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Sunday, 20 May, 2001, 15:09 GMT

Net crime plans unveiled

Labour has unveiled plans to tackle internet paedophiles - but the party has been accused of a "dereliction of duty" by opponents for not acting sooner in government.

The scheme announced by Home Secretary Jack Straw is part of a package of new measures aimed at making Britain the safest place in the world for children to use the net.

Labour's net plans

  • Paedophile prevention orders
  • Rating system for family-friendly ISPs
  • Pre-installed child safety software
    But his opposite number, shadow home secretary Ann Widdecombe, denounced it as a "panic" measure prompted by plans already in the Tory manifesto.

    And the Liberal Democrats said the government should have acted months ago.

    As law and order dominated the campaign agenda on Sunday the political parties focused on the problem of paedophiles who target potential victims using internet chatrooms.

    As the law stands currently they have committed no crime unless the contact ends in assault.

    Mr Straw, setting out Labour's law and order stall to supporters in Northampton, called it "one of the most disturbing" forms of crime to emerge from the internet.

    " We want to make Britain the safest country in the world for children using the web "
    Jack Straw

    "It is an utter evil that we are dealing with and it's one which we have to tackle very vigorously," Mr Straw said.

    If elected Labour would introduce, among other measures, civil-injunction style paedophile prevention orders.

    Police could use them in relation to approaches over the internet that they think could result in a meeting "intended for unlawful conduct" - such as sexual assault.

    Breaching the order - based on existing Anti-Social Behaviour Orders - would be an offence punishable by up to five years prison.

    But Miss Widdecombe, speaking earlier to supporters at Gravesham in Kent, insisted the orders would not work.

    " If they are as successful as Labour's child curfew orders, the paedophile has nothing to fear at all "
    Ann Widdecombe on the new orders

    "Jack Straw's proposals would allow paedophiles who prey on children once to be free to do so again.

    "It is pure fantasy to suppose that a predatory paedophile who has approached a child in this way will not do so again purely because of a piece of paper."

    A Conservative government would introduce a new offence of child "enticement", which would enable charges to be brought, whether or not there was an assault.

    Such a measure would remove, at least for a while, the threat of the men involved "grooming" children online, Miss Widdecombe said.

    She accused Labour of having rejected Conservative proposals to tighten the law seven times.

    Confusion risk

    "I charge them with dereliction of duty. They are obviously now in a panic, realising that we have proposals to tackle this scourge in our manifesto and they do not," she said.

    But Mr Straw rejected the charge, saying legal advice suggested a new incitement offence would create legal confusion.

    Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy said cracking down on paedophilia should be neither a party political nor a general election issue.

    "We were calling for the kind of steps that the government is saying they are now going to take many months ago in the House of Commons when Tony Blair rejected them.

    "I welcome the fact that they are making these moves, they will certainly have our support - but it shouldn't take a general election for this kind of issue to come to the fore."

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