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It is nice to see the Minister of State in the Chamber, as we have already gone two rounds on the proposals now contained in new clause 10. On both those occasions, my view on those proposals received support from both sides of the Chamber. The proposals deal generally with encrypted information and the failure to disclose encryption keys. In the form of new clause 10, however, they specifically target paedophiles.
As the Minister--and, I suspect, all hon. Members--knows, later this year, when the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 comes into force, the maximum penalty for failure to provide an encryption key will be two years' imprisonment and/or a fine on
I am sure that the Minister will recall that in those debates, to illustrate my point, I asked him to put himself in the rather elevated shoes of a paedophile whom we called "Gary". If Gary and his colleagues made available to police encrypted information on paedophile activity, they could face a life sentence. The sentence that they would receive for such activity would certainly be considerably more than the two years that they might face by refusing to provide a key. Gary and his colleagues would therefore certainly opt for the lower sentence, or perhaps the fine. Therefore, during passage of the 2000 Act, strongly backed by child protection agencies, Opposition Front Benchers and Back Benchers, and at least one Government Back Bencher, expressed concern about the situation.
The Minister may know that in two recent police investigations, suspected paedophiles who were schoolmasters refused to give the key to encrypted information that they had, or were suspected to have, on their computers. The implication is that those individuals had something to hide, and that, given that the law provides a two-year maximum, it would be worth their while to plead guilty to failing to release the key rather than incriminating themselves as regards the alleged paedophiliac activity by them and their friends.
My new clause would move us forward. We should target not just computers, but CD-ROMs and DVDs, which can be circulated with encrypted information on them, unlike the pornographic videos that I understand--not from personal experience--are available at present.
Earlier, the Minister was plainly concerned that in attempting to target paedophiles, we were throwing our net too wide. The point of the new clause would be to use existing legislation to target paedophiles with encrypted information seized under section 4 of the Protection of Children Act 1978. That would close a further loophole in that a conviction for failing to give up a key, which attracts the two-year penalty, does not require the offender to be placed on the sex offenders register, although that would be appropriate. That is an area of great concern to the public and to Members, as well as to the media, as exemplified by the "Wonderland" cases--the like of which, one sometimes feels, turn up every day.
Let me turn to new clause 11. The Criminal Justice Act 1988, part IV, introduced a right to appeal against over-lenient sentences. It allows the Attorney-General to refer certain cases to the Court of Appeal, with the leave of that court, where it considers that the sentence imposed by a Crown court has been unduly lenient. That applied only to cases triable only on indictment. The Criminal Justice Act 1988 (Reviews of Sentencing) Order 1994 extended the range of offences to include certain others, such as indecent assault on a man, threats to kill and actions of cruelty to persons under 16. A 1995 order extended the provision further, to include fraud cases tried in the Crown courts, and others.
The Minister may be aware of a recent case involving a highly unpleasant paedophile who was convicted of virtually everything possible under the Protection of Children Act 1978. For various reasons, I will not name the individual, but he was found guilty and sentenced to 18 months. It was a first offence, which means that he is likely to have his sentence reduced to nine months. With good behaviour and a lenient governor, it is likely that he will be out in four. I think that that is horrific. So did the prosecution and the police, who examined legislation to see whether it would be possible to appeal against that diminutive sentence. They concluded that they could not.
My new clause is intended to probe, and to nudge the Minister. I appreciate that such a change should be made through secondary legislation, but it would be helpful to me, to the prosecuting authorities, to the police and to those who look after and protect children, if the Minister would take the hint and say that he will return with secondary legislation.
New clause 5, tabled by the Liberal Democrats as well as the Conservatives, would criminalise the activities of paedophiles who seek to entice children to a meeting in order to engage in sexual activities. The common term for such behaviour is "grooming". I do not approve of that term since it seems too friendly and nice, but it is the term that has come into common usage.
A survey last year in the United States said that approximately one in five young people aged between 10 and 17 had received an unwanted sexual solicitation or approach on the internet. I understand that a report to be published later this year by the internet crime forum will show similar figures for the United Kingdom. It is a growing problem that affects many young people. The internet is giving paedophiles an opportunity, away from prying eyes, to indulge in persuading children to trust them and to meet them offline.
It is not always easy to prove that a sexual assault has occurred if there are no witnesses other than the child and the perpetrator. If the new clause is accepted, however, documentation such as e-mails could be used to show the intent of the perpetrator if a charge of enticement were brought. Adding an offence of enticement would also bring our law closer to that of some states in the USA, and to federal law there. The USA has had more success in accusing people of online grooming than we have had.
As the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald said, the new clause would also provide a strong preventive measure that would send a clear signal to paedophiles who are trying to use the internet for sexual purposes, which is not acceptable and is a criminal offence. It would be better to prevent crimes taking place than to prosecute after the event, when even greater damage has been done.
Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam): I support new clause 5 from a constituency perspective. There is a strong case for examining the existing law critically and for erring on the side of caution. Acceptance of the new clause, or a commitment that an equivalent provision will be introduced at a later stage of proceedings on the Bill, would close a loophole in the law on child protection. In particular, it would protect children against predatory paedophiles who use the internet, particularly chat rooms, to gain access to vulnerable children.
The Minister will know of my interest in the subject because of his meetings with me and with constituents of mine. Last year, as hon. Members have said, a 12-year-old girl in my constituency was approached in an internet chat room by Patrick Green. Online contact was established, which eventually led to an offline meeting, where sexual abuse took place.
Patrick Green used online contact to develop a relationship with the girl. He flattered her and made her feel special; he made her a confidante. The aim of all that was to form a bond between him and the girl, while at the same time breaking the bond between the girl and her family, so that he could ensnare and lure her into activities away from the home. Such grooming--it is an ugly term but it encapsulates the activity--went on for many weeks and months. There were exchanges of private e-mails; 55 messages, if not more, were exchanged. The ultimate purpose was to arrange offline meetings, with sexual relations as the intended outcome.
Chat rooms offer predators invisible access to children from a safe distance, and allow contact to be made even while children are using the internet in a secure surrounding in their home--often in their bedroom. It has been suggested that the law already covers grooming. The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) outlined some of the issues that have been put to Ministers by many hon. Members in correspondence and in other ways. I have certainly exchanged such correspondence with both the Prime Minister and the Minister, but I am still not satisfied--and nor is Childline, to which I pay tribute for its work in highlighting the issue and in drawing it to the attention of hon. Members of all parties.
Childline has amassed detailed evidence, which I was pleased to pass to the Home Office. It is concerned that the definition of incitement to commit a sexual offence under the Indecency with Children Act 1960 is too narrowly drawn. To secure evidence of that incitement requires the police to put the child at risk. The act must have happened for the police to acquire the evidence to prosecute. Another possible charge is that of attempting to commit a sexual offence against a child. Again, however, in pursuit of evidence to prove a case, a child must be put at risk.
The case of Kenneth Lockley illustrates why present legislation is not satisfactory. Following a tip-off by the Californian police that Lockley was searching for a six-year-old girl with whom to have sex, Scotland Yard set up a sting by arranging to meet Lockley in a London hotel. Lockley thought that he would be meeting a nine-year-old girl, but he actually met a fairly burly under-cover inspector, who arrested him.
Unfortunately, the charge of attempted unlawful sex with a girl under the age of 16 had to be dropped, as the defence argued that there was no actual attempt to have sex because no child was involved. The intent was clear: Lockley, not the police, had been the instigator of the meeting. The judge presiding over the case concluded: