HL Deb 28 January 1960 vol 220 cc777-81

3.23 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I move to-day the Second Reading of a measure which I believe will commend itself to noble Lords on both sides of the House. It is designed to close a gap in the law which makes it impossible to prosecute for indecent assault a man who invites a child to handle him indecently but uses neither threats nor force. That conduct, harmful to the child though it obviously might be, is not at present an indecent assault because in the absence of force or threats it is not an assault at all.

The Home Secretary referred the problem of how best to close this gap in the law to the new Criminal Law Revision Committee under the chairmanship of Lord Justice Sellers. It was that Committee's first task; and, with a speed for which we must all be most grateful to Lord Justice Sellers and his colleagues, the Committee produced a Report last June in the form of a draft Bill with a commentary. That Report was published as a Command Paper in August.

The Committee recommended that it should be an offence for any person to commit an act of gross indecency with or towards a child under 14 or to incite a child under that age to such an act with the offender or with another person. The first limb of this provision, which is embodied in Clause 1 (1) of the Bill now before the House, covers, first, successful invitations of the kind to which I have just referred and, the Committee thought, most other kinds of indecent conduct with children which were likely to occur in practice and which ought to be penalised, and which are not penalised under the existing law.

The second limb, which makes incitement to the act in question an offence, covers cases such as those where the invitation is unsuccessful or, although it is successful, the resulting act of indecency occurs between two innocent children. The new provision has the additional advantage that it removes the difficulty in prosecuting a man for indecent exposure with intent to insult a female when the female in question is of such tender years that she is unlikely to be insulted. In future men guilty of that type of conduct will commit an offence under this Bill. As your Lordships are aware, the acts that I have described are acts which do occur, and in my view it is most important that children should be protected from them.

The Criminal Law Revision Committee considered most carefully what should be the age limit for protection under the new provision, and concluded that the protection should apply to a child under 14, on the ground that it was intended to protect children incited to do things the full meaning of which they did not comprehend, and that children of 14 or over would have the necessary comprehension and would be adequately protected by the existing law relating to sexual offences. The age of 14 has the additional advantage that a person below that age is a child within the provisions of the Children and Young Persons Act, 1933, and a boy below that age is presumed not to have sexual capacity.

The Government have thought it right to consider at the same time another subject which was not referred to the Committee, and therefore not dealt with in its Report—namely, the question whether children are adequately protected by the maximum penalties available for exising sexual offences. For most offences the penalties are adequate, but there are certain anomalies which it is sought to remove in this Bill. The most striking of these, to which my noble and learned friend Lord Goddard has referred, is that while the penalty for unlawful sexual intercourse with a girl under 13, like the penalty for the corresponding offence of rape, is life imprisonment, the penalty for attempted unlawful sexual intercourse with a girl under 13 is only two years' imprisonment, whereas the penalty for attempted rape has, since the Attempted Rape Act, 1948, been seven years' imprisonment. The Government think that this is wrong and the Bill accordingly increases the maximum penalty for attempted unlawful intercourse with a child under 13 to seven years' imprisonment, and the penalty for attempted incest with a girl under 13, which is simply a special form of the more general offence, to the same amount.

We also considered the problem of indecent assault. There are unfortunately very serious cases of indecent conduct with little girls which come near the offence of unlawful sexual intercourse but in respect of which proceedings for an attempt at that offence cannot be taken because the evidence of attempted penetration is insufficient. In such cases the offenders can be prosecuted only for indecent assault, which carries the maximum penalty of two years' imprisonment. Two years is an appropriate penalty for the great majority of indecent assaults, many of which are relatively (but only relatively) trivial; but the courts have not found it adequate as a penalty for these very serious offences which approximate to the full offence of unlawful sexual intercourse and may do a great deal of harm to the child. The Bill therefore seeks to increase the maximum penalty on indictment for an indecent assault on a girl under the age of thirteen from two years' imprisonment to five years.

The remaining provisions of the Bill are merely ancillary to these proposals, and follow, where appropriate, the corresponding provisions of the Sexual Offences Act, 1956. The Bill does not apply to Scotland or Northern Ireland. I do not think I need detain your Lordships with a more detailed exposition of what is a simple Bill designed for purposes which, I believe, will commend themselves to all noble Lords who care for the protection of children. I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(The Lord Chancellor.)

3.32 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure the whole House will welcome this Bill and will particularly welcome the speed with which the Criminal Law Revision Committee and Her Majesty's Government acted once their attention had been drawn to this gap in the law. We welcome also the fact that Her Majesty's Government have taken advantage of the occasion to introduce certain other amendments to points in the law which seemed to them to be anomalous. The House does not need me to say how important this is in the interests of young girls and what a terrible and shocking evil can come of conduct of this kind; and how important it is that it should be dealt with, and dealt with drastically. I have nothing more to say on the Bill other than to welcome it. There may be some points on which further discussion might be desirable. For instance, I have some doubts as to whether fourteen is the right age, in spite of the recommendation of the Committee; and I think it would be well worth having a discussion in Committee on what is the appropriate age. There might also be some consideration of the penalties. But I am sure the whole House will be very ready to give this Bill a Second Reading.

3.34 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to intervene for a moment to make two points in relation to the Bill. It is, of course, very much overdue. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Goddard, when he was Lord Chief Justice, continually pointed out, ten or more years ago, how serious was this gap. There were quite a number of cases in courts of assize and at the Central Criminal Court, and I believe, therefore, that we shall all be glad that at last we have this very serious gap in the law stopped up.

My other point is that it is a matter of considerable personal pride to myself that the Society of Public Teachers of Law, which is an academic body of law teachers, had something to do with persuading the noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack to set up this Committee to which he has referred, the work of which has been so speedy and so useful in this connection. I should like to take, for my Society, some little credit for that and give still more credit to the noble and learned Viscount himself, because I believe he already had something of the kind in mind when he was approached. But he certainly welcomed our suggestion very enthusiastically, and within a very short time the Committee was not only set up but at work. Attention should be drawn to that and those who have played such an admirable part in this business should be congratulated.

3.36 p.m.


My Lords, if I may deal first with the point which has been so charmingly raised by the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, I should like to say that if any Society treats me as the Society of Public Teachers of Law does—entertains me royally in Belfast, shows me the Mountains of Mourne and makes me an honorary member of the Society—it is only right that. I should pay attention to its recommendations. I am very glad that that should have been mentioned to-day, because the noble Lord knows the interest which I generally take in the working of that Society.

I am glad that the Bill appeals to the noble Lord, Lord Silkin. I will not say anything further to-day, but look forward with interest to hearing the points which he has in mind on the two important aspects of which he gave notice, and I will consider them in anticipation of his speech on the Committee stage. I am grateful that the House accepts the Bill and I trust that it will have, for children, the beneficial effect which we hope.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.