HC Deb 19 April 1996 vol 275 cc945-69 9.34 am
Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South)

I beg to move amendment No. 1, in page 2, line 18, at end insert— '() Any act of incitement by means of a message (however communicated) is to be treated as done in England and Wales if the message is sent or received in England and Wales'.

Madam Speaker

With this, it will be convenient to discuss also No. 2, in clause 6, page 4, line 26, at end insert— '() Any act of incitement by means of a message (however communicated) is to be treated as done in Scotland if the message is sent or received in Scotland'.

Mr. Marshall

The purpose of the amendments is to extend for the purposes of the Bill the scope of incitement, to ensure that any incitement by means of a telephone call, fax, Internet message or any other modern form of communication is deemed to take place in England, Wales or, as the case may be, in the glorious part of the country called Scotland, if the message is received in England, Wales or Scotland. Thus, if someone is sent a fax in England inciting him to commit an offence, the originator of the fax has committed an offence because the incitement to indulge in such a holiday was felt here.

An amendment similar in effect was tabled by the Opposition spokesman in Committee. I am sure that the hon. Members for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) and for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) will both confirm that we had a productive Committee stage. We had a listening Committee. My right hon. Friend the Minister and I listened to the concerns that various right hon. and hon. Members expressed.

The amendment was resisted on the grounds that it was technically deficient. I sympathise with the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth for the fact that the amendment was deficient. None of us is a trained parliamentary draftsman—indeed, sometimes even they produce technically deficient Bills and amendments. So they cannot be surprised when mere Members of Parliament have the same problem.

My right hon. Friend the Minister accepted that there was merit in the principle of the amendment moved in Committee, but he thought that the position would probably be covered by the existing common law offence of incitement. It is always important when we obtain an opinion from a Minister which is based on a legal opinion that we have a belt-and-braces approach. We know only too well that lawyers make their money out of giving opinions.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

The hon. Gentleman said that the amendment referred to faxes in England, Wales and Scotland. In this world of communications, should he not also have included faxes in Northern Ireland, especially when we bear it in mind that travel agents and others operate in all the countries?

Mr. Marshall

The hon. Gentleman has anticipated a later paragraph in my speech. Under clause 4, this amendment would also apply to Northern Ireland. We know that evil knows no national boundaries, and that there are some people in Northern Ireland who are not so good as they might be.

Mr. Spencer Batiste (Elmet)

I should be grateful if my hon. Friend would expand on a couple of points. It seems to me that this new amendment of his introduces the principle of extra-territoriality—something which many of us would have liked to see in the Bill on a much wider front.

If I understand it correctly, the amendment will mean that a British citizen, say in Bangkok, who sends a telegram or fax that might be deemed incitement will be guilty of an offence in Britain, and, should he return, could be prosecuted even though at the time of the offence he was located abroad. I should be grateful if my hon. Friend could confirm that the important principle of extra-territoriality has now been accepted.

Mr. Marshall

As my hon. Friend knows, the principle of extra-territoriality has always been accepted for certain aspects of British law. We both voted for the War Crimes Act 1991, which involved that principle. He is right: if someone in Bangkok sends out faxes or Internet messages to individuals in the United Kingdom saying, "Come here, there are 12-year-olds to be bought for £5," that would be an offence under the Bill.

That is rightly so, because it is hard to conceive of the depths of depravity to which normally civilised people will sink. The House will have been appalled to read that, in Australia, a former Australian ambassador is being accused of paedophile activity while he was on official duty.

Mr. Batiste

I am grateful for what my hon. Friend has said, and I may want to speak on it at some length later, but when he mentioned the Internet, he touched on another aspect of considerable significance.

The difficulty posed by the Internet is that a message put up by a British subject in Bangkok is not necessarily physically delivered to the United Kingdom, either in hard copy or electronically. It is the person in Britain who plugs into the message board who receives it. Clearly, that person might be guilty of an offence, but would the man in Bangkok, if he had done no more than put a message on the Internet, be liable for incitement if he returns to the United Kingdom?

Mr. Marshall

Amendment No. 2 states: Any act of incitement by means of a message (however communicated) is to be treated as done in Scotland if the message is sent or received in Scotland. Similarly, amendment No. 1 refers to any act of incitement by means of a message (however communicated)". Obviously that covers the Internet, faxes, letters or any method by which someone is incited to go on such holidays.

Someone in a Bangkok office who decides to put an offensive message on the Internet encouraging people to go on holidays in Bangkok, Peru or another underdeveloped country for these disgusting activities, will be covered by the Bill, guilty of an offence and liable to prosecution if they return to the United Kingdom.

Mr. Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth)

Did we not decide in Committee that the difficulty of proving incitement and conspiracy is such that it was necessary to ensure that the simple act of the making information available, or of transmitting it to the United Kingdom, should be covered by the Bill? If it were not, the Bill's impact would be minimal, if not negligible. I welcome the amendments as a major improvement that will go a great way to meeting the aspirations that we shared in Committee. Of course, the Bill is still limited to incitement and conspiracy.

Mr. Marshall

In advertising, it is argued that some advertisements are persuasive and some informative, but the latter are also designed to be persuasive. The Bill, as now worded, means that, if people send messages that girls or boys can be had for £5 in a certain hotel in Bangkok, it is an incitement. It is not a purely factual message but an incitement to go there to engage in these disgusting activities. We are at one on that.

On the wider question of extending the Bill, the Government have set up an inquiry into the principle of extra-territoriality, about which I am sure my right hon. Friend the Minister will want to talk. Without going too deeply into the matter, I fear that, if we were to apply the principle of extra-territoriality to crimes committed in, say, Bangkok, we might be indulging in a gesture.

Mr. Michael


9.45 am
Mr. Marshall

Do let me finish. I am being pretty generous in giving way. The hon. Gentleman should at least allow me to finish my argument before he asks me to give way again.

We frequently hear about the experience of Sweden, but let us consider what happened. The boy who gave evidence to the Swedish court—

Mr. Michael

Did we not agree in Committee that many hon. Members aspired to go further than the Bill does? As the hon. Gentleman said, the Government are undertaking an important inquiry. We agreed that we should speed the Bill, in as effective a form as possible, through the House, so that at least a step forward was taken. I say that because, with respect, it is not necessary to go into the arguments about widening the Bill, because we all agree that this is a first step. Let us take it and not delay and perhaps risk the Bill.

Mr. Marshall

When I am incited by an Opposition Front-Bench spokesman not to speak, it is almost as good as when my Whips tell me to speak. I obey unhesitatingly on both occasions.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough)

I hesitate to intervene in the debate because I was not a member of the Committee. I have had the advantage of reading the report of the Committee, and I agree with the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) that it was constructive; it makes good reading.

I entirely support the principle behind my hon. Friend's Bill, but I am worried that, with amendments Nos. 1 and 2, we may be seeking to get to the best and so not achieving the good—that the best is the enemy of the good is an old cliche. Is my hon. Friend sure that they will prevent or inhibit potential inciters abroad from listing names and addresses on a bulletin board that can be received in this country?

The bulletin board could appear wholly innocent. It would simply list No. 4, Jones street, Bangkok or whatever. That will mean more to a knowledgeable receiver than to an ordinary receiver of that information. Clause 1(3), the double criminality clause, states: The second condition is that that act or other event constitutes an offence under the law in force in that country or territory. Is he sure that his well-intentioned amendments will allow what I loosely call the double actionability rule to bite on the clause and ensure that the inciter in Bangkok would face arrest if he came to this country?

Mr. Marshall


Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

Order. Before the hon. Gentleman continues his speech, I must warn against excessively long interventions. If they are that long, they should be the subject of a separate speech.

Mr. Marshall

Madam Deputy Speaker, I thank you for that protection. I have always thought that in politics, a long question is a great bonus, because the audience will have forgotten the question by the time the person asking it has finished. I do not know whether my hon. and learned Friend confesses that he has forgotten any part of his question.

Mr. Garnier

I have not forgotten my question.

Mr. Marshall

I think that part of the House probably has. My answer is that, if I did not think the amendment would have the effect that I have outlined, I would not have tabled it; nor would the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) have made his comments in Committee if he had not thought that it was a real problem.

Many of us find the revolution in information technology difficult to understand, as it happened after we reached the age of 21—at least, it did for me. I do not necessarily know as much about it as some of my younger colleagues, but if someone in Bangkok seeks by means of what one would describe as informative advertising to encourage individuals to go there and indulge in those awful, perverted and pernicious acts, I believe that he would be caught under these amendments.

Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam)

I thank my long-suffering hon. Friend for giving way, but it is an important point—

Mr. Garnier

He was in the middle of an answer to my question.

Mr. Marshall

I had finished with my hon. and learned Friend.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

Order. We cannot have one intervention on another. I call the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland).

Lady Olga Maitland

Thank you very much, Madam Deputy Speaker. Obviously, I will bear those remarks in mind.

We were talking about technology and how it can be a vehicle for transmitting such information. My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Marshall) mentioned telephone calls. Is he suggesting that, if it is believed that they are being used as a mechanism for transmitting such material, they should be intercepted or, indeed, bugged?

Mr. Marshall

With her customary charm, my hon. Friend has managed to enter into yet another field of activity. I am sure that one could have a long and learned discussion about whether telephone calls should be tapped. No doubt our right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Office can tell us the conditions under which telephone calls should be tapped. My view is that there are certain privacies in this world, and that, if one cannot make a telephone call without having it tapped—unless there are very good reasons for it being tapped—we would be denying individuals one of their human rights.

Mr. Michael

Is not the simple fact that nothing in the law is changed in relation to the interception of messages by anything in the Bill, including the amendments, so that issue is irrelevant to today's debate?

Mr. Marshall

I have learnt that, whether interjections are relevant or irrelevant, colleagues are never stopped from making them.

I hope that I have dealt with the last intervention, and I ask the Minister to talk about the inquiry into extra-terratoriality, which is obviously dealt with tangentially by the amendment. The principle is one that he announced that the Government were again investigating.

He has said that the investigation should be completed before the summer recess, and it would be helpful to the House, in view of the impact of the amendment, if my right hon. Friend referred to that matter at some stage, especially in view of what has happened in Australia in the past few days.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. David Maclean)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Marshall) for tabling these amendments, which clarify, for the purposes of the Bill, the scope of the common law of incitement.

Let me say at the outset that there is no question but that the sexual exploitation and abuse of children is an evil act, and that children should be provided with the highest level of protection against such abuse. I am sure that the whole House would agree that everything possible should be done to prevent and deter the perverts who indulge such behaviour.

These two amendments, small though they may look on paper and insignificant and technical though they may appear, are central to the thrust of this Bill. The issues covered by the amendments were raised in Committee by hon Members from both sides of the House. My view was that the common law of incitement was adequate to cover the situations envisaged by the amendments. I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South shares that view.

This is an area, however, where certainty is a valuable commodity—a point I recall the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) making in Committee. I am therefore glad that my hon. Friend has moved these amendments, and I can reassure him and the House that the Government support them.

It may be helpful to the House to reflect upon the principle that lies behind the amendments and how increasingly important it is in today's world. Incitement is an act of urging or encouraging someone to do something. Today, I shall incite hon Members to support this Bill. By doing so, I am not committing a criminal offence, because the act that I am inciting hon. Members to do is perfectly lawful.

However, if I urged hon. Members to run outside and rob a bank, I would be guilty of a criminal offence—at least, I would if parliamentary privilege did not apply—as I would be encouraging them to do something unlawful. That, simply, is the common law offence of incitement.

In that case, there is no doubt as to the jurisdiction of the courts. I, the inciter, and hon. Members, as—if I may use the word—incitees, are here present. But that new—indeed, not so new—technology, which has brought so much benefit to so many people's lives, can also bring disbenefits and confusion in this area of law.

If I went on holiday to France and wrote a letter to someone in this country, urging him or her to commit a criminal offence here, am I committing an offence in this country? I believe that there is case law that suggests that I am, and that, if I were then foolish enough to return to this country, I could be arrested and charged for incitement.

The postal service—marvellous though it is—is not an example of the most modern technology. Vocal communication systems—mobile phones, for example—enable us to speak to anyone in the world, from anywhere in the world. Would encouragement to commit an offence by phone message be incitement at common law? Case law may be less certain there.

The Internet, which has been mentioned this morning, is a subject about which we have heard much recently, and I am sure that hon. Members will hear a lot more about it in the future. If I understand it correctly, the Internet is simply a linking together of individual computers around the world. I have no doubt that it can be described more fully and more technically in several volumes of books, each weighty enough to be described as an encyclopedia, but put simply, that is all the Internet is.

Nevertheless, it is a powerful thing and it is going to get a lot more powerful. Messages can be sent around the world in seconds—not just text, but images and even moving images, voice, sound and music. The police have shown me some, and I have heard it said that the only barrier to what could be carried on the Internet in future is one's own imagination. That is as maybe, but such a powerful tool, which offers wonderful opportunities for enhancing communication around the world, unfortunately lends itself to mischief making, and is one of the prime tools being grabbed by paedophiles and others in that filthy business.

Incitement by Internet is now a possibility, and that incitement can take place anywhere in the world instantaneously. The question is, can our common law cope? I should like to think that the common law, which has served this country well for centuries, is robust enough to deal with any challenge that the late 20th century can throw at it. As an aside, Scots law was always able to adapt rapidly to modern technology and trends, from the 1700s and 1800s on, but that is not relevant to this debate.

We must not forget that in this Bill we are dealing with the safety and security of innocent children.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (Colchester, North)


Mr. Maclean

I should not have tempted my hon. Friend. May I finish this point before I give way?

Any society must, as its first priority, see to it that its children are protected and cared for by the law of the land.

Mr. Jenkin

My right hon. Friend's previous comment raises a question that I should, perhaps, not be asking. Surely the Bill applies in Scotland. Is my right hon. Friend suggesting that some of the provisions might be applied very differently there?

Mr. Maclean

No, I was not suggesting that they would be applied differently in Scotland. I was merely suggesting that the Scottish legal system, which is based on Roman-Dutch law, whereby judges could rule that something was contra bonos mores and interpret the law more flexibly than case law in England, could be said—this is merely an academic argument of the type that might take place in some of the Scottish universities when Scots law and its future in Britain or, indeed, Europe are debated—to enable it to deal more flexibly with new customs, technology or crimes that Parliament has not yet decided to outlaw. Scottish courts, for example, took a slightly different view of the practice of wheel clamping than did the English courts.

There is no question of interpreting the law differently. It is merely that, by habit, custom and coming from different theological bases, Scots law and English law have developed different flexibilities.

We do not want there to be any doubt on this subject. The law being passed today—which hopefully will receive a Third Reading today—will apply equally in both countries of the Union, as it will, of course, in Wales and Northern Ireland through clause 4.

Mr. Batiste

For many years, I have been very interested in the issue of extra-territoriality and in the technological aspects of the internet. My right hon. Friend has just made some very positive statements about the Internet and about how messages on it would be covered by this legislation. There are, however, some very significant differences, which I shall try to draw out in a little more detail shortly in a speech.

There is a difference between sending out a message to an intended recipient in the United Kingdom and putting a message on to a bulletin board on the Internet somewhere in the world, which would then be examined and scanned by people in the UK. I am not at all sure that the drafting of this amendment will necessarily catch that second type of incitement over the Internet.

10 am

Mr. Maclean

I believe it does, because the amendment states: if the message is sent or received". If the wording was if the message is sent with the intention that it may only be received in England by a willing recipient", it would have a severe limitation, and would not be relevant to the Internet. The fact that someone is "surfing the net" or "scanning"—or whatever the jargon is—and receives the message is sufficient to trigger this clause. There would be no problem in relation to the legal position.

There will, of course, still be a practical problem if that person in Bangkok who was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Elmet (Mr. Batiste) never leaves Bangkok or returns to Britain, because we will physically not be able get our hands on him. Nevertheless, the crime will have been committed.

Mr. David Congdon (Croydon, North-East)

I should like to continue with the point about intent in relation to sending a message and whether it has been received. As a non-lawyer, my concern is whether someone would be able to drive a coach and horses through the clause by arguing that, by sending the message to a bulletin board, they were not intending necessarily that it should be received by someone in England. Would not a clever lawyer—there are plenty of clever lawyers in this place, as there are elsewhere—be able to use that as a defence?

Mr. Maclean

I would say no, in no circumstances could it be used as a defence. We know what bulletin boards are, and we will get more details about how the Internet works. Bulletin boards are not a dead end in themselves, but a means of ensuring that messages are kept anonymous so that it is difficult to discover who sent the message. The sender knows that the message will then be transmitted to another web of computers and received by other people.

It would not be a defence for someone to say, "I invented a message and put it on the bulletin board, but of course I never expected anyone to read it." That defence would be disingenuous, and I do not think that it would hold water with any judge, magistrate or jury.

Mr. Jenkin

What would happen if the message in question is in a foreign language? Could it be argued that, even though the message is available in the UK and of course available for translation, because the message is in French or Spanish, for example, it is not intended to be read in this country? Could that be used as a defence?

Mr. Maclean

I do not think that that would hold water as a defence, either. In many of those examples, it would be a matter of proof and the facts of the case. According to the amendments' wording, the message would still have been received in the United Kingdom, and it would still be an offence however the message was communicated—in whatever language it was communicated. Many people in this country speak Spanish, and somewhere in this country every language is spoken by someone. Despite the language, it would still be an offence.

The amendment is certainly worded in such a manner that it would catch those messages. It would then be a matter for the police and the prosecuting authorities to decide in each case whether they had sufficient evidence to justify a prosecution, and of course whether they physically have the fellow who did it—and I say "fellow" advisedly.

I was saying before I ventured into my biased Scots law aside that there should be certainty. These amendments must provide such certainty. Any act of incitement by means of a message, however communicated, shall be deemed to take place in England and Wales if its effect is felt and received there. The second amendment deals with exactly the same situation in Scotland.

Thus, no one can claim that they are outside the jurisdiction of the Bill because they sent the message by Internet from Hong Kong, used a mobile phone in Venezuela or posted a letter in Egypt. If the message was received in this country or sent from here, the news is—by virtue of these amendments—they are caught.

That is the message that I should like to go out from the House today when the Bill is reported—that we are after those people in future. The message should be not only that we can now catch their physical acts against children, but that—when this Bill goes through its stages today, through the other place and then receives Royal Assent—the people hiding on the Internet or sending their filthy messages by that means of communication will be caught by this Parliament and by this Bill.

Mr. Garnier

My right hon. Friend may have uttered a slip of the tongue. He used the expression "sent or received"—which is in the amendment—but he also used the expression "the effect of', which is not quite the same as "sent or received". I wonder—bearing in mind the case of Pepper v. Hart, which allows the courts to look at what Ministers say in Committee—whether he could be a little clearer about the use of the expression "the effect of', because we are talking incitement.

Mr. Maclean

I thought that it was quite clear that the act shall be deemed to have taken place in England or Wales if the message put on the Internet in any other part of the world is felt here—if it is received here, seen here and available to be read by people here—and that it is an offence and is caught by this section. The effect of putting that message on the Internet is felt here, so the law is triggered. I hope that that is clear.

The person does not necessarily have to go and commit an act of indecency with a child. The person does not have to carry it into effect. Because the incitement has been put on the Internet—perhaps to come to Bangkok to do things with children—does not mean that the person who receives the message has to go to Bangkok and physically carry out an act before the crime is committed. The person who put the message on the Internet similarly does not have to ensure that someone carries out an act before he is guilty of an offence. The fact that the message has been put on the board and has been received here is the offence, not whether any physical act is then perpetrated.

Mr. Michael

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, because I think that he is helping to clarify the intention of the Bill, as I understand it. May I try my own words to clarify the position? The act of the putting information on an electronic bulletin board is the first step of a piece of communication that would be caught under these amendments. That is how I interpret the words in the amendments, and I believe that that is what the Minister intends, is it not?

Mr. Maclean

As I understand it, yes; I think that we are in agreement on that—but, of course, it has to be received here for the offence to be triggered.

Lady Olga Maitland

On the point about "received", what would happen if the recipient received material that was totally unsolicited? The offence, therefore, must have been perpetrated by the sender. If the sender is overseas, it is clearly not an offence, but the person receiving unsolicited material in this country could be deemed to be committing an offence. I am sure that that is not what my right hon. Friend intended.

Mr. Maclean

No. The criminal is the inciter, the person who puts the information on the Internet, or communicates the message by fax or whatever. That person is inciting others to go to countries to do certain things with children. The innocent person who is browsing the Internet and stumbles across that information does not commit any offence. If a person lifts paedophile material or indecent photographs of children from the Internet, or from any other source, and then uses them or trades them, that person is guilty of existing offences.

A person may well read such messages in a newspaper where such advertisements, which are carefully worded, escape existing law. That will not happen in the future. I have been sent some of those sex tour advertisements by hon. Members. Of course the innocent person who reads such advertisements is not guilty of an offence, but the person who plants them with intent is guilty of an offence.

Reference has been made to the fact that Northern Ireland is omitted from the text of the amendment. I hasten to explain that that is not an error. Clause 4 applies the provisions of clause 2 to Northern Ireland. The amendment to clause 2, which refers to England and Wales, encompasses Northern Ireland by virtue of the provisions of clause 4. I do not want any hon. Member from Northern Ireland, or indeed any other hon. Member, to believe that that part of the United Kingdom has been given any less prominence than any other part.

Hon. Members may recall the Bolin case in Sweden. Last year, the Swedes successfully prosecuted one of their own nationals, Bengt Bolin, for sexual offences committed against a boy in Thailand. It was an interesting case, because many people wrote to me and urged me—incited me, perhaps—to change the law to allow our courts extra-territorial jurisdiction over child sex offences. They believed that that successful prosecution showed that we could do the same.

I looked at the case carefully, took advice from appropriate professionals, and came to the conclusion that, on the facts of the case as presented to the court in Sweden, we could not have secured a conviction under English law. I do not want any hon. Member to get me wrong—I am not saying that the conviction in Sweden was unsafe, unfair or in any way tainted. Under their rules of evidence, they secured a conviction, and one pervert had to pay his dues to society by serving a term of imprisonment and paying compensation to his victim. I am sure that we are all pleased about that.

Mr. Tom Cox (Tooting)

It is interesting to hear the Minister's comments. Did he get in touch with the Swedish Government about the matter?

Mr. Maclean

I did not get in touch, but my Department has a huge staff to do that sort of thing. We received transcripts of the case, which were in Swedish, not surprisingly, and we had them translated. We analysed them in great depth and took expert legal advice. We could not reach a conclusion without reading those transcripts. But good luck to the Swedes, because, under their perfectly legitimate and sensible law, they managed to get a conviction, but under English rules of evidence we would not have managed to secure one.

Mr. Michael Alison (Selby)

I hope that you will allow me, Madam Deputy Speaker, to refer briefly to the Bolin case, which my right hon. Friend has raised. I believe that he is being disingenuous by suggesting that that case would have failed in a British court. The English prosecution service would not have presented the case in the same way. The essence of the case would have been presented to a British court, which uses the jury system, in a different way from how it was presented to a Swedish court, where a judge sits with other adjudicators.

An eminent Swedish juryman has written to the Coalition on Child Prostitution and Tourism: From a purely practical viewpoint, I would dare to venture that the English jury system might tend to favour the prosecution—I reckon that a 60-year-old retired civil servant proven to be found in a bedroom at night with a twelve year old Thai boy regularly engaged in prostitution might be off to a bad start with twelve English jurors! I suspect that that is the case. My right hon. Friend is slightly misjudging the relevance of the Bolin case by saying that, if it had been presented here as it had been presented in Sweden, it would not have stood up. The prosecution would have approached it in a different way in the British courts, and a conviction would have been secured.

Mr. Maclean

My right hon. Friend is right to say that, if the evidence was ever put before a jury, one would hope that an English jury would convict. He is also right to say that an English prosecutor would have to present the facts in a radically different way if he was to secure any conviction or ensure that any part of the case was heard.

Mr. Garnier


Mr. Maclean

I shall give way in a moment.

10.15 am

If one studies the evidence given by the boy, one will find that he alleged that he settled on the final version of his story after, as he claims, he was threatened by a police officer in his own country, who was waving a gun at him. We do not quite allow that under the rules of evidence in this country, but that at least is what he said.

The boy was looked after and prepared for his court hearing by a non-governmental organisation. Can one imagine what would happen in our courts when the defence lawyer stood up and said that the boy had been prepared for his court hearing? The defence would certainly claim that the boy had been prepared and made to recite his evidence backwards, whether that was true or not. We do not allow that in an English court. Can one imagine what would happen if the boy gave evidence in an English court under cross-examination? Even the most newly qualified lawyer would tear his evidence apart.

One of the main reasons that the Swedes got a conviction and preferred the boy's version of events to that of the defendant was that the defendant had admitted assaulting the boy to an off-duty Swedish police officer who was posing as a fellow child molester. That conversation was clandestinely recorded by a Danish television crew. I cannot imagine the circumstances in which we could manage to get such evidence accepted in an English court.

Mr. Michael

I fear that the Minister is allowing himself to go down avenues that are not necessary to our debate. Frankly, the Swedish case is irrelevant, and the Minister has said why. It took place under different rules of evidence, and under a different legal system. Surely we are interested to hear from the right hon. Gentleman about how his inquiries and conclusions may make it easier for the law of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to deal with the actions of our citizens abroad. The Minister undertook that his investigations would be directed at that objective.

Mr. Maclean

I am grateful for that opportunity to move on. My right hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Alison) suggested, erroneously, and in the nicest possible way, that we could easily get a conviction in similar circumstances to the Bolin case. I could not let him get away with that. As I have said before, because of some of our defence lawyers, we have difficulty getting convictions when an armed robber in this country is caught on camera in front of 12 police officers.

Mr. Garnier


Mr. Maclean

I shall give way for the last time.

Mr. Garnier

The Bolin offence could not have been tried in this country because we do not have extra-territoriality. That is the end of the argument.

Mr. Maclean

Yes. We could not try that case in this country because we do not have extra-territorial jurisdiction. Some people argue, however, that, if we merely had such jurisdiction, there would be no problem, and we could convict people like Bolin. A mere change in the law does not give us carte blanche to change our rules of evidence. In similar circumstances, we would not get convictions. If it was that easy, why do we not get convictions in those countries where those crimes are committed and where we are willing to extradite those involved? In the context of these amendments, that case illustrates the differences in the legal systems of various countries—the different concepts, the different traditions, and even the different kinds of behaviour.

Conspiracy and incitement—which are at the heart of the Bill—are not recognised as criminal offences in many countries, but they may have other offences that cover some of the same ground. These amendments are necessary because it is unlikely that we would have the essential dual criminality for the incitement acts which may originate in another jurisdiction to be a criminal offence there and for us to seek a prosecution under the laws of the foreign state.

While the case of Mr. Bolin was perhaps a disappointment for those who felt that it would demonstrate that our courts could easily convict people of crimes committed abroad, it illustrated to us the need ensure that our legislation covers adequately, and to the extent that our courts can and should take jurisdiction, all the possible avenues of, in this instance, incitement that should be explored. We must leave no stone unturned, particularly as communication is so rapid and reaches all corners of the world. There is no longer any part of the globe which can truly be said to be cut off from the reach of the child molester and his propensity to incite, encourage and recruit converts to his evil ways.

Sadly, there are child molesters in all parts of this country who travel abroad to indulge in their filthy practices. They include lawyers, doctors, bank managers, social workers, manual workers, travel agents, clerks, lorry drivers and pensioners. You cannot tell that someone is a child molester just by looking at them. That is what is so difficult about dealing with these perverts—they appear to be so normal, but, secretly, they are looking for children to abuse.

I cannot say often enough: we must make the Bill a shield to protect children. Children deserve our protection no matter where they are in the world. That is why the Bill is taking powers over acts committed here in the preparation for, or furtherance of, sexual offences committed abroad.

In this context, these amendments are even more important because so often the incitement will come from abroad. One pervert will go to a country where, sadly, children are sold for sexual favours, find a brothel or a bar where these poor souls are for sale, indulge in his wicked ways, and then call his friends in the United Kingdom and tell them to come over there and indulge in the same abuse. That is incitement—the message is sent from abroad, and no matter what coded language it may be, if that is the intention and it is received here, we have caught them—and we would all say, "Hear, hear" to that.

In the past, many hon. Members have proposed that we take extra-territorial jurisdiction, and they have considered that this country, by not taking such jurisdiction, is letting these perverts get away with it. Although we are prepared to extradite our own nationals, subject to the usual rules, to stand trial in countries where an offence has been committed, it is argued that that is not enough. The country concerned may not seek extradition—indeed, we may not have an extradition arrangement with them. The proposals for an extension of the scope of incitement go some way to meeting the concern expressed by hon. Members.

It is true that we already take extra-territorial jurisdiction over a range of offences. Specific statutes have extended the criminal law to cover the conduct of persons outside the territory of England and Wales, often with the objective of implementing an international convention or of protecting a particular domestic interest. There are some precedents for taking extra-territorial jurisdiction.

There are precedents for taking extra-territorial jurisdiction. It has been suggested that the practical difficulties of mounting successful prosecutions could be overcome. The corrupt nature of the official systems in many countries could be bypassed by using non-governmental organisations to investigate allegations of abuse and to obtain the evidence necessary to secure a conviction in this country.

Perverts often return to this country with clear evidence of their crimes—video tapes, for example—and other countries have taken extra-territorial jurisdiction to deal with these offences. It has also been suggested that the United Kingdom should join the international consensus on this issue to mark its abhorrence of the activities of child molesters.

These are powerful arguments, and I treat them with great respect—I have not dismissed them lightly—but no responsible Government can rush into legislation on this and ignore the counter-arguments if there is the possibility that the legislation will be nothing more than a gesture. Criminal jurisdiction in the United Kingdom is traditionally territorially based—that is, there is an assumption that, for conduct to constitute an offence here, there must be a connection to the territory of this country. The strength of this system lies in its simplicity. Crimes are best investigated in the country where they are committed, by the relevant prosecuting authorities.

We are willing to extradite our nationals, subject to the usual rules, to stand trial abroad. We have extradition agreements with many countries. Of the states in the European Union, only the United Kingdom and Italy are completely free in extraditing their nationals, and France and Germany never do so. Where extradition agreements do not exist, ad hoc arrangements may be made in circumstances where we are satisfied that the offender will receive a fair trial.

Mr. Alison

I have a couple of points on the important area that the Minister is covering. Will he confirm that, if a country such as Thailand introduces a death penalty for child abuse, we will still extradite British nationals in conjunction with our extradition treaty? Otherwise, his extradition argument is weaker. Will he confirm that the review that he mentioned in Committee is still continuing, and that he is not announcing negative conclusions about the review in his remarks at the present time?

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. Before the Minister replies, I should point out that the debate is now becoming very broad. I am not sure whether the nature of the amendment lends itself to such a wide argument.

Mr. Maclean

Naturally, you are correct, Madam Deputy Speaker. I shall briefly respond to my right hon. Friend.

With all due respect, the question whether we would extradite to countries that have introduced penalties that are unacceptable to us—such as the death penalty—is bogus. This point has been made before, and it is not correct. In those circumstances, Britain seeks an assurance—a binding guarantee—that, if the person is found guilty, the death penalty will not be applied, and then we extradite. That has been our policy for some time.

In my first few weeks of moving to the Home Office, we had a case—I cannot remember its name—in which we extradited back to Morocco a student who had been accused of murder. Once we got a guarantee that he would not be executed if he was found guilty, he was extradited. That would not be any bar to extradition of people back to Thailand. If I may say so—without causing offence in international relations—some countries have no difficulty in taking rigorous action against drug dealers who are caught with drugs on them, but they seem to find enormous difficulty in taking action against perverts who abuse children.

We have not come to any conclusions on the review—we have severe doubts on the difficulties. I have taken every opportunity to point out the practical difficulties, not because I am prejudging the outcome of the review but because there are genuine difficulties. I do not want hon. Members to be under the impression that all we have to do is make a few changes to the law here and there, that Britain can then have extra-territorial jurisdiction, that a queue of perverts will be prosecuted in the British courts and found guilty, and that we will stamp out the problem. It would not work like that—although we all wish to God that it would.

Mr. Batiste

While I understand everything that my right hon. Friend has just said, I make the same comment that I made during the passage of the War Crimes Act 1991: given all the evidential difficulties, even if there are no successful prosecutions, it is still better to cause these perverts to live in fear that one day the hand will fall on their shoulders and they will be called to account for their deeds. If we do not put our laws in order to achieve that, they can come back to this country and regard it as a safe haven.

Mr. Maclean

If it worked on the basis that they would live in fear, there might be some considerable merit in what my hon. Friend says. However, I believe that they would not live in fear—they would see the law as ineffective, as it would be. If we have no prosecutions, or one prosecution every five years and it fails—as it possibly could—it would not strike terror into the hearts of potential paedophiles, molesters or those putting messages on the Internet.

To strike fear into the heart of potential criminals, we must have two things—as my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has been emphasising in his sentencing proposals. We must improve the likelihood—indeed, make it certain—that people who commit such offences will be caught, and the sentence must be adequate.

We have an adequate sentence in this country, but if, as I suspect, by extending and taking extra-territorial jurisdiction we would make no difference to the possibility of someone being caught and the case being proved in court, it would be a bogus exercise.

We are not dealing with rather thick criminals. Some of these people are the cleverest in the world. They spend their whole life hiding their activities from law enforcement authorities. If people of the rank of ambassador are being charged with offences, it is obvious that such people are not the thickest people in the world, whatever country they come from. Some very clever people indulge in these practices, and any person who travels 11,000 miles around the world to indulge in them will not easily be fooled by gesture legislation.

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I hope that, if the review does conclude that we can take sensible further steps on extra-territorial jurisdiction, it will so recommend, because it shows that in practice we shall be able to make a difference. All right hon. and hon. Members want to do that. We do not want to spend our Fridays passing legislation for the fun of it or as gesture politics. We want to make a difference.

For the present, extra-territorial jurisdiction is not the solution to the problem. It is right that the assumptions and opinions that underlie our concerns about extra-territorial jurisdiction are from time to time tested to discover whether they remain valid. That is why we have had the wide-ranging interdepartmental review announced by the Home Secretary on 1 February.

I can assure the House that my right hon. and learned Friend will carefully consider the report of that review. If it suggests that it is possible for us to enforce extra-territorial jurisdiction in the specific circumstances of sexual offences against children, I am sure that he, I, everyone in the Government and the whole House will want and expect us to act, and we shall not be backward in coming forward.

The Government condemn, without question, the activities of those monsters who prey on innocent children. We shall strive to take any measure we can to combat that dreadful trade—provided that it can be seen to be effective. The measure will be effective when the amendments are made.

I hope that hon. Members will understand from what I have had said that the amendments will complete the shield that the Bill will provide to prevent the abuse of children. I support the amendments, and the Government support them. I hope that all hon. Members will do so, so that the Bill will be as effective as possible in its aim to deter those who wish to use this country as a base to plan their evil activities.

I commend the amendments to the House.

Mr. Michael

I intend to be brief, but the debate has ranged over not only the two amendments but most of the other essential issues arising from the Bill.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Marshall) on tabling the amendments, and the Minister on responding so positively to them. I am grateful especially because the amendments respond to the arguments that I and my hon. Friends made in Committee, and they bridge what we felt was a massive gap in the Bill, despite its good intentions. The amendments are of great importance in making the Bill an effective piece of legislation and in enabling it—as the Minister suggests we all seek to do—to make a difference.

Parliament has been at its best in dealing with the Bill. We had sensible but searching debates in Committee, in which many genuine arguments were made. The quality of that debate is reflected in the amendments before us. It was a worthwhile Committee stage, in which we tackled serious issues. We hoped to extend the Bill's scope and impact. That is why debate in Committee focused on extra-territoriality, on making it possible to catch the actions of offenders—especially of British citizens abroad—and on tackling incitement.

As the Minister suggested, the amendments take a considerable step down the road of making the intentions of Parliament effective in relation to incitement and conspiracy, and the activities of those who seek to promote and be involved in such unspeakable activities.

The amendments are central to making the Bill effective in that they close off the possibility of convolutions of communication to evade the intentions of the Bill as originally drafted; they toughen the Bill. The test of the Bill's success will not be the number of prosecutions alone but the certainty among the paedophile community—if we can call it that—that the powers are sufficient and prosecution is likely. The object is to prevent such activity, and success in preventing the activity will be success for the Bill.

Several references were made to extra-territoriality. The example of the War Crimes Act 1991 comes to mind. We would not regard Parliament as having been wrong or consider that the 1991 Act had failed if there were no successful prosecutions. It would still be right, because the principle was right, the intention was right and Parliament was right to pass it. The question is, what should Parliament do about the activities of our citizens abroad, and how should we extend the law? That is what the Home Secretary's inquiry is supposed to be about, and the House needs to debate the question as soon as possible.

We want the Government to go further—if not by extending territoriality, in other ways. Extradition is insufficient, for reasons that I gave in Committee and shall not repeat. The economy and tourism of some countries may receive a devastating impact if they exercise the rights through agreement of extradition, so it is not as simple for them as it would be for us if it arose from the activities of one of our nationals abroad.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) has emphasised several times, we need to find ways of ensuring that we act in concert with the international community to make our actions effective, whether through international agreements, international law or international action. I hope that the Minister will ensure that we are represented and involved in some of the international meetings and conventions that aim to improve the quality of action on such matters by the international community.

Mr. Garnier

The hon. Gentleman has hit the point. If we wish to move into extra-territoriality, the way to do so is by international co-operation, by conventions such as the Tokyo convention and other conventions allowing courts in this country to extend their jurisdiction to, for example, offences in aeroplanes over other people's jurisdictions. That is the way to do it—not to introduce extra-territoriality into the Bill, but to reach agreement and become party to a convention, and then introduce that convention into English law.

Mr. Michael

It does not help to extend that debate as we debate the Bill. Those steps should be taken, and we would urge the Government to take them. Extra-territoriality needs to be debated; we debated it in Committee. I believe that all members of the Committee accepted that we could not push further on the Bill without risking the Bill itself, and that it was important to proceed with the Bill with the improvements that have been accepted today, get it on the statute book and make that great improvement. Without today's amendments, we should not have regarded the measure as effective, but it now becomes effective.

The debate about extra-territoriality—whether we should proceed by combined international action or international statute or convention, and whether extra-territoriality in British law can and should play a part—should be left to another day. I urge the Minister to ensure that the outcome of the inquiries and discussion set in place by the Home Secretary is brought before the House for proper discussion as soon as possible, so that we can all share in a discussion of the pros and cons.

I have no doubt that, as the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) suggests, there is a downside to that line of approach. We want to ensure that, if that line of approach is rejected, other measures are put in place to ensure that we are effective in the international community. That point unites us across the Floor of the House. I do not want to develop that discussion now, although it should be held as soon as possible. Today, we should welcome the fact that we are moving forward. Enforcement is a different matter from what we seek to enforce, and we are dealing with the second of those issues.

I am pleased that the discussions have extended into how we deal with the Internet. It is clear that the Internet presents a range of new opportunities for the promotion of such activities. If material is made available on the Internet, it should not allow someone to evade the intention of United Kingdom law. Our responsibility in relation to our citizens' activities will be covered by the amendments.

The freedoms of the Internet need to be balanced by powers to deal with the misuse of that freedom; rights and freedoms must be balanced against responsibilities. I am pleased that the amendments recognise that fact; they are simple and straightforward, and achieve, in a stylish way, the intentions that we sought to press in Committee.

We have taken a step forward, and are speeding the Bill on its way with the two amendments; I hope that the Minister will soon say, not just that he and the Home Secretary have had many interesting discussions and agonised over the midnight oil, but how the UK can fulfil its international obligations—particularly in relation to our citizens—in its attempts to end the vile trade and activities of paedophiles. I hope that the House will tackle the issues that the Minister tells us that he and his officials have been addressing—the question whether or not an extension into extra-territorial jurisdiction is appropriate. We must hold that debate, and I hope that the Minister will ensure that the House will be able to have it at the earliest possible date.

Sir Michael Neubert (Romford)

If our discussions so far have raised a number of different aspects, it is because the amendments represent the quintessence of the purpose of the legislation and the problems that go with it. My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Marshall) was right to say in introducing the amendments that the Bill needs to take account of changing technology. There is no question but that the law and the legal advice which follows it usually move at a much slower rate than technological advances.

Statute law moves at a ponderous pace. My right hon. Friend the Minister has said that he has confidence in the robustness of common law to cope with the challenge of changing circumstances and conditions, but when making legislation in this place we tend to lumber behind and do not keep up to date with the most novel, shrewd and devilishly clever developments associated with so many of the greatest minds in this country and elsewhere. I support the amendments and I particularly welcome the fact that in two words—"however communicated"—we can identify any means of communication and make it an offence if an act of incitement is committed through a message sent from one country to any part of the United Kingdom.

I yield to no one in the degree of distaste and abhorrence that I feel for the sexual abuse of children, which lies at the heart of the Bill. I wish to see such evil eradicated at the earliest possible moment, wherever it occurs in the world. My role in the debates—on Second Reading, in Committee and on Report—has inevitably been to be something of a damp blanket on the fires of enthusiasm of so many hon. Members. I find myself to one side of my colleagues from Yorkshire, which is a rare experience for me, particularly in relation to my right hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Alison), for whose views I have so much sympathy and whom I support on most occasions. I have reservations about how far the Bill can go in dealing with the problem of extra-territoriality.

My right hon. Friend the Minister has stressed the importance of certainty. We must have regard not only to ourselves, but to public opinion outside this place. Nothing undermines the confidence of the British people in their Parliament more than when we assert that we can achieve things—through law, declaration or decision in this House—and the public later find that the law falls short of their expectations. There is considerable danger in not recognising that the Bill, welcome as it is and commendable as the efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South are in introducing it, has a limited contribution to make in combating the scourge of child abuse elsewhere in the world.

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Mr. Congdon

I have listened carefully to my hon. Friend's concerns about bringing the House into disrepute, but does he share my concern about an opposing aspect? The fact that the House has been unable to go further in terms of extra-territoriality has led many people to send postcards to hon. Members asking why we are doing nothing about this vile and evil trade. It is difficult to strike the right balance when reassuring public opinion.

Sir Michael Neubert

It is a difficult balance to strike, but it is made more difficult because those postcards—a number of which I have received from my constituents—do not bear the sender's name and address. Hon. Members are therefore denied the opportunity to write to explain their position and the difficulties that they face. We can merely issue general press releases, which probably do not reach those people. That is one message which should get through, but does not, and I have expressed my regret about it on more than one occasion. The postcards raise a number of serious questions and may not contain factually correct information.

Extra-territoriality is the essence of the Bill. We are dealing with crimes committed abroad, particularly in countries without our centuries of tradition, whose legal systems are less developed than ours and where it is much more difficult to deal with such problems. A number of references have been made to the War Crimes Act 1991—the recent and most relevant example of claiming extra-territoriality. I have expressed reservations about that legislation. I supported it in principle, as did many others, but I have the gravest doubts about its effectiveness in practice. Since our discussions in Committee, the first charges have been brought against a man in this country for offences committed abroad during the second world war. We now await the outcome of that case. Millions of pounds have already been spent in bringing that man to court and the police exercise involved has made huge demands on already limited resources, but there is no guarantee that even that one case will achieve a conviction. We must therefore act responsibly when proposing legislation calling for extra-territoriality which has little chance of success.

The amendments are optimistic. Let us consider the technical aspect of the message. How feasible is it that we should be able to identify the messages and identify an offence? How would they be identified, whether on the Internet or on the telephone? Are we to tap everyone's telephone to find out how individual calls are gauged? Even the word "message" raises difficulties. I do not believe that a simple statement of fact could be held to be a message without a great deal of circumstantial evidence. A message must mean the conveying of a sentiment from one person to another, not a neutral statement of fact. There would be scope in court to mount a defence against a simple bulletin board, which might be described as such, but could be presented as something quite different.

What about the scope of the Internet? Like many of my hon. Friends, I am not the most technically qualified. However, I understand that the Internet contains a wealth of information beyond imagining. Who will scan that vast amount of information to identify the offence dealt with in the amendments? We must be careful not to raise too many expectations.

As a non-lawyer, I find it difficult to accept the charge of incitement. I do not think that it is appropriate to the activity described. My understanding of "incitement" is reflected in the recent events in Brixton, when the lawyer Rudy Narayan addressed a crowd in the street and threatened retribution against the police for the death of a man in custody. His remarks caused an outbreak of rioting in the streets and damage to property. I believe that that is an example of incitement.

The sexual abuse of children does not involve someone going on to the streets and inciting otherwise normal people to comply: it is a case of seeking willing—indeed eager—partners to engage in the evil practice of child abuse. If two willing parties wish to come together through the Internet or by telephone, it will be extraordinarily difficult to identify whether incitement has occurred. In a simple information exchange, the charge of incitement will be difficult to nail down.

Nevertheless, I am anxious that the Bill should achieve as much as it can and I support the amendments. In describing the Bill as a "shield" for the protection of children around the world—to quote my right hon. Friend the Minister—we must be modest in our aspirations and not allow ourselves to be carried beyond the realms of reality.

Lady Olga Maitland

I give my wholehearted support to the amendments—they are so important that it is extraordinary that the provisions were not included in the Bill in the first place. How can we contemplate taking tough action to curb the sexual abuse of children by tourists if we deal with only half the issue? Clearly, the means by which such people communicate with each other is the key to the Bill.

I find it difficult to comprehend the sheer scale of the sexual exploitation. Most people find it hard to believe that paedophiles are sophisticated and devious people who will go to any lengths and use any means to achieve their ends. Although the amendments try to close any loopholes through which such people could dodge, weave and dive in an attempt to achieve their evil objectives, I endorse the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Sir M. Neubert) who said that we should not get too excited about the Bill being the whole answer, as it is only part of a package that may have to be addressed later with other legislation.

I accept that it will be difficult to prove and to find positive evidence that people have sent offensive material electronically. Earlier today I raised the question of telephone calls. Will hearsay evidence of a telephone call be admissible, or may telephone calls be intercepted, thereby taking us into a difficult area? Perhaps there should be some cut-off point at which we say that, because an alleged offence is so terrible, we should consider that course of action. Faxes are tangible objects that may be presented as evidence. I believe that messages by fax can also be intercepted, but I am not sure how.

Mr. John Marshall

People can send them to the wrong number.

Lady Olga Maitland

Yes, but they would then be categorised as unsolicited material. As my right hon. Friend the Minister pointed out, if one is the innocent recipient of such material, one is not liable to be charged with any offence.

All hon. Members have referred to the fact that the Internet—which I believe may become a modern curse—is too vast and it is all too easy to surf the system and pursue one's own ends. Although we have the power to make it an offence to receive or pick up offensive material from the Internet, I am concerned that it will be extremely difficult to produce evidence of that act. How do we link the material with a prosecution? I am not saying that the provision should not be in the Bill—it should be on the face of the legislation—but we must recognise the problem that my hon. Friend the Member for Romford pointed out. The Bill may not be the complete answer, although it is a very important step.

I urge hon. Members to cast their eye over the schedule of listed sexual offences. Any normal, decent human being who reads that list would shudder with horror—it highlights the fact that we must make the Bill work effectively. For instance, the Bill will deal with crimes of rape under the Sexual Offences Act 1956. Those offences include intercourse with a girl under the age of 13, intercourse with a girl under the age of 16, buggery, and indecent assault on a boy or a girl. When confronted with such a list, no normal human being could be other than utterly determined to protect our young people.

Children should be able to trust adults. When that trust is abused, we have a moral obligation to protect them in whatever way we can. Although there may be some doubts about the efficacy of the amendments, it is prudent to include them. We should remember that we are talking about children's trust. The amendments are important because they toughen the Bill and cause paedophiles concern that they may be caught. If the measures act as a deterrent, well and good. If they help us to catch sex offenders, even better: I believe that they deserve to roast in hell, and they certainly have the worst time of it in jail where sex offenders are shown no mercy. The amendments are welcome if they help to bring evil men to justice.

Mr. Batiste

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate, for a number of reasons. First and foremost, I express my strong support for the legislation, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Marshall) on selecting a Bill with such a worthwhile aim. It is relatively rare to win in the private Members' Bills ballot—I have not managed it during several years in this place—and my hon. Friend may be satisfied in the knowledge that he will have put on the statute book provisions that will make a significant difference to the lot of those around the world who suffer as a consequence of the actions of depraved, criminal perverts.

Having said that, I can give the Bill only two cheers, as I believe that it should go much further. We shall have to return to the issue with other more extensive legislation in the future.

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that we are not yet on Third Reading. We are debating two amendments.

Mr. Batiste

I appreciate that, Madam Deputy Speaker. However, my opening comments remove the need for me to make a speech on Third Reading. I shall now turn to the specific points arising from the amendments.

The amendments improve the Bill quite specifically because they reach, albeit tentatively, into the issue of extra-territoriality and extend the remit of the Bill to electronic communications. Without either of those steps forward, the Bill would be much more restricted.

I have long been involved with extra-territoriality and Internet issues. "Extra-territoriality" is a tongue twister which is much easier to pronounce at 11 o'clock in the morning than at 11 o'clock at night, and it covers a wide range of complex issues. In the early to mid-1980s, the Americans sought to use it as an excuse for imposing their domestic legislation on other countries and, along with many other hon. Members, I fought strongly against that.

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There is legislation on our statute book to enable British companies and individuals to resist the extra-territorial demands of countries such as the United States. It has therefore been assumed that extra-territoriality meant the imposition by one country of its views on others, but times have changed and extra-territoriality now means something quite different, as it does in the context of today's debate. In terms of the development of the thinking of the House of Commons, it went a great deal further when we introduced the War Crimes Bill. A number of hon. Members who are here today were, with me, strong supporters of the War Crimes Bill.

The rationale behind that measure and the reason why so many of us want this Bill to progress is that, whatever the problems are—and we accept that there are problems in relation to evidence and bringing a case within the confines of the procedures of the British courts—nevertheless, in today's world, with its rapid communications, electronic media and the internationalisation of crime, there must be a residual responsibility on a state such as ours to punish its citizens for serious crimes that they commit overseas.

It may not be a primary responsibility, because it is better for such crimes to be punished in the country where they are committed, but if for any reason that is impractical or impossible, or if extradition is impracticable, we in Britain should be able to undertake criminal proceedings. At the end of the day, those who commit serious crimes—particularly crimes which affect small children in distant parts of the world who are unable to protect themselves and whose Governments may not be able to protect them—should not be able to return to Britain and see it as a safe haven in which to plan and plot further trips in future.

I accept what my right hon. Friend the Minister said about the importance of trying to establish the certainty and success of prosecution and imposing serious penalties on those being convicted. Given those reservations, the difference between what my right hon. Friend said this morning, and what I, other hon. Members and many people in Britain believe, is that there is also a declaratory role for the law. Many paedophiles have a status in society and are afraid of exposure. In some circumstances, the fact that there is a mechanism in place which could bring them to book will be a powerful means of protecting some of the most vulnerable people in the world.

I have spoken out on many occasions against extra-territoriality as a form of legislative colonialism which seeks to impose the domestic laws of one country upon other countries, but this is a different and benign manifestation of extra-territoriality in which we seek to ensure that our citizens observe the laws of this land and do not regard Britain as a safe base from which to commit serious crimes overseas in the belief that they can escape retribution in the countries where those crimes are committed.

I now turn briefly to the Internet. Although the amendments before us are entirely sound in relation to newspaper articles, advertisements, letters and telephone calls, where there is a clear connection between the person sending a message and the person receiving it, the Internet creates entirely new and complex problems for law makers. The Internet opens up free speech around the world in electronic form. I do not believe that it is possible or practicable—although some people say it might be—to prevent that, and to try to do so would be to deny free speech. However, if people break the law in the context of expressing themselves they should be punished for it.

I see no reason why my determination to protect people's right to self-expression on the Internet should not be coupled with an equal determination that those who abuse the right to free speech through the electronic media should be punished. It may be technologically difficult, but I am sure that the technology will develop alongside the Government's determination to make sure that the electronic media are not abused. We protect the right of free speech, but there are a series of criminal offences relating to its misuse to incite riots, to which reference has been made, and other crimes. I see no reason why the same framework should not apply to the Internet.

I have looked carefully at the drafting of the amendments, and although I was delighted to hear the clear assurances from my right hon. Friend the Minister that he believes that the amendments extend the legislation to the Internet, I am not quite so sure about that. In particular, the amendment refers to a message … sent or received in England and Wales". I find it difficult to see how we can express in such geographical terms a message that is put on a bulletin board by a person in Bangkok, for example, which does not exist in any physical form, but merely in electronic form, and which can be accessed by any person around the world.

I am not sure that such a message is ever "received". It would have been better to express it in terms of a message being read by a person in the United Kingdom, as that would have little or no ambiguity. I do not profess any real expertise in the drafting of such legislation, but I hope that the assurance that my right hon. Friend has given is correct.

Mr. Garnier

Would the use of the word "published", as it applies in the law of defamation, be of assistance? In that sense, it means making known to a third party. Would that be of assistance to my hon. Friend?

Mr. Batiste

We are fortunate to have available free of charge the advice of one of the most eminent barristers in the country on such matters. I am sure that my hon. and learned Friend's wise words will be taken on board by my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South, who has done such a splendid job in promoting the Bill, to see whether there is a weakness that could be addressed.

It is clear that, throughout the House and throughout the country, there is a strong determination that we should live up to our obligations under article 34 of the United Nations convention to prevent the sexual exploitation of children around the world. The Bill takes a small step in that direction, and for that reason I strongly welcome it. Nevertheless, further steps need to be taken. If the Government, in their review of the issue of extra-territoriality, can go a step further, there will be a wide welcome for further legislation.

Amendment agreed to.

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