With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the child sex offender review. Few crimes are more horrific than sexual offences against children. Ensuring that that most vulnerable group in society are safe should be, and is, at the heart of the Government’s agenda and of my role as Home Secretary.
I am delighted to be able to say that the United Kingdom already has the strongest restrictions on child sex offenders. We have now considered how we can further improve the system to provide maximum protection to our children. In June last year, I commissioned a comprehensive review of the management of child sex offenders. Over the last year, Home Office Ministers and officials have consulted widely with stakeholders in the UK and abroad, including all the major children’s charities. I would like to put on record my thanks to all those who contributed to the review, especially the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), who led the review, and Sara Payne for her support and understanding throughout—and for her long years of campaigning when it seemed that no one was listening.
The Home Office today publishes the report of that review, and I am delighted with the welcome it has received, including that from Sara Payne. The report contains a number of actions that will make short, medium and long-term improvements in the way we manage child sex offenders. The review shows that the multi-agency system we operate to manage high- risk offenders—the multi-agency public protection arrangements, or MAPPA—can work well, and that the professionals working on the front line to protect children deserve praise for the excellent work they do. However, the review has also identified some areas where improvements can be made and our regime can be strengthened: we can share more information with the public; the treatment of offenders can be improved, and MAPPA can be enhanced; and the supervision and management of offenders can be strengthened and improved, including through the use of technology. I shall deal with some of those points in turn.
On the sharing of information, when I commissioned this review I started from the position that information should and could no longer remain the exclusive preserve and monopoly of officialdom. Although the police and other agencies can already disclose information about specific offenders to members of the public, local practice varies, sometimes significantly, and some areas do this far more than others. In addition, there is no statutory obligation on them to do so. I wanted then, and still do, to see much greater consistency between areas and a new presumption in law that, where there is a potential risk, relevant members of the public should and will be told about that risk to themselves or their families. That information sharing will now be both proactive and reactive.
On the proactive side, we will therefore update the law to give police and other local agencies a duty to consider—in every case—whether a member of the public needs to know about an offender’s history in order to protect a child or children. There will also be a presumption that the authorities will disclose that information if they consider that the offender presents a risk of serious harm to a member of the public’s children.
However, I want to go further than this and to give the public a more active role and right in this process. At present, information is disclosed only on a limited basis and usually with the consent of the sex offender—himself, in most cases, or herself—for example by agreeing to a criminal records check for employment with children. However, we already know that 90 per cent. of child abuse occurs in different circumstances from employment, by those who are known to the child, such as a family member or close acquaintance. Therefore, we will target paedophiles who deliberately ingratiate themselves into families, and the risk that that carries with it to children.
So in a reactive sense, we have determined that parents and guardians who are concerned about someone with whom they have a relationship, and who has unsupervised access to their children, will be able to register an interest with the police in that person. If that person has convictions for child sex offences, there will be a presumption that those offences will be disclosed to the parent or guardian if it is considered that the child would be at risk, and if disclosure is necessary to manage that risk.
This new system, I believe, is proportionate but significant. Moreover, it will initially be piloted in three police force areas as soon as the legislation can go through—hopefully from April 2008—and will be backed by about £2 million in new resources and overseen by a national stakeholder advisory group. The Association of Chief Police Officers has written to every chief constable to inform them of the plans. I am grateful for the support that has already been given to these plans by Terry Grange, ACPO’s spokesman on these matters. The Ministry of Justice will also be writing to chief probation officers. In addition, we will be committing £150,000 to the piloting of a community awareness campaign, in partnership with the Stop It Now! charity. This will develop messages and deliver information better to equip parents and carers to safeguard children effectively.
I turn to improving the multi-agency public protection arrangements and the treatment of offenders. We intend to introduce national standards for all MAPPA areas to improve the quality and consistency of decision making, and to increase MAPPA’s capacity to manage dangerous offenders. The Home Office and the Ministry of Justice will provide an extra £1.2 million to MAPPA areas to enhance a number of things: to underpin standards and to promote public protection outcomes; to introduce a standardised set of rules of residence for approved premises housing offenders on probation; and to introduce compulsory programmes of purposeful activity to occupy offenders’ time in approved premises, thereby increasing the amount of supervision that they are subject to.
We will also work towards developing a more flexible approach to providing treatment to maximise the number of offenders treated and the effectiveness of that treatment. That will include developing the use of drug treatments alongside existing psychological treatments. For example, anti-androgen drugs and SSRI—selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitor—antidepressants have been shown to be effective in reducing sexual drive and reducing offending, sometimes significantly. But that will obviously need to be on a voluntary basis to prevent re-offending effectively, because to succeed it relies on the co-operation of the offender. It is not a substitute for punishment or prison, but an essential element of expanding treatment.
I turn now to the use of technology in management and supervision. We will improve the supervision and management of registered sex offenders by increasing the amount of information they must provide to police, such as their email and internet identities; their passport details; and when they begin new relationships with single parents. That is another element of enhanced supervisory mechanisms. They can be further supplemented by the development of new technologies. However, new technologies such as the internet have opened up new avenues of risk for children, and new opportunities for offenders. Our response must match those new risks, and we must ensure that we take the fullest advantage of technology to protect children. So we will increase the use of the internet to publicise and track down high-risk offenders who have gone missing. We will review the use of satellite tracking to monitor offenders on licence and extend it where it is effective and appropriate. We will pilot compulsory use of polygraph—lie detector—tests and this House has already agreed the necessary amendment to the Offender Management Bill earlier this year.
I want to make it plain that polygraphs, or lie detectors, are routinely used by probation officers in the US. I am recommending them, and we intend to use them here not as part of the route to conviction, but as part of the strengthened supervision mechanisms after conviction. Initial trials in this country on a voluntary basis showed that polygraph testing may be useful in the supervision and treatment of offenders, and in preventing further offending. I am now committing £800,000 for further trials and a scientific evaluation of compulsory lie detector testing to determine whether it is an effective risk-management tool and, if so, to adopt it.
These actions, and many more outlined today—20 in all—will bring considerable improvements to the way we manage child sex offenders. We already have probably the most robust regime in Europe, but the improvements will continue our agenda of refocusing the criminal justice system on the rights of the victims—in this case, innocent children—rather than the rights of the offender. Above all, they will further enhance the protection of that most vulnerable group of people in our society, the future generation and today’s children.
I thank the Home Secretary for his statement. I cannot honestly express any surprise, however, that the Government are in an awkward position today. It was unwise to give the impression that they were about to introduce some version of Megan’s law. Senior police officers, probation officers, the official Opposition and even one of his predecessors as Home Secretary predicted exactly what his junior Minister found on his trip to the US: states that have implemented Megan’s law found that up to 25 per cent. of paedophiles went underground. As they were often the most serious offenders, the rate of paedophile offending did not go down. Sometimes it went up. The question that has to be answered is whether the Home Secretary’s new compromise proposals will avoid those problems. In particular, will he say how they will ensure that information passed to mothers of at-risk children—clearly, that is a tense environment—stays private? If it does not stay private, might the proposals still drive some paedophiles, and perhaps the worst ones, underground? The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has warned that the police are overstretched and do not have the resources to manage the system properly.
I turn now to the much wider issue of enforcement. No policies will work without competent implementation: they may give a false sense of security, but they will give no protection. Today’s headlines are all about “chemical castration”, which is an odd and probably inappropriate phrase. A voluntary system of medication may well be useful in some cases, as the Home Secretary said, but the reality is that it will not deal with the worst offenders who do not wish to reform.
Another problem has to do with the sex offenders register, which is central to all the Government’s public protection measures in this area. Three years ago, the Police Federation warned the Home Office that a loophole in the law allowed sex offenders to give only vague addresses to authorities. The Home Office did nothing, and as a result more than 300 potentially dangerous sex offenders are unnecessarily at large today without the knowledge of the police.
The Home Secretary, I think wisely, has promised satellite tagging, but in March this year it became apparent that a number of supposedly tagged paedophiles were going completely unmonitored. No technology will work if it is not monitored. Also, we need to understand how many offenders the police are able to keep track of. Low-risk offenders are visited by police once a year, and medium-risk offenders up to twice a year. The police visit the absolutely highest-risk offenders only once every three months. Is that really enough?
However, that is not the worst problem. In August 2002, Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman were murdered by the vicious paedophile Ian Huntley in Soham. In June 2004, the Government’s Bichard inquiry showed that a massive failing in police intelligence-sharing arrangements had allowed the Soham murders to happen. The report recommended that a
“national IT system to support police intelligence…should be introduced as a matter of urgency.”
The Home Office set in motion a plan to introduce such a system, and the first stage of it was the cross-regional information-sharing programme, or CRISP for short. That would have allowed every police force access to critical databases, including the intelligence database and at-risk registers of every other force, and the sex offenders register, among other things. The programme was due to take effect this year, but it was cancelled on 31 May—because of a lack of money, according to reports. Its substitute will not be in operation until 2010 or 2011, at least three years late. Therefore, our police will be handicapped, and our children kept at risk, for an unnecessary further three years—that is, until almost nine years after the tragic events at Soham.
The Home Secretary said this morning, and has repeated just now, that protecting vulnerable children was his highest priority. In which case, they deserve much better than this.
I can cover some of the points that have been raised. On the risk of public disorder, it is not within my power or the power of any hon. Member to create a society without risk. Whatever we do here, there will be a degree of risk—a degree of risk to children and, no doubt, a degree of risk to paedophiles. I have tried to minimise that, but I wish that some of the commentators would show the same sensitivity when it comes to protecting children as they do when it comes to protecting the interests of paedophiles—both are important, but with innocent children, the burden of the obligation on us to go that bit further and err on their side is, to me, one that we should take. So we have reached a system of sharing information that gives more information and, indeed, for the first time, in a significant step, the right to the presumption that information will be given to ordinary members of the public to protect their families where that is relevant. Despite the hysterical accusations that were levelled against me at the beginning, we have done it in a way that safeguards public order and is acceptable to all the children’s charities. That is always what I intended to do. I will come back to the question of Sarah’s law and what we call it later.
On resources, police effectiveness and their lack of resources, first let us note that we should ask the police themselves before we ask the politicians. The police today have welcomed the recommendations and plans that we have outlined. Secondly, we have made it plain that there will be more resources: £1.2 million immediately and £1.5 million for the pilots.
Of course, drugs will not deal with the worst offenders. What will deal with the worst offenders—those recidivist paedophiles who are likely to commit crime again—is indeterminate sentences that keep them in prison for as long as necessary and for life if necessary—proposals which the right hon. Gentleman voted against when we brought them to the House. So let us be quite clear: the drugs element is not meant to deal with recidivists who cannot be released from prison. Our other measures have dealt with that: indeterminate sentences. For those of the lower risk, we are strengthening the supervision by using new technology, and I hope that we will get support for satellite tracking and lie detector tests. In that context, we are saying that the evidence suggests that drugs can be very effective in reducing reoffending—in some cases, by up to 50 per cent.—and we are suggesting that as part of the treatment.
The right hon. Gentleman raised the no-fixed-abode issue. He misrepresents the position. Until three years ago, sex offenders who were of no fixed abode—he mentioned 300, out of the 30,000 who are on the register—did not have to give any address whatsoever. They had an automatic way around giving an address by saying that they were of no fixed abode. What we required of them, even if they were of no fixed abode, was to give the location where they could be found most regularly, even if it was a park bench. So that was not a weakening of requirements; it was a strengthening of requirements, compared with the position under the last Government.
As for the Bichard report, why do we not ask Sir Michael Bichard himself? Sir Michael publicly agreed with the decision recommended by ACPO—the police chiefs themselves—that the interim IMPACT system should not be continued owing to concerns about operational effectiveness. So when we are asking these things, why do we not refer to the people who are named in the reports?
That brings me finally to Sarah’s law. It does not matter to me what the law is called—what matters to me is that it protects children more than it did previously—but if I was asking anyone whether or not this merited a welcome as a massive step and as a link with a campaign for Sarah Payne’s law, I would ask Sara Payne, which is precisely what I did as late as yesterday, at the latest meeting that she has had with myself and Ministers. I am delighted that Sara Payne has welcomed this as, in her words, “a massive step forward,” and it is more of a consolation to me that it is welcomed by Sara Payne than that it is opposed by the Opposition Front-Bench team.
The onus on offenders to provide information such as DNA samples if they have not already done so, passport numbers, e-mail addresses and other information is very welcome, but has the Home Secretary any plans for judges to be encouraged to provide the kind of sentences that make it an offence for offenders even to approach children or try to work with them, as part of the sentencing that they have been given?
We continue our discussions with Ministry of Justice colleagues on all these matters. Let me make it plain: I have tried in this case to take a significant step forward in the sense that we have now established a principle that people other than those in officialdom should have the right to the information that is necessary to protect their children. We will road- test that; we will pilot it; we will treat it cautiously. It is possible to be both radical and cautious. That is what we will do. If the evidence suggests that that needs to be changed or strengthened, I believe that the Government should and would strengthen it. We would, however, do that in a way, as we have done, that carries all the charities, all the professionals and all the stakeholders involved alongside it. It was predicted that we could not do that; we have done it today, and I wish that the Opposition would be rather less churlish on the political points and a little more welcoming of the substantial step forward.
I thank the Home Secretary for advance sight of the statement and broadly welcome the proposals—although, of course, they raise a lot of questions about how they will work in practice. He is right to say that nothing is more important in this House than our taking the necessary measures to protect all our children.
I welcome the proposals broadly as much for what is not in them as for what is in them. Why did the Home Secretary, perhaps with the benefit of hindsight, announce in a fanfare of headlines in the News of the World that he would look into importing a version of the US Megan’s law into British law, when he knew at the time that his predecessor, the police and every child protection expert in this country said that it was not a good idea and all the evidence from the United States showed that, far from bolstering child protection, it would undermine it? Why did it take him 12 months to arrive at the same conclusion that most of us had reached before he had even taken up his present position?
Does the Home Secretary not worry, again with the benefit of hindsight, that his various pronouncements have a very deleterious effect on the deepest fears and anxieties of many parents of young children in this country? Why was his office furiously briefing the press last night that it would pilot so-called chemical castration—a phrase that has appeared in headlines all over the country today—when I understand that it is a lurid euphemism for voluntary hormone treatment, which has been available for the past 20 to 30 years?
Why, when the Government rightly pledged in 2004 to build five new treatment centres to deal with the most serious offenders, has not a single one been built? Would that not have been a better use of the Home Secretary’s time and energy over the past 12 months?
Will the Home Secretary publish authoritative evidence of the utility of selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitor antidepressants, given that medical experts tell me that there are serious doubts about their efficacy as used in Denmark and other countries?
There is much to welcome in the package; but frankly, over the past 12 months, we have seen the constant drumbeat of populist headline-grabbing announcements, as the background to the Home Secretary’s proposals, unveiled today, when the public rightly expect a sober, considered assessment of the evidence about what is the best way to protect our children. Does he not think that the public deserve better?
I think that the public deserve better than to be treated with patronising contempt for their opinions on this matter. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman should distinguish between the sincere views of the public, represented by parents such as Sara Payne, who have gone through hell, and tabloid headlines. If he spent a little more time listening to the public rather than the Westminster elite, perhaps he would be on the side of the public on these issues.
Let us be absolutely plain about why I took 12 months. I said that I would consider this with all the stakeholders and the evidence at home and abroad. The problem with the hon. Gentleman is that he predicted that we would not, should not and could not share this information outside of officialdom. He is on the side of the officials and the professionals; we have now carried the officials and professionals with us. [Interruption.] The parents of this country have the right to the information—[Interruption.]
Thank you, Mr. Speaker.
The parents of this country have the right to the information that is necessary directly to protect their children. I briefed one thing a year ago: I said that it was no longer acceptable that officialdom should have the exclusive monopoly of information concerning the risk to parents and their children, and that I would examine a way to provide such information to them, commensurate with safeguarding public order.
I have done that. That is not a source of disappointment to those who have campaigned for it; it is a source of relief that, after years of asking for it, in the face of opposition from people such as the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg), we have delivered that. I would have thought that he would celebrate that.
My right hon. Friend will know that the reconviction rate for prisoners who have attended the sex offender treatment programme is as low as 5 per cent. Unfortunately, that is not applicable to those offenders, including high-risk offenders, who have not attended the sex offender treatment programme. I remain deeply concerned about the offenders currently in prison who refuse to enter into sex offender treatment programmes. What does he intend to do to address that problem?
I have already said—and I repeat this—that it is not possible for me to stand at the Dispatch Box and promise a country without risk, in which children will never be under threat and paedophiles will cease reoffending as a result of treatment. There is a range of strength of paedophilic drive, which requires a range of responses. In some cases, the tendency to recidivism is such that, unfortunately, for the protection of society, some people may have to spend their whole life in jail. In other cases, although offenders are released, I want to be assured that they will be subject to the maximum scrutiny and supervision, which is why I am trying to strengthen the measures. Where it is possible to reduce the reoffending rate by psychological or psychiatric treatment, supplemented in some cases by drug treatment, we ought to use everything that is available. That is the only answer I can give to my hon. Friend. Such is the range of strength of the tendency to reoffend in these cases that we need the full gamut of treatment, protection and supervision to be deployed appropriately.
The Home Secretary is right to adopt the view that we should protect children above all others. I discovered the importance of that when I was deeply involved in the preparation of the Protection of Children Act 1978, which involved a major shift from the so-called liberal attitudes of the 1960s. I suspect that he would acknowledge that one of his biggest problems in drafting legislation to achieve that objective is the panoply of human rights legislation, including the Human Rights Act 1998 and the European convention on human rights. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory), myself and others have mentioned, there are also the problems inherent in the charter of fundamental rights, which is currently under discussion. Will he therefore simply tell us that we will protect children in this country by legislating on our own terms in Westminster and that we will simply introduce into any such legislation the words “notwithstanding the Human Rights Act or the European Communities Act”?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. I am convinced that what I have proposed can be done in compliance with the European convention on human rights and the Human Rights Act. Of course, if we found that the protection of our children was somehow diminished by any convention, here or internationally, we would have to take the necessary steps to make sure that our children were protected.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that, through Operation Awaken, the police in Blackpool have developed some good joint working with the local authority, the Connexions service and other agencies to protect children from sexual abuse and exploitation? Will he reassure me that, where there is such good joint working, it will be further enhanced, and, where there is not, it will be developed?
Yes, indeed. My hon. Friend makes an important point. Both our overall regime and the multi-agency public protection arrangements are enormously strong at present—certainly when compared with other countries. In general, we have a very robust regime indeed, as a result of the sex offenders register and the Prison Service, the probation service and the police working together on MAPPA. I have tried to accept that we may need to strengthen supervision and treatment, and, where appropriate, to strengthen the information to allow the public to protect their children. At the same time, we need to do that on the basis of the framework of MAPPA. The police, the probation service, the charities and everyone else who is working so effectively—as my hon. Friend has pointed out—have been consulted and, I am glad to say, carried with us on this occasion. As we pilot the measures, we will attempt to do the same again.
That is precisely why we will pilot the measures. Obviously, we are trying to achieve a balance when it comes to safeguarding and protection. Whenever information is released, other risks open up. We have tried to have a safeguard that is commensurate with giving the other information. We can rely on the police to handle matters sensitively in the vast majority of cases. Sometimes this is already done, but there is no statutory presumption that it should be. We want to change that and put resources in. As we pilot the measures, we will find out whether counselling or an additional panoply of services are required.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s proposals and think that the measures are very sensible. Does he agree that many sex offenders display their behaviour at a much earlier stage, in their childhood? What does he plan to do to tackle the issue of young children who sex offend, in order to prevent them from becoming dangerous adults? Will he consider targeted, specially funded programmes to address their behaviour?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is a tragic truth that in many cases a sex offender may himself—and it is mainly men—have been abused. There is a cycle of abuse. We continue to look at whatever projects we can so that we can intervene at the earliest possible stage. What I have suggested today is not in any way a substitute for punishment after conviction or the panoply of treatment and interventions that we try to carry out through the work of forensic psychiatrists, psychologists and so on. The measures supplement those things and we continue to look at the area that my hon. Friend has mentioned to see how we can more effectively deal with that issue.
I welcome the statement as part of a long series of statements that I anticipate we will have on this difficult area. I want to draw the Home Secretary out on a couple of points. First, we have been waiting for the statutory instrument relating to the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 and encryption for many years. Can he give us a date for that? Secondly, he will be aware that computer-generated imaging is now extremely sophisticated and is being used by paedophiles for what we could call cybersex between children and between adults and children. Will he comment on his and his Department’s thinking on that area?
On the first point, I will have to write to the hon. Gentleman in order to be precise about the dates. His second point was a good one. The police-led online protection service, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection service—CEOP—has been looking at that very issue. We have brought in a range of measures to try to intervene to, at the very least, reduce the opportunities that the internet offers for grooming by paedophiles, to alert parents, and to try to get kite standards applied to the systems of software that alert parents if certain words or expressions are used. As regards the adult-to-adult transfer of graphics that are not actually pictures, he is absolutely right to say that those images are very realistic. We are presently examining how we can outlaw that, or bring it into line with the measures relating to normal photographs.
May I reassure my right hon. Friend that my constituents will welcome this announcement? As someone who worked with paedophiles, I think that the announcement about satellite tracking will be particularly reassuring to my constituents. The sad case of Maddie McCann has affected the whole country. It is interesting that the press have stated that there are organised British paedophile groups in Portugal and Spain. I wonder whether he has given any consideration to restricting the travel of such individuals.
Absolutely. I do not want to appear complacent when pointing to the successes that we have, on occasions, but if my hon. Friend checks the latest report from CEOP—the online protection service that we have established—he will see that we have recently smashed three such rings. The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker) and I recently visited some of the people who work on CEOP, including Jim Gamble and his staff, as they monitor some of that stuff. I thank them for performing a pretty gruesome task but a necessary one, and for the success that they have had.
I welcome the announcement by the Secretary of State and believe that it will help to reduce some of the risks, but I have one question. In his statement the right hon. Gentleman said that there would be a presumption that the police would disclose offences when a parent comes to them and draws attention to a relationship, but there are two caveats—two ifs. Will the Secretary of State give an assurance that there are no circumstances in which, when a parent draws it to the attention of the police that they have entered into a new relationship and the police know that that relationship involves a paedophile, the offence will not be disclosed to the parents?
I cannot account for human error, so to give such a blanket guarantee is not within my power. All human organisations, including the police service, and those involved in the MAPPA arrangements, the Prison Service and the probation service, can make a mistake. However, for the first time there will be a legal duty of presumption that where there is a risk at all, the parent should be informed. At the very least, if a decision is taken that someone who has such a conviction is not to have that information passed on, there would have to be pretty extraordinarily good reasons for it and those would be noted, so that if anything ever went wrong, people would be entitled to ask why there was alleged incompetence or negligence in that case, reflected in the decision not to release the information. That should be done where there is a risk. The procedure would be that the parent would register their interest with the police and register the name of the person. The police would check the records. If it was found that the person had a police record, they would, under the MAPPA arrangements, have to make the decision to release that. The presumption would be that where there was a risk, they would have to do so.
I welcome the proposals. My right hon. Friend referred to new technologies opening up new avenues of risk for children. As he knows, we have developed in the UK the best system for bringing together internet service providers, charities, police and so on to deal with those who download images of child abuse—an evil multi-million pound industry. Will he ensure that the excellent CEOP and Jim Gamble, to whom he refers, get sufficient resources for continuing to oversee their work on online exploitation of children? Will he also look at my ten-minute Bill on the mushrooming use of child tracking devices and the need to license those because they are being bought by parents to give their children safety and security, but without licensing, the devices can just as easily be accessed by paedophiles for entirely the opposite reason?
I concur with the general sentiments expressed by my hon. Friend and with her specific comments about Jim Gamble, CEOP and the work that it does. I note the request that it be funded and resourced to meet the task. Of course there are always many demands, but I am glad to say that only recently we supplied an additional £400,000 for referral tests so that it is better equipped when people bring problems relating to the internet or suggestions that it could deal better with some aspects of interventions. We will continue to review the resources and, as I said, we have recently made more resources available.
I broadly welcome the Home Secretary’s approach, which I believe is incremental, as there will be still further steps to take in the future. I want to be constructive. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, because of a technicality, some child protection agencies and Church authorities are unable to put known child sex offenders who are Church ministers on the Government’s sex offender register, even when those ministers have admitted committing sexual offences against children in the past, for which they would and should go to prison if they committed those offences now? That prevents the authorities from taking appropriate action to protect children. Will he review this serious gap in the law?
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s welcome and for the comments that he makes. I hope he will allow me to check that out and satisfy myself. We would all be surprised if a cassock and a collar were claimed as an exemption from the registration to which others are subject.
I welcome the proposals that my right hon. Friend has outlined. Can he say more about the nature of the public involvement and disclosure? I have seen probation officers bravely involve a residents council chair and other key community figures in the management of a sex offender in the community. Might such bold but effective good practice be underpinned by the terms of the disclosure of information in the new legislation?
There are three elements to such information sharing. The first is the proactive obligation, which will be imposed upon the MAPPA officials and authorities to disclose any risk that they discover to the subject of that risk—the guardian or parent of the children in question. Secondly, an obligation is placed upon MAPPA to respond to an inquiry from someone who has a legitimate interest in the protection of children and registers it. Thirdly, we have not mentioned a great deal today the general education and information that the police have carried out in certain areas. We have provided several hundred thousand pounds so that that can be done better. Part of that is related to the nature of neighbourhood policing and the sort of partnership that my hon. Friend has identified. Terry Grange, the spokesman for the Association of Chief Police Officers, this morning indicated the intention to try and carry that forward within the general framework of what we are doing.
In his statement the Home Secretary said that SSRIs have been shown to be effective in reducing sex drive and reducing offending. If he could place the published research evidence for that in the Library, it would be helpful. Following a request from me this morning, neither his office nor the Royal College of Psychiatrists could lay their hands on anything specific. I understand that it is a difficult area, and I think that the right hon. Gentleman is right to go ahead with the treatment, but if the evidence is not conclusive at present, would he consider doing that as part of a trial so that in a couple of years we can get a definitive answer once and for all and enable it to be used worldwide? He would be contributing to the worldwide research knowledge on that basis.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. We try to learn from the rest of the world—in this case, Scandinavia and one or two other places. In a sense, we both want to proceed cautiously within a framework of treatment and then perhaps pass on our experiences to the rest of the world. At the appropriate stage we will try and issue a compendium of information. Many discussions and consultations have taken place in the United Kingdom and abroad showing the upside and the downside of some of the proposals, and we will publish that. We would do that in a manner that had regard not only to the benefits but to the risks, as we would with any medication.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. The proposals therein are well thought out and proportionate and will help towards protecting vulnerable children. Does he agree that the handling by certain sections of the press of this particularly difficult subject has left a lot to be desired, and has probably had more to do with circulation wars than with child protection?
We have to distinguish between public opinion and some of the tabloid headlines. The truth is that ultimately, in a free country, none of us here is responsible for the press and the way in which they portray things. However, what I will not do in general terms is criticise campaigning newspapers for taking up issues. In a free country, issues that have the overwhelming support of the public should be aired. To be truthful with my hon. Friend, I was amazed at the hysteria that was caused by my simple proposition that some people might be entitled to information to protect their children, so I do not think that the alleged hysteria is all on one side.
May I ask the Home Secretary for some reassurance on two practical aspects of the registering of an interest by a parent about a particular individual prior to the disclosure of any potential conviction information? First, will the Government ensure that that process is not unduly complex and that it is straightforward? Secondly, will it be possible for that to be done confidentially, so that it does not come to the notice of the person about whom information is sought, and so that women—it will, as the Home Secretary has said, normally be women—are not deterred from making those requests for fear of damaging or losing a relationship for apparently no good reason?
The hon. Gentleman makes two good, reasonable and constructive points. The answer to both is yes. The third point, which is implicit in what he said, is that we try wherever possible to ensure that the information is conveyed where it most effectively reduces the risk and does not go wider. It is not possible to guarantee that that will never happen. During the pilots, we will want to try to ensure that what he requests will happen. There is an array of weaponry, metaphorically speaking, available to the police, to deal with any public disorder issues that may arise.
I welcome the Home Secretary's recognition of the importance of the use, and indeed the abuse, of technology in tackling those issues. The Internet Watch Foundation will no doubt have informed him that there is growing concern about the proliferation of commercial child abuse sites, 90 per cent. of which involve children under 12 and 60 per cent. of which involve grade four or five images—the worst possible images. In that context, will he look at tackling e-payment systems that allow paedophiles to bypass the ordinary credit card or banking payment systems, so that they can anonymously get on to those child abuse websites and perpetuate child abuse in this country and around the world?
That is a very good point. As the House may know, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker), chairs a taskforce on those matters, and it includes the internet service providers. We have touched on some of the problems and challenges that my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran) mentioned, and we will continue to do so. As she points out, the increasing sophistication of the internet is not always an opportunity for good and we have to be careful that we are ahead of the use by paedophiles of the opportunity to make contact with and to groom children.
The Soham tragedy was a ghastly, wicked affair and obviously it hit East Anglia particularly hard. My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) has asked about the cross-referral information-sharing programme, which was postponed. Indeed, the Leader of the Opposition asked a similar question earlier and did not get an answer, either. That programme will not require legislation. Why has it been delayed? The legislation will be the weaker without it.
I think that everyone in the House is committed to making sure that the recommendations put forward by Bichard are implemented as effectively, operationally and speedily as possible. Twenty-one out of the 31 recommendations are already deemed to have been substantially delivered, so it is not quite as simple as the hon. Gentleman makes out. Two thirds of the recommendations are already delivered in substance, and that is agreed. One, which I have already mentioned—the interim IMPACT system—is, with the agreement of Sir Michael Bichard, not being continued owing to concerns about operational effectiveness.
I am afraid that it is not always possible for me to stand here and say that every one of the 31 recommendations has been delivered absolutely on time, because some of them depend on new technology, but we have made substantial advances and we will continue to do that. The key early recommendation, which was called the IMPACT nominal index, was implemented on time by the end of 2005, so it is not as if no progress was made in that area. However, we will attempt to ensure that we deliver the rest as soon as possible.
Is the Home Secretary aware of the robust research in the United States which shows that convicted paedophiles will often have previous cautions, warnings and even convictions for abuse of animals? In the context of the Bichard report and sharing police intelligence, will his Department look at those who have been convicted of abuse of animals and see whether there is any intelligence that can be shared?
The Home Secretary has just made an important statement and one would expect the press gallery to be packed. It is empty. Yesterday, the media had knowledge of what the Home Secretary has said today. When he sat down with his media advisers, did he say to them, “This is a really important statement, Members of Parliament should hear it first, there must be no leaks to the press,” or did he say, “Why don’t you brief this or that newspaper”?
Actually, we did brief the press this morning and we had an embargo. I appeared in the media today but I kept it in very general terms. I have been discussing the issue, as have two other Ministers, for a year with innumerable stakeholders, some involved here, some abroad. It is not within my power to carry out prolonged scrutiny and consultation, yet make sure that none of that ever appears in the press. I can do many things, but I cannot square circles, even for the hon. Gentleman.