Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Viscount Bridgeman: My Lords, we welcome this measure as a further advance in the effective policing of Northern Ireland. We particularly welcome the provisions for flexibility and advancement in technology, which will save the requirement for further orders in that respect. Will the video technology be available in every detention centre where interviews are likely to take place?

Baroness Harris of Richmond: My Lords, we too welcome the order. As we have heard, the Police Service of Northern Ireland asked for the code to be revised to ensure that the police are not prevented from using more advanced technologies than originally specified in the code. That is a sensible change, which we support. I am particularly pleased to hear of the flexibility for future use of new technologies, so that we shall not have to return for new orders every time there are improvements in technological expertise.

Lord Laird: My Lords, again, I am happy to offer the approval of my Ulster Unionist colleagues for this order. As a strong supporter of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, I am delighted that these provisions will offer much needed protection to officers from allegations of heavy-handedness from detainees, and they should be welcomed for that reason. It goes without saying, of course, that detainees themselves will be offered similar protection. If that leads to a resultant increase in the community's confidence in the PSNI, that is a good thing.

I note that the other principal effect of the order is that, at the request of the PSNI, more advanced technologies than those originally specified in the code of practice can now be used. I support the order.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their support. I share with the noble Lord, Lord Laird, the hope and belief that the order will help to strengthen confidence in the Police Service of Northern Ireland. Perhaps I may say to the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, that a brand new centre is to be opened in Antrim this week. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, for her support and say how

1 Apr 2003 : Column 1255

pleased I am that there will be a facility to update without necessarily always having to bring an amendment before your Lordships.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until 9 p.m.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The sitting was suspended from 8.29 until 9 p.m.]

Sexual Offences Bill [HL]

House again in Committee.

Clause 16 [Sections 9 to 15: marriage exception]:

Baroness Thornton moved Amendment No. 79:

    Page 6, line 37, after "involve" insert "the taking or making of"

The noble Baroness said: This is a small amendment, and it could be that I put it down because I am being dim. I could not make sense of the clause unless it had something in it which was related to what was actually happening—whether a photograph was being taken, made, seen or whatever. So I decided that "taking or making" the photograph might make that clear. I beg to move.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: The purpose of the marriage exception in Clause 16 is to make sure that the criminal law does not interfere unnecessarily with the right of individuals to engage in sexual activity within a lawful marriage. Marriages may be lawfully contracted overseas by individuals who then visit or come to live in this country, but who none the less are below the age of consent here.

The exception clause has been carefully drafted with the intention of making sure that the criminal law does not interfere with "normal" sexual behaviour within marriage, while ensuring that it does not inadvertently legalise abusive sexual behaviour within marriage. In order to protect children from being coerced into what many would consider to be abnormal sexual activity, the marriage defence provides that where the sexual activity complained of involves a third party, or involves photographs or pseudo-photographs of a third party engaging in sexual activity, the fact that the defendant and complainant are lawfully married will not absolve the defendant of criminal liability. That means in practice that if, for example, for the purposes of his own sexual gratification, a man makes his 15 year-old wife look at pornographic images as he downloads them from the Internet, or makes her look at pornographic photographs in a magazine, or makes her watch a pornographic movie, he will be guilty of the offence of,

    "causing a child to watch a sexual act".

The amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, would have the effect of broadening the scope of the marriage exception, so that it would only not apply where the activity complained of

1 Apr 2003 : Column 1256

involves a third party, or where it involved the "making or taking" of photographs, or pseudo-photographs of a third party engaging in sexual activity. If the amendment was incorporated in the Bill, a man who, for his own sexual gratification, made his wife look at pornographic images that he had downloaded from the Internet, or made his wife look at photographs or videos he had taken of a third party engaging in sexual activity, would still probably be committing an offence. However, it would no longer be an offence for him, for the purpose of sexual gratification, to make her watch pornographic movies or to look at photographs taken of a third person. That would reduce the protection from abuse that is offered within marriage.

There is a technical problem with the amendment, although it is in a different order. I do not believe that there is much point in going through the technical difficulties, because the noble Baroness is after some clarity on the point of principle. I believe that we have the balance right in the marriage exception, in that it does not interfere unnecessarily with mutually agreed activity, but it still protects children from behaviour within marriage that is abusive. I hope that helps the noble Baroness.

Baroness Thornton: I am not sure whether it helps. However, I shall read the Minister's words with care. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 16 agreed to.

Clause 17 [Meeting a child following sexual grooming etc.]:

Lord Falconer of Thoroton moved Amendment No. 80:

    Page 7, line 3, leave out paragraph (a) and insert—

"(a) having met or communicated with another person (B) on at least two earlier occasions, he—
(i) intentionally meets B, or
(ii) travels with the intention of meeting B in any part of the world,"

The noble and learned Lord said: Clause 17 is intended to cover situations in which an adult establishes contact with a child—for example through meetings, telephone conversations or communications on the Internet—with the intention of gaining the child's trust and confidence so that he can arrange to meet the child for the purpose of committing a sexual offence against him or her.

The communication or contact between the adult and the child can take any form. However, the offence will be committed only if the adult meets or travels to meet the child with the intention of committing a sex offence against the child at the meeting or on a subsequent occasion. It stems from work undertaken by the Government's Internet task force on child protection. On indictment, the maximum penalty is five years, but we would seek by way of amendment to persuade the House to agree to seven years.

1 Apr 2003 : Column 1257

There is presently no offence with which such a person could be charged and this important measure fills that gap. This new offence enables earlier intervention than is otherwise possible. It is designed to intervene at an earlier stage in the preparatory process which adults may use to gain access to children to abuse sexually. I have indicated the intention of the offence.

It is our intention that the adult should commit an offence wherever the meeting he is travelling to is intended to take place. The offence would be committed provided that some part of the journey to the meeting takes place in England, Wales or Northern Ireland. So a person commits an offence if he uses a computer at home in England to communicate with a child in, for example, Thailand and sets out to travel to that meeting provided that the travel or part of it takes place in England, Wales or Northern Ireland. The government amendment makes that explicit. This is because we see no reason to distinguish between situations where a person travels to meet in this country or abroad. However, the offence as drafted does not make that specifically clear.

I thank my noble friend Lady Thornton for tabling Amendment No. 81 to that effect. I confirm that we entirely agree with the objective she is trying to achieve and have tabled a government amendment to that effect. In the light of the government amendment prompted by her amendment, I trust that she will feel able to withdraw her amendment and support mine. I beg to move.

Baroness Thornton: I greatly welcome the amendment. I spoke on the matter at Second Reading of the Bill. It is an important amendment and it sends an important message to men who would prey on children in other countries. I am most pleased that the Government have tabled the amendment and I shall not move my amendment.

Baroness Blatch: I, too, welcome the amendment. I re-read the occasion on which I introduced these amendments to a Bill in this House and I re-read the arguments of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, most cogently and elegantly put, as to why they could not and should not be included in the statute. I shall not say, "I told you so", but I am hugely pleased that they are now part of the Bill.

Clause 17 is a major step forward in addressing the mechanism whereby paedophiles seek to befriend children and lure them into situations where sexual activities can take place. It is important to address grooming in the context of the Internet and the enormous range of opportunities it presents to the determined paedophile. By tabling the amendment, the noble and learned Lord has sent a message that the Government are taking the matter extremely seriously.

The new grooming offence would enable the police to arrest the predator before the child was physically or sexually abused. That was always our concern. Under the law as it stood, the child had first to be attacked or abused before the police could take action. The police will be able to make an arrest once the

1 Apr 2003 : Column 1258

predator met or travelled with the intention of meeting a child under 16 with the intention of committing a sexual offence. The intent will be drawn from a course of conduct; either the communication itself or other circumstances such as going to a meeting with pornography or condoms.

I am aware that Liberty, in its briefing, talks about,

    "criminalisation of an act that is not in itself criminal".

It goes on to state,

    "In its admirable desire to prioritise child protection, the government should be careful of creating what is effectively 'thought crime'".

That is an extraordinary approach. We are talking about someone who has embarked on a course of conduct designed to result in the commission of a child sex offence. That includes actual contact with the child victim that is linked, incontrovertibly, to arrangements for meeting with the purpose of committing a sexual crime. In order to be prosecuted the person must have set out on his journey to meet the child in order to perform his particular sexual fantasies upon that child. I regard that as much more than thought.

The Metropolitan Police are strongly supportive of the new offence and consider it,

    "an essential piece of preventative legislation . . . It fills an important loophole that has caused significant concern to police and risk to children".

They say,

    "The inclusion of 'meets or travels with the intention of meeting' is essential, as our own risk assessments will never allow a child to physically meet an adult who is believed to be a danger to them".

The police have evidence of one individual who sexually abused three children within 15 minutes of meeting them. They also confirm that this legislation will not be used to target those whose communications with children are innocent. They say,

    "It is our intention to use this piece of legislation with the care and consideration it deserves. The police will not target people or consider the use of this legislation unless there is significant evidence or intelligence suggesting that the person involved is attempting to groom children for sex".

The Met also say that the penalty should be increased from five to seven years, commensurate with other sentences in the Bill. So I am pleased to see that the Government have lent their name to Amendment No. 96 in the name of my noble friend, which appears to agree with that view.

Amendment No. 80 is a sensible amendment that tidies up the drafting of subsection (1)(a) and extends the protection to cover cases where the perpetrator is travelling to meet a child abroad. There is no reason why a man who uses the Internet to seduce a child in Portugal or in the USA should be able to set out on his journey to meet the child free from the reaches of this new law. That is especially true given the Bill's other provisions tackling sexual abuse of children abroad by people operating from within the United Kingdom.

Amendment No. 81 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, which also extends the new offence to protect children abroad, has effectively been adopted by the Government. I welcome that too.

1 Apr 2003 : Column 1259

I strongly support the new offence and I support its extension in this way. However, I have concerns, as the noble and learned Lord will have noticed from the Marshalled List, about whether Clause 17 goes far enough. I shall address those concerns when speaking to my Amendments Nos. 82 and 86. I am truly grateful for what the Government have done in this respect.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page