HL Deb 29 January 2004 vol 656 cc320-2

11.29 a.m.

Lord Harrison asked Her Majesty's Government:

What plans they have to co-ordinate better the different criminal record systems within the United Kingdom, and across the European Union, to improve vetting and selection procedures in employment, so as to afford better protection to children.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, we are keen to support measures within the UK and across Europe to strengthen the protection of children through the sharing of criminal record and other information. To this end we are putting in place links between the different jurisdictions within the United Kingdom for sharing conviction information, and information about people who are disqualified from working with children. We are also examining with other EU member states how the arrangements for sharing information can be improved.

Lord Harrison

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. However, does he recognise that it is a matter of public concern that better co-ordination of criminal record systems across the United Kingdom should be effected with the greatest dispatch and accuracy? As regards the European Union, does my noble friend recognise that a number of existing states and a number of applicant states still do not have lists of those with criminal records in respect of children? Will he make it a priority of the British presidency of 2005 to ensure that all those 25 countries have proper lists and that there is a proper sharing of information across the European Union?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I completely agree with the noble Lord that it must be a priority to work with jurisdictions outside the United Kingdom. I am not sure that we should wait until 2005 to do that although, of course, it ought to be one of our priorities in 2005. As it is, we are working with our European partners to encourage them to have an EU-wide sex offenders register. We already have a register. We are leaders in the field in international law enforcement in this area. I believe it is generally recognised that our EU partners have much to do to catch up with us. We consider that this is an extremely important matter. Although our objective may not be achievable in the immediate and short term, it is one to which we are working.

Viscount Bridgeman

My Lords, in noting the Minister's reply to the original Question, will he comment on claims that the inability of Disclosure Scotland to access directly certain criminal records in England and Wales has created a legal loophole potentially putting children at risk? Will the Minister also note that, on the evidence of the chief executive of the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in a recent press article, vetting procedures are grossly inadequate in comparison with the systems in place in England and Wales? Will the Minister therefore bear in mind the potential dangers posed to children in these two adjacent jurisdictions when he is addressing the wider context of harmonisation of vetting procedures across the European Union?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I certainly accept the premise of the noble Viscount's question; namely, that our procedures are more advanced than those of other jurisdictions, as I have already said. However, as regards Scotland, important work is being undertaken to ensure that the systems are compatible. It should be remembered that Scotland enters conviction data on the PNC. Although it does not have quite the same concept of recordable offences, in recent years a number of steps have been taken to ensure greater compatibility. Most Scottish cases are recorded on the PNC, so there is that important sharing of information. The Irish system is very much modelled on the United Kingdom system. The Irish are, like us, working towards securing high standards in terms of enforcement. Their model is very much based on ours. We are delighted with the progress that has been made in adjacent jurisdictions but, of course, there is much more to be done.

Baroness Greengross

My Lords, while agreeing with everything the Minister has said, will he ensure that the improved co-ordination applies also to vulnerable adults who are covered by the same procedures and face the same loophole?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I note very carefully what the noble Baroness has said. That is an important point. It is something of which we are very mindful and on which we undertake to secure more work.

Baroness Walmsley

My Lords, following the question of the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, is the Minister aware of the evidence of the relatively free movement of sex offenders across the border between England and Scotland in both directions? While we are waiting for changes and information-sharing systems to be put in place, what are the Government doing to address that issue in the short term?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, we have worked extremely hard on this matter. The Government have an extremely good track record in this field. I summarise the situation. In the past five years we have tightened the laws on sexual abuse of children; we have strengthened the sex offenders register; we have introduced new orders to protect children from grooming; we have introduced a new order which requires sex offenders who commit offences overseas to go on the sex offenders register; we have established a multi-agency public protection arrangement; we have introduced sex offender orders which can stop sex offenders being alone with children; and we have introduced post-release supervision. All of those are very important. We work very closely with all of the jurisdictions that make up part of the United Kingdom to ensure proper enforcement. Important steps are being taken to work more closely with our colleagues in Scotland, as I indicated earlier.

Lord Elton

My Lords, when will the Scottish and English systems be compatible?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, my understanding is that work is being undertaken to ensure compatibility. I cannot give the noble Lord a precise date but I am happy to write to him on that point.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, the noble Lord mentioned—