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A predatory paedophile who had sex with a 14-year-old girl has been jailed for 18 months and banned from accessing the internet for five years.

The judge condemned as "idiocy" the system whereby he could impose only a two-year maximum custodial sentence, noting that if the girl had been a year younger, Gary Geoffrey Thomas, 37, would be facing a life stretch.

Thomas met his victim in an Internet chat room, then launched a campaign of intensive phone grooming before travelling to her home in Powys, Wales, to havesex with her. He claimed to be 20 and had contact with several other teenagers.

Judge Huw Daniel took the unprecedented step of prohibiting Thomas from subscribing to or accessing the Iternet for five years. He is also banned from using mobile phones for the same period.

This laudable initiative is, sadly, symbolic. Detective Sergeant Diane Davies, who worked the case, noted that "police could not stop him using the equipment".

This admission is surprising given that it was Davies requested the ban, stating: "In this case, we felt that the offending was of such a serious nature and it was so extensive, we wanted to use all the legislation available to us safeguard the wellbeing of the public and to make sure that we used every opportunity for punishment for him. We are satisfied that we can monitor this restriction, otherwise there would have been no point in us applying for it in the first place."

John Carr, who works with children's charity NCH, questions the police's ability to enforce this judgement: "The simple truth is there are thousands of internet cafes on the high streets and back streets of every urban area in Britain," he said. "You can walk into one of them, give someone a quid in cash and set yourself up an internet account in less than three seconds."

Of course, the only sure way of making sure paedophiles don't access the Internet is by extending their stay at one of Her Majesty's penal institutions. The anomaly highlighted by Judge Daniel will soon be dealt with when the Sexual Offences Bill becomes law.

The penalty for sex with someone between the ages of 13 and 16 will increase to 14 years and a new crime of "grooming" - designed to tackle chat room entrapment of minors - will carry a ten-year sentence. Sex with a child under 13 will automatically be classed as rape and carry a maximum life term.

The bill received Royal Assent on 20 November 2003. The government intends to introduce it by May 2004.

Related links

Home Office guide to safe surfing
The BBC's Chatguide
Govt unveils Web kids safety campaign

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