PAEDOPHILES who use the internet to ‘groom’ children in Scotland will be jailed for up to five years under a tough new law to be pushed through parliament within months, writes Political Editor Eddie Barnes.
Justice Minister Cathy Jamieson is fast-tracking the new measure in a bid to defuse growing public concern about the safety of the internet for children, and to address criticism they have been slow to deal with the threat.
The move to create a specific crime of internet grooming in Scotland follows a court case last week in which former US marine Toby Studabaker was found guilty of abducting a 12-year-old British schoolgirl he groomed over the internet.
The new law, which will copy plans already under way in England, is expected to mean that suspects could be charged before any sexual activity takes place.
An offence punishable with a five-year sentence would be committed as soon as police could prove that an adult was deliberately grooming a child with the intention of sexually abusing them.
Police can already scour chat rooms and internet sites and will examine computer records for evidence of sexual grooming.
A Scottish Executive source said: "A new law will definitely be brought in, either as a separate bill or in addition to current legislation. Ministers aim to put the plans before parliament before the summer."
Studabaker, 33, groomed a 12-year-old English girl on the internet for a year. He then abducted her after she had agreed to meet him.
The girl’s parents called in police after the girl went missing last July. Investigators quickly found records of her relationship with Studabaker on her computer. He had taken the girl across northern Europe, having sex with her. She returned home three days after disappearing, following a massive manhunt.
Anecdotal evidence from children’s charities now suggests that children’s internet rooms are full of adults such as Studabaker, many of whom pose as children in order to form a relationship.
A recent survey of children in Barnardo’s 300 homes across Britain found that 83 had been subjected to internet abuse.
Tink Palmer, policy officer for Barnardo’s child sex exploitation team, said: "These adults pose as 15 or 16-year-olds and start chatting to 13-year-old girls and they, of course, believe they have fallen in love.
"The adult then persuades the girl to meet up with him."
Palmer said she welcomed the move by the Scottish Executive, but warned that extra resources would be needed for police to trap offenders.
"This is clear recognition on the behalf of government that it is going on and that children need protection. The problem is whether police will be pro-active in catching paedophiles or not," she added.
Doug Keil, president of the Scottish Police Federation, said last night: "Our view is that it is definitely a very good thing in theory, as it is something that everyone would want to see.
"However, as always, there are resource implications for the police. But as long as these are properly thought through we would be very supportive of the new powers."