HC Deb 07 July 1997 vol 297 cc745-52

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Robert Ainsworth.]

11.25 pm
Mr. Eddie O'Hara (Knowsley, South)

In this short debate—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)

Order. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could wait a few moments. Will hon. Members leave the Chamber quietly, because there is an Adjournment debate?

Mr. O'Hara

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

In this short debate, I shall call for changes in the law relating to paedophilia to deal with an intolerable situation that occurred recently in my constituency. A person with a long history of convictions for offences against children, who had been detained under the Mental Health Act 1983, was about to be discharged back into the community. The local police announced that they were powerless to take action against him unless and until he committed another arrestable offence. The public reaction was one of outrage: there were public demonstrations and protests, petitions and direct action in the form of vigilante attacks against known and suspected child sex abusers.

I can understand such reactions. Few offences rouse such basic, even primitive, instincts of fear, revulsion, protectiveness and lust for vengeance as sexual abuse of children. Commonly, people respond to child sex abuse through their hearts and stomachs, whereas the legislature—and I as a Member of this legislative assembly and as protector of my constituents' interests—must respond with a cool head. If current law is inadequate to protect my constituents' interests, I must seek improvements to enable it to do so effectively and in a fitting manner for a civilised society.

I shall confine myself to examining the case that occurred in my constituency and to drawing lessons from it. I shall describe the incident in more detail. The paedophile in question has a case history dating back to 1979, when, at the age of 25, he was gaoled for three years for assaulting a nine-year-old girl in Leicester. In 1984, he was again gaoled for attacking a 14-year-old girl in a home in St. Helens, Lancashire. In 1990, he was sentenced yet again; this time to nine years for the rape of a 10-year-old girl in Manchester.

In December 1996, he was released from that sentence, and returned to live in Manchester. Initially, he maintained regular contact with probation officers. In April 1997, he arrived in Huyton in my constituency and took up residence in a hostel for homeless men. By that time, he had changed his name to the one by which he is now known.

The man gave false information about himself to the management of the hostel, but, fortunately, perhaps due to his limited intelligence, he was apparently unable to sustain the deceit, and thus very soon revealed to the management of the hostel some details of his case history. Contact was made with the probation service in Manchester, which confirmed that he was a predatory paedophile. The Knowsley social services and the local police were informed, schools were alerted and he was kept under surveillance.

News of the man's existence leaked out and there was growing concern in the community, but the police at that time had no justification to intervene on him. The justification came when the police were alerted to the fact that he was abroad in the community with a bag of colouring books and pens with which evidently he wanted to lure a child. He was arrested for a breach of the peace and, subsequently, under the Mental Health Act, detained in a psychiatric unit for the statutory 28 days. In that psychiatric unit, he was diagnosed as a psychopathic paedophile, and as such not amenable to treatment. He was thus free under mental health law to discharge himself into the community after the 28 days had elapsed. It was at that point that the local police made their public announcement that they were powerless to act until he committed another arrestable offence, which was, of course, when there was a public outcry from my constituents.

The public response has taken many forms. There has been direct action in the form of vigilante attacks. They cannot be condoned, but they have a bearing on another approach to the problem—one that attracts wide public sympathy. That is the demand for a United Kingdom version of Megan's law, which is adopted in a number of states in the United States of America. Where this law is in force, there is full disclosure to the public of the identity of any sex offender who has taken up residence in a locality.

A register of known sex offenders is to be compiled in the course of implementation of the Sex Offenders Act 1997, which received Royal Assent in March. My hon. Friend the Minister has, I understand, given full assurance that that register will be compiled without delay. Full disclosure is, however, not necessarily the best way to use such a register.

The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, speaking on behalf also of the Children's Charities Consortium, offers a number of arguments against full disclosure. First, it encourages vigilantism, and the presumption in a law-abiding society is that that should be discouraged. Secondly, it may discourage offenders from registering and drive them underground, thus making the task of the police and other agencies more difficult. It is worth noting that the Huyton paedophile, if I may call him such for ease of reference, changed his name and gave false information to the hostel in Huyton.

Thirdly, where the abuse is within a family, public notification will have an adverse effect on the welfare of the child and of other innocent family members. Fourthly, where the abuse is not within the family, public disclosure may undermine the struggle of the family to rebuild their lives at a time when what they most need is support.

On the other hand, the NSPCC and the Children's Charities Consortium believe that the police should have the discretion by law to make information about specific offenders available to social services departments, education departments, health authorities and other relevant agencies, but that only in exceptional circumstances should disclosure be made to the public.

It is interesting to note that the Police Superintendents Association of England and Wales is also against general disclosure of a paedophile's identity and whereabouts, because of the risk to public order, and that the Association of Chief Police Officers also feels that wide-scale public notification would be fraught with dangers and should be considered only in very special and specific circumstances.

Despite the opposition by police organisations to full disclosure, they must have legal protection for the special circumstances that they acknowledge do occur. At the moment, the police can be exposed to legal challenge when they exercise that discretion without the protection of the law, as happened in north Wales recently. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister, being wise, will weigh those views with great care as he proceeds with the compilation of the register and ponders its use.

The NSPCC and its related organisations made other recommendations about the compilation and use of the register and its interface with other registers, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will have been made aware of those. Given the time available, I shall not detain him with them now. I am sure, however, that he will take note of the wandering career of the Huyton paedophile and his change of identity when drawing up the rules for the compilation of the register.

Ms Patricia Hewitt (Leicester, West)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, after I earlier alerted him to my interest in the subject. He has made several excellent points about an issue which is of great and growing concern to my constituents. I wish to draw to his attention the situation that recently arose in my constituency. A man was arrested for a series of sexual offences against children on the estate where he was living and was then found to have had previous convictions of a similar nature dating back 10 years. Of course, he would not be covered by the new requirement to register. I suggest to my hon. Friend that the discretionary power that he proposes for the police to be able to notify to the authorities the existence of somebody with a previous conviction might be the most desirable way forward to deal with the legitimate concerns of constituents that arose following that situation.

Mr. O'Hara

I thank my hon. Friend for that useful intervention, which saves me making the same point myself. I am sure that the Minister has taken full note of it.

One interesting response to the current problem in my constituency is the attempt of one group of parents to obtain a prohibitive steps order under the Children Act 1989. It is by no means certain that they will obtain a PSO as it must relate to a named potential victim. The parents are, however, to be commended for their attempt to turn current law to their present purpose. Even if they are successful, they will succeed only in displacing the problem from their locality. What is needed is an amendment to the law to ensure the protection of children everywhere from a known predatory paedophile, such as the one who settled in Huyton in April 1997.

I seek amendments to current law, to address the situation that confronted my constituents and me in mid-June 1997. I first address the problem that, after being detained for 28 days under mental health legislation, that person was free to discharge himself into the community because his condition was diagnosed as being not amenable to treatment, even though the condition diagnosed was psychopathic paedophilia. I understand that there is a dispute in the world of psychiatry about whether the condition is treatable, but that is not a matter for Home Office Ministers. What is a matter for Home Office Ministers is that that man has a tendency to commit child abuse and a record of such abuse, going back a long way. He predicts himself that he will reoffend. He has been arrested and sectioned for going out into the community equipped to lure a child, yet he can be released into the community under mental health law and be beyond the reach of the forces of criminal law until he commits an offence—not any old offence, but a sexual offence against a child; in other words, until he ruins a child's life, ruins a family and blights a community. In the case of most other offences, there is force in the argument that an offender who has served a sentence has paid a debt to society and that there should be a presumption in favour of the civil rights of that offender before the law. Paedophilia is not any old offence. To most people, the presumption is that the safety of the child mast be paramount and must—if necessary in certain cases—take precedence over the civil rights of a paedophile offender and potential re-offender.

The change in the law that I seek is that the facility should be available in specific cases—and subject to diagnosis of the balance of risk—to detain paedophiles in custody. In such cases, the risk to the child would, if necessary, outweigh the rights of the potential abuser. Note that I do not specify medical diagnosis—it could be cross-disciplinary. In simple terms, I am asking the Minister to consider the availability of indeterminate sentences for paedophiles in special and specific cases.

The other amendment to the law that I seek is similar. If the decision is made to release a paedophile into the community, the facility should exist in law to subject him or her to compulsory supervision—again, subject to a diagnosis and assessment of the balance of risk. The need for the provision was demonstrated last week when the Huyton paedophile left the secure clinic freely—as was his right—and took up residence in a hostel far from Huyton. There, he subjected himself voluntarily to a supervisory regime. Last week, he left the hostel—destination unknown. He was located, but the relevant authorities were powerless to intervene. The Minister can imagine the consternation that this caused to my constituents, who support my call for extended supervision of sex offenders on release. The National Association for Care and Resettlement of Offenders also calls for such supervision.

There are aspects of the law relating to paedophiles which I have not touched for want of time and because they did not arise in the case to which I have referred at length. These include the possibility of electronic tagging, which may find favour in the light of ministerial announcements earlier today. There are also proposals to ease the experience of children giving evidence in court. I hope that the Minister will consider carefully the Pigott recommendations.

Myriad organisations have pressed for a wide range of specific enactments and sanctions of widely differing desirability and practicality. My proposals are different, in that I approach the problem from the other end. I have tried to identify the loopholes in the law and have proposed a way of plugging them. I have not been over-specific, as I know that this is a difficult area of legislation, and I leave the detailed drafting to the experts in the field. I hope, however, that I have persuaded the Minister to review the gaps at the interface between mental health law and criminal law, and to take appropriate legislative action. In particular, I hope that he will review the gaps that I have identified in the law as it relates to paedophiles. I look forward to his response.

11.41 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Alun Michael)

I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, South (Mr. O'Hara) on raising such an important subject, which is of great concern to many people, and on doing so in a way that is a perfect example of how to treat a topic in an Adjournment debate. He raised the matter in a balanced way, and he will agree that we must combine a passion to act to protect children with great care to get it right.

I have always been taken by the following quote from Gibbon: The operation of the wisest laws is imperfect and precarious. They seldom inspire virtue, they cannot always restrain vice. Their power is insufficient to prevent all that they condemn nor can they always punish the actions which they prohibit. Being very angry about things that we despise is not enough: we must find ways to make sure that the law is effective and that the operation of the law addresses the issues that my hon. Friend has raised. There are gaps in the law and we must make sure that we get the systems right. My hon. Friend reflects the priorities of his constituents, and of the public generally, by drawing attention to a matter which has had a profound impact in his community in recent weeks.

The Government are committed to doing all that we can to deter and punish those who sexually abuse and exploit children. At the top of the agenda is the need to ensure that there are effective measures in place to prevent frightening and tragic cases from occurring. We have legislation and controls that can be used against those who sexually abuse children, but we are not satisfied that children are given the protection that they need. We shall be taking action to ensure that the most vulnerable people in the community, particularly our children, receive the best care and protection possible, and that when crimes occur the offenders are caught and successfully prosecuted.

I shall respond to my hon. Friend on the case to which he drew attention—the known and self-confessed paedophiliac offender who was recently released into the community and whom my hon. Friend referred to as the Huyton paedophile.

The Government fully recognise the grave concerns raised by such cases. We are looking closely at the scope for further action on mental health and the criminal law to safeguard the public from people with apparently untreatable psychopathic disorders, particularly in relation to sexual offences. We shall consider whether more needs to be done to give the courts sentencing options sufficient to provide protection against sex offenders.

One of the areas to which my hon. Friend referred, and which we shall be studying, is the possibility of using indeterminate sentences for child sex offenders, to allow them to be held as long as they pose a threat, rather than having to release them even when the Prison Service and they themselves know that they are likely to re-offend. It is clear from the example that my hon. Friend gave that in some circumstances we are dealing with extremely devious individuals. He outlined the circumstances of a particular case fully and accurately and I do not need to repeat the description of events that he gave.

My hon. Friend is also right to say that every time such a case comes up, there are calls for Megan's law to be introduced, as in some states in the United States of America. In the American experience, there are differences between states and also in the experience. My hon. Friend is right to say that the outcome has not always been intended. That is why the quotation that I gave from Gibbon is so relevant. We want to ensure that we put legislation and programmes in place that will work.

There is evidence to suggest that there are cases without the complication of a psychopathic disorder, where it is possible to help the offender to recognise the problem and change his behaviour. Experience within the Prison Service has shown that if programmes are of sufficient intensity and duration, they can reduce rates of re-offending by as much as a quarter. Twenty-five establishments are involved in the programme and in 1996–97, 564 prisoners completed the sex offender treatment programme, with a further 116 completing the relapse prevention programme.

Probation services are also tackling offending behaviour in programmes of work to reduce re-offending, including treatment programmes to deal with sexually deviant behaviour. These are for offenders who have been supervised following their release from prison and for those serving sentences in the community. We shall continue to draw on available research to identify what is effective and to make the best use of such treatment programmes.

My hon. Friend mentioned adequate supervision after release from prison or during community sentence, which is crucially important. Measures are in place to ensure that all prisoners sentenced since 1 October 1992 serve at least half their sentence in custody, following which those serving 12 months or more and all young offenders receive compulsory supervision on release. All are at risk until the very end of their sentence: if they commit a further imprisonable offence before the end of their original sentence, the court dealing with the new offence may add all or part of the outstanding sentence to any new sentence that it imposes.

Under the terms of the supervision licence, offenders must get approval from their probation officer for any work that they undertake and for their place of residence. Those are standard requirements. If necessary, licences can be extended to include additional requirements to prevent an offender from working with persons under a specified age or to require an offender to undertake a programme of treatment to tackle their offending behaviour.

The Sex Offenders Act 1997, to which my hon. Friend referred, will certainly provide one of the key ways to increase public protection, by ensuring that the police know the whereabouts of sex offenders. My hon. Friend will be aware that Labour Members of Parliament campaigned for many years for a paedophiles register to be established.

The 1997 Act contains a requirement for those convicted of certain sex offences to notify the police of their name and address and of any change in either. We shall be issuing guidance to the police, setting out the principles and considerations that should apply to the use and disclosure of the information given by sex offenders under that Act. That guidance will focus on the risk to the public, the sharing of information between agencies and disclosure to third parties. We intend to ensure that the information on the register can be used to inform employers, schools and, where appropriate, members of the public as well as voluntary organisations, as part of a focused strategy to protect children from paedophiles. At the centre of our approach is the assessment of risk and, therefore, the prevention of that risk becoming a reality.

We are well aware that the information will need to be handled carefully. There are certain pitfalls that we must avoid. We must not allow the information to provide opportunities for paedophiles to network. We also need to be careful, as my hon. Friend suggested, that the effects of the registration requirements are not so intrusive that paedophiles are driven underground. We must also ensure that the existence of the register does not encourage parents to develop a false sense of security, as the register will cover only sex offenders who have already been caught and convicted. Linked with the need to secure convictions, to which my hon. Friend also referred, there is the danger that information from the register which is spread too widely may hamper prosecutions for future offences by contaminating identification evidence. We must beware that, if it becomes known that a convicted sex offender lives in a particular area, there may be a temptation for people to take the law into their own hands. However abhorrent the crime, that is not the solution.

During the passage of the Sex Offenders Act 1997, I tabled a new clause which would have clarified some of these issues on the face of the Bill. It is a matter of regret that it was not accepted by Ministers at that time. The line of approach for which we argued at that time will inform the advice given.

My hon. Friend referred to a case in north Wales. I am aware of the judicial review hearing that took place last week and I do not wish to comment as the matter is sub judice, but I can assure the House that I will consider the judgment very carefully before any guidance is issued. At the moment, there are some misunderstandings about the restrictions on disclosure, but that case may help to clarify the issues.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, West (Ms Hewitt) raised the question of those convicted before the implementation of the Sex Offenders Act 1997, and she is right; we are looking at ways to ensure that that gap in the law is dealt with. That matter needs some careful thought, but there is clearly a gap. There are a number of ways in which we want to provide additional protections where it is known that there is a problem. That is a matter of active consideration at the moment.

There are cases in which some strong measures may be necessary. A consultation paper was published earlier this year setting out options for making it an offence for a convicted sex offender to work with or seek to work with, or to offer services to children. That would create an additional deterrent to prevent paedophiles from gaining access to children through their work. Although the onus would still be on the employer to carry out thorough checks of all potential employees, the new offence would enable action to be taken against any convicted sex offender who applied for a post. A number of difficult issues need to be addressed, such as how to define the kind of work and services to be included, whether the protection should extend to 16 and 17-year-olds and whether any ban should be lifelong. Those issues are being dealt with in the consultation exercise, the responses to which are currently being analysed. We shall shortly be considering the next steps.

We are also taking action to increase the protection afforded to children who are adopted or fostered. Following the sentencing of Roger Saint, a former foster carer and adoptive parent who was convicted on 10 charges of indecent assault on a number of young boys placed in his care, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Health has promised to close the loophole that gave local authorities discretion to place children for foster care or adoption with persons known to have convictions for child abuse. New regulations under the Children Act 1989 and the Adoption Act 1976 will be put before Parliament shortly.

The limited time available does not allow me to go into some of the details about the way in which the National Criminal Intelligence Service database is being developed and used, the steps that we intend to take in relation to child pornography, which is a particularly pernicious activity, and the international action in which we are involved.

Mr. Shaun Woodward (Witney)

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Michael

We certainly wish to address the issues that my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, South has raised in relation to child witnesses to try to increase the likelihood of paedophiles being convicted.

I have spent some time talking about what is being done to increase protection for children against paedophiles. It is important to recognise that progress is being made in terms of operational success against individuals and groups, and of increased legislative powers to deter and punish those who commit these dreadful offences. We cannot, however, rest on our laurels in dealing with such offences. There are almost daily tragic reminders of the need for more effective action. We will do all that we can to deter, catch and punish paedophiles, and to ensure that, on the basis of assessing the risks involved, there is no hiding place left for those who pose a threat to children.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at six minutes to Twelve midnight.