Toby Harris on the action needed to protect children from online sexual communications
A 15 year old girl is alone in her bedroom. She is on her smartphone messaging her friends. Like most nights she is chatting online to one particular boy. He says he is 17. He says he is in love with her. The chat becomes sexual. He tells her she is special. He coaxes her into sending her a picture of herself – naked. Only later does she discover that he is not 17 but 44 years old and that he is a sexual predator.
ChildLine say such cases are not uncommon. In Scotland, the man would have committed a crime and could be charged. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland his actions are not illegal. NSPCC have been campaigning on this issue: you can sign their e-petition here (http://e-activist.com/ea-action/action?ea.client.id=1884&ea.campaign.id=32450&ea) and last week I proposed a new Clause in the Serious Crime Bill that would close this loophole.
The government resisted my amendment saying it wasn’t necessary, despite the fact that last year there was a 168% increase in contacts to ChildLine about online sexual abuse. Ministers argued that there were other laws that already exist and the new clause isn’t necessary. The trouble is that the other laws they mentioned don’t in fact deal with the problem.
The Sexual Offences Act 2003 only covers situations where it can be proved that the adult intends to meet the child, but often there is no intention to meet and all the perpetrator wants is a naked picture of the child.
Then there’s the Mobile Communications Act and intent to cause distress or anxiety. But that is the opposite of what the perpetrators want – they are grooming the child by flattering them and making them feel special so as to gain their trust.
Likewise, the Communications Act 2003, where the perpetrator only commits a crime if it is “grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character”. But his messages will often not be obscene or offensive, as he is trying to elicit a sexual message in return and he doesn’t want to frighten or disgust the child.
Finally, they suggested the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. But harassment involves alarming or distressing the recipient and again that is not how a predator grooming a child will behave.
The reality is that the current laws in this area are fragmented and confused. Most of the legislation covering this predates the widespread use of the internet, social networking, instant messaging and smartphones with high definition cameras. So tomorrow, at Third Reading of the Bill, I will try again.
I hope that Ministers will look at the laws they say cover the examples I have given and realise that they are wrong. My amendment is a simple one and makes it a crime for an adult to send a sexual message to a child or send a communication to a child intended to elicit a response with sexual content. As the NSPCC says, the existing laws are flawed and exchanging sexual messages with a child should always be illegal.
Lord Toby Harris of Haringey of is backbench Labour Peer. He tweets @LordTobySays
Published 4th November 2014