Sexual Offences Bill [Lords]

[back to previous text]

The Solicitor-General: Care proceedings will often be taken on the basis of action that falls short of a criminal offence, so that will not be too much of a problem. One does not need to worry about the criminal law when one looks at care proceedings; one has to look only at the welfare of the child. Some things that are against the welfare of the child are not criminal offences, and they would come under that part of the law—care proceedings would still have jurisdiction because of the person being a child and being in this country. The care proceedings remit is absolute in that we are not asking for the criminal law to be overriding. The care proceedings would override the institution of marriage in the interests of the welfare of the child. Many things that are not in the interests of the child are not criminal offences but they could be the foundation of care proceedings.

Column Number: 191

I am not making any promises but we will look again at the wording of the clause and its positioning in the Bill. We want everyone to feel that the Bill gets such judgments right: we want to be where the consensus is on the issue. There are no competing agendas here but a lot of difficult decisions have to be made. I strongly think that we should leave this clause in the Bill, but I do not rule out the possibility that we will have some further thoughts about it before the Bill is on Report.

Mr. Grieve: I am not minded to press for a Division on this matter. That would not be desirable. It is not a party-political issue. That is not a reason not to seek to press for a Division, but I do not wish to engage in a confrontation with the Government or to encourage their Back Benchers to embarrass the Solicitor-General.

I accept that this is a serious and difficult issue. The Government have approached it with precedent on their side and their decision can be rationally explained. I hope, however, that the Solicitor-General will seriously consider what has been said. Looking round the Room , I see no majority in favour of the clause. When we consult the wider House on Report, it may turn out that Committee members are in a minority in their own parties on the matter—it is possible. I hope that the fact that we have been charged by the House to scrutinise the Bill and to give it a lot of thought—and that a majority are very unhappy about the clause—will have some weight with the Government.

Perhaps the Solicitor-General will, after this morning's consideration, let Committee members know what happens in other countries in comparative terms. It would be useful to know whether it is largely universal in the international community to recognise the lawfulness of marriages, and thereby sexual relations in marriage, whether other countries take a different view and how that may work in practice. It would be helpful if she could do some research on that, if she does not already have the information.

We are moving into society changes and new worlds. One such change that we already know about in relation to marriage is that many of the rights that existed in marriage are no longer allowed to exist by law. We have removed many of the husband's rights in marriage, which would previously have been regarded as the norm. I never thought that that was objectionable in any way. The clause contains the idea that marriage overrides the protection of the child against sexual activity that Parliament deems to be a bad thing. I think that that is slightly strange when viewed in the context of what we are trying to achieve with the Bill.

We may have come to the point at which it is right that we as a Parliament say that the activity is undesirable and should be criminalised. The Solicitor-General argued forcefully against providing exemptions for those under 16, which I have argued for in certain limited contexts. Since that is the view, marriage should no longer be able to override child

Column Number: 192

protection. That is a perfectly logical, rational position. I am encouraged by the fact that other Committee members seem to think likewise.

Ms Keeble: I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General for assuring the Committee that she will consider the matter further.

On reading the Bill, I did not think that the clause could mean what it appeared to mean. Having listened to the debate, I realise that it did mean what it appeared to mean. The clause provides an exemption for married people who come into the country.

I would like the Solicitor-General to consider the following issues. We know that there is an issue around British girls going abroad for marriage. Everybody recognises that. There is no point citing the communities that are particularly involved with it. Girls who are UK citizens might go abroad and get married to a person who is not. The domicile at the time of the marriage might be quite unclear—it might be abroad. The man might say that he wants to remain in his country, but the situation might change, in which case they might decide to return, although the girl could still be under 16.

We must be clear about the age at which British girls go abroad to get married. We must ensure that in those circumstances a girl has very clear protection and that she does not have to prove where her domicile and that of her husband's is or was at the time of the marriage, or what the intentions were. We should bear it in mind that in the communities where such patterns occur the woman is likely to have a much lower status than the man and is therefore rarely in a position to challenge the decisions that are being taken for her. If she does, she will pay a heavy price. I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend has dealt with such cases, and probably many more than I have. The ones that I have seen have not been pleasant.

10.45 am

That is an immediate practical issue, but we must also consider what we are saying to girls about the protection that the law here would extend to them. Speaking from experience, I know that it is very important that girls growing up here are clear that the law will protect them and that they can look to the United Kingdom, as their country of origin or of permanent residence, to protect them absolutely. Clear, unambiguous standards must be set down.

I also wonder about the consistency in saying that we will pursue paedophiles abroad and thus extend our jurisdiction—which is a difficult issue in relation to the measures in the Bill and elsewhere—while saying that we are softer when it comes to what happens in our own country. I hope that clarity can be provided, so that it is clear for girls growing up here and for the communities involved where the law stands and whose side it is on.

Mrs. Brooke: I welcome the Solicitor-General's comments about a period of reflection. I hope that that means reconsultation with some of the major children's bodies. That is important. We all know about the classic communication gaps that can occur when everyone focuses on one aspect and loses sight of

Column Number: 193

something else. Perhaps that is what has happened: so many other concerns were addressed in the House of Lords that something was overlooked.

I have been given some reassurance by the Solicitor-General's comments. However, I still have the vision of a 13 or 14-year-old child who is in a marriage in this country and living outside her culture being told by her husband, ''This is okay. We are married, so I can do anything.'' That child will not be able to distinguish between the exceptions. How will she know? As the Bill stands, I fear that there is scope for exploitation and abuse because a child does not know what is acceptable. An additional period of reflection is most important, and I hope that there will be some change to the current situation.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 16, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

The Chairman: Before we proceed, I apologise to the Committee for the racket going on outside. I have asked Officers of the House to investigate it, but I fear that it is a symptom of the early recall and the work that is being carried out.

I do not often do this, but I also thank the Committee for giving me the opportunity and privilege of listening to an exemplary debate. I sometimes wish that people outside this House could hear some of the work we do in the manner in which it is being done this morning.

Clause 74

Exceptions to aiding, abetting and counselling

Amendments made: No. 48, in

    clause 74, page 35, line 38, after 'not', insert

    'for the purpose of obtaining sexual gratification or'.

No. 49, in

    clause 74, page 35, line 38, leave out 'either'.—[Paul Goggins.]

Clause 74, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 17

Meeting a child following sexual grooming etc.

Mr. Grieve: I beg to move amendment No. 156, in

    clause 17, page 6, line 37, at end insert—

    '( ) the earlier communications are sexual in nature or involve A impersonating another person in a way calculated to induce B to believe that it would be safe and appropriate to meet A,.'.

In clause 17, we come to an important area in relation to the creation of a new offence. I wholly support the principle of the new offence that we are introducing of meeting a child following sexual grooming. It is, therefore, with a certain amount of diffidence that I table amendment No. 156. I should make it clear that it is not my amendment; it was introduced by Liberty. As I open on the matter, I say that I am not wholly convinced of the merit of the amendment, but I am convinced that it raises a legitimate issue that the Committee should consider. That is why I tabled it.

Column Number: 194

Liberty's anxiety, which one can follow when one reads clause 17, is whether there is a danger that in our worthy attempt to properly criminalise an activity that is preparatory to carrying out a sexual assault or offence against a child, we might criminalise perfectly innocent communication and reach the conclusion that because a 40-year-old happens to be communicating by e-mail with a 13-year-old it is absolutely of necessity that a nefarious purpose lies behind it. Our society seems to me to be increasingly sexualised in many ways—sexual motives are attributed even to innocent actions and activities. We are sometimes in danger of putting labels on individuals and activities that are not always deserved.

Liberty's amendment spells out specifically that the communication that has to take place before the meeting is organised must be either ''sexual in nature'', or involve a deception by the person concerned so that although there is no sexual nature to the communications, one would be able to examine them and see that one person has attempted to deceive the other as to their identity, for instance, or age.

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2003
Prepared 16 September 2003