HC Deb 25 February 1997 vol 291 cc214-29

'.—(1) It shall be the duty of the Secretary of State to maintain a register of the information supplied to the police under this Act, whether on the Police National Computer or otherwise. (2) Nothing in the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 shall prevent the retaining of details of a person on a register maintained under the provisions of this section. (3) In this Act, "register" includes data stored (whether or not with other data) on a computer database from which the information to which subsection (1) above relates can be retrieved.'—[Mr. Michael.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

7.56 pm
Mr. Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

With this, it will be convenient to discuss new clause 3—Use of information on the register of sex offenders— '.—(1) The Secretary of State shall, following consultation, make regulations in respect of—

  1. (a) the means whereby information notified to the police under this Act is to be registered and maintained;
  2. (b) those persons who may have access to information so notified; and
  3. (c) the responsibilities of the police to provide information and to co—operate with others in using information so notified for the protection of the public, including, but not confined to, responsibilities for providing information and advice to members of the public and to statutory and voluntary bodies.
(2) In addition to any regulations made under subsection (1) above, the Secretary of State may, from time to time and following consultation, issue guidance on good practice concerning the use of information notified to the police under this Act in child protection activities, including activities undertaken by, or in collaboration with, local area child protection committees and others. (3) Regulations made under subsection (1) above shall be laid before Parliament in draft and shall be subject to approval by a resolution of each House before being made.'

Mr. Michael

The new clauses address a gaping hole in the Bill. Two provisions are missing from the legislation. First, there is no provision for a paedophile register, which was promised when the Bill was announced in the Queen's Speech. Secondly, although the Bill specifies that offenders must notify their address or change of address to the police, it does not say what the police should do with the information.

We had some good debates in Committee, and I had hoped that Government amendments would be tabled to cover the deficiencies. I am disappointed that no such amendments have been tabled. Unless we get the Bill right, including the provisions in new clauses 2 and 3, we will leave children at risk. There is also a danger that we will leave the police at risk.

The Bill would require those who have been convicted of the offences specified in the Bill to register their addresses with the police, but it contains no system for handling the information. New clause 2 would place a duty on the Home Secretary to maintain a register of the information supplied to the police under the Bill. We have fine-tuned our suggestions after the debates in Committee and discussions with police officers at all levels. The simplest way to introduce the register, without extra bureaucracy and cost and new software, is to include the information in the police national computer. New clause 2 would allow the information to be kept on the police national computer, and it is sufficiently flexible to deal with developments.

New clause 3 is needed to fill a gap in the Bill, by saying what should be done with the information when it is provided. There has been much debate concerning how information about the addresses of offenders, especially those who have been convicted of paedophile offences, should be dealt with. There is a problem in deciding whether it should be generally available, available only in specific circumstances, or retained as confidential, for the use of the police alone.

A variety of organisations hold the strong view that such procedures need to be part of a system directed at protecting children, which will ensure that the information gets to the places where it is needed in order to achieve that objective.

In Committee, we suggested a structure that would make that responsibility clear and, while requiring the Home Secretary to produce a code of practice, would also allow for informal advice. The view that is held in several quarters is clear. The chief constables, who have spoken to me and to my hon. Friends, and those who represent police officers say that, unless a structure is provided in the Bill, they could be left unprotected.

There are two ways in which that could come about. If information is handed to the police station, what is to be done with it? Yes, it may be fed into the police national computer. We suggest that structure in new clause 2. But should the information also be distributed more widely to members of the public?

The police could run into danger on two grounds. First, they could provide information that led to an individual becoming a target—perhaps an innocent person, as a result of mistaken identity. Events could flow from the fact that the police had made available information given to them under the Bill. That could lead to criticism and challenge, perhaps in a legal sense, and certainly by the public.

The second element of challenge could occur if the police did not provide information—if, for instance, information arose about the identity of an individual who might be in an area, especially in relation to informal contact with children, a contact less likely to be covered by the provisions of the Police Bill, which is also now under discussion in Parliament. If the police had not provided such information, they could be criticised for not having done so.

It seems to me that we are running away from those problems unless we put into the Bill a careful, but flexible, structure allowing for a balanced, reasoned and measured approach to this difficult and problematic area. That is why, in new clause 3, we suggest that there should be further consultation. We do not want to jump at it, which is why we made our suggestion in that particular form. Following that consultation, the Home Secretary should make regulations in respect of the provision of the information. Clearly, parallel arrangements for Scotland would also be needed.

We suggest that the regulations should involve not a code of practice but the minimum registration necessary to tie into the legislation a common-sense system and good practice in child protection. That is the way to avoid all the arguments of recent years about practices such as intrusive surveillance. There is nothing about that in legislation, so arguments have taken place on what the police are and are not entitled to do under the common law. That has built up into a major conflict, evidence of which we have seen recently in the House of Lords, the press and the other media—all because the problem had not been tackled at an earlier stage. It would be all the more sensible, therefore, for the House to recognise that there is something that needs to be dealt with, and to deal with it in a reasoned and measured way today.

The Home Secretary, following consultation, would put minimal regulations in place to cover the three points in subsection (1) of new clause 3, the first of which is: the means whereby information notified to the police under this Act is to be registered and maintained". From the point of view of the police and all the professionals, as I believe the Minister has acknowledged in discussion, that would be done by holding the information in a systematic way on the police national computer.

Secondly, new clause 3(1) refers to those persons who may have access to information so notified". That could be as simple as specifying the police and those whom the Home Secretary, on the advice of the police, has authorised to have access. The regulations do not need to be complicated.


Sir Wyn Roberts (Conwy)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Michael

May I finish this point first?

Thirdly, the new clause covers the responsibilities of the police to provide information and to co-operate with others in using information so notified for the protection of the public". It describes those responsibilities as including, but not confined to, responsibilities for providing information and advice to members of the public and to statutory and voluntary bodies. We refer to "advice and information", because information without advice can be dangerous. That is the reasoned way of approaching the problem.

We also allow for information to be provided to the statutory and voluntary bodies and to members of the public where appropriate. That adds up to a measured and rational approach to the ultimate objective of protecting children. Our aim is to provide a simple framework. I do not think that the regulations would need to go far beyond those words; perhaps those words are adequate in themselves.

Saying that the matter would be dealt with by regulation allows a period for consultation by the Home Secretary. The Association of Chief Police Officers wants to ensure that the regulations do not go too far and become binding and restrictive.

Sir Wyn Roberts


Mr. Michael

If the right hon. Gentleman will allow me to continue, I am explaining the new clause. I shall certainly give way to him as soon as I have finished, but these things hang together.

That is all that would be contained in the regulations made under this part of the Bill. It would satisfy the desire of many who have spoken from the police side—to keep the requirements in the Bill simple—while allowing a hook in the legislation for the good practice and the protection of children that are our objectives.

Against that background, subsection (2) of new clause 3 says that, in addition to the regulations, the Secretary of State may, from time to time and following consultation, issue guidance on good practice concerning the use of information notified to the police under this Act in child protection activities, including activities undertaken by, or in collaboration with, local area child protection committees and others." That means that the activity that chief constables, superintendents and the police in general wish to undertake—using the information for the protection of children—can be carried out in a flexible way, but still within the ambit of the Bill.

Having explained the intention of the new clause, I give way to the right hon. Member for Conwy (Sir W. Roberts).

Sir Wyn Roberts

I believe that the hon. Gentleman is acknowledging that there is no easy ready-made answer to the problems that he has mentioned. But is he not mixing oil and water by prescribing both regulations and guidelines as to good practice? Surely we shall not know what good practice is until some time has elapsed.

Mr. Michael

I am surprised at the right hon. Gentleman's making that point, which is a weak one. First, it is because good practice will develop that it should be covered by guidance rather than in the regulations. That is precisely why we framed the new clause in that way.

Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman had responsibility in Wales in connection with the Children Act 1989, so he will know that that is precisely how that Act—I believe that he played some part in it—makes the distinction between requirements that need to be defined very simply and those that need to be dealt with sensibly, but in a structured way that recognises the need for co-operation between different agencies, which often work under different pieces of legislation.

I want to underline the simplicity of our proposal. There should be a hook in the legislation: a legislative basis for the good practice and co-operation that everyone working in this connection wants. Our proposals avoid the introduction of excessive legal requirements or complex statutory instruments and keep the system flexible while making clear the intention of Parliament that there will be a paedophile register and that it will be used to protect children. That is important, because neither of those points is made clear in the Bill.

I call in aid the fact that chief constables have said that they are not clear about their responsibilities and those of officers under their control as a result of the legislation. The decisions would not be about how information on the police national computer is dealt with, because that is not how the information reaches the police; it reaches them in the first instance by an offender who has been identified under the Bill coming into a police station and presenting his new address.

Unless we make it clear in the legislation that there is a system for handling that information, the Home Secretary may advise that it should be registered on the police national computer, but the police will also have to decide what their other responsibilities are under other statutes and in terms of the common law. I cannot understand why that point has not been accepted. Indeed, I thought that the Minister responded positively on it in Committee. I had expected him to come up with a new clause, one that might have been better than anything we could draft—although I cannot see anything wrong with the style and simplicity of our new clause.

The Police Federation is worried that its members may not be protected unless those issues are dealt with in the legislation. Advice from the Home Secretary and decisions by the chief constable on how to handle information may provide useful guidance much of the time, but they will not answer the question about individual responsibility, which may devolve to the sergeant on duty at the time that information is given, or to the inspector or superintendent. Individuals will have to take decisions, and if there is no guidance for them, and no system established through which they should operate, there will be a glaring hole in the Bill.

What are the expectations? The result of a survey of police forces in England and Wales undertaken by the chief constable of Gloucestershire was published recently. It shows that the Hampshire constabulary scheme—a multi-agency project between police, probation and social services, in which information is gathered on individuals and the risk assessed—provides information to local schools, for instance. The purpose is to raise awareness about specific issues that affect those schools and to ensure that information and advice on how to use it are available for those who have to deal with children.

The report makes it clear that there have been occasions on which the media and the public have obtained inaccurate information, leading to misunderstanding, anxiety and even violence. People may take different views about an offender being targeted, but we should surely be concerned about protecting innocent people. That is why it is important for there to be a sensible, ordered and accurate way of dealing with information.

There are other examples of the development of good practice. Merseyside and Lincolnshire are cited in the report as having well documented protocols. The Merseyside protocol covers the sharing of information; the assessment of risk; devising strategic plans to minimise risk; agreed implementation plans; and the monitoring and review of the way in which those systems work. That is logical and sensible. Risk assessment is the first step in protecting children. That is surely the basis of a sensible way of dealing with the matter. It is curious that there is nothing in the Bill to ensure that information is dealt with in that way. The new clause would facilitate the reasoned, sensible and rational approach that has been exemplified by the practice of several police forces.

8.15 pm

The report by Mr. Butler, the chief constable of Gloucestershire, also raises legal points about the Data Protection Act 1988 and the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974, and civil liberties are without doubt a major concern for all forces. It says: At the moment there is conflicting legal advice on whether disclosing information to the public is illegal. It also says that some forces have been advised that it is, and others that it is not. On the basis of what is legal, forces have to decide what is responsible and what is their duty.

The report says: The Data Protection Act allows for the disclosure of information to 'prevent a crime', however, one force suggests that it is unlawful to have a policy which utilises this provision in every case. It is a fine line of assessment and due consideration must be given to each individual case. We want something in the Bill to ensure that precisely such consideration can be given.

The report's conclusion is important: Any warning system must form part of the overall strategy for managing the risk by paedophiles. The aims must be to facilitate information sharing, ongoing risk assessment and a variety of measures, preventative, proactive, investigative, tailored to specific circumstances. Positive steps must be taken at an early stage to track and control the activities of paedophiles, particularly predatory offenders. Any warning system needs to 'follow the offender' and be reassessed and updated as necessary. Decisions should be made on a multi agency basis following documented guidelines, taking into account all the issues raised in this report. I do not see how the legislation can be adequate unless it allows those recommendations to be implemented. The new clauses would do precisely that.

Other comments have been made by a variety of organisations. The Police Superintendents Association of England and Wales expressed concern about the effects on general disclosure and highlighted the difficulties that can arise from it, underlining the need for the continuation and development of present inter-agency arrangements, although it went on to say that it might be useful to develop guidance in the light of experience, once the legislation is enacted. That is precisely what the new clauses are designed to do. The association refers to increasing international travel and communication and repeats its view about the need to consider a European database of paedophiles and their movements.

The Association of Chief Police Officers issued a helpful statement. It said: In our view, the way forward, based on existing good police practice across the country is for: proper co-ordinated risk assessment of each case, in conjunction with Social Services, Probation and other agencies where appropriate including, for example, Education Authorities. The new clauses would allow information and advice to be made available to agencies, voluntary organisations and, where appropriate, members of the public, in a flexible system that allows for guidance and the development of best practice.

The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, on behalf of the Children's Charities Consortium, underlined the difficulties. It said: At present, the Bill does not include a mechanism for continuing registration of an individual where it is considered there is a continuing risk to children. It also pointed out that the Bill does not deal with the need for an interface of this register with other registers which record information and that, because of the Bill's sensitivities and the need for thorough working, it should include an inbuilt review process. We debated that matter in Committee, and I consider it necessary, but it has not been included. That makes it all the more important that we have a system of guidance from the Home Secretary, based on advice and consultation, as we have suggested.

The NSPCC report—it is interesting that such statements come from organisations that are concerned first and foremost with the protection of children—continued: The information … must be of actual use in protecting children and may benefit from the inclusion of a 'domestic profile' to help combat registration of mere postal addresses. We are addressing the handling of all that information in a co-operative framework.

The report—again, it is important to note that this is the view of those whose prime concern is the protection of children—continued: Open public access to a similar register in the United States has sometimes led to incidents of vigilantism that may merely encourage a 'registered' sex offender to disappear. The report stated: there must be a process in place that will control how information is used to make sure that it is used properly. It concluded: In short, the Consortium supports the intentions behind the Bill but feel strongly that it must be co-ordinated with other measures. The report argued strongly: The Sex Offenders Bill is not a 'magic wand' but can play a part in what needs to be a sophisticated, co-ordinated and workable response to those that seek to harm our children. The new clauses are based on our conversations with organisations that believe that we need to do much more to protect children and want a paedophile register that works, but appreciate the sensitivities that the police and child protection organisations must show. We have designed proposals that will tie simply into legislation a measure to allow a flexible response based on risk and the protection of children. I commend the new clauses, which I am convinced will make the Bill effective legislation for the protection of children. Without such changes, there will be a black hole at its heart. Further legislation will be needed to fill the gap, and we shall all regret not having amended the Bill when we had the opportunity.

Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East)

I support the calls for a code of good practice. The issue must be addressed because it lies at the heart of the Bill. I am surprised that the Government have not tabled an amendment; in Committee, they suggested that they might.

I support the excellent and strong arguments of the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael). I do not understand how we can leave such a provision out. The Government have not made a sufficient contribution to the debate. Although the Bill calls for changes of address to be notified, it does not say what should be done with the information. We must know more about the reasons for keeping addresses. Registers and databases protect no one; it is what is done with them that will protect children. There must be guidance and direction to the police on what decisions and action should follow from the knowledge that they are given by the new notification requirements.

I agree with the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth that the use to which the register will be put must be carefully controlled so that it is primarily used in the prevention of crime and not open to abuse that leads to vigilante victimisation of offenders and their families—as happened in the tragic case in Manchester, reported at the weekend, in which an innocent pensioner was mistaken for a child abuser whose name and photograph had appeared in the Manchester Evening News. Notification must not be regarded as an additional punishment, but as a preventive measure. Information should be made available to other Government Departments and bodies that already keep lists to protect children.

The answer to a question that I asked about the number of names on the paedophile intelligence database held by the National Criminal Intelligence Service reveals that about 25,000 known or suspected paedophiles are on its list. That is one of six lists held by Government and public bodies. We do not know the number of names on the Department of Health consultancy service index or the Department of Education's list 99. Obviously, we are dealing with a large number. We know from another question answered by the Government that some 100,000 paedophiles are at large in the community. All that information should be properly assembled.

It is amazing that the word "register" is omitted from the Bill. In public parlance, it is known as the paedophile Bill and it is generally believed that a register will be kept. The Bill does not mention one; it is as if there were no such thing.

The publicity surrounding the Bill has raised expectations, with calls for the introduction of an American-style Megan's law, whereby there would be public notification when a paedophile moves into an area. I urge that we do not go down that path. We should provide a coherent framework of who should be notified and in what circumstances. Area child protection committees should be informed and have access to information on paedophiles when they feel that it is necessary in their work. If we do not make things properly clear, I fear that we will find that we have a Megan's law in practice, if not in theory.

There has been private publication of the names of offenders in Australia and New Zealand, and there is talk of a similar list being produced in Britain. That would be against the law on the rehabilitation of offenders, and it would be bound to be full of errors that could lead to innocent people being attacked. The Bill's purpose is to protect children, but it could end up having the exactly opposite effect—innocent children and families could become the targets of arson attacks, as has happened in the past because the Government have not grasped the nettle and said how the police should act.

I support what has been said about the view of the police: that they need strong guidance so that they can work with discretion, but within carefully laid down limits so that they know where they stand. Even if the Government have not been able to table amendments in this House, I hope that they will say that, before proceedings on the Bill finish in another place, a Government amendment will be tabled to give proper attention to the matter. In the meantime, I support the new clauses.

Mr. John Hutton (Barrow and Furness)

Like the hon. Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham), I support the new clause moved so effectively by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael). The right hon. Member for Conwy (Sir W. Roberts) was right: there are no simple solutions to some of the problems.

The new clauses are important because they are reasonable and sensible and would strengthen the Bill by focusing it more closely on the central issue: how better to protect children in particular, and the public, from the predatory and criminal instincts of serial child sex offenders. That is what we must consider tonight. The Bill, though a significant step forward, fails to address the matter coherently.

I, too, have seen the Association of Chief Police Officers survey, which was deposited in the Library today. It makes fascinating reading. Perhaps the Minister will explain what the Government intend to do about the existing practice of police forces in revealing information to local people, area child protection committees and other organisations about the whereabouts of known child sex offenders. That is clearly happening already, but it is happening without the benefit of a statutory framework to regulate the release of such information to the public and other organisations. That is not satisfactory, and I am sure that the Government do not regard it as satisfactory. The survey mentioned 14 police forces that admit that they release such information. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth said, a police force that releases such information risks civil action on several grounds. That is not acceptable.

I strongly support new clause 3 because it focuses on the Bill's central issue, the protection of children. The key principle recognised in new clause 3 is that there may be some circumstances in which it will be appropriate for the police carefully and sensitively to notify the public of the whereabouts of a serious paedophile offender.

Although the issues are complex, and range from protecting important civil liberties and the principle of rehabilitating child sex offenders wherever possible to the role of the media, the issue on which we should focus is how to protect children. If we were honest with ourselves and asked whether, as parents, we would want to be told if a serious child sex offender had moved into our neighbourhood, the answer would be yes. The ACPO survey reflects the fact that we might then be better able to protect our children from the criminal instincts of child sex offenders.

If, as parents, we would want that information at our disposal so that we could look after our children as they played in local streets and parks, the Bill must provide for it. If it does not, its principle and effect will be undermined; its purpose will be weakened and its focus will be disjointed. That would be in no one's interests, which is why many Opposition Members are surprised that the Government have not indicated their intention to legislate to ensure that the Bill covers that important issue.

I hope that the Minister will say something more positive when he winds up the debate tonight. This is an important issue and we cannot run away from it. Our constituents who are parents would want this information at their disposal, and we must reflect their wish in a sensible way. Like the hon. Member for Bolton, North-East, I strongly oppose the more public disclosure of information, such as we have seen in some countries. The information must be disclosed carefully.

The use of leaflets, flyers and newspapers printing photographs and names and addresses is not the way to proceed. I am interested to note that the ACPO survey reflected police concern about that practice. It is clear from the survey of police forces around the country that most police forces believe that the controlled and sensible release of information about the whereabouts of child sex offenders may reduce their offending profile, which means that our children would be better protected. For me, that is the only issue.

8.30 pm

If there is a role for the controlled release of information to certain members of the public, particularly parents and relevant organisations, it should be recognised in the Bill, because it is the best way forward. We cannot pretend that the problem will go away, or that we can sit on the huge register of information that the Bill will collect if we do not set out in the Bill how the use of that information to protect the public is to be regulated.

I hope that the Minister will say something positive about these sensible and reasonable new clauses. We are used to being told that there is some technical deficiency in our amendments. The Minister may have some technical concerns about the drafting of the new clauses, but that is a secondary issue. The important issue is the principle of wider community or public notification of the whereabouts of sex offenders. There is huge popular support in the country for giving parents in such serious situations the right to know the whereabouts of child sex offenders. If it is done sensibly, having discussed the issue with the chief constable and interested organisations, it is the road that we should take.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone)

New clauses 2 and 3 lie at the heart of the Bill. I accept the point made by the hon. Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) about Megan's law and what could happen in terms of vigilante action if we take that route.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Timothy Kirkhope)

indicated assent.

Mr. Clapham

I am pleased to see the Minister nod. I have the impression that he has taken that point on board. It is important to have an effective interface between the register and people working in the community to protect children. The Minister will be aware that, in most areas, child protection teams work closely with the police to ensure that section 1 offenders are closely monitored. Whenever a section 1 offender appears in a new area, the police either inform social services or vice versa. In that way, the necessary protection is provided in the area covered by that child protection team and police force. We could use that model to ensure that the information on the register is applied effectively.

If social services, who have the register, are informed by the police that a section 1 offender has moved into their area, they already ensure that the register is made available to probation officers and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. The voluntary sector can then work together to ensure that it can effectively protect children in a community. That is the way to proceed.

If we were to decide that informing the public would be the best way to proceed, the result could be mob rule. There are plenty of examples of that. We have read this week of examples in Manchester, Stirling and the midlands. We must avoid that route. Last week, an article in The Independent suggested that the Home Secretary may be thinking about divulging the names of paedophiles to the community. That would be the wrong way to proceed. We must use the route that is already established. The interface must be with social services; the link must be with the voluntary services, the NSPCC and probation officers, who work with social services.

It is important that the Minister should say how we shall use the register effectively to inform the community generally, but in a sensitive way so that we do not create the over-reaction that we have already experienced. We must ensure that it is an effective way to protect children in the community.

In Committee, I described the horrific constituency case of a young woman who lost her first husband and formed a relationship that led to marriage with a second man, only to find that the marriage had taken place because the man wanted to get to the children. If we ensure that the register works as I have described, such cases would not occur. When the man moved into the area, social services would have been informed by the police and monitored him to ensure that he did not come into contact with children and was no danger to them. Had the woman wished to proceed with the marriage, social services would have informed her about the man's past. That would have protected those children adequately without informing the public and creating the mob rule that we have read about this week. I shall be interested to hear the Minister's response.

Mrs. Llin Golding (Newcastle-under-Lyme)

The Bill must be of use in protecting children, or it is worth nothing. I have sat through many Criminal Justice Bills in which we have returned repeatedly, when dealing with children and child abuse, to adjust and correct previous legislation. It has taken us years to make progress because we did not get it right the first time.

I ask the Minister to consider these two new clauses seriously, especially new clause 3, because it would save our returning to the issue time after time after time. I do not want to do that, so I ask the Minister to consider the matter very seriously and give the new clause his support.

Mr. Kirkhope

This has been a very useful debate; it follows a debate that we had in Committee and discussions in which I have participated to try to find a solution to these matters.

I shall discuss new clause 2 before I come to the main meat of the matter. In earlier debates on the Bill, I have made it clear that I do not believe that there is a need to create a separate register of sex offender information acquired under the Bill. As I told the Committee, the information that will be collected will be stored on the Phoenix database on the police national computer, and it will be instantly accessible by all forces and by the National Criminal Intelligence Service. It is not intended to create a separate register, although it has been convenient to talk in terms of a register when discussing the Bill's purposes.

I am not sure what placing a duty on the Secretary of State would achieve. The police already store information on offenders, including sex offenders, as the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) knows. The Bill will enable the police to hold up-to-date addresses on convicted sex offenders. We have discussed the uses to which that information might be put, and I have no doubt that the police will develop strategies for ensuring that those officers who need to be aware of it are aware of it.

In my submission, it is unnecessary to place a statutory duty on the Secretary of State, and I hope that in due course the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth will be able to withdraw the new clause.

Mr. Michael


Mr. Kirkhope

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will allow me to develop my arguments to cover new clause 3, because the arguments relating to the two new clauses are linked. He may want to intervene later.

I have listened very carefully to the hon. Gentleman's explanation of the case for new clause 3, as I have listened with enormous care in Committee and earlier tonight to other hon. Members who have spoken. There is nothing between us in our desire that the police should make the best possible use of the information that will become available to them under the Bill, or in our recognition that such use must be careful and responsible. I agree with the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) that use must be responsible.

I note that the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth has adjusted his approach since we last considered these matters in Committee—he knows that we have discussed them since then—but I remain unhappy about the approach that he proposes in these two new clauses. We need to clear up many points.

The police already share information with those who need to be aware of it—head teachers, school governors, social services departments and so on. There is no reason to believe that the operational case for such sharing in appropriate circumstances is not fully recognised by the police, and there is no legal barrier to it—for example, under data protection legislation—when such disclosures take place for the purpose that we are discussing; the prevention or detection of crime.

The police have also, very occasionally, and with due caution, disclosed information to individuals. I emphasise that they have done so cautiously, for all the reasons that were fully explained by the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone and me in Committee.

There is the danger of vigilantism, and some tragic cases have reminded us that, when individuals take the law into their own hands, the wholly innocent sometimes get hurt. There is also the danger of polluting evidence, so that the sex offender who offends again escapes justice because of the difficulty of receiving a fair trial. There is the danger that, if we prevent the offender from rehabilitating himself, we heighten the risk of further offences. There is the danger of driving the offender underground by providing such a massive disincentive to registration under the Bill that the police lose sight of the people with whom they need to keep in closest contact.

Those are all sound reasons for caution, which were mentioned in Committee and earlier in tonight's debate. I argue that the police do not need a provision in the Bill to encourage or allow them to share information, or a provision to warn them of the need for caution. I do not believe that we need the first part of new clause 3, which would not advance us beyond the present position unless we were to go substantially further and effectively deal with some of the more detailed—and far more difficult—issues which lie behind the second part of the new clause.

Subsection (2) of new clause 3 is about guidance to the police on the type of situation in which the police my decide to use the powers they already have to share information. As I have said previously, I fully accept that guidance in that area may prove necessary; but I believe that it is premature to consider the precise form that it must take.

Leading police officers have told us—I believe that they are absolutely right—that any developments in warning systems must form part of an overall strategy for managing the risk posed by paedophiles. They have argued that this needs to cover information sharing between agencies—hon. Members have referred to the need to develop such co-ordination—on-going risk assessment and a variety of preventive and investigative measures, tailored to the specific circumstances of each case. I believe that they are absolutely correct.

In Committee, I undertook to consider the suggestion that the Bill should contain powers for the Secretary of State to issue a code of practice. I have considered it extremely carefully, and discussions have taken place to discover what might be done to fulfil the obligation that I undertook in Committee. On full and further reflection, and in the light of the arguments that the police have made to us, I have decided that that would not be appropriate, but that we should respond to the police invitation for the development of a broader strategy. That suggests that we need to consider with the police and the other relevant agencies, in the light of current practice throughout the country, what form such a strategy might take. It would have to build on the substantial advances that have been made in inter-agency co-operation to counter child abuse.

I remind the House of my commitment made at Stockholm last summer. The Stockholm conference showed that the success of the Children Act 1989 and our genuine multi-agency, co-operative approach were proving to be a model for the rest of the world.

Mr. Thurnham

The hon. Gentleman spoke about the important part that voluntary agencies can play. I wonder whether he was aware that the NSPCC intends to issue a booklet tomorrow, giving advice to parents and others as to what action to take if a paedophile moves into their area. I hope that he will welcome it and commend the NSPCC on the part that it has played. The NSPCC says that much stronger and more practical guidance needs to be given to everyone concerned.

8.45 pm
Mr. Kirkhope

I am not aware of the details of that booklet, but the NSPCC has been extremely positive and helpful, not only when we went to Stockholm, but in its general attitude to the need to tackle child abuse. It shows why it is necessary to be cautious in discussing the new clauses.

Inter-agency co-operation does not preclude the idea of guidance, or a code of practice, at some date, and we shall return to the idea if it appears appropriate, although we are mindful of the view of the Association of Chief Police Officers that a Home Office circular is likely to provide a better and more flexible way to proceed.

This is a difficult and sensitive area. I shall take an example of the type of difficult and sensitive situation that any guidance may have to address. It is not difficult to think of cases in which parents of young children might argue that they have a right to know of the offending history of an individual who has been housed near them. The hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone mentioned that point. We may have considerable sympathy with those parents, but it is clear in many such situations that, rather than disclosing information, with all the fear and possible violence that might follow, it may be better for the offender to be housed in another locality, perhaps away from schools or young families. It may, however, be a case where the authorities have no influence over the locality in which the offender chooses to live, but where there is reasonable confidence that offending will not recur, provided that the individual is not ostracised or isolated.

Those are the sorts of difficult practical situations that may well arise, where careful—probably inter-agency—decisions would need to be taken. Any guidance that might be issued should allow the fullest possible flexibility in responding to the circumstances of individual cases, such as the example that I have just given, and not constrain the police or anyone else in trying to reach the best operational decisions.

Mr. Hutton

I am grateful to the Minister for his courtesy in giving way. Does he accept the principle that there may be circumstances in which the public should be informed of the whereabouts of a serious child sex offender?

Mr. Kirkhope

I have already told the House that, if it were treated in a cautious and sensitive manner, such a situation might arise, but I am nervous about the hon. Gentleman's reference to the public. I have given examples where the police, acting cautiously and sensitively, provided such information to an individual member of the public, or perhaps one or two members of the public. It is a complex matter, which is why I am in difficulties over the new clauses, worthy though their intent may be.

Sir Wyn Roberts

We fully appreciate the difficulties that my hon. Friend describes. Will he take it from me that there is widespread public concern about the timing of the implementation of the measure? Can he reassure us by saying when the strategy that he has described, and other developments that might follow the passage of the Bill, will be implemented?

Mr. Kirkhope

We are extremely anxious for the legislation to be on the statute book and operating as soon as possible. With the requirements that it places on sex offenders, it will be of enormous help to the public. There is a clear case for the Bill, which we will try to get through as soon as possible, with the help of the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth.

I have outlined the way in which we intend to take matters forward. I cannot go further this evening. I have made our position clear to the hon. Gentleman and I hope that, in the interests of such an important measure, he will not press the new clause.

Mr. Michael

I am grateful to the Minister for his response. There is no difference between us on the need for the information to be dealt with in a way that allows it to be used effectively for the purpose that Parliament intends.

The Minister has engaged with the issues personally, and taken seriously the points made in Committee. I know that he has gone into the issues more fully following the Committee stage. There is no suggestion that he has not taken the debate seriously or that he has failed to take seriously his responsibility to move forward.

The Minister said that the police "share information"—I quote his words—but the information does not have to be notified to the police. After the passage of the Bill, after people who have committed offences specified in the Bill have been sentenced, they will have to report to the police their address or addresses and any subsequent change of address. The Bill, however, does not state what is to be done with that information. That is the problem.

Much of the Minister's speech will read as a speech in favour of new clause 3. He says that his view is based on advice from the police that the way forward is consideration with the police of a strategy to protect children. We agree with that. The new clause makes provision for that and links the information that will be provided under the Bill with the development of such a strategy.

Mr. Kirkhope

The point about the police is important. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees that we should do everything that we can to assist the police in such difficult work. Will he accept that, in our discussions with chief police officers, they have made it clear that they do not want a code of practice in the form that the hon. Gentleman suggests?

Mr. Michael

I do not think the view expressed by chief police officers is so clear. They have made it clear that they do not want a code of practice, but may I point out to the Minister that he is referring to the amendment in Committee, not to the new clause. The new clause does not require a code of practice; it requires a hook in the Bill, followed by the issuing of guidance based on the pattern of consultation, discussion and development of good practice for which the Minister was arguing.

Mr. Kirkhope

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman is taking that position. In a letter on behalf of ACPO, the ACPO crime committee states that its position would be to maintain maximum flexibility in the arrangements for exchanging and using information but, at the same time, to take an early opportunity to consider seeking national guidance on some limited areas. To achieve this goal, it is believed that the mechanism of a Home Office Circular would be the most effective option. The crime committee makes it clear that those considerations are not easily achieved through a code of practice.

Mr. Michael

Indeed. The letter to which the Minister refers was sent to him and copied to me as a result of our debates in Committee. That is why the new clause does not include reference to a code of practice. It allows for guidance to be given through a circular from the Home Secretary. It meets the requirements of the letter, which does not refer to our new clauses, as I have pointed out in discussion with the president of ACPO and the chairman of the crime committee, who wrote the letter.

Mr. Kirkhope

The hon. Gentleman will have heard what I said about the way in which matters might develop in due course—on a broad basis, we might examine inter-agency co-operation and so on. Does he accept that that is a clear position, from our point of view?

Mr. Michael

It is a clear position, from the Minister's point of view, and nothing prevents that approach being taken if our new clause is accepted. The new clause allows specifically for that form of guidance and for the development of good practice. It allows for inter-agency working and for the flexibility that ACPO wants. It also deals with the concerns of the superintendents and the Police Federation that their members may not be protected unless there is provision such as new clause 3 makes.

I take the Minister's point that new clause 2 gives a power that the Home Secretary already has. I also take it that information will be handled in the way that we sought in new clause 2. The problem is that the Bill has a big hole in it. It requires information to be notified to the police, but does not state what the police are supposed to do with it. The new clause does not contradict anything that the Minister has said, but the Bill must specify how the information is to be used.

As I see it, it is not enough to deal with the matter simply through Home Office circulars or through informal advice. That advice and guidance must be hooked into the Bill or we shall face all the problems associated with the arguments about intrusive surveillance: long and complicated debate about the powers and responsibilities of the police and arguments about the powers of the Home Secretary, followed by legislation to clarify the matter and, I suggest, a much less flexible arrangement than would be allowed if my new clauses were agreed.

I accept that it is possible to establish a register—as suggested in new clause 2—without the new clause. Therefore, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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