Thursday, 23 August 2007

17 July 2007: Internet crimes

Another supplementary question, this time inspired by something that I read in TODAY by Thomas Koshy. (I forgot the term "sexual grooming", which is why I said "sexual solicitation".) I don't know if this was a coincidence or not, but that piece was published on 24 May 2007, while this particular PQ was filed on 28 May 2007.

I was not convinced by the Minister of State's response. After all, the existing Penal Code criminalises attempts to commit offences. The proposed changes to the Penal Code also intend to criminalise child sex committed overseas, which is something that the Government acknowledged would be difficult to prove but was so important that it was prepared to make law anyway. So why not this?

I also found the reference to the comprehensiveness of the Penal Code ironic. My PQs in May on the proposed Penal Code amendments had elicited responses to the effect that a number of the proposed amendments were being made because of "anecdotal accounts" from the police. I'm sure that if we look, we can find many, many more "anecdotal accounts" of sexual grooming, and certainly I would assume that the public is a lot more concerned about sexual grooming than necrophilia, which is one of the new offences being introduced in the Penal Code. It just doesn't make sense to me.

The overall message must be right -- it's not just about the law, it's a multi-faceted problem that requires a multi-pronged solution. But surely having the appropriate laws in place would go a long way towards helping. Here's one case where I believe would-be offenders would be deterred.

(Stiffer penalties on offenders who prey on young girls)

Mdm Cynthia Phua asked the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Home Affairs (a) how many girls and women have been victims of sex crimes and/or financial loss from knowing the offenders through the Internet; and (b) will the Ministry consider imposing stiffer penalties on those who prey on young girls through the Internet.

Assoc. Prof. Ho Peng Kee (for the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Home Affairs): Sir, there were 124 reported cases of females becoming victims of sex crimes as a result of them knowing the offenders through the Internet between 2001 and 2006. Of these reported cases, 80 cases (or about two-third) involved victims who were below 16 years of age. Of these 124 cases, two of them also involved the victims' property being stolen.

The number of cases of Internet-related sexual crimes forms about 1.5 % of the total number of sexual crimes. Over the years, there has not been any significant increase in the number of Internet-related sexual crimes but, of course, this remains an area of concern as it mainly involves young victims. To address this threat, Police has embarked on several crime intervention actions by working closely with the Ministry of Education (MOE) and also the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS) to conduct training sessions, workshops, programmes and crime awareness talk.

The current legal provisions and penalties for these sexual offences are adequate. The penalties for the offence of rape, for example, under the Penal Code carry an imprisonment term of up to 20 years and option of fine and caning. The penalties for the offence of carnal connection (that is, having sexual intercourse with a girl under 16) under the Women's Charter carry an imprisonment term of up to five years and option of fine up to $10,000.

In view of the relatively small number of Internet-related sexual crime cases reported over the years, there is no need to provide for enhanced penalties in existing offences when the offence is committed via the Internet.

Mdm Cynthia Phua (Aljunied): Sir, just one question. I want to ask the Minister whether the Police act upon tip-off or the victim must really make a Police report before the Police will investigate.

Assoc. Prof. Ho Peng Kee: Sir, there must be information that an offence has been committed in the first place. So, normally, the victim will lodge a Police report and that is when the investigation will proceed.

Mr Siew Kum Hong: I would like to ask the Senior Minister of State whether the Ministry has considered introducing a new offence of sexual solicitation which is something that has been done, I understand, in England where a person who solicits sex or sexual activity with a minor would be committing an offence. I think the MOS has mentioned about the provisions which deal with actual sexual conduct, carnal connection and rape, but sexual solicitation would actually nip that in the bud. So I would like to ask the MOS whether that has been considered.

Assoc. Prof. Ho Peng Kee: Our Penal Code review has been a comprehensive one. One of the areas that we have been looking at is sex with minors. This is one area indeed we are considering actively. We are looking at the UK provision - section 15 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, on sexual grooming, in other words, if a person chats up a minor and after chatting her up, invites her out, meets her and, thereafter, has sex with her or commits an offence on her - whether we can make that an offence without the actual act of sex having been committed. So it is a matter of drawing the line and scoping it so that the mischief that is being targeted can be addressed sufficiently.

Mdm Cynthia Phua: Sir, before there is a sexual occurrence, there is a potential, like what the Member has said, of solicitation over the Internet, if there is a tip-off, would the Police investigate or unless there is a victim?

Assoc. Prof. Ho Peng Kee: I thank Mdm Cynthia Phua for her Question and also this supplementary question. As I have explained just now, this is something that we are looking at because we know that there have been situations when this has happened and the current law does not adequately address the problem. Because even to attempt an offence, certain overt acts must have been done. So let us see what we can do to placate concerns of the parents. But I must also add that it is not just the law that is at work here. Really, it is a matter of all parties working together. On this score, Dr Lee Boon Yang had given a reply to Mdm Phua a year ago. Indeed, after that reply, MDA has stepped up its activities with the formation of the new Internet and Media Advisory Committee. They have mounted additional campaigns, talks, seminars, guidebooks have been publicised, schools have been reached out to, through various programmes, including cyber crush programmes. So I think parents must take note of what they can do, and hopefully with the laws being strengthened, the situation would improve.

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