Clause 113 - Section 112: interpretation

Sexual Offences Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee am 4:30 pm ar 14 Hydref 2003.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Llafur, Lancaster and Wyre 4:30, 14 Hydref 2003

I beg to move amendment No. 15, in

clause 113, page 59, line 23, leave out '16' and insert '18'.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Ceidwadwyr, North Thanet

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment No. 16, in

clause 113, page 59, line 24, leave out '16' and insert '18'.

Amendment No. 17, in

clause 113, page 59, line 34, leave out subsection (6).

Amendment No. 18, in

clause 114, page 60, line 4, after 'paragraphs', insert '5 to 9,'.

Amendment No. 19, in

clause 114, page 60, line 7, leave out '16' and insert '18'.

Amendment No. 20, in

clause 114, page 60, line 13, leave out '16' and insert '18'.

Amendment No. 21, in

clause 114, page 60, line 18, leave out '16' and insert '18'.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Llafur, Lancaster and Wyre

I begin by commending my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and my right hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General for the Government's work on foreign travel orders and the serious work undertaken to protect children abroad from the activities of sex offenders from this country.

The amendments, which reflect the cross-party and consensual nature of much debate in Committee, were originally drafted by UNICEF. We should congratulate UNICEF on its ''end child exploitation'' campaign and its work across the world to protect children who are being exploited by the sex industry.

The amendments are an attempt to improve the clauses relating to foreign travel orders. A few weeks ago we had a substantial debate on clause 49, under which, commendably, the Government have brought in serious penalties for those convicted of paying for the sexual services of a child. If someone pays for a child prostitute under 13, they are liable to a sentence of life imprisonment. For someone of 14 or 15, the term is 14 years: for someone of 16 or 17, it is seven years.

We have debated that latter sentence, but I do not think that anyone would demur from the view that that is a substantial penalty for an extremely serious offence, which is a good thing. However, it is incongruous that the Government are prepared to bring forward substantial legislation—clause 112 and subsequent clauses—that protects 16 and 17-year-olds from being exploited in the sex industry in this country but that specifically excludes children who are in a similar position abroad. We should try to tighten up this legislation to ensure that we fully protect children living abroad. That point follows on from our earlier debate on the three-day rule for sex offenders going abroad.

If we were to accept the spirit of these amendments, we could ensure that someone who has a record of offences against 16 and 17-year-olds—and who might have served a substantial prison sentence in this country and since acted in a way that gives reasonable cause to believe that it is necessary for an order to be made—is subject to a foreign travel order, and we could thereby prevent them from going abroad to indulge in sex tourism and to abuse children in developing countries.

We have a massive problem of child prostitution in this country, but we have a monstrous problem of child prostitution throughout the world: UNICEF estimates that, globally, 1 million children are abused in the sex industry. Massive poverty, and the desperate circumstances and huge dislocation of developing countries, make children extremely vulnerable.

I am very grateful for the support of other parties for these amendments. They are not wholly satisfactory: they were drafted some time ago. Fully to protect children under the age of 18 living abroad as well as in this country, we would need further amendments: for example, we would need to amend paragraph 26 of schedule 3.

I hope that the Government will accept the spirit of the amendment. They are to be commended for the work that they have done to ensure that children under 18 are protected from abuse. The United Nations convention definition of a child as someone under the age of 18 must be supported, as must the same definition of a child in the Children Act 1989.

I moved the amendments because there is an urgent necessity to protect children. That has been expressed across the Committee Floor, and by the Government in this legislation. If we accept the spirit of this amendment, we will ensure not only that children under the age of 18 are protected from sexual exploitation in this country but that that protection

extends abroad so that children under 18 living in countries throughout the world are protected from the wicked and appalling activities of predatory sexual offenders from this country.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Ceidwadwyr, Beaconsfield 4:45, 14 Hydref 2003

I have great sympathy with the aim of the amendments, and shall listen with great interest to what the Minister has to say about them.

There is no doubt that the issue of protection poses a problem. As many of the acts listed in schedule 3 will be lawful with a person over the age of 16 in this country, there is a difficulty in marrying the intention behind the amendments of the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) with the way in which clause 113 is drafted. The intention behind his amendments is correct. It is highly desirable that we should be protecting people under the age of 18 from predatory sexual activity by individuals from this country travelling abroad. If there were a way of achieving that, I should like to hear from the Minister what might be done. The age of 16 is not a satisfactory cut-off point. Given that, and my concern that it may be difficult to achieve such protection in the Bill, I look forward to the Minister's response.

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

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre for his generous opening remarks about the spirit in which we are moving things forward and about the new provisions in these clauses. I join him in paying tribute to UNICEF for the important work that it does.

I shall begin by underlining what was implicit in my hon. Friend's remarks: going abroad to seek out vulnerable children in order to abuse them is wicked and evil and we all deprecate it. There is no difference between any of our views in that regard. The Government have taken several steps to reinforce that view. Part 2 of the Sex Offenders Act 1997, which will be re-enacted through clause 73 of this Bill, was an important step. The new foreign travel orders are a second important step. Clause 87 will reduce the number of days a registered offender can intend to spend overseas before they are required to notify the police from the current eight days to three days.

I have some concerns about the implications of the amendments. First, it is important that the orders are understood for what they are: a way to target paedophiles. We are targeting those paedophiles who move abroad to seek out children—so-called paedophile sex tourists. They are people who travel abroad with the express purpose of sexually abusing young children. All the cases that we are aware of that involve a British citizen being prosecuted in a sex tourism destination have involved children under the age of 16. We emphasise that those people, who abuse young children in that way, are the target of the legislation.

There are other issues. My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre referred to some of the technical and drafting difficulties that would occur if his amendments were successful. There are deeper issues too, and here I respond to the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve). It would be difficult to interpret serious sexual harm in the context of the over-16s, bearing it in mind that serious sexual harm

means serious physical or psychological harm. For a foreign travel order to be taken out, it needs to be established that the offender intends to commit the equivalent of a schedule 3 offence abroad. Obviously, for children aged under 16, any sexual activity is covered by one of the offences in schedule 3. However, 16 and 17-year-olds can consent to most sexual activity—that is the nub of the issue. It would be difficult to ascertain for the purposes of the foreign travel order whether an offender intends to travel abroad to commit a sexual offence or to engage in consensual sexual activity with a person aged over the age of consent. The question of whether a person is moving abroad to abuse or to engage in consensual sexual activity would be much more difficult where 16 and 17-year-olds are concerned because, by definition, they are over the age of consent. With a child under the age of 16, there is no difficulty.

I reassure the Committee that that does not mean that those over 16 cannot be protected from British sex offenders who are travelling abroad. Where there is a risk of sexual offending against someone over 16, the police can, and already do, use the foreign travel notification requirements to inform the authorities abroad about an individual. Those provisions are already in place. They are used and they will be used in future where there is any fear in relation to anybody over 16.

Other technical and drafting amendments would be consequential on my hon. Friend's amendments, if they were included in the Bill. I hope that he will understand that our emphasis is on tackling the issue of people going from this country to target young children abroad. There would be serious difficulties if young people aged 16 and 17 were included in the provisions. According to the law of our land, such people are above the age of consent.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Llafur, Lancaster and Wyre

I am disappointed by my hon. Friend's response. We have discussed this issue before. It is inappropriate to talk about the age of consent when we refer to young people who are being abused through prostitution. Consensual sexual relations does not enter into it—that is sexual abuse. Thanks to the Bill, we will have a substantial law in this country that makes it illegal to pay for the sexual services of 16 and 17-year-olds. I do not understand why we cannot extend that protection and deliver that equality to young people abroad.

Anyone aged 16 or 17 who is involved in prostitution has not taken that on as a career choice. They have been abused through prostitution, and probably by many other means, for a lot longer. Many children working in the sex industry at that age in this country—and certainly in developing countries—are precisely the very young children to whom my hon. Friend referred. Those are children who have spent many years in the most appalling conditions being abused in the most appalling ways. I accept that we would need some more changes to the Bill than are included here. However, this is a chance of a generation to get the law on sexual offences right.

For the second time today, I am sorry that we are allowing a loophole in the legislation, through which the extremely resourceful, highly intelligent, but

utterly wicked and disgraceful people who want to abuse children, will slither and slide.

I have no option other than to withdraw the amendment, but I hope that my hon. Friend will reflect further, come back to this matter on Report and strengthen a very good Bill by making it even more substantial. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 113 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 114 to 120 ordered to stand part of the Bill.