HL Deb 31 October 2000 vol 618 cc885-90

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 be 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 be 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: My Lords, I have two regrets in coming to the Dispatch Box. First, as regards the reprinting of the amendment, that was not my fault. When I re-presented the amendment I was conscious of the ridicule I suffered because of my reference to using technology for sexual purposes. I changed the wording to using an electronic communications system to procure acts of gross indecency with children. The amendment had to be rewritten. I apologise for that. Secondly, I am sorry that there are not more noble Lords in the House to take note of the importance of the amendment.

The issue has been brought home recently in a most poignant case where someone unashamedly used technology in order to procure the sexual services of a young girl. That person has been dealt with by the courts. However, I shall refer to a number of occasions when the police have had difficulty. The law is not as strong as it should be to catch people who have an evil intent in using technology.

I have had correspondence with an organisation called Childnet International which is doing us a great service. It has set up a website called chatdanger.com to advise parents and teenagers about the dangers to which children are subject when using the Internet. The vigilance of one or two parents brought this issue very much to light and gave rise to some of the recent public comment. I strongly share the concern of Childnet International. It is not convinced by the Home Office response on existing legislation. It is unconvincing. The Home Office says that there is legislation in place and that it should suffice. It simply is not the case.

The Home Office argues that the Indecency with Children Act 1960 is adequate to deal with online enticement. It is not. The language of my proposed amendment may not be perfect. I shall be told if that is the case. There is the problem of an online counsellor having a sexually explicit conversation with a child being caught by subsection (2)(b) of the amendment. There are good reasons for being concerned about the current situation.

I give three examples the organisation has cited. First, I refer to the so-called Milton Keynes case where a 47 year-old man from Durham travelled to Milton Keynes to meet a 14 year-old girl. He said that he was 18. He had cultivated a relationship online with this young girl called Georgie. It included requesting her to send nude pictures of herself. Thankfully, her mother went with the young girl to meet this man and intervened. She reported the incident to the police but they did not bring charges. They claimed lack of evidence. But in the light of the e-mail that this man had sent, we wonder why he was not charged under the Act which the Home Office says is adequate.

The second example relates to Patrick Green. Childnet International worked with the parents of the victim. The police were concerned that they might not be able to bring charges. It was only when they found DNA evidence in Green's flat that they were able to bring charges in relation to the offline sexual offences of sexual intercourse with a minor to which he pleaded guilty.

The police tried charging him with abduction but he pleaded not guilty and the police did not press that case. It would have been helpful to have had additional offences, such as those in my amendment. Green sentobscene photographs to his victim as well as sexually explicit e-mails. It should have been possible to use the Act but it is inadequate.

The third example also concerns Patrick Green, who sought to meet a 14 year-old girl from Cumbria while he was on bail. The police learnt about this from colleagues at work, who discovered disturbing e-mails on his work computer. The police had already confiscated his home computer. The police arrested him red-handed when he was picking up the girl from a railway station. He had prepared a hotel room for them to go back to. The police again tried charges of abduction, but they were not pressed when Green pleaded not guilty. No charges were brought, even though he travelled more than 200 miles to meet the girl with clear sexual intent.

Those examples show that the law is not strong enough. The Government would be crazy not to take this opportunity to strengthen the law. The amendment would go a long way towards doing so.

We have to ask why the police did not bring conspiracy charges in those cases. None of us knows. Could it be lack of police training and awareness of the possible charges, or is the evidential test too high? We need to know why the provisions are not being used. Whatever the answer, there is a clear case for strengthening the law. I strongly implore the Minister to consider the amendment for the sake of parents, who are now extremely concerned. We have a strange situation in which many parents are not conversant with the technology. Their young people may be in other rooms in the house where they could be downloading such information and establishing relationships with people whom they falsely believe to be somebody they are not and may then find themselves entrapped for the evil purpose of sex. In the interests of children, I hope that the Minister will be positive and accept the amendment or promise to bring forward one that would achieve the same end. I beg to move.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, referred to the present law. It already applies online as it does offline. Conspiracy, incitement or attempts to commit gross indecency with a child under 14 are already offences under the Indecency with Children Act 1960, regardless of whether they are done over the Internet. They carry a significant penalty of up to 10 years' imprisonment.

One problem with the amendment—I am not making a drafting point; I agree that the issue is much too important for that—is that it refers to, engaging in a sexually explicit discussion with a person he knows or has reason to believe is a child". That would criminalise activities such as sexual chat between adolescents and even medical advice online. It would also rightly criminalise—I draw that distinction—the misuse of the Internet by paedophiles to contact children. That is the harmful, wicked activity that the amendment is aimed at. "Sexually explicit discussion" is not an adequate description of the criminal conduct.

Sanctions are available. The noble Baroness mentioned conspiracy. I am not in a position to comment on what police decisions were made. Bearing in mind the date of one of the convictions and sentences, I ought not to do so anyway. If the noble Baroness writes to me, I shall take up the issue with the Crown Prosecution Service to see what explanation is available. I do not know the answer and it would be wrong of me to guess.

The noble Baroness mentioned the case of a 12 year-old who was sexually abused. As she rightly said, the offence of unlawful sexual intercourse was committed and the offender was sentenced to five years in prison, so imprisonment as a sanction followed in that case.

One problem, as the noble Baroness pointed out, is that children may be in another room downloading material that is grossly offensive to any rational mind. The amendment would not catch that, although it is arguable that in some circumstances the mischief is just as great.

We have been waiting for the report of the Internet relay chat sub-group. It was put on an Internet site this morning. I shall provide a copy for the noble Baroness, because it contains some useful and thoughtful material about how to deal with the issue. A legal sanction will not always be the most effective. I am more than happy to discuss that briefing paper, which was only posted this morning, if she thinks that that is helpful.

We need to work out a definition of "criminal activity" that does not cover the exploratory discussions of adolescents or legitimate medical advice. There are significant problems of definition. This is not the usual ministerial pap along the lines of, "You've got the drafting wrong"—I hasten to add that I do not have any particular ministerial colleague in mind! I do not believe that it is simply a drafting difficulty; it is genuinely a difficulty of describing a criminal activity without criminalising those whom one does not intend to criminalise.

I shall provide a copy of the report to the noble Baroness and I am more than happy to discuss any possible improvement by way of an amendment. However, I have an uneasy feeling that we shall not be able to find a satisfactory definition, although I am certainly willing to make the effort.

9.15 p.m.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I find that answer disappointing. If we had passed all the tests and scored highly on the Richter scale for producing well crafted legislation which was without fault, meant what it said and was accurate in every dot and comma, I would accept what the noble and learned Lord said. However, we have been privy to passing in both Houses legislation which is inadequate in terms of the quality of its drafting. I believe that this year in particular we have probably seen the greatest quantity of poorly drafted legislation. Therefore, I do not regard poor drafting as a reason for not accepting an amendment.

I do not believe that the noble and learned Lord was saying that the proposal behind the amendment should not be accepted. However, the message that I have from him is that it will not be accepted in this Bill because it is too difficult, because people are still meeting, because other people have interesting things to say, and perhaps we should mull the matter over and contemplate what other committees have to say on the matter.

If paragraph (b) of the amendment has the side effect of catching someone who legitimately gives medical advice to a young person or, sadly, of catching two young people who are having an unsavoury sexual discussion over the Internet, then I accept the criticism. However, my amendment seeks to deal with people who indulge in that activity with the intention of deceiving young people and of procuring the advances, the interest and the attraction of young people. Only when they meet physically does the young person realise that he has made a terrible mistake or, worse, that he is entrapped in a situation which could even lead to his death.

The Minister referred to a case of sexual intercourse with a young girl which led to a charge being made. Eventually the perpetrator was dealt with in the courts. Of course, that person would have been dealt with in the courts whether or not he had used technology to bring about the situation. My amendment seeks to make it a crime for anyone to use technology—the network of the Internet—in order to bring about such a situation. The intention of bringing, about such a situation should be a crime in itself. Therefore, I do not regard what the Minister said in relation to that case as being a reason for not accepting the amendment.

I hope that I do not have to write to the noble and learned Lord to ask him to look into this matter. I hope that he will accept that this debate is sufficient evidence of my concern. I speak for many people outside the Chamber who are equally concerned and would like the noble and learned Lord to investigate why the police are not using the relevant section of the Act. As I asked earlier: is it because the test is too high? Our lawyers should be able to answer that question, even if we do not go to the police. Where a conviction was secured, it was because DNA evidence was found in the flat of the person concerned. Technology had been used quite ruthlessly to secure the attention of the young person, but it was only by sheer luck that the guilty person was caught and taken to task through the courts.

The noble and learned Lord has not given a satisfactory answer. Indeed, I am deeply unhappy that the main message that I take from him is that we shall not see a change in the Bill. I believe that, when the House is more full and more people are able to listen to the arguments, there will be much sympathy for taking action, even if that action is not perfect. The law as it stands is anything but perfect. It falls short of protecting our children properly. I believe that between now and Third Reading we should attempt to produce an amendment which is acceptable and which will offer some comfort to the parents of our children. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 60: After Clause 38, insert the following new clause—