HL Deb 22 April 2004 vol 660 cc439-42

2.58 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 25 March be approved [14th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the regulations before the House today fulfil a commitment made on 19 May 2003 by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor in his previous role as a Home Office Minister. Your Lordships will recall that Section 86 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 provides a power to the Secretary of State to make regulations governing the foreign travel notifications of "registered sex offenders". The existing regulations, made under the Sexual Offenders Act 1997, provide that all offenders subject to the notification requirements must notify the police if they intend to travel overseas for a period of eight days or more. Such notifications must be made 48 hours before departure, unless the information is not known at that time, in which case the notification must be made 24 hours prior to departure.

During debates on the Sexual Offences Act in your Lordships' House, consideration was given to what new regulations should include. There was considerable support for reducing from eight days to three days the period that an offender can intend to spend abroad without having to notify the police.

Making registered sex offenders notify their foreign travel is necessary for two reasons. First, such a requirement enables the police to know when and for how long an offender will be overseas. That is important as it prevents offenders evading the notification requirements in the United Kingdom by claiming they were out of the country. Secondly, the foreign travel regulations provide information that the police can pass to other jurisdictions where they believe there is a risk that the offender might commit sexual offences overseas. The police can, and do, pass information to other countries in this way and it is particularly useful as a tool in our fight against sex tourism.

The concern raised in this House, which was echoed in another place, was that the period of eight days was simply too long as offenders could travel to abuse children overseas and return to the UK without having to notify the police. In response to these concerns we consulted with various interested bodies including the children's charities, the travel industry and law enforcement agencies. We considered carefully the range of views expressed during that consultation, taking into account the need to balance the risks to children overseas against the additional burdens on the police and offenders that would arise from any change to the requirements.

As a result, the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor announced our intentions on 19 May and the Sexual Offences Act 2003 (Travel Notification Requirements) Regulations, which I am asking the House to consider today, will reduce the period sex offenders can intend to spend abroad before they have to notify the police from the current eight days to three days and additionally require offenders to notify the police seven days in advance of their intended travel, as opposed to the maximum of 48 hours in advance at present. Where an offender needs to travel at short notice, or where his travel plans change after notification, he will be required to notify the police at least 24 hours before travelling. Failure to comply with these regulations without reasonable excuse will be a criminal offence with a maximum penalty of five years' imprisonment. This is provided for at Section 91 of the 2003 Act.

These measures have been well trailed and well rehearsed. We were persuaded by the arguments made at the time and we think that these measures will go some way towards preventing awful and appalling crimes in future. For those reasons, I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 25 March be approved [14th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Lord Bassam of Brighton.)

Viscount Bridgeman

My Lords, on this side of the House we entirely support these regulations. They come against a background of the appalling growth in sex tourism world-wide. Sex tourism in the Far East is well known but there is disturbing evidence of a growth in sex tourism much closer to home in Europe, particularly, I understand, on the border between Germany and the Czech Republic, in western Bohemia, where child sex is openly advertised in the windows of houses. For these reasons we are in agreement with the regulations, in particular with the reduction in the time limit for notification and in the period for which the offender intends to stay overseas. We support this measure.

Baroness Walmsley

My Lords, it is great pleasure to offer the Minister and the Government the wholehearted congratulations of these Benches on listening to organisations such as World Vision and UNICEF—in which I must express an interest as a trustee—during the course of the proceedings on the Sexual Offences Bill and to the many people who have campaigned for this change in the regulations.

However, we need to keep a careful eye on the operation of the regulations and to look at whether they could be tightened even further at some time in the future. I gather than Interpol believes that a reduction in the period for which a person on the register could travel without notifying the authorities to 48 hours could be coped with. Perhaps the Government will be able to reassure us that they will look carefully at that because a good deal of mischief can be done in 24 hours, let alone 48 hours. We need to look at it.

We also need to look at the causes of sex tourism and at what else we can do. Like the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, I was horrified to discover the extent of sex tourism and to find that the UK is fifth in the league of perpetrators of sex tourism. But we must not just look at the offenders. We must look at the internal problems that cause children and young people to feel that they need to sell their bodies.

We also need to nip the problem in the bud. The problem of first offenders needs to be looked at very hard. I think that some people go abroad and commit these offences in the mistaken belief that they can get away with them and that they are not likely to be prosecuted in this country when they return. Of course, as we all know, they are liable to prosecution but I wonder what more the Government can do to send out the message that this behaviour is quite unacceptable and will be prosecuted. Perhaps work could be done with airlines and travel agents to warn people that it is an offence and will be prosecuted.

There is also the question of people who have been convicted but who are on remand and waiting for sentencing. When a question was asked in another place about whether these regulations would apply to them the Minister who responded was not very clear in his answer. I wonder if the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, can answer that question today.

It is important that we see these regulations in the context of the other measures that the Government have brought forward. We also have foreign travel orders that are available to the police if they have reason to believe that a person is travelling abroad for the purposes of committing an offence. I think that, when we put these regulations together with those orders and other measures. we have a great step forward in our ability to curtail the terrible activities of these sexual predators who prey on impoverished children abroad. I am very pleased to support the regulations in general and hope that the Minster can answer the questions that I have raised.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am grateful to both opposition parties for their support for these regulations. It comes as no great surprise because I know that we were as one on this issue when the matter was debated previously. On policy issues such as this it is particularly important that we try to achieve a high degree of consensus in bringing these measures forward.

As ever, the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, raised interesting questions on the regulations, or, more accurately, used the regulations as a means of raising interesting questions on the issue in general. The first point she raised was whether we could consider a further reduction of the time limit to 48 hours at some point in the future. The noble Baroness expressed the view that Interpol thought it could handle that. I think that we ought to proceed with caution and monitor how this works first. In our view there is little point in having something on the statute book if it cannot be used effectively as a means of control and essentially we are trying to control human behaviour with these regulations.

The noble Baroness made the valid point that we should try to understand the causes behind an issue. That must be right, in particular in relation to sex tourism. I thought that she made a very sensible point when she said that we ought to try to nip this in the bud and then asked what more could be done. I think that this Government's record in the field has been exemplary. When it is held up to international comparison that is undoubtedly the case.

In the "more to be done column", what we would like to see is more international co-operation. I do not say that other jurisdictions do not take this issue seriously because they plainly do. However, it is interesting that other jurisdictions are now looking very carefully at the legislation that we have been putting in place in the United Kingdom over the past few years. I think that that means that they are now looking to achieve our levels of compliance. I am delighted that there is around a 97 per cent compliance rate with the legislation regarding the notification of movements of sex offenders that we put in place. That is important because it shows that the legislation is being perfected.

The noble Baroness asked a final question about those on remand. Notification requirements apply from the date of conviction, unless there is a sentence threshold for the offence. I understand that the Parliamentary Under-Secretary is writing on this issue to the Member of Parliament who raised the question and I undertake to ensure that the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, is copied into that correspondence so that the matter is put on public record and made clear. I commend the regulations to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.