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Baroness Walmsley: From these Benches we welcome this part of the Bill and the Government's amendment to it. The noble and learned Lord will be aware that at meetings about the Bill off the Floor of the House we raised concerns about the quality of the evidence that would be required for a conviction of someone under this new offence. The amendment clarifies matters considerably. We are delighted to know that the police have experts who can get into computers and find e-mails as their contents may make the accused's intention clear, which is important. Initially we had considerable sympathy with the concerns of Liberty, but the reassurances that we have received from the Minister have set our minds at rest. We shall have to see how the Bill works in practice. However, we certainly welcome the new offence which is an advance in child protection.
The noble Baroness said: I welcome Clause 17 because it attempts to deal with sexual grooming. Amendments Nos. 83, 84 and 87 have been tabled to explore the preparatory nature of the activity essential for this offence. The Minister will be aware from the Second Reading debate that Clause 17 does not refer to sexual grooming as such. I was concerned to ensure that it encompasses an element of preparation. The offence just requires that a person has met or communicated with a child on at least two occasions before meeting the child or travelling with the intention of meeting the child. Nothing there is preparatory to the act that will involve a sexual offence.
Most communications and meetings with children, whether face to face or via the Internet, have no evil intent but all such communications potentially fall within the clause. My noble friend Lady Blatch and I were briefed by the Metropolitan Police, who believe that Clause 17 is essential preventive medicine. We heard how the Metropolitan Police deal with paedophiliac offences, which was something of an eye opener. The Metropolitan Police say that they will prove evidence of the intention that is required by Clause 17(1)(b) to commit a sexual offence in part by
A ploy used by persons involved in grooming is to pretend to be someone much more like their intended victim or to allow trust to build up. Amendment No. 87 tries to capture those two possibilities where the communication is of a sexual nature or the offender has used impersonation to make the child believe that it would be safe to meet the person. If other words would capture the essence of grooming, I shall be pleased to consider them.
My noble friend Lady Blatch said that the offence under Clause 17 is essentially a thought crime that penalises a state of mind. The intention to commit an offence actually triggers the offence. I have no fundamental problem with that concept, provided that the clause offers sufficient safeguards. The Criminal Bar Association believes that safeguards are needed because of the potential that the earlier communications were entirely innocent. The CBA has suggested the words in Amendment No. 84, which requires that there be proved the intent to commit a sexual offence at the time of the two earlier communications. While that is different from Amendment No. 87, the intention is the sameto require more evidence about the defendant's behaviour or intentions before the meeting or the travelling that triggers the offence.
The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, mentioned that Liberty has expressed concern about prosecuting individuals not for what they have done but for what someone thinks that they might do. Liberty believes that people will become afraid of talking to children and that the impact on neighbours or communities will leave children less safe than at present. My noble friend Lord Astor of Hever pointed out at Second Reading that the Climbie inquiry taught us that we have to encourage neighbours to look out for children. We must not by this Bill make people scared of talking to children for fear of false accusations of paedophiliac offences.
As I am sure that the Minister is aware, Liberty would prefer the complete removal of Clause 17 but, failing that, supports Amendment No. 87. I stress that I have no desire to make the offence of sexual grooming any less effective; I am merely trying to ensure that the offence is clearly aimed at sexual grooming behaviour and, by doing so, does not become a trap into which the unwary innocent may fall. I beg to move.
Baroness Blatch: First, I am sorry that I was unable to move Amendment No. 82. Normally, we are told at the outset when an amendment is moved whether it pre-empts other amendments. I should have spoken to Amendment No. 82, if only to persuade the Minister to consider including its provisions in a later part of the Bill. Perhaps I shall have to reconsider that.
Amendment No. 84 would also make it unnecessarily difficult to convict for grooming. It requires the prosecution to prove that on two earlier occasions where the perpetrator met or communicated with his victim, he intended to commit a sexual offence. The offence already requires the prosecution to prove that there was an intention to commit an offence at the time of the meeting in question. To add to that a burden of proving a similar intention on two earlier occasions would drastically reduce the number of prosecutions and convictions.
The fact that two examples are required gives rise to the dreadful scenario that a single, blatantly sexual advance would not suffice for a conviction under the clause. In fact, it could be a single, very long contact with the individual. A paedophile may have a series of entirely innocuous communications with a child which, unbeknown to the child, are intended to lull him or her into a false sense of security. That is a particular tactic of paedophiles. If he then sends a single e-mail asking the young person to meet him to perform specific sexual acts, he could escape conviction, since that falls short of the two examples required by Amendment No. 84. I ask the Minister to confirm that that would be the effect of the amendments.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, said, the offence would be committed only where it could be proven that an adult, having communicated with a child on at least two previous occasions, travelled to meet or met that child with the intention sexually to abuse the child at the meeting or subsequently. The sexual intent at the final meeting must be proven in order for the offence to be made out. It would, therefore, seem unwise to limit the communication to only those of an explicitly sexual nature or where the adult had impersonated someonefor example, a person of similar age to the childin order to lead the child to believe that a meeting would be safe and appropriate.
Perhaps I can test that by way of example. A man in his 20s may communicate with a child of 13 or 14. The man may talk on the Internet to the child about his favourite pop group, or what he likes to watch on television. In this way he may befriend the child and travel to meet him with the intention of committing a sexual offence against him. He may even communicate, as happens, details of the sexual offence he is intending to commit to another adult with similar sexual interests to his own, but he has neither tried to impersonate someone else nor been remotely sexual in his communication. That man would not be guilty of a Clause 17 offence. Is that what we want? I do not think that it is. With respect to the noble Baroness, I believe that these are unwise amendments.
The effect of Amendment No. 84 would be to make, in some cases, prosecution under Clause 17 for the offence of meeting a child following sexual grooming extremely difficult. The effect of Amendment No. 84 would be that the intention would have to be present before each of the meetings. I assume that the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, and the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, have tabled the amendment in order to prevent wrongful prosecutions against adults who have innocent non-sexual communications and intentions towards children and that the offence should be committed only where the future sexual intent can be proven at the time of the earlier communications as well.
In fact, such innocent and altruistic communications where there is never any sexual intent would never bring conviction, as the offence is committed only following those communications where the adult travels to meet the child and a sexual intent at that stage can be proven. It should not matter, when an adult travels to meet a child with an intention sexually to abuse that child, whether or not you can also prove that he had that sexual intention in previous communications with the child. It is enough that he has befriended that child and now travels to meet him or meets him with that intent.
I understand why the amendment has been tabled, but in effect it creates great difficulties. All you would have to prove to get away with the offence would be that one of the occasions was entirely innocent. That would be enough, even though there might be conduct or communications, for example, with a third party that indicated that the meeting was intended to lead to illegal sexual activity.
The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, referred to pre-emption and asks why there should be two occasions rather than one. This is a sensible, effective but quite far-reaching offence. It depends upon a course of conduct before the meeting. The course of conduct would not be established by just one meeting; you
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