Baroness Thornton: My Lords, I declare an interest through my long association with NCH, the children's charity. I thank that body, other major children's charities, ISPA, and other organisations for their helpful briefings prior to the debate.
I am pleased to be able to speak in the debate and to welcome the Bill, both because of the way in which it will modernise the law relating to sexual offences in general and, in particular, because of the way in which it will modernise the laws relating to sexual offences against or involving children.
The use of the word "modernise" is singularly apt in this context, not least in relation to the various clauses which seek to deal with some of the consequences of the development of the Internet as a mass consumer product in our society. In the remainder of my speech I intend to focus on two of those consequences, expanding in many ways on the remarks of my noble friend Lady Gould.
The issue I wish to speak to first is dealt with in Clause 17, which, as many noble Lords said, creates the new offence of "grooming". It is unfortunate that we have not been able to find a better word to describe the kind of conduct that the clause addresses. But anyone who saw James Westhead's excellent piece on "BBC News" last week will have been left in no doubt
about the very real dangers that children can face through their use of Internet chat rooms and the existence of a class of adults, a kind of person, who has a sexual interest in children and who, knowing how popular Internet chat rooms are with children, entirely cynically, goes to them expressly to find perhaps the vulnerable, the naive, the unwordly child, the innocent child.
Typically the adult will present himself as being only a year or two older than the child he is targeting. These people can be very adept at communicating with children. They will know all about the latest bands and groups, films and fashions, who is in, who is out, what is cool and what is yesterday. They are willing to spend weeks, months, even longer, developing a relationship with the child through a chat room. Again, typically, they will try to persuade the child to keep their communications a secret, not to tell parents or to keep any records of their e-mails to each other. In the end, their aim is to engineer a real-world meeting with the child where the child will then be at great risk.
As my noble friend Lady Gould said, we know of at least 16 or so instances in the UK where children have gone to such meetings and have been raped. We know about them because in each case the men responsible were caught, convicted and sent to prison. We do not, of course, know about those cases that went unreported, or where the police were unable to bring a prosecution for want of evidence, but we can be fairly certain that they significantly exceed 16.
In Mr Westhead's piece we were told that over a period of two weeks his investigator, who posed as a 14 year-old girl—this one child in a single local chat room—was approached by no fewer than 30 different people. In that instance, the person who finally turned up to meet the 14 year-old girl, and who had to be released without charge, was indeed an older man. He admitted to the BBC reporter, on television, that he had been seeking improper relations with the child.
This brings us to why the new clause is so important. Because of case law, at the moment the only power the police have to make an arrest in such circumstances is under the existing laws of attempt. If the police are to intervene and make an arrest for an attempt to have unlawful sex with a minor, the would-be perpetrator more or less has to have his hand on the child and very obviously be about to commit an illegal sexual act. I say that is wrong. Surely we must be able to intervene much earlier in the process and prevent the child and the adult having to get into such close physical proximity.
It is very likely also that, within the so-called grooming process, the child will already have been damaged and psychologically abused by the adult. It is absolutely wrong to have to insist that the child is once again put in harm's way, to risk the child being further traumatised, by having to go to meet the potential rapist in real life and allowing him to get close enough to the point where a sexual offence is about to be committed. At present those are the only circumstances in which an offence is committed.
The question we must ask—a question I would address to Liberty—is why would an adult go into an Internet chat room, strike up or engineer a relationship with a legal minor, someone he knows to be a child, and then arrange to meet that child alone and in secret without the child's parents knowing or giving permission? Let us be clear: these are exactly the kind of situations that the clause is intended to address. Any child who went to such a meeting would be putting himself or herself in great danger. While I am aware that many meetings have been arranged via Internet chat rooms that have not resulted in catastrophe, here we are talking about a very specific type of meeting: we are not talking about children arranging to meet other children but about adults arranging to meet children.
If an adult had a good reason for wanting to meet a child in real life, a child whom he had first met on line, there is a perfectly straightforward way of doing so. He should ask the child to get his or her parent or carer to talk to him and then insist that the parent or carer comes along, at least to the initial meeting. If any adult does not do that or, on the contrary, suggests that the discussion between them be kept secret and that the child should come alone to the meeting or accompanied only by another child, then we are entitled to be gravely anxious.
That is exactly the kind of evidence that will be required to justify an arrest and a charge under this clause. The necessary evidence could be obtained in a variety of ways but, typically, I imagine that it will be obtained by the child's parents, who have perhaps noticed that their child is starting to behave in an uncharacteristic way. The child is perhaps spending a more than usual amount of time online and so parents start to take a closer interest in whom their child is communicating with. Adults who use the Internet must know that, once this clause becomes law, they will have to be careful about how they deal with children online. They must know that society is no longer willing to tolerate the risks inherent in such meetings.
Many parents have successfully been able to get the message across to their children about real world "stranger danger". They probably learnt it from their parents, as I did from mine. But there is not the same collective knowledge or experience of these matters in relation to the Internet because it is new and because it is often overlaid with a technological language and culture that may have escaped many parents. However, a number of technical tools are available, as well as educational programmes produced by organisations such as NCH Action for Children and other children's charities, which are distributed through schools and through good and responsible computer suppliers. They can alert people to these new kinds of virtual stranger danger and help to keep children safe online.
I have one more small query about the proposed offence. I note that the police will have the power of arrest only if the meeting—and hence the offence—is scheduled to take place in England, Wales or Northern Ireland. That begs the question: what about the rest of the world? In two identical cases with exactly the same
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evidence, the police will be able to step in and stop a meeting in England, Wales or Northern Ireland, but elsewhere they would not. As the whole point of the new offence is to empower the police to stop such meetings taking place, why should it matter where they are ultimately destined to take place? If the police have the evidence in England relating to an offence that is arrestable in England, the English police should step in and save the child in whatever jurisdiction he or she may reside, be it Scotland, France or Thailand.
Child pornography and the matter of consent is principally dealt with in Clauses 52 and 55. These and related clauses make it illegal for anyone under 18 to give their consent to take part in commercial pornography. However, they also make it possible for a child of 16 or 17 to give their consent to taking part in pornographic pictures that are presumably for non-commercial purposes. Another clause says that pornographic images of 16 or 17 year-olds that were made before the commencement of the Act will remain legal.
Unless I have misread the provisions, they are beginning to look like a bit of a muddle. How are the police—or anyone else—to know when an image was made? Surely we should have one rule that says it is illegal for anyone to be involved in making, distributing or possessing any indecent image of anyone who appears to be a legal minor, which covers anyone who appears to be under 18. That would bring us fully into line with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and make everyone's life a great deal easier. It would not involve any retrospection. We would simply be saying that from a forward date such images will be illegal and therefore anyone who might possess them should now get rid of them.
The distinction between commercial and non-commercial pornography is essentially a fiction these days. To put it another way, it is largely theoretical and in no way relates to the new realities of the digital age. Once an image has been made it is a matter of moments for it to be scanned or digitised. Once it is digitised, the chances that it will find its way on to the Internet must be very high, as one or two famous Hollywood actresses can testify. Once an image is on the Internet it becomes, in effect, a permanent record—in this case of the abuse of that child. That image could haunt them for rest of their life and could keep intruding into their life or be used against them by people who wish to harm them. Moreover, once on the Internet, such an image would very quickly find its way into the hands of those who trade in such images commercially. Even if it was not commercial at the beginning, it would quickly become so. Does that then make it an illegal image? If so, who has committed the crime and when?
At the least, a decision about whether a person can legally take part in the production of pornography should in all circumstances be limited to a person who is a legal adult. This also recognises that some young people at the age of 16 or 17 can be involved in essentially abusive, if legal, relationships with much older people
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who, in effect, can coerce them into things that, at a slightly older age with more mature judgment, they would not agree to.
I have a number of other minor points on which I would like further clarification, but these can wait until Committee. In the meantime, I must say how welcome the measure is. I pay tribute to the many people and organisations involved in the Setting the Boundaries review and in the Home Office Internet taskforce. Between them, they have produced an excellent and much needed Bill.