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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,


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.

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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

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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.

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Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 60:


    After Clause 38, insert the following new clause--


INDECENT CONDUCT TOWARDS CHILDREN
(" . For section 1 of the Indecency with Children Act 1960 (indecent conduct towards young child), there shall be substituted--
"Indecent conduct towards children.
1.--(1) In this section, except where otherwise stated, "child" means a person under the age of sixteen years.
(2) Any person who--
(a) knowingly commits an act of gross indecency with or towards a child, or who incites a child to commit such an act with that person, or with another;
(b) travels with the intent of committing any act of gross indecency with or towards a child;
(c) knowingly employs, uses, persuades, induces, entices or coerces a child to engage in, or to assist any other person to engage in, an act of gross indecency with or towards any child; or
(d) transports a child with the intent that that child engage in an act of gross indecency,
is guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction on indictment to imprisonment for a term not exceeding ten years, or to a fine, or to both.
(3) Any person who--
(a) abducts, detains or otherwise restricts the liberty of a child for the purpose of sexually exploiting that child; or
(b) organises or knowingly facilitates such abduction, detention or restriction,
is guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction on indictment to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 15 years, or to a fine, or to both.
(4) Any parent, guardian or other person having for the time being custody or control of a child who knowingly permits that child to engage in, or to assist any other person to engage in, sexual activity, or who knowingly permits the sexual exploitation of that child, shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction on indictment to imprisonment for a term not exceeding ten years, or to a fine, or to both.
(5) 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.
(6) 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, if I may be so presumptuous as to jump to a conclusion as to what the noble and learned Lord may say, I suspect that I shall probably receive the same type of answer from him in relation to this amendment as I did in relation to the previous one.

This amendment relates to a subject which also causes us great concern. It deals with a person who,


    "knowingly commits an act of gross indecency with or towards a child, or who incites a child to commit such an act with that person, or with another; ... travels with the intent of committing any act of gross indecency with or towards a child; ... knowingly employs, uses, persuades, induces, entices or coerces a child to engage in, or to assist any other person to engage in, an act of gross indecency with or towards any child; or ... transports a child with the intent that that child engage in an act of gross indecency, is guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction on indictment to imprisonment for a term not exceeding ten years, or to a fine, or to both".

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I understand that in America this is seen as an offence. It is dealt with by the courts. The person found guilty of any one of these activities can be dealt with by the courts.

Abduction is a very serious offence. We all know, and are painfully aware of, little Sarah Payne, who was abducted in the first instance before she met her cruel end. Just occasionally that kind of person is intercepted and the child's life is saved. That should be seen as an abduction that both restricts the child's liberty and is for the purposes of sexually exploiting the child. It is possible by policing methods to find out whether a person is organising or knowingly facilitating such an abduction, detention or restriction and whether that person is guilty of the offence of any of the activities I have enumerated today.

I hope that the noble Lord will see that this is a very real issue, that there ought to be an offence in these matters and it ought to be properly dealt with by the courts. Certainly, as the law stands, it is not strong enough. It is my view that it ought to be strengthened. I beg to move.


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