HC Deb 19 January 2004 vol 416 cc1057-8
2. Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge) (Lab)

What action he is taking to protect children from paedophiles operating on the internet. [148324]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Fiona Mactaggart)

We have, in the Sexual Offences Act 2003, introduced a new grooming offence and risk of sexual harm orders to help to protect children from paedophiles who use the internet. Earlier this month, we launched the current round of our media campaign to raise awareness in children and their parents of how to use the internet safely. Through the Government's task force on child protection on the internet, we continue to work with law enforcement, industry and children's organisations on the issue. The police identify and target individuals and groups of offenders, both domestically and internationally. The National Crime Squad has implemented a database of seized images of child abuse, which is available to all forces to support investigations, and has developed a law enforcement website aimed at paedophiles looking for illegal images.

Mrs. Campbell

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Will she look carefully at the case of Michael Wheeler, a Cambridge resident who was recently convicted of grooming two young girls over the internet but who did not sexually abuse either of them until they had passed their 13th birthday? Will she examine ways in which penalties can be increased for people such as Wheeler? Many parents will be looking carefully at what the Government have to say on that.

Fiona Mactaggart

The 2003 Act introduces a new grooming offence with a maximum sentence of 10 years, and allows prosecution where a paedophile travels to meet a child with the intention to commit a sexual offence following prior communications. In addition, the new provisions in the Act include tougher sentences for people who commit a sexual act with a child aged over 13 but under the age of consent. When those new powers come into force, there will be a very powerful mechanism to deal with cases such as that which my hon. Friend described.

Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester) (LD)

More than 18 months ago. the FBI gave the British police, under Operation Ore, the names of 5,000 individuals suspected of accessing and purchasing child porn. To date, 2,000 of those individuals have not been investigated and there have been only 200 convictions. Does the Minister share my concern that there has been a breakdown there, and will she confirm to the House today that the Government still intend those names to be investigated fully?

Fiona Mactaggart:

This is an operational matter, for which the police are responsible. There have been 277 convictions, and more than half the names passed on through Operation Ore have been investigated. The priority for investigation has been decided on the basis of risk assessment so that those who have access to children are investigated first. The Home Office has given extra resources to increase the number of forensic officers available to police officers, which is required if such cases are to be followed up.

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con)

Is the Minister aware of the comments made last week by her right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills who said that some local education authorities have misinterpreted his Department's guidelines on photographing children in schools? That has led my county council in Essex in effect to ban parents from photographing their children in nativity plays. Everyone wants there to be the maximum number of laws and rules possible to try to minimise paedophilic activity, but will the Minister have a word with her right hon. Friend because it seems unfair for parents to be deprived of the ability to photograph their children as a result of a misinterpretation of Department for Education and Skills guidelines?

Fiona Mactaggart

I do not think that that is a problem, but I shall ensure that the comments of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State are clear. The problem might be naming children rather than photographing them, and I shall ensure that any advice that he gives is congruent with the advice that the Home Office offers through the police service.