Brought up, and read the First time.
Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon)
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.I ask the House to consider seriously my modest proposal. All hon. Members have received a letter about the matter covered by the new clause. It arises out of an incident in my constituency which worried two local ladies who felt that it raised a point of law that needed to be dealt with. I pay tribute to those ladies for the way in which they have presented their case. They have done it in a thorough, responsible and balanced way. They have sought information from a variety of experts. I have had correspondence with the Minister, but he has not convinced my constituents that nothing can be done about the problem. When a person has committed what any reasonable person would regard as child molestation—not involving contact or assault, but causing embarrassment or distress to the child—the response is to charge that person with a breach of the peace. The argument is that that is a general, catch-all charge which gives at least a chance of getting a conviction, which may satisfy the community that the person who perpetrated the offence has been dealt with. However, the fact that breach of the peace is such a general charge means that it does not demonstrate to anyone investigating the record that the person concerned has been engaged in activities that make him unsuitable to be employed in jobs that bring him into close contact with children. Somebody who has in some way embarrassed or distressed children—say, outside a school playground or while on their way home from school, as happened in a case in my locality—would be considered by most people to be unsuitable as a school janitor, as the driver of a school bus or as an employee in a local community centre or youth club. The new clause proposes that such a person could be charged, if the police thought it suitable, with "breach of the peace (child molestation)". It is well understood that such records should not be available for public consumption, but when a major employer, such as a local authority, checked the records, it would be known from the definition of the charge that the prospective employee had been involved in a case which made him unsuitable to be employed in a job which involved contact with children. Regrettably, there have been too many instances of people being employed in jobs of the sort with which we are concerned after they have committed offences involving children. In some cases they have gone on to commit more serious offences. The new clause is designed to ensure that such people are so categorised at the time of the first offence that they will not subsequently be put in a position, which would be a threat to them as well as to the children, where they would be exposed to the possibility of perpetrating similar, or perhaps more serious, offences. The system should not allow such offenders to filter through and again be employed in occupations involving children, so that when they offend again the public say, "That should not have been allowed to happen." The procurator fiscal, or whoever was pressing charges, could use the charge that I propose at his discretion. In other words, it would be an additional charge rather than a supplement to an existing one. It would not remove what exists, but would add a new dimension. That would reassure parents who are concerned lest offenders who have offended in a minor way go on to commit a more serious offence. The additional offence that I propose would not magnify the situation out of all proportion, but will provide law officers with an additional safeguard. It would be stronger than the catch-all charge of breach of the peace, a charge which does not tell people the nature of the original offence.
I share the concern of the hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) about incidents of child molestation. Such incidents can be traumatic for children, and even a minor incident can have a disturbing effect and be a source of great worry to parents. Incidents which have a specific and explicit sexual connotation are of particular concern, and that is especially true when young children are involved. I agree that we should do everything in our power to ensure that incidents are adequately dealt with.The hon. Gentleman and I have been in correspondence on the matter, following approaches made to him by the constituents to whom he referred. Those constituents have also been in direct correspondence with my Department, which brought the matter to my attention. I, too, have been impressed with the concern that has been shown by the parents and with the businesslike manner in which they have approached their arguments for changes in the law. The new clause seems to go wider than the concern expressed. It relates to all breaches of the peace as a result of which a child has been alarmed. That could result from any of what one might call ordinary breaches of the peace—for example, shouting abusive language outside a football ground or a fight outside a public house. That might alarm a young child, but the hon. Gentleman will agree that it would be wrong to seek to label an offender of that sort a child molester. However, that illustrates the difficulty of drafting a workable provision in that area. My Department has been considering the matter for some time, and although we entirely sympathise with the objectives, we see great difficulty in pinning down in statutory language the sort of behaviour, presently comprised within breach of the peace, which nevertheless could be described as child molestation in some sexual sense, and which one would wish to see on an offenders' record for future reference. Almost any description of the behaviour that can be worked out seems to take it out of the realm of breach of the peace altogether and into some other common law crime—for example lewd and libidinous behaviour, which would be charged as such, and in relation to which the offender's record would be entirely plain. Therefore, while I sympathise with the objective, so far I have been unable to devise a form of statutory wording that would achieve the desired effect. I do not believe that the present clause, as I have already explained, succeeds in doing so. Having said that, I should make it clear that my mind is not closed on the matter, because I recognise the worrying nature of the problem. I remain happy to consider any further suggestions or alternative means of approach that would reach that objective. I should be prepared to look sympathetically at any alternative formulation that may ultimately be forthcoming. I do not believe that the hon. Gentleman's new clause achieves the purpose in a satisfactory way; and I hope that he will withdraw it.
I am grateful to the Minister for that response, which deals adequately with the concerns that have been expressed by my constituents and the way in which they have gone about trying to promote their issue.I accept the shortcomings of my new clause, which, I freely admit, was an opportunity to bring the matter to the House and discuss it a little more. From the correspondence that he has had, I think the Minister recognises that the existing charge of lewd and libidinous behaviour is too strong for the circumstances. My constituents are looking for something in between to deal with a particular situation. I accept that the new clause may not be the right way to do it. I appreciate the Minister saying that his mind remains open and that he is willing to consider alternatives. I advise the House, and warn the Minister—although I think that he is aware of this already—that my constituents have written to numerous foreign countries to obtain guidance on similar circumstances elsewhere. There have been some interesting and useful replies. In a nutshell, the problem is that simple breach of the peace does not quite go far enough, but lewd and libidinous behaviour goes too far. There is a need for something in between. I appreciate the difficulties. My constituents are looking for an additional option, not a replacement for an existing charge. They are looking for something which, if it were possible to pin it on someone who was guilty of the offence, would make it clear that it was a child molestation offence, whereas breach of the peace could mean almost anything and would not elicit the same danger signals. I am grateful to the Minister for saying that he will consider the matter further. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.