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Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, again, I do not think that there is any difference between the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, and the Government on what we seek to bring about. Perhaps I should set out the principal stand that we adopt.
Our view is that all objectionable behaviour of the sort generally described by the noble Baroness, which is directed to the vulnerable--namely, children--should be capable of being caught by effective criminal sanctions. In a deep sense, it is not really relevant whether that is done on the Internet or by more conventional means. It seems to us that the law should meet the mischief effectively, comprehensively and coherently, whatever the mechanism or device which is used.
The first part of the first new clause--and I will spend a little longer than on the earlier matters, if I may, without trespassing on your Lordships' patience--is directed at using an electronic communication for the purpose of engaging in an act of gross indecency. That is to catch, if I understand it right, a person who uses the Internet to get himself in a position where he is able to commit an act of gross indecency with or towards a child.
If the use made of the Internet contains material which is sufficiently explicit as to the person's intentions, that behaviour is already caught by the incitement provisions of Section 1 of the Indecency with Children Act 1960.
The noble Baroness is right, of course, that more than single mind is required to prove conspiracy, but incitement is not in that category. If the material is not explicit but is used to arrange a meeting, the second part of the proposed amendment--inciting a child to a meeting with the intention of engaging in an act of gross indecency--would come into play.
Depending on the available evidence, that activity might well be caught by the provisions of the Child Abduction Act 1984 or, indeed, by an attempted incitement to one of the offences under the Sexual Offences Act 1956. We need to bear in mind that Section 2 of the 1984 Act already makes it an offence for someone other than a parent or some others, without reasonable excuse, to take or detain a child under 16 so as to remove that child from, or keep him out of the control of, any person entitled to have lawful control of the child. A person is regarded as "taking a child" if he causes or is one of the causes of, or induces the child to accompany him or any other person, or causes the child to be taken. There is no requirement for physical removal of the child.
So there are offences of aiding, abetting, counselling or procuring, or conspiracy to commit the offences covering much, if not all, of the behaviour dealt with in the noble Baroness's amendment. There are offences of attempted incitement under the 1956 Act.
One of the cautionary pieces of advice which was well given to us by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chief Justice was to try to achieve coherence in the criminal law. We are not simply waiting for things to happen. As the noble Baroness knows, the first volume of Setting the Boundaries, on reforming the law on sexual offences, was published in July of this year, as was the second volume of supporting evidence. That is out for consultation at the moment. Those are very difficult, intricate parts of the law and if one has confused law reformed piecemeal, very often the perverse consequence is that the law is not able to be deployed appropriately in those areas.
The consultation period will come to an end in March next year. I suggest, with great respect, that we should really try to reform the law on sexual offences in a comprehensive way, to introduce uniformity and clarity into this difficult area of the criminal law.
The third part of the amendment--soliciting a child to an act of gross indecency--is covered by the incitement provisions of the existing Section 1 offence. The noble Baroness has already recited what is being done at the moment. I am grateful for her acknowledgement of the interim report of the sub-group. Our position is that we want children to be protected, but we want a comprehensive, workable framework for the criminal law.
The Association of Chief Police Officers, the National Criminal Intelligence Service, the National Crime Squad, and Customs and Excise have already prepared their high-tech crime strategy in response to the emerging threat posed by high-tech crime. The Home Secretary approved £337,000 for the National Criminal Intelligence Service to prepare the ground--I agree with the point the noble Baroness made--for developing a national unit to tackle computer crime, which includes the offences committed by paedophiles to which she referred. I do not believe that there is a gap in the law which is capable of being filled, or ought to be filled, on a piecemeal basis.
The second proposed new clause relates to indecency with children. Of course we want to protect children by means of the criminal law. The amendment I moved and which your Lordships agreed extends the protection of children by raising the age from under 14 to under 16. The first part of the second new clause would have no greater effect than the new clause I proposed. One part of the amendment dealt with potential parental liability. Indeed the penalty proposed is up to 10 years' imprisonment in circumstances where,
This is not a drafting point; it is a point of substance. I take it as an illustration of the dangers that there are, for good motive and from a good heart, in trying to reform an area of law which is exceptionally difficult. People are regularly prosecuted to conviction in the courts in the United Kingdom. There are offences, of course, to protect children against abduction. I do not believe--this is really a conceptual difference between the noble Baroness and myself--that qualitatively or conceptually there is any difference between the Internet or any other form of human activity that is designed or is capable of damaging children.
So I sympathise with the motives of the noble Baroness in putting forward these amendments. But the gap that she believes exists does not in fact exist. The powers are there for investigation and prosecution and a number of her illustrations on past occasions resulted in successful convictions.
I have spent a little time on this. It is an important matter. I urge the House to reform this difficult area in a measured, careful, thoughtful way. The consultation period has not yet run. A good deal of the difficulty in our criminal law has arisen because of piecemeal attempts in the past which have developed and been determined by specific illustrations which outrage us all but which are not always a good guide to proportionate, appropriate reform.
Whatever we say, the police do not believe that they have enough powers to intervene on the ground. We said this at the last stage and know it still to be true. They want powers to intervene before a crime is committed against a child. Noble Lords will have to forgive me. I am coloured by my own experience as a Minister at the Home Office and the total failure I experienced in trying to obtain a description of corrupting and depraving materials; that is, materials which were being illicitly sent through the post to unsuspecting recipients. I failed miserably because there is a natural resistance in the Home Office to draft legislation of this kind. It is something about which I feel extremely strongly and I must test the opinion of the House.
Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.