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Ms Margaret Moran (Luton, South): I really do want to make a very brief point on the length of sentences proposed in new clause 1. I do not wholly agree with the new clause's general content, but simply ask for a review of the penalties proposed for the offence. I do so based on concerns expressed by various children's charities--

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primarily the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Barnardos and NCH Action for Children--with which I have recently discussed the issue.

6.15 pm

Quite apart from the Bill's technical, legal and civil rights aspects, we have to consider the way in which some of the Bill's provisions are being regarded by some of those who--far from being techies--are very much in the real world and at the receiving end of the issues. We have to acknowledge that there is a rising tide of concern, particularly among parents, about internet safety for children.

Only a week or so ago, in Milton Keynes, not far from my own constituency, there was a case in which a 13-year-old girl turned up to meet someone whom she met in an internet chat room and believed was a 15-year-old boy, only to discover that he was a 47-year-old man who had travelled from Newcastle specifically to meet her. I am sure that the case alarmed every parent who heard about it, and that those parents immediately began looking more closely at their children's internet activities.

Additionally, as we know, the internet contains websites showing pornographic, violent or racist material. Just last week, in my constituency, there was a case involving a website used by prisoners in the United States to display very disgusting material. They are also using internet chat sites that could be accessed by children. Most of the material is grossly offensive and highly unsuitable for children. We also know that e-mail is being abused by paedophiles seeking to make contact with children and for many other offensive activities.

The concern is that the advent of strong encryption technologies gives criminals the opportunity to hide their criminal activities or to conceal other evidence. If a paedophile has on his computer files e-mail messages, pictures or other material that discloses a serious sexual offence against a child--an offence for which he knows he could face a prison term of 10 years or more--he could encrypt the lot and, if investigated by police, simply refuse to hand over the key to decrypt the files, thus making unavailable evidence of a serious offence.

The other concern is that, in the Bill, the maximum penalty provided for defendants who refuse to hand over a key would be two years and a fine. With time-off for good behaviour, such a person might spend only a few weeks in prison. Subsequently, they might even be able to apply for and gain employment with children, in a school or residential centre. We should also remember that--because encryption technology has allowed the person very effectively to cover his tracks--there will be nothing on record showing that the person has a history of sexual offences.

Such a possibility raises issues about the Bill's relationship to protection of children legislation. Having worked on the Protection of Children Act 1999, I think that we have to ensure that such people are effectively registered, and that the protections offered by the 1999 Act apply also in internet cases, as if the evidence were in writing.

The Bill makes major improvements on the current situation, which would not allow for prosecution in such cases. Nevertheless, the situation will still not be

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satisfactory. We need seriously to review the penalties provided in this part of the Bill. I hope that the Minister will listen to the message from children's charities. The issue does raise complex civil liberties issues, and there are no ready-made answers, but, when children's charities tell us that there is great and growing unease, we have seriously to examine how the Bill will impact on the protection of children.

Mr. Simon Hughes: I completely understand the argument that the hon. Lady is presenting, but does she, and do those in the children's charity world to whom she has talked, accept that the paradox and the danger are that one might be able to catch the relatively minor offender but that we need to think more widely if we are to get the real villains--the big-time criminals and serial offenders whose activities we want to stop--because they are the most likely to escape the system?

Ms Moran: Indeed, the issue is more complex than one of sentences alone. As the hon. Gentleman said earlier, we may need to consider other measures to provide the widest possible safeguards.

It is outside the remit of the Bill, but there is a need for a review of how technology interacts with child protection and sexual offences legislation so that we can provide the widest possible protection not only for our children, but for those who may be vulnerable to people who seek to abuse the new technologies in ways that we may not have anticipated.

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton): I shall be brief, because many of the points that I wanted to make have already been made by my hon. Friends and by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes).

I am not a lawyer. I have some technology interests, which are fully disclosed. I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Luton, South (Ms Moran), who told us of some valid concerns that have been expressed by children's charities. Industry is also concerned, for different reasons, so there are pressures on the Minister from many different directions. I am on record as saying that we should have a Bill to deal with these matters, and I think that he made valiant efforts in Committee to listen to the concerns expressed by Opposition Members. The Bill is slowly improving but, as the new clauses and amendments show, we are not absolutely certain about it.

Regardless of whether my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) wants to press the matter to a vote, it is important that the relevant considerations are taken into account in another place. If, for example, there is still a fear that the European convention on human rights will be breached, the Bill will run into real problems, even though the Government's objectives in introducing it are very important.

Industry has concerns about individuals and companies being pressured to disclose a key that may not be in their possession, because the burden of proof seems to be the wrong way round. The Minister must bear that in mind constantly and act appropriately before the Bill is enacted.

Among the expressions of concern is a letter from Vodafone dated 6 April. It says that the provisions are

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Industry is also concerned about security following disclosure of the key. The letter from Vodafone says:

That is the conundrum in the Bill: encryption is vital to encourage confidence in e-commerce, but the wrong sort of disclosure could undermine that confidence. If the person who had served the warrant mishandled the key or the information, there could be considerable problems.

I know that the Government understand the concerns and are trying to respond to them, but the problem, as information supplied to EURIM--the European informatics market group--confirms, is that companies are beginning to move their offices offshore to escape the implications of the Bill. We are told that

appear not to be waiting around to find out whether there is a benign interpretation of the Bill by the courts, but to be moving offshore now. That must be a cause for concern.

One of the problems concerns the validity of those who are authorised to issue a warrant and how that validity is checked. All those matters were raised in Committee and I know that the Government are doing their very best to meet our concerns, but they have not yet gone far enough. Big issues are at stake, and I underline what my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire said.

Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border): There is a straightforward point to be made here: clause 49 as drafted is unjust and wrong. An innocent person unconnected with paedophilia, terrorism, drug dealing or crime of any kind, simply because information is required of him--he may have been sent an e-mail encrypted by mistake--and because, with the best will in the world, he cannot provide the encryption key, can be liable to a prison sentence of two years. He may have had no intention to commit a crime, but he can go to prison for two years. That is unjust and fundamentally wrong.

The clause is wrong for another reason. Serious criminals such as paedophiles, drug dealers and terrorists--those whom the security services, the National Criminal Intelligence Service, Customs and Excise and others should be, and are, pursuing ruthlessly--can simply refuse to hand over the key to encrypted material, because it is by far the best option for them to be found guilty of an offence under clause 49, which attracts a maximum sentence of two years, which becomes even less with good behaviour. They will know that handing over the key and allowing the authorities to see the paedophile material or information on terrorist activity or drug dealing would land them with a much heavier sentence and put them in prison for perhaps 10 years.

It is almost as iniquitous that serious criminals will get only a two-year sentence as it is that an innocent person who has forgotten the key should get the same sentence.

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That is why I support new clause 1. It may not be perfect--neither is a lot of the Government's legislation, as every parliamentary draftsman in the northern hemisphere is being roped in to draft it--but its intention is correct. It restores the fundamental safeguard that there must be mens rea. That is how I read the suggested provision embodied in the words

It is vital to include the intention of the person in the Bill, because it will remove the injustice that exists in clause 49. If the Government are willing to accept new clause 1 in principle--I hope that they are and that they will go away and redraft the provision before the Bill reaches the other place--they will make a double improvement to the Bill. They will remove the injustice of innocent people facing a two-year sentence because they cannot provide the key or the information when requested.

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