Clause 17 - Meeting a child following sexual grooming etc.

Sexual Offences Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee am ar 16 Medi 2003.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Amendment proposed [this day]: No. 40, in

clause 17, page 7, line 21, leave out '7' and insert '14'.—[Mr. Grieve.]

Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Llafur, Redcar 2:30, 16 Medi 2003

The amendment would increase the maximum sentence for the offence to 14 years. I propose a compromise of 10 years on the basis that we should keep the harsher sentencing for the full offence, rather than for activity that is merely preparatory to committing an offence. Given that the traditional and right approach is to give a sentencing discount for an attempt as opposed to the full offence, I suggest that something that is merely preparatory should also be subject to a discount.

Photo of Paul Beresford Paul Beresford Ceidwadwyr, Mole Valley

The drive behind the clause, which is the main proposal from sub-group A, was preventive and proactive. An example cited by the police to the Committee was that of Luke Sadowski. Because the Bill is not on the statute book, that man was charged with attempted indecent assault, attempting to incite another to procure a child—a girl under 21—for sex, and possession of a firearm. It was his first offence and the police were fortunate that he pleaded guilty, as it would have been hard to make the offence stick. When the police went to his accommodation, they found firearms, handcuffs, knives and other paraphernalia, the implication being that ultimately he would kill a child. It was an offence in the mind, but if we follow that mind, 10 years would not be enough. Fourteen years must be available to the court, given that he might come out of prison in much less time than that.

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Llafur, Redcar

The hon. Gentleman takes such issues seriously, as do we all, and gives the worst imaginable case as an example. There is a good reason to keep the harsher sentences only for the fullest offences. It will then be clear to those who even contemplate committing such offences that they will be punished severely if they do so. We must keep the position secure and allow some discount in view of the fact that no one has been harmed. The only logic in increasing the sentence to 14 years would be if the full offences were subject to higher punishments.

At a time when the public are dissatisfied not so much with the gravity of sentencing, but the inconsistency of sentencing for the same offences, the position must be made clear to judges by setting the limits which sentences are to be more severe. As a rule, an attempt is sentenced less seriously than the full offence, and we are not discussing even an attempt. I accept that such matters are not just in the person's head, because there has been an element of

communication prior to the attempt to meet; none the less, despite the real gravamen of what is in the person's mind, it is only in his mind at the time. I do not agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, West (Stephen Hesford) that we can equate clause 17 with clause 15 and say that the offences therein merit a similar sentence. Clause 15 contains elements of a conspiracy with other people to set up a group to behave in such a way, which is more grave.

The mischief that the amendment claims to cure could be dealt with if the Government were willing to accept a maximum sentence of 10 years. The spectre of the low sentences that were quoted by Conservative Members this morning would be lifted.

Photo of Sandra Gidley Sandra Gidley Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Romsey

I approach the subject with an open mind. While listening to the debate, it struck me that we are approaching a wide range of intentions, and in such cases, there will potentially be a wide range of circumstantial evidence to back up the police. In the most severe cases, I am fairly convinced that other provisions of the Bill would be contravened and that that would lead to a greater sentence. We have to take account of the greater as well as the lesser offences. The hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) quoted one such example. Seven years is probably a reasonable sentence for the vast majority of offences under the clause but I am tempted to consider increasing the maximum to 14 years—or to come to a compromise of 10 years—to give judges more discretion.

The clause would be an ideal candidate for the Sentencing Guidelines Council; will the Under-Secretary consider the matter and come up with relevant guidelines?

Photo of Paul Goggins Paul Goggins Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

I am very grateful for the support from both sides of the Committee in relation to the offence that we are creating; it is an important, groundbreaking offence, which recognises a modern problem.

I have listened carefully to the debate on the amendment. My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, West, who is not with us at the moment, said that I had failed to respond to his speech on Second Reading. I humbly apologise for that; in the 15 minutes available to me, it was not possible to respond to every argument. However, he has had the opportunity to put his argument today.

We have talked today about sentencing issues that apply more widely than simply to the offence in question. The hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) said several times that if somebody is sentenced to seven years, they actually serve three and a half years and that if they are sentenced to 10 years, they do five years. That is a wider issue that does not apply simply to the offence in question. None the less, I recognise that that is a matter of debate.

The important points as far as I was concerned were made by the hon. Member for Mole Valley and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar (Vera Baird), who emphasised the preparatory nature of the offence. That goes to the heart of what the offence is about. We are trying to prevent a serious sexual

assault on a child; the powers that we have at the moment do not allow us to intervene as we would like to prevent that most serious event from happening.

I should tell the hon. Member for Mole Valley that Liberty is not a member of the taskforce, though I understand that a senior figure in Liberty has attended meetings; so although not part of the taskforce it has made a contribution.

Some time ago, the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke) raised the issue of—

Mrs. Annette L. Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) indicated dissent.

Photo of Paul Goggins Paul Goggins Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

Perhaps it was the hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) who raised the issue of intent and how sexual intent could be proved. It was the hon. Member for Romsey; I apologise. Clearly the prosecution and those conducting the investigation would look carefully at the circumstances in which the defendant was found. For example, if he were found going to the meeting with ropes, lubricants and paraphernalia that would indicate his intention to carry out sexual activity, that would be the kind of evidence sought.

To return to the issue, raised by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar, about the law in relation to attempt, clearly more would need to be proved than merely preparatory activity. The evidence sought would be far more significant: it might involve the removal of a child's clothing, or something that was part of the process of assaulting the child. We are trying to prevent that sort of thing from happening by putting the offence much further up the line, in the area of preparation. As the hon. Member for Romsey said, if a serious sexual assault takes place, that can be dealt with in a number of other ways that are addressed in other clauses: heavy penalties can be paid, from 14 years to life imprisonment.

The Government have tried to find a penalty that both reflects the seriousness of the offence and is proportionate. We are trying to anticipate offences that are of a lower order than the carrying out of the most serious kinds of sexual assaults on children and to prevent them from happening. For the penalty, we arrived at a figure of seven years, but it is important to emphasise that the sex offender notification requirements will apply to anybody who is found guilty of such an offence, and as a result of that registration they will be eligible for sex offender treatment programmes—that relates to a point made by the hon. Member for Mole Valley.

We think that we have got the principles right, but I am happy to reflect further on whether we have got the penalty right, so that we arrive at a final figure that reflects the principles and the need for proportionality as well as the fact that we regard this as a very serious offence.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Ceidwadwyr, Beaconsfield

I am pleased to have heard the Minister's comments. I tabled the amendment in order to argue that the penalty might be insufficient in certain cases. I suspect that they would

be a very limited number of cases, but they would be the sorts of cases that would excite a great deal of press and public comment.

I am glad that the Minister is undertaking to think again. A figure of 10 years has been suggested, which might merit consideration. It was never my intention to press the amendment to a Division. It would probably be sensible for all Committee members to go away and reflect on this matter. We can come back to it on Report—or the Minister might tell us his views before then.

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Llafur, Redcar

I was persuaded to suggest 10 years largely because that would introduce some consistency as clauses 62, 63 and 64, which address other preparatory offences, have that penalty.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Ceidwadwyr, Beaconsfield

I had appreciated that that figure was not plucked out of thin air: that might well provide an element of comparability that could be followed.

Although in 95 per cent. of cases the penalty of seven years will probably be sufficient, there will be some cases in which the police intervene to prevent what clearly would have been a dreadful crime and the person involved already has a serious track record of committing the complete offence. In those circumstances, the public are going to say that there is an opportunity to protect them but that the sentence does not match the gravity of the threat that is posed by the individual.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Paul Beresford Paul Beresford Ceidwadwyr, Mole Valley

This Bill has been interesting because the way in which the Committee has acted is unique. Outside the Committee, the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) said to me that he had been struck by that uniqueness. It relates to the subject under discussion.

The Committee has spent quite a lot of time talking about what goes on behind the bike sheds and so forth, which has been of interest to some newspapers. For me however, the unique thing is this clause, which came out of many meetings of many hours by members of sub-group A, which the Government set up specifically to investigate the internet. Sub-group A looked specifically at legal changes and came up with this clause but, interestingly, it moved on from that to look at broader issues—the protection of children and grooming in a context far wider than just the internet.

The clause is fascinating because people from America, Iceland, New Zealand, Canada and throughout the world are looking at it. There is much interest outside this country—much more than the media realise. The Committee was lucky to have some extremely able people sitting on it. Although those were mainly from child protection groups, there were also people like Detective Chief Inspector McLachlan from the police paedophile unit, and one of his successors, and academics. As the Under-Secretary said, one senior member of Liberty also sat on the Committee. Its membership was quite broad.

In a way, the Committee has come up with a more or less black and white Bill. I say in a way, because we must recognise that many of the people at whom the Bill is aimed are exceptionally clever. The Committee learned about some of those people, and they range from schoolteachers to computer experts and rocket scientists.

The clause was set up to be able to adapt, to a fair degree, to the changing times. We have dealt with the internet satisfactorily and with pictures and drawings, and so on. However, since the sub-group has been sitting there have been changes in technology, such as webcams, for example, which have had an effect on the activity of paedophiles and the link to children. We moved on to discuss the new phones with associated cameras, and how paedophiles are using those.

We are now discussing something about which I am deeply concerned and which I am not sure the clause will help much. The new phones—particularly pay-as-you-go phones—are becoming a real danger. On buying a mobile telephone nowadays, one gives a name, address, credit card number and so on, which is provided because the firm behind the supply of the phone and network wishes to be paid. If one buys a pay-as-you-go phone, that does not happen. That leads to a complication, because the paedophiles will give a child a phone and use it as part of their grooming. Their next step is to return to The Carphone Warehouse, or another organisation, pay £29.50 and explain that they want to track their daughter, for whom they are buying the phone. They, however, give no name, address or other details at all.

On receiving the £29.50, The Carphone Warehouse will check up by texting the daughter, because as far as it is concerned she has the phone. Of course, the paedophile has the phone, and he will text back the word ''yes'' on behalf of his imaginary daughter. We have moved on to a modern technology, through which the grooming paedophile can phone The Carphone Warehouse and locate the child. I think that that is quite extraordinary.

I do not think that we can quite cover this, but I want to follow what the Minister said at the beginning and offer support and thanks to the sub-group for its efforts. Many of us went away to work on the subject. I worked with an American researcher and one from New Zealand, looking at the law in the rest of the world. There is nothing anywhere that is comparable to this clause.

In one of the interviews on the ''Today'' programme—although not with the Under-Secretary—the Committee's efforts and the clause were belittled on the grounds that the internet is international and the clause would have an effect only on our small patch. We have 58 to 60 million people in this country, so there are, presumably, some 230,000 potentially active paedophiles. The clause is a darn good start. The interest of the rest of the world, particularly the western world, in the clause is such that if it works—I hope that it does for the children's sake—the rest of the world will follow in our footsteps. That is a nice way to be—with the British

Government, the British Parliament and this Committee protecting children through this one, little, unique clause.

Photo of Sandra Gidley Sandra Gidley Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Romsey 2:45, 16 Medi 2003

I welcome the clause. It is an excellent attempt to get to grips with what must be acknowledged as a real problem. However, I hope that the Minister does not mind if I ask a series of questions.

Last night I was considering the clause's ramifications, both internationally and internally. I started from the premise that both A and B are based in the UK; that is clearly covered by the Bill. I then considered the case of A living abroad and travelling to the UK to meet B. I assumed that that was covered, because some of the travel would have taken place in the UK, so UK law would apply. I would be grateful if the Minister confirmed that. What measures do we have at our disposal to liaise with police in other countries to facilitate such processes?

I then starting thinking about the Shevaun Pennington case, in which A, who lived abroad, and B, who lived in the UK, met in this country and went to a third country. I assumed that that would also be covered for the reasons that I just mentioned—part of the travel took place in the UK. I am a parent of teenagers, and know the number of sleepovers that are alleged to have taken place that, on closer inspection, did not. It occurred to me that A might live abroad and B might go on a school trip abroad, and the meeting might take place outside the UK. I was not sure whether the clause would capture that situation and, if not, whether there was something that we could do about it.

Finally, it occurred to me that A could sit quite happily in this country talking to children in other parts of the world, and I was not 100 per cent. sure how those children abroad would be protected by the clause, whether we would do anything to intervene and how we would liaise. Any light that the Minister can shed on that would be useful.

Photo of Paul Beresford Paul Beresford Ceidwadwyr, Mole Valley

The hon. Lady was at the teach-in, where the Metropolitan police discussed the American Marine. When the American Marine case came up, all the people on sub-group A and its legal advisers considered it very carefully. Two points arose: first, the sub-group thought that the clause applied, as the Marine was someone from outside coming in to collect the young lady and take her away. Secondly, the co-operation on this crime across the world, involving Interpol and various forces, was remarkably close and very effective.

In the case of Luke Sadowski, whose name I keep mispronouncing, if there had been a not guilty plea, the main people involved in the prosecution would have been Americans, and the case would have involved American law enforcement. We are working together very closely, and the clause will help us to stay ahead. I think that the hon. Lady will find that her fears are unfounded.

Photo of Sandra Gidley Sandra Gidley Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Romsey

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and for shedding some light on the subject. I will also be interested in the Minister's clarification.

I touched earlier on a point that did not involve the internet, and I do not intend to repeat my arguments. On another point, we have heard that much abuse of children is committed by children. The clause does nothing, on the face of it, to provide a defence or safeguard in a situation in which a 17-year-old is grooming someone younger. I am not clear on what would happen in such circumstances, because clause 17 cannot be used—we would almost have to wait for an offence to happen before we could act. I hope that the Minister will reassure me that that is not the case.

Photo of Paul Goggins Paul Goggins Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

Most of my responses are to the hon. Member for Romsey, but first I join in the remarks that the hon. Member for Mole Valley made about the taskforce and the sub-group. He has been involved with them for far longer than I have, but like him I very much appreciate their contribution.

In relation to the hon. Lady's question about the Sentencing Guidelines Council, which I was not able to answer, the council will consider producing sentencing guidelines for all the offences in the Bill, including the one that we are debating. I hope that that reassures her.

On the hon. Lady's four scenarios of A and B, which I more or less followed, the answer is yes to all of them. Communication can take place anywhere in the world and the meeting can take place anywhere in the world, but part of the travel to the meeting must take place in England or Wales. We must always consider what is within and outwith our jurisdiction. Given the scale of the internet and its capacity to communicate across the globe, we have struck a fair balance.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 17 ordered to stand part of the Bill.