ANYONE guilty of sexual offences against children, including downloading internet pornography, should automatically be imprisoned, Scotland's leading police officers said yesterday.

The Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland (Acpos) said mandatory prison sentencing for paedophiles was essential to address public concern about the problem, particularly internet "grooming".

Bob Ovens, Acpos child protection spokesman, said the hardline approach should apply even to first offenders.

The remarks come as Holyrood considers steps against paedophiles.

The Scottish Executive's Protection of Children and Sexual Offences (Scotland) Bill will create a new offence of meeting a child with the intent to have sex after preliminary contact, as well as creating new types of restraining orders.

However, "grooming" a child over the internet will not in itself be a criminal offence.

Mr Ovens, deputy chief constable of Dumfries & Galloway, said more needed to be done to prevent offenders escaping the consequences of their actions.

He said: "Our position on this is quite clear. Where any individual is undertaking paedophile activity, and we include downloading child porn, grooming children on the internet or by any other means, right up to the sexual abuse of children, that is a serious offence.

"We have a duty to protect the most vulnerable people in society and send a clear message to those who ruin children's lives. It seems clear that the only sentence that achieves the dual purpose is a custodial sentence, combined with registration as a sex offender and some programme of rehabilitation."

He said the bill was wellintentioned, but needed to be strengthened while going through its committee stages.

At present, murder carries a mandatory life sentence, but on other offences courts exercise their discretion, although there are recommended tariffs on maximum sentencing. However, , on occasions, lenient sentencing for child sex offences has shown sheriffs and judges can be out of step with the public mood.

Last October, Sheriff Andrew Murphy told Atholl Simpson, 52, from Falkirk, that for downloading child porn he must forfeit his computer and be listed for two years on the sex offenders' register, even though his collection included an image of a girl of four crying as she was raped.

Tina Wollnough, of Parents in Partnership, said: "Simply ordering community service for crimes such as these is not acceptable."

However, Kenny MacAskill, SNP justice spokesman, told BBC Scotland's Politics Show he did not think it was up to politicians or police chiefs to set sentences.

The Scottish Tories have previously called for mandatory prison sentences for dealers selling drugs to children. However, Bill Aitken, the party's chief whip at Holyrood, also declined to back Mr Ovens.

The executive also refused to endorse Mr Ovens's remarks.