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USE OF ELECTRONIC COMMUNICATIONS TO INCITE AN ACT OF GROSS INDECENCY WITH A CHILD

(" . After section 1 of the Indecency with Children Act 1960 (indecent conduct towards young child), there shall be inserted--
"Use of electronic communication to incite acts of gross indecency with children.
1A.--(1) In this section, except where otherwise stated, "child" means a person under the age of sixteen years.
(2) Any person who uses electronic communication for the purposes of--
(a) engaging in an act of gross indecency with a person he knows or has reason to believe is a child;
(b) inciting a person he knows or has reason to believe is a child to meet with him with the intent of engaging in an act of gross indecency; or
(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 2(b),
is guilty of an offence and shall be liable--
(i) on conviction on indictment to imprisonment for a term not exceeding ten years, or to a fine, or to both; or
(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).
(5) In this section, "electronic communication" has the meaning given by section 15 of the Electronic Communications Act 2000."").

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I hope that the noble and learned Lord will not take it amiss that, although I am deeply grateful for all that has been done so far with regard to this Bill, I remain concerned about the use of new technology for the purposes of procuring the sexual services of young children.

Amendment No. 33 is coupled with Amendment No. 34. In essence, the Government have said consistently that we do not need Amendment No. 33 because the issue is already covered by existing legislation. They say that the language in the amendment is flawed. My response to that is that I do not believe that existing legislation is adequate and that I have consistently sought to improve the language. Indeed, I have included further improvements in the version being considered today.

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In my experience, the substantive issue with which this amendment deals is the on-line enticement of children by adults, usually referred to as "paedophiles"--however, that is not a legislative term--in order to exploit children in on-line conversations, in sending them degrading e-mails or pornographic pictures and, ultimately, to commit sexual offences with those children off-line.

I accept that the existing law is adequate to deal with the off-line element of the sexual offences. Indeed, I have referred previously to a case on 24th October in which a man called Patrick Green was sentenced to five years' imprisonment for sexual offences with a girl whom he met via the Internet. It was the off-line element of his ghastly crime that was responsible for his conviction. However, my contention is that, with the advent of the Internet and other electronic communications systems, the potential for adults to exploit children has increased. The way that they can groom, manipulate and lure children is of a different nature to the off-line process, and that is not covered by existing law.

The evidence which I gave on Report showed that the police were not using the Indecency with Children Act 1960, which the Government claimed they could use in recent cases involving on-line exploitation. That even applies to children under the age of 14. Moreover, I should be intrigued to know how a paedophile acting alone could be charged with the offence in the 1960 Act of conspiracy to indecently assault a child. Surely conspiracy requires more than one person.

The noble and learned Lord also quoted in defence of the Government's line the paper by the sub-group of the Internet Crime Forum. I know that that group has been meeting for over a year and I am disappointed by its lack of urgency in looking at the issue. Moreover, while its interim paper, which the noble and learned Lord has been kind enough to send to me, contains useful advice and suggestions, there is no evidence that it has considered at any length the question of legislation and the need for new offences. In fact, there is a cursory dismissal of the need for legislation. The group says that present off-line legislation can be interpreted to on-line activities. However, the police and the judiciary do not appear to take that view. In any event, action in a court could be challenged as the existing legislation has not been drafted with on-line technology in mind.

I note that in the United States there is an offence of enticement of children by adults. They have much more experience there of cases where the Internet has been used by adults to contact innocent children with a view to grooming them for sexual purposes. I want to mention one example. A 22 year-old and Second Air Force lieutenant was arrested on Friday 13th October this year by the Colorado Internet Crimes Against Children task force when he contacted an undercover officer, who posed as a 13 year-old girl, in the parking lot of a local shopping centre. He had arranged a meeting via the Internet with someone he believed to be a 13 year-old girl. The purpose of the meeting was to go to the man's residence in Colorado Springs and to have

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various types of sexual contact with the girl, who was actually an undercover police detective from Colorado Springs police department.

The man had first initiated contact via the Internet two days before the meeting. He was booked into the El Paso county gaol on charges of enticement of a child and of criminally attempting to sexually assault a child. If that kind of contact had been initiated in the United Kingdom, I believe that he could not have been charged. Perhaps an "Internet crimes against children task force" would be an interesting idea here.

I have no reason to believe that the United Kingdom will not see a major growth in such cases. Surely the Government recognise that it is important to be prepared. Part of that preparation is having an adequate awareness programme to educate and warn parents and children who use the Internet. The charity, Childline International, has made an excellent start on that with its website. It efforts are being made on the equivalent of a shoestring. We should all be indebted to it for that work.

In this House we must consider whether awareness efforts need to be backed by changes to legislation. My contention is that they do. Perhaps I may briefly summarise how this amendment differs from that which I brought forward on Report.

First, I have changed the definition of "electronic communication" and used that which recently became law in the Electronic Communications Act 2000. That is the Government's own definition so I hope that they will accept it. For the benefit of those noble Lords who do not have the Act to hand, the definition is:


    "'Electronic communication' means a communication transmitted (whether from one person to another, from one device to another or from a person to a device or vice versa) ... by means of a telecommunication system (within the meaning of the Telecommunications Act 1984); or ... by other means but while in an electronic form".

Secondly, I have dropped the concept of sexually explicit discussion with a child. The Minister persuaded me to accept that it did raise problems of how to exclude genuine on-line counselling by reputable organisations.

Thirdly, I have included a new offence of inciting a child or a person believed to be a child to arrange to meet for the purposes of engaging in an act of gross indecency. This would catch the kind of circumstances where Patrick Green spent months persuading a girl from Cumbria to meet him. No off-line sexual offence took place, but his intent was clear. The only charge brought in that case of abduction was not pressed in court.

I feel so strongly that it is better that we catch and charge people before they commit sexual offences off-line rather than waiting until they do abuse a child. I hope that the Minister will agree to this amendment, which calls urgently for legislation.

My Amendment No. 34, which has been previously discussed, broadens the spectrum of acts of abuse and threats of abuse and raises the penalty for such acts. The amendment seeks to protect boys as well as girls, and would cover all sexually explicit conduct, not just

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sexual intercourse, as is the case under the Sexual Offences Act 1956. The amendment updates the law regarding sex and age in order to include the protection of all children and, again, I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for helping in that respect.

In particular, I have added preparatory offences--for example, inciting a child to commit gross indecency, and restricting a child's liberty, which would include abduction. It will also allow for interventions by the police which should result in minimising the opportunity to commit real, physical harm on a child.

Importantly, my amendment also includes a subsection to punish parents and guardians who betray a sacred trust by sexually abusing their own children.

Proposals such as those contained in this amendment work in the United States, so why not here? The purpose of my amendment is to allow for the arrest of paedophiles for preparatory offences--those actions which lead to the most awful sexual violation of children. Intervention before physical harm is committed is the aim of my amendment.

There is no doubt that these actions of incitement, abduction and paving the way for sexual activity against a child should be considered as a crime in itself. After all, it is a crime, for example, to be caught going equipped to steal, thus allowing the police to arrest a would-be thief or burglar.

Considerable damage can be done to a child subject to any of the activities described in my amendment. Waiting for committees to report, for departments to consider and for room in the legislative programme is like waiting for Godot. The well-being and protection of our children is just too precious for us not to accept the amendments. I beg to move.


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