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Harriet Harman under attack over bid to water down child pornography law
Harriet Harman’s political judgement has been called into question after it emerged that she once advocated the watering down of child pornography laws.
By Martin Beckford, Social Affairs Correspondent 7:00AM GMT 09 Mar 2009
The Leader of the House of Commons and Minister for Women and Equality, who also sits on a Cabinet committee on young people’s welfare, is being touted as a possible successor to Gordon Brown, But she faces fresh criticism from Opposition MPs and campaign groups after The Daily Telegraph obtained documents showing that she called on ministers to make sexually explicit photographs or films of children legal unless there was evidence that the subject had been harmed.
At the time she made the official submission, she was a senior figure in a civil liberties organisation that wanted the age of consent to be lowered to 14 and incest decriminalised. It also defended self-confessed paedophiles in the press and allowed them to attend its meetings.
Last night Tim Loughton, the Shadow Children’s Minister, said: “Clearly there is a serious conflict of interest with the committees she sits on, who might want urgently to clarify her position on the exploitation of children for the sexual gratification of adults.
“It’s a shame that Miss Harman’s zeal for positive discrimination and all things politically correct among adults does not extend to the exploitation of children. Any child who is used for the sexual gratification of adults counts as an abused child and needs protecting.”
Miss Harman, 58, was a newly qualified solicitor when she became legal officer for the National Council for Civil Liberties, now known as Liberty, in 1978. At the time its general secretary was Patricia Hewitt, who went on to become health secretary under Tony Blair.
Among the groups affiliated to NCCL were the Paedophile Information Exchange and Paedophile Action for Liberation, whose members argued openly for the abolition of the age of consent. NCCL complained to the press watchdog about their treatment by tabloid newspapers and said in one article: “We support any organisation that seeks to campaign for anything it wants within the law. They have that right.”
In NCCL’s official response to the Government’s plans to reform sex laws, dubbed a “Lolita’s Charter”, it suggested reducing the age of consent and argued that “childhood sexual experiences, willingly engaged in, with an adult result in no identifiable damage”. It claimed that children can suffer more from having to retell their experiences in court or the press.
Amid growing public concern about adults preying on children, the Protection of Children Bill was put before Parliament in order to tighten the laws on child pornography by banning indecent images of under-16s.
NCCL’s official response, signed by Miss Harman and submitted in April 1978, claimed that the new law could lead to “damaging and absurd prosecutions” and “increase censorship”.
She suggested that a pornographic photo or film of a child should not be considered indecent unless it could be shown that the subject had suffered, and that prosecutors would have to prove harm rather than defendants having to justify themselves.
Her submission states: “Although this harm may be of a somewhat speculative nature, where participation falls short of physical assault, it is none-the-less justifiable to restrain activities by photographer which involve placing children under the age of 14 (or, arguably, 16) in sexual situations.
“We suggest that the term 'indecent’ be qualified as follows: – A photograph or film shall not for this purpose be considered indecent (a) by reason only that the model is in a state of undress (whether complete or partial); (b) unless it is proved or is to be inferred from the photograph or film that the making of the photograph or film might reasonably be expected to have caused the model physical harm or pronounced psychological or emotional disorder.”
It adds: “Our amendment places the onus of proof on the prosecution to show that the child was actually harmed.”
Miss Harman left NCCL in 1982 when she was elected MP for Camberwell and Peckham, by which time several members of PIE had been jailed for conspiracy to corrupt public morals.
A spokesman for Miss Harman said: “She has always opposed child pornography and has never supported PIE and to suggest that she did is untrue and misleading.
“NCCL’s approach to the protection of children’s bill was to argue for clear definitions in the bill to make sure the law was precise so that it was about child protection and not about censorship.”
The spokesman added: “PIE had been excluded from the NCCL before she became legal officer.”
However press cuttings from 1983 make it clear that it was still considered an “affiliate group”.