HC Deb 17 December 2003 vol 415 cc1687-96

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

7.45 pm
Mr. John Baron (Billericay)

First, I thank the Minister and the Home Office team for fielding the debate. I am conscious that I am keeping the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues away from the office Christmas party.

The Minister will be aware of the issue that I wish to raise with him, as we have corresponded on the matter. I have recently spoken with his office and e-mailed a summary of the key points that I will be raising this evening in the hope that he will directly address the issues at hand.

My concern centres around the fact that some people on the sex offenders register, particularly those who have been cautioned rather than convicted, are able to offer themselves directly to the general public as home education tutors and to undertake one-to-one tuition without contravening any rules or regulations. What appears to compound the problem is that where tutors are not offering themselves through an agency but advertising directly to the public, parents have little or no ability to check their backgrounds independently of the tutor with any of the authorities.

I am not suggesting for one moment that this is a wide-scale problem, but I believe that it is one of those situations which, should it go wrong, could go wrong in a big way. The issue was first brought to my attention by one of my local newspapers, the Evening Echo, which highlighted the case of a home tutor in south Essex who was still teaching despite having been caught with indecent images of children on his home computer. The individual was not charged but received a caution and was placed on the register for five years. Apparently he has continued to run his private education business through Yellow Pages and a website, and he is still not breaking any rules or laws.

Since then, constituents have written to me about this issue and I have taken it up with the Home Office, the Department for Education and Skills, Essex police, Essex county council and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. The responses from the Home Office and the DFES have, in my view, not been satisfactory. That is why I have asked for this debate and for the Minister to answer a few questions. There appears to be a loophole in the law that needs to be plugged for the sake both of children and of vulnerable adults.

Early written responses to my letters dated 8 September from both the Minister for School Standards and the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East (Paul Goggins), dated 5 and 13 October respectively, outline the present position very clearly.

The sex offenders' register has a specific purpose — it is an administrative measure intended to aid the police in the monitoring of sex offenders in the community. There is nothing barring someone on the register from a particular type of employment. When society in general tries to protect children and vulnerable adults, it is essentially done through three filters. There is the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000, list 99 and the Protection of Children Act 1999 list. Under the first Act, as amended, people who commit offences against children can be made subject to a disqualification order. List 99 has a wider application, this being a list of people who have been barred or have been restricted from providing education or carrying out work that involves regular contact with children under the age of 18. The Protection of Children Act list also does its bit to monitor people who are considered unsuitable for work with children.

In all such cases both the Under-Secretary of State and the Minister for School Standards have confirmed that it is an offence for a disqualified person to apply for, offer to do, accept or do any work with children. This is all very well and understood, but the answers from the Home Office and DFES did not address my central concern. What about individuals who are on the sex offenders register because they have been cautioned, perhaps for possessing indecent images, and are therefore not disqualified from undertaking home tutoring? The position of people convicted of an offence is relatively straightforward — a disqualification order can be applied for and obtained, if that is thought necessary. However, people who have simply been cautioned escape disqualification orders, despite the fact that they are on the register. When I put that to both Departments, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department eventually replied that the Home Office believes that the matters raised are the responsibility of the Department for Education and Skills, while the Minister for School Standards, in his letter dated 30 November, simply reiterated the contents of his previous letters. In my view, both failed to address adequately my central concern.

My correspondence with Essex county council and Essex police was much more fruitful. Both believe that there is a loophole that needs to be closed. The police do everything in their power in their monitoring interviews to ensure that children and vulnerable adults are protected, but they accept that there are people on the register who are not barred from home tutoring. In addition, their intelligence-gathering activities are not subject to Home Office guidelines but are left to individual officers, which leads to variation in monitoring between police forces. Essex county council accepts that a loophole exists: To date the DFES have not strengthened the statutory framework which remains with the LEA having a responsibility to monitor home education, but without the statutory requirements for parents to contact us. The proposal that you make is seen as long overdue, but this is a national and not a local issue and therefore the remedy lies with the Secretary of State. In addition, discussions with the NSPCC have confirmed its concern about the loophole. Work has been undertaken to address the matter in the past, but it remains concerned that not enough is being done. The police have additional powers to try to deal with the situation. For example, they have the power to issue a sex offender order to stop someone acting as a home tutor on a one-to-one basis, but as yet, to my knowledge, not one such order has been issued or used. The police also have the power to disclose to parents an offender's record if they think that it could prevent a crime from being committed. In both cases, good intelligence is essential, but can vary from one force to another. While people with cautions who are on the register and are undertaking home education are not breaking any laws, the measures that I have just mentioned are not fail-safe.

Parents are limited in what they can do to check the background of prospective home tutors. That is particularly the case if a home tutor advertises his services without going through an agency. Parents wishing to make checks cannot gain access to, or check with, list 99, the Criminal Records Bureau or, indeed, the sex offenders register, although I accept that there are good reasons for the latter restriction. The general public cannot even obtain relevant information by going to the local education authority or county council. Indeed, LEAs have no formal or legitimised process to check on parents' behalf, and have no authority to do so. Even the most diligent parent can only rely at present on references supplied by the home tutor.

In response to my inquiries, the Minister for School Standards suggested that parents could safeguard against appointing an unsuitable person by engaging a home tutor through a tuition agency. However, that does not address the fact that many home tutors advertise their services directly to parents without going through an agency. Many parents may, for example, believe that, having advertised in the Yellow Pages, the home tutor is credible and would have undergone various checks by the authorities, whoever they are. It is dangerous to assume that all parents are as aware of the various checks and balances as we are. Even if they are, their power to investigate is severely restricted. That assumption certainly underlies many of the responses from both the Home Office and the Department for Education and Skills.

Changes are in the offing to make the CRB more helpful. For example, at present there is only a standard or an enhanced disclosure. Although such disclosures include spent and unspent convictions as well as those on list 99, they cannot be accessed by individuals such as parents or home tutors. After much delay, a basic disclosure will be available to individuals by the end of next year, as I understand it, but the information that it contains will be limited. For example, only current convictions will be included, and list 99 will be excluded. Theoretically, therefore, a home tutor who has served a sentence for previous convictions and has no unspent convictions at present would not show up under such a disclosure.

More promising are the proposals for the establishment of vetting agencies, whereby individuals could get enhanced disclosures. I understand that that will be introduced in relation to disabled people by the middle of next year, with a facility available for those who work with children some time thereafter. I have been informed that such enhanced disclosures would, without question, include all individuals on the sex offenders register. However, with regard to both initiatives, the onus is on the parents to be aware of and to undertake the necessary checks. I hope that, particularly when the second initiative is introduced, the Government will do what they can through an advertising campaign and the like to make the public fully aware of the checks that are available. The checks will have little use if no one knows they exist.

As to how we can plug the loophole, I ask the Minister to reconsider a number of suggestions. The first is a simple measure — to make it illegal for anyone placed on the sex offenders register for being cautioned in relation to children to undertake one-to-one home tuition with children or vulnerable adults. That would remain in force for as long as the said person was on the register.

A further consideration would be to introduce a licensing scheme whereby all home tutors would need to register with a reputable body, perhaps the local education authority, in order to teach children. Essex county council believes that that is the right way forward. It states: "There is no statutory basis for a registration scheme.… intervention by the Secretary of State for Education and the Home Secretary on this point would be more than welcome in order that we can be empowered to take action in appropriate cases. If taxi drivers can be registered, there is no earthly reason why home tutors should not also be licensed.

The Minister's written response to me suggests that the Government have no plans to license home tutors, however, and goes on to repeat that parents have the option of appointing a home tutor who is employed by an agency. I ask the Minister now to reconsider the position.

In conclusion, there is no doubt that there is a loophole in the law. Non-Government bodies such as Essex county council, Essex police and the NSPCC have confirmed that. Those on the register, having been cautioned in relation to children, can and do advertise themselves directly to the public as home tutors without contravening any laws or regulations. There are insufficient checks to stop that happening.

Parents have little or no ability independently to check the records held by the authorities on potential home tutors, and therefore rely almost exclusively on references supplied by the home tutor. It is accepted that the police have additional powers, but those are not fail safe for the reasons outlined— for example, not one sex offenders order has been issued to date.

Changes are being made to the way the Criminal Records Bureau functions, but completion dates, if attained, are some way in the future. Meanwhile, the Government's continued insistence that it is the parents' responsibility to employ home tutors through agencies rests on a dangerous assumption that all parents are fully aware of the various checks and balances that exist and of where the system fails.

As I said at the beginning, the problem is not widespread. Cases are relatively few and far between, but should such a situation go wrong, it could go wrong in a big way. I am concerned about the Government's apparent unwillingness to address the issue properly. Having been unable to get the Government adequately to focus on the issue through correspondence, I look forward to the Minister's reply in the hope that he will adequately address the issue.


Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) and thank him and the Minister for the opportunity to add a few words on the issue. We need an additional approach and the Minister will be aware of the direction I am coming from, because we discussed the matter in connection with the Sexual Offences Act 2003.

The police have a requirement to monitor and risk-assess people, particularly paedophiles, on the sexual offenders list. But as the Minister will know — this is a difficulty, as I think my hon. Friend will agree — it is my belief that we, like many western nations, should allow right of entry to the police when they knock on the door to risk-assess such individuals. Unusually in the western world, British police do not have that opportunity, and the particular individuals about whom my hon. Friend speaks could be risk-assessed at any time by the police if they had the opportunity to enter.

The Minister, in a letter to me, points out that the Association of Chief Police Officers reports that there is 90 per cent. compliance with the registration requirements, and that is fine, as I think everyone agrees, but that does not amount to risk assessment. The mere fact that offenders have filled in a form stating where they are and what they are doing to the limited extent required of them, does not give the police any opportunity to check.

The Act contains a new power to which the Minister refers in his letter to me, which will "enable the information notified by registered sex offenders to be regularly checked against information held by other agencies. As the Minister knows, that is happening now, but it allows the police to check only the information that they already have and does not help with risk assessment.

The Minister's letter goes on to talk about the multi-agency public protection arrangements, and to a fair degree they are already having an effect, but again the police say that they do not help them. Mr. Sarti, the detective chief inspector in charge of the Metropolitan police paedophile unit, who is known to the Minister because he escorted him round Scotland Yard and also presented the difficulties from the point of view of the police to the Committee that considered the Sexual Offences Bill, has sent me a considerable list of what he calls entrenched paedophiles who are not behaving within the spirit of the law, and that number is growing as it becomes apparent to entrenched paedophiles that the police do not have right of entry.

I shall take just one individual who is categorised as medium risk. He was convicted of indecent assault on a male aged eight years and received three years' imprisonment. I shall not go into details because it is before the hour and I see that a few are observing and listening in, but whenever the police knock on his door he refuses to let them in or even face them at the door, and talks to them through the intercom. There is fair knowledge that he has a live-in girlfriend, but because he lives in a block of flats the police are unsure whether she has any children. They have tried to monitor him and assess the risk, but they have got absolutely nowhere because this individual knows that the police have no right to step any further.

I should be grateful if the Minister could think about this again. I have an enormous list that I could provide him with, but he does not need it. He knows the situation, and I hope that even at this late stage there can be a rethink.

Before I sit down, I should say that I am extremely late, not for the Home Office party, but for another event that I must attend, so with the permission of the House I shall disappear; but I will read the Minister's words with considerable interest, and I hope that I will not have to follow them up.

8.3 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department(Paul Goggins)

If the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) has to leave, I know that it is not from a lack of interest in the issue: he and I served on the Committee that considered the Sexual Offences Bill, so I know of his long-standing interest.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) on initiating this debate, so giving the House the opportunity to discuss this important subject, which, as he said, he has raised with me and with the Minister for School Standards.

I welcome the way in which the hon. Gentleman has introduced the topic for debate and I am grateful for the prior notice that he gave me of the issues that he wished to discuss. He has put his finger on an important issue, which he describes as a loophole. I hope that some of the things that I say tonight will offer him some reassurance. I will consider the matter carefully, particularly the comments that he made at the end and the proposals that he put forward, and I look forward to having further discussions with him on the matter in the weeks ahead.

I am sure he understands that there is no difference between us at all in our objective, which is to protect children from sexual abuse. I know that the hon. Gentleman understands these matters, but it may be helpful if I make some comments about the sex offenders register and how it works. Part 1 of the Sex Offenders Act 1997 requires those convicted or cautioned for certain sex offences to notify their name, date of birth and address to the local police, as well as any subsequent changes to those details. Such offenders are also required to tell the police if they intend to travel overseas for eight days of more or if they stay at another address in the United Kingdom for 14 days or more. Those provisions are to be tightened up as a result of the Sexual Offences Act 2003. It is important to emphasise that, as the hon. Gentleman said, registration is an administrative measure that is intended to help the police manage sex offenders in the community. It is an automatic consequence of a conviction or a caution for a specified offence — the courts have no discretion over who goes on the register. As registration is not therefore an additional penalty or punishment, applying prohibitions to the notification requirements would undermine that status

It may also be worth mentioning that because registration is an administrative measure rather than a court disposal, it is not reflected in the disclosures that are provided by the Criminal Records Bureau, which show convictions and cautions for offences, not the fact that the person is a registered sex offender. All registered offenders would be covered by these disclosures, but that is because of their offences rather than the fact that they are registered.

The notification process is commonly known as the sex offenders register, but there is no central register as such: instead, offenders are identified as being subject to the notification requirements by a marker on the police national computer. That will change next year when we introduce VISOR — the violent and sex offenders register. That, together with the multi-agency public protection arrangements, or MAPPA, which we have already put in place, will significantly improve the way

in which police and probation services manage sex offenders living in the community. Those improvements in the management of offenders will mean, for example, that the police will be far more likely to be aware when an offender is operating as a private tutor.

The purpose of the notification requirements is to ensure that the police know the identity and whereabouts of convicted sex offenders in their area. That helps the police in two ways. First, it helps them to manage sex offenders who are living in the community — for example, by enabling them to know when a sex offender is living next to a school or near a victim. Secondly, it helps in the detection of future sexual crimes, because the police immediately know the whereabouts of potential suspects. The notification requirements do not prohibit sex offenders from doing anything. They do not prevent them from moving house, from using another name or from travelling overseas — nor do they bar them from any form of employment. That has never been the purpose of the requirements, which are simply intended to enable the police to know where sex offenders are living and what names they are using.

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, part 2 of the Sexual Offences Act, which received Royal Assent in November, re-enacts and improves the provisions relating to sex offender registration. We have, for example, shortened the time scales in which offenders must make their notifications, and introduced a requirement whereby they must annually confirm their details to the police. We are also changing the period that they can spend overseas or at an address other than their home address before they need to tell the police; and providing a power to allow the police to photograph or fingerprint an offender each time they make a notification. Those changes will further improve the effectiveness of the register.

Although registration is not a suitable means of prohibiting sex offenders from working as private tutors, it should be noted that, as the hon. Gentleman said, convicted sex offenders can be made subject to a sex offender order. Those orders are made by the magistrates court and place prohibitions on an offender's behaviour where such prohibitions are needed to protect the public from serious harm. If someone with a previous conviction or caution for a sexual offence against children were to set themselves up as a private tutor, and there was evidence that in doing so they might commit further offences against children, the police could apply for a sex offender order that would prohibit them from working with children in that way.

There is therefore a way of stopping convicted paedophiles from working as home tutors. It could be used, for example, against someone who receives a caution or a fine for the possession of child pornography. The hon. Gentleman said that no such orders had been made in relation to private tutors, but we will make it clear in our guidance to the police that the orders can be used for that purpose. We will draw their attention to the use of that order, as he suggested.

Let us consider disqualification from working with children, including working as a private tutor. A person can be disqualified from working with children in three ways. First, in the case of teachers or those who work in the education sector, there are established procedures for anyone whose conduct has given cause for concern to be referred to the Department for Education and Skills. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman referred to List 99, to which names can be added.

Similarly, child care and other organisations are charged under the Protection of Children Act 1999 with referring to the Secretary of State for Education and Skills — previously to the Secretary of State for Health — the case of anyone who has been dismissed on grounds of misconduct, whether in the course of their employment or not, that harmed a child or placed a child at risk. The Secretary of State has the power to place such a person on the Protection of Children Act — POCA — list, which disqualifies a person from working with children.

When a person is convicted of serious offences against children, the court can also make an order disqualifying them from working with children in future. The orders, which are known as disqualification orders, are made by the higher courts against a specified list of violent and sexual offences when a sentence threshold is met. The orders seek to minimise the risks that known child sex offenders present by depriving them of the opportunity to gain access to children through work.

Mr. Baron

I thank the Minister for recognising that there is an issue to tackle. I have taken on board his comments about making the police more aware of the availability of sex offender orders with regard to home tutors. Despite the detail that he is providing, does he accept that there remains a loophole in the law, which could allow those cautioned and on the sex offenders register to teach as home tutors?.

Paul Goggins

I admitted at the beginning of my speech that there was an issue. I am suggesting that there are several ways in which people who clearly pose a danger to children could be anticipated by police through the new powers that we have given them and with the some of the new procedures. However, I acknowledge that we do not have a perfect solution and I am prepared to reflect on the hon. Gentleman's comments and continue to consider the matter. I emphasise that we do not have a gaping loophole; we are further along the road than that. There are measures that can help.

All three cases that I outlined are covered by the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000. Under that, it is an offence, punishable by up to five years in prison, for a person who is disqualified from working with children to apply for, offer to do, accept or undertake any work involving children, including acting as a private tutor. Private tutors who were caught in the circumstances that I outlined would face up to five years in prison if they even attempted to work as a private tutor. The fact that a person is disqualified from working with children would appear as part of an enhanced or standard disclosure from the Criminal Records Bureau.

The hon. Gentleman is right that parents who employ a private tutor are unable to access higher level disclosures from the Criminal Records Bureau. That is because exemptions from the Rehabilitation of

Offenders Act 1974 and the Police Act 1997, which govern the matter, are available only when people are considering someone's suitability "in the course of the duties of his office or employment". Clearly, that does not apply to parents who want to use a private tutor. We have no plans to change the law to provide that sort of access through the Criminal Records Bureau. Indeed, the body that reviewed the 1974 Act in 2001 –; 02 was not persuaded that it would be appropriate for the law to be changed. Clearly, there is a balance to be struck between, for example, privacy and protection, and confidentiality and rehabilitation.

We continue to explore the possibility of organisations such as local authorities providing a service as a "vetting body" for those who cannot access the Criminal Records Bureau for themselves. I hope that that reassures the hon. Gentleman. Such organisations could access the system but would not relay to their clients the precise information that they received from the bureau. Instead, they would provide an assessment —

The motion having been made after Seven o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MADAM DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at fifteen minutes past Eight o'clock.