§ 6.31 p.m.
§ Baroness Blatch
My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.
Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(Baroness Blatch.)
On Question, Motion agreed to.
House in Committee accordingly.
[The DEPUTY CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES (Lord Lyell) in the Chair.]
Clause 1 [Sex Offenders subject to notification requirements]:
§ Lord Monson moved Amendment No. 1:
§ Page 2, line 30, leave out ("7") and insert ("5").
§ The noble Lord said: In moving the above amendment, I shall, with the leave of the Committee, speak also to Amendments Nos. 2 and 3. Perhaps I may preface my remarks by reminding Members of the Committee, as one or two of them may have forgotten, 1133 that the Bill does not deal solely with paedophilia as normally understood. Now and again that fact has been overlooked.
§ On Second Reading, differences of opinion were expressed as to whether the notification requirements in Clause 1 constituted punishment. Speaking from the Liberal Democrat Benches, the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, suggested that they did, while the Government maintained that they did not. I believe that the truth lies somewhere in between. Whether or not notification/registration is actually meant to be punitive, it is bound to be so in practice to some degree.
§ As I said on Second Reading, while the information can doubtless be kept secret from the public in a large anonymous conurbation, in closely-knit rural areas the secret is more likely than not to leak out before very long. Even if that does not occur, the police are quite likely to make a habit of stopping the car of the individual on the register more often than they stop other people's cars, or to question him and require him to submit to DNA tests every time any sex crime occurs in the area, even if the sex crime for which the person was convicted is a trivial one.
§ If it was a matter of no more than a trivial offence, one does worry about the de facto punishment inherent in being placed on any black list being disproportionate to the crime. Let us take the case of an office Christmas party where men, and quite often women, traditionally end up behaving badly. After a few drinks a man—who may not necessarily be the boss but perhaps a relatively junior employee in his early twenties—approaches a 17 year-old typist from behind, puts an arm around her waist, squeezes it and plants an unwanted kiss upon her cheek. Her mother in a similar situation 25 years ago, and her grandmother in a similar situation 50 years ago, would almost certainly have shrugged off the whole thing. But today's 17 year-old may well feel, indignantly, that her "space had been invaded", or whatever transatlantic phrase happens to be in vogue at the time, and complain to the police. The latter would almost certainly feel that they had to charge the young man with indecent assault. If convicted, that young man might be fined no more than £30 or so or, more likely, given a conditional discharge. Nevertheless, under the Bill as it stands, he would remain on the register as a potential sex offender for a full five years. Is that necessary, and is it right?
§ Incidentally, I know of cases where the roles have been reversed; for example, where an older woman has blatantly made physical passes at a shy young man. Of course, in such a case men are usually too embarrassed to complain to the police. However, if they were to do so and a conviction were to result, I would feel exactly the same way about the woman being placed on the register.
§ However, let us take a slightly more serious case as reported in today's newspapers. A 35 year-old hospital doctor was used to indulging in horseplay with one or more nurses at the hospital where he worked. He claimed that the nurses normally entered fully into the spirit of the thing. But it appears that one day he misjudged the signals and went too far by placing a hand 1134 where the nurse did not want it placed. She yelled out and he immediately removed it. Nevertheless, the doctor was prosecuted for indecent assault, convicted and sentenced yesterday to three months' imprisonment, possibly jeopardising his future career.
§ It may be that a three-month sentence would be justified, especially if the lady in question happened to be a 17 year-old student nurse rather than the slightly older registered nurse involved in the case to which I referred. Nevertheless, is it really necessary for that doctor to remain on police files as a potentially dangerous sex maniac for six years and 10 months after he emerges from his token spell in prison? I beg to move.
§ Baroness Blatch
The amendments seek to replace the current notification period with shorter periods for the three categories of offenders at the lower end of the scale. The noble Lord, Lord Monson, proposes to replace seven years with five years for those imprisoned for a term of six months or less or who had been admitted to hospital without being subject to a restriction order.
The noble Lord seeks to reduce the length of the notification requirement provided under the Bill. We take the view that, for registration to be of any value whatever, a minimum period of five years should apply. A period of registration for two years only would not provide the level of protection for children that people require from those who commit the type of offence caught under the provisions of the Bill. It is a well-known fact that paedophiles are cunning, they are deceptive and they can avoid coming to attention for long periods of time. That is why we are providing for a minimum period of notification of five years.
I should point out to the Committee that we are not talking about a particularly onerous requirement. After initial notification of his name and address, an offender is only required to notify any changes to those details. Indeed, I remember during the debates on the Crime (Sentences) Bill that the noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie, who is not now in his place, raised the question of someone arriving at a police station and being treated in a way that would be unacceptable in terms of what we come to expect from the police when dealing with such people. However, I am assured that this can be a matter of written notification to a police authority and that no more need happen unless there is a change of address. In those circumstances, I am afraid that I cannot accept the amendments.
§ Lord McIntosh of Haringey
I wish that the Minister would not keep referring to paedophiles. As the noble Lord, Lord Monson, said, the Bill is not restricted to paedophiles. Indeed, we discussed the issue previously and I thought that the Minister agreed with me that the Bill goes wider. It includes consensual sex acts and acts which do not relate to children,because it catches those who are affected by differential ages of consent. It is the 1135 only chance I shall have to say this; namely, that this is not a paedophile Bill. It is a Sex Offenders Bill in a broader sense.
§ Lord Monson
I agree with the noble Baroness that a minimum five-year registration period would be appropriate for a repeat offence, and it might even be appropriate for a single offence which involved paedophile activities. However, as the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, kindly confirmed, this Bill does not deal only with paedophilia. None of the examples I gave involved people who could remotely be described as paedophiles. If we had been allocated the correct amount of time in which to deliberate this Bill: the time which it deserved—as so many other Bills did—I suspect that it would have ended up as much less of a blunt instrument than it is at the moment. In my opinion it will go on to the statute book in a defective form. I do not believe that I am alone in that opinion. However, having made my point, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendments Nos. 2 and 3 not moved.]
§ Clause 1 agreed to.
§ Remaining clauses and schedules agreed to.
§ House resumed: Bill reported without amendment; Report received.
§ Then, Standing Order 44 having been suspended (pursuant to Resolution of 18th March), Bill read a third time.
§ Baroness Blatch
My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill do now pass.
Moved, That the Bill do now pass.—(Baroness Blatch.)
§ 6.45 p.m.
§ Earl Russell
My Lords, I was unable to speak at Second Reading of this Bill because it came up at a time on a Friday when I was engaged in teaching. My overall position on the Bill remains that I stated in the debate on the humble Address; namely, that I am in favour in principle of such a Bill being on the statute book as I think it meets a real need, but that any such Bill must be brought in subject to a good deal of care, first, to make sure that it applies to the right offences, and, secondly, to make sure that the notification which results from it is handled with due caution and on a need to know basis.
Inevitably this Bill has been prepared in haste. It is a Bill on a rather complicated subject which is difficult to get right at any time. I am not quite certain that the Bill is yet in a form where we can leave it in peace. It will require some attention in the next Parliament. My misgivings relate to two distinct themes: one, the type of offences which are covered by the Bill, and, secondly, the use which may be made of the notification which it requires.
In general I think it ought to be the principle of this Bill that it does not apply to consensual offences. Because the age of consent, sadly, does not always command general confidence among people of the age to which it applies, there may be quite a lot of people involved in this. Some consenting offences are in the Bill, some are out of it.
1136 Indecent assault may take place with consent or without it. My argument would be that those cases should be distinguished. In cases where there is, say, a boy of 16 and a girl of 15, the required notification may perhaps sometimes be a little stringent.
For people who are gay, because of the unequal age of consent there will he an unequal impact resulting from the Bill. This is an area in which we owe a great debt of gratitude to the Prime Minister who has opened up discussion of this subject since his meeting with Sir Ian McKellen. The majority in another place against an equal age of consent was a narrow one. It is therefore ironic that this Bill increases the practical effects of that unequal age of consent. That is something which may require attention in a future Parliament.
I also have misgivings about the use that is made of the notification. The Bill has practically nothing to say on that subject. Notification is to be made to the police. What happens to the notification thereafter is left wide open. I do not for a moment express any criticism of the police here. Indeed my views on this subject are extremely close to those of Mr. Butler, the chief constable of Gloucestershire constabulary, who reported on this subject on behalf of the Association of Chief Police Officers. That is an interesting report and well worth thought. The report discussed the possible advantages and disadvantages of a general warning system. It stated:Three police forces were not in favour of a warning system at all and without exception all the other forces agreed that it must only be used in extreme circumstances".It was thought the warning might make the job of the police more difficult. The report further states that if an offender's,address and activities arc known the police are aware of his movements whereas displacement may occur making the most devious paedophile determined to achieve anonymity and further opportunity to offend".The police believe that wide notification could be self-defeating. The report refers to one case where the police disclosed information from a warning list to an education department, which reported it to a school, which passed it to parents by newsletter. That brought in the media and meant that the probation department had to provide accommodation in a new force area. The report argues that,a warning scheme, if not used as a means of last resort, could be detrimental to public safety in the long term".It argues that it could provide a threat to rehabilitation, which is, of course, the ultimate need. The report refers to a case in the West Midlands where revealing the identity of a sex offender led to an arson attack in which a 14 year-old girl—not the offender—died. Therefore there are risks here. Disclosure should be conducted subject to restrictions. I do not see any such restrictions in the Bill. It should be done on a need to know basis and with regard to public safety.
My noble friend Lord Thomas of Gresford, who spoke at Second Reading, recently received a letter on this subject from someone who in the usual way had been abused as a child, became an abuser as a result and had subsequently sought treatment. His offences are far in his past. He is a respectable citizen but his name reached his 1137 local newspaper, which published it. As a result, a man came after him with a gun and he has had to leave the area and look for another job.
There are risks. I do not think that it is enough to leave the matter to local discretion. The Bill should have sought to restrict the issue. I think that the measure will need attention in the next Parliament.
I expressed my thanks to the Minister on the Crime (Sentences) Bill for her conduct during the Session. In order not to prolong the sitting of the House, perhaps I may ask the Minister to take as read that my sentiments about her conduct are as they were then. I thank her warmly.
§ Lord McIntosh of Haringey
My Lords, I was present at the Second Reading, as were a number of noble Lords. Some of us expressed concerns about various aspects of the Bill, including the fact that it would have to be taken rather more rapidly than would be desirable. But I do not think that it is appropriate for a noble Lord who was not present at Second Reading to make a seven-minute Second Reading speech. Some of us who are not able to be present at the proper time deny the House the benefit of our wisdom.
§ Earl Russell
My Lords, the noble Lord makes me regret that I did not put down the amendments that I have here.
§ Lord Monson
My Lords, I rise only to reassure the noble Earl, Lord Russell, that the Bill does not apply to a boy of 16 who has sexual relations with a girl of 15, as he will see if he examines Schedule 1 closely.
§ Baroness Blatch
My Lords, first, perhaps I may accept the earlier rebuke by the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh. I have used the word paedophilia on more than one occasion. The main reason that I used it was simply that that was where our concern began. Our concern was about sexually abusive behaviour, in particular to children.
However, the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, is absolutely right. By these measures we seek to discourage sexually abusive behaviour to children and/or adults.
All I can say to the noble Earl, Lord Russell, is this. First, I thank him for his complimentary remarks. However, I have looked again at the offences set out in Schedules 1 and 2. We regard them as sufficiently serious for these measures; they justify this Bill. I commend the Bill to your Lordships.
On Question, Bill passed.