Dr. Ladyman: The hon. Member for Taunton (Jackie Ballard) made an interesting comment that the United States has had more success in dealing with such crimes than we have. Has my hon. Friend given any thought to that, and will he comment on the wording of the law in the United States?
Mr. Clarke: My hon. Friend is right. The most famous example was the intervention by the FBI in the chat room in California. That was a positive use of its powers to have precisely the positive effect that hon. Members have mentioned. We have not compared the exact wording of the legislation because the legislative arrangements are not comparable, but I put it on record that the legislation that we have in place allows the police in the United Kingdom to play the role in relation to chat rooms that the FBI in California played. The development of police procedures and approaches, to which I referred in commenting on the meeting with the constituents of the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam, is a serious issue for us.
Jackie Ballard: The Minister quoted the definition of "entice". I cannot quote that definition precisely but I believe that he used the term to allure with the offer of pleasure or reward. I think that that extends the definition beyond "incite". The purpose of online grooming is that the offer of pleasure or reward is trust in someone who will be understanding. It is an offer of friendship, not of sex.
Sir Paul Beresford: I can conclude only that the Minister has never sat, as some of us have, with a Metropolitan police officer who spends his time watching and tracking paedophile activities on a computer. Perhaps he has not seen the way in which officers work on computers and in chat rooms, doing exactly what my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) and the hon. Member for Taunton (Jackie Ballard) have described. If he has not had that experience, and while he reflects, will he go to Charing Cross police station to see what takes place? Will he sit behind the computer with a police officer?
Mr. Clarke: I have not performed the precise act that the hon. Gentleman suggests. I give the commitment that I shall do so while I am reflecting on the situation that we are discussing. However, I do not think that even that would change my overall view a great deal.
Mr. Clarke: American spelling is different in many instances. The dictionary and the meaning of words are different too, both the common meaning of words and words in a legal context. The argument that the right hon. Lady is advancing is precisely why "entices" appears in the new clause. It is crucial to understand that the enticement that we are talking about must be in the context of an act of gross indecency, and not just to a meeting, even in the terms of the new clause. When we use "entice" in this context, that is not enticement to a meeting and the exchange of a friendly approach. It is enticement to an act of gross indecency. It is important to take that into account.
That is why it is not obvious to me that the proposed word extends the ambit of the offence in the way that the right hon. Lady suggests. I am trying to emphasise throughout that I do not dismiss what she is saying. It is a serious point and it is being made seriously. I am prepared to reflect on it, but it is not obvious that the new clause does what she reasonably wants to achieve.
Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): The burden of the Minister's argument seems to be that he does not believe, given the benefit of the advice that he has received, that "entice" extends the offence. It is the belief of my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) and other Opposition Members that it does.
The key point is that the new clause would not catch a person who was arranging to meet a child. It would have to be shown that the purpose of the enticement was to commit an act of gross indecency with that person or another. Enticing a child to a meeting would not be enough to commit the offence. It would still be necessary to prove that the immediate purpose of the enticement was for the child
Mr. Burstow: I am still concerned--I believe that many others will similarly be concerned--that if the new clause is not accepted, the police will feel that they must wait for offline evidence of an assault having taken place before they can act to protect the child. Perhaps the Minister will say a little more about what will be done to ensure that the police are confident that they can use online evidence to take action to protect the child. That would be a move forward.
Mr. Clarke: I am prepared to give a strong assurance to the hon. Gentleman on that precise point. I am also prepared on behalf of the Government to accept criticism--the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald may similarly accept criticism on behalf of the previous Government--that we have not moved as energetically as we should to improve police practices in the areas that we are discussing. We have moved relatively energetically to change the law. The right hon. Lady said earlier from a sedentary position that the new clause reflects an amendment that was moved in relation to other legislation. I acknowledge that and there is no disagreement between us, as I have said throughout.
I think that there is a cross-party approach, and it is a matter of finding the right approach. I acknowledge that we have not been as effective as we need to be; that much was clearly apparent to me clearly during my meeting with the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam and his constituents. We must ensure that police forces throughout the country, including cross-border forces, have the same clear understanding of what they can and cannot do. In the current climate, there must be doubts for police officers, and for others, about what they can and cannot do. That is why I emphasised the need to develop police training and practices in these areas. I am happy to
There are many issues that we must take on board in changing the present situation, and a change in the law is only one of them. I have already asked the hon. Member for Mole Valley to consider not pressing new clauses 10 and 11. I saw him indicate that he probably would do so in respect of one but not the other. I think that I heard him say that.
I say to the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald that it is important to have a cross-party approach on these matters. She is obviously entitled to make the case that we have not been energetic enough in dealing with the situation, if that is what she feels. I put it to her and the House that getting the precise wording right and offering clarity rather than confusion to courts when they come to resolve these issues is extremely important. That is why we had the sex offences review. That is why we are redrawing the law and why we are taking the various approaches of which the House will be aware. With that, I hope that the right hon. Lady will give full consideration to withdrawing new clause 5. I think that we all want to work together on these matters.
Miss Widdecombe: I listened carefully to the Minister in exactly the same spirit that he listened to me. I agree that in an ideal world there should be a cross-party approach. However, having listened to him, I genuinely do not understand why he will not accept new clause 5. He talked about reflecting on the points raised by the hon. Member for Taunton (Jackie Ballard) and other hon. Members. However, this is not the first time that we have brought the issue before the House, and it was raised in Committee. On four previous occasions, he has refused to accept the arguments that we have advanced. His reflections have not produced any substitute action.
If the Minister had suggested a different way of tackling the matter this evening, we would have been very interested. He says that the current state of the law is adequate. If so, why was it not used in the three cases that I have mentioned? I think that he will accept that those cases are the three best-known examples. They do not form an exhaustive list.
What do the Government intend to do? Effectively, they seem to be saying that they want to do nothing. They have not proposed an alternative. They want to reflect on a matter on which they have reflected for a long time. As the Minister acknowledged, the sentence to which he referred was increased to 10 years because of an amendment that we tabled.