Straw makes Internet grooming an election issue

Opposition parties slam home secretary's U-turn on criminalising the practice, saying Labour is stealing their ideas

Internet "grooming" has become an election issue for the Labour party, with opposition parties accusing the government of deceitfully taking ownership of a proposal to criminalise the online solicitation of children in the run-up to the general election.

Two months after the government blocked a Liberal Democrat proposal to criminalise the online "grooming" of children, the home secretary has announced a paedophile protection order intended to criminalise the online solicitation of children in Internet chatrooms.

Liberal Democrat MP Paul Burstow is accusing the Home Office of U-turning on its decision to block his "grooming" proposal originally tabled for inclusion in the Criminal Justice and Police Bill. Jack Straw's "anti-grooming" order -- announced yesterday -- contradicts previous government claims that British legislation is technology-neutral, with existing laws being sufficient to deal with the online enticement of children.

"Eight weeks ago, Home Office ministers said existing laws were satisfactory to deal with Internet paedophiles," said Burstow. "It obviously takes the heat of a general election for the government to admit that existing criminal law is inadequate -- they had the legislative opportunity to correct this with the Criminal Justice and Police Bill."

"Grooming" is the technique that paedophiles use on the Internet to entice children into sexual activity. In the UK, the Indecency with Children Act 1960 is the most relevant piece of legislation for dealing with paedophile chat on the Web, under the category of "incitement" to commit a sexual offence. But a successful prosecution would have to show that there was an "act of gross indecency" which the child was being encouraged to participate in, making it impossible to charge someone with general sexual intent.

Speaking in Northampton yesterday on Labour's plans for crime and criminal justice, the home secretary spoke of Internet paedophilia as one of the most disturbing forms of new high-tech crime. Straw said that "working with industry, childrens charities and with committed campaigners like Carol Vorderman, we want to make Britain the safest country in the world for children to use the Web".

The paedophile prevention order would define a course of conduct enacted by a suspected paedophile, which would give a reasonable person cause for concern that any meeting with a child arising from the conduct would be for unlawful purposes. Based on the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 model, the order would be backed by criminal law, and could result in prosecution and a maximum five-year jail sentence if breached.

A new ratings system has also been incorporated into the proposal to make it easier for parents to choose child-friendly Internet service providers (ISPs). Straw is also hopeful that PCs will soon be marketed with pre-installed filter software and safety warnings.

But UK police are ill-equipped to detect and prevent paedophiles using Internet chatrooms, according to Burstow. Of the 43 police forces in Britain, 40 have at best one officer specialising in IT crime who is often not full time. "It's all well and good saying that orders will be made against paedophiles in these circumstances, but unless the resources are there for police to detect this activity in the first place, the order isn't going to deter paedophiles from stalking their victims online," argued Burstow.

The Home Office proposal will be considered at the next Internet taskforce meeting in June.