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19 Nov 2002 : Column 514—continued

Mr. Blunkett: We are treading on dangerous territory, and I am weighing words such as Xscrutinise" very carefully. As my hon. and learned Friend will know—I made this point to the shadow Home Secretary—in developing the legislation we are prepared to take on board those with a long-standing and deep interest in this area, and in particular the questions arising from the history of the individual concerned, and how they can be weighed. Once it is published, the House will soon debate the criminal justice Bill. We will deal with the issue of how we evaluate the evidence on which the current circumstance and accusation is mounted, so that we consider the circumstances and behaviour of the individual in the light of the evidence adduced in court.

Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley): The Home Secretary will be aware that in the House there is a general feeling of support for his White Paper, probably almost as strong as there will be for the Bill when it finally appears. He asks for a constructive reaction from the Opposition; may we ask for an equally constructive reaction from Government Members, because many positive ideas can emerge, including, for example, the paedophile information exchange case, which showed the need to deal with encryption, and the Milly case, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor) referred, which raised difficulties over obtaining information from the internet that is not covered in the White Paper?

Mr. Blunkett: The simple answer is yes. There is no desire to exclude new ideas or new thinking on shaping our proposals. I know that the shadow Home Secretary has already raised with my colleagues the issue of encryption because I made sure that I found out what he had said to them. I would like to take that forward because it is a serious issue.

Martin Linton (Battersea): Will my right hon. Friend accept a welcome for his proposals, especially his plans to ensure that those guilty of rape or sexual assault are more likely to be convicted? He is right to talk about a sub-world of trafficking, prostitution and sexual exploitation. It is an evil trade that destroys the lives of children and their families. Will he assure the House that encouraging a child into prostitution and engaging in the trafficking of adults or children for commercial gain will become offences that will be dealt with with the utmost seriousness?

Mr. Blunkett: On seriousness and severity, we are proposing sentences of up to 14 years. The message needs to get out to those who are organising that trade that we, as a House and as a Parliament, intend to join together in doing everything possible to go after them. If the message gets across locally as well as nationally that we are serious about this and will work together on finding a way to ensure that enforcement is as clear as our intent, we could do a great deal of good in the years ahead.

Sandra Gidley (Romsey): Will the Home Secretary acknowledge that eight days is plenty of time for a sex

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offender to reoffend? If he agrees with that, will he act to protect young children in holiday destinations overseas by insisting that the period of notice is reduced from eight days, because any visit, however short, should be notified in order to protect young children?

Mr. Blunkett: The White Paper says that should such people move within this country, the registration period should be within three days. I am happy to look at ensuring that that is codified in a way that ensures that it is the same should they leave the country. I am weighing up the question of whether those who are registered and are severe offenders should leave the country at all, but we will have to look at that.

Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon): Does the Home Secretary agree that the Government must take the lead when surveys show that one in five young men think that it is acceptable to force a woman to have sex if that person is their wife, and a further 15 per cent. are unsure about whether it is acceptable? May I urge the Home Secretary to look seriously at the issue of irrelevant sexual history, which is brought into court cases far too frequently and is one of the key reasons for the appallingly low conviction rate? Unless that sexual history, which is hardly ever relevant to rape cases, is taken out of court proceedings, the appalling rate of conviction in rape cases will continue.

Mr. Blunkett: That is why, as I said to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar (Vera Baird), we need to weigh up carefully how we distinguish between different forms of evidence. We need to ensure that we do not throw the baby out with the bath water. The substantive question about men's expectations towards women is a profound one. Let me make it clear that no should always mean no, and no young man, whether in a marriage or any other form of relationship, should presume that he owns or has rights to someone else's body. That is why those delicate issues need to be handled with great sensitivity.

The message is clear: when a woman says no, she means no, whether in marriage or otherwise. There should be no presumption in any circumstances that if someone does not wish to engage in intimate relations, they should be forced to do so. We need to develop that message as part of our wider sex and relationship education in schools, in which I played some part when I was the Secretary of State for Education and Skills. We also need to ensure that the message reaches young women that they have every right to say no, and that they should exert that right.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): I am glad that the Home Secretary is not proposing to publish the names and addresses of convicted paedophiles. Is he aware that I am currently professionally engaged in a case in which the publication of the name and address of an alleged paedophile—the person was actually acquitted—led directly to the murder of that person?

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Mr. Blunkett: I was not aware that the right hon. and learned Gentleman was involved in that case, but I take his point entirely.

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby): I welcome today's proposals and I hope that we will see an increase in conviction rates for rape, especially in connection with offences committed against people with learning difficulties. However, I am deeply concerned about the effectiveness and efficiency of existing police procedures and the current absence of video facilities and suitably trained individuals to conduct and record interviews with rape and sex abuse victims. Will the Home Secretary consider recording all interviews—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I cannot allow the hon. Lady to read out a speech. It is time for questions. Perhaps the Home Secretary could answer the point that the hon. Lady has already made.

Mr. Blunkett: As part of our wider review of the way in which evidence is adduced, held and presented, the proper recording of evidence—so that it can be brought forward at the appropriate time—will be on the agenda. I hope that that is the question, of which I have not had notice. It sounded to me as though my hon. Friend was asking about the proper recording and presentation of evidence.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): I welcome the Home Secretary's concerns about the sex industry. Will steps be taken to prevent mass applications from folk from third world countries and eastern Europe, who come to the United Kingdom as entertainers but are kept as sex slaves? Is he aware of that problem? I welcome the sentencing standards, but in the past calls for higher sentences have not always been met by judges, who have passed low sentences, sometimes in extreme cases.

Mr. Blunkett: The new law on trafficking with the intent of prostitution and exploitation will address the issue that the hon. Gentleman raises. Catching those involved is as much the issue as achieving convictions, so enforcement procedures will need to be stepped up as part of much broader policies on people trafficking.

There is a problem with sentencing. All of us found extraordinary a recent judgment in which a judge totally misunderstood the strictures of the Lord Chief Justice. It is not normally my role to defend the Lord Chief Justice—or he me—but on this occasion he was maligned by the presumption that he had suggested that a low sentence should be given for an act of paedophilia in circumstances in which all of us would have expected the sentence to be as tough as the law provides for.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): In reviewing the law on prostitution, which is as legally necessary as it is politically challenging, will the Home Secretary confirm that the physical protection of prostitutes, and their access to health and medical advice, will be paramount criteria?

Mr. Blunkett: Yes, and I very much welcome the spirit of the question. In fact, I could not have phrased it better myself. It is challenging in every possible way.

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I understand the underlying thrust of the question, and I am not ducking it. I know that the provision of medical assessments and health care takes us up other alley ways, as one might say, but we have to take on this challenge. We in this century must do what Josephine Butler attempted 150 years ago, in a very different era and in a very different way. Otherwise, history will judge us very severely.

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