One might have thought that the case of Christopher Lillie and Dawn Reed – recently awarded £200,000 each in libel damages against the authors of a local government report which made fantastic claims of child abuse – would sound a warning to the government to avoid joining the general hysteria about paedophilia. But not a bit of it. The Home Office’s taskforce on child protection has proposed to make it a criminal offence to ‘groom’ children via the Internet with intent to commit a sexual offence.
Nobody doubts that the Internet has been used by paedophiles to make contact with children, and it is of course vital for parents to supervise their children’s use of a computer. But the proposals take the law into the worrying territory of trying to prosecute people on the basis that they look as if they might possibly be about to commit a crime. It is akin to charging drinkers just because they are jangling their car keys in the pub.
Should the proposal become law, it will become perilous to use a computer in many innocent ways. Chess fanatics face suspicion and arrest if the opponent with whom they are playing via the Internet turns out to be under 16. How can anyone be sure of the age of somebody with whom they are corresponding in a chatroom? Parallel plans to compel Internet providers to keep all details of the emails we have sent and received over the past several years will provide the means of stitching up future Lillies and Reeds.
The Home Office minister, Hilary Benn, is considering whether to extend the law to cover contact with children off-line, too. If he does, one wonders what a court would make of Cherie Blair’s intercourse with 15-year-old Nick Alberry when she opened a community centre in May – from which he came away with his bare chest signed ‘Cherie X’.