HL Deb 31 October 2000 vol 618 cc875-938

Consideration of amendments on Report resumed.

Clause 30 [Sections 28 and 29: supplemental]:

Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 45: Page 14, line 17, leave out ("for a term of 12 months or more").

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in moving this amendment, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 46 to 49.

We had a short debate on these amendments in Committee. We rather thought that we were going to hear a conclusive argument from the Minister as to why the amendments were not acceptable. I agree with the point made by the Minister in the debate on 4th October about the seriousness of a disqualification order. It does have a serious impact on an offender's life. He said that such an order, should only be imposed where it is seriously justified by the underlying criminal offence". I do not disagree with that. He went on to say: It is also essential for the disqualification to be imposed automatically on all serious offenders against children".— [Official Report, 4/10/00; col. 1534.] The reason for my amendment is that the order is not automatically imposed on all serious offenders against children. Daily, people appear before the courts for a first offence; but that belies the fact that the person has been abusing children or others sexually for some time—it merely happens to be the first time that the offender has appeared before the court. We know that such people are frequently given sentences of less than 12 months. There is an enormous lacuna. People who are guilty of the kinds of crimes that would qualify for a disqualification order—whether for peddling pornography on the Internet or for committing serious crimes against others—nevertheless escape, simply because they do not receive a custodial sentence of more than 12 months.

My amendments seek to make it clear that there are offences which are very serious and for which a disqualification order should be imposed on people who receive a sentence of 12 months or less. The amendments have a serious purpose. I beg to move.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am certainly sympathetic to the position that the noble Baroness has adopted. We both want the same conclusion. The real question is: how do we get there?

This group of amendments seeks to remove the reference to "12 months or more" imprisonment from Clause 30. That means that the court would have to impose a disqualification order on an offender aged 18 or over who was sentenced to prison virtually automatically unless it was satisfied that it was unlikely that the individual would commit any further offence against a child. What we both want is to ensure that an effective scheme to protect children is put in place.

We came to the view that the virtually automatic imposition of disqualification in a senior court, where the 12 months sentence is imposed, would provide the scheme with coherence and stability. The problem with the noble Baroness's approach is that the courts would not simply be able to impose the order automatically.

We consulted extensively, and there were at least two alternative approaches. One approach, which has the advantage of simplicity, would have been to draw up a shorter list of offences to trigger disqualification by trying to limit it to those offences which were always in themselves extremely serious—rape, for instance—and not set a minimum penalty as a filter for disqualification.

That approach has its attractions. However, I agree entirely with the noble Baroness's implied point that such an approach, although simple, is too simplistic. Most people who responded favoured a much wider, comprehensive list of offences but with a year's minimum sentence as the appropriate trigger to ensure proper operation. I think that the majority were right in this instance—although I must say with due deference to the noble Baroness, bearing in mind our recent history and our bruising this evening, that the majority are not always right. They succeed, but they may not be right.

We should like disqualification to be seen as virtually inevitable when the conditions are met. However, I take the noble Baroness's point. We are, after all, dealing with new legislative sanctions. I entirely accept that, when the scheme has bedded in, we ought to think about revisiting it to see what evidence there is of how it has worked in practice. I give the undertaking—and I hope that this is of comfort to the noble Baroness—that we should want to keep the operation of the scheme under close review. For my own part, I should have thought that after 18 months or two years—not too long, but long enough to obtain empirical evidence—we ought to revisit this matter. I hope that the undertaking I have given is helpful to the noble Baroness. It is certainly intended to be. On that basis, I invite her not to press her amendments.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord for a more fulsome and better argued reply than the one we received in Committee. Nevertheless, I remain concerned. There are people who are wholly unsuited to working with children, who receive sentences of less than 12 months, who will be on the loose, and from whom children will be at risk. It is something we ought to think about.

The noble and learned Lord used the example of an 18 year-old. I should have no compunction whatever in disqualifying an 18 year-old, under all the yardsticks set out in law, if that 18 year-old was an unsuitable person to work with children. If people commit the kind of offences that rule them out from working with children, I believe that disqualification would be in order. I should be depressed by the fact that it was someone aged 18, but I would have no compunction if I thought that a disqualification order would protect children from the behaviour of such a person.

Another point that makes me slightly hesitant when considering whether to revisit this amendment or a similar proposal is that the Government have not made it known whether they would consider, say, a term of nine months rather than 12 months, so that we get a little closer to catching some of the people whom we regard as unsuitable to work with children.

I appreciate what the noble and learned Lord has said about keeping the matter under review and possibly returning to it in a relatively short time— allowing a long enough period to see how this approach is working but in a relatively short time. However, it worries me that we should have to resort to primary legislation to make the change, and that the 12 months' term could not be changed otherwise. I know that in a sense I am arguing against myself in that I take a dim view of using secondary legislation to extend the parameters of sentencing. But it would mean fighting for time to introduce primary legislation. Again, it would be for the courts to decide whether someone was displaying the kind of behaviour that was unacceptable and that would render them a risk in working with children.

However, the Minister's reply was generous and I thank him for it. I should like to reflect further on what he said. I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 46 to 49 not moved.]

Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 50: After Clause 32, insert the following new clause—

    1. cc885-90
    2. Use of electronic communications systems to procure acts of gross indecency with children. 2,464 words
    1. cc890-910
    2. Indecent conduct towards children. 10,177 words
  4. cc912-38