Leading Artilce: Child sex - no summer holiday

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The Independent Online
Over the past decade, the incidence of sexual abuse in Britain has become clearer, and progressively more alarming. Children have revealed years of ill-treatment. So the law has increasingly been used to reinforce society's taboo. High-profile trials have exposed paedophile rings. For example Frank Beck, a social worker who ran three local authority children's homes, received five life sentences in 1992. He had abused dozens of children.

Yet all this time hundreds of British men - and it is mostly men - have been seeking pastures new. Child-sex tourism is booming in southern Asia, parts of Africa and eastern Europe. Even though paedophiles are breaking the law in those countries they usually escape conviction because their visits are brief, police forces are overstretched, the prostitutes they use are poor and extradition is difficult.

Belatedly, Michael Howard has promised action. Yesterday the Home Secretary said the Government was examining the scope of the law to deal with people in Britain who "conspire or incite others to commit offences abroad". The targets, he said, were those who organised sex tours or encouraged those who sexually exploit children abroad.

All this sounds welcome. But the changes envisaged will not stop British child-sex tourism. They may put a few tour operators out of business, but it is notoriously difficult to gather sufficient evidence to gain convictions under conspiracy laws. And Mr Howard's initiative will do little to catch most paedophiles, who head off to Bangkok or Manila on legitimate package holidays.

Mr Howard should follow the example of at least a dozen other countries including Australia, the United States and the Nordic countries, which have passed laws allowing them to prosecute their nationals at home for sexual offences committed against children abroad. Last month, for example, a Swedish man was jailed for three months in his home country for abusing a 13-year-old boy in Thailand. The case demonstrated the problems that the Thai authorities have in stopping sex tourism. The Swedish man had been caught by the Thai police but jumped bail and escaped home.

Extending British legal jurisdiction to offences committed in other countries would not set a precedent. It is already possible to prosecute individuals for a number of offences, including murder, committed abroad. Those in the dock would be sure of a fair trial requiring the usual rigorous standards of evidence.

Convictions might be rare, given the difficulties of bringing witnesses to Britain. But one well-publicised case might deter many people who think that, once abroad, they can abuse children with impunity. It is extraordinary to introduce into Britain legislation dealing with crimes taking place outside this country's jurisdiction. But child sexual abuse is a heinous offence and children, particularly poor ones, are very vulnerable. They need all the protection that we can give them.