In 2000, we increased the maximum sentences available for production and distribution of indecent images of children from three years to 10 years, and for the simple possession of indecent images from six months to five years’ imprisonment. The average custodial sentence imposed by the courts has increased by several percentage points since the new maximum penalties were introduced.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Does she agree that not only are images based on real children unacceptable, but so too are images that people use for these purposes that they have generated either from their own imagination or electronically? Will she give the House an assurance that her Department will not be going down the route of believing that those sorts of images are a matter for the individual concerned and their own conscience?
I can absolutely give my right hon. Friend that assurance. He will have been as surprised as I was when in the Coroners and Justice Public Bill Committee the Opposition spokesman, the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier), said that he felt that our clause was, perhaps, over-egging the pudding. I do not for one minute think that taking action against these people in this way is over-egging the pudding. We need to protect our children.
My own discussions with the police dealing with the child sex offender area has confirmed that many of the sentences are clearly inadequate, especially compared with what Parliament intended. Why have Ministers consistently declined to add the child pornographic offences to sections 35 or 36 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988, thus allowing appeals against lenient sentences?
I know that the hon. Gentleman has taken a great deal of interest in this area and has worked very hard to try to protect children. We have decided to go down the road that we have because we want to work with the industry, giving it the opportunity to regulate itself. Of course, if that does not work, we are prepared to legislate, if necessary, to ensure that children are properly protected.