HL Deb 04 October 2000 vol 616 cc1558-62

1A.—(1) In this section, except where otherwise stated, "child" means a person under the age of sixteen years.

(2) Any person who uses an electronic communications system, including (but not limited to) computers, computer networks, computer bulletin boards and newsgroups, computer chatrooms, the internet, and other analogous electronic means, for the purposes of—

  1. (a) engaging in an act of gross indecency with a person he knows or has reason to believe is a child;
  2. (b) engaging in a sexually explicit discussion with a person he knows or has reason to believe is a child; or
  3. (c) soliciting a person he knows or has reason to believe is a child to engage in any act that would constitute an offence under section 1 or under section 2(a) or (b),
is guilty of an offence and shall he liable—
  1. (i) on conviction on indictment, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding ten years, or to a fine, or to both; or
  2. (ii) on summary conviction, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months, or to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale, or to both.

(3) References in the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 to the offences mentioned in the first Schedule to that Act shall include offences under this section.

(4) Offences under this section shall be deemed to he offences against the person for the purpose of section 3 of the Visiting Forces Act 1952 (which restricts the trial by the United Kingdom courts of offenders connected with visiting forces).".").

The noble Baroness said: This amendment is supported by the police. The police argue that they are powerless to act until an offence has been committed. The amendment allows the police to intervene if they believe that, with the use of technology, an offence is being prepared for. Early intervention could save much distress, particularly to children. Currently, there are no suitable laws to govern the use of computers in this way. It is now common knowledge that more and more paedophiles use the Internet to pursue and procure young children for sex. Earlier the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, spoke of the voracious way in which paedophiles network and use technology for that purpose. This amendment provides the police with another shot in their armoury to track down these heinous crimes. I beg to move.

Lord Northbourne

Perhaps the Baroness can give an example of what she means by an "act of gross indecency on the Internet". My wife told me that when she was 17 her father used to tell her before she went out for the evening, Don't do anything you can't do on a bicycle". Is the noble Baroness saying that one can do things on the Internet that one cannot do on a bicycle? If so, what are they?

Baroness Blatch

When I first discussed the amendment with a colleague, I had difficulty because the heading for the amendment was "The use of computers in sex". The same kind of matters crossed my mind as crossed the noble Lord's. I went to see the Clerk in the Public Bill Office, and he will remember that we had to cross that line out of the amendment. I am talking about the fact that there is some pretty awful material being downloaded to which children have access. We know that a great deal of very sophisticated networking goes on. There are efforts being made by the police to decode some of that material on the Internet. It is a serious issue. It is not just a serious issue for this country; there is a European dimension. I take the point that the noble Lord has made.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

Last year the police and one of the children's organisations made a presentation to the All-Party Children Group on this subject. The subject is horrifying. There are groups of paedophiles who network on the Internet. It is organised from Russia. It is beyond Europe. The police are concerned about that. The whole matter needs to be looked at. Therefore, I support the noble Baroness's amendment.

Lord Laming

I should like to speak in support of the general thrust of the amendment. I do not claim to have any great knowledge of the Internet. I should like to be more skilled for constructive purposes, not for the purposes referred to in the amendment. I am sure that we need to recognise that there are people using the Internet for the purposes to which the noble Baroness has referred. Whether or not the amendment captures the issue is technically beyond my ability. Certainly the issue is one which needs to be addressed thoroughly.

Lord Thomas of Gresford

I support the amendment. The matter to which the noble Baroness refers in subsection (2)(a) is the passing on of names and addresses between networking groups of paedophiles. That is a problem. Paragraphs (b) and (c) are expressed more clearly. There is a problem here. I hope the Government will address it.

5.45 p.m.

Lord Bach

We agree that there clearly is a problem here. We are of course sympathetic to the thinking behind the amendment. I need to say in clear terms about both Amendments Nos. 107 and 108 that the problem has been with our substantive law on sexual offences. It needs to be looked at overall. It needs to be overhauled. A comprehensive sexual offences Bill needs to be brought before Parliament. Since 1956 we have tended to tinker with it too much on a piecemeal basis. The danger is that it then lacks coherence. In the field of sexual offences it is particularly true that there should be a coherent set of offences that make sense in this day and age and which everyone understands and is clear about.

The new clause proposed by the noble Baroness would create a new offence of using a computer to commit acts of gross indecency with a child. It would also create offences of, engaging in an act of gross indecency with a person he knows or has reason to believe is a child"; engaging in sexually explicit discussion with such a person and soliciting a person he knows or has reason to believe is a child, to engage in any act that would constitute an offence under the Indecency with Children Act 1960.

We believe that is a matter of concern, but much more work needs to be done in the area to ensure that we deal effectively with the problems to which the spread of electronic communication has led. We do not believe that the amendment, as drafted, is suitable to achieve its purpose.

The Government—as all Members of Committee and everyone else in this House know—are determined to do all they can to curb the misuse of the Internet by child pornographers and paedophiles. There is huge sympathy with the intent behind the amendment, but we do not believe that these new offences address the complex issues involved. They would leave some difficulties, such as determining where the offences occur. For example, the amendment as drafted states that, engaging in a sexually explicit discussion with a person he knows or has reason to believe is a child". In a certain set of circumstances, that may criminalise innocuous activities such as sexual chat between adolescents, medical advice on-line, as well as misuse of the Internet by paedophiles for the contact of children. That is the harmful activity at which the noble Baroness's amendment is aimed.

Defining the expression "sexually explicit discussion" may also give rise to problems. That complex issue is already under discussion by a sub-group of the Internet Crime Forum. That forum consists of the police, the industry and the Government. I am happy to be able to say that a report is due to be published shortly. More work needs to be done to ensure that we deal effectively with the problem.

The law already applies online as it does offline. Thus, conspiracy, incitement or attempts to commit gross indecency with a child under 14 are already offences under the Indecency with Children Act 1960, whether organised over the Internet or not. May I remind the Committee that the offences carry a penalty of up to 10 years' imprisonment?

There are drafting and interpretation difficulties in the new clause which we believe demonstrate that this whole area needs some more work. For example, what is meant by an act of gross indecency committed through the Internet or via a chatroom, and so on, as set out in the first subsection of the amendment? If it involves sending videocam pictures to the child of the offender committing an act of gross indecency—for example, masturbating to the camera—it would be caught by the existing offence of indecency with a child.

Similar difficulties arise over the reference to someone engaging in what is described in the amendment as "sexually explicit discussion". The proposed offence is potentially very wide in its scope. It may catch an agony aunt service to young people as well as someone engaged in a discussion about sex education. These are examples of where at present the amendment does not meet that which is needed.

The sub-group hopes to publish a report shortly. It is the Government's view that we need to wait and see the conclusions rather than jump into legislation now which may not be wholly effective in dealing with the potential problem. I ask the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment.

Lord Lucas

If the Government feel that this area of the law requires a comprehensive review, will they undertake to withdraw their Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill before it reaches this House, so that that amendment too may be included in such a comprehensive review? If not, and if this is an area where the Government are prepared to contemplate some changes, could we not—I shall hang on a moment until the Minister is listening—propose something along the lines of making it an offence to undertake actions intended to be preparatory to the kind of offences which already exist? That would catch many of the points aimed at in Amendments Nos. 107 and 108 without in itself creating new offences for doing things where there is clearly no intention of ever being involved in the sort of act which is currently criminal.

During the remaining stages of the Bill's passage through the House, will there not be an opportunity at least to make a start on dealing with a problem which otherwise will wait until God knows when in the legislative programme—perhaps three or four more years? I do not see why we should wait that long when we could do something now.

Lord Bach

It is the substantive law on sex offences—the definition of offences and how they apply in given circumstances—that needs to be reviewed and revised. Small Bills that may or may not change the age of consent do not fall into the same category of substantive offences—defining what they are and what they are not. I believe that the Government are right to bring forward the other piece of legislation. But I make the point that when we are dealing in detail with what should or should not constitute an offence we need to tread warily and carefully.

Earl Russell

I thank the Minister for both those replies. His reply to the original amendment was powerful and carefully considered. The issue is what the effect of the amendment would be. We need to be sure about that before we pass legislation in this area, as in time I hope we will. On the other hand, with Clause 1 of the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill, there is no doubt what the legal effect of that will be. We have already waited for it for a very long time. I thank the Minister for that reply also.

Baroness Blatch

As the Minister said, this is an extremely complex area. But I am becoming rather disappointed. I know that a review of sex offences has been going on since well before the election. It was set up by the previous government. It has not yet reported and we do not appear to have made any progress. That is disappointing.

The police want something practical. They want some practical intervention powers to prevent some of this sexual activity happening. It would be helpful to have discussions with the police to find out what powers would make it easier for them to track down this kind of crime and bring these people to book. Aside from all the other things that are going on, I should like to think that some attempt will be made to enter into negotiations with the police to see whether something practical can be done. Computers have been with us for a long time but we are still wringing our hands and saying that we cannot tackle the problem. As my noble friend Lord Lucas said, we must be able to do something, even if it is only fairly modest, at this stage. I should like there to be some discussions with the police to see whether something practical could come out of my suggestion.

The misuse of technology is becoming a scourge across not only the financial world but also the social world. All parents are concerned about the way in which people are now gaining access to their children. I hope that we can continue to reflect on this issue. Pending the long awaited review of sexual offences, I hope that an opportunity can be taken before the Bill completes its passage through the House to find a way of putting some aspect of my amendment into legislation. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 108: After Clause 36, insert the following new clause—