I posted the following earlier today on the Labour Lords site:
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.
Shaz is 15 years old. This is how she tells her story: “When I was 12, I went on a family holiday to Bangladesh. As soon as I got out there were marriage proposals from my cousins. I started starving myself and was brought back. I couldn’t tell anyone. My brother said I was going to marry my cousin from Bangladesh if I didn’t he would kill me.” Shaz’s brother was only two years older than her, and was born and brought up in this country. Today forced marriage becomes a criminal offence. This is welcome and is the culmination of a long campaign by many organisations – including (declaration of interest) the Freedom Charity, whose Board I chair. Forcing someone to marry against their will is abhorrent, and is also widely regarded as a violation of internationally recognised human rights standards. Indeed, Article 16.2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says: ‘Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.’ Under the previous Labour government, the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act was passed, enabling victims to apply for court orders for their protection. It became apparent however, that more was needed; which is why we were happy to support criminalisation being included in the Coalition’s Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill during the last parliamentary session. Labour Peers successfully strengthened the measure as far as the principle of consent for people with learning difficulties was concerned, recognising that for some a forced marriage may take place without violence or threats. The big task remains education. We need to make sure that those at risk understand they have a choice. We need families and communities to understand that forcing someone into a marriage against their will is not just wrong. It is now illegal. Shaz was lucky. She tells how in January of last year: “I was at school when Aneeta from Freedom visited, we all leant about forced marriage. I knew then I could get help. Freedom got me out. Now I live with my Foster Mum and Dad.” We are now approaching the long summer school holidays – a time when young girls often disappear on long family holidays and are forced into marriages overseas. It is even more important therefore to get the message across that forced marriage is wrong. That is why I, along with Labour colleagues and many others around the country, are marking the criminalisation of forced marriage by being photographed on Monday holding a Twitter-friendly sign saying #FREEDOM2CHOOSE.
Earlier today, Peers debated Policing for a Better Britain, the product of two years work by a group chaired by the former Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Lord John Stevens. The report is a Royal Commission in all but name – and was commissioned by Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper, rather than the government. It is the most thorough appraisal of policing for over 50 years, and its detailed recommendations need to be taken seriously if the service is to meet the challenges of today.
The diagnosis is that the police are grappling with deep social transformation, including a global economic downturn, ever-quickening flows of migration, widening inequalities, constitutional uncertainty and the impact of new social media. Overall, crime levels have been declining for the last 15 years (despite some suggestions that violent crime and burglary are increasing again). But there are new types and modes of crime to contend with: e-crime and cyber-enabled crime, the widespread trafficking of people and goods, and also terrorism – both international and domestic. And all at a time when trust in the police is under threat.
We need now to return to the fundamental principles of British policing: the concept that the police are a civilian service operating with the consent of those they serve; that their effectiveness is measured not by the number of arrests but by the absence of crime; and that underlying it all is the idea that they are accountable for the actions they take.
Lord Stevens’ concludes that the police must have a social purpose that combines catching offenders with work to prevent crime and maintain order in our communities; that they should listen to what the public say while meeting the needs of the most vulnerable in society; and above all be rooted in local communities.
Faced with the budgetary cut-backs of the last three years and ministerial insistence that the police’s only objective is to fight crime, the report warns: “there is a danger of the police being forced to retreat to a discredited model of reactive policing.” It also bemoans the steady dismantling by the Coalition of local community policing – built up and supported by the last Labour government. In London alone, for example, 300 sergeants have been lost from Safer Neighbourhood Teams over the past two years.
The sight of beat police, whom the community knows, fosters reassurance, promotes feelings of well-being and security, and builds public trust. And that itself enables the sort of relationship where people feel confident enough to confide their concerns and pass on the raw material of the intelligence that local police must rely on to do their work.
All of this needs to be coupled with increased professionalism (Stevens suggests the concept of ‘the chartered police officer’) and greater accountability, with a proper independent body to monitor standards and investigate complaints. Locally, there needs to be a much greater role for elected councils in setting priorities. At force-wide level, the report is scathing about the defects in governance resulting from the ill thought out changes that led to the election of Police and Crime Commissioners on a 15% turn-out.
What the Stevens Commission has done is provide a formidable body of evidence to support some coherent reforms to make British policing fit for the 21st Century whilst retaining the core principles that still make British policing the envy of the world. All we need now is a government that is interested in genuine improvements to take this forward, rather than one that takes delight in sniping at Chief Constables and undermining police morale.
Today’s guilty pleas at the Old Bailey are a timely reminder that the homegrown terrorist threat has not gone away. Three men (Richard Dart, Jahangir Alom and Imran Mahmood) had been charged with:
“engaging in preparation for acts of terrorism by travelling to Pakistan for training between July 2010 and July 2012 and by “advising and counselling” acts of terrorism by providing information about how to go to the country for the same purpose.”
It is notable that Dart (a white convert to Islam who moved from Dorset to London) had been employed for a short period as a security guard for the BBC and that Alom (whose wife has already been sentenced for terrorist offences) is a former Police Community Support Officer. Both had therefore been – for a period at least – in security-related occupations.
The three convictions involved travel to Pakistan for training in terrorist techniques but as NBC News has recently reported:
“A new al-Qaida “guidebook” for extremists aims to incite homegrown “lone wolves” into carrying out small-scale terrorist attacks …. using materials as easily obtainable as motor or cooking oil, sugar and matches to trigger massive traffic accidents, devastating fires and deadly explosions.
Titled the “Lone Mujahid Pocketbook” and published by in the spring edition of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula’s “Inspire” online propaganda magazine, the guidebook uses a breezy style that borrows from social media speak and rap lyrics to encourage Islamic extremists in the West to commit acts of violence.
“R U dreamin’ of wagin’ jihadi attacks against kuffar?” is asks, using a derogatory Arabic term for non-Muslims. “Have u been lookin’ 4 a way to join the mujahideen in frontlines, but you haven’t found any? Well there’s no need to travel abroad, coz the frontline has come to you.”
Among other things, it offers detailed instructions for torching parked cars, causing vehicular accidents by pouring motor oil on highway curves, starting forest fires, “making a bomb in the kitchen of your Mom” and using a pickup truck with blades welded on the front “as a mowing machine, not to mow grass but (to) mow down the enemies of Allah.””
So the threat has not gone away and the current tactic involves self-trained (and possibly self-radicalised) lone wolf type activists.
This morning the Children’s Commissioner published her shocking report “I thought I was the only one. The only one in the world.” on child sexual exploitation in gangs and groups. This authoritative and well-researched document reports that it had identified 2,409 children as having been identified as victims of sexual exploitation by gangs or groups.
And what has been the Government’s response?
To welcome the report and promise action?
Instead, anonymous government spokesmen briefed the media to say that the report was “over-emotional” and “sensationalist”
I raised this in Question Time in the House of Lords this afternoon. The Minister’s response was hardly effusive: the report was “useful to have”.
Here is the exchange:
“Lord Harris of Haringey:
The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, has referred to the Children’s Commissioner’s report which came out today, in particular the dreadful findings about how many children in care have been sexually abused. Will the Minister tell the House the Government’s stance about that report, given that, apparently, people speaking on behalf of the Government to both the BBC Radio 4 “Today” programme and the Sun said that the report was overemotional and were trying to undermine its conclusions?
Lord Hill of Oareford:
The Government’s stance is that the report from the deputy Children’s Commissioner is helpful for the Government to have. We will reflect on the findings that it makes in terms of its recommendations and its estimates about the extent of the problem. I think I am right in saying that the report recognises that making any precise estimate is by nature very difficult, but the more information we have the better. Even before this report, the Government have been seeking to improve the systems for getting accurate reporting from various local agencies and authorities to make sure that we have as accurate a picture as possible to make sure that we do not underestimate or overestimate the problem. Everyone is very aware of the salience of this issue and the important issues that that report gives rise to.”
Almost as though the Government are frightened of the issue.
There was an oral question in the House of Lords this afternoon on what measures the Government are proposing to take to recognise the contribution the Armed Forces made to the success of the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. (Apparently, those who helped with the Games will be receiving a commemorative coin.)
The House was unanimous in its support for the efforts and hard work of those servicemen and women who were drafted in at short notice to help with security at the Games. However, inevitably the questioning turned to the failures of G4S which led to the army being called in in the first place.
And my colleague Lord Alan West broadened it to the dangers of privatisation in general:
My contribution was as follows:
And the Defence Minister was simply not prepared to answer …
Earlier today I intervened in the discussion in the House of Lords on the Home Office statement on the historic allegations of child sex abuse in the North Wales police area.
Despite the Minister’s response, I remain concerned.
The exchange was as follows:
Last week I signed up to become an IWF Champion. This means that I fully support the important work that the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) does to remove child sexual abuse images on the internet.
The IWF was established in 1996 by the internet industry to provide the UK internet Hotline for the public and IT professionals to report criminal online content in a secure and confidential way.
The IWF Hotline service can be used anonymously to report content within its remit. The IWF successfully works in partnership with the online industry, law enforcement, government, and international partners to minimise the availability of this content, specifically:
The IWF helps internet service providers and hosting companies to combat the abuse of their networks through its ‘notice and takedown’ service which alerts them to content within its remit so they can remove it from their networks. The IWF also provides unique data to law enforcement partners in the UK and abroad to assist investigations into the distributors. As a result of this approach the content the IWF deals with has been virtually removed from UK networks. As sexually abusive images of children are primarily hosted abroad, the IWF facilitates the industry-led initiative to protect users from inadvertent exposure to this content by blocking access to it through their provision of a dynamic list of child sexual abuse web pages.
I am proud to be associated with an organisation that has successfully:
There was a debate today in the House of Lords on the challenges to the police service of the new system of electing Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs). I posted about it yesterday on the Labour Lords blog.
In my speech I talked about the experience in London of effectively having the new system since January with the (unelected) Deputy Mayor for Policing and Crime acting as a quasi-PCC, saying:
“London has already shown up some of the problems. The first is a lack of transparency. Information about the operation of the police service or about key financial decisions that was previously made available in published police authority committee papers is no longer available or is available only in very abbreviated form. The second is the lack of visible answerability of senior police officers. A few weeks ago, the new deputy mayor for policing and crime instructed Bernard Hogan-Howe, the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, not to attend the London Assembly’s police and crime committee eight minutes before the meeting was due to begin.
The third problem is that the deputy mayor has to act on his or her own, as PCCs will have to do. As the current incumbent has commented to me, he does not have what he calls the “band width” to address all the topics that the public might expect him to pursue. It is simply impossible for one person to do so. When I chaired the police authority in London, I had 22 members to whom I could delegate matters. Those 22 members could also keep an eye on me, which meant that capricious decisions could not be taken. But the Government, in their wisdom, have declined to provide a standards framework in which PCCs or their equivalents in London should operate. The Government seem to believe that having police and crime panels will be a sufficient safeguard against misconduct.
However, the money being made available for the servicing of these panels outside London is to be just £53,000 per year, which is barely enough to cover the cost of one member of staff who has to co-ordinate the work of and support a disparate group of local councillors drawn from up to a dozen or more different local authorities. Even in London where the police and crime committee of the London Assembly has been better resourced and the 12 members all know and work with each other on a regular basis, it has struggled to get the answers that it wants. There is the potential for problems and inappropriate interventions in operational matters.”
I then went on to pose some questions about Mayoral behaviour:
“Will the Minister tell us whether he regards it as appropriate that an elected PCC should be regularly briefed about the course of a policing operation and should then, almost as a matter of routine, have contact with those who are subject to that operation, and, what is more, then fail to disclose that those contacts have taken place? Perhaps your Lordships will think that such a scenario is far fetched but I have to say that it is not. On 10 January last year, the Mayor of London was briefed by Assistant Commissioner Yates. The mayor later told the London Assembly that he could not remember the briefing in detail but acknowledged that it may well have been about Operation Weeting, the investigation into phone hacking at News International. Four days later he had lunch with Rebekah Brooks and 10 days after that he had dinner with Rupert Murdoch at his London home. Neither of those two meetings was disclosed in the published mayoral diary and they were omitted, initially at least, from the list of contacts with News International that was requested by the London Assembly. There were further briefings from John Yates on 21 April and 3 May. Remarkably, days later, the mayor had more initially undisclosed contacts with News International, including a telephone call with James Murdoch on 6 May and, five days later, with the News International lobbyist, Frederic Michel. I could go on. I have a long list of meetings and contacts.
At the same time, the mayor’s deputy was raising, in an ostensibly jocular way, concerns that too many detectives were involved in investigating phone hacking, so much so that assistant commissioner Dick had to remind him, as she disclosed to the Leveson inquiry, that operational policing decisions were a matter for senior police officers, not elected politicians. The Mayor of London has form for this sort of thing. In February 2009, an investigation was conducted by Jonathan Goolden, a solicitor, at the request of the monitoring officers of the GLA and the MPA—roles that will not exist as far as PCCs are concerned—into the behaviour of the Mayor of London in contacting Damian Green MP at the time of his arrest on suspicion of involvement in breaches of the Official Secrets Act. Mr Goolden found that the mayor’s action in contacting a potential suspect in a criminal investigation was “extraordinary and unwise”. These contacts followed briefings that the mayor had been given about the case.”
Suffice it to say when the Minister, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, replied he chose not to address the question of the behaviour of the Mayor of London, saying merely:
“As this House will know, the police and crime panels—the PCPs—will also form a key check and balance in the model. As a result of amendments that this House argued for, PCPs will both challenge and support PCCs in making good their important role. This balance was emphasised by the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, who has enormous experience on this matter.”
Was I surprised at the non-answer? Well no – defending Boris Johnson’s behaviour would probably be a career-limiting move for a member of the Government …
Lord Blair of Boughton (the artiste previously known as Sir Ian Blair) has made a particularly silly suggestion. Interviewed on Sky News, he has suggested that people should boycott the elections on 15th November for Police and Crime Commissioners:
“I’ve never said this before but I actually hope people don’t vote because that is the only way we are going to stop this.”
Like most other people, Ian Blair thinks the proposed system of elected Police and Crime Commissioners is flawed. There are no proper checks and balances in the governance arrangements, many of the police force areas make little sense as electoral districts, there is a risk of politicising aspects of operational policing that should not be politicised, and the changes are a waste of money at a time when frontline police budgets are being cut as never before.
However, the legislation rightly or wrongly was passed last year with a its flaws intact (despite the best endeavours of some of us in the House of Lords). The elections ARE going to take place in just over three weeks time (holding the elections in November when it is likely to be cold, wet and dark was an incomprehensible sop to the Liberal Democrats). And yes, the turnout will probably be low – maybe very low – but a boycott is simply going to mean an even lower turnout and an even greater risk that maverick candidates will be elected.
Police accountability matters. This may be the wrong system, but on 15th November forty-one Police and Crime Commissioners will be elected in every part of England and Wales with the exception of London (where we have the “benefit” of an elected Mayor in charge of the Metropolitan Police and where the Corporation of London retains its own medieval system of oversight of the City Police).
A boycott will achieve nothing. I am confident that before too long this new system will have to be changed – probably drastically. In the meantime, because police oversight is so important in any democracy, everyone will have to make the best of the flawed arrangements. And that means ENCOURAGING people to vote on 15th November.