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2.46 pm

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Paul Boateng): May I congratulate the hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) on obtaining this opportunity in the ballot and succeeding in her representation of the interests and concerns of her young constituent? I am delighted to respond, both as the Minister of State, Home Office and as the Minister with responsibilities for young people.

The hon. Lady rightly raised the issue as one that has had an adverse impact on a young person in her constituency. What happened to him was a form of abuse and, had it not been handled with support from a parent and good sound common sense by the young person himself, it could have had extremely damaging effects.

The issue of the internet and its impact on society today, for good or ill, is one that the Government are addressing. Only on Wednesday, the Home Secretary called together key representatives of the internet industry, child welfare organisations and the police to tackle child abuse and paedophilia, fuelled by a combination of new technologies--digital photography, streaming video, audio data and the internet. We are committed to tackling that abuse of the internet, as we are committed to tackling all criminal misuse of new technologies.

We want to make the United Kingdom the best and safest place in the world to conduct e-commerce and surf the net. There is no doubt in our mind that the growth of the internet offers huge benefits for society, commerce and education. It is rewriting the rules on how we all communicate. Alongside those huge legitimate benefits, the internet offers opportunities for criminals to abuse modern technologies for their own ends. That is why we have introduced legislation on the internet.

I am sorry that the hon. Lady spoiled an otherwise excellent contribution by characterising our legislation in a simplistic and uncharacteristically naive and misplaced way. It is not authoritarian or big brotherish and it is certainly not patriarchal--I think that she used that word. If I may so, that is nonsense; the legislation was none of those things. It deals rigorously and effectively with a genuine mischief. However, the hon. Lady outlined an area worthy of examination, and I shall certainly ensure that the case that she brought to light receives the attention that it deserves.

We should not forget the real benefits that the internet offers. Launching UKonline last September, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister set the Government the objective of working with industry to ensure a safe and secure environment for e-commerce and to help people trust the internet. We want to work in partnership with UK industry to clean up the net and make it safe for UK users.

Should we use the criminal law to do that? The Government, in common with many other Governments, take the view that what is illegal offline should be illegal online. Possession and distribution of child pornography is possession and distribution of child pornography, whether that is done on paper, by post, electronically or by e-mail. Fraud is fraud, whether it is a newspaper advertisement inducing gullible investors--there are always some of them about--or a website that seeks to do the same and entrap the same sort of person, preying on a combination of greed and gullibility.

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Technology changes, and we want to keep the criminal law technology-neutral; otherwise we risk coming back to the House every time some new invention intended for some harmless pursuit is used and abused by innovative criminals to carry out their criminal purpose. The challenge for Government is to ensure that harmful and unlawful activity is addressed by the criminal law, however that activity is conducted. We think that we have the balance right, but that is not to say that we are complacent. The hon. Lady's case is an interesting one; we need to keep offences under constant review, and examine them to see whether further action can be or needs to be taken to strengthen the law, when offences are conducted wholly or in part using computers or computer networks.

We have already acted in a number of areas. I took the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000 through the House. In January, we increased the maximum penalties for child pornography offences--for possession from six months to five years, and for production and distribution offences from three years' imprisonment to 10 years.

We raised the age threshold in the Indecency with Children Act 1960 from 14 to 16. Conspiracy, incitement or attempts to commit gross indecency with a child under 16 are all offences under the Indecency with Children Act, whether they are committed over the internet or not. They carry a penalty of up to l0 years' imprisonment.

Safety in chat rooms is another complex issue, and a crucial one for parents. The hon. Lady mentioned that her own daughter had entered into a happy and successful relationship with a boyfriend through the internet. The outcome may have been happy for her, but, sadly, that is not always the case. The recent report from the Internet Crime Forum, "Chat Wise, Street Wise", made a number of recommendations for industry, Government and children's charities to consider. The recommendations suggest practical ways to protect children from the risks that chat rooms can pose, the most extreme being exposure to paedophiles who will, as we have seen, incite young people to go against all their instincts to secret assignations, with the most appalling consequences.

Some seek to add "entice" to "incite" in the 1960 Act and widen the scope of the offence. My advice is that the change would not achieve that end. The courts have held that the word "incite" involves some form of persuasion or encouragement. It does not matter that the incitement is unsuccessful. Courts would also be bound to give "entice" its ordinary meaning--

In other words, the ambit of the offence would not be extended at all.

We cannot be complacent. Protecting children from sexual abuse and the theft of their childhood and their innocence, and breaking what can become a cycle of abuse as the abused become abusers, must be a clear priority for Government, and it is. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary took decisive action this week and established the taskforce, which is chaired by my noble Friend Lord Bassam. I shall ensure that the hon. Lady's case is referred to it. It includes representatives of the internet industry, child welfare organisations, the police, the Government and others. It will review internet content rating systems, develop a kite marking scheme for internet chat rooms that provide child-friendly services, develop and promote a safe surfing education and awareness

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campaign for parents and children, and enhance co-operation between police and communications services providers in the investigation of crime. It will also review existing legislation to ensure that it continues to protect children from grooming and other forms of abuse, and that it keeps in step with changes in technology. That is where the case raised by the hon. Lady comes in, because, as she told us, her constituent experienced a form of abuse. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will review the work of the taskforce in the summer.

We have legislation in place to deal with crimes against computers, such as hacking and the spreading of computer viruses. The Computer Misuse Act 1990 is now 11 years old, but it was ahead of its time and it has stood the test of time. We want more use to be made of that legislation now. We have ensured that the Public Order Act 1986 can deal with the distribution of racist material, whether over the internet or by pen and paper.

The UK is not an island in the electronic world, however much it is one in geographic terms. We have recognised the threat that electronic attack poses to our critical national information infrastructure. That is why we established the national infrastructure security co-ordination centre to work with Departments and private sector organisations to protect critical national infrastructure against electronic attack.

We know that there is no room for complacency in these matters, on which we are working closely with our international partners in the G8 group. The Minister of State, Home Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche) went to meet G8 Ministers, specifically to work with our partners to develop co-operation in tackling child pornography on the internet. We are investing in law enforcement to ensure

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that personnel are properly trained and equipped to investigate and prosecute high-tech criminals. We are also taking steps to ensure that we keep apace with technological development. We must give law enforcement agencies the statutory provisions that are necessary to enable them to investigate high-tech crimes. That is what lay behind the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, about which I hope the hon. Lady will change her views.

It is our objective to ensure that any victim of a crime in which computers were involved, be it a multinational corporation or an individual, can report that crime to police in the knowledge that it will be dealt with effectively and professionally by officers who are trained and equipped to deal with the task.

I must conclude my remarks as I began them. Child abuse on the internet is deplorable. It is also depraved in every sense of the word. We owe it to victims to locate and prosecute the abusers and the people who use the internet for criminal purposes. We owe it to children to protect them from abuse of the technology. The Government, industry, parents and carers must together maintain the real and sustained progress that we have made in tackling criminal abuse of the internet, so that as a society we can reap the full economic and social benefits and so that our children can surf the internet in safety.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for securing the debate and I fully appreciate the action taken by her young constituent to gain some protection for himself. That was entirely commendable and we shall ensure that the case is referred to the taskforce, so that it can learn the appropriate lessons.

Question put and agreed to.

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