HL Deb 14 March 1997 vol 579 cc545-61

11.5 a.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Blatch)

My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

This Bill is an important measure which forms part of our wider strategy to protect the public against the menace of sex offenders who prey on children. The Bill falls essentially into two parts. Part I places a requirement on those who have committed sex offences against children and other serious sex offences to notify their name and address, and any subsequent changes, to the police. Part II makes it an offence for British citizens and those resident in the United Kingdom to commit certain sex acts abroad against children.

Paedophiles are markedly different from other criminals. They tend to be highly manipulative and clever, and their offending behaviour often intensifies with the passage of time. One of the problems of dealing with hardened paedophiles is that they do not consider their behaviour to be wrong—rather the opposite, they do not always understand or accept efforts to stop their activities. This makes them especially dangerous. There is no underestimating the harm they do to their young and vulnerable victims and, while no measure can prevent all sexual offences against children, the Government are committed to doing everything within their powers to prevent such abuse. This Bill is a significant step towards that goal.

I should like to explain in more detail the purpose of Part I of the Bill. Requiring convicted sex offenders to inform the police of their name and address, and any subsequent changes is to ensure that the information on convicted sex offenders contained within the police national computer continues to remain up to date. This will help the police to monitor the offender's whereabouts and to identify suspects and quickly locate them if a crime is committed, and should also act as a deterrent to potential re-offenders.

The notification requirement will apply to all those who are convicted in any part of the United Kingdom of a qualifying offence. It will include those who in England and Wales are cautioned for any of those offences. The qualifying offences are set out in Schedule I. These cover sexual offences involving children; and also the most serious sexual offences against adults, all cases of rape and attempted rape, and those cases of indecent assault for which a sentence of 30 months' imprisonment or more has been imposed. It includes child pornography offences, but not consensual sex offences between teenagers or adult homosexuals.

The requirement to register changes of name and address with the police applies indefinitely to those convicted of the most serious offences; namely, those who have received a sentence of imprisonment of 30 months or more. Those who receive shorter sentences of imprisonment are required to register for a finite period—10 years if the sentence is more than six months, seven years for a sentence of six months or less. Non-custodial penalties and cautions will attract a notification period of five years. Those are rightly significant requirements. Registration periods need to be long enough to reflect the long-term offending pattern of paedophiles.

Clause 2 of the Bill provides details of how the notification requirement will work. An offender must register any change of name or address within 14 days either by personal attendance at a police station or by written notice to the police. We have, following discussion in another place, amended these requirements to require an offender who has more than one home, or who regularly visits another address, to register those other addresses as well as his main residence.

It is vital to the registration scheme that offenders actually comply with these rules. We have therefore, in Clause 3, made failure to comply with the requirement, or false notification, a criminal offence. The penalty is a fine of up to £5,000 (level 5 on the standard scale), or up to six months' imprisonment, or both. This is a severe penalty, which was increased following representations received from a number of bodies including those concerned with the protection of children and the police. It should assist the courts in those cases where offenders repeatedly try to evade the registration requirement.

The notification requirement will, in addition to catching offenders convicted after commencement, include those convicted of a relevant offence before commencement and who are still in contact with the criminal justice system; for example, those in prison or still on probation. We did consider extending the requirement to cover all those who have ever been convicted of a relevant offence but we concluded that as many offenders would not have had any contact with the criminal justice system for many years, it would be impractical to do so.

Provisions relating to young offenders are contained in Clause 4. It has been suggested that young offenders should be excluded from the registration requirement altogether. The Government are opposed to this approach. One must remember that registration is not a punishment but a measure to secure public protection from those who have committed serious offences. Indeed, some under-16s have been responsible for horrific sexual crimes. Nonetheless, we do accept there should be some recognition that for some offenders who are still young there is, perhaps, a greater chance of rehabilitation. The periods of registration, be they five, seven or 10 years, are halved for offenders under 18, and a custodial sentence cannot be imposed for non-compliance.

I hope that I have made clear the key details of the notification requirement. Before moving on, I should like briefly to mention a subject that attracted a great deal of attention in another place. It has been suggested that the Bill does not address the vital issue of what will actually be done with the information which is collected under the Bill. Some form of statutory obligation has been proposed whereby the Secretary of State should issue regulations, or a code of practice, on how and to whom the information should be disseminated and disclosed. We have given careful thought to this, and have in particular taken account of the views expressed by the Association of Chief Police Officers. The view of the police, which we strongly endorse, is that any warning system 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, ongoing risk assessment and a variety of preventive and investigative measures tailored to the circumstances of each specific case.

We have therefore decided that, rather than adding a provision to the Bill, we will consider with the police and the other relevant agencies, in the light of current practice around the country, what form such a strategy might take. This does not preclude the idea of a code of practice at some future date, although it may be that a Home Office circular would provide a better and more flexible way forward. I can assure the House that we will keep a close eye on how the registration scheme is working, and consider what measures may be required to improve it.

Having looked at the measures being taken to protect children from sexual abuse in the United Kingdom, I now turn to Part II, which deals with the activities of British citizens and United Kingdom residents who commit offences against children abroad. The Government are seriously concerned that people from this country are among those who travel to countries for the sole purpose of sexually abusing young children there: so called "child sex tourists". They bring shame on this country, and we must make sure that they cannot use our country as a hiding-place.

Clause 7 of the Bill makes it an offence in England and Wales or Northern Ireland to commit, in a country or territory outside the United Kingdom, the offences listed in Schedule 2. These include rape, buggery, and indecent assault where the victim is under 16. In addition, child pornography offences will also be covered.

The jurisdiction of the courts would be extended in this way only where the conduct concerned would be a criminal offence both in United Kingdom jurisdiction and in the territory of the state where it was committed. This is the so-called dual criminality test.

Clause 8 contains the Scottish provisions. They are framed slightly differently from those applying in the other United Kingdom jurisdictions because of the differences in Scots law. For instance, several of the offences caught by the Bill in Scotland are common law rather than statutory offences. But the effect is essentially the same in all three jurisdictions.

These provisions will supplement the other activities the Government are undertaking to discourage child prostitution and exploitation worldwide.

I believe the best place for prosecutions still remains the country in which the offences are committed, and if a British tourist is accused of abusing children overseas, we would look to the authorities in the country concerned to prosecute him under their own laws. However, for offences as obnoxious as these, it is right to make the necessary commitment to bring perpetrators to justice here in cases where extradition is not feasible.

These proposals are a significant step forward in our continuing fight against those who abuse children. It is one of a number of initiatives designed to protect children from abuse. The Crime (Sentences) Bill currently before Parliament contains additional measures designed to increase public protection from sex offenders. Courts will be required to impose a mandatory life sentence on offenders who commit a second serious sex offence such as rape, attempted rape or unlawful sexual intercourse with a girl under 13. This will ensure that such criminals will not be released unless and until it is safe to do so. And all sex offenders will receive extended supervision after release for a minimum of 12 months or 50 per cent. of sentence, extendable up to 10 years at the courts' discretion. We are also seeking views, in a separate consultation paper, on the detailed proposals for a prohibition on convicted child sex offenders from seeking to work with children.

We are determined to tackle the vile threat posed by sex offenders, particularly sex offenders who target children. The present Bill is the centrepiece of our present policies in this regard. It will provide the police with the means to keep sex offenders in their sights, with tough penalties for those offenders who fail to register. This will make it more difficult for paedophiles to commit further offences, and assist the police in tracking down the culprit if further crimes do occur. This will be a major step forward.

Part II of the Bill is also a radical departure, designed to protect children abroad, by ensuring that so-called child sex tourists can be held accountable in this country for their behaviour while abroad.

We have the opportunity today to improve the lot of abused children, in this country and abroad, and I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Baroness Match.)

11.19 a.m.

The Earl of Mar and Kellie

My Lords, the Bill will create yet another list of sex offenders with child victims. I believe that there are already six lists. I am concerned that the Bill does no more about the control of sex offenders than secure the address of their main residence.

Part II of the Bill introduces a necessary, but probably unworkable, provision for the trial in the United Kingdom of offences committed overseas. This extension of extra-territorial jurisdiction is welcome in theory; but I see great difficulties in practice. As a simple example, bringing witnesses from the Philippines would be expensive, and that would be only one of the difficulties.

I return to the ideas behind Part I of the Bill. Paedophilia is a sexual preference. It cannot be cured. The approach needed is one of control and self-control. I am impressed by the approach taken by the charity Action on Child Exploitation, of which I am a patron. AChE recommends a register of all suspected paedophiles and child sex abusers. The register would be supervised by a tribunal which would have the power to adjudicate upon appeal. The approach by AChE meets the real issues involved in dealing with sex offenders. Between 5 and 10 per cent. are prosecuted. Ninety per cent. are not charged, and of course that 90 per cent. would not have to register with the police under the Bill. But many of their names are on the six other lists and without any chance of review.

To measure the real scale of this problem, we have to recognise that 10,000 children are registered in England as being at risk of sexual abuse. This anomaly, in which the victim is put on a register but not the perpetrator, has to be sorted out. If that sounds a rather illiberal stance from these Benches, I shall now make the case that it is good for civil liberties, adults and children. The wider and more inclusive register which AChE proposes extends control to more perpetrators. That has to be good for children. For the adults, the possibility of appeal to the tribunal gives suspected perpetrators a chance to remove their names from the register if proved to be wrongly recorded. They cannot do that at present with the six existing lists. That has to be good for adult civil liberties.

That said, I return to the Bill. Part I will work if sex offenders have the confidence to register and re-register. It probably boils down to the reception at the police station given to the first offenders who attempt to register. That will be critical. If it leads to public exposure, others will not risk registering and will go underground. Clearly, the police of all ranks will have to give some serious thought to this and some may have to overcome prejudices.

I do not support community notification. That is often quite counter-productive in the control and resettlement of offenders. However, I inevitably support the development of increased supervision and counselling services for paedophiles and other sex offenders. These people have to understand that their sexual preference is not viable and that they must control their unfortunate natural urges. In addition, parents have to work on the way they run their families and bring up their children. Some children are very much more vulnerable to abuse than others. A huge national debate is needed among all adults about the standards and methods of parenting. The current lack of parental confidence must be reversed.

I conclude with the complaint that the Bill deals only with sex offenders with child victims. I think I have that right but I am prepared to be corrected. It should at least take in those who are convicted of unlawful sexual intercourse with a mentally handicapped woman—that is, the sexual abuse of a vulnerable person. That is something which we can carry over to a lively Committee stage.

11.25 a.m.

Lord Monson

My Lords, although it is a Friday, and although the Bill is not as radical or far-reaching as the Crime (Sentences) Bill, it is nevertheless astonishing that only two noble Lords are speaking from the Back Benches today. I intend to speak only to Part I and very briefly to Part III.

It may be that in broad terms Part I is desirable or, if not positively desirable, at any rate a lesser of two evils. All the same, it does affect civil liberties and challenges to some degree the philosophy underlying the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act. Moreover, judging by United States experience and, to a lesser extent so far, experience in the United Kingdom, is there not a danger of lynch law coming into play? Theoretically, of course, the information supplied to the police will remain secret as far as the general public are concerned. This may well prove to be the case in large urban areas, but in rural areas secrets are much more difficult to conceal from the public at large, particularly over a five-year period or longer.

I turn to the detail of the Bill. One of the problems is the very wide range in terms of seriousness of sexual offences covered. They do apply not only to sexual offences involving children, as I think the noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie, imagined. It is almost certainly right and proper that the most heinous sex offences should be covered by Part I of the Bill. But, for example, a 20 year-old man who goes to bed on one occasion with a 15¾ year-old girl who happens to look and act like someone of 17 or 18 would also be caught by the Bill. Is that right? Then again, indecent assault upon a woman under the age of 18 is also covered. As we all know, indecent assault varies enormously in terms of heinousness, from acts every bit as bad as rape at one extreme to standing excessively close to a girl on the London Underground at the other extreme—unpleasant for the victim but unlikely to be traumatic. Yet the perpetrator, were the girl to be 17 or under, would be caught by the Bill.

It may be argued that these variations are catered for by linking the length of the registration period with the police to the length of the sentence served. As far as the most serious offences are concerned—those which attract a sentence of 30 months or more—I have no quarrel with what the Bill provides. But is it really right that a nine-month sentence should attract a 10-year registration period and a sentence of 14 days' imprisonment a seven-year registration period or that a conditional discharge or even a caution should attract a five-year registration period?

One other matter puzzles me. Clause 9 allows Part I of the Bill to be extended to the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. Surely these territories, which are not part of the United Kingdom, normally formulate their own criminal law which they may or may not wish to harmonise with that of the United Kingdom. Westminster does not interfere. Why should there be an exception in this case? I shall be interested in the noble Baroness's reply.

11.29 a.m.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, I wish to ask a question which I do not think the noble Baroness answered in her explanation, to which I listened with great care. I have also searched through the Bill to see whether I could find any reference to it. I am anxious to know what provisions there are in the Bill for a paedophile who goes abroad, particularly one who takes up residence in Europe. I notice that the clause dealing with notification requirements refers to the offender's address within the United Kingdom. That appears to imply that if such a person goes, for example, to France or Germany he would not be under any obligation to notify the police of his address in those countries.

That leads me on to a further point which I want to put to the Minister. Has there been any discussion within the European Union about common notification and the exchange of information between police forces throughout the whole Community? It seems to me logical that if we are going down this road and find that these provisions are necessary to give protection to the community, they should apply throughout the whole of the Continent of Europe and not just within the boundaries of the United Kingdom. The noble Lord, Lord Monson, touched on this point when he referred to the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. Surely, as rules of this kind are harmonised within the European Union, we should be in touch, if we have not been already, with our colleagues throughout the Community to move towards a system where the registration of paedophiles will be universal throughout the Continent. If the European Union is extended later, countries coming into it would automatically comply with the same requirement. I shall be extremely grateful if the noble Baroness will deal with this point when she comes to reply to the debate.

11.30 a.m.

Lord Thomas of Gresford

My Lords, I welcome the Bill as a very important step in the protection of the public and in the protection in particular of vulnerable children. The secretive nature of child abuse is demonstrated by the overwhelming flood of disclosures which have been made in very recent times. It is difficult to believe that this is an entirely new phenomenon. Increasingly we read of child abuse on the widest possible scale. The happenings at the Bryn Estyn home in Wrexham where I live convulsed the people of that town. I myself knew many of the care assistants who worked there. It is now the subject of an inquiry by Sir Ronald Waterhouse which is ongoing. Some of the people I knew have proved to be whistle-blowers who have come out well in that inquiry.

The point I wish to make is that although I lived in the community not a hint of misconduct was ever heard about what was happening there. It demonstrates the highly manipulative nature of sex offenders of this type to which the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, referred in her opening remarks. My noble friend Lord Mar and Kellie referred to the fact that paedophiles cannot be cured, only controlled. That took my memory back to a man whom I represented many years ago who conceded that his whole life had been made miserable by his compulsive obsession with young boys. I recall that he told me that aversion therapy made no difference to him. He had undergone voluntarily a scheme whereby photographs of young boys were shown to him and then he was injected to make him sick. He said that his compulsions were not changed at all. He would still walk across the road to pass by a young boy even though he did not even speak to him. He recognised that his obsession was a source of great trouble to him. Since I was involved defending him your Lordships will appreciate that he had failed to control that obsession and he was in trouble once again.

Sexual offences are notoriously complex, and different circumstances do arise. There is a possibility that an offence can be one-off and will not be repeated—not perhaps the paedophile offence but some of the other offences set out in the schedule. Certain offences are registrable, as the noble Lord, Lord Monson, pointed out, even when an act is consensual and therefore victimless. I question whether there should be a blanket approach to registering every offence. It may be that an injustice will be created in individual cases and that rehabilitation will be prevented.

I propose that a requirement to register be part of the sentencing process of the court. It would be for the court to decide, after receiving reports, assessing the risk to the public and hearing representations, whether a particular individual ought to be required to register. After all, it is a significant encroachment on liberty since failure to register, and failure to continue to register on a change of address, are proposed as criminal offences. My view is that a decision to register made by the court carries more weight as a punitive measure than the automatic registration envisaged in the Bill. I respectfully disagree with the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. I believe that it should be a punishment that a person be required to register. No doubt, in the vast majority of the cases referred to in the schedule registration would be required, but it may be that in the individual cases referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Monson, such a provision may not be necessary.

I also query whether automatic registration should apply to cautions. It is curious that a non-statutory procedure, which is what a caution is, governed by a Home Office circular, should find its way into legislation of this type. Surely, if a person is deemed to be a risk to the public then a caution is inappropriate in the first place. If a particular individual is not a risk and a caution is appropriate, then why should he then be registered? I shall pursue that matter at Committee stage.

My main criticism of the Bill is that registration is not enough. It is of little use to register unless the information is properly collated and disseminated to the agencies which need to know, such as the education services, social services, health authorities and police forces around the country. What the public expect from the Bill is that there should be a central paedophile register and that the information which it contains should be properly monitored and responsibly distributed. Information concerning paedophiles is currently stored, as my noble friend Lord Mar and Kellie said, on no less than six lists held by government and public bodies. There are something like 25,000 names on the paedophile intelligence database of the National Criminal Intelligence Service. There are unknown numbers registered with the Department of Health consultancy service index and also on List 99 of the Department of Education.

The government proposal is that the information collected by registration will be stored not on a separate paedophile or sex offenders' register, but on the existing Phoenix database on the police national computer. While that is instantly accessible by all police forces and by National Criminal Intelligence, it is not perhaps the central register that the public had been led to expect would be the result of the Bill. There is therefore no specific control of this information envisaged. I welcome the suggestion of the noble Baroness today that a Home Office circular will be issued in order to put some sort of framework around the use of the information, but in my view it is not enough.

If there is to be proper protection I suggest that the following measures are required. First, a regulatory framework will ensure that the use of the information is carefully controlled for the prevention of crime and not open to vigilante abuse which might disastrously affect innocent people. Secondly, there should be a code of conduct which will define with precision the circumstances in which information can be released to interested bodies, including schools, voluntary organisations and, in exceptional circumstances, even to parents and the general public. I disagree with those who say that in no circumstances should the public be told. There may be particular instances where neighbours should be informed of the danger that is posed to their children by convicted paedophiles who live close to them. But there are real dangers if there is wide public access to this sort of information. That is why a code of conduct is essential to ensure that it is only in specific cases that such information would be distributed.

I suggest that there should be as well an overall strategy for sharing information between agencies, conducting risk assessments and taking other preventive and investigative measures as has been proposed by the Association of Chief Police Officers. I do not believe that the Home Office circular to which the Minister referred is a sufficient safeguard. Finally, I suggest that there should be a controlling commissioner who can ensure that the collection, collation and distribution of the information follows the regulatory framework that I have put forward and the code of conduct which should be laid down.

I recognise the dangers of vigilante action. I suggest that the harassment of registered persons should be a specific and quite serious new criminal offence punishable by imprisonment. We must not allow the Bill to be used by vigilante groups who seek to attack people attempting to rehabilitate themselves and make something of their lives. It is not acceptable that newspapers such as the Manchester Evening News and the Bournemouth Evening Echo should compile their own lists of paedophiles. In my own area, the headlines of the local newspaper, the Evening Leader, in relation to a probation or remand hostel in the town of Ruabon, caused great public disquiet. It is very easy to inflame emotions, but it does a considerable disservice to the community. Arson is not unknown in such circumstances. Newspapers should be prevented from publishing their own lists.

Registration is not a complete answer to the paedophile problem because perhaps only 10 per cent. of paedophiles are convicted. Many others are known to the police but, through their deviousness, avoid conviction. We must maintain our vigilance at all times.

Finally, I welcome Part II. It is perhaps unfortunate that convictions registered abroad or made abroad will not be registrable on the proposed register. I recognise that there will be difficulties of proof relating to convictions for offences that are charged in this country relating to conduct abroad. Nevertheless, these provisions mark the disquiet and distaste that all of us feel for the shame that is brought upon this country by sex tourists who go abroad to indulge their fantasies. I welcome the Bill.

11.42 a.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the Minister for her clear and concise exposition of the provisions of the Bill and to all noble Lords who have participated in the debate. The Minister was right to draw our attention back to the Home Office consultation document, Command Paper 3304 of June last year, on the sentencing and supervision of sex offenders. She was also right to draw our attention to the fact that this Bill is only one of a wide range of measures, some of which have resulted in legislation (but not quite all), which we must consider together if we are properly to consider the role and potential effectiveness of this Bill. The White Paper referred to the need for improved DNA sampling. There is a Private Member's Bill to deal with the necessary amendments to the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994.

The issue of notification to employers of previous offences, particularly offences against young children, and now against vulnerable adults, has been a matter of debate in this House on the Police Bill. That Bill is still in Committee in the Commons and my honourable friends are tabling amendments to the relevant part of it in order to strengthen its provisions—in some cases by limiting its application. Another Private Member's Bill seeks to end the improper use of victims' statements as a form of pornography in prisons.

The issue of supervision, which was the most important issue raised by the White Paper, is a subject of the Crime (Sentences) Bill. The paradox is that that Bill, as at present drafted, restricts post-release supervision rather than increasing it. The Minister and I have been in discussion on that part of the Bill following the amendments moved by the noble Lord, Lord Belstead. I acknowledge straightaway, even before the matter is debated on Report on Tuesday, that the Government have moved some way towards the improvement and extension of supervision arrangements from those which were originally provided in the Bill. They have moved in some way back to the provisions of the Criminal Justice Act 1991 in terms of the restoration of the role of the Parole Board. However, it is a paradox that, although that White Paper gives great prominence to supervision, the Government's original proposals restricted it.

I turn now to the role of registration, which is the subject of this Bill. It is right that we should consider the registration of sex offenders as one, but by no means the most important, element in the range of provisions for the sentencing and supervision of sex offenders.

Therefore, let us consider this Bill not only in its own right but also in context. That context includes the question of limitation, which is inevitable in a Bill which refers to the registration of convicted offenders. As the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, recognised, the problem with the sexual abuse of children is that there is a high level of abuse but a low level of conviction. That is for all sorts of reasons, including, as the noble Lord rightly said, the fact that it is a secret crime. If I remind noble Lords that in 1994–95 the charity Childline received no fewer than 18,000 calls from children about abuse—but not always sexual abuse—one can see that the number of cases which do not come to court is very much larger than the number of cases which do. Without in any way underestimating the importance of dealing with potential reoffending by convicted offenders, we should not give the message that this will be a uniquely effective way of dealing with the large proportion of child abuse which is not perpetrated by convicted offenders.

Both the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, and the noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie, referred to the other registers which exist to protect children. I refer to the Department of Health consultancy index, to List 99 which is held by the Department for Education and Employment and to all of the registers of children at risk rather than those relating to the offenders who place them at risk, of which the noble Earl rightly reminded us. Unless we can be sure that those other registers are co-ordinated with the registration process proposed in this Bill, it is difficult to see how the Bill will be fully effective in dealing with the problems which it is supposed to address.

The noble Lord, Lord Thomas, surprised me by saying that he disagreed with the Minister when she said that registration was not a punishment. I should have thought that the Minister was right and that the fundamental principle which we should be addressing in our detailed consideration of the Bill is that it is about the protection of children rather than the additional punishment of offenders. If offenders need to be punished additionally, they should be punished by the courts, not by a registration process. If the courts are being too lenient on sex offenders, that must be dealt with in itself. I am not saying either that the courts are being too lenient or that they are not; I am saying that that must be dealt with by the courts and not by a subsequent registration process. That must be the principle on which we address the detail of the Bill.

However, there are many aspects of the Bill that cause me concern, despite my fundamental support for its objective: the protection of children against abuse. My first concern is that raised by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford. In this respect I agree with him. It seems to me that a blanket registration based on conviction, whose period is determined by the severity of the sentence, is less likely to be effective than a registration requirement that is imposed by the judge at the time of sentencing. I do not suggest that registration should be an additional punishment—I hope I have made clear that I am very much opposed to that—but the protection of the public should be the concern of the judge at the time of conviction. The judge should express an opinion about subsequent registration. After all, it is he who has much better insight into the nature of the offence and the offender than is available to the police subsequent to the release of that offender.

Next, one comes to the whole question of offences committed by young people. The noble Lord, Lord Monson, is right—I am afraid that the noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie, is wrong—that the Bill includes offences committed by young people, including consenting sex offences and age of consent sex offences. That arises only because of the peculiarity in the law that the age of consent for the purposes of homosexual offences is different as between young men and young women. I understand the desire of the Government not to reopen the whole debate on the age of consent, and I do not do so. However, it has led to the anomaly that these offences are included in the Bill and probably should not be. The noble Lord, Lord Monson, also referred to acts of gross indecency that cover a very wide range of offences.

The Children's Charity Consortium takes the view that young offenders should not be in the Bill at all. Certainly that view should be canvassed in Committee, should there be a Committee stage.

Another problem that has been raised by a number of charities concerned with the protection of children is the failure of the Bill to include overseas offences in the registration process. There is a perfectly good precedent for this in the Football Spectators Act. This issue should also be addressed in Committee.

I am worried about some of the commencement provisions. I do not say that all spent offences should be included in the scope of this Bill and that people who were released from prison some time ago should be subject to registration. However, we must give careful thought to the fact that a Bill which can apply only to the future will not cover the vast majority of offenders at large in the community.

I am also worried, as is the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, about the inclusion of cautions, which are a non-judicial process, that may result in people refusing to accept them and an increase in the workload of the courts. Some of the charities who are concerned with the protection of children have asked for greater detail on the register; for example, the domestic profile of the household and whether it includes children.

Perhaps more important than any of the other points that I have made about Part I of the Bill is the issue of the use of and access to information. That relates back to the point about the register's relationship to other registers already in existence and the question of how the police are to control and implement necessary access to the register. A register is of no use unless people are protected by it. I agree entirely with those who say that there should not be general public access. I also entirely agree with those who say that the thought of vigilantes and newspaper registers is abhorrent. I do not believe that we should go in the direction of the United States, where, for example, in New Jersey what is called Megan's Law has led to hugely excessive discrimination against those who have already served their sentences. That would breach the principle of the legislation—which the Minister recognises—that registration is not intended to be a punishment. If it became available in the community it would be a punishment. If for that reason alone, it would be ineffective because registration would not take place.

I say nothing about Part II of the Bill. We welcome it. I believe that we should pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, who is not able to be in his place, for his efforts over a considerable period to ensure that we have this. Of course, we do not oppose the Bill. As my honourable friend said in another place, this Bill will play its part in a more comprehensive response to child abuse. It is sad that it comes at a stage of this Session and this Parliament when it is highly unlikely to have the detailed scrutiny in Committee and on Report that it deserves, but as it stands we shall not seek to oppose its passage.

11.56 a.m.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, albeit only a relatively small number of speakers have contributed this morning, we have had an interesting debate on a Bill which is a key part of the Government's wider strategy to protect the public. When opening the debate I sought to provide the House with an explanation of the main provisions of the Bill. There have been a number of helpful contributions during today's debate, for which I am grateful. I shall seek to respond to as many of the points raised as possible. If I miss out anything I shall write to noble Lords.

The noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie, referred to suspected paedophiles. I hope that that was a misunderstanding on his part. We are talking about an obligation to register backed by criminal sanctions for failure to do so. It would not be possible to place an obligation on someone who had simply been suspected of paedophilia. Therefore, the Bill would not include suspects. I am grateful for the fact that the noble Earl welcomed many parts of the Bill. He said that parts of it were welcome in theory, but he had real doubts about the practice. However difficult it is, I am sure the noble Earl will agree that it is worth trying. The extraterritorial jurisdictions will give rise to difficulty, as we have always known. I join with the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Hylton. One of the arguments that took up so much time before this stage was how difficult it would be to seek evidence. However, both this House and another place have come to the view that however difficult it is we should not set our face against at least attempting it.

I take seriously the point that has been raised by the noble Earl—I believe that we should take it into account when this Bill is implemented—about how those who arrive at police stations for registration are treated. I hope that that matter will be taken on board in any circular to the police about implementation of the Bill.

The noble Lords, Lord Thomas of Gresford and Lord McIntosh of Haringey, referred to discretionary registration. This would impose a very complex process on the courts in the exercise of discretion. There would need to be an appeals structure. It would make already complex provisions even more complex. We believe that it would be very costly. We also believe that everyone who is convicted of one of the qualifying offences should be kept under the eye of the police.

The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, was concerned about the exchange of information between this country and other countries. Considerable exchange of information takes place between police forces internationally. Co-operation and mutual assistance were important elements in the joint action on combatting child sex. That was agreed by the member states of the European Union last autumn in the aftermath of the Belgian case. I think it is the Belgian case and a number of recent paedophile cases in this country that have brought to light the importance of being co-operative and exchanging information.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, will the information which is collected under the Bill be available, for example, to the Belgian authorities? Therefore, if a paedophile emigrates from Britain to Belgium, the Belgian police can keep an eye on him there.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I was going to refer to people who leave the country. I think the noble Lord is referring to people who commit sex offences in this country. First of all, they have to serve their custodial period. They then have to serve a rather longer period of supervision than would be normal for convicted offenders. There are exceptional circumstances, when somebody is allowed, during that period of supervision, to go abroad. Those circumstances are very exceptional and are well controlled. A great deal of attention is paid to the country to which the offender is going to ensure that the supervision conditions are carried on in that country.

Let me take a different example: the person who has served a custodial sentence and completed the period of supervision and, if the person was staying in this country, would be subject to registration arrangements. Such people are of course free: they are no longer convicted persons. They would be free to travel abroad. I should like to take legal advice on this point and I shall therefore give a tentative answer. Such people are free once they have expended and spent their conviction; but if we were aware of somebody going abroad, a known paedophile, that would probably come under this joint agreement that we have with our European neighbours and that information could be passed on.

The noble Lord, Lord Monson, referred to consensual sex. I know this is a point about which he feels strongly, and it was touched upon by the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey. They are only caught where the offender is 20 years of age or over and the victim is under 18 and that would be for homosexual acts. It would not be for consensual acts between an adult male and a female of that age. I am not sure if the noble Lord was referring to a 20 year-old male and a 17 year-old female—

Lord Monson

My Lords, if I may make clear to the noble Baroness, I was talking about a 20 year-old male and a 15¾ year-old female who looked older.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, then the age of consent would come into play and that would be an offence if we were talking about an under 16 year-old. But certainly from 16 onwards with an adult male, consensual sex would not be a qualifying offence. It would of course if it was between two males, one of whom was under 18. That would be an offence. I note that the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, raised that point, too.

I understand the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, about vigilantes and the difficulty that sex offenders would have in the community; but those injuring or threatening to injure a paedophile would be subject to all the normal criminal laws and it would be a very big step to go beyond that, which I think the noble Lord was suggesting—certainly beyond the scope of this Bill, and in the time left to this Parliament—to legislate new controls over the press.

The noble Lord, Lord Monson, referred to extension to the islands. Clause 9(1) of the Bill contains a standard provision permitting extension of operation of the Bill to the Channel Islands and to the Isle of Man. But whether the Bill should be so extended will be a matter on which the islands' authorities will advise Her Majesty. This is in accordance with normal practice. I am the Minister with the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands on my particular portfolio.

Returning to the point of paedophiles convicted abroad, the Coalition on Child Prostitution and Tourism is likely to press for an amendment to be made to the Bill to require the registration of those convicted in other countries of paedophile offences. We examined options to achieve this following pressure at Second Reading in another place, but none of the options identified was without considerable difficulty, principally in respect of their practical operations. Options centring on extradition would deal with no more than the tip of the iceberg, but seeking to deal with the problem wholesale is very complex and very costly.

In his submission on 31st January to Mr. Maclean and Mr. Kirkhope, my ministerial colleagues, a Home Office official analysed these options. The recommendation then was that any move to apply registration provision in the cases of overseas convictions should be strongly resisted. That was accepted. The same difficulties of disproportionate effort in order to achieve any results apply in the case of registering addresses overseas. Difficulties focus on how the police would know whether any addresses of which they were notified were correct or false or whether the notification took place without the appropriate timescale. It would also be impossible to track the movements of these people through the European Union should an offender decide not to comply. Nor would they be picked up on their return to the United Kingdom.

Proposals to secure such a change have continued to be resisted on the grounds of impracticability. We would rely on good exchanges of information and as much co-operation between jurisdictions as possible.

A central feature of this Bill is the registration requirement in Part I. Although this will provide the police with up to date information on the whereabouts of paedophiles, much of the discussion, both here and in another place, has centred around the uses to which this information is to be put, and that is only right. The registration requirement will not be effective if it operates in a vacuum.

In reply to the noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie (again to correct a misunderstanding) when introducing this Bill I referred to a number of adults who would be subject to registration, not just those concerned with child abuse. I repeat what I said: registration will include those who commit sexual offences against children; the most serious sexual offences against adults; all cases of rape and attempted rape; and those cases of indecent assault for which a sentence of 30-months' imprisonment or more has been imposed. That of course includes child pornography offences but not, as I said earlier, consensual sex between teenagers or adult homosexuals.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Clearly, she is right to specify what the Bill covers. Is it not therefore a mistake to refer to this Bill, as she did in her opening speech, as a Bill against paedophilia? That, surely, is only one part of what is covered by the Bill.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I stand chastened by that comment. The primary concern, when we set out on this path, was paedophiles in the community. It includes others. It was a very secret garden and the police were not aware of who the paedophiles were, and where they were. The whole point of the register started with a concern about protecting children.

The use of the information and access to the information was also touched on by a number of people. We are reluctant, as I have said, to agree to a statutory obligation of the type which has been proposed in another place. I do not think it is specifically proposed here; but if I could also add to the support we have had from the Association of Chief Police Officers, we have also very recently received a letter from the Association of Chief Officers of Probation who have also agreed with the police that this is not the time to have something as prescriptive as a code of practice but that flexibility was important. I hope noble Lords will remember that I have not ruled out that there may come a time when a code of practice would be appropriate.

The final point that was raised during the debate by the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, and the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, was a concern about including cautions. I understand the point they are making; but, as they will know, cautions are only given on the basis of an admission of guilt. Therefore, if there has been an admission of guilt of any of these qualifying offences, we believe they should be subject to registration and that the police should know who they are and where they are.

All of this should form an active part of the on-going efforts by all the agencies involved in child protection. I agree that we should reflect on the way in which information is disseminated and disclosed. Such an exercise will, if it is to be meaningful, involve extensive consultation. I believe also that it would be wrong for that to hold up the important registration requirements.

I hope therefore that the Bill, containing, as it does, both the registration and the extra-territorial jurisdiction measures, will receive the endorsement of this House. This is not a threat, because we are a House that takes its own views about how long it wishes to discuss a Bill and how involved it wants to be in it, but I believe that there is a willingness in all parts of the House to see the Bill on the statute book. If we become over complex in trying to address too many issues in the Bill in Committee and on Report, we may jeopardise its future. This is a Bill that we should like to see on the statute book, and I commend it to the House.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.