Previous Section Index Home Page

31 Jan 2008 : Column 546

31 Jan 2008 : Column 547

31 Jan 2008 : Column 548

Bill read the Third time, and passed.


Smoking Ban (Rossendale)

4.48 pm

Janet Anderson (Rossendale and Darwen) (Lab): The petition is from the regular customers of the Swan hotel in Bacup, Rossendale, in my constituency. It has been signed by 93 of them and it expresses concern about the effect on their daily lives of the smoking ban.

Bacup is famous for many things, such as the “Britannia coconutters”, the Rossendale Academy of Arts and the fact that it provided the location for “Juliet Bravo”, but above all it is famous for its community spirit. The Swan hotel regulars tell me that since the ban was introduced at least a good third of their social friends have stopped coming as a direct result, and the social atmosphere in the pub has drastically diminished. Smokers and non-smokers alike are finding that the ban serves no purpose whatever, other than nibbling away at the social cohesion that has taken many years to evolve.

Following is the full text of the petition:

[The Petition of customers of the Swan Hotel, Bacup, Rossendale,

Declares that the smoking ban is having an adverse effect on the social structure and enjoyment within their local pub, the Swan Hotel; they consider it a valuable asset within the local community.

The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Government to introduce amending legislation to provide for the landlord of the Swan Hotel placing a sign on his door depicting the pub as a ‘smoking establishment’ giving customers the right to choose whether to enter or not.

And the Petitioners remain, etc.]


31 Jan 2008 : Column 549

Data Encryption (Child Abuse)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Mr. David.]

4.50 pm

Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley) (Con): Perhaps I should reassure you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I do not intend to use the opportunity to speak until 6.30 pm.

I thank the Minister for attending this debate. I anticipated that a Minister from another Department would attend, because I am raising this issue on the basis of a new clause that I tried to propose to the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill on Report. It was chopped when it ran out of time under our favourite procedure—the guillotine. I therefore hoped that a Minister from the Ministry of Justice would respond today, but I welcome this Minister because he understands the problem. In a funny way, we have worked on the same sorts of campaign on various causes. We have been on the same side in trying to protect children from paedophiles.

I have been working quietly, but I hope with some effect, on this matter for perhaps a decade. I want to touch on something that is developing into a problem as technology moves forward. It is well known that paedophiles take and collect child abuse photos. The photos used to be in the form of hard copies—taken by box Brownies and so on—but things moved on to videos and now to digital. Such images are now kept on computers, CD-ROM, DVDs and other form of digital storage. Digital is used as an opportunity to download information—pictures and so on—from websites. Paedophiles swap their pictures over the internet, and take their own photos. Many such images are acquired by the website groups that these individuals join to produce new photographs. One must remember that every single photograph is of a child being abused, and there are millions of these photographs.

Several things have changed over recent years. First, demand has increased, and that includes the demand of these individuals for new material. I understand from talking to the police that the other thing that has changed is the level of the photographs’ depravity—the depths being plumbed are getting lower and lower. Every so many weeks the police will say, “I have never seen anything as bad as this.” When TV programmes talk about protecting children, they mean teenage children, but demand is increasing for younger and younger children, even down to infants and babies.

The point that I want to emphasise tonight is the introduction of encryption. I have discussed the issue with police experts and even with the National Technical Assistance Centre—NTAC—whose job is to act on behalf of the police and the security forces to break encryption. I understand from one of NTAC’s directors that the proportion of child abuse material that has been encrypted is increasing. One of the points made is that as the demand on NTAC is increasing, its budget seems to be decreasing—but then one would expect the head of such a department to say that.

Encryption used to be difficult, but over the past few years it has been possible to download 128 and then 256-bit encryption freely on the net. What is making the situation worse is the fact that the previously complicated procedures required are becoming simpler.
31 Jan 2008 : Column 550
Perhaps even more striking is the fact that the new Windows Vista Professional contains a system that means that the moment one turns one’s computer off, everything on it is encrypted. So if the police are to have any hope of getting much data from these computers, CD-ROMs and so on, they must get their hands on the computers when they are still running. Otherwise, they are sent off to NTAC to try to break the code.

The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 gave us some hope. It introduced a penalty of two years’ imprisonment for failure to provide the key. Sadly, the relevant part of the Act has only just been enacted, and I am aware of that because I was so concerned that I helped with the consultation. With a bit of encouragement from me—to put it mildly—the consultation included a suggestion that a higher penalty should be imposed when the failure to provide the key to encrypted material concerned child abuse material. I enjoined some of the officials at a meeting to try to help to persuade concerned representatives from the City who, on understanding the point that I was making, accepted it.

On Second Reading of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill, I raised my idea as a possibility, and I received a written response. In essence, it said, “Wait and see, we want to see how the change is working.” Well, it is not working, and it is blindingly obvious why it is not working. The police can say to offenders, “If you do not produce the key, you could go to prison for up to two years.” But most of the material being hidden would put offenders away for five years or more and put them on the sex offenders list. It is an obvious choice to make, and they do not produce the key.

I shall give the Minister a current example. An individual is going to court next month. He was arrested in mid-2006. He and a colleague were going to go to France, and they had written out a plan of how they would attack, grab, seduce or abuse French children. Fortunately, for French and English children, the man and his colleague were caught. The police went to the man’s home and found some abuse files, not many, but his computer contained another 150GB of encrypted material. I asked a friend of mine who works at IBM what that would mean if the files were all single photographs taken by a straightforward camera of the sort that many of these people use. He said that it could be as many as 750,000 single photographs. I was staggered, but my police colleagues said that it was not unusual.

In this particular case, the need is more urgent. This individual has babysat a little girl, aged three. The police know, from a physical examination, that the girl has been abused. By a process of elimination, the individual is almost certainly the abuser. The little girl will be no use in court as a witness. The only way to catch him would be to break the code on the 150GB of material. He has been approached with the warning about two years, and it would be excessively polite to render his response as “No.” He would rather serve two years and not reveal the data. The police want the data, partly because of the three-year-old girl, but also because if there are other children’s faces in there, they might be able to find them and help them.

I then decided to propose the new clause. It is straightforward, and would increase the penalty from two years to five years. The new penalty would apply in
31 Jan 2008 : Column 551
any one of three circumstances. First, it would apply if the offender had been convicted of an offence under the Protection of Children Act 1978 or the Sexual Offences Act 2003. Secondly, it would apply if the offender’s computer or a similar source of data was being examined and it was apparent that it contained at least some images of the abuse of a child. Thirdly, it would apply if the court was satisfied, according to the civil standard, that the protected data were likely to include an indecent photograph of a child—I shall not go through all the details of that. We did not reach my new clause during our discussions in this place, but I have received the agreement of those on my Front Bench that it will be tabled in another place when the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill reaches the appropriate stage of its consideration.

I want the penalty to be increased to five years. In fact, even though such an aspiration is probably unrealistic, I want it to be increased to 10 years. Men and women who do such things to children need to be put away out of the reach of children for as long as possible. I do not know the legal ramifications, but such cases often come up when the individual appears before a court for other child abuse problems. On conviction, it would be very nice if the penalty in such cases was consecutive and not concurrent.

I ask the Minister not to give us 15 minutes of soothing words, for all our sakes. I expect him to be sympathetic, because I know him and I know his attitude. I want my new clause to be passed on to the Secretary of State for Justice, either so that he can back it and explain the need for it or so that an equivalent amendment can be introduced in the Government’s name.

In the past, amendments that I have proposed have been refused in this House but have gone through in another place in a slightly different form and in the Government’s name. I do not mind that, because I want an increased battery of legal equipment to deal with paedophiles.

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the enormous amount of work he has done on the subject in collaboration with the Minister and the Government. I entirely agree that in relation to the vile crimes to which he is referring, the punishment in cases that involve this technicality should be increased. I have visited the paedophile unit at Scotland Yard, as well as its equivalent in my local police force in Sussex. The complaint was that such people have a technological know-how that is one step ahead of that of the police. Applying the necessary resources—from the expertise of the personnel who try to crack into the computers to the cost of the hardware and software that is required—is putting serious pressure on the police’s resources. I agree with the need for a change in the law, but the police also need to reprioritise some of the resources so that the responsible departments have the wherewithal to ensure that people are brought to justice and that the penalty can be applied. Does my hon. Friend agree?

Sir Paul Beresford: I certainly agree. I touched on that subject a little. The feeling that I got from NTAC was that it started off with a huge budget, but that the workload has gone up while the budget has not.

31 Jan 2008 : Column 552

My hon. Friend is right about another point. A friend of mine, a defence barrister who is very well known in the field, has described such individuals as the biggest bunch of cunning, intelligent liars she has come across. I recently watched an interview with one such individual and he was literally a rocket scientist. His intellect was considerable, but he had that awful need to abuse children.

Let me come back to the point. We need the change. It must go through urgently in primary legislation. If it can go through on the tail of that Christmas tree Bill in the other place, that would be delightful. It will still be too late for that little three-year-old girl, but there will be more three-year-old girls and boys and the paedophiles—the individuals, both male and female, who do such things—need to be taken away and locked away from children.

5.4 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Vernon Coaker): I begin by extending to the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) my genuine thanks for the way in which he conducts himself with regard to these matters. I have had ministerial responsibility for this area for just over 18 months, and in that time he has worked very hard to bring various issues and facts to my attention. That has contributed greatly to the work that we are trying to do, and I am extremely grateful to him.

The hon. Gentleman is also a member of the Home Secretary’s taskforce and I know that he is highly regarded, both in the House and outside it, for the very valuable work that he does. He is committed and dedicated, in both a professional sense—if that is the correct expression—and in a personal sense, and I compliment him on that. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) has also made a significant contribution to our work on these matters, and I am grateful to him for attending this debate.

At the outset, I should like to put various matters on record. Those of us attending the debate know the background to it, but we must remember that people outside the House read our proceedings too. Therefore, as well as responding to the questions that have been raised, it is important to lay out for them the processes that we have gone through.

At this stage, though, I should like to extend to the hon. Member for Mole Valley, and any other hon. Member who is interested, an invitation to a meeting at which we can discuss some of the issues in more detail. A debate like this is important as a way to set out all the relevant information in cases such as the one that we are considering this evening, but hon. Members of all parties have a common interest in finding a way forward. We are all disgusted by the images that we know are accessed by paedophiles; we all want to protect children and to do as much as possible to prosecute paedophiles and bring them to justice. If we can learn from each other and discuss our common goals, we will be able to make progress.

I hope that my offer is helpful, and if the hon. Member for Mole Valley is agreeable I shall ask my office to set to work putting a meeting together. In addition, if he is aware of other people, over and above the ones I would suggest, whom he would like to invite, I should be very happy to consider including them in the invitation.

31 Jan 2008 : Column 553

The Government have encouraged the growth of access to the internet, and firmly believe that the facilities available on it, from research information to online shopping, have helped to enhance the lives of our citizens. We are also keen to encourage the development of security on the internet, and to give our citizens the tools to ensure that any information that they send by that means remains secure.

However, the Government recognise that the internet and associated technologies are used for unlawful—and sometimes frankly disgusting—purposes. The same information security technologies that provide security and confidentiality for legitimate business and financial transactions can be misused to secure and conceal images of children being sexually abused, so as to evade detection and prosecution.

Nine years ago, in a report on law enforcement and encryption from the Cabinet Office performance and innovation unit, the Government acknowledged that the misuse of security tools was a potential threat. Following that report, the Government established in 2000 the National Technical Assistance Centre to provide law enforcement with a national resource for the complex processing of lawfully obtained protected electronic information.

Over seven years, NTAC has built up considerable expertise, which it has made available to law enforcement investigators. Complementing the development of NTAC, the Government provided resources to police forces to enable them to appoint and train dedicated forensic computing analysts and investigators who are better able to understand and identify digital evidence. In that regard, I agree with the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham that some people display a kind of evil genius when it comes to hiding what they do and that, as a result, law enforcement officers must have the same level of expertise. I know of the quality and standard of the people who work at NTAC. Their ability is astonishing.

Similarly, I have visited the Serious Organised Crime Agency high-tech unit that deals with e-crime and seen the work that it does to break some of the computer codes, if that is the right way of putting it. It is astonishing. In this cyber-world, this internet world, this virtual world, it is about trying to develop that capacity. It may not involve a police officer, but we all need to look at the ability to develop law enforcement capacity to deal with that.

Together, those individuals, both in police forces and in NTAC, are contributing to the delivery of results in making protected information intelligible. I know that the hon. Member for Mole Valley will understand why it would not be appropriate for me to disclose or even to imply exactly what capabilities either NTAC or our police forces have, what they can do and what they cannot do. As far as those individuals who seek to use information technology to conceal evidence of their crimes are concerned, we should, necessarily, do as much as we can to leave them guessing.

Next Section Index Home Page