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Child Protection (Sex Offenders)

Volume 464: debated on Tuesday 16 October 2007

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Blizzard.]

I welcome the opportunity of this Adjournment debate this evening. My right hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (John Reid), when he was Home Secretary, announced on 13 June new powers to protect children from known sex offenders. Following that announcement, I said in a press release in my constituency that there are few crimes more horrific than sexual offences against children. We need to ensure that the most vulnerable group in our society is safe, and I am glad that that is at the heart of Government policy.

The tragic murder of Sarah Payne by Roy Whiting in 2001 sparked a debate about monitoring paedophiles in the community. It was evident that the Sexual Offences Act 1997 did not go far enough, as Whiting was one of the first offenders added to that list and he murdered Sarah Payne. A similar concern regarding the shortcomings of laws on sexual offences against children was voiced in Scotland in response to the murder of eight-year-old Mark Cummings by convicted sex offender Stuart Leggate in 2004. Once again, it is believed that the loss of an innocent child’s life could have been prevented had the proposed new laws been in operation.

The UK has some of the strongest restrictions on child sex offenders, but as my right hon. Friend acknowledged in his statement on 13 June, we need to do more. I hope that the Minister can tell me tonight that the new measures, which will strengthen child protection even further, are a progressive beginning of a more engaged and transparent public policy for the protection of children from known sex abusers.

For too long, politicians have shied away from kicking over the stone of the sexual abuse of children. That may be a controversial thing to say, but in truth our society has failed its children. Whether it be the legislators, the courts, the social services, the police or any other public institution, all of us could have done more and all of us now need to do more. That is why I welcome the then Home Secretary’s acknowledgement of that reality in his statement on 13 June.

In response, I decided to consult my constituents on their opinions on the proposals for England and Wales and to ask them if they wanted the same protection for children in Scottish law. To achieve that, the Scottish Parliament would be responsible for any changes to Scottish law, and I shall return to that point in a moment.

I consulted my constituents through a survey with a freepost reply. For the purpose of my survey, I wrote to a random selection of addresses in every part of my constituency. There are six multi-member local council wards in Lanark and Hamilton, East constituency and I wrote to some 8,000 households in those six communities. The distribution list was Lanark, 1,183 households; Carluke, 1,090; Larkhall, 1,256; Ashgill, 108; Forth, 640; Law Village, 406; Hamilton, 1,159; Uddingston, 651; Bothwell, 540; Carstairs/Carnwath, 493; and Cross Ford/ Kirkfieldbank, 471. The total is 7,997. That is eight times the number used in national opinion polls with an accuracy of plus or minus 3 per cent. I received a magnificent response to the survey. More than 1,300 people—more than 16 per cent. of people who were sent the survey—read the survey, answered every question, folded the answer sheet, went to the post office and posted their reply to me. I would argue that the results of the survey of my constituency are as accurate as it is possible to get.

I shall read on to the record the questions, and the responses to them. My first question was “Have you heard about the new legislation announced in the House of Commons to protect children from sex offenders?” Some 68.5 per cent. of respondents said yes. The second question was “Do you agree that parents or guardians should be able to request details of sex offenders in certain circumstances?” and 98 per cent. of respondents said yes. The third question was “Do you agree that satellite tracking should be used to monitor high risk sex offenders?” to which 99 per cent. of respondents said yes. Question No. 4 was “Do you think that the mandatory drug treatment should be used to reduce sexual drive in child sex offenders?” and 96 per cent. of respondents said yes.

The fifth question was “Do you agree that the use of compulsory polygraph tests to ensure that child offenders are not reoffending is correct?” Some 95 per cent. of respondents said yes. Question No. 6 was “Do you agree that the child sex offender’s conviction should be disclosed in order to protect the child?” to which 97 per cent. of respondents said yes. The seventh question was “Do you agree that the sex offenders register should be extended to include information on when they start relationships with a woman who has children?” Some 98 per cent. of respondents said yes. My last question was “Do you agree that Jim Hood MP should write to the Justice Minister asking that the legislation be introduced into Scottish law?” and 97 per cent. said yes.

In answer to my eighth question, 97 per cent. wanted the same protection for their children that children in England and Wales have, and asked me write to the Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Justice to request him to provide just that. I wrote to him, providing him with the results of my survey, and I invited him to respond to the wishes of my constituents. I proposed that he and the Scottish Parliament legislate to give Scottish children the protection that is being proposed for children in England and Wales. I received a reply from the Scottish Minister, and I will refer to it in a moment, but first I want to state the very obvious: this is not a party political issue. There is no place for political gimmickry, gamesmanship, or one-upmanship in a debate on how we protect children from sex offenders. When 97 or 98 per cent. of our constituents demand more protection for their children and tell their politician to get on with it, no politician can ignore those demands.

I appreciate that 97 per cent. is a phenomenal figure, but I have concerns about legislation that weighs heavily on people who volunteer to help in youth clubs and so on. Is there a way to ensure that an unnecessary amount of legislation is not put on people who wish to do good in the community by supporting young people?

I hear what my hon. Friend says, but to be perfectly frank, in my experience the story is that the legislation is not giving enough power to communities so that they can watch out for and be protected from child sex abusers. My hon. Friend will be able to ask his question during consultation on any legislation. However, I know from my constituents’ responses what they are telling me—that they need more powers to protect their children.

I turn to the Scottish Justice Minister’s letter in response to my survey. First, I thank him for his detailed and informative response about the current policies in Scotland. I was pleased to note that the Scottish Executive were

“giving close consideration to the results of the Home Office review.”

However, the reply left me with a few questions that I intend to pursue with him—for example, the compulsory drug treatment of sex offenders; the right of parents and guardians to request details of sex offenders in certain circumstances; extending the sex offenders list to include when they start relationships with women who have children; and particularly, the consequences to the children in my constituency if Scotland does not have the same protection as in England and Wales.

I fear that if we do not have the same controls for sex offenders in Scotland as in the rest of the UK, Scotland could become a refuge and hiding place for sex offenders fleeing tougher controls in England and Wales.

Does my hon. Friend agree that although the public overwhelmingly support the Government proposals, there is a resistance among some police officers—in fact, among some chief constables? For example, Colin Port, the excellent chief constable for Avon and Somerset, told me today that he will not apply for the pilot scheme project, despite the fact that the right hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (John Reid) told me when he was Home Secretary that there would be a pilot in my area. Does my hon. Friend accept that among police forces there is a resistance that does not reflect the true public mood and desire to deal with sex offenders in a thorough and robust way?

There may be resistance from institutions that need to accept when we have all collectively failed to protect children better. The police force is one of those institutions from which there will be mixed responses. A Scotland on Sunday article quoted a senior police officer as saying:

“I think our primary function is to protect children, and anything we can do to achieve that should be tried. The last thing we want is to make Scotland a soft option for paedophiles.”

My hon. Friend may be concerned about responses from the police force in his constituency, but I am sure that there are also police officers who share the views of that senior police officer in Scotland.

I was expressing my concern that Scotland could become a haven, respite, resting place or hiding place for sex abusers. Ironically, last year Jack McConnell, the former First Minister, indicated his support for such measures for Scotland, and in an article in The Times of 6 November, the headline read, “Scottish law could drive paedophiles into England”. The First Minister had gone on the record in supporting similar measures proposed by the Home Secretary on 30 June, six months before he made that statement. The irony of the situation post-30 June is that that headline in The Times could be reversed if Scotland’s children are not given the same protection as in England and Wales. It could read, “Westminster laws could drive paedophiles into Scotland”.

I am sure that the Scottish Justice Minister does not want or intend that to happen. I am equally sure that the Scottish Parliament will want to give maximum protection to Scottish children, as in the rest of the UK. I was comforted today, when my office spoke to the Scottish Executive, to be advised of their awareness of the need to have the same controls on both sides of the border. I hope that the Minister can assure me that she is determined to ensure that the Home Office and the Scottish Executive are singing from the same hymn sheet and that when we legislate we have the same protection for children throughout the UK.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton, East (Mr. Hood) on securing this debate. He has raised a tremendously important issue; the fact that some Members have remained in the Chamber to listen to him is indicative of the importance that Members in this House attach to it. He is absolutely correct to highlight it as a matter of the greatest concern, not merely on a party political basis but as something that should promote cross-party agreement in many respects.

I commend my hon. Friend for the work that he has done in his constituency in following up work carried out in the Home Office last year at the order of the previous Home Secretary on reviewing the protection of children from sex offenders. It is clear from the figures that he gave that the work that he has undertaken among his constituents has struck a chord, and not only because of the high response rate that he was able to tell the House that he had received following the questionnaire that he circulated. I have rarely heard of a figure as high as 68.5 per cent. when constituents are asked whether they have heard about something that the House has been doing or that the Government have been doing. I must ask him—perhaps he will tell me outside the Chamber—what measures he took to try to inform his constituents beforehand, because perhaps the Government can take a leaf out of his book. It is a tremendously high figure and one that is of course very heartening for the Government to hear. Public information and awareness of such issues is often one of the most important starting points in ensuring that, as he said, we manage to improve and increase the quality and effort that we all put into protecting children from sex offenders.

As my hon. Friend acknowledged, over the previous few years there has been much more of a recognition than ever before that dangerous sex offenders need supervision beyond merely serving the sentences that follow their criminal wrongdoing and the fact that they have been found out and convicted of sex offences. We have done much, as a Government, aimed at focusing supervision to reduce the serious potential harm that can be caused by such individuals later on in their lives having been convicted and then going on to commit further offences. Over the past years in England and Wales we have introduced a range of measures designed to protect children and the vulnerable.

My hon. Friend is right to say that those have been introduced on an England and Wales basis because of devolution. There has been some movement forwards in Scotland, sometimes at slightly later dates, in respect of some of these advances, but they have not all been implemented at the same time and to quite the same degree. It might be helpful if I highlight some of the current differences. It is certainly the case, as he noted, that there is always the danger that differences in law between Scotland and England and Wales may lead to effects such as he mentioned, perhaps encouraging child sex offenders to be on one side of the border rather than the other.

As my hon. Friend is well aware, all sexual offenders in the UK are required to register under the same procedures, and each jurisdiction has the ability to apply to a court for an order that will further restrict a sexual offender’s behaviour if the police can demonstrate that they present a significant risk of harm. Such orders are known as sexual offender prevention orders in England and Wales and as risk of sexual harm orders in Scotland, so there is an equivalent arrangement.

The multi-agency public protection arrangements—MAPPA—established in England and Wales in 2001 as a result of the Criminal Justice and Courts Services Act 2000 were further strengthened by the Criminal Justice Act 2003. As my hon. Friend will also be aware, the police, the probation service and the Prison Service make up the responsible authority, which ensures that the management of sex offenders and seriously violent offenders is adequate in the respective areas. MAPPA is used to manage registered sexual offenders and violent offenders serving more than 12 months.

In Scotland, however, MAPPA has been introduced much more recently—only in April 2007—and currently manages only registered sex offenders. The responsible authorities in Scotland are the police, prison, criminal justice and social work services and the health service. My understanding is that Scotland plans to include violent and dangerous offenders in about 18 months’ time, but it is a number of years behind England and Wales in developing these arrangements.

There is a further difference in respect of accommodation. In England and Wales, 105 approved premises can accommodate high risk of harm level 2 and level 3 MAPPA offenders—those at the highest level of potential harm are at level 3. That includes those who have offended against children. There is no such arrangement in Scotland; rather than have approved premises, there is a national strategy on the accommodation of sex offenders. That is another slight difference.

As my hon. Friend will know, ViSOR is a computer system used by all police forces in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, as well as by the military police. It contains information on all registered sexual offenders and allows police forces to share that information. That is extremely important and helps to deal with some of my hon. Friend’s points about the potential for cross-border movement among some of these people. If they feel that an eye is more likely to be kept on them in England than in Scotland, that might present some temptation to move north of the border. The fact that ViSOR is present and used by police across the whole of the UK shows that we are in a strong position to ensure that we know where these people are. That should provide my hon. Friend with some reassurance.

Vetting and barring legislation was mentioned earlier and I would like to make it clear that the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006, which establishes and seeks to implement the vetting and barring scheme and will help us to keep a much closer and up-to-date eye on those who have the capacity to cause harm to children and vulnerable adults, will be implemented in Scotland as well as in England and Wales. An equivalent arrangement will be introduced to a similar time scale to protect children by ensuring that all those who come into contact with them or vulnerable adults—either voluntarily or because they are paid to do a certain job—do not have a history of sexual, violent or abusive behaviours. It will help to ensure that any bans can be implemented.

There is also some equivalence in respect of sentencing. The recently introduced indeterminate public protection sentence in the Criminal Justice Act 2003 has a parallel arrangement in Scotland, where it is called the order for lifelong restriction. The aim is the same. There are some real equivalences in the cross-border effort put into trying to improve arrangements to protect children particularly from sex offenders. I hope that my hon. Friend will find some reassurance there. However, it was quite clear from the results of the survey that he set out that his constituents feel that more needs to be done.

Despite the fact that the efforts of the past few years have meant that Britain is one of the leading countries in the management of sex offenders, we recognise that more can be done. That was certainly the aim of the review that the then Home Secretary commissioned last year in respect of the management of child sex offenders. It reported its findings on 13 June this year and set out 20 recommendations to further strengthen efforts to keep children safe. Work is now taking place to implement those recommendations. As a direct result of the review, that work is going ahead in respect of England and Wales, and the Scottish Parliament will consider parallel work.

I was glad to hear my hon. Friend say that he has been in touch—I am sure, very robustly and in detail—with the Justice Minister. To start with, when I saw my hon. Friend’s survey, I thought that he might mean me, and I was trying to remember whether I had had any such letter from him. So I was relatively relieved, even though I could not remember receiving such a letter, when I realised that he was talking about the Justice Minister in the Scottish Parliament. If anyone heard a sigh of relief, that was me realising that I was off the hook. Of course, devolution has many benefits; it enables jurisdictions to make their own rules and do their own thing in many ways. It also enables Ministers in the House to sit and listen to what is effectively an argument that is really going on elsewhere.

In my final comments, I sought the Minister’s assurance that she would try to ensure that there is joined-up thinking between the Scottish Executive and our own Westminster Departments. I am alarmed to hear that there are differences and that there might not be an agreement before we start legislating to have the same powers of scrutiny on both sides of the border. Can she assure me now that either she or the Secretary of State for Justice will have urgent talks with the Scottish Executive to ensure that we have the same protection for our children both sides of the border?

I am happy to say that, for obvious reasons, it is important that we try to keep this policy developing in a way that is consistent across borders within the UK, and my predecessors who did this job at the Home Office before the creation of the Ministry of Justice and I have done just that. As the Scottish Justice Minister said in the letter that my hon. Friend quoted, significant discussions have taken place between officials from the Scottish Parliament, the Scotland Office and the Home Office.

We certainly all aim to move forward and ensure equivalent protection. My hon. Friend makes the point that that is essential for such protection to work properly. Certainly, to the extent that we can, we have those discussions, but we have devolution and these matters are devolved to the Scottish Parliament; they are matters for it at the end of the day. I suspect that the representations that my hon. Friend makes and has set out so fully in his remarks this evening mean that those involved will be jumping even more to ensure that there are no inconsistencies between the protections north of the border and those that are in place in England and Wales and determined by my Department and the Home Office.

I shall end as I began by congratulating my hon. Friend on the detailed and serious work that he has clearly undertaken in his constituency. Often, Members are not given the praise that they deserve for some of the detailed work that they undertake on policy and on improving its implementation on such important issues in their constituencies. That is clearly not something of which my hon. Friend can be accused, and I finish by congratulating him again on the detailed work that he has done.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Ten o’clock.