for it. I am happy to let the right hon. Gentleman have a bash at that while I have a bash at what he described as the "nasty thicket".

The right hon. Gentleman is right—Governments of all persuasions have eschewed engagement with this for a very long time indeed. In my approach, I was mindful of the balance that he talked about at the end of his speech. The difficulties of being able to find a way through this have exercised me for several months, and the statement was drafted and redrafted. I accept entirely what the right hon. Gentleman said about the detailed drafting of the legislation. It is going to be a nightmare, and I invite him and all Members who have a contribution to make to assist us. I would like unanimity to establish a new foundation that will ensure that this aspect of the law, if nothing else, has the wholehearted backing of Members on both sides of the House, not just a majority.

I agree that the test of reasonableness is difficult. It may not be easy to obtain true convictions of the guilty even with a reasonableness test. However, given that, since 1985, the number of convictions of the accused has dropped from 25 per cent. to 7 per cent., it is doubtful that people are coming forward with the relevant information or that this is being dealt with adequately under the existing law.

On grooming, I agree entirely that we need to be able to distinguish. The Crown Prosecution Service will have to make sensible judgments about what constitutes a genuine offence under the new law. We are all agreed. All parties were represented on the taskforce, as well as outside organisations, including my friends in Liberty. When I attended one of the first meetings after taking over, I invited them to come up with an alternative if they did not like what we were suggesting. I extend the same invitation to all those interested in the criminal justice system. It is easy to be against something, but very difficult to be in favour of an alternative if one does not have one.

The right hon. Gentleman rightly raises an interesting question concerning voyeurism. We do not wish to interfere with the freedom of the press or with people going about their normal business, but it is entirely wrong that people should be spied on and the product of that spying used for titillation or for exploitation in the sex market. It is long overdue that we should protect people in a civilised and free society from the entrepreneurship of those whose trade is in evil. For those reasons, I am pleased that we appear to have a rational and sensible debate as we create the legislation and introduce it in the early new year, to bring about a modern, more sensible approach to our laws.

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

I, too, welcome the consultation, the proposals before the House and many of the details. From the Liberal Democrat Benches, the Home Secretary will get full and constructive opposition. Particularly to be welcomed is the presumption from now on that nobody under the age of 13 can consent to sexual activity. That needs to be clear and straightforward to protect the young and to meet the great emphasis on the protection of the vulnerable and the apparently careful definition of consent, which seems to strike the right balance and which is welcome.

Does the Home Secretary accept that if the concerns of the public are to be allayed effectively by the legislation, we need to couple the next 12 months' legislative work with making sure that the Criminal Records Bureau is able to resume its checks, so that everybody in contact with the young and the vulnerable is checked? Can the right hon. Gentleman tell us whether he is able to make sure that when British citizens convicted of offences abroad return to the UK, they will be known to the authorities in the UK from the moment their conviction is registered in the courts abroad? That has long been a matter of great concern, which I have raised with the right hon. Gentleman's colleagues.

Young people should feel comfortable and able to give evidence that is as truthful as possible. Has the Home Office come to a view on whether the Scottish system of children's courts is a better model for young people's evidence and trials than the conventional jury trial, which is often intimidating and off-putting?

Do I take it that the Home Secretary is very clear—the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) also asked this question—that there will not be public access to the register of child offenders? The system that the Department has put in place is working well in making sure that those who need to know are told, and are told in time.

Lastly, one of the concerns in recent months has been about those who have been sex offenders and who return to the community. As well as monitoring, there needs to be treatment, which must be adequately resourced to make sure that they have the maximum chance of not offending again. Will the Home Secretary be able to couple these worthwhile modernising proposals with the resources to make sure that treatment is available in the community, to deal with people who are among the most difficult to deal with in the criminal justice system?

We welcome the proposals. It is 50 years since we modernised the law on sexual offences. I hope that the Home Secretary will see the measure as one that brings all sexual law reform together. If that is the case, we will welcome a great and consolidating opportunity.

Mr. Blunkett

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I winced slightly when he said that he would give full and constructive opposition. I wanted him to give full and constructive support, but I will take the small measures that I can get.

Yes, we do need to ensure that the Criminal Records Bureau works effectively, and we are taking every possible step to ensure that, including receiving the external evaluation report before Christmas and acting on it. We should remind people, incidentally, that—difficult as its birth has been—the CRB has lessened the risks and increased the safeguards enormously since 1 April.

As for British citizens convicted abroad, we need the co-operation of our embassies and those who monitor the incarceration of people apprehended in other countries. As I said in my statement, it must then be ensured that they are covered by the monitoring and registration provisions domestically.

Evidence given by children is a difficult issue, and the Scottish example is worth examining. We intend to produce a substantive discussion paper on children at risk early in the new year, and I want to include the development of children's courts and related measures.

The shadow Home Secretary was right: we will resist the request for public access to the register, for all the reasons that we have debated publicly over the past few months. It would drive people underground, it would be ineffective, and it would increase the danger of people—outside courts, that is—not understanding the difference between "paedophilia" and "paediatrician".

The question of treatment is important, and I am glad it has been raised. A lot is going on. We know from the difficulty of siting clinics what a delicate and difficult area this is, but we must plough on together, and we must ask local politicians as well as local residents to be understanding. If we are to stop people reoffending, treatment must be better than a free-for-all in which people remain in the community, but no work is done to ensure that they do not offend again.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's announcement of a review of the law on prostitution and, in particular, his recognition that prostitution affects neighbourhoods as well. Will he consider measures to deal with kerb-crawlers, who cause a problem in my constituency? Such measures might include the imposition of penalty points on driving licences and the possibility of impounding vehicles. In our experience, both kerb-crawlers and prostitution on the streets can be dealt with very effectively.

Mr. Blunkett

The existing changes to the Act have strengthened our powers in relation to arrest. Fixed-penalty notices are a good idea, and it is important to concentrate not just on the women involved but on those who seek them out; but the real criminals in prostitution are the organised gangs behind it—people who capture young women in particular by enticing them into addiction to class A drugs, and the pimps who then use them not only to feed their own habits but to sustain themselves in the manner to which they have become accustomed. Unless we tackle that organised mafia criminality, rather than merely concentrating on the individuals involved, we shall have missed the point.

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton)

The Home Secretary may know that in my constituency live the families of the murdered girls Sarah Payne and Milly Dowler. I know that he has said he will listen to the Dowlers, as his predecessor listened to the Paynes. I am against naming and shaming, but will the Home Secretary confirm that his proposals will lead to indeterminate sentencing for sex offenders, with no premature release, and to much tighter arrangements to monitor offenders after their release if they have previously received treatment?

During their inquiries into the Milly Dowler case, the Surrey police found many people who had never been on a sex offenders register but probably ought to have been. The danger to individuals in the community exists, however tight the law is. Will the Home Secretary give some support to the AMBER—American missing broadcast emergency response—system, which at least gives the police a mechanism for conveying information to the public? It is possible that, during the first critical hours after an abduction, someone will notice something that will help the police.

Mr. Blunkett

I thank the hon. Gentleman. I have met Sara Payne twice and Michael Payne once, and I got in touch with the Dowler family after the tragedy. I am prepared not only to continue to listen to them but to respond in the way in which the hon. Gentleman requests. Within days, we will publish the criminal justice Bill, which will include proposals on indeterminate sentences, substantial strengthening of monitoring and registration requirements. I or one of my Ministers will be happy to talk to him personally about the Bill as soon as it is published.

I am prepared to look at the AMBER alert. I pay tribute to the shadow Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin). I made remarks earlier about plagiarism. Where there is good evidence, and where we need to pick people up, I am happy to plagiarise his suggestion that we use more upfront methods of communication across the country, including public screens, to warn people. We should share those ideas, because it makes Parliament a much more worthwhile place. Even with the present state of the Opposition, all of us have to bear it in mind that at some point the electorate will have had enough of us.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement, but will he look again at the issue of anonymity for defendants in rape cases, especially those involving rape within marriage? Many women hesitate before taking cases to court not only because a tiny percentage of defendants are convicted but because of the problems of publicity for them and their families.

Mr. Blunkett

The person making the allegation of rape is protected. My hon. Friend asks about the anonymity of the accused person. The difficulty for us and for the House is how we distinguish between rape and other very serious offences—for example, murder—and the damage that is done to the character of an individual who is accused but found not guilty.

I am prepared to continue to listen because this is a serious issue. We have been through it once before, and for every opinion in one direction there are several in the other: there is no clever, easy answer. There is certainly no political divide on the matter.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove)

Further to that point, although I broadly welcome almost everything the Home Secretary has said today, I still have some reservations about the planned changes to the law on rape. I welcome the fact that there will still be a presumption of innocence, but I worry whether vexatious claims will be made more likely as a result of the proposals; such claims are made in a very charged atmosphere, and therefore fall in a slightly different category. Will he give an assurance that his proposals will not encourage vexatious claims? Subject to the last question, will he offer Labour Members a free vote on whether there should be anonymity for those accused of rape, because there is anonymity for those who are said to be the victims of rape?

Mr. Blunkett

Let me take the two substantive questions. The reasonableness test is important. So that there is no misunderstanding, particularly outside, it is worth making it clear that I have rejected the suggestion that someone inebriated could claim that they were unable to give consent—as opposed to someone who was unconscious for whatever reason, including because of alcohol, and was therefore unable to do so—on the ground that we do not want mischievous accusations in circumstances where someone genuinely had reasonable and honest belief of consent.

On the latter point, I am always prepared to consider and to recommend free votes to my right hon. and hon. Friends; they are sometimes very handy in difficult circumstances. We all learn lessons from that. I said that there is no party political difference and that it is a finely balanced argument. It does the House quite a lot of good if occasionally we accept that on major substantive legislation and, on particular clauses and amendments, we are prepared to argue our case and to hear our colleagues, rather than to enforce a three-line Whip.

Mr. Chris Pond (Gravesham)

I very much welcome my right hon. Friend's proposed changes to ensure that there will be no excuses for sexually assaulting a child under the age of 13. I should point out, however, that, in two or three recent cases in my constituency, children between the ages of 13 and 16 were involved in sexual relationships with middle-aged men, yet the police and the Crown Prosecution Service refused to take any action whatsoever. It would be helpful if my right hon. Friend assured the House that we are not reducing the age of consent to 13, and if he encouraged the police and the CPS to take action against what are still unlawful acts in such circumstances.

Mr. Blunkett

It is precisely because of the inability to take action in the circumstances that my hon. Friend describes that, far from taking away something, we are bringing in a new law with a 10-year maximum penalty. It is correct to say that there is a real difficulty—not least when the participants are unwilling to give evidence—but we do need to tackle this situation, because it is unacceptable. The current legislative framework does not allow the police to deal with such matters decisively.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

The Home Secretary has mentioned several very useful initiatives that are to be commended, but may I raise one matter that concerns me and doubtless many others inside and outside this House: the notion of applying sex offender orders to people convicted of violent offences? In a typical scenario in which a person is charged with a grievous bodily harm, section 20, offence that is ultimately dealt with as an actual bodily harm, section 47, offence, some police officers will feel aggrieved that that person was not dispatched to custody. Will the Home Secretary accept the need for an independent evaluation of the police's belief in "a real risk"?

Mr. Blunkett

Yes, I will—on the evidence adduced and the sufficiency for the Crown Prosecution Service to pursue a case in the first place, and in the light of whether evidence was disqualified because it was shown that it had no relevance whatsoever to a sexual offence. This is a very delicate area. The research that we are publishing today shows that a real problem exists—a massive propensity in relation to further sex crimes—but I have emblazoned on my heart a point that was made earlier: in all such cases, we must balance the need for public protection and the well-being of the community against the civilised and human rights of the individual.

Vera Baird (Redcar)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, irrespective of whether the proposed change to the defence of honest belief—requiring that it be "reasonable"— increases the number of convictions, perhaps its primary importance is that it ought to encourage a change of attitude? It should deter some men from assuming consent, and it should tell them that their conduct will be scrutinised according to stricter, but reasonable, criteria from now on. Will he give me his assessment of the impact of this change on the relevance of previous sexual history in rape trials?

Mr. Blunkett

We are treading on dangerous territory, and I am weighing words such as "scrutinise" very carefully. As my hon. and learned Friend will know—I made this point to the shadow Home Secretary-in developing the legislation we are prepared to take on board those with a long-standing and deep interest in this area, and in particular the questions arising from the history of the individual concerned, and how they can be weighed. Once it is published, the House will soon debate the criminal justice Bill. We will deal with the issue of how we evaluate the evidence on which the current circumstance and accusation is mounted, so that we consider the circumstances and behaviour of the individual in the light of the evidence adduced in court.

Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley)

The Home Secretary will be aware that in the House there is a general feeling of support for his White Paper, probably almost as strong as there will be for the Bill when it finally appears. He asks for a constructive reaction from the Opposition; may we ask for an equally constructive reaction from Government Members, because many positive ideas can emerge, including, for example, the paedophile information exchange case, which showed the need to deal with encryption, and the Milly case, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor) referred, which raised difficulties over obtaining information from the internet that is not covered in the White Paper?

Mr. Blunkett

The simple answer is yes. There is no desire to exclude new ideas or new thinking on shaping our proposals. I know that the shadow Home Secretary has already raised with my colleagues the issue of encryption because I made sure that I found out what he had said to them. I would like to take that forward because it is a serious issue.

Martin Linton (Battersea)

Will my right hon. Friend accept a welcome for his proposals, especially his plans to ensure that those guilty of rape or sexual assault are more likely to be convicted? He is right to talk about a sub-world of trafficking, prostitution and sexual exploitation. It is an evil trade that destroys the lives of children and their families. Will he assure the House that encouraging a child into prostitution and engaging in the trafficking of adults or children for commercial gain will become offences that will be dealt with with the utmost seriousness?

Mr. Blunkett

On seriousness and severity, we are proposing sentences of up to 14 years. The message needs to get out to those who are organising that trade that we, as a House and as a Parliament, intend to join together in doing everything possible to go after them. If the message gets across locally as well as nationally that we are serious about this and will work together on finding a way to ensure that enforcement is as clear as our intent, we could do a great deal of good in the years ahead.

Sandra Gidley (Romsey)

Will the Home Secretary acknowledge that eight days is plenty of time for a sex offender to reoffend? If he agrees with that, will he act to protect young children in holiday destinations overseas by insisting that the period of notice is reduced from eight days, because any visit, however short, should be notified in order to protect young children?

Mr. Blunkett

The White Paper says that should such people move within this country, the registration period should be within three days. I am happy to look at ensuring that that is codified in a way that ensures that it is the same should they leave the country. I am weighing up the question of whether those who are registered and are severe offenders should leave the country at all, but we will have to look at that.

Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon)

Does the Home Secretary agree that the Government must take the lead when surveys show that one in five young men think that it is acceptable to force a woman to have sex if that person is their wife, and a further 15 per cent. are unsure about whether it is acceptable? May I urge the Home Secretary to look seriously at the issue of irrelevant sexual history, which is brought into court cases far too frequently and is one of the key reasons for the appallingly low conviction rate? Unless that sexual history, which is hardly ever relevant to rape cases, is taken out of court proceedings, the appalling rate of conviction in rape cases will continue.

Mr. Blunkett

That is why, as I said to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar (Vera Baird), we need to weigh up carefully how we distinguish between different forms of evidence. We need to ensure that we do not throw the baby out with the bath water. The substantive question about men's expectations towards women is a profound one. Let me make it clear that no should always mean no, and no young man, whether in a marriage or any other form of relationship, should presume that he owns or has rights to someone else's body. That is why those delicate issues need to be handled with great sensitivity.

The message is clear: when a woman says no, she means no, whether in marriage or otherwise. There should be no presumption in any circumstances that if someone does not wish to engage in intimate relations, they should be forced to do so. We need to develop that message as part of our wider sex and relationship education in schools, in which I played some part when I was the Secretary of State for Education and Skills. We also need to ensure that the message reaches young women that they have every right to say no, and that they should exert that right.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

I am glad that the Home Secretary is not proposing to publish the names and addresses of convicted paedophiles. Is he aware that I am currently professionally engaged in a case in which the publication of the name and address of an alleged paedophile—the person was actually acquitted—led directly to the murder of that person?

Mr. Blunkett

I was not aware that the right hon. and learned Gentleman was involved in that case, but I take his point entirely.

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby)

I welcome today's proposals and I hope that we will see an increase in conviction rates for rape, especially in connection with offences committed against people with learning difficulties. However, I am deeply concerned about the effectiveness and efficiency of existing police procedures and the current absence of video facilities and suitably trained individuals to conduct and record interviews with rape and sex abuse victims. Will the Home Secretary consider recording all interviews—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I cannot allow the hon. Lady to read out a speech. It is time for questions. Perhaps the Home Secretary could answer the point that the hon. Lady has already made.

Mr. Blunkett

As part of our wider review of the way in which evidence is adduced, held and presented, the proper recording of evidence—so that it can be brought forward at the appropriate time—will be on the agenda. I hope that that is the question, of which I have not had notice. It sounded to me as though my hon. Friend was asking about the proper recording and presentation of evidence.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

I welcome the Home Secretary's concerns about the sex industry. Will steps be taken to prevent mass applications from folk from third world countries and eastern Europe, who come to the United Kingdom as entertainers but are kept as sex slaves? Is he aware of that problem? I welcome the sentencing standards, but in the past calls for higher sentences have not always been met by judges, who have passed low sentences, sometimes in extreme cases.

Mr. Blunkett

The new law on trafficking with the intent of prostitution and exploitation will address the issue that the hon. Gentleman raises. Catching those involved is as much the issue as achieving convictions, so enforcement procedures will need to be stepped up as part of much broader policies on people trafficking.

There is a problem with sentencing. All of us found extraordinary a recent judgment in which a judge totally misunderstood the strictures of the Lord Chief Justice. It is not normally my role to defend the Lord Chief Justice—or he me—but on this occasion he was maligned by the presumption that he had suggested that a low sentence should be given for an act of paedophilia in circumstances in which all of us would have expected the sentence to be as tough as the law provides for.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

In reviewing the law on prostitution, which is as legally necessary as it is politically challenging, will the Home Secretary confirm that the physical protection of prostitutes, and their access to health and medical advice, will be paramount criteria?

Mr. Blunkett:

Yes, and I very much welcome the spirit of the question. In fact, I could not have phrased it better myself. It is challenging in every possible way. I understand the underlying thrust of the question, and I am not ducking it. I know that the provision of medical assessments and health care takes us up other alley ways, as one might say, but we have to take on this challenge. We in this century must do what Josephine Butler attempted 150 years ago, in a very different era and in a very different way. Otherwise, history will judge us very severely.

Mr. Chris Bryant (Rhondda)

My constituent Ian Heffron is the uncle of the "babes in the woods" victims and will welcome my right hon. Friend's proposals on child sex abuse very warmly. I also welcome his statement today that homosexual and heterosexual sex offences should be treated equally under the law. That is a major step forward in British legislation. However, my right hon. Friend seemed a little coy when it came to the new offence of offensive sex in public. Will he say a little more about that?

Mr. Blunkett

I do not want to say too much. We want to ensure that there is clarity, and to give an indication—however difficult that may be—of the sort of activities that will be unacceptable when carried out in places where people would expect to walk, socialise and meet freely. We are talking not about people enjoying the warmth of the afternoon sun in woods distant from these parts, but about activity that would be unacceptable in St. James's park or Trafalgar square. If people understand that, we will be able to calm their fears and at the same time open up equality and provide more sense in what is a very sensitive area.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)

I welcome the Home Secretary's statement, and especially those elements concerning a crackdown on the revolting trade in child prostitutes. However, I urge the right hon. Gentleman to extend the proposals to the sickening reverse traffic, whereby adult citizens from this country and other parts of the developed world go to third world countries to abuse children. Some rather frail laws are already in place on this matter, but may I urge the right hon. Gentleman to extend the scope of his proposals?

Mr. Blunkett

I think that the whole House would agree with that. We should take whatever steps are needed.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough)

I very much welcome my right hon. Friend's additional proposals to protect people with learning disabilities, but will he consider extending the offence of grooming to include such people? He described how children were the victims of grooming, but people with learning disabilities could be made to consent to sexual activity. People who have found children to be protected more effectively have turned to grooming those with learning disabilities, with the aim of committing sexual offences.

Mr. Blunkett

The offence of grooming would apply in the way that my hon. Friend has set out when threats and inducements were clearly shown to have been used to secure consent from a person unable to give it, and when the person making the approach had understood that incapacity. The problem is more difficult than with children—for example, the declared mental age of the person involved would have to be taken into account—but I do not think that it is beyond the abilities of man or woman to ensure that such a provision were enforced.

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park)

To ensure that sex offenders do not pose as minicab drivers and rape young women, will the Home Secretary find ways to put pressure on the GLA and the Public Carriage Office to speed up the licensing of private hire vehicles in London?

Mr. Blunkett

Just for once this afternoon I am going to say that I have heard the point. The last Minister who dealt with the issue of cabs was warned that he would be lucky to get a lift anywhere, once his ministerial car had gone. However, we need to take on board the serious point underlying the question.

Margaret Moran (Luton, South)

I warmly welcome the link that has been made between trafficking, prostitution and organised crime, which are blighting many areas in my constituency and need to be tackled urgently. I also welcome the new offence of grooming. Is my right hon. Friend aware that moderators of many children's chat sites are not checked by police or anyone else? Given that we know that children's websites are a honeypot for paedophiles, will he consider making such checks a statutory requirement in the future legislation?

Mr. Blunkett

I do not know whether the taskforce has concluded its discussions on that issue. I and the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Hilary Benn), who is taking this measure forward, will ensure that we examine that important area. I take this opportunity to say how much I value the support of my hon. Friend, who has guided me through this morass.

Tony Baldry (Banbury)

Will the Prison Service have adequate skills and resources to provide appropriate treatment for sex offenders while in prison?

Mr. Blunkett

Yes. Increased investment is being made in that area. In the past, because people would not admit their guilt, they did not take up programmes. So far, programmes have been voluntary or based on a particular technique requiring voluntarism. I am interested in extending such programmes, because offenders who are due to come out of prison, including those who have been given indeterminate sentences, should have treatment and guidance so as to protect the public once they are released.

Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central)

As my right hon. Friend knows, only one in 13 reported rapes end in conviction, and as a result many victims do not come forward. Does he share my hopes and expectations that the requirement on the defendant to show not just an honest belief but reasonableness will lead to many more victims coming forward and to more convictions of guilty rapists?

Mr. Blunkett

We all want to encourage those who have experienced this terrible crime and discourage those who are making mischief. Every right hon. and hon. Member who has spoken has tried to get the balance right, and that will be the task ahead.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon)

I warmly welcome the Home Secretary's statement. Given that the internet is a genuinely international piece of equipment and is, sadly, the gateway to so much child abuse these days, is he having any conversations with counterparts in the United States and Europe to see whether a more common approach can be taken and more upstream protection be built in, possibly involving discussions with manufacturers of software and hardware? Unless we start to deal internationally with the use of the internet, will we ever get to the bottom of modern child abuse?

Mr. Blunkett

I do not know what has happened, but I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman. The G8 taskforce, which we are leading, is examining precisely those issues. I very much welcome those comments. This problem involves software manufacturers and servers. It is in the interests of a civilised and decent world that we should try to reach international agreements. As the hon. Gentleman rightly says, there are no boundaries, and we desperately need to ensure that we protect children here and across the world.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

Is it the Home Secretary's intention that DNA from convicted sex offenders should be added permanently to the police national database?

Mr. Blunkett

Currently, half the people who have committed a crime are on the DNA database. It is my intention that that task should be completed by the middle of next year, which will put about 3 million on the database. Those who are currently in custody should have a sample of their DNA taken, which will assist us in apprehending future offenders. I stress that, although it is critical to pick up those who commit crime, preventing crime must be the paramount requirement.