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|©Parliamentary copyright||Prepared 27th April 2011|
Publications on the internet
General Committee Debates
European Committee Debates
Sexual Abuse and Exploitation of Children
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Alison Groves, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee
Penny Mordaunt (Portsmouth North) (Con): It may be helpful to the Committee if I take a few minutes to explain the background to the draft directive and the reasons why the European Scrutiny Committee recommended a debate on it.
In 2004, the Council of the EU adopted a framework decision that required the harmonisation of member state legislation to criminalise the most serious forms of child sexual exploitation and pornography and to provide extraterritorial jurisdiction for the prosecution of these crimes when committed abroad by nationals of EU member states. The framework decision also laid down general guidelines on the assistance to be given to victims of these crimes. It came into force in 2006.
In March 2010, the European Commission proposed a replacement of the 2004 framework decision on the grounds that sexual crime against children was increasing in the EU and member states needed stronger powers to combat it. The draft directive that we are debating today is the proposed replacement. In summary, it proposes to broaden the scope of crimes covered to include the grooming of children on the internet and acts preparatory to the commission of a sexual offence against a child, for example, making travel plans for sex tourism; to introduce a definition of “child prostitute” into EU law; to apply higher levels for maximum penalties, and to define the aggravating circumstances which should increase penalties; to prescribe rules for the investigation and prosecution of cases, to increase the chances of convicting sex offenders; to provide greater protection to child victims involved in criminal proceedings; to oblige member states to carry out preventive and rehabilitation measures for sex offenders, and to require member states to take measures to ensure that internet pages containing or disseminating child pornography can be blocked from public access.
The UK opted in to the proposal on 28 June 2010. The European Scrutiny Committee has reported on the proposal on four occasions. In so doing, we recognised the importance of having effective legislation in place in the EU to ensure that those who commit serious crimes against children could be prosecuted and punished in every member state. In addition, we recognised the deterrent effect that that would have. However, we also concluded that in laying down so many additional rules on the prevention of these crimes and the protection of victims, the Commission had lost sight of the original purpose of legislating against the cross-border element
We recommended the directive for debate in a European Committee rather than clearing it with a report to the House because it not only addresses a very important topic, but introduces binding obligations on the national criminal justice system that have not been the subject of primary legislation enacted by this House. The Secretary of State for Justice told us in his explanatory memorandum of 15 December 2010 that UK legislation and practice in this field already met the requirements in the directive. We shall be grateful to the Minister if, in the debate today, he focuses on the implementation obligations for each of the relevant articles and explains how they would be met by existing national law and/or practice, including judicial practice.
We also ask the Minister to comment on the European Parliament’s proposed First Reading amendments as set out in the Minister’s letter of 28 March 2010, which is in the debate pack. They seem to us to be a step backwards or, to put it another way, to reflect a desire to over-regulate rather than to regulate. Some would also require significant changes to UK law, including providing for fines in conjunction with minimum maximum terms of imprisonment; increasing minimum maximum terms even further; proposing several new aggravated circumstances; and adding rules on the seizure and confiscation of proceeds from child-sex offences, including rules on how such proceeds are spent. Others include providing for a minimum 15-year statute of limitations for prosecutions—the UK does not have a statute of limitations for such offences—and the establishment of an early-warning system against cybercrime. There would have to be several amendments to provide for rules on training, child-friendly measures, hotlines and other tools for preventing criminal offences against children, and for broad rules on extraterritorial jurisdiction, including the nationality of the victim, which is not recognised under UK law.
We are interested to hear from the Minister how the UK will respond to those proposed amendments and for an update on the first reading negotiations with the European Parliament. I hope that my statement has been helpful to the Committee.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Crispin Blunt): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. It is a pity that the Committee will be denied the opportunity to hear you interrogate me, but it may be my good fortune to have you in the Chair.
I am grateful to have the opportunity to debate this important directive, responding to the scrutiny requirements of the House. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North for introducing the debate so clearly. I welcome the opportunity to explain why the Government believe that the main obligations for each of the relevant articles in England and Wales will be met by existing national law and/or practice, including judicial practice.
Child sexual abuse and exploitation are very serious crimes and it is right that we and our EU partners co-ordinate a response to combat such heinous activities. We must not forget that the original framework decision was negotiated against the backdrop of the arrest and investigation of Michel Fourniret. That notorious paedophile had a long history of violent sex offences in France going back to the 1970s, including a seven-year prison sentence in 1987 for corrupting minors, but ineffective co-operation between the respective authorities on this very serious issue meant that he was able to continue offending over a period of 16 years. Michel Fourniret was finally convicted and sentenced to a term in prison, but the price paid for not having better co-operation between member states and higher standards of protection was arguably the lives of seven victims. Had his violent sex offending been curtailed, some of that suffering might have been prevented.
The Government take protecting children from sexual exploitation very seriously. We believe that action at EU level assists in combating child sexual exploitation, which, as a result of advances in technology, increasingly goes beyond the limits of national borders. As the Committee will no doubt be aware, in recent years child sexual abuse has increasingly been facilitated by the misuse of new technologies. Mobile phones, computers, the internet and electronic communications play an ever-increasing and positive role in all our lives, but particularly the lives of young people. Those forms of communication can be manipulated ruthlessly to facilitate a range of sexual crimes.
The solicitation of children for sexual purposes via the internet is recognised as a major problem throughout the EU and abroad. Images of child sexual abuse can be distributed instantly across the world. Webcams can be misused by an individual in one country to bully a child into sexual posing or to facilitate actual child abuse in another country. Indeed, only recently, UK law enforcement led in breaking up an international paedophile ring which was based in the Netherlands, but which distributed images to more than 30 countries in Europe and beyond. Some 184 arrests were made worldwide, of which 130 were in the UK, and we estimate that 230 children were protected from possible harm.
In addition, travelling between jurisdictions is cheaper and easier than ever before. Individuals seeking to abuse children can travel across borders to countries where child protection standards are lower than the country in which they reside, or they may simply travel to take a job working with children in a member state that might not have access to that individual’s offending history. That has occurred in numerous cases in Europe. We and our EU partners constantly consider ways to improve our response to the risks posed by misuse of new technologies and the threat of sex offenders who travel, but that that cannot be done in isolation: it needs a concerted, unified approach, which is what the directive seeks to achieve.
The directive seeks to prevent forum shopping for child sex offenders. More importantly, we believe that it will help ensure that our children have the same level of protection from sexual predators wherever they are in the EU. We have a wide range of offences that can be used to tackle the various types of abuse that occur both offline and online, and we are proud to play our
On the process, Members will recall that the directive was published at the end of March 2010 during a period of purdah in the UK due to the general election. There was therefore no opportunity at the time to discuss the original proposal with the Committees. I also remind the House that the directive was the first European Union proposal to which the Government opted in after the Lisbon treaty, which signifies the priority that we give to this important issue. The opt-in decision was taken on the basis set out in the coalition agreement. We believe that the directive will clearly contribute to maximising our children’s security, protecting Britain’s civil liberties and preserving the integrity of our criminal justice system. It is our aim to play a constructive and leading role on such matters in the European Union.
In introducing this debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North repeated the conclusion and request of the Scrutiny Committee, which can be found in paragraph 2.37 of its report of 2 February, that I should focus on the implementation obligations for each of the relevant articles in England and Wales and explain how they will be met by existing national law and/or practice, including judicial practice. I have, of course, come prepared to do so article by article, should the Committee so wish, but I fear that I would somewhat exceed the time normally allocated for my introductory remarks to the Committee, Mr Davies. However, I am ready to respond to questions article by article if hon. Members and the Committee so desire. If I can say more at the end of this debate about the state of our negotiations with the European Parliament, beyond the letter from the Lord Chancellor in the bundle, I will do so.
The Chair: We now have until 5.30 for questions to the Minister. I remind Members that questions should be brief. Subject to my discretion, it is open to Members to ask related supplementary questions.
Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Davies. For some reason, the papers for the Committee have been placed in front of the Minister and not where they are normally placed, which means that it would be impolite of me to access them unless they are moved.
Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): I feel that I have been slightly upstaged already by my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk. It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and to see you in a non-contentious role. I am sure that it is a pleasant holiday for you.
The Minister has introduced briefly but clearly what I hope Members from all parties here regard as an important draft directive. I have a number of questions and with your permission, Mr Davies, as the number is not great, I will put them all to the Minister in one session. They touch on some of the points raised by the hon. Member for Portsmouth North on behalf of the European Scrutiny Committee, including compliance with national law.
I will make two general points first. As the Scrutiny Committee said, there were concerns earlier that the directive’s degree of specificity goes beyond what one might normally expect in the requirements that it places on individual member states. It is clear why that is necessary on such a serious issue, where there are so many opportunities for cross-border criminal activities. Nevertheless, the directive goes into some detail on specific penalties and is binding on prosecutorial and judicial authorities in a way that is uncommon in common law jurisdictions, albeit perhaps less uncommon in some of our European partner states. In general terms, are the Government satisfied that the effect of the directive as drafted will not be to fetter the United Kingdom courts unduly by imposing unnecessary restrictions? I started with a Eurosceptic perspective, but I shall not continue in that vein I hope.
Secondly, reference was made to the framework decision adopted in 2004. The directive is considerably more substantial and goes into a number of different areas, as the Scrutiny Committee says. That is to be expected, because even in that relatively short period the opportunities for such crimes have greatly expanded and become more sophisticated because of technological advances, social networking sites and developments on the web and the internet. My second, general question to the Minister is about whether we are again tying our hands with a directive that is quite specific about websites and the use of the internet. Could the directive prevent the opportunity to deal with future advances that might not be apparent to us now? In that respect, again, the directive might be rather tightly drawn.
Having said that, and going on to two more specific points, article 10 could illustrate the difficulty of drawing up a detailed and precise provision. My understanding is that article 10 originally contained a number of additional clauses and has been greatly simplified, effectively taking it down to just a statement of a wish, as it were, that
“Member States shall take the necessary measures to ensure that a natural person who has been convicted of any of the offences referred to in Articles 3 to 7 may be temporarily or permanently prevented from exercising activities involving regular contacts with children.”
Disqualification arising from conviction is a minefield, because of—the Minister will correct me if he disagrees—the confusion over and the difference in how member states deal with the disqualification of persons convicted of child sex offences. Framing an article in specific terms proved difficult, so we have something that is fairly general.
That might be a convenient way of dealing with the directive at this stage, but it does not deal with the substantive issue. As relevant a consideration is to determine what, once persons have been convicted, can be done to prevent them crossing European borders and obtaining occupation with or access to children in a way that would—
The final area I wish to deal with goes back to possible conflicts with existing UK law. I am guided, in part, by a helpful note provided to me by the House of Commons Library. I will not ask the Minister to go through every single article and say whether it is in compliance. Article 4.3a appears to require member states to impose a maximum term of imprisonment of at least two years, or one year if the child is over the age of sexual consent, in respect of people who knowingly attend live pornographic performances, either in person or via the internet, that involve the participation of a child. The Library says that it is unsure which existing criminal offences, if any, might capture a person who goes in person to see a live pornographic performance. Is there a provision in the Sexual Offences Act 2003 or elsewhere that clarifies that point?
In reference to article 19a, the requirement appears to be met in part by section 14 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, but it appears that the arrangements will be informal. This is in regard to the travel industry and to discouraging the growth of sex tourism by making it an offence to take steps preparatory to sex tourism. It is not clear which sections of existing legislation will deal adequately with that article rather than, say, the informal agreements between the travel industry and the Government. I will take your advice, Mr Davies, and leave my questions at that for now.
Mr Blunt: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his questions. He asked whether Her Majesty’s Government were satisfied that the draft directive does not fetter the UK courts. The answer is that we are so satisfied: the directive does not adversely affect the United Kingdom’s justice system, and we support the European Union in providing higher standards of protection and support for child victims of sexual abuse across Europe and the general principle that underlies the approach. That is why the Government decided, in June, to opt in. This is about raising standards in the rest of Europe without having any effect on the United Kingdom.
The hon. Gentleman asked whether there was too much precision in the measures. He wanted to know whether this directive is tying our hands because we are unable to foresee how future information technology will develop and offences may arise in future that we have not foreseen. I am afraid that I cannot give the Committee any assurance that the Ministry of Justice is able to foresee developments in information technology that might lead to future offences that we will need to consider. It is appropriate that the instrument is properly precise to deal with the conditions of today. This is updating a directive that was adopted in 2004. As technology has moved on, it seems appropriate to change the directive. That is probably the best way to go rather than trying to foresee the unforeseeable, which is a challenge even for the Ministry of Justice.
On article 10 on disqualifications and whether there will be further attempts across the European Union, I accept that this is a difficult area, but it is currently being reviewed by the Home Secretary under the review of the vetting and barring scheme. We are not going into this negotiation with the intention of there being further attempts to widen the provision here. To identify
The hon. Gentleman drew the Committee’s attention to article 4.3a. The Government consider that the requirement for the offence of knowingly attending a pornographic performance under article 4.3a is met by the following offences: first, under section 4 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003—“Causing a person to engage in sexual activity without consent”—that offence carries a maximum penalty of life where penetration takes places, or 10 years in other cases. Secondly, under section 10 of the 2003 Act—“Causing or inciting a child to engage in sexual activity”—where the victim is under 16 years old and the offender is aged 18 or above, there is a maximum sentence of 14 years’ imprisonment, and the equivalent offence for those under 18 is the section 13 offence. Thirdly, under section 47—“Paying for sexual services of a child”—which applies to victims under 18 years old, we think that a pornographic performance would constitute a sexual service. As such, that child prostitution offence will apply where payment is made.
Finally, under article 19a, we intend to implement this article through crime prevention measures rather than through criminal law. The Committee will be interested to note, however, that some of the conduct listed in the article is prohibited by our criminal law. It is an offence under section 14 of the 2003 Act to intentionally arrange or facilitate the commission of a child sex offence. For the purpose of that offence “child sex offence” covers the following: a section 9 offence of a person aged 18 or over committing the offence of a sexual activity with a person under 16 years of age. I think that that addresses the hon. Gentleman’s specific points.
Dr Sarah Wollaston (Totnes) (Con): I wonder whether the Minister can clarify the issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North on the statute of limitations, which will be 15 years under the EU directive. Under UK law there is not currently a limit. Will that continue to be the case?
Mr Blunt: I do not immediately have the answer. I want to give my hon. Friend an authoritative answer. We do not have a concept of a statute of limitations in English and Welsh criminal law. The advice is that it does not apply.
Michael Connarty: I am very pleased to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I noticed that in the explanatory memorandum, to set the context, the devolved Administrations have been consulted. Am I correct in thinking that if the UK signs up to this new directive, it will be binding on all the jurisdictions of the UK, even though the explanatory memorandum states that it applies only to England and Wales?
Michael Connarty: I noticed, in the letter from the Minister to the Chair of the European Scrutiny Committee, a number of references to the Council of Europe convention on the protection of children against sexual exploitation
Michael Connarty: I just have a couple of questions to ask on this important subject. The Minister referred to the fact that we do not have a statute of limitations, and there is a suggestion for one of 15 years in article 14. Will the UK be pressing the European Council to adopt the same practice and not have a statute of limitations for these hideous acts? Surely that would be consistent. I cannot understand why anyone would wish someone not to be prosecuted after a certain time. I have families in my constituency who have prosecuted their parents some 25 years after an event and had their father, quite correctly, sent down for sexual abuse.
Mr Blunt: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Of course, the exercise here has been to try to raise the standards of law of the rest of the European Union to those of the countries within the United Kingdom. The statute of limitations point is taken fairly. That would be the negotiating position of the United Kingdom. However, we have to bear it in mind that other countries have statutes of limitations that are long established in their own domestic jurisdictions. I suspect that they would wish to protect the traditional position of their own country in the same way as we would if we were being invited to take on a new procedure. That is our position on the statute of limitations. As the hon. Gentleman makes clear, it does not apply to us and it is not going to.
The United Kingdom signed the Council of Europe convention in May 2008. As I said, we have not ratified it and the Home Office is currently taking steps to consider whether the United Kingdom should ratify it. We will take a view on the value or not of doing so, not least in light of this measure.
Michael Connarty: Will the Minister speak to those who will represent us in these negotiations, particularly when there are trials and so on, to try to form a qualified majority? A qualified majority, not unanimity, is all that is required on the matter to try to move the bar on the statute of limitations to the UK standard. I hope that he will be successful in that.
On disqualification, I notice that article 10 talks about what will happen within each country. Has the UK explored the possibility of the transfer of information? The worry is that someone could be on a sex offenders register in another country that is compliant with article 10, but that there would be no necessity to transfer that information to any other EU country if the person should move. There is so much movement now in the EU that it surely would be better if article 10 stated that information would, in fact, be supplied to other jurisdictions.
of the existence of the applicant’s conviction or disqualification, will still help to protect children. Existing rules under the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006 already allow the United Kingdom to consider foreign offences when making barring descriptions.
There is no formal EU mechanism by which we can seek conviction or disqualification information from other member states, and the existing instruments relate only to individuals who enter the criminal justice system, whether they are notifications of Britons convicted abroad or previous convictions received in response to a request about an EU national being prosecuted here. Therefore, in order to ensure that convictions abroad are captured we recommend that references are taken up and that the person should provide a certificate of good conduct—I referred to that earlier—from their home country or a country in which they have lived for more than six months in the past three years. The hon. Gentleman has correctly identified the challenge in this area. We are not able to get a requirement to share disqualification information, but we can advise our employers who are going to employ people who will have access to children to seek that certificate of good conduct from the person’s home country. We will be in the same position when other countries seek such statements from us in relation to our nationals applying for jobs in the European Union.
Michael Connarty: I have several questions. We are here to debate, and the Minister did invite Members to question him on the specific proposals of the European Parliament, so that he could explain them.
such a block. My understanding is that the UK system—which is much-lauded throughout Europe, including all the countries in the Council of Europe—can block a site within one hour if it is reported. A site can be shut down if it is a UK site. A site anywhere in the world can be blocked within one hour with the voluntary code we have. Can the Minister assure me that there is no question of the challenging of a block allowing such a site to continue, if this measure goes through? It sounds as though the right is being given to someone who puts up a site that has been reported as offensive, to continue to have that site while the block is challenged. Can that matter be clarified?
Mr Blunt: The position in the UK is that article 21 in the draft directive requires member states to remove websites hosted in their territory. In the UK, the criminal law is the means by which we can remove websites here. While we cannot take down websites outside the UK, as that is outside our jurisdiction, we can assist foreign Governments in doing so. The hon. Gentleman is right
The hon. Gentleman drew attention to the challenge process. Content providers can challenge the decision by the Internet Watch Foundation to block their content. In the event that the Internet Watch Foundation maintains that the content for which an appeal to review the decision has been made is child pornography, and the content provider disagrees, the material is then passed to law enforcement for assessment. I would hope that that position will then, through the directive, appertain throughout the rest of the European Union as well. That is the position of the UK, which as I understand it is the model.
The hon. Gentleman asked an earlier question on the position of the Council in the negotiations and the trialogue with the Commission and the Parliament on the suggestions from the European Parliament. The position is that the presidency is negotiating with and seeking clarification in relation to the European Parliament’s proposed amendments. Where we are concerned, we have argued that the Council text of 15 December 2010 should not be amended in any way that adversely affects the UK system. However, the negotiations are ongoing, and it is premature to say in these circumstances what the outcome will be. It is my understanding that the Council’s position is reasonably robust. Suffice to say, in the privacy of this Committee, I would hope to be surprised if we found ourselves in a qualified minority. However, those matters have not been concluded, so there is no way that I can say whether that will be the case. My understanding is that the negotiations are at this stage proceeding satisfactorily.
Michael Connarty: I have only two more questions. This is a matter of great interest to me and I want to put on record what the UK Government position is. I have no doubt that the negotiators will do their best. I was impressed when I was close to them. The results that they get from the negotiations are good compromises and not always what we want.
Regarding article 16, the European Parliament’s amendment is the only one that was included in the correspondence from the Justice Secretary. That letter clearly states that the Government do not agree with the European Parliament, which wants
Mr Blunt: I am grateful for the Parliamentary Private Secretary’s assistance. I am rather hoping that I might get some assistance to ensure that I do not accidentally mislead the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk and the Committee in my reply. Since he has another question up his sleeve, perhaps he will ask it first.
Michael Connarty: I am happy to ask my last question. We would all commend the intervention programmes and measures mentioned in article 20. It is the same in any situation where someone commits a crime that we cannot possibly understand, which has to do with the mental condition of that individual—things that we perhaps do best not to understand. The article says that all member states should have intervention and treatment programmes. My understanding is that in the UK, any prisoner may refuse to take any kind of treatment, no matter how mentally deranged the authorities think they are. Is it the Minister’s understanding that such intervention programmes and measures are voluntary, that people involved in such crimes will be able to refuse to take part in them and that taking part in such programmes does not form part of preconditions determining whether they should be released at some later date? It has always been a concern that people who obviously require some kind of treatment for a formal mental illness or aberration can refuse to receive it in prison. That appears to be the case here as well.
Mr Blunt: It remains the case that informed consent is necessary from all offenders before intervention can commence. Frankly, a treatment programme will not be of significant use if the person who is subject to it is not a willing participant. That is why informed consent is required.
On the hon. Gentleman’s previous point about article 16, it is our view that the European Parliament’s proposal for broad rules of jurisdiction, making all grounds of extraterritorial jurisdiction compulsory without the possibility of an opt-out, would undermine the flexible approaches in the application of jurisdiction as set out in the previous framework decision, the Council of Europe convention and the Council text. The combination of all those reinforces our own position, which is why we do not agree. Extraterritorial jurisdiction has traditionally been accepted by the United Kingdom in only limited circumstances and after careful consideration. It is not the norm in the United Kingdom, which is in contrast to some other member states. Extraterritorial jurisdiction is considered on a crime-by-crime basis, where it is necessary and proportionate.
That the Committee takes note of the proposed draft Directive on combating the sexual abuse and sexual exploitation of children and child pornography, repealing Framework Decision 2004/68/JHA;
Mr Slaughter: I think I can be briefer in my comments than I was in my questions, because I do not think that what the draft directive sets out and the Government’s position on it are contentious, and I hope that everyone would sign up to it. What is new in the directive compared with the framework also appears to be necessary to the Opposition. That is not to say that the issue is not a difficult one to deal with, and not just because of the sensitivities of it and the repugnance with which many people approach many of the offences that are dealt with here. However, because we are specifying penalties, we are rightly going further into detail in looking at issues such as sex tourism, the penetration of the internet into people’s lives and, indeed, the need for more onerous penalties to deal with what is perceived to be a growing problem, not just in this country but across the European Union and the wider world.
The sophistication and deviousness of the people who commit the offences that the draft directive deals with seem to know no bounds. Therefore, it is perhaps right that the directive goes beyond what might often be found in terms of the precision with which it delineates the offences, and indeed what the penalties for those offences will be. While raising those concerns or those unusual aspects, we have nothing further to say in relation to the appropriateness of them.
Where there may be difficulties—I am sorry that the Minister was unable to see the future; I did think rather better of him—is where we may find the draft directive to be wanting in years to come. That may be because there will undoubtedly be further developments, as we have seen, for example, in social networking over the past five years and how that has been used in grooming and other activities, and no doubt the use of technology will become more sophisticated.
I believe that there is a gap in relation to disqualification, and that is an issue to which Governments will have to return. It may be that we are simply moving the problem on and, hopefully, having done more to resolve the issue of prosecution and conviction, we will then be faced with the wider issue of how one prevents persons convicted—persons who may be on the sex offenders register in this country—obtaining employment or access to children in other countries. We know that that will be an issue, and that is not effectively dealt with here.
Notwithstanding the Minister’s comments and what it says in his brief in relation to how the current UK law can be used to deal with each and every one of the articles in the draft directive, there appear to be differences. Perhaps it is inevitable that there are differences between the exact requirements in the articles and what is available in UK law at present. Nevertheless, I hear what the Minister says in relation to how officials believe that the current law does cope adequately. I have some scepticism with regard to that, and particularly about whether persons attending performances would be covered appropriately by the legislative requirement of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, which the Minister delineated.
Having said that, I think that we can all agree today that this is a difficult matter to take forward because of the complexity and the precision of it, but it is well worth doing. If unanimity can be achieved across the Council of the European Union, it will be a major contributor to increasing the fight against child sex abuse and other offences across national borders.
Michael Connarty: Let me explain why I am focusing on this matter and asking so many questions. I recently became a member of the Council of Europe. I was put there by the Government and some Labour Members. I have been appointed as the UK parliamentarian in an organisation called the Network of Contact Parliamentarians to stop sexual violence against children, which will try to get the Council of Europe’s convention ratified by all the countries. In fact, action is to be taken to highlight the massive incidence of exploitation of children.
Clearly, there are aspirations within the European Parliament to have a much stronger focus on a number of areas where the Government are resisting. If we had a law that was active and worked, we would not be in a situation, as the Minister said, where we find so many people willing to pay money to access websites throughout the world, so that they can view, for whatever bizarre reason, sexually explicit photographs of children. Sadly, as I have found in my constituency, sexual abuse is prevalent in this country as much as it is in any other. If we had such great laws, and they were being enforced properly, we would not be in a position where we require to strengthen them. It is not only a matter of changing their wording in light of technological advances, although those advances have opened up the exploitation of children for sexual titivation or whatever other perverse reason.
I am told by the police that, in the old days, hand-to-hand transfers of photographs involving children would be going on, and it was maybe easier to catch those involved, because they were in a smaller area. The report that we received in the meeting in Strasbourg only last week stated that there are now considered to be 1 billion transactions every year and that there are probably more than half a million explicit photographs or videos of children available in the world at this particular time. Those transactions are not necessarily transfers conducted for friendship; they are transfers for money. This is a major criminal activity, raising substantial amounts of money for the criminal gangs that organise the websites and hold the servers.
North America, which is the supposedly civilised part of the democratic world, holds 42% of the servers; 41% are held in Russia, 17% are held in Asia and another group is held in south America. I notice that the USA, a non-member of the Council of Europe, has not even signed the convention. Child exploitation is a major industry there, and it is a major industry in Russia. It is right that we are commended by those who
That is why I am a bit concerned about the fact that we are resisting amendment 16 from the European Parliament. Until we realise that we must compel countries and take jurisdiction across boundaries, we will never stop this. It will go on. If we just sit back and say that we can protect our own laws, because we are doing so well in our smug little world, it will continue. I urge the Government to reconsider their position and to realise that we must work together. I hope to campaign in this country and in others across Europe, so that we have a compulsory system and so that we can take jurisdiction. I have argued for signing up to the EU directive on human trafficking, because it contains the right to move across jurisdictions and to take action to protect our citizens by intervening in other countries. That is what it has to be about. Without that, we are going nowhere. We will just sit in our own area and hope that we will come up with something that might protect a few lives, but we have to get it at its source. Child exploitation is a commercial transaction by a well-organised gang of multinational criminals, who do not care about international jurisdiction and trying to restrict themselves to one particular location.
I hope that we will do a lot. The campaign being run by the Council of Europe is called “ONE in FIVE”, because it is calculated that one in five children in the Council of Europe area are at some time exploited or sexually abused. Often, photographs are taken by the family and sold, or put on websites and sold on. It is a massive problem—one in five is no exaggeration. I hope that we will have the support of the Government and everyone in civic society in getting the message out there that it is rife. It is not something that happens in some weird person’s head in Belgium or France. It is happening, probably, in our own environment, in our own town, possibly in our own street—and right at this minute. We must be alert to it, and I hope that we begin to get the message across that we should be shutting these sites down and reporting these actions; we should take our jurisdiction seriously within our communities.
I welcome the draft directive, which amends the previous one. It is tough. It needs to be tough, and the European Parliament is right to demand that it be even tougher. I certainly hope to persuade people that we should never have a statute of limitations on this, as people’s lives are ruined for ever if they are sexually exploited as children. I was a teacher, and I cannot imagine it—I do not know how the heads of those who do such things work. I was taught about the duty of care before being taught how to teach. The Pope apologised for the fact that people in very sensitive positions were involved; I grew up in a Catholic community and I did not think for a minute that I might find that the priests were in fact part of the abuse system. It is now being admitted that, even in that position, the duty of care can be abused by people who seem to be motivated by the highest ideals to take up a particular profession.
We have to get the message across. We must not be embarrassed about it; we must challenge people and speak up about it. We must say that it will not happen in
I hope that the Government will reconsider, and both challenge the question of having a statute of limitations on how long people can be pursued for these crimes, and realise that we must have compulsory extraterritorial jurisdiction if we are to shut this activity down properly.
I hope that when we reconsider the matter in Committee, if we ever do, we realise that this was a good debate to have. The Minister was frank and strong in his support for the directive, but I hope that he will go that little step further and agree with the European Parliament’s demand for an even tougher line.
Mr Blunt: I give particular thanks to the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk for his contribution. We can safely say that Her Majesty’s Government made a pretty sound appointment, given that the hon. Gentleman takes an ongoing interest in these affairs in the Council of Europe. With his range of experience on Europe and his personal expertise and commitment to the matter, it is not something that the Government are likely to be allowed to forget. I thoroughly welcome that. I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s support for the directive, and the support of the Opposition.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North, who noted that the Government’s approach to this directive and the improvements that we secured during negotiations were regarded as positive by the Scrutiny Committee. We can see from the number of exchanges of letters between my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor and me and the Committee on the different explanatory memorandums as the draft directive was amended and improved in the view of the Scrutiny Committee that it was right for us to adopt the process that we have. The directive will ensure a co-ordinated and consistent response throughout the European Union in combating child sexual exploitation. We would all agree with the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk that we can never be complacent about the issue. We do not believe, however, that the
I note the small point of disagreement with the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk about article 16 in the view of the European Parliament. Having listened to the hon. Gentleman’s arguments, and in view of the number of exchanges between the Ministry of Justice and the Scrutiny Committee, if the Council holds its position satisfactorily and there are no further amendments, there is something to be said for how the process has gone forward. I note, however, the hon. Gentleman’s concerns.
The UK’s being part of the sexual exploitation directive has clear practical benefits, particularly in providing access to information on non-UK nationals who have been disqualified from working with children. We accept that it is very difficult to make matters a fully satisfactory state of affairs, but the measure will clearly significantly improve the current situation. As a leader in this field, we already comply with much of what is required by the directive, but by opting in, we have shown our support for the European Union’s work in this area and we ensure that other member states will also have high standards in this field. The effect on our justice system will be minimal and we are developing co-operation mechanisms with other member states in seeking to ensure that all member states have common minimum standards of protection for children from sexual exploitation across Europe.
We will seek to transpose by administrative measures, but some secondary legislation may be required. The blocking of child pornography websites by the UK industry should not be affected by the directive. That has been a clear area of strength in how the UK addresses such issues.
I assure hon. Members that we will seek to defend the position that we have negotiated in the Council, which we believe is satisfactory. I have noted the points that have been made in the debate and I am grateful for the contributions of all hon. Members this afternoon.
|©Parliamentary copyright||Prepared 27th April 2011|