The Home Office has been criticised for excluding public interest groups from its initial consultation period on a new law designed to criminalise the "grooming" of children in Internet chatrooms.
The government has issued a letter to all cabinet members and members of the legal profession, inviting their feedback on a proposed new criminal offence relating to a meeting with a child with the intention of engaging in a sexual activity, and a new civil order to protect children from an adult making contact with them for a harmful purpose, especially by email or through the Internet. But cyber-liberty groups have lambasted the Home Office for not including public interest groups in the consultation period.
"We believe in openness and transparency of any government policy-making process and we are puzzled by the fact that a proper and open consultation was not deemed necessary by the Internet Taskforce on Child Protection and by the Home Office," said Yaman Akdeniz, director of Cyber-Rights and Cyber-Liberties, who said the proposals are controversial. "The Home Office seems to persistently exclude public interest groups from consultation on important Internet-related policy initiatives."
The "grooming" proposal was developed in August by the Scrutiny of the Criminal Law subgroup of the Home Office Internet Taskforce on Child Protection. It is still in its preliminary stage, but is designed to address a recognised gap in the law relating to the luring of children over the Internet for sexual purposes. "Grooming" would refer to a course of conduct that includes communication with a child, where the offender establishes a degree of confidence and friendship with the child, with the intention of meeting them offline.
The Home Office is defending its consultation procedure on the basis that this is a non-governmental proposal, and therefore does not require the same public scrutiny as governmental legislation proposed for the statute books. "A non-governmental body has presented this proposal to government, and the government is very interested in the prospect of this new law, said a Home Office spokesman. "But the Home Secretary needs to consult his cabinet colleagues and legal experts on the form and format of the proposal, to see if it is feasible and desirable."
The government letter requests that all comments on the preliminary proposals are received by 28 September "because of the urgent need to take action in this area." But the Home Office spokesman would not be drawn on the question of whether a more transparent consultation period would take place before the proposals are finalised into a bill. "If there is positive feedback, we would look to take the proposals forward as quickly as possible," said the Home Office spokesman. "We are keen to fill this gap in the law," he added.
The next full report of the Internet Taskforce is scheduled to take place in mid-October.
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